The Hazards Of Loyalty

Hypocrisy, hubris and Rielle Hunter.

For a man whose first—and only—winning election campaign was waged against an inarticulate septuagenarian hog farmer, John Edwards made quite a splash when he arrived in Washington in 1999 as the new junior senator from North Carolina. Lauch Faircloth (the hog farmer in question) had been anything but a formidable opponent, and Mr. Edwards did seem like a fast-talking opportunist, the quintessential trial-lawyer-turned-politician. But the members of the liberal establishment swooned—pundits and politicians alike. They found themselves charmed by his enthusiasm, his good looks, his populist appeal. Here, they said, was a younger Bill Clinton without the baggage, a potential standard bearer who could help the Democratic Party reclaim the middle ground that Newt Gingrich had seized for the GOP with his mid-1990s “revolution.”

No one swooned more than Andrew Young, whose memoir is aptly called “The Politician,” referring to the man he served rather than himself. A failed restaurateur who had gone back to school for a law degree and then taken a job with the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, Mr. Young was just over 30 when he first saw Mr. Edwards in action. He was so impressed by an Edwards campaign speech that he turned to his wife, Cheri, and said: “This guy is going to be president one day. . . . I’m going to find a way to work for him.” Cheri, who emerges as one of the few sensible, decent people in this sadly tangled tale, had a different reaction. “She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach.’ ”

But her husband was smitten. He would spend the next decade as a trusted—and all too trusting—aide to a man he idolized as “one of the most promising leaders of a generation.” Mr. Young became a specimen of a familiar political type: the dedicated, servile staffer who subsists on the reflected power and glory of his boss, half-martyr, half-parasite. Mr. Young’s duties included slaving away as domestic servant, errand boy and babysitter for the Edwards family in addition to working in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill. Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, assured Mr. Young that he was “like family.” Certainly Mr. Young subordinated his own family to the whims of his employers, sustained by a dream of accompanying them to the White House. “I was just a young, ambitious guy who saw a real opportunity in Edwards,” he writes.

If Mr. Young had been a better judge of character, it might not have taken him 10 years to wake up. Signs of Mr. Edwards’s hypocrisy and opportunism were abundant: “On many nights, my phone would ring and I would hear the senator on the other end. Sometimes he sounded petty and irritated by ordinary events. He especially hated making appearances at county fairs, where ‘fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?’ ”

Staffer-adulation would not have mattered much if Mr. Edwards hadn’t been taken so seriously by the power brokers of the Democratic Party, who kept hoping, as did Mr. Edwards himself, that he would break-out into national stardom: He ran for the 2004 presidential nomination, eventually becoming John’s Kerry’s running mate on the Democrats’ losing ticket. He was considered a front-runner for 2008 and was holding his own in the early polls until Nemesis arrived on the scene—ready to punish hubris—in the form of a shopworn, blond New Age enthusiast named Rielle Hunter.

By early 2008, rumors of Ms. Hunter’s affair with Mr. Edwards were making their way into a subculture of gossip-purveyors and political observers. It is clear from Mr. Young’s memoir that the Edwards staff knew what was going on and chose to deny it to any reporter who pushed for answers. Not that the mainstream media did much pushing—sexual misconduct was too “low” for respectable publications, even though they had served as a conveyor belt for Mr. Edwards’s heroic (and false) campaign narrative: that of a loyal husband attentive to his cancer-stricken wife.

It took the National Enquirer and a few bloggers to break the Hunter story. Mr. Edwards called the allegations “tabloid trash.” When Ms. Hunter’s pregnancy made the news, he persuaded Mr. Young to “take the bullet” by claiming to be the father—something Mr. Young now regrets. One could say that Mr. Young’s memoir is one long expression of sincere regret and shame for the role he played in Mr. Edwards’s public career.

Still, one man’s tragedy is another man’s farce. In its account of scandal-frenzy, “The Politician” begins to read like a collaboration between Tennessee Williams and P.G. Wodehouse—with Mr. and Mrs. Young and their three children and a very pregnant, very out-of-it Ms. Hunter secluded under the same roof, receiving abusive voice mails from an increasingly hysterical Elizabeth Edwards and being alternately schmoozed and abused by Mr. Edwards himself, with howling packs of reporters in hot pursuit.

In the end, the truth came out—as it was bound to. (Someday a staffer will serve his boss by reminding him of this inevitable fact.) Mr. Edwards admitted that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s daughter—after a succession of lying scenarios collapsed and his candidacy, his career and his marriage were reduced to rubble. Perhaps it all goes back to Mr. Edwards’s trial-lawyer days. After dazzling juries for so long, he thought he could talk his way out of anything.

We are reminded by Mr. Young that one of Mr. Edwards’s early boosters was the late Ted Kennedy, who “saw almost unlimited potential in this young, energetic, well-spoken, good-looking Southerner.” In a conversation with Mr. Young, Mr. Kennedy waxed sentimental about Washington in the early 1960s: “It used to be civilized. The media was on our side. We’d get our work done by one o’clock and by two we were at the White House chasing women. We got the job done, and the reporters focused on the issues. . . . It was civilized.” We now know that Mr. Edwards’s idea of civilization was much the same as Kennedy’s.

Mr. Bakshian worked as a White House aide to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.


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The Obama Spell Is Broken

Unlike this president, John Kennedy was an ironist who never fell for his own mystique.

The curtain has come down on what can best be described as a brief un-American moment in our history. That moment began in the fall of 2008, with the great financial panic, and gave rise to the Barack Obama phenomenon.

The nation’s faith in institutions and time-honored ways had cracked. In a little-known senator from Illinois millions of Americans came to see a savior who would deliver the nation out of its troubles. Gone was the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics. A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies.

There is nothing surprising about where Mr. Obama finds himself today. He had been made by charisma, and political magic, and has been felled by it. If his rise had been spectacular, so, too, has been his fall. The speed with which some of his devotees have turned on him—and their unwillingness to own up to what their infatuation had wrought—is nothing short of astounding. But this is the bargain Mr. Obama had made with political fortune.

