Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Ideological Animal

From Psychology Today courtesy of Crooks and Liars:

If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

Click here for the rest.

Okay, this is the assumption I've been operating under for some years now, and one of the reasons that I have a blog--it's also the direction I want to take as a theater artist. It's nice to have some legitimate study to support what I'm trying to do. That is, contrary to popular opinion, I'm very much of the belief that most human beings are pretty smart, if only they apply themselves. When I was teaching high school, I was suprised to find myself, time after time, in some fairly sophisticated intellectual discussions with kids written off by the educational establishment as being stupid. Ultimately, it became utterly clear to me that when people, all people, put their minds to it, they can be deep thinkers--Noam Chomsky has observed that acquiring language skills alone puts human beings into a pretty intense and distinctively high level of intelletuality. Unfortunately for us all, we live within a culture that successfully encourages people to not use their minds. My task, then, and yours too, is to try to encourage people to think, providing them with more information than they usually have available, challenging the conventional wisdom that so dominates our social interactions.

This is definitely do-able. I mean, it's a monumental task, but if you focus on the people around you, one person at a time, it's not so impossible.

Man, what am I, an idealist or a cynic? It's often hard to tell. Today, I guess, I'm an idealist.