Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Can We Positively Prime Our World?

[The following is the most recent installment of a column I write for the Community Press newspapers here in the Cincinnati area.]

"Attitudes," the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said, "are more important than facts."

Is that true?

Through the years, I've known people who have gone through one terrible experience piled on top of another who nonetheless retained their joy, sense of humor, and love of life. I've known others who have degenerated into bitterness and emotional paralysis after the slightest adversities. Their varied attitudes seem to explain their varied reactions to life.

Observing people who seemed always to fail, the newspaper publisher and diplomat Richard G. Capen wrote, "If you believe it is going to be a lousy day, it will be. If you think you are going to fail, you will. If you are convinced you can’t handle your job, you are likely to lose it. If you are certain you cannot repair a relationship, you won’t. It’s all a matter of the standards you set for yourself. Most people accept far less than they deserve.”

Henry Ford put it more succinctly. "Whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right," he said.

Attitudes are chosen, of course. But is it possible for parents, teachers, managers, youth workers, business executives, politicians, pastors, and other leaders to foster positive attitudes of hopefulness and possibility in people? In other words, can we help people to choose an attitude of positive anticipation?

In his intriguing new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of something called, priming. Priming is a set of experiences that, usually randomly, "sets the table" for our expectations of success or failure, enjoyment or boredom, and so on.

Gladwell recounts an experiment conducted by two Dutch researchers. Two groups of students were each given forty-two difficult questions from an edition of the board game, Trivial Pursuit. Gladwell says that before being asked the questions, one group was told to spend five minutes imagining what their lives would be like were they college professors and then, jot down every thought they had along those lines. The other group was told to do a similar exercise, only they were to imagine themselves as soccer hooligans. The college professor group got 55.6% of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The soccer hooligan group were correct 42.6% of the time.

One of the joys of my life these days is my service on the board of directors for our county's Boys and Girls Club. Not long ago, our executive director, Nancy Beck, shared the story of Chris with us. As Nancy tells it, our West Clermont Unit, housed at Amelia Elementary School, recently had a long waiting list of children who wanted to join the club but couldn't because our funding didn't allow for adequate staffing. Chris was one of the children on the waiting list.

When the club members had playground activities, the staff allowed Chris to join in. But when it came time for 'Power Hour,' the club's homework help period, or other indoor activities, Chris at times literally peered in through windows longingly.

Finally, he was able to become a Boys and Girls Club member. Until that point, Chris hadn't passed a spelling test the entire school year. But at the club, he was helped with his homework and maybe more importantly, told that he could do well. After being primed in this way, Chris showed up one afternoon at the club, proudly displaying the 96% he'd gotten on his most recent spelling test!

What would happen to our communities, companies, schools, families, businesses, churches, and countries if each of us made it our business to prime others for success in life?

The evidence seems to indicate that it would set off a kind of revolution of good feelings and achievement.

Wouldn't it be fun to test that hypothesis?

[More on a positive attitude--where to find it and how to cultivate it--in a later post.]

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