Why Obama Got the Prize: A Psychologist Weighs In

We're witnessing what research psychologists call a "contrast" effect, occurring in a grand way in an unlikely place -- the Nobel Prize Committee.
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This isn't what it seems. It's not really a Nobel Prize. It's a "Thank-God-You're-Not-Bush" Prize. We're witnessing what research psychologists call a "contrast" effect, occurring in a grand way in an unlikely place.

Yes, many of us at home have mixed feelings about Obama because our economy is still sinking (although more slowly, of course!) and because our young men and women are still dying almost every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. But to people in other countries, such as some dowdy old folks sitting in a posh drawing room in Stockholm, Obama is the greatest thing since Saab introduced the heated driver's seat in 1972.

Even though, unlike Nobel laureate Mother Teresa - who toiled helping the poor of India for 30 years before getting the prize - Obama hasn't actually accomplished anything yet, he is, following George Bush, a Great Relief to the World, especially the Bush-bashed world outside the U.S.

The contrast effect is a real and powerful phenomenon that has fascinated psychologists for more than a century. The basic idea is simple: a prolonged experience with a stimulus that has strong negative or strong positive value distorts the way we view new stimuli of the same sort. If we've had prolonged experience with a strong positive stimulus, we'll tend to view new related stimuli negatively. And if we've had prolonged experience with a strong negative stimulus, we'll tend to view related new stimuli positively.

This powerful phenomenon has been demonstrated in hundreds of laboratory experiments, and it's also easy to demonstrate in every day life. I'll demonstrate the effect sometimes in a psychology class by having a volunteer keep his or her left hand in a bucket of cold water and his or her right hand in a bucket of warm water for a few minutes. Then I'll have the student dip both hands into a third bucket, containing room-temperature water. The result is bizarre: the student's left hand feels the water as hot, while at the same time the student's right hand feels the very same water to be cold.

When I was editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, one of the most popular articles we ran - "Why I Hate Beauty," by Hara Marano and publicist Michael Levine - was about how the contrast effect distorts our perception of beauty. Bombarded by images of gorgeous Hollywood stars and starlets and New York models, we often perceive the perfectly attractive people around us to be unattractive - a frustrating phenomenon that's brutal on our relationships.

The contrast effect works in many domains, including the political. And yes, it can even cause intelligent, well meaning people to confuse bringing peace to people with giving inspirational speeches about bringing peace to people.

It's not a Nobel Prize. But now that he has it, maybe he'll live up to it.

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