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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Twitter is rolling out (slightly) longer tweets

Plus the demise of the dot-at. 

We've heard rumblings for a while that Twitter plans to move away from its simple USP (140 characters per tweet, a list of chronological tweets on your timeline) in favour of a more curated, less restrictive model. 

Today, the site announced changes that will reduce the limits on tweet length, but not in an extreme way – rumours that the site planned to kill off the character limit entirely seem unfounded, at least for now. Instead, usernames and media attachments like links, polls or images will no longer be included in the limit, which will come as a relief to anyone with a long handle or media brands (naming no names) which often tweet links. The company says the changes will roll out over the "next several months".  

This probably doesn't mean you'll be able to have a poll, a picture and a Periscope livestream in a single tweet, but it does mean you could potentially @ in unlimited numbers of people. For anyone who has been harassed on the site, this isn't great news - at least in the past trolls' audiences were limited by tweet length.  

The site is also killing off ".@": the method used by users who want replies or direct addressals to be seen by all their followers. At the moment, any tweet starting with an "@" doesn't feed onto the main timeline, and can only be seen by selecting "tweets and replies" on a specific user's profile.

In future, Twitter will recognise which tweets are actually replies and hide them, but non-replies which start with an "@" will still display in feeds. You'll also be able to retweet yourself, or quote your own tweets, so you can make replies appear on your followers' feeds if desired. The press release also toe-curlingly suggests that you could use this function for when you "feel like a really good one went unnoticed". 

The move suggests Twitter wants users to post media-filled tweets, and doesn't want to punish those that do with decreased space for a message. The social media site recently brought live-streaming app Periscope, which will also beneift from the change.

The company explains in the press release that the original 140 character limit, based on the length of a text message, is a little out of date. Now, apparently, tweets have become a "rich canvas for creative expression". You heard them - go forth and Periscope. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.