He was a blank slate, and devotees projected onto him what they wanted or wished. In the manner of political redeemers who have marked—and wrecked—the politics of the Arab world and Latin America, Mr. Obama left the crowd to its most precious and volatile asset—its imagination. There was no internal coherence to the coalition that swept him to power. There was cultural “cool” and racial absolution for the white professional classes who were the first to embrace him. There was understandable racial pride on the part of the African-American community that came around to his banners after it ditched the Clinton dynasty.

The white working class had been slow to be convinced. The technocracy and elitism of Mr. Obama’s campaign—indeed of his whole persona—troubled that big constituency, much more, I believe, than did his race and name. The promise of economic help, of an interventionist state that would salvage ailing industries and provide a safety net for the working poor, reconciled these voters to a candidate they viewed with a healthy measure of suspicion. He had been caught denigrating them as people “clinging to their guns and religion,” but they had forgiven him.

Mr. Obama himself authored the tale of his own political crisis. He had won an election, but he took it as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic.

Mr. Obama’s self-regard, and his reading of his mandate, overwhelmed all restraint. The age-old American balance between a relatively small government and a larger role for the agencies of civil society was suddenly turned on its head. Speed was of the essence to the Obama team and its allies, the powerful barons in Congress. Better ram down sweeping social programs—a big liberal agenda before the people stirred to life again.

Progressives pressed for a draconian attack on the workings of our health care, and on the broader balance between the state and the marketplace. The economic stimulus, ObamaCare, the large deficits, the bailout package for the automobile industry—these, and so much more, were nothing short of a fundamental assault on the givens of the American social compact.

And then there was the hubris of the man at the helm: He was everywhere, and pronounced on matters large and small. This was political death by the teleprompter.

Americans don’t deify their leaders or hang on their utterances, but Mr. Obama succumbed to what the devotees said of him: He was the Awaited One. A measure of reticence could have served him. But the flight had been heady, and in the manner of Icarus, Mr. Obama flew too close to the sun.

We have had stylish presidents, none more so than JFK. But Kennedy was an ironist and never fell for his own mystique. Mr. Obama’s self-regard comes without irony—he himself now owns up to the “remoteness and detachment” of his governing style. We don’t have in this republic the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will. Mr. Obama was smitten with his own specialness.

In this extraordinary tale of hubris undone, the Europeans—more even than the people in Islamic lands—can be assigned no small share of blame. They overdid the enthusiasm for the star who had risen in America.

It was the way in Paris and Berlin (not to forget Oslo of course) of rebuking all that played out in America since 9/11—the vigilance, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sense that America’s interests and ways were threatened by a vengeful Islamism. But while the Europeans and Muslim crowds hailed him, they damned his country all the same. For his part, Mr. Obama played along, and in Ankara, Cairo, Paris and Berlin he offered penance aplenty for American ways.

But no sooner had the country recovered its poise, it drew a line for Mr. Obama. The “bluest” of states, Massachusetts, sent to Washington a senator who had behind him three decades of service in the National Guard, who proclaimed his pride in his “army values” and was unapologetic in his assertion that it was more urgent to hunt down terrorists than to provide for their legal defense.

Then the close call on Christmas Day at the hands of the Nigerian jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab demonstrated that the terrorist threat had not receded. The president did his best to recover: We are at war, he suddenly proclaimed. Nor were we in need of penance abroad. Rumors of our decline had been exaggerated. The generosity of the American response to Haiti, when compared to what India and China had provided, was a stark reminder that this remains an exceptional nation that needs no apologies in distant lands.


A historical hallmark of “isms” and charismatic movements is to dig deeper when they falter—to insist that the “thing” itself, whether it be Peronism, or socialism, etc., had not been tried but that the leader had been undone by forces that hemmed him in.

It is true to this history that countless voices on the left now want Obama to be Obama. The economic stimulus, the true believers say, had not gone astray, it only needed to be larger; the popular revolt against ObamaCare would subside if and when a new system was put in place.

There had been that magical moment—the campaign of 2008—and the true believers want to return to it. But reality is merciless. The spell is broken.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).


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Carlos the Brand

The Jackal has a brand to protect.

Life for terrorists is improving in the U.S., with the Detroit bomber enjoying his right to remain silent and negotiate a plea bargain, while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his Guantanamo mates head for a civilian trial. At least we can say America hasn’t gone as far as France to accommodate enemy combatants.

On Thursday, a court outside Paris will rule on a claim lodged by one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. Better known as Carlos the Jackal, the 60-year-old Venezuelan was the Osama bin Laden of the 1970s and 1980s. On behalf of Palestinian and various Marxist-Leninist causes, Ramírez organized and carried out a series of notable terrorist attacks. The French finally nabbed him from a Sudanese hospital in 1994 and jailed him for life for the murder of two French policemen and a Lebanese informant. Carlos the Jackal now spends his time invoking his rights under the French constitution.

In the case before the court in Nanterre, he and long-time lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who also married him, are suing a French production company for the right to review and “correct and edit” a forthcoming made-for-TV film about him entitled “Carlos.” Ms. Coutant-Peyre alleges the filmmakers are out to “demolish Carlos.” Her client wants to protect the intellectual property rights to his name and “biographical image.” The court has taken this case seriously enough to hear it.

A lawyer for the film company, Film en Stock, asked the Libération daily in Paris, “How could we possibly tarnish the image of Carlos when he himself claims to have killed some 2,000 people?” There’s also the small matter of a right to free press and speech that should, one would assume, shield the filmmakers from a litigious terrorist.

Still, the compatriot who Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez last year hailed as “a revolutionary soldier” may be on to something. Carlos has an experienced nose for the zeitgeist. How long can it be before some American lawyer tries to safeguard KSM’s “biographical image”?

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Baby in court

At the centre of a recent custody battle in Sarasota County Circuit Court, Florida sat the exceptionally cute Eli. He is only 11-months old, still in nappies and does not understand the legal fight over him between James Casey and Virginia Valbuena. Of course, it’s always difficult for someone so young to understand litigation but for Eli it is especially challenging because he is a chimpanzee.

Eli has lived with Valbuena in Florida for most of his life. According to her, Eli is from a wildlife park in California. She says she collected him from his owners when they brought him over to a chimpanzee habitat in Missouri – a mutually convenient meeting place. Valbuena is training Eli for a Hollywood company.

However, Casey, who brought this legal action, claims that Eli was born on a chimpanzee habitat he used to run with his wife in Missouri – the same habitat from which Valbuena picked up her chimp.

