In the summer of 2014, shortly after moving downtown in my little Seacoast city, I discovered a little community park down the block between my building and the coffee shop.
“It looks like it could be in Greenwich Village,” my friend said. I liked that idea. Located between a posh new condo complex and several banks, it contained two green metal benches facing each other. They were separated by a young planted tree in a mulched square in the center. In the corner was a “Smoker’s Friend” cigarette butt disposal and square white sign on a wooden post informing visitors that this park was provided as a service by the bank and to please “do your part to keep it clean.”
Soon, I would start coming to the park mornings and evenings with my coffee or tea to read and watch the people of the neighborhood walk their dogs, shovel steps, or parallel park their foreign cars. It was a nice enough space, but the visitors to the park itself were mostly smokers, homeless, nighttime drug addicts and dogs. The piles of cigarette butts grew soon after the bank did its quarterly maintenance — shoveling, mulching, sweeping according to the season. When it rained hard in the Spring or Fall, the Smoker’s Friend would overflow and butts would wash profusely onto the ground. Sometimes graffiti would appear on the benches. Finally, the layout, with the benches facing each other seemed to prevent more than one or two small parties from enjoying it at once.
For two years, it stayed this way, behaviors changing only with the seasons. Then, in the summer of 2016, a human-sized statue of an American Eagle appeared in corner of the park. The statue seemed carefully placed, surrounded by a fresh pile of mulch atop a concrete cylinder, but it was facing away from the park peering into a parking space in the adjacent parking lot. When a car parked in that space, the eagle would be staring into the window.
When I examined the odd statue, I found a plaque on the bottom commemorating the veterans of World War II. On either side of the plaque, picturesque scenes from the city had been mounted on the sides of the base.
During the course of my time at the park, I had started on a mini-study on cognitive psychology. It had started with The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which spends a good amount of time covering biases such as “The Narrative Fallacy”, “Confirmation Bias” and more. He warns “You can retrain yourself to overcome your cognitive biases and to appreciate randomness. But it’s not easy.” Much of what he presents is common to an Intro to Psych class, but he applies the principles to his particular theory quite thoroughly.
After following up the book by watching Taleb on a Google Talk, I autoplayed into a presentation by Daniel Kahneman and ended up ordering a copy of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He used more than one pertinent example in his book on how symbols the environment influence behavior. For example, he cites a study which demonstrated that people would obey the rules of an honor code cash box at an office snack center when a poster of watching eyes was placed nearby. The compliance results were dramatic.
From there, the next step down the cognitive rabbit hole was Edward Bernays and his Propaganda. By now, many of the ideas presented in his 1928 work are well known, but one of the remarkable suggestions Bernays makes is that we are influenced by propaganda even when we are aware of it.
The last reading of note on this subject was a paper by John A. Bargh, Bypassing the Will in which the theory is presented that by the nature of which humans learn, simple exposure to symbols can bypass consciousness and activate learned behaviors.
Under the influence of all this meta-propaganda, I decided the Eagle was likely the work of the hip-to-CogSci bankers attempting to activate cooperation and appreciation behaviors in the people using their property. Then I went on my way chasing some other shiny metal without much more thought about the statue.
However, fifteen minutes later, I found myself in the following thought train while eating a post-cappuccino piece of fair trade chocolate in my kitchen:
Thank God, I don’t have to go to Peru and pick the cocoa beans myself, grind, age, mold them. What an amazing economy we have. Imagine if I had to build my car from scratch? How long would that even take? How do I even deserve that for sitting in front of a computer all day? I am so lucky!
And there I caught myself. The eagle was in my distant mental rear-view mirror, and I had written it off as capitalist banker propaganda, yet I was having thoughts of gratitude, humility and awe seemingly unrelated. Here was proof positive that Bernay’s claim of being influenced even when aware and Barg’s claim that symbols can bypass the will through subconscious activation. I decided to buy an eagle pin someday and hastily went back about the business of enjoying my chocolate.
Temporary amazement aside, I did continue to monitor the effects of the eagle in the park during my daily trips. Within a week they had moved the statue from the corner to the center square by the tree. Soon after, a man entered the park, looked at the eagle and wrinkled his brow a bit. He looked over and asked me “What’s up with the eagle, do you know?” In two years, it was first time I had noticed a stranger talking to another stranger in the park except to ask for a lighter or a quarter. I mentioned the plaque and he nodded and walked on.
As the summer wore on, a few parents stopped to take pictures of their kids with the eagle. There also seemed to be fewer cigarette butts on the ground and certainly no more graffiti or needles on the benches. Some homeless still slept on the benches, but nothing approximating the lady who setup camp there the summer before and littered an entire side of the park with fast food wrappers, beer cans, butts and blankets. I also noticed many more solo women and families stopping by and people sharing benches. I could imagine they felt safer with the big bird watching over. The propaganda was working like a charm, I half-joked to myself.
One evening a professional man and woman entered the park together dressed in suits.
“Do you like our eagle?” the woman asked him. Apparently she was one of the bankers.
“Yes, very impressive.”
“One of the local artists came around in the Spring asking if we would buy it for charity and she would paint it any colors we like. So we thought it would be a nice cause to support.”
And like that, all my Taleb, Kahneman, Bernays, and Barg inspired illusions came crashing down like so much mulch and crushed granite.
The observed effects of the eagle, if any, were likely akin to placing a scarecrow in a cornfield, a time-honored practice, ostensibly a successful one. Whether the agriculturists were bypassing the wills of knowing, yet impressionable crows, I will leave to animal behaviorists while I continue to enjoy the protection of the eagle and the fine democracy it represents.