The pattern of biblical judgment


, , , ,

Biblical judgment follows a consistent pattern: we judged on the basis of our idol 

Consider the plagues of Egypt. The Pharaoh orders the death of infant boys; one by one they are cast into the river, the Nile, that great god of Egypt. The Nile brings life in the desert: their water, their food, their safety are all bound up in that great god.

But when God sets his eyes upon Egypt, it is the Nile that fails. The blood of the boys wells and the river is blood. The life of Egypt has become a gushing artery of death. The Nile has been killed and kills in turn.

The sun was a great god, the source of life. And so, God in his turns, kills the sun. The sky grows dark at day.

The Pharaoh himself is the issue of the sun. The Pharaoh’s firstborn boy is likewise a god and the son of a god. Rather than turn their worship to the true Creator, the Egyptians gave their praise to the boy in his turn.

And so the Pharaoh who brought death to the son of his slaves finds death in his own home. 

There is a pattern here, the idol matches the judgment. One the type, the other the antitype. 

Our idols fail precisely in their promise. They promise life, but deliver death. 

The judgment need not be the end. When God first struck the Nile, the plea was for Egypt to turn. When God brought night and day, the proof was the Sun was no god. But persistence in rebellion is its own curse. And finally, the child of a lie, the promise which could not deliver, the god who is no God will fail. 

Augustine on refusing to see truth


, ,

“Unfortunately, however, there prevails a major and malignant malady of fools, the victims of which mistake their irrational impulses for truth and reason, even when confronted with as much evidence as any man has a right to expect from another. It may be an excess of blindness which prevents them from seeing the most glaring facts, or a perverse obstinacy which prevents them from”

City of God

Book II, chap 1

Melville: what like a bullet can undeceive


, , , ,

General Grant prevailed on second day of the battle of Shiloh (April 6 & 7 1862). The Union suffered 13,000 casualties. The Confederates lost 62,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing.

The population of the USA in 1860 was 31,443,322. The current population is more 10 times greater. Adjusted for population more men died those two days than have died in the current pandemic.

The word “foeman” is Melville’s word for enemy: a Foe-man.

The concept was captured by Marie Aurelius in his Meditations

“In death, Alexander of Macedon’s end differed no whit from his stable-boy’s. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.”

Shiloh. A Requiem. (April, 1862.)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,

The swallows fly low

Over the field in clouded days,

The forest-field of Shiloh—

Over the field where April rain

Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain

Through the pause of night

That followed the Sunday fight

Around the church of Shiloh—

The church so lone, the log-built one,

That echoed to many a parting groan

And natural prayer

Of dying foemen mingled there—

Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—

Fame or country least their care:

(What like a bullet can undeceive!)

But now they lie low,

While over them the swallows skim,

And all is hushed at Shiloh.

A little background on solitary confinement



In 1829 George Washington Smith published a “pamphlet” in the Philadelphia Gazette entitled, A Defence of the System of Solitary Confinement of Prisoners Adopted by the State of Pennsylvania. In 1833, the work was republished by the Philadelphia Society for the Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The printer, should you care to pick up a copy, was E.G. Dorsey, Printer, 16 Library Street. 

The pamphlet was originally published to influence the legislature at the time a bill was pending which concerned the organization of penitentiaries in the state. On the first page of his pamphlet, Mr. Smith lays bare his proposition:

We propose to inquire whether solitary confinement, or rather the confinement of prisoners separate and apart from each other, united with a system of labor and instruction, be expedient in Pennsylvania. [Emphasis in original]

He deals briefly with the question of whether prisoners should be left to work. “The maintenance of any class in idleness, has never been intentionally practiced by any industrious and thrifty nation.” (6)

The more important question for Smith is whether keeping prisoners “separate and apart from each other” would benefit the prisoner.  Now, throwing someone else into a pit, alone; chaining a miscreant in a dungeon has been the pastime of the powerful from time immemorial. Mr. Smith notes that 

The Egyptians were accustomed to bury alive in dark, narrow and secluded cells of some of their vast and secure edifices, which at once served for prisons and for tombs, certain offenders against their laws. (7)

Which idea was put to good use against Fotunato in The Cask of Amontillado.  Now Mr. Smith was not proposing that prisoners be walled-in behind bricks. His concern was quite the opposite. 

Shortly before the Revolutionary War, a society had been formed in Philadelphia to provide for the more humane treatment of prisoners. However, the war displaced the work of the society until 1786. And one great idea from this work to humanize the prison system was to introduce solitary confinement. 

