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Archive for April, 2008

They Endeavor to Amuse Me with Robot Dinosaurs

Posted by John on April 5, 2008

Although circumstances prevented us from going, I had planned to take my oldest son to see Walking with Dinosaurs: the Live Experience, the arena show where giant, animatronic reptiles march about. It’s all very high concept, with high-falutin’ BBC credentials.

As I went through the promotional materials on their website and Youtube clips, it became clear to me that the producers had sunk eleventy zillion dollars into this thing. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It often seems to me that the cornucopia of riches in our society is so lavish that it can trickle all the way down to reach our middlebrow entertainment. As a result, I can take in a show at my local stadium that exhibits the kind of coordination and care that in generations past would have been reserved for royal command performances. But I can buy a ticket for less than the cost of a steak dinner.

James Lileks had a similar reaction a few years back after catching the Cirque du Soleil show at the Bellagio:

A stunning achievement. I sat there thinking of the weekend’s diversions, the dinners, the spectacles, the fountain display, and I thought: these things were available once only to kings and princes and consorts and queens. This must have been what it was like to be a member of the royals in the days before the French Revolution – except that I would have known everyone in this theater, and would have suspected a third of them of plotting against me.

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Lileks was right. Robot dinosaurs and pretentious Canadian acrobats are both examples of now routine diversion on a scale and scope that heretofore was only available to Bourbon aristocrats. But we’re both ultimately echoing Tom Wolfe, the master social observer, who provided the definitive words on the subject in the first paragraph of his collection of essays, “Hooking Up”:

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink.

And indeed, I imagine that every courtier at Versailles would have been reduced to blinking and stammering at the sight of robot dinosaurs paraded about for their amusement. But your humble correspondent can treat his family to the same spectacle five days a week and twice on Sundays.

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I Want a Treat Because I Want a Treat

Posted by John on April 2, 2008

My two-year-old son has intuitively mastered an important element of rhetoric: the structure of an argument can sometimes be as important as its content.   Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that when he asks his mother or me for something he forms his request as, “I want X, because I want X.”  This could be an example of a child mimicking his parents, but I prefer to believe that he’s figured out that asking for things in this way actually works pretty well.

My main evidence on this subject is a few long dormant memories from grad school, where I read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence

Eric Vieth,at the blog Dangerous Intersection, provides a great summary of the relevant passages where Cialdini discusses the “magic” power of the word because: 

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes an experiment that illustrated the power of the word “because.”  

The experiment was conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, who found that people are highly motivated by the form of others’ reasons, even reasons lack persuasive content.  In her experiment, confederates approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine in a busy library. The confederates asked the people waiting in line to jump ahead in line.  They used several types of excuses.  Here are the results:

Some of the confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?” 

They were allowed to jump ahead in line 94% of the time. Alternatively, other confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” 

Only 60% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line. Based on these first two versions, you might presume that the confederates weren’t allowed to jump ahead because they didn’t have an excuse for doing so.  That proved incorrect, based upon a third group of confederates, who asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 

As you can see, this “excuse” was not really an excuse at all.  Incredibly, though, 93% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line.  In this third condition, no excuse was actually given, although the form of an excuse was used.  Langer focused on the power of the word “because,” which triggered the same content as would a real excuse.  The form of an argument or excuse was itself persuasive in the absence of any persuasive content.  This experiement puts the spotlight on the human vulnerability to be persuaded by things that only look like arguments.

“Because” is thus a magic word that can trigger the presumption of causation and legitimacy in many people.  This experiment is an illustration that humans are vulnerable to argument forms, even where the arguments lack validity.

Check out the original post here:  http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/07/09/just-because/ 

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