Victim to the government’s shell game

calvin cartoon

A tangerine meets the moon

Calvin, the striped-shirted lad featured in Bill Watterson’s strip Calvin and Hobbes tries to persuade his mother to give him a cookie.

In a ruse that would make Robert Cialdini proud, Calvin asks his mum:

“Can I set fire to my bed mattress?”

She wisely replies, “No, Calvin.”

“Can I ride my tricycle on the roof?” the lad inquires.

“No, Calvin.”

Now comes the face-in-the door technique:

“Then can I have a cookie?”

“No, Calvin.”

Calvin muses: “She’s on to me.”

Cialdini, a well-known researcher of persuasion techniques, calls this the face-in-the door ploy.

Want something?

Use the most outrageous request you can muster.

Can I set fire to my mattress?

Then follow your requests with equally extreme appeals.

End with your true aim: a cookie.

Cialdini writes this sort of scheme is one of contrasts: asking for a sweet is much less extreme than setting fire to your bed.

So Calvin should have been able to persuade his mother that a cookie was the better solution.

Calvin’s mother refused the bait and never fell victim to the ploy.

But we-who-vote are not so lucky.

When I read about negotiations taking place this week with elected officials over treatment of immigrants in the United States, I thought of Cialdini’s rules of persuasion.

Officials are embroiled in negotiations over cookies and conflagrations.

The options are far from equivalent: asking tax-payers to cough up $18 billion for a border wall is much different than asking politicians to keep their promise in the form of a law signed in 2012 to protect children brought to the US without citizenship: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law.

Americans hate the idea of a wall, according to the Pew Research Center.

Only one-third of Americans support a wall, with 70 percent saying they are against it.

And most Americans certainly don’t want their tax dollars to fund it.

But the commander-in-chief is using the face-in-the-door scheme to convince your elected representative to build the wall in exchange for allowing a law—that has already passed—to stay in place.

Comparing the $18 billion wall with a legal provision to protect about 690,000 immigrants who have already requested protection under DACA is like comparing a tangerine with the moon: they are both roundish but their size has no correspondence.

And public opinion to the mix: Americans overwhelmingly support DACA: some 70 percent.

What do we lose if we keep our DACA promise?

What do we lose if we build a border wall with Mexico?

Here is one way to view the jumble: news headlines this week remind us that influenza is affecting Americans at a rate unseen in a decade.

Yet our elected officials decreased funding by 10 percent to the agency whose objective is to protect our health and research disease.

Cost for the border wall is about 61 percent more than what the Trump government allocated to the CDC.

That’s $18 billion for a border wall.

That’s $11 billion for your health.

Think about that next time you get sick.

Some charlatan will try to convince you that your health takes a back seat to our fear of Mexican encroachment.

But beware the shell-game with the swindler who asks you to choose which nut holds the prize.

Especially if the swindler is himself a nut-job.

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson, 10 December 1985, from


28 January 2018











About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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1 Response to Victim to the government’s shell game

  1. Cynthia, it seems we are given ever more ludicrous choices, none designed to protect the future. Sigh.


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