Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Everyone is talking about the inauguration…Why?

We talk to make sense of the world.
Unless you crawl into a dark room, unplug the TV, the radio, and the phone, and avoid every living person on the planet, you will probably end up hearing about, and talking about the inauguration of Barack Obama. In fact, whether you are excited or concerned about his presidency, whether you are a US citizen or not, you have probably been engaged in a lot of conversations about him since he was elected in November. Why is he such a big topic of conversation?

The obvious answer is that this is a big deal along a number of dimensions. Many people are dissatisfied with George W. Bush, and are excited about a new administration. Obviously, the election of the first African American as President has huge social and historic implications.

But what is it that makes people want-and need-to talk about this? There are lots of events in the world that are enjoyable and widely known, but they do not engage this level of conversation for this long.

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The way that human beings make sense of our world is by creating knowledge structures called schemas. A schema is a bundle of knowledge that tells you what to expect in a situation and why it is happening. For example, going to a party at a friend's house could be a buzzing confusion of people if you did not have knowledge about what to expect and how to act. Because of your knowledge about parties, though, you may expect loud conversation, music, dancing, or drinks. You know that you should find the hosts and let them know you are there. You might not ordinarily throw a coat on someone's bed, but if they are having a big party, that is an acceptable place to pile coats. All of this knowledge helps you get around the world.

An important way that we form these schemas is by telling stories and repeating them. Anyone who has spent a lot of time with a preschooler knows that they ask you the same questions over and over. They want repetition of stories. They are using this information to help them figure out how the world works. For a 4- or 5-year-old, almost everything in the world is new.

As adults, when something strange, new, wonderful, or traumatic happens, we return to that preschool behavior. Think first about a traumatic situation. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were all that anyone could talk about. They talked about where they were, and what they were doing. They followed the news reports to find out what happened and why. All of this was done to try to create some bundle of knowledge that would help this unthinkable tragedy make sense.

On a happier note, the election of Barack Obama marks a significant milestone in American history. Less than 150 years separates the end of slavery in the United States from the election of our first African American president. An occasion like this that breaks significant new ground violates our expectations about the way the world works. As we try to understand this momentous event, we are driven to talk to others. We certainly do this to share the moment with others. More importantly, though, we talk about it in order to make sure that it makes sense to ourselves.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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