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Make art not enemies

09 Mar 2010
Posted by Shannon

Inventing all-powerful enemies is how we cope with the anxiety of knowing we have no control in this random world.

That’s what University of Kansas psychologists say in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their paper, “An Existentional Function of Enemyship” confirms an idea that has been around for about 50 years -- that establishing a single, ridiculously powerful enemy has a comforting function, because it creates an illusion of control. Just defeat that enemy and all will be well.

Hence the American obsession with cave-bound Osama bin Laden post 9-11. They were willing to hand over their civil rights -- and their soldiers’ lives -- in a nonsensical “war on terror” because it was comforting to believe that they could control the random nature of zealots by defeating Osama.

The researchers designed a clever experiment to test this. They had half the subjects contemplate the upsetting fact that disease, disaster, and economic conditions are random. The other half contemplated whether they had control over trivial things, such as the television remote. Then they were asked how likely it was that a politician – Obama or McCain, depending on their own allegiances – was involved in a conspiracy to fix the ballot boxes.

 Those who were reminded that Shit Happens, as that bumper sticker said, were more likely to buy into the notion of a conspiracy engineered by a powerful politician. Confronted with the unease of uncertainty, the research group quickly identified an enemy to blame.

That finding echoes interviews I’ve done with psychologists about why people believe in fortune tellers, religious mumbo-jumbo, and crazy alternative health treatments. Magical thinking of all sorts gives people an illusion of control in a frightenly random world

But I like the solution to this emotional anti-thinking that lead researcher Daniel Sullivan proposes in an interview with To combat irrational reactions he suggests people give themselves an illusion of control by engaging in art, science, or other “socially beneficial” disciplines.

Apparently, if we could just make more people take up ballet classes, the self-esteem they gain from mastering fouettes would inoculate them from crazy ideas.

Now if that’s not an argument for more arts funding, I don’t know what is.