In divorce proceedings, Casey’s wife had been ordered not to sell any of their animals but, Casey says, she violated that court order by selling Eli, who is worth $65,000, to Valbuena.

Chimpanzees do not have birth certificates and proving their parentage is difficult so Casey brought this action to obtain an order for Eli to be given a DNA test. Casey’s lawyer argued that “If it’s good for the state of Florida to execute people based on DNA evidence, I think its good enough to determine the lineage of this animal”.

An initial dispute arose about whether it would be okay for a chimpanzee to attend court. Valbuena promised that Eli would be well-behaved – apart from sleeping all he likes to do is kiss and cuddle. Valbuena said that lawyers would not be able to tell the difference between Eli and a baby “unless they looked closely”. In the event, Eli had to wait outside the court while people inside went ape.

The court heard that here were several reasons why Casey held a bona fide belief that Eli was his: the age and appearance of the chimp, and a previous business relationship between his ex-wife and Valbuena. Casey’s lawyer said that “the only way to be 100 per cent certain of the provenance of the animal is for the court to order a DNA test” and for the results to be compared with those of other chimpanzees in Missouri. That proposal was opposed by Valbuena’s lawyer on the basis that, unlike similar tests run by the Department of Revenue in child paternity cases, the potential for fraud in a chimp case would be “off the charts”.

Judge Roberts dismissed the case but said he was open to another application from Casey in future if more evidence was provided that Eli was his property. This case is not the first to involve a chimpanzee. One has even been a client. In a California case in 1999 a court agreed that a San Francisco lawyer could represent a chimpanzee called Moe – he is still much-loved in San Francisco for his fun, energy and cheeky manoeuvres, and so is the chimp.

Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University.


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Chávez Drops the Democracy Mask

Venezuela’s president promises ‘radical measures.’

Hugo Chávez likes to say that Venezuela is a democracy and that a majority of the electorate supports him and his “21st Century Socialism.” Or at least he used to make that claim. Last week the strongman gave up trying to maintain a democratic image.

Referring to nationwide civil protests—led by university students—he warned the country Thursday that if they “intensify” he is ready to take “radical measures.”

Given that the Chávez government already expropriates property at will, jails political opponents, polices prices, controls foreign currency exchange, seizes media outlets and fires rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators, his threat to turn “radical” is chilling. Venezuelans have reason to fear martial law.

Students demonstrate against Hugo Chávez in Caracas.

The Venezuelan economy is in a free fall and Mr. Chávez is in damage-control mode. One thing he can’t afford is to let Venezuelans complain without consequences. Successful dictators, like Fidel Castro, make dissent a dangerous proposition, and if Mr. Chávez is to survive he knows he must do the same. His plan starts with carrots and ends with sticks.

To use carrots Mr. Chávez needs money, and that’s why he announced a mega-devaluation of the bolivar on Jan. 8, taking it to an official rate of 4.3 bolivars to the dollar, from the previous 2.15. Importers of basic necessities (some foods and medicines) will still be able to buy dollars at 2.60, but for all other imported goods a dollar will now cost twice the prior rate. The net effect is that prices of “nonessential” imports doubled overnight.

This sounds like a raw deal, but not for the aspiring dictator. He has dollars because the state oil monopoly, PdVSA, is an exporter. Now when he sells those dollars he will get twice as many bolivars as he used to. Imagine what can be done with that gusher of funny money ahead of the Sept. 26 legislative elections. No need to worry about inflation either, according to Mr. Chávez. Businesses caught raising prices will be confiscated and turned over to the workers.

Students of chavismo will recognize that there’s nothing new here. The revolution is built on transfers to the struggling underclass, thus creating the illusion among the poor that their Bolivarian messiah is going to make them better off.

But this perpetual motion machine is losing steam. “It is possible,” one Venezuelan analyst told me, “to crunch the numbers and conclude that the ‘E’ class [the largest and poorest segment of society] has increased its bolivar income. But the quality of life for them has deteriorated greatly.”

Exhibit A is the violent crime rate, which is the highest in the hemisphere. The poor are suffering this epidemic disproportionately more than the rich because they aren’t able to purchase personal security. Public transportation is also failing the working class.

Because of its oil, natural gas, hydro and thermal resources, Venezuela ought not have a day of worry about its power supply. But after 11 years of Mr. Chávez’s “revolution” there is now rationing. Only Caracas has escaped rolling blackouts instituted last month, and that may not be for long.

Experts say that the main causes of the problem are poor planning for low water levels and poor maintenance at the Guri Dam, which generates the lion’s share of the country’s electricity. On the health-care front, the president himself declared last year that hospitals are in a state of emergency and that many of the small health clinics that he built and staffed with Cuban doctors have been abandoned.

Mr. Chávez’s base is disillusioned, and now he is going to try to make it up to them with more devalued bolivars. But with the black-market rate stubbornly stuck above six to the dollar, it’s clear that the government is not able to supply the market at 4.3.

In other words, the currency is even weaker than the new official rate reflects. This means that last year’s official inflation rate of 25% is not about to be tamed.

Only two things can save Hugo. One would be a new dollar windfall of oil revenue. This is why he conducted auctions for oil concessions with foreign companies last week, even though in the past he has condemned them. Just in case that doesn’t pan out, he’s putting the finishing touches on his police state. Last week he closed the independent cable network, Radio Caracas Television, and five other channels.

His move provoked the student marches, which have been met by heavily armed National Guard troops with shields, rubber bullets and tear gas. Now Mr. Chávez says the marches are part of an effort to overthrow him and that he is ready to get radical.

With Castro as his role model, it’s not hard to guess where he’s headed, oil or no oil. It is also increasingly clear that the September elections, run by the Chávez-controlled electoral council, will not offer Venezuelans a chance to vote in change.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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Uncommon Knowledge

Sometimes high is sexy, sometimes low

When describing positions of relative status, people often use adjectives related to height, as in “top choice,” “up the food chain,” or “high end.” A recent study finds that this association even extends to judgments about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. Women rated pictures of men as more attractive when they were presented in the top half of a screen. Men, however, rated pictures of women as more attractive when they were presented in the bottom half of a screen. The authors see this as consistent with the evolutionary view that men prefer submissive mates, while women prefer dominant ones.

