On cooling the mark out
August 23, 2019 12:40 PM   Subscribe

It is well known that persons protect themselves with all kinds of rationalizations when they have a buried image of themselves which the facts of their status do not support. [PDF] In this classic paper, Erving Goffman draws parallels between cooling the mark out -- providing fraud victims with "instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss" -- and other social situations in which one person is given the distasteful task of letting another down easy. It's the kind of structure you can see evidence for everywhere, from the sifting and winnowing of people in education to the techniques that psychics use to avoid scrutiny.
posted by eirias (24 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
from the sifting and winnowing of people in education

Damn, that was just brutal.
posted by Jpfed at 1:18 PM on August 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


I liked this quote near the end:
Lack of rigid integration of a person's social roles allows for compensation; he can seek comfort in one role for injuries incurred in others. There are always cases, of course, in which the mark cannot sustain the injury to his ego and cannot act like a "good scout." On these occasions the shattering experience in one area of social life may spread out to all the sectors of his activity. He may define away the barriers between his several social roles and become a source of difficulty in all of them. In such cases the play is the mark's entire social life, and the operators, really, are the society.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 1:38 PM on August 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


Also see exit interviews.
posted by w0mbat at 1:50 PM on August 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


Wow, "sifting and winnowing", used this way is cutting!
posted by Mngo at 2:11 PM on August 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


Wow, this is really interesting. I have only had a chance for a quick read so far, but -

First, I would love an expanded version of this with a lot more concrete examples. (I probably can't expect one from the author, who died in 1982.) Like this:
There is no doubt that certain kinds of role success require certain kinds of moral failure. It may therefore be necessary, in a sense, to cool the dubious neophyte in rather than out. He may have to be convinced that his doubts are a matter of sentimentality.
I THINK I can come up with some examples of those kinds of role success - the sort of "you have to take credit for others' work and lie to get ahead" kind of mentality in some organizations - but it would be nice to have specific examples.

And this jumped out at me:
In many cases, especially in America, the mark's image of himself is built up on the belief that he is a pretty shrewd person when it comes to making deals and that he is not the sort of person who is taken in by anything.
As a longtime critic of Scientology, I've definitely noticed both sides of this: people skeptical of Scientology who say "I would never be taken in by something like that," and people who are involved in Scientology, who say "I would never be taken in by something deceptive, therefore Scientology is not deceptive." This self-confidence makes it much easier to deceive someone. Observing that has given me a strong reluctance to judge people for having been deceived. Any of us can be lied to. (Of course, it's good to strengthen our critical skills and question our assumptions, but the notion that it's our responsibility to see through every lie is a pretty blame-the-victim perspective.)

It's also interesting to observe, in coercive groups like Scientology and MLMs, the pernicious cooler messages to those who have lost or are about to lose status: you are a superior being and are on the verge of going Clear - you just need to do these additional services to get you there. You are a blessed child of God and you can be completely free of your horrible disease - you just have to pray harder and sin less and maybe donate more to the church. You can be a billionaire by this time next year - but only if you follow the program and sign up another dozen people every day. You can be all the things we've promised you - but you have to REALLY WANT IT. If you don't get what we promised, well ... you should have tried harder. We're here to take your money whenever you're ready to try harder, but until then, you need to get your priorities in order.


Also, this all reminds me that the William H. Macy film The Cooler has been on my list for ages, and I guess I need to see it now.
posted by kristi at 2:32 PM on August 23, 2019 [19 favorites]


Wow, "sifting and winnowing", used this way is cutting!

As a chaser, perhaps I should link to Francis Su's "The Lesson of Grace in Teaching," which is emotionally a universe and a half away from Goffman's piece, but which is somehow about the same thing: how to approach difficult conversations, with a focus on education. I reread Su's talk a few times a year.
posted by eirias at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2019 [14 favorites]


What I found interesting is this idea that cooling is more of a concern for grown-ups - the young apparently don't have enough of a self yet for it be so utterly destroyed by the loss of a role in a play. They haven't yet become too big to fail. The stakes just aren't that high.

