My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.
While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?
Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.
The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)
Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.
Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.
Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.
Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.
Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.
Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.
Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?
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