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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7 adorably wrong retro visions of the future

With the future looking gloomier than ever, let's take a look at what could have been.

Ah, the future. The golden, glorious future. A time when food will be replaced by pills, walking will be replaced by hovering, and someone will have finally invented a printer that will print your black and white theatre ticket even though (even though!) you have an empty magenta ink cartridge. Who can wait? 

Unfortunately, what with the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (see: Trump, Donald J) the future seems less and less spectacular everyday. Is it time to build an underground bunker? Who can say? I can. The answer is yes.

But while you're waiting for your Spaghetti Hoops to heat up in your concrete hidey-hole, you'll need something to read. Here are seven futures that we could have had, if it wasn't for fascism (and also, I guess, the fact that some of these are really dumb).

1. Commuter helicopters

Popular Mechanics (1951) via Flyingcarsandfoodpills.com

What they predicted: Personal helicopters which would transform commuting forever. 

Why it didn't happen: Because apparently Future Us are sufficiently advanced enough to create mini, personal helicopters, but not smart enough to have grasped the concept of a helipad. 

2. Instantly-cookable food

Via Reddit u/Jaykirsch

What they predicted: Food that can be heated or chilled instantly within its packet, by the turn of a knob.

Why it didn't happen: Remember in 2005 when Walkers Worcester Sauce crisps were recalled because it was thought they'd give you cancer? Yeah, that. 

3. Space puppies

Amazing Science Fiction (1958) via Pulparchive.com 

What they predicted: Space puppies. Puppies in space.

Why it didn't happen: Because God enjoys our pain.

4. The "Dinosaur Truck" elevated bus

The Practical Science For Boys And Girls (1949) via Darkroastedblend.com

What they predicted: Buses that could seamlessly glide over cars, carrying us onwards to a new and better future.

Why it didn't happen: It did! China have it. Well done China.

5.  A radio that prints newspapers

Radio Craft (1934) via Tarzan.org

What they predicted: A radio that could print out your morning newspaper, with some kind of nice little red thing on top.

Why it didn't happen: All media is obsolete. You are not even reading these words. Unless you're my mum. Hi mum. 

6. A robot that hits children on the head if they don't listen in class

Computopia (1969) via Pinktentacle.com

What they predicted: A robot that hits children on the head if they don't listen in class.

Why it didn't happen: Whilst our robotics are advanced enough, it turns out so too are our morals. Bummer.

7. Wrist computers

Byte (1981) via archive.org

What they predicted: Little computers that will sit on your wrist, like a watch.

Why it didn't happen: You might be gaping and gawping that someone in 1981 successfully managed to predict the Apple Watch, but you'd be wrong. Take another look - see that tiny keyboard? No one could use that tiny keyboard. What were our ancestors thinking? Idiots. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.