‘Set’ means a specific set state of mind, certain mental fixations, and perhaps we could use the expression ‘mental set’. It is a set way of viewing things, irrespective of their actuality. Thus set can be deceiving in that you may sometimes see what you expect to see even if it is not there. If you dislike a person you may find difficulty in viewing his or her motives objectively, you will give them a biased interpretation unfavourable to him or her. In other words, you are set against that person. Magicians rely heavily on set. They set the atmosphere and get you to expect them to do one thing, so you actually see them doing it, for example burning your five dollar bill, even though they are really doing something different. Because of your ‘set’ you miss the little tricks, in fact you fail to see a great deal of what goes on. Set will continue for some time after the initial expectation. When people are asked to recall as many names as possible beginning with a certain letter, say T, they will be set for names beginning with T several hours after the experiment has ended. The task remains at the back of the mind and as soon as a T name appears, even in a completely different setting, it will stand out. The same can happen in daily life. You may have had a name on the tip of your tongue but been unable to recall it. Later, you may hear the name incidentally in conversation, or read it, and immediately you recognize that this was the name you could not remember. Although it was not consciously looked for at that particular time, the mind had remained set for it. ‘Set’ affects virtually everything we do and see. Any belief system will make a person set to notice those events and facts that support his
or her belief and miss those which do not. This is why two people can hold completely opposite views about religion, politics, education, the state of the economy, etc. and each will find from his or her experiences that the world is the way he or she believes it to be. They have subconsciously selected the supporting evidence. This can be very comforting, but it also leads to bigotry and prejudice. Mark Brown, in his boot ‘Set ThinkingWhy Dogs Look Like Their Owners’, suggests that a good way to offset this is occasionally to try holding the opposite belief. By doing this you can make sure you are seeing both sides of the situation and not becoming ‘over-set’ in any particular direction. As to why dogs tend to look like their owners and vice versa, this is also a matter of ‘set’. Any outstanding quality or feature in the one sets you to notice this quality in the other. If you meet a pudgy man with a boxer dog you will be more likely to notice if the man has a squashed nose himself, or if the dog is also overweight. You will pick out any ways in which they are similar, but will probably not notice the hundreds of ways in which they differ. If you have just had an argument with someone you may feel that that someone is the most selfish and uncompromising of people and when you next meet him or her you will be set to notice his or her bad points. Conversely, when you are ‘head over heels in love’ the loved one is the best in the world, in your eyes he or she can do no wrong. Not only does set affect the way we see other people, it can sometimes change the other person for better or for worse. A study of over one hundred children measured the extent to which a parent’s expectancy in a child’s ability affects the child. Of the children whose mothers rated them below average and predicted that they would remain so, only 7.7% were free from emotional disturbances at the ages of ten or eleven. Whereas 46.2% of the children whose mothers rated them above average were free from symptoms. This relationship was independent of other factors, such as the educational level of the parents, their occupations, ages, the family size or type of delivery, suggesting that it was indeed a direct influence of ‘set’. Similarly, a schoolteacher’s expectancy of a child’s ability can often determine the child’s actual performance at school. If a group of children is divided into two groups of equal aptitudes, but their teachers are told that children in one group have high level IQs and are expected to excel at school while the other children are academically poor, the first group will do much better than the second. This effect, known as the Pygmalion effect, has been borne out by numerous studies, not only in school, but n business, politics, medicine, psychology, relationship s and other situations. In a now legendary experiment, psychology students were given two identical groups of rats. They were told that only one group was intelligent and trained, although both groups actually had the same aptitudes. The results of the students’ experiment showed that the so-called intelligent rats performed better in the mazes than did their supposedly dumb fellows.
As with the schoolteachers who were set to notice the achievements of the ‘bright’ children and the failures of the others, the students were set To expect poor performance from the group of rats described as inferior. With children some of the effects may also be due to the children becoming set as a result of a teacher’s attitude. A child may pick up, either directly or indirectly, that he is not thought to be very bright and he become ‘set’ to this fact. As a result he is quick to notice his failures and slower to notice his successes, and his negative set is therefore reinforced, so he performs less well than another child of similar aptitude who has been led to believe that he is bright. Overall social trends can also be affected by ‘set’. If, for example, the majority of people believe the country is one the verge of collapse, that extremists are about to take over, that ecological disaster is around the corner and that doom is sure to come, then doom is far more likely to come, particularly when these attitudes are reinforced through the media. One recent study showed that even the quality of news bulletins can affect a person’s attitude to others. People who heard positive bulletins recalling the good news of the day showed more positive feelings towards other people than did those whose news was full of gloom. A major report by Willis Harman and colleagues, at the Stanford Research Institute, came to the conclusion that society tends to move towards the dominant image propagated through the media and the educational system. It concluded that if humanity is to survive the next few decades it is essential to re-affirm the positive sides of human potential and ‘set’ society for a positive future.