1) Is this really the case? Maybe the stakes aren't that high, but it probably doesn't feel like that to the young person. Someone might expect young people to be better at handling disappointments, because we consider a certain amount of trial and error an inevitably part of growing up - the kids are supposed to be still learning and making mistakes is an important part of that, so we are supposed to grant them a margin of error. But do the kids actually realize that? My bet is a lot of them don't. Just thinking of my own experience, I'm actually finding it easier to cope with failure as I grow older, because realizing that you do have in fact a margin of error takes a sort of perspective often lacking in the young.

2) If it's the margin of error ideally granted by society (to some, de facto, more readily than to others.....) that protects the young (theoretically), couldn't we just keep granting it? Aren't we all supposed to be life-long learners now? Shouldn't that also come with a life-long trial-and error phase? Of course you can't entirely deny that time is a factor, especially with regard to opportunity costs. I wouldn't say that young people otherwise are likely to invest _less_, certainly not emotionally (hedging strategies as described in the paper, holding back full committment, treating it all as a joke, etc. to me seem more a question of temperament rather than age), but it's probably true that losses may be harder to stomach as opportunity costs rise with age. It's easier to let go off an option if there are so many others still left to explore. But I think this issue is currently dramatically exaggerated by western culture's cult of youth - especally for women. People are falling over themselves to warn you that you're toast once you hit thirty, and that's just a filthy lie.
posted by sohalt at 3:14 PM on August 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


You have to wonder whether Goffman was the sales manager for a string of timeshare condominiums before he became a psychologist.
posted by jamjam at 3:14 PM on August 23, 2019 [9 favorites]


This is some deep and flexible reading. Makes me want to watch House Of Games again.
posted by panhopticon at 5:41 PM on August 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


Agreed, excellent movie. From David Mamet’s script for House Of Games (1987):
Mike (to Margaret): “It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.
Thus, Margaret — and the viewing audience — has nothing to lose except disbelief.
posted by cenoxo at 6:37 PM on August 23, 2019


Also, this all reminds me that the William H. Macy film The Cooler has been on my list for ages, and I guess I need to see it now.

Great movie but very different meaning of Cooler.

From house of games my favorite line is towards the end "Its not my pistol I was never here" and " I can't help it I'm out of control" while Margaret demands Mike beg for his life. The movie goes from a sentimental warm and fuzzy con artists to nasty to "you did really didn't understand who you were fucking with did you." It is kind of like an ability to read people total failure all around.
posted by Pembquist at 7:08 PM on August 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


A citation, so future Mefites can locate the topic if this PDF disappears:

Erving Goffman (1952). "On Cooling the Mark Out", Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 15:4, 451-463. 10.1080/00332747.1952.11022896 (T&F :()
posted by sylvanshine at 7:25 PM on August 23, 2019 [15 favorites]


sohalt: What I found interesting is this idea that cooling is more of a concern for grown-ups - the young apparently don't have enough of a self yet for it be so utterly destroyed by the loss of a role in a play.

I recall reading a book by (the wonderfully named) Lionel Tiger which said that research has found that children are on average much more optimistic than adults. If a child scores the same on a test of optimism as the average adult, it's a cause for serious concern; you're looking at a suicide risk for sure when they hit their teens.

If it's the margin of error ideally granted by society (to some, de facto, more readily than to others.....) that protects the young (theoretically), couldn't we just keep granting it?

I've wondered a few times what the effect on my mental state would be if there was someone praising me for each of my small accomplishments the way that I praise my daughter for hers. "You did the dishes! Awesome job!" "You made it to work today! It was hard to drag yourself out of bed to get there, but you did it! Way to go!"
posted by clawsoon at 8:53 PM on August 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


Thus, Margaret — and the viewing audience — has nothing to lose except disbelief.

