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Author Archive: "Chip and Dan Heath"

Why Can’t We Remember Anything About Iraq?

We have been fighting a war in Iraq for almost 4 years, and I feel almost as ignorant of the region as the day it started. It is mortifying for me to admit this.

I would fail the most basic pop quiz about its players, the players' religious beliefs and political motives, and the region's history and geography. If you showed me a map of Iraq with only its exterior border showing, I couldn't even identify the spot where Baghdad should be.

(I can now, though — writing that last sentence shamed me into looking up the answer.)

I have been struggling to make sense of this. Clearly, if it were just me, the answer would be obvious: Heath, you're a moron. But whenever I bring up this subject with a friend, they seem to share my feeling of loathsome ignorance.

Scarier yet, the politicians who are leading the nation don't seem to know much more than I do. Jeff Stein is the national security reporter for The Congressional Quarterly; when he interviews politicians, he's started asking them questions such as these: "What's the difference between a Sunni and ...

What You Do When the Rat Isn’t Gross Enough Anymore

Rashomon can be seen as a cinematic extension of Einstein's theory of relativity.
The Dallas Morning News, September 7, 1998

"We look at getting rid of the Confederacy as cultural genocide. They're attacking my ancestors, they're attacking my culture, they're attacking my heritage."
— Mr. Robert Banks, Member of Sons of the Confederate Veterans
Atlanta Journal, December 14, 1992

It is a stretch to claim that Rashomon extends Einstein's theory of relativity, or that modern verbal attacks on the Confederacy constitute cultural genocide. But it is clear what the speakers intended in these examples, though they failed — they were trying to advance their own agenda by "borrowing" the emotional significance of the words relativity and genocide.


The above passage is from Chip's paper on semantic stretch. "Semantic stretch" refers to the way that words can be overused to the point where their impact is diluted. I.e., if people start using the word "genocide" to mean "saying bad things about the Confederate flag," and if the word is overused enough times and in enough situations, the term starts to lose the full measure of emotional horror that it should rightfully possess.

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The Future Terror Attack on a Billboard Near You

What if it was your job to encourage the public to prepare for a future terrorist attack? The issue involves an odd brew of deep emotion (fear, anxiety, dread) and banal reality (buy a flashlight!). A NY chapter of the Red Cross has accepted this mission. Its campaign is a great case study in the difficulty of making an idea stick. Let's hit the highlights and lowlights.

Start here — these are the billboards being run for the campaign. They show fake-newspaper headlines screaming, "TERRORIST STRIKE — LEAVES CITY IN CHAOS!" And the date, if you happen to notice it, is November 9, 2009. There is a link at the bottom: preparewny.org.

My first reaction to the billboard was that it must have been an inflamed political statement of some kind. (E.g., if we don't seal up our borders, we're doomed for sure!) I read the subtext as: We're doing something that is putting us on the "terrorist strike path."

In reality, the billboards are a teaser — they're intended to hook your interest so you'll go to the website, which has some information about ...

Right-Handed Cats and the Gap Theory of Curiosity

Are cats right- or left-pawed? Do they favor a paw the way we favor a hand?

If you're like me, this question made you curious. So let's leave the world of cats for a second and consider the meta-question: What kinds of things make people curious?

Psychologists have wrestled with this mystery for many years. In 1994, George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon, came up with a theory of curiosity. He called it the "information-gap theory." He said that curiosity is simple: It comes when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know. And he goes further: He said that the gap actually causes us a kind of pain — like an itch that we need to scratch. And that's where the "fire" of curiosity comes from — we are driven to fill the gap, to scratch the itch.

Notice that to create curiosity you've got to focus people's attention on the gap. For instance, there's a book called, Why Do Men Have Nipples? That's a solid question. Chances are, ...

Do People Really Oppose the Cervical Cancer Vaccine?

Have you been following the controversy over HPV vaccination? I've been following it intently for a couple of reasons. I once worked on a CD-ROM intended to educate young women about cervical cancer. (This was about 10 years ago, when people actually worked on CD-ROMs.) I remember being shocked that a virus (HPV) caused cancer. At that time, there was not much talk of a vaccine, so it has been astonishing to see a vaccine created, tested, and deployed in such a short period of time .

The other reason I'm interested in the controversy is that public-health issues often involve epic battles of ideas. The Marlboro Man versus the American Lung Association's "black lung" campaign. The cocaine sex-appeal of the Miami Vice era versus the sizzling eggs of "This is your brain on drugs."

Now, I wouldn't have expected a showdown on the cancer vaccine. You'd think that if there's one thing a society could unanimously get behind, it'd be a cancer vaccine. But not so fast. The NYT piece cites "conservative Christian groups who oppose mandatory H.P.V. vaccination on moral grounds." Apparently, ...

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