Meier, B. & Dionne, S., “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” Social Cognition (December 2009).

Dishonesty lurks in the shadows

It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this insight may apply to more than just the disclosure of information. In several experiments, researchers found that light levels influence selfish behavior. People who were placed in a dimly lit room were significantly more likely to cheat than people placed in a well-lit room. Likewise, people who were asked to wear sunglasses were less generous in a sharing game than people who were asked to wear clear glasses. This pattern appears to be the result of an increased sense of anonymity in lower light levels, even though light levels did not confer any actual increase in anonymity.

Zhong, C. et al., “A Good Lamp is the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Exercising self-control

Self-control IS a key trait associated with success in life, so the obvious question to ask is whether (and how easily) self-control can be improved. New research suggests that it might be easier than we think. People were randomly assigned to try doing one of four possible tasks – avoid eating sweets; squeeze a handgrip, twice a day, for as long as possible; solve simple math problems a few minutes a day; or keep a diary recording any acts of self-control – over a two-week period. The researchers also administered a standard test of self-control both before and after the two-week period. The results indicated that the first two tasks, which take self-control to perform, yielded a significant increase in self-control. There was no effect for the other two tasks. Self-control, then, is a muscle that can be strengthened.

Muraven, M., “Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When calorie counts help business

In some jurisdictions, chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on their menus. There’s an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of these regulations – especially in reducing the burden of obesity – outweigh the costs to business. Researchers at Stanford University were able to persuade Starbucks to hand over data on every transaction at their stores in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia around the time that New York City implemented its calorie-posting law. The researchers also obtained transaction data for a large sample of Starbucks cardholders during the same period and conducted in-store surveys in Seattle and elsewhere, around the time that Seattle implemented its own calorie-posting law. In New York City – as compared to Boston and Philadelphia where no such law went into effect – food purchases, but not beverage purchases, contained significantly fewer calories after the law went into effect, and even fewer calories for people who had previously consumed the most calories. The survey data found that customers had been overestimating calories in beverages and underestimating calories in food. Although one might expect the law to hurt business by reducing demand, the data showed no effect on Starbucks, and, in fact, Starbucks stores close to Dunkin’ Donuts actually gained some sales, perhaps because some customers of the latter were put off by the calorie content of doughnuts. Moreover, there was an increase in the average price per item purchased, suggesting that profitability increased, too.

Bollinger, B. et al., “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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Heated debate

Why shouldn’t a temperature be ‘warm’?

When the weatherperson predicts “warmer temperatures,” do your usage antennae quiver? Mine either – but some people do have a problem with such expressions. It’s a rare peeve, but a couple of weeks ago it popped up again, like a dormant virus newly revived and ready to spread.

The complaint appeared in a Montreal Gazette language column by Mark Abley, who had opened the floor to readers that week. One of them objected to the practice of TV forecasters who “speak of ‘warm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘cold’ temperatures, rather than high, medium, and low ones.” Temperature is an index of heat or cold, he said, not something that can itself be “warm” or “cold.”

That’s not the only argument against “cooler temperatures” and the like. Bill Walsh addressed the point in his 2000 usage book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” under the entry slow-speed chase. “The O.J. Simpson freeway parade was a low-speed chase, not a slow-speed chase. The concept of speed is inherent in the words slow and fast, so something is either slow or low-speed, either fast or high-speed. Other examples of this kind of redundancy include delicious taste, hot temperatures, and beautiful-looking.”

All very logical – but neither line of reasoning has made a dent in our actual usage. The first argument falters because temperature is not a technical word being misapplied by weather folks; it’s a general word adopted to a specific purpose. In the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, temperature could mean the act of tempering something, or “a middle course, a compromise,” or a person’s disposition or “temperament” – among other things. Even as a weather word, its first sense was not “degree of heat” but the relative mildness – temperateness – of a climate.

So when science adopted “temperature” as a measure of heat, in the 17th century, English speakers were already used to hearing the word in other senses as well. There was apparently no taboo against describing a temperature as hot, warm, or cold: A 1743 treatise on thermometers, quoted in the OED, writes of a system that “conceive[s] the middle temperature of the air as neither hot nor cold.”

Other scientists followed suit: A 1796 chemistry book says therapeutic water needs only to be “an hotter temperature than common water.” An 1841 medical journal speaks of the “cooler temperature of the human body.” And Charles Lyell, in “Principles of Geology” (1850 edition), writes of “a warmer temperature having prevailed in the eras of the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.”

The second charge, that “warmer temperatures” is redundant, is no easier to prosecute. Yes, “temperatures will be hot” is redundant in the sense Walsh points out: The word hot already implies “temperature.” But English has never banned such redundancy, especially in the spoken language. Taste and fashion may outlaw some such expressions, but many others are our daily companions.

We’ve all been alerted, for instance, to the redundancy of “ATM machine” and “PIN number” (though we still may find them useful). But who wants to ban “12 noon” and “12 midnight”? (You don’t really need the 12.) “Faster speeds” has the same problem, but surely it’s standard English. Should we ban hairstyles of longer lengths, children of younger ages, servings in medium sizes?

In the case of weather terms, in fact, limiting ourselves to the “precise” language of high, medium, and low temperatures would leave us knowing less. We have a wealth of temperature adjectives – frigid, chilly, cool, mild, balmy, sizzling – all attuned to our local climate and our expectations with a subtlety that a forecast of “medium-high temperatures” can’t match. Call such phrases unscientific, call them redundant, avoid them if you like – but don’t imagine that English has ever considered them sins against the spirit of the language.

. . .

WHICH FORK? David Devore e-mailed recently to ask about a quote in a New York Times story on early bird specials: “It’s a great way to try a new restaurant without forking over a lot of money.”

To Devore, forking over is what a robber demands: Fork over the cash! – and paying a bill should be forking out. But my dictionaries treat fork over, fork out, and fork up as synonyms, all meaning “to hand over”; there may be local or individual preferences, but officially it’s OK to fork over, out, or up.

Some commentators give fork over a rakish past, deriving it from the old thieves’ slang to fork (someone), meaning to pick a pocket using two stiff fingers. But the OED treats the fork over family as simple extensions of the usual verb: you fork up a garden, fork over a mutton chop, fork out the rent. The word implies reluctance on the part of the forker, for whatever reason, but not necessarily coercion or threat by the forkee.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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O camel! my camel!