The thinking was simple: Bad company corrupts good morals. The reformers were concerned about the reformation of the prison system because they were concerned about the persuasive effects that bad company would have upon those who found themselves in prison: the “effectual seclusion from society and the prevention of further injury by prisoners during the period of incarceration.” (7)

He traces the concept of segregation alone for one’s good to religious practices. It was a means of reforming the offending member to conformity by means of the “penance” of being alone.  “Reformation, and not the infliction of suffering, was the noble intention of this institution.” (9)

Then in 1779, John Howard in Great Britain along with Sir William Blackstone, the great legal commentator, proposed solitary confinement as a means of reforming prisoners rather than transporting them to Australia. That same John Howard made a sizeable contribution of 500 pounds to the work of the Philadelphia society.

In a moment we will hear from those voice quite a different opinion on solitary confinement and would think of their forebearers as monsters indifferent to the plight of the hapless prisoner. But that would be unfair to them. Consider how Mr. Smith describes the then-existing jail:

In this den of abomination, were mingled in one revolting mass of festering corruption, all the collected elements of contagion; all ages, colours, and sexes, were forced into one horrid, loathsome communion of depravity. Children committed with their mothers, here first learned to lisp in strange accents of blasphemy and execration: young, pure and modest females, committed for debt, here learned from the hateful society of abandoned prostitutes (whose resting places on the floor they were compelled to share) the insidious lessons of seduction. The young apprentice in custody for some venial fault, the tyro in guilt, the unfortunate debtor – the untried and sometimes guiltless prisoners, the innocent witnesses, detained for their evidence in court against those charged with crimes – were associated with the incorrigible felon, the loathsome victim of disease and vice, the disgusting drunkard (whose means of intoxication were furnished unblushingly by the jailer!) Idleness, profligacy and widely diffused contamination were the inevitable results. (11)

They did not see solitary confinement as an excessive punishment, but as a means of protection.  In 1838, John Silby  writing in Great Britain published A Letter on the Superior Advantages of Separate Confinement Over the System of Prison Discipline, at Present Adopted in Gaols and Houses of Correction Addressed to Benjamin Hawes, Esq., M.P. and Respectfully Dedicated to the Worshipful Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the County of Surrey. Not exactly a promising title. 

I feel the strongest assurance that nothing of the kind need be feared. I am fully aware that solitary confinement is a severe description of punishment, and, moreover, its severity may be said to increase in geometrical proportion to the time of its endurance, while the sympathies are preserved in healthy activity; but I repeat my fullest conviction that if judicially administered,  no fears need be entertained of its consequences ; on the contrary, there is every reason to hope that the result would be most beneficial. I have had a prisoner under my charge, undergoing solitary confinement for six months, without the slightest alarming symptom appearing; he enjoyed very  good health, and although a little reduced in strength at the end of his confinement, still not more so than many others who underwent hard labour for a less period. (66)

But by 1851, a physician reporting in the Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy made the following observation about the system of solitary confinement:

Not many years since, a visiter to this prison might pass and repass through the whole extent of the working apartments, without being observed by any, or at least very few of its inmates; and the means of communication between the convicts, either by signs or speech, was almost wholly suppressed. Under such discipline is it not philosophic to conclude, that the health of the convicts must suffer much more than from absolute solitary confinement? By such discipline, the instincts of our nature are continually violated, every sound that vibrates upon the ear is a call upon some other sense to assist in its relief, and every emotion of feeling has its demand upon some other faculty to come to its relief, or help in its manifestation. Now is it not easy to perceive that so great a strife continually waged between the instincts and volition, must be fraught with serious consequences to the mental and physical health of the subjects of such a system. (9)

The physician’s notes are not a model for clarity, but his point is plain. This system of solitary confinement had a profound effect upon the prisoner, but not in a positive manner. Solitary confinement did something to prisoners: it forced a profound change in the prisoner.  

As the author Jack Abbot wrote concerning the “hole” (what he called solitary confinement): It could “alter the ontological makeup of a stone.” 
Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison 45 (1981).

Draft Preface




This book began in a law office, late at night, arguing, with each other. These conversations have continued for hundreds upon thousands of hours over the decades. We will spend hours to write a one paragraph letter. We will take weeks to work and re-work a brief. We will make an argument and scrap it. 

It has become a habit and a pastime.