See.
posted by praemunire at 9:15 PM on August 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


I've wondered a few times what the effect on my mental state would be if there was someone praising me for each of my small accomplishments the way that I praise my daughter for hers. "You did the dishes! Awesome job!" "You made it to work today! It was hard to drag yourself out of bed to get there, but you did it! Way to go!"

There's a subreddit for that called r/congratslikeimfive.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 11:02 PM on August 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


Just thinking of my own experience, I'm actually finding it easier to cope with failure as I grow older, because realizing that you do have in fact a margin of error takes a sort of perspective often lacking in the young.

It’s true — older people are supposed to have some experience in taking a loss. Actually, I think coping with disappointment is one of those things we have to put an awful lot of labor into teaching. “No, you can’t have another piece of pie” isn’t exactly the same as getting laid off or fired, but we are expected to deploy a stiff upper lip in both cases.

Which has got me thinking about the parts of the essay that discuss the things the mark does to participate in the cooling out process, or to avoid its necessity:

The strategies that are employed by operators to avoid the necessity of cooling the mark out have a counterpart in the strategies that are employed by the mark himself for the same purpose. There is the strategy of hedging, by which a person makes sure that he is not completely committed. There is the strategy of secrecy, by which a person conceals from others and even from himself the facts of his commitment; there is also the practice of keeping two irons in the fire and the more delicate practice of maintaining a joking or unserious relationship to one's involvement. All of these strategies give the mark an out; in case of failure he can act as if the self that has failed is not one that is important to him. Here we must also consider the function of being quick to take offense and of taking hints quickly, for in these ways the mark can actively cooperate in the task of saving his face.

I think there are serious individual differences in temperament in play here, and possibly also cultural differences. (Goffman was a white Canadian-American.) I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to scrutinize social situations for hints in this way — a practice which seems to take on critical importance while I’m engaged in it, the same way stray noises in a house do at night. Mr. eirias is very different and approaches most engagements with significantly more optimism, and is willing to make others do the work of cooling him out. I see relationships to MeFi’s own “ask vs guess culture” in this dynamic. I also wonder where it is that the instinct to avoid cooling-out comes from. I say instinct but that’s not right — it’s clear to me that we must train people to do this, but how, and why? That aspect of this thesis could use some elaboration. Perhaps someone already has, in the almost seventy years since this was published.
posted by eirias at 3:02 AM on August 24, 2019 [2 favorites]


From the "psychics" article [emphasis mine]:

Goffman saw the practice of cooling the mark out as the self-conscious application of a pervasive social mechanism, which is helping people accept failure. Goffman thought that the social fabric is very fragile, like a soap bubble, and that all of us put an enormous amount of effort into keeping the bubble intact. Power and status differentials are implicit in virtually every interaction, but we go to elaborate lengths to conceal them from one another. We don’t like it to be obvious that there are winners and losers, people with status and people without it. In our acceptance speech after we win the award for Best Actor, we always praise the work of the other nominees. No one is fooled. It is better to win an Oscar than to not win one, just as it is better to get into your top choice of colleges, to have your marriage proposal accepted, to not be the one who is laid off. But we have to keep the bubble intact. “There is a norm in our society persuading persons to keep their chins up and make the best of it,” Goffman says, “a sort of social sanitation enjoining torn and tattered persons to keep themselves packaged up.” Material loss is hard, but more terrible is the loss of self-esteem. Failure and rejection show us that we are not the people we thought we were—not as smart, not as desirable, not as important. It’s not just the injury; it’s the insult that is potentially socially destructive.

Brutal indeed, most especially for the entitled.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm not great with deception (a lot of TV is hard for me to understand) but I think I got this, and was especially fascinated by the mentions of "minority groups" / "disadvantaged minorities":

It is interesting to note that associations dedicated to the rights and the honor of minority groups may sometimes encourage a mark to reg-ister a formal squawk; politically it may be more advantageous to provide a test case than to allow the mark to be cooled out. ...

