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How do you know what to ask?

NeilS_small“I climbed the ladder, looked through the spyglass, and in tiny little letters it said, YES. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say NO or F*(K YOU or something.” - John Lennon in 1970, on first becoming aware of Yoko Ono’s art work, at the Indica Gallery, London, in 1966.

Back in August, I wrote about the extent to which we are prone to look for information that confirms our views about the world (Consider any news you choose to read or watch, for example. Are you more likely to agree with it, or otherwise?). There are a couple of ways of looking at this. You could consider it negatively, as I did; we’re frequently prone to stop researching a topic when we find something that confirms our pre-existing prejudices, leading to biases in our information gathering. However, it could also be considered more positively; people seek agreement and consensus. Could we even say that we are, inherently, more “yes” than “no”?

Well, the campaigners for a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum certainly (and obviously) think so. But, not just in terms of their desired outcome. They have based some of their campaigning tactics on research into positivity. It indicated that U.S presidential candidates who were more optimistic in their nomination acceptance speeches were more likely to win the subsequent election. As a direct consequence of this research, the yes campaign has deliberately taken a positive approach to most, but by no means all, of its messaging.

There’s no doubt that it has been an effective campaigning tactic. The narrowing of the polls over the past few weeks is a testament to this. However, some questions have been raised about how appropriate this is in a secession referendum. Martin Seligman, the author of the research, concludes that optimism and pessimism are necessary tools to deploy when making decisions, and that there are situations where they are more, and less, appropriate. For sporting success, for example, optimism helps us not give up. However, pessimism can protect us from harm. He says ‘If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism’.

Ceiling Painting - Yoko Ono

Ceiling Painting – Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono’s work ‘Ceiling Painting’ (pictured) is interesting in this respect. It’s a curious combination of risk and reward. That ladder does look a bit rickety and I, at least, would probably want someone to hold it steady as I clambered up. If I was sufficiently pessimistic, I might not climb it all. If I did, I’d be doing it out of curiosity.

At its heart, curiosity – asking and attempting to answer any question – is inherently positive. It assumes ‘Yes, an answer to this is available, and we might be able to find it’. As such, research is an inherently optimistic activity. It always says yes, even before it has begun. However, the key thing is not whether you ascend the ladder, or what questions you ask yourself about the work. It’s how you get yourself into a position to know what questions are available, how to ask them and what the right ones are to focus on. Would you even be in the gallery in the first place – yes or no?

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