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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile