Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Magnification Effect

Tibor R. Machan

Magnification is not enlargement but only the appearance of something as bigger than it really is. It may well have a dismaying psychological version, namely, when people magnify the significance or value of something or someone because, well, they benefited from the event or person.

In my teaching career I have found that when some of my students have felt especially benefited by me, they have showered me with praise. Sometimes my lectures draw such responses, even my columns or other writings.

It is crucial not to get mislead by this magnification process, not to come to believe what one enjoys hearing but is probably overblown. Frankly, I am doing my job, following my vocation, more or less competently, more or less proficiently, and now and then even excellently. But I am no hero for all this, only someone who has chosen a line of work he loves and which has a certain element of service to it so others feel benefited from what I do.

I thought of this when after our fires here in Southern California I noticed that many involved in fighting the fires came in for a great deal of praise for doing, well, what was their pretty well paid job. They took up their work freely—were not conscripted—and when the occasion arose to do it, they did it competently. They may even be said to be dedicated, no less so that a good doctor, dentist, banker, merchant, or teacher can be. But when those who are being served by such folks see this service to be of considerable benefit to them, they often become flushed with joy and transfer to the professional a very high regard, as if what they received were way beyond the call of duty. No doubt, at times it is but more usually it is merely taken to have been.

In fact, the police officers, fire fighters, and others involved in fighting the fires and other calamities we often encounter in life are indeed doing their job, just as most of them proclaim when all that praise is heaped upon them. I know from my own case that when students tell me how great a lecture was, or how wonderful they found one of my courses, I usually feel no more than a recognition of my professional aptitude and dedication. I never think I did something extraordinary, or at least do so very rarely.

When I was 14 a professional smuggler fetched me from Budapest and guided me all the way to Austria, through some truly harrowing obstacles and hazards. We managed to allude border guards, cut ourselves through barbwires, impersonate Austrian farmers, etc., all with his extremely competent leadership. The five people whom he served as what TIME magazine later—in an article back in the early 80s—insultingly called a “flesh peddler” were of course terribly grateful and impressed with what he did. But he kept his cool, remained matter of fact. It was a profession he took up due to the terrible circumstances brought on by the erection of the Iron Curtain and he got well paid, too. We felt grateful, yes, but he didn't ask for awe.

Excellent or even just competent professional performance in the service industries is mostly well received. Nurses, doctors, teachers, even cabbies are praised to high heaven at times just for doing what they decided to take up as their profession. Unfortunately, sometimes the magnification effect takes hold of people and they begin to suffer from cognitive dissonance—they begin to believe that what is so important to them makes those who delivered to them an essentially routine professional service heroes or saints. But it isn’t usually so.

Those who fought the fires in Southern California, just as those who battled Katrina or the floods in the Midwest are indeed professionals with a job they have willingly assumed. Despite all the media hype, they are best thought of as having done their job proficiently, as conscientious working stiffs, rather than as larger than life human beings. It is unwise, even demeaning to them, to magnify them out of proportion to their own chosen roles.

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