We have disagreed and debated and again changed our minds repeatedly over some very simple questions: What are we trying to do? What are we trying to achieve? What will happen if we say No – or we say Yes – or ignore this letter – or contradict our last position. Do we pick a fight with this guy and contradict everything? Do we agree and misdirect the conversation? 

Who will eventually see this letter and what do we care?

What does this lawyer want? Should we give it up or fight about it?

Our entire career has been all about this one thing: it’s how we make a living. 

Now this book isn’t about us: we’re nondescript. A book about us would entertain no one.

This book concerns what learned about other people. 

We are not research scientists studying persuasion by bringing 250 undergraduate students into a room and then tricking them into a filling out a questionnaire. We are lawyers and part-time professors who have had to make a living by means of persuasion.

And in that time, we have seen judges believe things which are completely untrue – believe things for which there was no evidence. 

We have seen the awkward honesty win the day over a slick lie.

We have seen juries believe a party whose star witness admitted under oath that the claim was a fraud. The star witness explained how the fraud was created and how it had proceeded. The jury award the party committing the fraud – admittedly committing fraud – over ten million dollars.

And we have seen where a vicious cross-examination on behalf a multi-billion dollar corporation back-fired, and the confession out of a grieving family enflamed the jury to do right.

We have seen courts simply disregard the law and contradict their own rulings. We have read decisions where courts have seemingly made-up facts, or at least never took the time to even approximate the truth.

We have represented extraordinarily talented sellers, sales – people (?), men and women who could sell apartment buildings and sophisticated technology when others could not even get a meeting. 

We have had to play persuasive chess with brilliant opposing attorneys and have had to slug it out verbal thugs who somehow passed the bar.

We have had to use these skills not merely in courts and mediation sessions, but in colleges and churches and debate tournaments. 

And all this time, we have been asking ourselves Why did this work and that did not?

Why did this argument work so well on this day, but we were shut down like stray dogs the next day?

Persuasion is how we make a living. None of this is pure abstraction or study for us.

This book is the result of not exactly experiments – because we never got to do the same twice – but rather field research on persuasion. 

Yes we have read about persuasion and rhetoric: We have studied ancient authorities and modern psychologists. We have read treatises and reports and looked at historical interactions as well philosophical and theological problems. We have been paid for using this information within disputes – but our interest is far broader than the Uniform Commercial Code. 

And in doing that work, we have learned some-things which should matter a great deal to you. 

Actually, persuasion does mean a great deal to you – whether you recognize that truth yet, or not. 

You probably think persuasion matters if your job is sales. If you sell real estate or cars, you  need to learn techniques to increase your chance at making a sale. 

Or, perhaps you are interested more generally in how to “win friends and influence people”. Knowing a bit more about persuasion might just help you get along in life. 

This is how pretty much everyone thinks about persuasion: it is a learned skill, a technique which one displays when needed. It’s kind of wrench you need to loosen a particular bolt on a motor. You can use it when you need it, but most of the time, it is simply unnecessary. 

And you think, Hey, I’m not a mechanic, so I don’t need that wrench. Or, Hey, I don’t sell things so I don’t need to understand persuasion.

You are thinking about persuasion as if it were just a technique, like learning how to properly cook an egg or how to grow herbs in a box in your window. 

It’s true: there are techniques which will help you become more influential in this circumstance or that. You can learn how to be better at sales. There are people who will help you learn how to deliberately influence people. 

There is also “science” of persuasion. By the way, using the word “science” has a persuasive effect upon you. “Science” makes something very difficult and especially true – and if you question anything, you “deny” science. 

And so, if you are like most people, persuasion is something that might get your attention in an online quiz: How persuasive are you? These fifteen questions, proven by science, will tell you the answer. 

As long as you think like that, you will be the well-groomed consumer. You will never understand the degree to which you are being formed by others – and the degree to which you are busy persuading others. 

Learning how to think rightly about persuasion will let you see just how powerful the forces are which shape your thinking and behavior. There are very capable people who are using very deliberate methods to persuade you to think this and do that – and what makes this best, is that it is all completely invisible to you.

You know persuasion when a commercial says Buy! But you completely miss persuasion when a news story presents you some quotation, some fact, some statistic. 

You simply don’t see how often and how easily you are a lab rat in someone else’s scheme. 

Until you understand how persuasion is the very air in which we human beings live and breathe and move, you will never understand what is happening all the time around you. When you can see the element of persuasion in every act of human communication, it will change the way you understand yourself, your relationships and the world around you. 

And that means something more about persuasion – something which you cannot avoid. Persuasion is not merely about buying cereal or getting someone to help you move from your apartment. 

