What’s the matter with this house — oops, I mean deck — of cards?

In the company of many other seekers of wisdom, I spent much of the past weekend at the Robert McAfee Brown Lectures in Palo Alto. This year’s lecturer was Walter Wink, longtime teacher at Auburn Seminary and author of the provocative and compelling trilogy on the Powers. I’ve read only one and a half of his books so am no expert on his work. Others in attendance observed that they heard no new ideas in the lectures but that simply being in the presence of this creative intellect was inspiration enough. I’d certainly agree with the latter half of that observation.

Wink described a psychological study that I hadn’t heard about before (but have now learned is a classic in the field): the anomaly of the “red ace of spades.” In a paper published in 1949, Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman conducted an experiment “to observe the behavior of intact, normal organisms [that would be 28 students at Harvard and Radcliffe] faced with incongruous situations.”

I am not a psychologist; I’ve had lots of experience on the client end of psychotherapy and counseling, but the closest coursework was a semester of pastoral counseling in divinity school. So I commend readers who want to know more to the original paper. Here’s a three-sentence summary:

The students were shown, at increasing length of exposure, a series of playing cards in which one or more cards were reversed in color and suit, and were asked to identify the cards. Not surprisingly, the recognition threshold for the incongruous cards was found to be significantly higher than that for normal cards. And once there was recognition of one incongruous card, the subjects took progressively less time to recognize subsequent incongruities.

Most interesting, for Wink, was Bruner & Postman’s observation as follows:

In the perception of the incongruous stimuli, the recognition process is temporarily thwarted and exhibits characteristics which are generally not observable in the recognition of more conventional stimuli.

One specific way in which the recognition process is affected by the thwarting of well-established expectations is the emergence of a “sense of wrongness.” The subject may either, even while “dominance” and “compromise” responses are continuing, suddenly or gradually begin to report that there is something wrong with the stimulus without being able to specify what it is that is wrong. It is not infrequent after such a report to witness the onset of perceptual disruption. But at the same time, such a “sense of wrongness” may also turn out to be a prelude to veridical recognition, for it often has the effect of making the subject change his hypotheses or give up his previous expectation about the nature of the stimulus.

Wink even asserted that this sense of something being wrong was accompanied by physical manifestation of increased sweating of hands. I haven’t yet been able to document this; Bruner & Postman didn’t include this measurement in their study design. Maybe an alert reader knows about follow-up studies.

So why go into all this at such length? Well, first, because I found the image of the red ace of spades quite arresting. Second, because Wink says we need to look for these anomalies in the Gospels. What gives the reader/hearer that sense of “wrongness” [i.e., what is contrary to convention] in the parables of Jesus, in the healings he performed, in the stories of his table fellowship, in his treatment of women? Where do we find the red ace of spades there? And finally, it seems to me that this understanding of perception can help answer, at least in part, the question about what is the matter with Kansas. It could be that yesterday’s election results around the country are demonstrating at last the beginning recognition of the red ace of spades that has been flashed before the nation’s collective eyesight for too many years now. We can only hope.


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