Oi! Are You Looking at My Triangle?

Tuesday March 6, 2007


The other day I stumbled across a nice little story in New Scientist about a piece of research undertaken by Sara Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon University. In this experiment, participants were asked to watch a film in a large triangle and a circle tussled with a smaller triangle. Half the participants were told that they ‘owned’ the smaller triangle, whilst half were not. Apparently a far higher proportion of those who had been told they were the owners of the small triangle were ready to criticise the large triangle for being aggressive. There’s a link to the research here, and a PDF of the findings (click here).

The project as a whole was about anthropomorphism, the projection of human-like agency and narrative to non-human entities; but whilst it says something about this, it also says something about the curious power of being told that something is “ours”. This is from the research report:

people who own possessions value them more highly than the possessions of others (Beggan 1992; Nesselroade, Beggan, and Allison 1999). Ownership also implies many other changes in a relationship—changes in knowledge, communication, attention, and feelings…

Whilst a sense ownership may lead to a greater commitment and care (see the PDF report), there is of course a down side: the projection of the narrative “that big mean triangle is bullying that little defenceless triangle” onto the shifting of shapes on a screen leads not just to a positive relationship with the little triangle, but to a negative response to the bigger triangle. As is often the case, the source of that which we think of as good – care, commitment, affection – may be the same as the source of that which we condemn – lack of care, fecklessness, hatred. Both evaluations are the result of the same story that we project onto the world. And this is why ethics, if it is to be handled at all, should always be handled with the utmost care…

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