You may know John Cheever’s name from an infamous episode of TV comedy series, Seinfeld, where everyone discovered that George Costanza’s father-in-law had had a brief gay fling with Cheever as revealed in a box of letters, the only surviving item from a cabin fire set from Kramer’s Cuban cigars. John Cheever was a great writer who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his book of short stories. He was also a persuasion theorist.
A family is meeting at their summer vacation cottage on the Atlantic in New England. Like most families, there remains ancient tensions between adult siblings and one in particular drives everyone else to frustration. Yet, as Cheever the persuasion theorist reveals, they stumble upon a persuasion play as this paragraph narrates.
And now I remember that while Lawrence was visiting us, we went swimming oftener than we usually do, and I think there was a reason for this. When the irritability that accumulated as a result of his company began to lessen our patience, not only with Lawrence but with one another, we would all go swimming and shed our animus in the cold water. I can see the family now, smarting from Lawrence’s rebukes as they sat on the sand, and I can see them wading and diving and surface-diving and hear in their voices the restoration of patience and the rediscovery of inexhaustible good will.
Goodbye, My Brother, page 10, The Stories of John Cheever.
This, of course, is a variation on the cold pressor task so beloved of behavioral researchers. Just insert your body or a part in freezing water. If you’ve never fallen into a winter creek, you have no idea how compelling the cold pressor task is. It dominates you like Mike Tyson back in the day.
Typically the task is employed as the first independent variable in a study. You complete informed consent and stick your arm in that bucket. Then after a bit, you do something else, most often the dependent variable, such as watch the monitor that shows your blood pressure elevating like a rocket. Here we see Cheever as theorist perceiving the cold pressor task as something that modulates an existing condition. When unhappy Other Guys willingly go for a swim – which is a cold pressor task – they will emerge from the freezing brine with a new and favorable attitude!
The trick here is to get the Other Guy to willingly engage in a cold pressor task. Cheever’s argument is that if you can get her willingly in the water, she will change. Sure, you can get compliance in the lab with money or credit, but in the Local called the mess of life? This, of course, is where we separate the mavens from the muggles.
Here’s how I’ve done it with Melanie.
I use this persuasion play when it is either raining or cold and we’re having an argument. We’ve gotten stuck in the mud of grievance with neither party having the willingness or ability to turn the other cheek which means a Long Night ahead. So, I dare Melanie to take off her clothes and run around the outside of the house, naked, with me. As I make this dare, I strip. Melanie cannot resist a dare and also finds the sight of me naked and unmanned to be funny. By now she is undressing and giggling and putting on a pair of sneakers, then we’re out the door. I surprise her, I challenge her, and, sigh, I amuse her into the cold and wet.
I wish we’d learned the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play®™© when we were first married. Then we employed all the conflict management tactics from the interpersonal communication and human relations and counseling literature. Lots of listening. Active and reflective listening. Perception checking, I hear you saying. Descriptive feedback. Yada-yada. Still produced a lot of Long Nights. Racing your naked spouse in the rain around the house on a cold night works much faster.
Now, we have lived almost all of our married life out in the woods with no neighbors nearby. If you live in the city or a tight suburban tract, you might want to think carefully about running outside your house naked with your significant other. You might modify this play to include squirt guns filled with cold water for example. Or jumping into a cold shower together. That’s your challenge. As the Rule says:
Drive with Science, Putt with Poetry.
The science of the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play©™® demonstrates that it really changes the Other Guy, but the poetry of the play is getting her willingly wet. Now, if I knew the circumstances of your Local, I might be able to make suggestions, but do you really want me to know you and yours that well?
P.S. What’s great about the science of the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play©™® is that even when you know why you are doing it, it will still make a change you can count on. Often awareness of the persuasion principle kills the play; not with this one.
P.P.S. This is a type of Embodiment Persuasion effect. Change the outside to change the inside.