Why the Arab world is re-embracing the poetry of the desert

She is the dream that scatters with the sun, Absorbed into flame and flame absorbing, Eternal motion one with endless peace, The camel has no was or will be, only being.

The above lines are the final stanza of a poem I recently completed, a rousing work titled “Spirit of the Sand.” The poem contains 24 lines in all, each expressing a mystical appreciation for the Arabian camel. To be honest, I’m not sure I really believe that the dromedary’s heart beats in every chest, nor that it carries on its back the thirst of generations. In fact, I don’t really like the animal that much. I do, however, like the idea of winning a brand new Range Rover.

As I write this, there’s a festival underway in a remote corner of the United Arab Emirates, where I live, to celebrate traditional local culture. The centerpiece of the event – along with (no kidding) a camel beauty contest – is a camel-themed poetry competition, the winner of which will drive away in a luxury SUV. “Hey, you write poetry,” said my wife when she saw the announcement for the competition. “Write one.” For the past few months, we’ve been driving around in a Toyota Yaris. I started writing.

The winners of the competition are due to be announced the first week of February, but I don’t hold out much hope. The problem isn’t so much that I’m not a camel person – I can wing that – but that you are required to write your poem in the Nabati style. Nabati is an ancient form of Arabic folk poetry passed down through generations of Bedouin tribesmen. In order to write a Nabati camel poem properly, you need to have not only seen one of the animals, but to have milked one, scrubbed one, maybe had one spit in your face. This dusty traditionalism is the whole point of the contest.

It’s an odd thing, but you could say that camel spit has been making a comeback in the United Arab Emirates recently. The proud home of the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest man-made island, and the world’s highest Swarovski-crystal-per-capita ratio is currently in the throes of a full-fledged Nabati craze. People in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi zoom home in their BMWs to watch “Million’s Poet,” a televised Nabati talent show whose ultimate winner gets a $1,362,000 cash prize, along with the kind of rock-star celebrity that poets elsewhere in the world can only dream about. Since it launched a few years back, “Million’s Poet” has become the Arab world’s answer to “American Idol.” Across the region, tens of millions of people tune in each week to vote for their favorite versifier via text message. Even the kids are hooked: Internet message boards ring with heated debate over who’s the best (or cutest) poet in the land. Nabati action figures cannot be far behind.

“Millions Poet,” as frivolous as it may seem, is taken very seriously by the United Arab Emirates’ rulers. The government funds and promotes the show as part of a broader effort to reestablish Nabati as the cultural cornerstone of the country. This effort, in turn, is born of a much larger concern. As satellite dishes and skyscrapers proliferate, there is a growing sense here that local traditions are being swept away. In some Arabic nations – the ones you tend to read about in the papers – this concern has led to a pervasive and restrictive form of Islam: The rise of ultra-conservative Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia represents an emphatic example. The United Arab Emirates, characteristically, has opted for a more moderate approach. Putting Nabati poetry under lights is seen here as a perfect way to stave off a collective identity crisis, to remind nationals who they are – or at least who they once were.

Nabati poetry is so old, nobody really knows how old it is. We do know that the form dates back at least 1,000 years, and was first practiced by the Bedouins who roamed the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. For centuries, it was the only way for these people to record their victories in battle, their humiliations in love, the weaseliness of their enemies, and the munificence of their leaders. It’s a form of social history for people who didn’t have pens, but who loved a singsong around the campfire.

The Arab world has a classical, bookish poetry tradition that is renowned for its litany of migraine-inducing formalities. Nabati is to this tradition what break dancing is to the minuet. It’s meant to be loose-limbed and spontaneous, recited in everyday language, expressing common concerns. Its rules are negotiable; if it sounds good over a plate of al harees, you’re in. And while Nabati themes do occasionally tend toward the lyrical – “My Heart Is Set Ablaze By Anxieties” by Si’dun Al Waji comes to mind – you’re just as likely to hear a poem about whose goats have been encroaching on whose territory. “Nabati,” says Ghassan Al Hassan, a Nabati scholar and a “Million’s Poet” judge, “speaks the language of the common people.”

The language of the people has changed over the last millennium, as have their concerns. Ancient Bedouin tribesmen were a notoriously bellicose bunch; titles like “By God, How Often Have I Raided” and “So What, Ibn Slem, If You Attack?” were commonplace. Today, while Nabati’s macho tendencies endure, poets tend to focus less on the power of their horses than the horsepower of their pickups. Tribalism has given way to nationalism. And where a traditional Nabati poet might have sung about his ability to use his fists, today’s will more likely talk up the goal-scoring abilities of his favorite soccer team.

The United Arab Emirates’ ruling classes, again, are spearheading the drive to shoehorn Nabati into contemporary contexts. The pop-culture glam of the “Million’s Poet” show is no accident: It represents a concerted effort to present the Nabati tradition in a format that the iPhone-owning masses will appreciate and understand. On the academic front, the government last year set up the Abu Dhabi-based Poetry Academy to help foster new Nabati poets and to establish a formal critical apparatus, something that old-school Nabati poets would likely have found mind-boggling.

There has also been a concurrent effort to preserve the tradition in written form, and even to translate it into English – a task akin to translating Italian into fish. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and a prolific Nabati poet, last year published a book of English translations of his work, which includes the poem “Oh Victorious Arrow” (“Congratulations Hamdan, heartfelt congratulations/ Your horse for you is happy, strutting proudly”). The fact that the guy who’s currently in charge of running this modern megalopolis should spend his time penning odes to horses is an indication of how important Nabati has become to the emirates’ sense of self.

“Globalization is wreaking havoc on many aspects of local life,” says Sultan Al Amimi, another “Million’s Poet” judge. Nabati, he says, “is a way of preserving this way of life from cultural erosion.”

Cultural erosion is a hot topic in the Middle East right now. The fear of regional identities and values being overrun – by hedonism, materialism, moral relativism, and all the other isms generally associated with the West – lies at the heart of much of the hard-core religious revivalism you see here. In America, there’s talk of the Clash of Civilizations; here, people see themselves as taking a Last Stand, with Mecca as a kind of Alamo.

