December 8, 2009

The Cognitive Kill Switch

this interview is about me, but it's for you

Convoluted story not worth exploring, Carrie Prejean, Miss USA contestant, was involved in some kind of litigation with the Miss USA pageant in which a masturbation tape she made years ago/yesterday figures prominently/not at all, resulting in some kind of settlement, and culminating with an appearance on Larry King to promote a book.

King asked about the terms of the settlement; she said he was "being inappropriate."  He asked if she could say why she settled, and she said "Larry, you're being inappropriate again."  She said "inappropriate" four or five times more before she pulled off her mic and left.

A "nobody" shut down pro-interviewer Larry King.  When a woman uses that word on a man, the conversation is over, whether he is right or wrong.  The man is on the defensive, the whole conversation changes, it's no longer about the thing that was inappropriate, it becomes about the character of the kind of man who would be inappropriate.  He spends the rest of the time trying to defend himself, and, of course, she never has to answer the question.

Cognitive kill switches change the focus from content to identity.  Popularly,  this mechanism is referred to as "short circuiting", but "kill switch" is better because it implies it's deliberate.


One thought is that this works because of a power imbalance.  If she was in a bar, where the power is mostly equal, she wouldn't say "inappropriate," she'd say, "die."  But with Larry King, or in an situation that does not have an escape (e.g. work, an airplane-- a place where some relation must be maintained) she could reverse the power imbalance by calling him "inappropriate."  The only thing he can do is back off, which of course was the point.

But there are too many exceptions for it to be just about power.  It wouldn't work on a  psychoanalyst in therapy; he'd simply reply, "tell me more about that."  It wouldn't work on a  rock star.  Larry King caved, but I can't imagine Howard Stern caving.   

What those men on their side is an established reputation, identity: "you think that was inappropriate?  Do you have any idea how inappropriate I can get?"  Which translates as a willingness to confront the person about their use of manipulation.   It's a kill switch, too: she changes the focus from the content to his character, but then he changes the focus from his character to hers.  He wins because his identity is already established.

So "inappropriate" fails because the guy is known, and what was "inappropriate" actually wasn't inappropriate coming from him.  And, in the reverse: kill switches works when they are  at least partially right.

Prejean is correct: King was being inappropriate.  He may have said "settlement" but Prejean understood he meant "sex tape."

She realized that King didn't care about her, only about the sex tape.  The only reason he asked that question is to get to the sex tape.  She's not a full person to him, she's a news story.  Now, you can say she's an idiot for thinking there is any other reason to interview her, but regardless she thinks she's much more interesting than just that.  From her perspective, he is a man who only cares about her because she is currently hot and previously naked.

When King asks about the settlement, it's the most provocative question he, given his limited ability as provocateur, can ask.  But if Howard Stern asks about the settlement, he's actually  asking about the settlement.  When he wants to get inappropriate, we'll know.


Focusing on the specific case of a man saying something "inappropriate" about the woman he's talking to (as opposed to a general comment, e.g. "I like hookers with a little mileage on 'em"):

If you accept that the kill switch changes the focus from content to character, then what she's doing isn't judging the words, she's judging you.   Some men don't understand this mechanism, and it is both the cause of the conflict and the explanation for why the kill switch succeeds: the woman has a brain and a life experience, and she has you figured out.  She knows you, probably better in this single respect (sex) than you know yourself.

You don't really get that she has this ability-- any abilities; you assume she knows nothing about you other than what you tell her, you assume she is less intuitive than you, whether it be because you are older or perhaps "smarter."  The exact opposite is true.  Because you don't appreciate this, you think you are fooling her by masking your real interets with neutral phrasing.  ("Oh, what kind of a bathing suit was it?")

The sum total problem you are having is this: you don't see her as a person, you see her as... 

You think you are seeing her as a single, complete individual, but you are mistaking your undivided attention to her as perception of her. 

Consider the extremely awesome scenario in which your female coworker gets breast implants.  What is a not-inappropriate way to comment on it?  Answer: there isn't any. You either can comment on it, or you can't.  And you know who you are.  And she does, too.


So what can you do if you're at the wrong end of an "inappropriate?"

(Part 2 soon)