What a telepathic mare can tell us about performance
Dr. Maclachlan studied psychic phenomena.
“Now, I’m not a spiritist, I warn you, I’m merely interested from a scientific point of view. It seems to me that the mare has supernormal powers. It seems that there may be a subconscious connection between the mind of man and the mind of an animal”.
Those were the words of Dr. Maclachlan reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper in 1927.
“Lady Wonder” (1924–1957) was a Mare with telepathic powers. That was the consensus of several scientists of her time and today, August 27, 2018, I haven’t found a reason to deny it. Lady has a modern appearance on Wikipedia and includes references for and against this assertion.
Lady spelled her answers by touching her nose to alphabetic and numeric blocks.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter observed the following feats with his own eyes.
A spectator took a coin out of his pocket. Nobody saw the face, only he. What was the date? The mare sniffed over the blocks, “1–9–1–4”. Right.
Who in the group has a pink dress? They asked. As I am alive! exclaimed the woman dressed in pink as the mare pushed her head towards the visitor.
A spectator raised his watch and turned the hands to six and ten minutes. No one saw the figures, except him, and he hid the watch face against his body. What time does this watch have?. “Six-one-nothing”, replied Lady Wonder.
What is the sum of eight and seven? Asks a spectator. And she answers: Fifteen.
A visitor holds a pocket knife in his closed fist. He asks: What do I have here? And the mare spells “k-n-i-f-e”.
What is the name of this boy next to me? is another question. And the mare answers: “Leroy”.
Her owner, Mrs. Fonda, was close to the mare but without any halter or physical contact. And, the reporter adds in his story, “Anyway, Mrs. Fonda didn’t know the answers”.
There was no intent to make money or deceive people from what I’ve been able to find out. It wasn’t a road show. It was a common mare, a descendant of racehorses, black, with white spots on all four legs as if they were socks.
Lady Wonder lived with her owner in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Before Lady, Mrs. Fonda entertained herself by raising Shetland ponies, with no other experience with animals. As reported, one day some children played with the mare. It was a game of hiding the thimble. They learned that it was impossible to hide anything from the mare and the stories reached Mrs. Fonda’s ears.
Could the mare read their minds? Whatever the power, Mrs. Fonda began to develop it.
The Pygmalion effect
Wonder Lady was a mare and if it wasn’t telepathy the explanation that remains for that power has to come from us humans. There’s another possible explanation, although it could still be said that it’s a supernatural effect if you believe in those things because it happens without realizing it. And it has a name that sounds mystical: Pygmalion.
The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon where high expectations result in a better performance of the applied task. Pygmalion was a Greek sculptor who sculpted a statue of a woman and fell in love with it. Pygmalion appealed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She felt compassion and gave life to the statue. The couple got married and had a daughter, Paphos.
Mrs. Fonda, after the experience with the children, it’s guessed, created and projected the expectation that her mare could read minds and answer questions that no animal could answer. On the other hand, Lady, raised from an early age without contact with others of her kind, reinforced her human-horse connection by paying attention to those who served her emotional and material needs. The presumption of success on the part of the humans and imperceptible gestures from who asked could have been all that was necessary for Lady to choose the correct block with her nose.
The Pygmalion effect could be the explanation of Lady’s exploits. Who knows, I never found the telepathic option discarded in the case of Lady Wonder. Being a local event, with local researchers, it was never subjected to a similar scrutiny as the even more famous horse “Clever Hans” from Germany. Clever Hans was extensively studied by the best scientists of his time who determined that his ability came from being able to notice subtle gestures from his handler.
And if human expectations persuade a mare, that it must happen to us too should be obvious. Our tasks and their result are influenced too by our and others expectations.
Psychologists for decades have studies how expectations affect us. You know it as the mental concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taken to its extreme is “The Secret”. “The Secret”, that if you want something with enough passion and intensity it will be fulfilled without having to do anything else. As a writer, you know that an idea, even if you deeply desire it to become a bestseller, isn’t enough. Only with the right attitude and performance could it become.
Recognize that from ideas only a writer can’t succeed. Creativity is a tool, not the end. You need to have the expectation, and surround yourself with those who expect the same as you, that every idea you keep can be the beginning of an article, novel, or a wonderful story. But only your performance, the effort you put into making it happen, will determine if you succeed.
The Golem effect
The ying and the yang. Good and bad. The positive and the negative. For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Heaven and Hell.
Affirmations of our Universe’s duality.
But it hadn’t occurred to me that it could happen with psychology.
The other side of the Pygmalion effect is the Golem effect, where low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. Both share the mental concept of self-fulfilling prophecies. The golem is a clay creature in Jewish mythology. According to legend, the golem was originally created to protect the Jews of Prague. Over time it became violent and had to be destroyed.
I don’t have an animal example for the Golem effect, such as “Lady Wonder” or “Clever Hans” for the Pygmalion effect. It may be because the Golem effect is another word for the default expectations we have of animals, and the Pygmalion effect is the exception. We expect, by definition, for animals to be “stupid” and their actions don’t represent “intelligence”.
Be careful as prophets
The Golem and Pygmalion effects have been studied in experiments with teachers. A profession that requires the power to influence others.
When investigators arbitrarily told a teacher that a student was “bright” or “dumb”, the teacher’s behavior changed to favor “bright” students and ignore “dumb” ones. The teacher sought and supported the brilliant ones. The bright ones, in turn, paid more attention to the teacher and to what was taught in the class.
Teachers treated “dumb” students more strictly than “bright” students. Students subjected to the Golem effect obtained worse results than their counterparts subjected to the Pygmalion effect.
Only teachers who resisted the expectations prophecy treated all students equally.
I’m not a teacher, I’m a writer. What does it mean to me?
Surely you have read wise advice on how to improve your performance as a writer. I’m not offering any new advice, but now you understand the scientific basis for why you should have a positive attitude to take advantage of them. You need to believe in the advice, even before trying it, for the Pygmalion effect to bear fruit. A neutral or negative attitude is not the best start.
Everything is in the frame.
So, what exactly is a framework?
A framework is a mental model represented in the brain by neural circuits. Frames are the way we see the world, the goals we seek, and the choices we make.
Think of it this way: if you read that “it improves productivity in 95% of the writers” you will feel better and you’ll be encouraged to try it instead of certainly saying “for 5% of the writers it didn’t improve their performance”. It all depends on how you frame it.
Although we cannot see or hear frames, they are powerful because our actions are based on the unconscious and metaphorical frameworks we create. Once a framework is in place, the edges of that framework and the associations involved are taken into account in our decision making. It’s like the photographer, painter, or curator who chooses a framework to highlight a work of art.
The most common frames are cultural artifacts and they are learned when we are young. As we use them, they strengthen a neural circuit in a feedback loop. Therefore, it’s not surprising that frames are relatively fixed and change takes time and dedication.
To be more productive you need to start with the right attitude.
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Being Creative Isn’t Enough. We Must Also Be Productive was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.