Friday, 24 September 2010

Thin Line?


Sometimes there can be just a thin line between reality and woo, rationalism and madness. 

I was reminded of this recently at a "training event".  I won't go into the details of the where when or why, mainly because it is irrelevant to the point I am trying to make but also so that no one sues me. 

Now before I talk about what happened let me first of all put a few cards down firmly on the table. I believe in being positive. I also believe in the power of non verbal communication. I believe in both within the limitations of reality as it is understood by science.  I also think that, in this particular case, these beliefs also happen to be trivially true and they are shared by everyone I have ever discussed them with.  But you can, of course, make your own mind up about that. 

What I mean is this. Positive attitudes can make big difference in peoples lives. Self motivation is often at least partly a question of genuinely thinking that success is actually possible. Attempting to motivate others also seems to be much more successful when the person trying to do the motivating is positive about whatever it is they are trying to get the other person to do.  I have met very few people who will admit to preferring the stick to the carrot. In case you are wondering how I can wander about discussing such things without getting arrested I should now admit that I used to be a trainer and that this was a question I would often address. 

You probably guessed that by nonverbal communication I was referring to the way we say things and not just the words we say. Tone of voice, body language, and when and where we choose to talk can make a huge difference to how our communication affects those around us.  Many of us have perhaps experienced difficulties in communicating when these additional methods of getting our point across are not available and we have to rely in words alone, perhaps when writing an email. 

I think that I am usually moderately successful in being positive and at communicating this through verbal and non-verbal means. But I guess others should be the final judge if that. 

Anyway, bearing in mind that the training event  was about communicating positively, I was expecting nothing more than a useful refresher but hoping for perhaps some tips or ideas that were new to me. 

I certainly got the latter, but not in a positive way. 

Mixed in with the trivially true points that our behaviour affects those around us was the following set of claims:

•if you think positive thoughts you're harder to push over than if you think negative thoughts. 

•if you think positive thoughts you can  hold your arm up more strongly than if you think negative thoughts. 

Both of these points were made using an interesting technique that I think will be a great way to get lots of people to think almost anything you like.  Get them all to stand up and form small groups or pairs. Ask them to think about one of the worst experiences in their lives, something energy sapping or draining  (a loved one dying perhaps?).  Get them to gently push each other over or perhaps push down on each others outstretched arms.  Now ask them to think of something positive, something that makes them feel happy or excited. Get them to repeat the pushing and shoving. Now ask "who felt the difference?" and wait for the inevitable "oh yeeesss" from somewhere in the room, respond quickly and firmly by telling them they did well and must be doing it correctly.  Look around and encourage others to "succeed" .

Now, stopping to think for a moment, I am really not aware of whether or not  thinking can actually influence muscular power output like this, I wouldn't be surprised at all if it did. I mean, your brain does control your muscles after all doesn't it?  Then again you aren't really going to generate any meaningful answer to that question by doing this exercise are you? You would have to measure forces and have controls wouldn't you?  And anyway, why is it that many weightlifters scream and rage rather than skip and dance when in competition?

•our bodies are constantly emitting "t" rays which are picked up by those around us without them realising it.

These rays do exist, they are utilised in the new generation of airport scanners. But we don't emit them from our bodies, they have to be beamed at us by the scanners. 

•your attitude determines whether or not these are positive or negative rays. 

Positive and negative "t" rays don't exist any more than positive and negative light rays exist, and you still don't emit "t" rays anyway. 

•people around you will be influenced to be positive or negative by the types of rays you emit. 

No they wouldn't be because people can't detect "t" rays.  And we don't emit them anyway. 

•you can control the kinds of rays you emit by controlling your attitude. 

See comments above. 

•a study done at Yale in 2000 showed that old people subliminally exposed to negative words for only one one hundredth of a second would perform worse at intelligence tests or mental agility exercises than those exposed to positive words. 

I managed to track down the study;


To be or not to be: the effects of aging stereotypes on the will to live


Author Levy, B; Ashman, O; Dror, I


Source Omega: Journal of Death and Dying; 40 (3) 1999-2000, p.409-20


ISSN 0030-2228


- here is the abstract;


Old and young participants (n=64) were subliminally primed with either negative or positive stereotypes of old age and then responded to hypothetical medical situations involving potentially fatal illnesses. Consistent with the hypothesis, the aged participants primed with negative stereotypes tended to refuse life-prolonged interventions, whereas the old participants primed with positive age stereotypes tended to accept. Results suggest that societally transmitted negative stereotypes of aging can weaken elderly people's will to live. (Original abstract - amended)

As you can see the study didn't cover the area he claims it did.  Apparently, being reminded of negative stereotypes of old people gives you less appetite for choosing life-prolonging medical intervention in the particular scenarios that this small group of people were asked about.  OK. Interesting.  But not really anything to do with the subject we were supposed to be discussing and in fact nothing to do with the point we were told it actually related to anyway i.e. subliminal messages can make you bad at mental tasks.


But anyway, even if the study did show what he claimed (and maybe I have the wrong one or perhaps he gave the wrong date) then he is mixing up words flashed on a screen very quickly with our situation.  At no point did we find out how we were supposed to use this technique to influence those around us.

•if you ask a horse psychologist they will tell you that horses know whether or not you think you are in charge of them. If you don't think you are then they won't follow you. 

Horse psychology is a fledgling discipline that seems to contain material ranging from claims that horses can read your mind using psychic powers, to genuine attempts to understand how they think and so to work out how we can use this. My sceptical sense would probably not have tingled at all if the trainer had pointed out that horses have eyes and ears and can pick up on non-verbal communication, just like people do.  


I have owned several dogs and in my experience I have seen them show signs of this and so a similar phenomenon in horses seems perfectly reasonable to me.  In the context of the "t" ray comments and without any mention of tone of voice or body language I really got the impression he was implying that "t" rays or something similar might be tipping off our equine friends. Maybe it was me and I was overcompensating now.  Just because some of the things he had said were bunkum didn't mean everything he said was bunkum after all.  Or did it? 

Most of these claims were prefaced by comments like "here comes the science bit", and "I'm sad so I like to look the science up and it told me that . . .".  As a fan of science I found this reassuring at first,  the fact that the trainer seemed to feel this added weight to his message made the whole enlightenment movement seem that little bit more worthwhile.  But why step over that line from reality into woo?  


Obviously I don't know if this was a case of cock up or con.  But I do know that, for me, this was annoying and patronising.  As someone who would actually like to promote positive attitudes and better communication skills I was left thinking that even if this chap had furthered those ends by such false claims the fact he had made them meant that I ended up feeling slightly negative about being positive in the future.  I think that he could have got the message across just as effectively without making these false claims. 

Now if only I could have done a quick study on the audience reaction and how many folks were actually put off by the nonsense claims just like I was, then this might be more than just an anecdote. 

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