Few countries in the Middle East have more of a stake in this issue than the United Arab Emirates. In recent decades, the country has seen wave after wave of immigration; Dubai’s expat population is now said to be about 80 percent of its total. And these immigrants have brought with them everything from Tagalog karaoke to Bollywood blockbusters to happy hour cocktails. There are times when it’s easy to forget you’re even in an Arabic country, an extremely worrying fact for people who were born and bred here.

Partly because the United Arab Emirates values its tradition of welcoming outsiders, and partly because people here understand that their economy relies on an inflow of foreign labor, the country has not resorted to the kind of knee-jerk religiosity that some of its neighbors have. Instead, it has embarked on a kinder, gentler form of revival. You can hardly turn around these days without bumping into a heritage village. Faux-traditional architecture is cropping up in every corner of the country. And youngsters who a decade ago might have worn jeans and T-shirts now don the dishdashas and abayas of their forebears. Sure, they’ll wear these garments at shopping malls and go home afterwards to watch the latest episode of “Dexter” – the point is that the country is attempting to incorporate its traditions into the modern world, rather than trying to keep the modern world at bay.

This will not be an easy trick to pull off. Efforts to drag the past into the present will always involve an element of nostalgia, and nostalgia will always involve its own cultural conflicts – as you can already see in the Nabati revival. One contemporary female poet, for instance, writes about “My longing for a tent/ After an adobe house.” We don’t really believe that this woman longs to live in a tent, simply that she likes the idea of it. Her poem is a kind of fib. It also lacks the immediacy of traditional Nabati poetry. Then again, Nabati’s themes have always revolved around traditional desert life. Is a Nabati poem about breaking the heel of your Jimmy Choo still a Nabati poem? And if it is, why shouldn’t a guy who grew up in London write a moving eulogy to the Arabian camel?

It might just be that my own longing – For a brand new Range Rover/ After a Toyota Yaris – isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Chris Wright is an editor and writer living in Dubai.


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Justice, medieval style

The case that ‘trial by ordeal’ actually worked

For the better part of a millennium, Europe’s legal systems decided difficult criminal cases in a most peculiar way. When judges were uncertain about an accused criminal’s guilt, they ordered a cauldron of water to be boiled, a ring to be thrown in, and the defendant to plunge in his naked hand and pluck the object out. The defendant’s hand was wrapped in bandages and revisited three days later. If it survived the bubbling cauldron unharmed, the defendant was declared innocent. If it didn’t, he was convicted.

These trials were called “ordeals.” They reached their height between the 9th and 13th centuries, and the methods varied. In one variant, a piece of iron was heated until it was red hot. The defendant picked it up and carried it with her bare hand. In another, the defendant was stripped naked, his hands and feet bound, and he was pushed into a pool of holy water. If the defendant sank, he was acquitted. If he floated, he was condemned.

Modern observers have roundly condemned ordeals for being cruel and arbitrary. Ordeals seem to reflect everything that was wrong with the Dark Ages. They’re an icon of medieval barbarism and backwardness.

But a closer look suggests something very different: The ordeal system worked surprisingly well. It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused. Stranger still, the ordeal system suggests that pervasive superstition can be good for society. Medieval legal systems leveraged citizens’ superstitious beliefs through ordeals, making it possible to secure criminal justice where it would have otherwise been impossible to do so. Some superstitions, at least, may evolve and persist for a good reason: They help us accomplish goals we couldn’t otherwise accomplish, or accomplish them more cheaply.

Ordeals were based on a medieval superstition called “iudicium Dei” – the judgment of God. According to this belief, God helped man resolve judicial matters through trials of fire and water. The superstitious “logic” that underlay ordeals was based on divine intervention. God, the thinking went, saved innocent defendants from being burned in hot ordeals and allowed guiltless men to sink in water “over which He hath thundered” in cold ones. The ordeal, then, offered a way for God to render judgment.

How might these trials have worked, without divine intervention? The key insight is that ordeals weren’t just widely practiced. They were widely believed in. It’s this belief – literally, the fear of God – that could have allowed the ordeals to function effectively.

First, consider the reasoning of the defendants. Guilty believers expected God to reveal their guilt by harming them in the ordeal. They anticipated being boiled and convicted. Innocent believers, meanwhile, expected God to protect them in the ordeal. They anticipated escaping unscathed, and being exonerated.

The only defendants who would have been willing to go through with the ordeal were therefore the innocent ones. Guilty defendants would have preferred to avoid the ordeal – by confessing their crimes, settling with their accusers, or fleeing the realm.

The next thing to understand is that clerics administrated ordeals and adjudged their outcomes – and did so under elaborate sets of rules that gave them wide latitude to manipulate the process. Priests knew that only innocent defendants would be willing to plunge their hands in boiling water. So priests could simply rig trials to exonerate defendants who were willing to go through with the ordeal. The rituals around the ordeals gave them plenty of cover to ensure the water wasn’t boiling, or the iron wasn’t burning, and so on. If rigging failed, a priest could interpret the ordeal’s outcome to exculpate the defendant nonetheless (“His arm is healing well!”).

The ordeal system was only as strong as the superstitious belief underlying it. So, over time, as people’s belief that God was behind ordeals weakened, so did ordeals’ power to satisfactorily deal with criminal defendants. One crucially important contributor to this decline was the Catholic Church. In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III spearheaded a damning denunciation of ordeals on the grounds that ordeals were antithetical to Christian doctrine. His edict banned priests from further involvement with them. The Church’s condemnation of ordeals seriously undermined the superstition on which ordeals relied. If ordeals were antithetical to Christianity, how could God reveal defendants’ guilt or innocence through trials of fire and water?

Ordeals disappeared from Europe after Pope Innocent III’s decree. But, while they lasted, they improved criminal justice. Ordeals are inferior to modern trial methods because modern defendants don’t believe in iudicium Dei, not because trial by jury is inherently superior. If modern citizens did have the superstitious belief required for ordeals to work, it might make sense to bring back the cauldrons of boiling water.

Jury trials are expensive. Ordeals cost something, too. But they don’t require days or weeks of a half dozen or more jurors’ time. Nor do they require lawyers. If the strength of superstitious belief required for ordeals to work as well as trial by jury existed, society could use ordeals to secure the same degree of criminal justice for a fraction of the current system’s cost. Consider the savings society would enjoy if citizens firmly believed that an invisible, omniscient, and omnipotent being would severely punish them and their families, not just in an afterlife, but in this one as well, for cheating, stealing, and dishonesty. In the superstitious society, “irrational” beliefs do part of the work that government institutions of law and order do in the nonsuperstitious one.

