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June 20, 2008

The New Yorker -- Not Just Irrelevant, But Stupid Too!

Maybe this is more of a sidebar thing but I actually have something to add to it.

The New Yorker featured a ridiculous featurette called "Power Hour" in which, supposedly, an experiment was conducted on some of the world's most powerful feature. I say "supposedly" because it's clearly not an experiment -- an experiment requires you accept the data as they actually are, not massage them to get to the "result' you'd wanted from the get-go. We'll get to that later.

Here's the base assumption for the "experiment," and the "experiment" itself:

To academics, one of the best indicators of a person’s place in a hierarchy is his tendency toward “perspective taking”—“stepping outside of one’s own experience and imagining the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another individual,” as it is defined in “Power and Perspectives Not Taken,” a paper published, in 2006, in the journal Psychological Science. An assistant is perspective taking when he gets the boss’s coffee before he asks for it; when the boss forgets to pay the assistant back the $3.75, he is not.

...

With your dominant hand, as quickly as you can, draw a capital E on your forehead with the marker provided. Don’t worry, the marker is nontoxic, and we will make sure it is removed before you leave today.

There are two ways to draw the “E”: with the prongs of the letter facing so that the person drawing can read it (“self-oriented”), or with the prongs pointing in the opposite direction (“other-oriented”). The researchers concluded that the high-power group was almost three times as likely as the low-power group to draw an “E” that would be illegible to anyone but themselves.

Now, you probably are already thinking this "experiment" is pure jackassery, but you'd be wrong; it's even worse that that. The New Yorker actually managed to get the "experiment" wrong by 180 degrees:

But is there any validity to it at all? No. and not just because it's ludicrous.

The authors cite Hass as the originator of the method, and as evidence for the validity of the method. Hass believed that people who were self-focused looked at themselves by occupying an external perspective, looking back. Read that again. In other words, a legible to the external observer E meant you were more self focused, not less. It doesn't measure the ability to adopt someone else's perspective: it measures your ability to see yourself.

So, the actual idea -- which was itself bullshitty and kinda-sort just made up entirely -- was that it was those who were more focused on themselves (more powerful, less interested in "taking perspective") who would draw the E to be legible to others, not the other way around.

Why all this flattery for the supposed virtues of those without power? The Last Psychiatrist has a simple answer:

An assistant is perspective taking when he gets the boss's coffee before he asks for it; when the boss forgets to pay the assistant back the $3.75, he is not.

The distinction may seem like the main point, but there's a subtext: the boss is a jerk in both examples. I'm willing to bet real money that if you had to guess who reads The New Yorker, it would be the assistant.

And I won't be the one to bet against him.

Now, where it really gets absurd is here: Paul Wolfowitz is asked to do this silly shit, and, actually, complies. He actually draws the "E" the "right way," showing that (according to the New Yorker's misreading of an already idiotic experiment) he's willing to "take perspectives" and is not, then, an asshole boss who won't give you $3.75 for the coffee you so nobly bought him.

But The New Yorker adds a super-special secret codicil to the experiment's protocols. In Part VIII of the Last Psychiatrist's deconstruction, he points out that even though Wolfowitz "passed the test," the New Yorker just goes ahead with its initial, pre-experiment conclusion and calls him a fucking jerkoff anyway.

In fact, nearly all of the powerful people at the gathering drew the e "the right way," leaving the reporter/moron to wonder what's become of her silly little story idea:

It seemed odd that, in a room full of powerful people, no one was acting the way powerful people are supposed to.

Well, there are two explanations: 1) the experiment is just fucking stupid, and 2) if you hadn't gotten the experiment completely wrong, you'd have realized that they all were actually drawing the e the way "high-power" people are supposed to.

The reporter is low-power as regards intelligence and reading comprehension.

I can only add one thing. Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig, both of Saturday Night Live and both (rightly) praised as among the funniest women in the world, were also present and were also asked to do the experiment. They both have great power, of a sort -- they are beloved by millions, they're on TV (as last week's overboard coverage of Tim Russert's death proved, you only count on this Earth if you're on TV), and they're hip people working in a hip industry. They don't have to worry about PR -- they've got too much good PR to worry about some minor negative PR from The New Yorker, as if anyone reads that anyway -- and they, unlike Paul Wolfowitz, don't worry about social traps for the unhip. Wolfowitz may have worried that if he didn't agree to this silliness, he'd get bad press or be called an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy who didn't "get" what all the kids were into these days, like drawing letters on their foreheads.

Poehler and Wiig didn't have to worry about that, and they know damn well that participating in this silly shit isn't hip at all, but rather stupid and pointless and offering little benefit apart from the chance to be ridiculed by a nobody reporter.

So Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig demonstrated real power: They outright refused to play the game at all. Why would I want to do that?” Poehler asked.

They were the only people who refused to play, and thus, in context, the only truly powerful people at the soiree. Reporters are more powerful than Paul Wolfowitz, in the sense they can say awful things about him and make his life a bit less pleasant. But beloved TV personalities are more powerful than shitty little reporters -- Poehler and Wiig know The New Yorker doesn't even have the balls to say something nasty about them. They'd get too much hate mail from their fans.

If you're still interested in this after this long summary, I recommend The Last Psychiatrist's full take, which has a couple of good things left in it I haven't stolen -- including a rather, um, colorful "scientific explanation" as to why the "experiment" failed so completely. If you thought the experiment itself had the distinct whiff off stale 4 AM pot-smoke, wait 'till you hear the sweet, sweet science explaining its abject failure.

Via Petite Dov.


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posted by Ace at 04:50 PM

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