November 07, 2004

Theory of mind on Mars

In today's NYT, there's an article by Kenneth Chang on Honeybee Robotics, located in a Lower Manhattan office, which controls the rock-examination activities of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars.

The scientists name not only every rock, but also separate locations on each rock that they examine. Earlier in the mission, true to the New York twist on this mission, the Honeybee engineers were able to assign the name New York to a grinding site on a rock named Mazatzal.

When the scientists wanted a deeper look into the rock, they changed the orientation of the grinding tool and renamed the site Brooklyn. "Somebody said it was the same target as New York but with an attitude adjustment," Mr. Bartlett said. (This being a scientific joke, it required a footnote: " 'attitude,' " Mr. Bartlett said, "can mean angle or spacecraft pointing."

This is a joke with a few lexicographical layers.

According to the OED, the astro/aero meaning for attitude seems to have arisen just about as soon as flying did:

1910 R. FERRIS How it Flies 455 Attitude, the position of a plane as related to the line of its travel.

The original English sense for attitude was apparently "the ‘disposition’ of a figure in statuary or painting", as in

1695 DRYDEN Dufresnoy's Art of Painting §4 The business of a painter in his choice of attitudes.

But artists, like other humans, interpret postures as outward and physical signs of inward and spiritual things, and so the meaning was extended to "[a] posture of the body proper to, or implying, some action or mental state assumed by human beings or animals", as in the common phrase "to strike an attitude : to assume it theatrically, and not as the unstudied expression of action or passion".

1775 HARRIS Philos. Arrangem. (1841) 346 These various positions peculiar to animal bodies, and to the human above the rest, (commonly known by the name of attitudes).
1883 J. GILMOUR Mongols xviii. 211 You will find him..striking pious attitudes at every new object of reverence.

and at the same time, people began to refer metaphorically to "attitudes of mind" lacking any necessary bodily expression at all:

1862 H. SPENCER First Princ. I. i. §1. 4 Much depends on the attitude of mind we preserve while listening to, or taking part in, the controversy.

and then to use the word attitude alone to mean "attitude of mind":

a1873 MILL Three Ess. Relig. (1874) 126 Along with this change in the moral attitude of thoughtful unbelievers towards the religious ideas of mankind, a corresponding difference has manifested itself in their intellectual attitude.

Ironically, it was soon possible to use attitude to refer to the mental state associated with a physical manifestation, as in this sentence about the "attitudes" behind pitch modulations in speaking:

1922 H. E. PALMER Eng. Intonation p. viii, We all recognize immediately..each of the attitudes associated with the tones.

By 1960 or so, attitude referred in some contexts to various negatively-evaluated mental states:

1962 MAURER & VOGEL Narcotics & Narcotic Addiction (ed. 2) 289/2 (Gloss.) Attitude, hostile or aloof and uncooperative.
1974 H. L. FOSTER Ribbin' iv. 169 Attitude, to get mad without a good reason.
1975 WENTWORTH & FLEXNER Dict. Amer. Slang Suppl. 673/2 Attitude,..a resentful, hostile manner, either toward people in general or toward a specific group. A person who ‘catches a quick attitude’ is one who is easily angered and ready to fight. Mostly black and prison use.

I suspect that this arose from the terminology of psychologists and social workers in contact with hospital patients, prisoners and so. In such contexts, an attitude worthy of comment is probably an attitude that is causing problems. When I was in secondary school in the early 1960s, "bad attitude" was a common enough diagnosis of disciplinary problems that it was shortened among students to "bad ad".

I don't remember the word attitude being current among college students in the later 1960s, but when I was in the U.S. Army around 1970, attitude definitely meant "bad attitude", and attitude adjustment was an ironic way to refer to authoritative punishment or retaliation. I don't know whether the term was actually used by people in the chain of command, but I remember someone saying that so-and-so was "in need of a serious attitude adjustment", as a way of justifying a fight, and I believe that "attitude adjustment" was one of the names that I saw written on the side of a rocket launcher (though maybe this is one that someone else told me about).

I can imagine that "attitude adjustment" was a 1960s-era psycho-jargon euphemism for punishment, roughly in the mode of the famous line "what we have here is a failure to communicate", said by Strother Martin's character in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. However, I haven't been able to find any concrete evidence for this, and it's possible that it was always a joke from the beginning.

The phrase "attitude adjustment" doesn't seem to occur in the text of the OED. The earliest citation that I can find in Nexis for the joke-psychological usage is from the Washington Post for January 4, 1980, in a note at the end of a piece in the financial section by Bill Gold


Colleague Mike Kernan reports that Mr. Henry's on lower Wisconsin Avenue, does not have a Happy Hour.

From 4 p.m. until 8 p.m., it has an "Attitude Adjustment Period."

On the other hand, the earliest citation I found for the aero/astro usage was from May 5, 1975, in an article by Erwin J. Bulban, Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Actual docking requires only minor attitude adjustment maneuvers on the part of Soyuz, to align spacecraft antenna to insure optimum communications and telemetry data transmission during the exercise.

And I'm pretty confident that both usages date from the 1960s, though apparently not within the ken of Nexis.

Anyhow, the use of attitude for negatively-evaluated (i.e. aggressive, rebellious) attitude has meanwhile undergone the usual development into a positively-evaluated version of exactly the same behaviors (i.e. assertive, independent, irreverent). And the Honeybee Robotics joke (that Brooklyn is New York with an attitude adjustment) then depends on a compositional re-interpretation of this phrase, so that it's not longer a euphemism for punishment, and becomes instead a way of talking about personal growth or cultural variation.

The funny thing is, attitude comes from the same source as aptitude:

1668 J. E[VELYN] tr. Freart's Perf. Peinture Advt., Though we retain the words, Action and Posture..the tearm Aptitude [F. attitude] is more expressive. And it were better to say the Disposition of a Dead Corps than the Posture of it, which seems a Tearm too gross; nor were it to speak like a Painter, to say, this Figure is in an handsome Posture, but in a graceful Disposition and Aptitude [F. attitude]. The Italians say Attitudine.

and both come from Latin apto , frequentative form of apo, meaning "to fit, adapt, accommodate, apply, put on, adjust, etc." So in some sense an attitude adjustment is an adjustment adjustment. Of course, like disposition, the word adjustment also has psychological as well as physical interpretations.

Finally, here's a pretty good joke about attitude adjustment and animal communication.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 7, 2004 12:36 PM