Persuasion is about what it means to be a human being. This book in the end is about what we human beings are doing to and with one-another in every interaction. 

Persuasion is not evil manipulation by a propaganda machine – although it may be. Persuasion is also how we fall in love, raise children and imitate the best. Persuasion is hello, thank you, please, I miss you.

To be human and communicate is to persuade. It’s not a science or a technique. It is not an abstract theory; it is kindness and violence; it is hatred and love; it is solitary confinement and the crowd at a baseball game.

This book is about persuasion, but it is really about one of the most fundamental aspects of being a human being. And so, this book is really about you.

Talking Yourself Into Tipping


So, which will be more effective: a list of reasons you tell yourself, or a list of reasons which someone else tells you? Are you more likely to be persuaded by your own ideas or the ideas of another.

Studies have shown that when confronting a person who engages in addictive behaviors, self-persuasion (making up your own argument) works better than “direct persuasion”, telling someone what to do. So if you get a room full smokers and tell them what a disgusting habit it is so to smoke, they are less likely to listen than if you ask a room full of smokers to give a list of reasons why someone would want to quit smoking.

This makes some intuitive sense, particularly with addictive behaviors with a low degree of social acceptance. When I tell you smoking is bad, it may sound like I am saying you are bad. In such a circumstance, the smokers actually seek to defend their behavior.

This still leaves open a number of questions. For instance, when it comes to smoking, the smoker has already heard a million arguments as to why they should quit smoking. And so, the smoker already has learned arguments to use.

Another question is whether self-generated arguments only work with addictive behaviors.

To test this idea, some researchers in a Dutch city investigated tipping behavior among restaurant goers. At the end of a meal, the wait staff handed out questionnaires on “consumer satisfaction” created by a university. There were a number of generic restaurant question.

The second part of the questionnaire differed. Some ended with a request that consumer write down reasons for giving a tip: why is tipping a good idea? A second version included some reasons to give a tip (direct persuasion). A third group included nothing about tipping.

It turned out that asking the consumer to generate reasons to tip resulted in higher tips.

A second study asked university students to respond after reading one of two fact sets. Both groups were asked to imagine being a restaurant, receiving adequate but not spectacular service. In one scenario, they were provided two good reasons to tip. In the other scenario, they were asked to come with their own reasons to tip.

There was one further element: they were also asked to rate how much tipping mattered to them: is tipping an important aspect of how you see yourself?

For those students who cared a great deal about tipping, self-persuasion had a substantial effect. But for the students who were less interested, their tipping decision was not that different depending upon whether their rationale was self-generated or provided in the fact set.

So why does this work:

It has been demonstrated that that this technique (self-persuasion) relies on the principle of commitment and consistency. [citation] This C&C principle uses the human desire to appear consistent in attitude and behavior. After committing, people are more likely to act in lien with the statement provided earlier. [citations] The persuasion power of this technique can be explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance [citation], which states that saying or doing something that runs counter to peoples’ own beliefs evokes an uncomfortable feeling when people are aware of the dissonance. Individuals try to reduce this dissonance by bringing disparate cognitions into greater harmony.

Bernritter, S.F., van Ooijen, I. and Müller, B.C.N. (2017), “Self-persuasion as marketing technique: the role of consumers’ involvement”, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 51 No. 5/6, pp. 1075-1090; 1084.

What goes into Ethos?


, ,

A basic element of persuasion is the speaker: what do we think about the speaker? Aristotle called this element of persuasion, ethos (like ethic).

Dr. Flynn of McMasters University argues that Aristotle’s ethos, the way in which we perceive the speaker functions as a heuristic, a means of peripheral route processing which leads to greater and easier reception of the message. The responsiveness of the hearer to speaker depends upon a number of elements in the speaker and in the hearer.

On the speaker’s side, Flynn identifies trust, authenticity, credibility, expertise, attractiveness. Now it is true that the hearer is the one who bestows trust and such upon the speaker. The hearer must believe the speaker to be trustworthy or credible. But the quality is something which is perceived to exist in the speaker.

The fact of trust, for instance, immediately creates a basis to receive the message from the speaker. If I trust you, I’ll listen to you.

The converse is thus obviously true, if I do not trust you, there is no reason to give you my attention. But what if I am merely ambivalent: I’ll give you a listen, but I don’t know that I would take advice from you. In that instance, the heuristic won’t act to shortcut the decision making. I’ll need to stick around.