A similar view can be taken of the problem that a government faces in times of crisis when it
must maintain the enthusiastic support of the nation's disadvantaged minorities, for whole groupings of
the population can feel they are being cooled out and react by turning sour.


Also -- I cannot imagine praising ANYONE (including future possible kids, whom I know I will be expected to praise like that) like some parents praise their kids. It's part of the reason I would never get a dog. How did people train working dogs before weird American high-pitched praise?
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:18 AM on August 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


I once did basic education testing screening for young adults in a major US city with a high school diploma or GED for job placement. It ran summer programs so most just graduated wanted a job prior to community college, or their first job.

We screened for grade level in math and reading. It was rare we had people test above middle school level both math and reading most were in middle school range for reading. Math scores ranged between 4th and 8th grade. Occasionally we'd find someone who was illiterate with a high school diploma.

Part of my job was to talk with the kids and talk about their plans. What the career goals were, what kind of jobs they wanted stuff like that . An incredibly common answer was forensic scientist because of CSI.

Regardless of their answers, we'd funnel them through the job preparation classes, the mock interviews have hold them through creating resumes and connecting then with partner agencies for enployment. There were strict attendance and punctuality guidelines which were the most likely reason to be asked to not return. Overall it got young adults paying employment. But I do think in this way were were serving some cooling down function, making kids realign expectations to what the work force looks like and what's available.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2019 [5 favorites]


Goffman was like a god to a whole generation of Harvard social scientists, then everybody became entranced with systems theory and games theory, cybernetics, etc., and everything went to hell in a hand basket in short order (imo).
posted by Chitownfats at 8:56 AM on August 24, 2019


Also -- I cannot imagine praising ANYONE (including future possible kids, whom I know I will be expected to praise like that) like some parents praise their kids.

Weirdly, although I am not known for my kind, gentle, nurturing nature, one of my closest friends and I do this for each other with some frequency. There is a certain mild humor about it, to be sure, and we don't quite use the tone we use with her dogs, but life is freaking hard and sometimes it makes real effort just to make a stupid phone call, and it's nice to have someone recognize that, even if the effort perceived by an outsider would be minimal. Also the endless struggle against entropy which is housekeeping--if you live alone or have a partner that doesn't always recognize it, who will recognize the effort if your friend won't?
posted by praemunire at 10:40 AM on August 24, 2019 [3 favorites]


Brutal indeed, most especially for the entitled.

By brutal I wasn't referring to the link, though that was probably unclear. I have no idea how well known the original "sifting and winnowing" quote is, but it originated at the University of Wisconsin and UW is pretty proud of it. In its original incarnation it's implied that the role of academia is to sift and winnow ideas, but OP takes the turn of phrase and twists it until it points towards something academia isn't as proud of. Or, what Mngo said.
posted by Jpfed at 8:35 PM on August 24, 2019


I also wonder where it is that the instinct to avoid cooling-out comes from. I say instinct but that’s not right — it’s clear to me that we must train people to do this, but how, and why?

It just occurred to me while reading your question that maybe it is because we fave to function in the face of our own deaths.
posted by Pembquist at 9:33 AM on August 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


It just occurred to me while reading your question that maybe it is because we fave to function in the face of our own deaths.

Death is such an interesting example. I remember being sort of shocked to read it the first time I encountered this paper -- it never would have occurred to me to group these things together. In a way, though, I think the death example points to a weakness of Goffman's approach to this question. He describes cooling out as inevitably a sort of dirty work; but there are people whose major life's work involves shepherding people from life into death -- hospice workers, clergy members. What draws people into those professions? I don't think it can just be that all the cushy nonconfrontational jobs were taken. I think there must be a way in which this difficult work brings meaning to the people doing it. I am brought back again to Su's conception of grace -- perhaps the fact that we are all destined to die makes it possible to move past the status differential inherent in cooling out, into a place of intimacy, where the struggle is really seen as shared, by both parties. I don't know, though, having never done this work myself; I'm just guessing.
posted by eirias at 3:51 PM on August 25, 2019


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