This insight may help explain the prominence of superstition in some societies. Many societies weren’t, and in some cases still aren’t, wealthy enough to create strong, effective, and more expensive state-made institutions of order. Superstition’s prominence in such societies may reflect the need to rely on cheaper substitutes for such institutions, substitutes such as beliefs in curses, afterlives, and iudicium Dei.

If this is right, it’s not only that scientific advance crowds out superstition. As societies become wealthier, superstitions become less necessary. So people abandon them. This creates the space required for scientific understandings to emerge.

Still, even the wealthiest societies have room for, and can leverage, superstition. To see this, look no further than the practice of oath swearing in courts in the United States. Oath swearing has an even longer history than ordeals. In ordeals’ heyday, elaborate forms of oath taking, sometimes taken with others called “compurgators,” were often the first resort for judicial questions.

Oath swearing survives today. No doubt part of the reason for this is that the superstition underlying its ability to promote justice has survived, too. Historically, oaths were sworn on the Bible, or other holy books, to God. For people who believe God frowns on lying, oath swearing can be a powerful force encouraging truthful testimony. In 1961 the US Supreme Court upheld individuals’ right to testify in court without swearing an oath. But it remains common to ask people providing testimony to do so, or at least to promise to tell the truth. While the explicit invocation of God is all but gone from modern oaths, the solemnity of the oath itself remains strong.

Previous researchers have found evidence that certain superstitious beliefs may be socially productive in modern societies. Important work by Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary of Harvard University, for example, finds that stronger beliefs in an afterlife are associated with higher economic growth. Similarly, in a recent experimental study, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia find that when “God concepts” are activated in the minds of experiment participants, they’re more cooperative with one another. One of the potential reasons for this result, Shariff and Norenzayan point out, is that individuals may be more likely to behave in socially positive ways when they feel that God is watching them.

Of course, not all superstitious beliefs are socially productive. Besides encouraging criminals to reveal themselves and witnesses to tell the truth, superstition can create conflict and inhibit economic activities that create wealth. Especially if it’s hard to hold productive superstitions separately from unproductive ones, superstition might retard rather than promote social progress.

Still, it’s useful to bear in mind that many bizarre and seemingly irrational beliefs emerged for a reason and, at one time, served a socially useful purpose. Even modern superstitions aren’t all bad. Some may actually make us better off.

Now, where did that cauldron go?

Peter T. Leeson is visiting professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, author of the paper ”Ordeals,” and author of the recent book ”The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” (Princeton University Press, 2009).  


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Easy = True

How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel

Imagine that your stockbroker – or the friend who’s always giving you stock tips – called and told you he had come up with a new investment strategy. Price-to-earnings ratios, debt levels, management, competition, what the company makes, and how well it makes it, all those considerations go out the window. The new strategy is this: Invest in companies with names that are very easy to pronounce.

This would probably not strike you as a great idea. But, if recent research is to be believed, it might just be brilliant.

One of the hottest topics in psychology today is something called “cognitive fluency.” Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.

Psychologists have determined, for example, that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names do indeed significantly outperform those with hard-to-pronounce names. Other studies have shown that when presenting people with a factual statement, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process – even totally nonsubstantive changes like writing it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme or simply repeating it – can alter people’s judgment of the truth of the statement, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. Similar manipulations can get subjects to be more forgiving, more adventurous, and more open about their personal shortcomings.

Because it shapes our thinking in so many ways, fluency is implicated in decisions about everything from the products we buy to the people we find attractive to the candidates we vote for – in short, in any situation where we weigh information. It’s a key part of the puzzle of how feelings like attraction and belief and suspicion work, and what researchers are learning about fluency has ramifications for anyone interested in eliciting those emotions.

“Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent,” says Adam Alter, a psychologist at the New York University Stern School who co-wrote the paper on fluency and stock prices. “If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment.”

A handful of scholars have already started to explore the ways that advertisers, educators, political campaigners, or anyone else in the business of persuasion can use these findings. And some of the implications are surprising. For example, to get people to think through a question, it may be best to present it less clearly. And to boost your self-confidence, you may want to set out to write a dauntingly long list of all the reasons why you’re a failure.

Our sensitivity to – and affinity for – fluency is an adaptive shortcut. According to psychologists, it helps us apportion limited mental resources in a world where lots of things clamor for our attention and we have to quickly figure out which are worth thinking about.

Most of the time, the shortcut works pretty well. If something feels notably easy to decipher, whether it’s a piece of text or the shape of an object or the particulars of a person’s face, there’s a good chance it’s because we’ve previously done the work of processing it, and that it’s something we’ve encountered before. Cognitive fluency signals familiarity – some psychologists argue that the eerie experience of déjà vu is simply when we’re fooled by the unexpected ease of taking in a piece of sensory information, and interpret that as a memory of having been there or seen it before.

An instinctive preference for the familiar made sense in the prehistoric environment in which our brains developed, psychologists hypothesize. Unfamiliar things – whether they were large woolly animals, plants we were thinking of eating, or fellow human beings – needed to be carefully evaluated to determine whether they were friend or foe. Familiar objects were those we’d already passed judgment on, so it made sense not to waste time and energy scrutinizing them.

According to Norbert Schwarz, a leading fluency researcher, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc used to explain the evolutionary logic behind this tendency succinctly. “He’d say, ‘If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.’ ”

“That gut feeling of familiarity determined by ease of processing is a very effective shorthand,” says Schwarz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Having to sit down and analyze every time whether something is familiar would not be a good idea.”

Our bias for the familiar, however, can be triggered in settings where there’s little purpose to it. In the 1960s, Zajonc did a series of experiments that uncovered what he dubbed the “mere exposure” effect: He found that, with stimuli ranging from nonsense words to abstract geometric patterns to images of faces to Chinese ideographs (the test subjects, being non-Chinese speakers, didn’t know what the ideographs meant), all it took to get people to say they liked certain ones more than others was to present them multiple times.

