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February 04, 2011

US Steel, Big Ben's Coed, and Ironic Process Theory

Before we get started:
        please don't worry about Big Ben's coed. Ignore her.

According to today's Post Gazette, Mr. Preston Henderson from U.S. Steel's HR office wrote a letter to all the workers at the Clairton, Irvin and Edgar Thomson plants warning them not to call in sick on Super Bowl Sunday, or else they would face severe disciplinary action. The memo is online.

The Human Resources shop at US Steel doesn't get a lot of media attention. Their last big moment in the public eye was when they suspended payments into their employees' 401K plans.

I love this article, because it's almost more absurd than the recent faux press release about the Fraternal Order of Police, and it's hard to distinguish from other facsimiles of dubious provenance. Articles like these make it harder to tell fakes from real.

If the article is accurate, Mr. Preston Henderson doesn't get it.
Don't call in sick.
Don't think of pink elephants.
Don't stick peas in your ear.
Don't think about Big Ben's coed.

Let's do a simple math problem,
What's negative five multipled by four?
The answer is -20, right? How did we do that?
  • Five times Four is Twenty.
  • A negative times a positive is negative.
  • The answer is -20

Note that you didn't exactly multiply (-5) times (4); you probably multiplied (5) times (4) first, and then subsequently figured out that the result was negative. Let's follow that notion.

Ironic Process Theory is the school of thought that says that it's not effective to say, "Don't yada yada yada", because what your mind processes first is "yada yada yada", and subsequently points that in a negative direction. The implication is that the initial positive thought sets the internal linguistic framework, and that the subsequent shift to negative stays within that initial framework.
One of the tenets of Neurolinguistics is that the brain does not automatically process negatives. This is to say that any statements that include the word don’t or prefixes such as un or non are initially (subconsciously) processed in the positive. This is because in order to affix meaning, the brain must associate something with the words spoken.

Here’s an example. When a parent says to a child, “Don’t spill your milk!” the child’s brain must subconsciously process, in effect, the command SPILL YOUR MILK. The negative don’t is affixed afterward in the conscious mind.

This is why psychologists advocate for using statements phrased in the positive. Rather than focusing on an outcome that is NOT desired, they suggest that the client focus on what IS desired. The negative statement “I don’t want to feel bad” is changed into a positive by saying, “I want to feel good.”

Ironic process theory is also the basis for the mind game known as "The Game" which constitutes trying not to think about The Game.

George Lakeoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist who says we are not "men of our word", but rather that we are "men of our words", and that there is a great truth in that subtle difference.

Lakoff's basic concept regarding this issue is "framing," the idea that by selecting the right language you can create a framework evoking a set of concepts supporting and "proving" your point of view.
Once this idea-based frame is established it will be held even in the face of facts to the contrary. In the real world, it has been found that "if a strongly held frame doesn't fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept."

Lakoff holds a political perspective; he's a progressive who argues in Don't Think of an Elephant that much of the success the Republican Party flows from their persistent ability to control the language of key issues and position themselves favorably. Lakoff points out Democrats are destined to lose when they and the media accept such nomenclature as "pro-life," "tax relief," and "family values".

Tax relief for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an affliction, something someone would want "relief" from. Relief removes an afflication, the person who delivers relief is a healer/hero, and the person who opposes relief is a villian. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it.

And so, back to US Steel's Mr. Preston Henderson. By sending his letter, he has (1) shown that he does not get it, (2) used subtle brainwashing techniques to affect the employees, and (3) almost guaranteed that some of them will call in sick.

If anybody does call off sick, I hope that the company holds the right person accountable - that is, of course, Mr. Preston Henderson.

At the bottom of this post is a YouTube video of George Lakeoff explaining the application of his theory in the concept of modern politics. He's advocating it on behalf of his own political beliefs, but you'll probably recognize this dynamic in a few different situations.

But before you go, I'd like to ask for one thing:
Please don't think about Big Ben's coed.

If you're still reading, I'd like to thank you for persisting.
Here is Dr. George Lakeoff:


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