Hardwiring And The Imperative Mood

People have claimed that the best way to make a waiter drop a pile of plates is to keep saying, “Whatever you do, don’t drop them!” This may be because talking about dropping them puts the idea at the forefront of his mind, and whatever is at the forefront of the mind tends to get done. But it may also be linguistic. “Drop them!” is an imperative, and perhaps we are not as well wired for negative commands. Or perhaps it is the last element of the command that is the kicker, we cannot process the English auxiliary verb properly, and we are still wired for Shakespearean English, so that the neurologically wiser thing to say would be “Drop them not!” This might even be testable.

Eric Berne was thinking along the same lines when he pointed out that, when we tell a wayward daughter, “You will end up walking the streets!”, grammatically speaking this is a command; or at any rate, it is easier for a child to parse it as a command than as an counterfactual conditional with an unspoken condition.

Posted on July 11, 2011 at 10:50 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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  1. Written by James Beck
    on July 12, 2011 at 15:59

    More likely, our wiring runs the other way, i.e., our brains are more strongly wired for negative commands because they have survival value. IIRC, SciAm ran an article on this topic not long ago. More important, you tend to get a better result by asking for what you want rather than complaining about what you don’t want. You can even use that to manipulate your own outlook. For example, try saying ‘It was my pleasure’ instead of ‘No problem.’

    On the other hand, there’s a downside to casually building an optimistic outlook, too. The world isn’t all sunshine and wildflowers. On the gripping hand, people are suspicious of deliberate reactions, so it’s hard to win without making a huge investment in scripting. Politicians and salesmen have dogs in that hunt; usually, I don’t.

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