Uncommon knowledge

Love the one you’re with

Most of us probably assume that people who are trapped in repressive regimes like Cuba or North Korea really want to get out. A new study suggests instead that it’s the very fact of being trapped that helps people defend the system. When Canadians were led to believe that it would be harder to emigrate in the future, they became more willing to attribute social inequality to innate differences rather than systemic discrimination. Likewise, when university students were led to believe that it would be harder to transfer, they were less willing to support criticism of the university. So, just as people can go to great lengths to rationalize bad decisions and personal defects, they’ll stick up for the group they’re stuck with.

Laurin, K. et al., “Restricted Emigration, System Inescapability, and Defense of the Status Quo: System-Justifying Consequences of Restricted Exit Opportunities,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

What would it take to lose your vote?

Experience suggests that politicians can retain support even in the face of multiple flip-flops, disappointments, and scandals. But is there a limit to what they can get away with? A couple hundred people from Iowa were asked to learn about four fictitious presidential candidates competing in a party primary. Researchers polled people several times during the process of learning about the candidates. In general, when people first encounter negative information about a favored choice, they tend to react defensively by boosting support. (Thus, people can actually end up liking a less-than-ideal candidate more than their ideal candidate.) Eventually, though, a stream of negative information forces people to reconsider.

Redlawsk, D. et al., “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever ‘Get It’?” Political Psychology (August 2010).

Fighting telemarketers

When that telemarketer calls your home just after you’ve finished a long day at work, it can be hard to summon the strength to resist. If only you had been warned! Indeed, according to a new study, people are much more able to resist persuasion in moments of weakness when warned ahead of time. To make people vulnerable, the researchers asked them to perform mentally exhausting tasks. Then they were given a sales pitch. Those who weren’t warned were much more likely to give in. A warning seems to give people the opportunity to prepare themselves to resist persuasion, by setting aside some of their limited mental energy, though this comes at some cost to their mental performance in the meantime.

Janssen, L. et al., “Forewarned Is Forearmed: Conserving Self-Control Strength to Resist Social Influence,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Family values

The term “family values” is typically associated with certain conservative political positions. Now a study in Britain finds that another kind of “family values” — close family ties — makes people more conservative in everyday social life. Researchers visited low-income households and asked people to play a game that measured trust. Researchers gave the subject money and told them they could keep it, or give it to a stranger, who, in turn, would have the opportunity to return twice as much money. Those with close family ties — those who were married or saw their family more frequently, for example — were less trusting. The authors theorize that this is because people with close family ties have less time and need to interact with strangers.

Ermisch, J. & Gambetta, D., “Do Strong Family Ties Inhibit Trust?” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (forthcoming).

The reckless toddler gender gap

In the nature vs. nurture debate, you can add another notch to the nurture side. Researchers asked parents of toddlers to react to imaginary scenarios of their child engaging in reckless behavior. Although there wasn’t much difference in how mothers and fathers reacted, there was a difference based on the sex of the child. With boys, parents reacted with anger and discipline, but with girls, the reaction was generally disappointment and a concern for safety. Underlying these differences was a belief that boys are inherently predisposed to reckless behavior, while girls can learn to follow rules, suggesting that parents are imposing gender norms from a very young age.

Morrongiello, B. et al., “Understanding Gender Differences in Children’s Risk Taking and Injury: A Comparison of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Reactions to Sons and Daughters Misbehaving in Ways that Lead to Injury,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (July-August 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/08/01/surprising_insights_from_the_social_sciences/

Road trip

Two men, one car, 437 typos

Language nitpickers may recall the saga of college buddies Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, who two years ago set out on a road trip with a mission: They would cross America in search of misspelled signage, correcting plurals, relocating apostrophes, and adding commas as needed. Along the way, they would (of course) blog the progress of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, or TEAL, as they grandly dubbed themselves. Their quest was easy to grasp and hard not to like, and by the time they hit California — land of “Sweedish berries” and “hellicopter helmets” — they were getting air time on national TV.

The three-month odyssey ended with a whimper, though, when the guys returned to Deck’s Somerville home to face a summons from the National Park Service: A sign they had corrected at the Grand Canyon was, it seemed, a 1932 hand-painted artifact, its mispunctuation protected by federal law. Deck and Herson could have gotten away with it — but they had posted the damning evidence on their own blog. Fined, muzzled, mocked in the media, and given a year’s probation, they closed the incriminating website and hunkered down.

But in the same spirit of enterprise that launched the trip, Deck and Herson have now made lemonade from that sour experience. In their new book, “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” (Crown, $23.99), they tell their side of the story: The arduous weeks on the road, the 437 typos spotted, the 236 corrected.

Yes, you could find 437 typos closer to home in a lot less time, just by reading newspapers and restaurant menus, without putting an ounce of CO2 into the atmosphere. But where’s the adventure in that? Deck, the instigator and narrator, understands that the idea of two Dartmouth grads setting forth to rid the world of “hooded sweatts” and “braclets” is comic at its core, and he wisely takes a mock-heroic tone: “Your/you’re confusion, comma and apostrophe abuse, transpositions and omissions….Each one on its own amounted to naught but a needle of irritation thrusting into my tender hide. But together they constituted a larger problem, a social ill that cried out for justice.”