More recent work suggests that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar. Like beauty. Psychologists have identified what they call the “beauty-in-averageness” effect – when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose the most prototypical option. For example, when asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people choose the one that is a composite of all the others. And it’s not just faces: Studies have found a similar tendency when people are asked to identify what makes for an attractive dog or car or watch. Some psychologists suggest that much of what we perceive as beauty is just the fact that the most prototypical faces and dogs and watches are the easiest to process, because they share the most with all the other faces and dogs and watches that we’ve seen and stored in our perceptual inventory.

“These faces fit right in there. In effect, you’ve already learned the facial features, so people like them,” says Piotr Winkielman, a psychologist at the University of California San Diego who has done research on fluency and attractiveness.

Winkielman doesn’t claim that beauty is entirely explained by fluency, but he argues that the effect is powerful, all the more so because we’re unaware of it. Indeed, the power of the effect, combined with the ease with which psychologists can fool people into mistaking the sensation of fluency for actual familiarity, helps explain the current popularity of research into the phenomenon.

“People are very sensitive to the experience of ease or difficulty, but very insensitive to where that feeling comes from,” says Schwarz.

One thing that fools us, for example, is font. When people read something in a difficult-to-read font, they unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about. Schwarz and his former student Hyunjin Song have found that when people read about an exercise regimen or a recipe in a less legible font, they tend to rate the exercise regimen more difficult and the recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font.

Playing with legibility can also change perceptions in subtler, less predictable ways. Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton University who also co-wrote the stocks and fluency paper, have found that when a personal questionnaire is presented in a less legible font, people tend to answer it less honestly than if it is written in a more legible one. Alter and two other psychologists, Simon Laham and Geoffrey Goodwin, also found that, when presenting people with written descriptions of moral transgressions, increasing the contrast between text and background to make it easier to read the description made people more forgiving.

To Alter, it’s a demonstration not so much of the power of fluency but of its opposite, what psychologists call “disfluency.” Even at the level of a trickier font, the experience of disfluency makes people wary and uncomfortable. That sensation, Alter argues, is enough to make them less forthcoming and also less forgiving in their moral judgments.

“Disfluency functions as a cognitive alarm,” Alter says. “It sets up a cognitive roadblock and makes people think, and it triggers a sense of risk and concern.”

It isn’t just visual cues that have this sort of effect. Matthew McGlone, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has found that auditory cues can shape people’s perception of truth. McGlone did a study in which he presented subjects with a series of unfamiliar aphorisms either in rhyming or nonrhyming form: “Woes unite foes,” for example, versus “Woes unite enemies.” He found that people tended to see the rhyming ones as more accurate than the nonrhyming ones, despite the fact that, substantively, the two were identical. Phrases that are easier on the ear aren’t just catchy and easy to remember, McGlone argues, they also feel inherently truer. He calls it “the rhyme-as-reason effect.”

The persuasive power of repetition, clarity, and simplicity is something that people who set out to win others’ trust – marketers, political candidates, speechwriters, suitors, and teachers – already have an intuitive sense of if they’re good at what they do. What the fluency research is showing is just how profound the effect can be, and just how it works.

And some of the more interesting ramifications of the new work come from the suggestion that disfluency, rather than fluency, can sometimes be what’s called for. Work on product marketing by Schwarz and Hyejeung Cho has found, for example, that while creating a sense of disfluency in potential consumers is likely to make them see a product as less familiar, it also makes them see it as more innovative.

And a few studies suggest that disfluency works well as a prompt to get people to think carefully and catch mistakes. Alter and Oppenheimer found that using a more difficult font can get students to do better on the Cognitive Reaction Test, a three-question test that usually trips up people answering intuitively. In another study, they found that disfluency also led people to think more abstractly. Schwarz and Song found that a difficult font can dramatically increase the number of people who correctly respond to the question, “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?” (The answer is “none” – Moses wasn’t on the Ark.)

In other words, to get people to think carefully and to prevent them from making silly mistakes, make them work to process the question: make the font hard to read, the cadence awkward, and the wording unfamiliar.

Some researchers are also starting to look at the question of how to change people’s responses to cognitive fluency. Winkielman is part of a team of researchers who, in a forthcoming study, looked at the relationship between mood and the desire for fluency. They found that happy people are less interested in familiar, fluent stimuli – in this case abstract visual patterns – than sad people. According to Winkielman, this makes sense: When we’re unhappy, we seek out stability and a sense of safety; when we’re happy, we’re more open to the unfamiliar.

“Fluent things are familiar, but also boring and comfortable,” he says. “Disfluency is intriguing and novel. Sometimes you like comfort food, like when you’re sick. And usually you want to try something new when you’re more comfortable.”

It may be possible to tactically use disfluency to improve our own everyday lives, as well. Schwarz has found that the ease or difficulty of thinking something can sometimes neutralize the actual content of the thoughts themselves. Along with Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina, Schwarz has looked at fluency and self-confidence. The two found that, if the goal was to boost college students’ confidence before an exam, getting them to list a few reasons why they were going to succeed was more effective than getting them to list many reasons. Because it was harder, the students who were asked to think of more ways to succeed were actually less confident, even though they ended up with longer lists.

And Schwarz and Sanna found a converse effect when they asked students to think of reasons they would not do well: Students asked to come up with a longer list of reasons they would fail reported feeling more confident than those asked for a shorter list. Indeed, they reported feeling as confident as the students who had been asked to come up with the short list of ways to succeed – by the authors’ calculation, thinking of 12 ways to fail had the same effect as thinking of three ways to succeed.

In unpublished research, Schwarz has found a similar effect with marital happiness: Couples asked to come up with a short list of good qualities about each other reported higher levels of marital happiness than the other couples in the study – but so did those couples asked to come up with a long list of each other’s bad qualities.

“Having to come up with many good things about your spouse is terrible, because it becomes difficult and then you think she’s obviously not that wonderful,” Schwarz says. “Coming up with a few bad things about your spouse, that’s bad because it’s not that hard. Having to come up with a lot of bad things, since it’s hard, it means she’s not that bad at all. The difficulty that you have tells you that there are not many such things.”

Results like these suggest that feeling good about yourself may in part be a matter of having a hard time feeling bad, and that confidence and even success might be triggered by interventions that do nothing but make failure seem the more intimidating possibility. The human brain, for all its power, is suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.


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