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Michael Sigman

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Maybe Nice Guys Can Finish First

Posted: 08/08/11 02:30 PM ET

Feeling downhearted that ruthless Republicans are stomping all over our "reasonable," passion-deprived President and his fellow over-compromising Dems?

Don't despair. Now that chocolate and coffee have finally been declared good for our health -- never mind that you need only a tiny bit of dark chocolate to get the bennies -- three comprehensive research reports continue to turn received wisdom on its ear, this time in ways that suggest opportunities for liberal/progressive activists left angry and depressed by the recent debt ceiling debacle and the endless, bloody war in Afghanistan.

One study claims "It may now be time to take a step back from alpha worship." Translation: in the long run, nice guys -- at least, nice-guy baboons -- can finish first. The second suggests that the dense plotting of such pop culture entertainments as Harry Potter and The Wire may be helping our species get smarter. And the third argues that it only takes 10 percent of the population to change the beliefs and behaviors of an entire community.

The alpha-beta research indicates that fighting off challengers and guarding access to fertile females stresses out alpha male baboons so severely that their time at the top is short. Primate-behavior expert Robert M. Seyfarth put it in the form of a question, "What if the beta males are hanging around and doing 'pretty well for a long time, rather than very well for a short time?'"

Researchers in the "10 Percent" study claim that small minorities can change the minds of the masses, but only if they're committed to being persistent, creative messengers of their point of view. The key is the leveraging capacity of social networking, where each "believer" communicates the message through Facebook, Twitter or the corner deli, and word spreads geometrically.

They caution that this phenomenon may not apply to debates such as the debt ceiling, as "those situations often involve unshakable opinions on both sides." But researchers aren't political analysts, and just how impossible the Right will continue to be -- in light of the market meltdown that's at least in part a direct result of their bullying -- remains to be seen.

Steve Johnson, whose 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, was widely criticized for a lack of scientific evidence to support the "big idea" suggested by its title, seems vindicated by these findings. They posit that "complexity of entertainment might enhance abstract problem solving skills," making it easier to handle hard logic puzzles.

These skills are the best cure for the know-nothingism of such conservative heroes as Michele "This [taxation] is slavery; it's nothing more than slavery" Bachmann; Sarah "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel" Palin; and John "We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem" Boehner.

Now, you might think recent events disprove these studies, as Tea Partiers -- far less than the required 10 percent -- hijacked the political dialogue thanks to their intransigence and ignorance. But polling shows they've failed to convince the general population. And the surveys suggest that armed with good ideas, a relatively small cohort can help turn the narrative around with old-fashioned perseverance, clever networking and a Sopranos boxed set.

Don't get me wrong. Without a healthy injection of alpha energy, the Dems can't compete with the take-hostages and give-no-quarter Republicans. And the Left needs to push harder than ever, especially for campaign finance reform, without which everything else is infinitely tougher to accomplish.

But let's be mindful of the real-world value of hard work, intelligence and J.K. Rowling. To paraphrase what Senator Stuart Smalley might say to depressed progressives, "You're more than good enough, you're smarter than smart enough, and doggone it, people like your ideas."

 

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