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

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Mitt Romney and wife. Photograph, Getty Images.
Mitt Romney and wife. Photograph, Getty Images.

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.