Monday, June 25, 2012

On Death

It’s hard to meditate on the tenderness of death while the body’s secret mind keeps blood surging. It’s a bit like the white froth on some distant wave – soft, majestic, impersonal. But it will roll near, and when it does, I wonder if I’ll hear a giant wave whispering my name? Will it feel tender, still?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lowly words that reveal speakers' secrets

The past few weeks have tossed strange prepositional anomalies in my path. Or perhaps every week does so, but I have just taken to noticing them recently.  The three-year-old who lives nearby likes to announce, “At my birthday, I’m going to…”, or “Can I have that at my birthday?” On the classic rock station, I heard an early 70’s number 1 hit, “A Horse with No Name,” by the group America. Strangest amalgamated preposition you’ll find: “In the desert you can remember your name, ‘cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”. Forget the triple negative, it’s that “for to” that leaves you wondering how far the exigencies of meter should nudge a songwriter toward agrammaticality. On the street car, I heard a kid announce to his companion, “At least I’m done my homework!” Shouldn’t there be a “with” in there somewhere? And as we gear up for the summer Olympics, I expect to be hearing many, many times broadcasters using the phrase “In an hour from now” (e.g., “We will be poolside for high diving in an hour from now.”) To my ear, though, “in an hour” all by its lonesome can hold up just fine the structure that precedes or follows it. 

But why should anyone care about prepositions? We can make ourselves understood in most conversational contexts even if these small hardly noticeable words are misused, abused, left out, or doubled up. In his new book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us, the social psychologist James W. Pennebaker demonstrates quite convincingly that we should care about prepositions and other “function words”. In the preface, he claims, “Pronouns, articles, prepositions, and a handful of other small, stealthy words reveal parts of your personality, thinking style, emotional state, and connections with others. These words… account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use” (p. ix). These words are usually very short: 17 of the top 20 function words in English are three letters or shorter, and they are very hard to learn to use properly in another language after the age of 12. (And, by my count, 30% of those words as presented in Pennebaker’s table [p. 26] are prepositions.)

The author presents studies that have discovered fascinating correlations between high and low usages of particular types of function words and gender, age, personality, and social status. For example, people who use more articles (a, an, the, in English) are likely to be “more organized and emotionally stable”, “more conscientious, more politically conservative, and older” (p. 37). Women use the first-person pronoun “I”, cognitive words (such as understand, know, because, reason), and social words more than men, who use more prepositions and nouns. The use of pronouns most reliably reveals social status. Those higher in status use much fewer “I-words” (I, me, my), more “we-words” (we, us, our) and “you-words” (you, your) (p. 174). Different emotional states are also associated with particular patterns of function word use: positive emotions are linked to greater use of “we” and concrete nouns. Sadness is linked to higher rates of saying or writing “I” and the use of past or future tense verbs. When angry, people use “you,” “he,” “she,” and “they” more, and rely more on the present tense. Pennebaker also discusses efforts at lie detection through linguistic analysis, concluding that we should be skeptical of any analytic process that claims to exhibit greater than about 65% accuracy. However, he does present an interesting table (p. 162) that classifies several words that tend to be associated either with honesty or deception. Later chapters examine the language of leadership, of love, and of group identity, and how computational author identification works. The author also discusses the science of linguistic style matching or verbal mimicking. 

And what of the lowly preposition? Well, it’s not so lowly, it would seem. Prepositions are associated with “complex thinking”. This type of thinking, notes the author, involves “bigger words, longer sentences, and more complicated sentences, often involving prepositions... Prepositions, by the way are glorious language markers. They help to situate an idea in time and space” (p. 296). So, the prepositional anomalies I recorded might reveal a few things. The three-year-old's birthday-themed prepositional "at" likely just reveals that, well, she's three years old. It takes children a long time to acquire skillful usage of the prepositions, even in their first language. I'm guessing that the joyful preposition-dropping declaration on the street car probably would tell a member of Pennebaker's research team that the child is a Canadian. And maybe broadcasters subconsciously achieve a bit more status in the minds of the viewers if they shingle more prepositions than are absolutely necessary into their announcements. As for the group America's "for to" excursion, I haven't a clue what to make of that. I'm willing to bet, though, that Pennebaker and his research team would. A little respect then, for the humble to, of, in, for, with, on that made it onto the top-20 most frequently used words list, and for all those prepositions that didn't. They, and other function words, are telling our secrets. 

Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
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Monday, June 11, 2012

Research Bulletin: Resisting the Urge


Psychological research on narrative appears in many forms, originating in numerous separate disciplines. Recently, a publication in the journal Psychological Science caught my eye, although on the face of it there was not mention of narrative. Wilhelm Hofmann (Chicago), Kathleen Vohs (Minnesota), and Roy Baumeister (Florida State) conducted an intriguing study about desire during daily life. These researchers provided over 200 participants (primarily students) with Blackberry smartphones and for a week asked them to use these devices to respond to questions regarding their desires. These questions were sent to the participants 7 times a day, distributed over a 14 hour period, for 7 consecutive days, providing a portrait of desires for the week. Initially, participants simply indicated whether they were currently experiencing a desire or had just experienced one in the last 30 minutes. For those that answered in the affirmative, they then indicated what type of desire it was, from a list of 15 domains. Subsequent questions dealt with the strength of the desire, whether it conflicted with other personal goals, whether they tried to resist acting on this desire, and if so, whether they were successful in resisting the desire. Over the course of the week, the entire sample provided details on 7,827 episodes of desire. The most frequent desires were to eat, drink, and sleep. The finding that intrigued me, however, was that the desire to engage in media activities was the hardest to resist, with people failing to resist those desires almost half of the time (42%). The article itself does not mention what constitutes a media activity, so one might suspect that this was largely Internet use. However, the supplementary material provided online for this article indicate that the majority of these desires related to watching TV or other forms of video (51%), with Internet use accounting for only 32% of these desires (computer or videogames accounted for 11%). Although it is not clear how much of the television or video was narrative in nature, most of this content has narrative elements; even reality TV involves narrative tropes, complete with character arcs and traditional plot dynamics. In other words, although engaging with narrative was not the most frequent desire, it seems quite possible that engaging with narrative was one of the most difficult desires to resist. 

Hofmann, W., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (in press). What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science

* For a copy of this article, please contact RM (e-mail in profile).


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Monday, June 4, 2012

Story Preoccupation, or, Ways to Herd a Billion Angry Tiny Dragons


I just had the pleasure of spending a week in Toronto with most of the OnFiction collective, as well as with several of the group’s close collaborators, and I’d like to synthesize a couple of the high points of a week of intense conversations about the way that stories function in the world.

First, and so you can know where this title is coming from, Jordan Peterson, one of our psychologist colleagues has been working on the psychology of environmental sustainability narratives. He introduced his current work in the most evocative way, explaining how he’s addressing some of the problems of competing ideologies that get folded into normative stories about what we should do with the environment in ways that end up being divisive and distracting before people even get to the issues at hand. His strategy has to do with replacing some of the standard ideological story lines with mythological ones—as he describes it, exclaiming: 
because climate change isn’t just one problem; it’s a billion angry tiny dragons that can bite you anywhere at any time and you won’t even know where!

I love this complication of something so obviously complex as climate change that nonetheless does tend to get boiled down to a symbolic formulation, as if understanding something like climate uncertainty in one handy symbol was helpful. Having been primed by the billion angry tiny dragons mythology (since dragons represent the unknown, and the various ways we grapple with it to make ourselves more comfortable, even in the presence of the unknown), I was thrilled to get to witness a research workshop between Maja and Keith, as they worked on a forthcoming idea having to do with the personality of creative production.

One of the features that seems to be common to creative personalities is an emotionally-driven exploratory preoccupation. Although I will look forward to reading more about their interpretation of this category, I found it immediately evocative: I have been trying to explain for years, especially to people who find it frustrating that I seem compelled to MAKE things out of ideas, that it is not so much an attachment to the production of creative products, but a compulsion related to the process that produces them. By this logic, creative production involves acting on the compulsion to explore (often by making something exploratory out of it) the dissonance between the way I understand the world to be and the way I am emotionally experiencing it at a given moment.

And the final piece of this small narrative puzzle came into place as I triumphantly described this very satisfying explanation for something that is quite puzzling—because how does that creative production soothe the anxiety and irritation of the billion angry tiny dragons that might bite me anywhere? On my way out of Toronto, one of our neuroscientist colleagues suggested that the process of creative production—as it builds patterns in the bewildering flight of the agents of what is unknown and daunting—helps partly because it creates neural connections that constrain the systems being activated by the dissonance between my understanding and my experience in moments when the unknown becomes immanent via those billion angry tiny dragons that might bite me anywhere. Very satisfying.

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