Fooled ya! Thinking can make things true

Q. When does "saying become believing"? –G. W. Bush

A. This happens all too often in life. When University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman was in his teens, he supplemented his income by doing magic and mental shows, including palmistry, says David G. Myers in Social Psychology.

When Hyman began, he did not believe in palmistry at all but he knew that to "sell" it, he had to act as if he did. After a few years, he found himself becoming a firm believer. Then one day a professional mentalist suggested that he experiment by deliberately giving readings opposite to what the palm lines indicated.

"I tried this out with a few clients, and to my surprise and horror, my readings were just as successful as ever," says Hyman. "Since then, I have been interested in the powerful forces that convince us, palm readers and clients alike, that something is so when it really isn't."

People often adapt what they say to what they think their listeners want to hear, Myers explains. They are quicker to tell people good news than bad and adjust their message accordingly. When induced to give support to something they doubt, people will often feel bad about their deceit.

"Nevertheless, they begin to believe what they are saying– provided they weren't bribed or coerced into doing so,” he writes.  “When there is no compelling external explanation for one's words, saying becomes believing."

Q. Who's been "feeding the allegories" lately? –D. McNair

A. You and all the rest of us who mistakenly follow the fictional Mrs. Malaprop– her name inspired by the French "mal a propos" for "inappropriate"– in unloosing countless malapropisms, says Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky.

These are errors of substituting "similar sounding words for the intended one." In her most memorable word blunder, the pompous Mrs. Malaprop of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals referred to someone "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." She meant, of course, an "alligator."

Comedians especially commit malapropisms for laughs. But if you don't want people laughing behind your back, never add a word to your vocabulary without first looking it up, advises Davidson.

Q. Ever heard of that old "baseball-versus-bullet business," as it's been called? If not, you're in for a real shocker. –A. Chapman

A. In terms of pure knockdown power, a baseball hit straight back at the pitcher at 130 miles per hour and a 30-caliber bullet moving at 1,875 mph deliver an equally hard impact, says astronomer Bob Berman in The Sun's Heartbeat. If bullets didn't break the skin (creating a one-third-inch-wide, foot-long bleeding tunnel), the bullet and ball would be equally injurious.

When you're hit by a moving object, the transfer of momentum can "push" you over, says James D. Walker of the Southwest Research Institute. For body armor designers, the challenge is to convert a bullet's impact to the equivalent of the baseball's blunt blow (spreading out the force to prevent penetration). Body armor needs enough material to deform the bullet to the point where it impacts baseball-like, leaving only bruises and perhaps a broken rib.
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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at Strangetrue@cs.com