Yes We Can Go Forward and Believe in America! When did US campaign slogans become self-help mantras?

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Something’s happened to presidential campaign slogans. Something affirmative. Motivational. Inspiring. Yes! They’ve become self-help mantras.

Romney’s got his rather hectoring “Believe in America” and Obama’s gone for the grammatically pointed “Forward.” - the much discussed full-stop signifying, apparently, a mind set on its course. Last election of course we had the rabble rousing chant “Yes we can”. The tone now borrows from life coaches where it once borrowed from the advertising industry (I like Ike, Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge), and this time it’s much harder to oppose. Agreeing is not only right – it’s healthy!

This would be all very clever, but the trouble with life coaching is that it’s already been through several loops of cultural backlash. If a film features fairground music we know a grisly murder is not far away, and if a character recites motivational mantras, that is a character primed for gentle tragedy.  In fact I’m so damaged by the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and The Office that I can’t hear Romney’s slogan without picturing him saying it in front of a mirror (“I believe in America. I believe in myself. I am a strong, independent individual moving daily towards a better future”) before bursting into tears and eating Ben and Jerry’s straight from the tub.

But there is also something intrinsic about the tragi-comedy of motivational quotes. Who really springs into action after reciting a wholesale phrase about how great they are? The slogans seem to mock you, denying a gap between where you are and where you want to be (“I am the best presidential candidate in the world, EVER”), and making the gap all the more apparent in the process. It could only be a matter of time before science found they didn’t really work.

A paper published in Psychological Science looked at the differences between "declarative" talk (yes we can) and interrogative talk (can we, though?). Scientists Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin took fifty three undergraduates and gave them some anagrams to solve – (like rearranging the letters in “cause” to spell “sauce”). But before they were allowed to start the task they had to spend a minute talking to themselves. One half were in the “Will I?” group – they had to ask themselves whether they could complete the task. The other was the “I Will” group – they had to tell themselves they would. The groups were then given ten minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible.

Raised on Nike adverts and positive thinking, we might expect the assertive group to do better. They are pumped on self belief, after all, where as the other group have only mild self doubt. But no – the “Will I?” group solved 25 per cent more anagrams. Real motivation seemed to come from the question, rather than the pre-emptive answer.

The scientists thought that the question helped people to tap in to intrinsic motivation – whether they actually wanted to do the activity for themselves. They found they did. The extrinsic hectoring actually blocked their internal motivation.

So there we are, Obama, just a small change in punctuation is needed. “Forward?” Yeah, go on then.

Mitt Romney and wife. Photograph, Getty Images.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”