Authenticity is the degree to which I will allow the current statement to be integrated with my I previously believed about you. I see a celebrity influencer speaking day after day about the greatness of this product. I have seen the celebrity tout this product for years and speak of personal use. I believe the celebrity actually uses this product. But then one day, the celebrity hawks a competing product. It doesn’t sound right to me
Expertise: You have been my doctor for years; I trust everything you have told me about medicine. Then one day you begin to offer your opinions about macro-economic policy. How do I receive that? I could think you’re pretty smart. I could think, you’re a doctor, how to you think you can talk about economics.

Credibility. Do I believe you? Obviously if I do not I will not confer trust upon you. If you need an example, look to how your friends perceive the public statements of a politician from a disfavored political party.
Attractiveness. This involves physical attractiveness, but is not limited to physical attractiveness. It is well known that jurors are more likely to believe physically attractive witnesses.

He also identifies two characteristics which are perceived to belong to listener: identification and expectations.

We in the end have a tribal default switch. When the speaker is someone I perceive to be like me, I’m more likely to believe that speaker. There is an observations among political consultants is that the winner is the one most people could imagine having over for a barbeque.

Finally, I’m only going to trust a speaker who says something which I could have potentially already believed. I come to a lecture and the person behind the podium beings to speak on and on about the hidden world inside the hollowed earth and how aliens and dinosaurs secretly live beneath us now. I am unlikely to grant much in the way of sympathy for the speaker’s views on anything else.

Terence (Terry) Flynn, Ph.D., You had me at hello: How personal, developmental and social characteristics influence communicator persuasiveness and effectiveness
Research Journal of the Institute for Public Relations 1 Vol. 3, No. 1 (August, 2016), 1-11

Anxiety and Thoughts of Death


, , , ,

Short version: It’s not just the idea, but the anxiety produced by the idea, which gives rise to an increase in thoughts of death. If I tell you your worldview is stupid and you don’t care, you don’t have increased thoughts of death. But if you take my “you’re stupid and so’s your worldview” to heart and feel anxious, you’ll have increased thoughts of death. If you have increased thoughts of death, you try to defend your worldview from attack.
Longer version: Terror Management Theory proposes that when we are confronted with thoughts of death, we seek to (1) shore up our self-esteem, and (2) our worldview. For example, an atheist confronted with death can say, I won’t know I’m dead so there is no reason to fear death. A Muslim can say, I will be resurrected to Paradise, so I have no need to fear death. When I thinks about death, they can think about their response to death.

When confronted with some information which undercuts their worldview, (say, there is a god, or Muhammed was not a true prophet), research shows that the victim (or test-subject, depending upon your point-of-view) has more thoughts about death (DTA death-thought accessibility).

Since thoughts of death produce anxiety, human beings seek for ways to relieve that anxiety (anxiety being unpleasant). Researchers have noted two basic mechanisms, first were used to relieve the anxiety. The immediate response is to distract oneself or otherwise try to ignore the information). Then, after a passage of time and as thought the immediate thoughts of death fade, one begins to various “distal defenses” are brought to bear. The victim seeks to shore-up their symbolic mechanism to deal with death.

The research has primarily dealt with the thoughts of death, not the emotion of anxiety. A study published 2014 sought to examine the emotive functions.

The study sought to produce anxiety in Protestant Christian undergraduate students. They were told that the they were testing how a drink effected memory. Some of the students were told the drink contained caffeine and would them “jittery,” others were told it was a vitamin drink.

The reason for the two different drinks has to do with “attribution of arousal manipulation.” The students who drank the “caffeine” might attribute their anxiety to the drink and not to the article challenging their beliefs.

The students were given an article which challenged their religious beliefs (Jesus is the same as Krishna or Mithra or Horus). A control group read an article on the northern lights.

The next phase asked the students to complete words . So they were given coff–. Do they write “coffee” or “coffin”? The reason for this section to was both assess their thoughts of death and to give time for the “distal defenses” to engage.

The final phase as the students to evaluate their article – did it make you angry? How smart was the author?

When the students were given the “caffeine”, there was a marginal tendency to attribute their anxiety to caffeine and to have fewer “death-related” thoughts than the vitamin drink group. The students with the vitamin drink did experience more death related thoughts when having their religious beliefs attacked.

Not surprisingly, the students who read the attacking article had greater emotional response than those who read the article on the northern lights.

But since the researchers had given an introductory questionnaire on death related thoughts, they wanted to make sure that initial questionnaire did not poison their results.

