“Berührungsdenkfehler” February 15, 2019


Richmond VA from the east
Richmond, Virginia, seen from the east across the James River — an image that’s completely irrelevant to the content of this blog entry except that it’s roughly where I’m posting from.
(Wikimedia Commons)


On one of the planes today, I began reading Rolf Dobelli, Die Kunst des klugen Handelns: 52 Irrwege, die Sie besser anderen überlassen (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2014).  The title translates to something like “The Art of Smart Action: 52 Wrong Paths that Would Be Better Left to Others.”  Rolf Dobelli is a Swiss author whose earlier book Die Kunst des klaren Denkens (“The Art of Clear Thinking”) I admired enormously.


One of the chapters that I read treats what Dobelli calls, in a quintessentially German polysyllabic term, Berührungsdenkfehler (his rendition of the English contagion bias).


He opens with the question, which I paraphrase here, “Would you be willing to put on a freshly washed pullover sweater that had once been worn by Adolf Hitler?”


Then, with seemingly no relevance, he tells a story about the constant warfare of the European ninth century, which plunged that continent into bloody chaos, and about the method successfully used by the bishop of Auvergne in the early tenth century to put an end, largely if not entirely, to the violence and anarchy.  The bishop summoned other clergy, as well as a large number of the belligerent knights and princes and nobles, to a large gathering.  But he also assembled a vast number of religious relics — bones and prayer books and pieces of clothing that had once belonged to various saints — and, then summoned the assembled warriors to pledge, in the presence of those holy relics, to keep the peace.


Although we enlightened types today might smile at the naïve superstitiousness of those who participated in the bishop’s assembly, Dobelli suggests that we’re really not much different.  Would you put on Hitler’s old sweater?  Many people, I expect, would be quite uncomfortable with the idea.


But, of course, there’s no rational reason to be uncomfortable about putting on a piece of clothing that once belonged to the Führer.  No physical trace of Hitler would remain on a freshly washed sweater nearly three-quarters of a century after his death.  And even if it did, what difference would that make?


Dobelli describes an experiment that was carried out by Paul Rozin and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.  They asked each of their research subjects to bring to the laboratory a photograph of the person nearest and dearest to him or her.  The experimenters then pinned the photos to a dartboard and asked the participants in the study to throw darts at them.


Obviously, tossing a dart at a photo of your mother doesn’t actually hurt her.  But those who were asked to aim at pictures of loved ones on a dartboard were significantly less accurate than the control group who simply threw darts at an unadorned target.  Which suggests that we’re perhaps not as immune to a sense of the magic of physical objects associated with certain persons as we might imagine ourselves to be.  The bishop of Auvergne and his contemporaries may not be all that far from us.


Posted from Richmond, Virginia



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