And so begins the quest to right such wrongs, sometimes by stealth, where possible with cooperation from the perpetrators or their enablers. Sometimes it’s easy: In New Orleans, a mellow fellow at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville responds to news that his chalkboard says “Thrusday” with, “Sure, if it’s wrong, we can fix it.” But weeks later, in what must have been one of the more discouraging encounters, the clerk at an educational toy store in Hudson, Ohio, refuses the team’s offer to repair “in doors” and “year around fun”: “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign,” she tells them.

Even with such provocation, the daring duo manages to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. (For better and worse; after all, it’s righteous rage that gives a good rant, like Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” its tang.) Instead, between the pit stops and language face-offs, they offer a series of soul-searching digressions: Do we care about just spelling, or usage too? Are we Grammar Hippies or Grammar Hawks? Is the issue really clear communication, or are apostrophes just class markers? And above all, is this truly a Meaningful Enterprise?

Eventually, back in Massachusetts, they have their eureka moment as they observe a first-grade language drill in a Malden charter school: Education is the key! TEAL will “proactively enable the next generation of communicators” by helping to get phonics back into the education mainstream.

How much of this theorizing went on in real time, on the road, only the knights-errant know for sure (though I’ll note that both authors write fiction). But the result is a creditable buddy adventure — “Harold and Kumar Proofread America,” say, or “Dude, Where’s My Sharpie?” — only with G-rated language, as befits a quest to improve the nation’s literacy. (The swear-free account had me wondering, I admit: Did someone’s agent whisper “Disney movie”? Could be; for all the cold beer on tap, the team’s only brush with gross-out content is Herson’s violent disagreement with a fast-food burger.)

The tale’s major weakness, in fact, is the meager variety of typos. Of the top 10 errors the writers tabulated, five are apostrophe misuses — a broad hint that we might be better off just abolishing the apostrophe (as Deck himself suggests). Subject-verb agreement makes the list (“Lemons sure is tasty”), but all the others are plain misspellings (restaraunt), double-letter confusions (dinning room, desert/dessert), and unstressed vowel missteps (independance, definately).

So if a movie script should come to pass, the screenwriters will want to invent some more outrageous mistakes. We Americans, it turns out, just aren’t the wild and crazy spelling anarchists we’re made out to be.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/08/01/road_trip/

How Should ‘Microphone’ be Abbreviated?

In my recent column on the expression “rock the mic,” I wrote that “the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb [rock] in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display.” Laurence Reich e-mails regarding mic: “I must confess I have never seen that word before. I’ve only seen mike for that usage.” Ted Estersohn e-mails: “As far as I can tell mic the short form has always been spelled in audio and engineering circles with a ‘c,’ like an abbreviation and not like the boy’s name.”

The respondents on this one fell evenly into two camps: those like Reich who were unfamiliar with the shortening of microphone as mic and those like Estersohn who noted that mic is the prevailing form not just in rap circles but also among recording professionals more generally.

Mike came first, documented from the early days of radio. In the June 1923 issue of The Wireless Age, a photo caption of Samuel L. Rothafel (who was known as Roxy and who was broadcasting concert programs from New York’s Capitol Theater) reads, “When you hear Roxy talk about ‘Mike’ he means the microphone.” This suggests the abbreviation arose as a kind of nickname, playfully anthropomorphizing the microphone as Mike. But by 1926, when the pioneering broadcaster Graham McNamee published his book “You’re on the Air,” mike appeared in lowercase, not as a name. During broadcasts of baseball games, McNamee wrote, “the man at the ‘mike’ watches each play.”

Mic didn’t begin appearing in written works for another few decades, first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in Al Berkman’s 1961 “Singers’ Glossary of Show Business Jargon.” Berkman offered both mike and mic as possible clippings of microphone. Since then, mic has grown in popularity among those who work with recording equipment. The preference for mic likely stems from the way the abbreviation is rendered on the equipment itself: a microphone might be labeled “Mic No. 1,” for instance. And if you’re in the market for a microphone preamplifier, you’ll find it written as “mic preamp.”

It makes sense, then, that the early rappers of the South Bronx, intimately familiar with the sound systems that powered their performances, would take to the mic spelling. It also explains why The Associated Press Stylebook earlier this year reversed its advice to abbreviate microphone as mike. As the stylebook’s editors told the American Copy Editors Society in April, the A.P.’s broadcast division was unhappy with mike, and so the entry was revised to recommend mic instead.

Some of the copy editors voiced objections to the A.P.’s amended edict, on the grounds that mic could confuse readers who might be tempted to pronounce it as “mick.” The Washington Post’s Bill Walsh pressed the stylebook editors on the verb form: is a person mic’ed or miked? The A.P. style gurus allowed that the verb could be miked, even if the noun is mic.

The grumbling over mic emerges from its seeming violation of English pronunciation rules. Bicycle is abbreviated as bike, after all, not bic. But we do occasionally allow a mismatch between the spelling of an abbreviation and how it looks like it ought to be pronounced. Vegetable is shortened to veg, and Reginald to Reg, but the final g is not a “hard” one as in peg or leg.  So let the musicians and broadcasters have their mic, but as for me, I still like mike.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/magazine/01-onlanguage-t.html