They performed a very similar test. But this time they gave the students an opportunity to set bail for a prostitute. The thinking was that death-related thoughts would lead to more protection for their worldview, which would lead to higher bail amounts.

The surmise was true.

Here is what the researchers believed was significant in these tests: When the student attributed their anxiety to the caffeine they did not seek to protect their world view. It seems that when they blamed the drink for their anxiety it acted to protect them from thinking further about death.

A third test was premised upon this idea: Humans protect ourselves from thoughts of death by distinguishing ourselves from other animals. Therefore, we experience disgust when someone eats strange food, defects on the living room floor or commits incest, because it reminds us that we are animals; reminding ourselves that we are animals, reminds that we can die like animals. Therefore, we feel disgust in those circumstances.

You don’t need to take that explanation for why we experience disgust when someone decides to imitate a dog in your apartment.

The third experiment sought to determine the extent to which misattribution could apply to disgust.

And so we come to a test which I am glad I did not have to experience. The students were going to be subjected to viewing a number of gross pictures, someone vomiting, urine, feces, snot, a dirty toilet, a bloody finger. These apparently makes us think we are animals.

All the students were given an essay to read. One essay said, you’re just animal. The other essay had nothing to do with animals.

All the students were given instructions on viewing the pictures. Some were told to view the pictures carefully. Others were given specific instructions to take a “detached and unemotional attitude.” They were to be clinical and unfeeling as they examined the pictures.

After looking at the pictures, they were examined for disgust.

The students were instructed to have clinical detachment when viewing the pictures had fewer death-related thoughts after viewing them.

And so again, an increase a serious negative emotion increased one’s thought of death.

Here was the upshot:

Our findings suggest that threatening material will only increase DTA when that material is experienced as emotionally unsettling.

Webber, D., Schimel, J., Faucher, E.H. et al. “Emotion as a necessary component of threat-induced death thought accessibility and defensive compensation.” Motiv Emot 39, 142–155 (2015).

What precisely takes place is unclear.

This research reminds me of some research I did in college on the grotesque in literature. There is a theory that we are attracted to disturbing things in art because it allows us to focus our existing anxiety on a point and attribute our anxiety on that artwork (rather than on some other matter which may be disturbing me.

There is an important consideration here for persuasion study. Persuasion functions by creating some sort of dis-ease, some anxiety and a proffered means of resolution. You see the car, you want the car: anxiety. You can buy the car: resolution.

If the creation of anxiety generally has a tendency to increase thoughts of death – and thus thoughts of protection of my worldview – this creates a certain complication. The research showed only a “marginal” decrease in death related thoughts when the anxiety could be attributed to the caffeine drink.

If we seek to create a powerful persuasive movement, we have the potential for creating greater anxiety and thus increased death related thoughts. An increase in death related thoughts comes along with protection of one’s worldview.

Thus, a powerful persuasive move have the wind at its back if the persuasion accords with one’s worldview. But, an attempt to make a strong persuasive move (by generating a great deal of anxiety at first) will have a headwind if that persuasive move is contrary to the worldview.

This does not mean that the issue under persuasive pressure is distinctly a facet of the worldview; only that it can be concordant or discordant with a worldview.

The Squirrel! Theory of Anxiety Management


, , , , , ,

Distraction as a Means of Relief

A 2005 series of studies published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that perhaps people deal with threats by thinking about something else. This is essentially the Squirrel! Theory of stress management. That is perhaps too glib a summary and certainly not academic, I think it is fair.

The article, itself, is remarkably dense and considers a number of seemingly disparate concepts. The idea initially under consideration is the fact that people – particularly under some threat – exaggerate the extent to which others hold their personal views on any number of subjects.

They first note three major theories for this observed condition: (1) It might generate social support; you get others to like you. (2) Cognitive closure: there’s nothing to think about here, everyone has the same opinion. (3) Since threats undermine confidence in myself, exaggerating social consensus makes me feel better about myself.

They then went about threatening college students to see whether the third theory proved itself. They focused upon “defensively proud individuals”. While there are variants in the way in which this is expressed, “The common theme is that they all involve an explicit focus on an ostensible self-strength, which appears to mask vulnerability. Thus we see the three forms as manifestation of a latent defensive pride construct and, in the present research, expect them to be related to arrogant self-righteousness in the face of threats.” Ian McGregor et al., “Defensive Pride and Consensus: Strength in Imaginary Numbers,” Journal of Psychology and Social Psychology 89, no. 6 (2005): 978-96.
In the first study they gave two groups of psychology students a section to read on statistics. One paper was impenetrable; the other a simple explain of the importance of statistics. They were both told that the paper was something everyone knew (a “popular tool”). For those with the difficult page, the effect would be “you’re stupid.” They then asked them questions on moral issues such as abortion and capital punishment. Those who were humiliated by the researchers over estimated the number of people who held their particular views on the various issues.
A second study asked two groups of students to either vividly describe themselves in a frightening circumstance or a comfortable and securable place. They were then asked the moral questions. The frightened students again over-estimated the number of people who held their personal views on moral issues.
A third study threatened all of the students; but following the threat some students received praise. The students were then given two articles supposed written by a student who visited the United States from a foreign country. One version praised the US; one version complained and condemned. Being praised after being threatened resulted in less negative evaluation of the condemning “foreigner.”
A fourth study was conducted to determine whether the exaggeration of consensus was from “reflected glory” of the group or mere consensus with a group.
In the end, the researchers were left with the observation that under stress people can alleviate that stress by being affirmed personally or by imagining the whole world is on their side.
They then compared their findings to a number of other studies, and in particular to the results of terror management theory. But whereas terror management theory suggests that the defensive nature of such consensus under threat was ultimately as a means of protecting one against the fear of death, the various findings of terror management – and other studies – is we can only think about one thing at a time.

We propose that all of these findings can be economically explained from a thought-control perspective According to Wegner (1992), thought suppression begins with the search for distracting thoughts. The “distractor search brings a series of thoughts to mind until one is selected that absorbs attention,” at which point, “attention is drawn from the controlled distractor search to the absorbing distractor itself.” (991)

Since thoughts about oneself are easily available, they can act as useful “distractors” when faced with fearful conditions. The researchers suggest various neurological bases for this conclusion. But in the end, it means that one way to deal with anxiety is to distract yourself.
From a persuasion perspective, it might seem that fear will be an effective means of persuasion with coupled with consensus: First you introduce a disturbing matter then you offer up your product or service wrapped up in a consensus: Everyone loves X!
But the research is a bit more-tricky: If the affirmative is on a ground too closely related to the threat, it “fails to quell the threat because they [the affirmations] remind the participants of the threat.”
In their research, the authors of these studies argued that affirmations and consensus functioned the same way by distracting the one under anxiety. Thus, what applies to consensus would apply to affirmations.
But there is another possibility here: A product or service which resolves the threat (rather than merely distract from thinking about the threat) might be sufficient even if the threat and the consensus-approved product concern exactly the same thing.
In conflict, distraction is well known as a means of deflating a threat.
A final element of the article struck a theological note which the authors may not have considered:

PWe propose that threatened people may have turned to consensus in the present research for the same reason [diminish ruminations about threats]. Imagining widespread agreement with one’s own convictions may be self-soothing because self-righteousness is an appealing fantasy that can capture attention, make threats seem more remote, and allow them to fade from salience. (987)

Although the quoted language contains the clause “capture the attention”, the argument is not in distraction but in diffusion. The threat against me is not real, but I am righteous. But how could my righteousness have anything to do with the reality of a threat? The connection here is not apparent in the article.

In Romans 1, Paul makes a sustained argument from verse 18-31. It begins with the proposition that human beings know ourselves to be under judgment, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness.” In turn, human beings act to suppress subjective knowledge of that threat. The act of suppression then leads to a number of perversions and distortions of the human being in a whole catalogue of insanity and sin. The argument concludes with the observation that human beings not only do these unrighteous things, “they give hearty approval” to those who practice the same things.

Under the most profound existential threat, human beings respond with a forced consensus. However, the argument made in the quotation above, and by Paul, is not that the consensus acts to distract us; rather it acts to deny the fact of the threat. The more people who believe a thing, the more “objective” it in fact is. If all of us deny or believe some X then it is true. The threat is thus believed into non-existence.

Aesthetic Judgment and Persuasion (Wittgenstein)


, , , , ,

In a 1983 article published in Crítica, Richard Shusterman examples Wittgenstein’s doctrine indeterminacy in aesthetic value and the work of critical evaluation. At first, this may seem rather remote from the matter of persuasion, but Shusterman rightly notes that the work of a critic (literary, musical, dramatic) is a work of persuasive rhetoric. In fact, Shusterman notes a passage in Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations where he equates the nature of legal argument with the rhetorical procedure of a critic. As a lawyer, I can affirm correctness of Wittgenstein on this point.
Briefly, Shusterman notes three ways in which an aesthetic judgment is indeterminate.
Perhaps under the pressure from natural sciences and their seeming claim to indisputable truth, objective and eternal as a sort of sight of Platonic Forms, non-physical sciences beginning in the 19th century often sought to stylize themselves along “scientific” lines. Theology and literary criticism were taken up as sciences (in the sense of chemistry or physics).
A movement was made to formalize aesthetics in terms of deductive and inductive argument. If you have ever seen Dead Poets Society, the introduction from the beginning of the poetry book on how to graph the quality of a poem – which the new literature teacher has the students tear from their book – is a perfect example.
Wittgenstein critiques such deductive and inductive evaluations of art on the ground that the necessary grounds for evaluation have a degree of flux (Shusterman calls this “radical indeterminacy”, but I think he overshoots the mark; there is however a relative indeterminacy without question).

First, the basic concepts of balance and beauty do not have hard edges. Second, the work of the critic depends upon what sort of question the critic is asking (Wittgenstein’s concept of “game”). Thus, a critic who considers Hamlet psychological or the emotive or the political or metaphysical work will come to different conclusions. (Merrill Tenney’s book on Galatians is an example of how to perform this sort of critical evaluation. I also just realized that I have lent this book to someone and now I can’t find my copy.) Third, evaluations of beauty and art take place in a larger cultural context.
When we come to the contemporary period (granted Shusterman is writing 40 years ago; but the situation is even more extreme at present than then), the cultural context does not provide a universal scheme in which we can make a deductively valid and sound argument: who can say whether the premises are true.
What then does a literary critic do in such an environment? The critic cannot present “a nice knock-down argument for you.”
The critic’s work in this environment is thus to bring you to see the work from a particular point of view:

Validity is success, success in inducing the desired perception of the work, if not the desired critical verdict. He held that ‘aesthetic discussions were like discussion in a court of law’, where the goal and criterion of success is that ‘what you say will appeal to the judge.’ Elsewhere, Wittgenstein suggests that the criterion for adequacy of argument and correctness of explanation is acceptance or satisfaction. ‘The answer in these cases is the one that satisfied you.’ ‘That explanation is the right one which clicks,’ and is accepted by the interlocutor; ‘if he didn’t agree, this wouldn’t be the explanation.’

Richard Shusterman, “Aesthetic Argument and Perceptual Persuasion,” Critica 15, no. 45 (Dec. 1983): 51-74.
There is an important point: a deductive or inductive argument is not persuasive in some manner abstracted from the person who hears the argument. A deductive argument only works if it persuades the hearer in the direction intended by the speaker (it is possible that the deductive argument merely annoys the hearer and you have merely persuaded him to dislike you).
Thus, the work of the critic is to bring you see the artwork from a particular perspective: I seek to have you understand this poem, this painting as I do. When you see it as I see it, my literary criticism has been “worked.”
If anything, legal persuasion falls into this category even more than literary criticism. The lawyer seeks to bring the court to see the world from the perspective of the client.
Wittgenstein also notes that science functions in a similar manner:

Wittgenstein in fact suggests that such persuasion is also present in science. For instance, it underlies our firm and ready acceptance of the theories of Darwin and Freud, even when the grounds for their doctrines were in strictly logical terms of confirmation ‘extremely thin.’ We have been largely persuaded by the attraction of looking at things the way these theories present them.

Subsequent research into things such as confirmation bias only strengthen this insight. The strength of an argument – even a scientific argument – ultimately lies in the fact that it persuades: it causes one to see the world from a particular point of view.
Shusterman goes to offer a correction to those who take Wittgenstein further than is warranted. While literary criticism may be to bring you see a work from a particular perspective (and thus perhaps is the intended – and not always successful — end of all argument), that does not mean that deductive and inductive arguments are illegitimate.
Since arguments exist in the context of “conventions”, the “conventions” may permit or even dictate the use of deductive or inductive aesthetic judgment. Thus, “logical” arguments are not wrong even in the case of aesthetics. They just may not be effective (as determined by the intent of the one making the argument).

Finally, this understanding of persuasion as seeing the world from a particular perspective helps explain why certain ideas will be particularly difficult to change. When we ask someone to give up a certain perspective, they must not only give up the particular idea under review, they also must give up their conclusions on all of the world as seen from that perspective. Certain ideas form the context and basis for a worldview.

It is one thing to change a window on the second floor; it is quite another to tear our the foundation on the entire high-rise.