Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas. Read more

Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely. Read more

Top down, bottom up, side to side, inside out: 4 types of social change and why we need them all.

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The next time somebody tells you that we need to move beyond ‘top down’ solutions and do things ‘bottom up’, ask them which way is North on their compass – where are they exactly, and where are they trying to go? Read more

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 2 Comments
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We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist



Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.


A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
  • Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?

If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.





Generic calls for ‘action’ on climate change keep us exactly where we are

March 31, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

You may have heard the news that today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again highlighted that the potential impacts of climate change on humans are likely to be significantly worse than a slap in the face with a wet fish. The cartoon below* tells you everything you need to know about today’s announcement:

Embedded image permalink

The BBC led with a suitably troubling headline saying that Climate Change impacts are likely to be overwhelming. To be clear, these overwhelming impacts are not about a few cheeky if somewhat devastating storms, droughts and floods that we can handle with some good emergency services and a stiff upper lip. The relatively neglected point that today’s report serves to detail is the concomitant impact on our food, water and energy supplies, and likely consequences relating to disease, poverty, inequality, immigration and war.

One should take care not to sound alarmist (even if it’s bl**dy alarming!) but it is worth considering that such impacts are not projected to take place at some point in the distant future in a far away land, but coming soon, one way or the other, to you, your family and friends, in a city near you.

I am not sure how best to respond today, not least because I’m preparing for tonight’s event, but I did want to take this chance to say a few things off the cuff:

  • Please don’t say: “The time to act is now!” Generic calls for ‘Action’ are utterly futile. Please, if you think we should act, have the courage to stick your neck out and say how you think we should act, keeping in mind our competing commitments to energy security and prices, and economic growth.
  • Please don’t blame the politicians. That is a weak willed form of projection. Advise, encourage, threaten, cajole, heckle if you have to, but don’t blame them as if they had nothing to do with you, or as if they knew what to do, but are too feckless or lazy to follow through. It’s not like that at all; most politicians don’t even properly understand that the core issue is about global fossil fuel production, not reducing national emissions. If climate change is a pivotal political issue for you, let them know, but also help them see a constructive way to act that is not merely tokenistic.
  • Please don’t blame the climate sceptics or deniers. At least they are consistent, and many give this issue far more of their intellectual and emotional energy than their opponents. You could blame the media for giving them too much air time, but I believe it’s the people calling for ‘action’ who have no idea what that means that really keep us where we are. Our report on ‘stealth denial’ begs a lot of methodological questions, but we are confident that the majority of the population can be described as broadly accepting the reality of the problem, but denying (technically, disavowing) the related emotions, agency and responsibility that we collectively need to acknowledge and build on. In other words, the deeper and subtler forms of denial are the real problem.
  • Please don’t over-simplify. Climate change is complicated, but not impossibly so. I believe seeing it as a problem with seven dimensions (science, law, technology, money, democracy, culture & behaviour)  is a useful map on which people can see themselves, and their scope to act more clearly.
  • Please read our recent report: A New Agenda on Climate Change. It may have flaws, but it does try hard to get beyond all the generic calls to action that you’ll hear today.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @jonathan_rowson

*(I haven’t able to track the original source for this image, but will gladly do so if somebody else can.)


Event on Monday: What happened to ‘the soul’?

March 26, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hang on, didn’t we used to have souls?

I grew up thinking there were clear dividing lines between mind, body and soul, and I was happy to have all three of them. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like, imperceptibly over the eighties, nineties and naughties, the soul was secularised away.

Around this time I sensed that even the mind started giving away to the brain, which in turn collapses into a broader notion of our material body and nervous system, which then gives way to genes…and it doesn’t even end there…Perhaps the reason I came to be in my current role is that I acquired such a strong felt sense that our common sense notion of what makes us human beings is completely at odds with the scientific account, and my interest in spirituality may be because the front line of this battle for the integrity of our understanding and experience is our idea of the soul.

(Image from RSAnimate of Ian McGilchrist’s first RSA lecture)

Personally, I feel like I haven’t heard about ‘the soul’ in public life for years. It’s as if this fundamental part of us was gradually theorised out of existence, and we collectively and unwittingly ‘forgot’ about something that used to be fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

‘The death of the soul’ is part of the process of secularisation (a complex notion though that is) and the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers is that the soul is a mostly religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains. If you don’t move in those kinds of intellectual orbits though, this news – the death of the soul- might come as a bit of a shock!

Moreover, for many, including our prior speaker in this series, Guy Claxton, soul-like phenomena relating to meaning and transcendence can be explained without ‘the soul’. Indeed, Guy would probably say the loss of ‘the soul’ did no real harm to our souls. Others would go further, and say moving beyond quaint metaphysical notions of the soul liberates us, and allows us to be more authentically soulful.

Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

But is that right? Even if we don’t adhere to a religious or even philosophical (technically ‘ontological’) account of individual souls, surely it’s not so easy just to discard the notion, and everything caught up with the soul without some loss of perspective. Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

And perhaps the soul is still very much alive. It remains meaningful to speak of ‘Schools with Soul’ for instance, to love soul music, and most of us know people or places that feel ‘soulful’. Moreover some, including many psychotherapists, would go further and say that many mental health challenges relate to the neglect of ‘the soul’ at a societal level.

Personally, that makes sense to me. As I recently argued, I think our obsession with our ‘place’ in the world leads us to neglect our more fundamental ‘ground’, and that this neglect may prevent us from living our lives at their generous best.

It is therefore exciting to report that on Monday the celebrated author of the brilliant and extraordinary book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, polymath, psychiatrist and RSA fellow Iain McGilchrist will speak directly to these fundamental matters in his talk What Happened to the Soul? as part our series of events exploring the nature and value of spirituality in light of modern understandings of human nature.

Iain seems the perfect person to interrogate this question, in light of his background in sciences and humanities. He understands why ‘the soul’ cannot be what we used to think it was, but also why we may need it nonetheless.

I don’t want to steal Iain’s thunder, but from a brief call with him earlier today it sounds like the content of the talk will be very rich indeed. We might learn what it means to think of the soul not as ‘a thing’ but as a process or disposition; why it makes sense to say we can grow or extinguish souls, how individual souls relate to collective souls, and personally I was pleased to hear that Carl Jung might even get a mention or two.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have paid close attention to Iain’s work before, but for those who want a quicker hit, here is a video of an RSAnimate of Iain’s last talk at the RSA, which is rapidly approaching a million and a half views.

The event is sold out, but will be live streamed. If you want to know more about your soul(!) you can tune in live and ask questions via #RSASpirituality.

The Inner Power to Create

March 24, 2014 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

- Mahatma Gandhi

I started writing this post a few moments after returning from a ‘Satsang’ at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney. These free gatherings take place five minutes from my home and follow a familiar routine of four roughly half hour chunks; meditating (mostly concentration), chanting (mostly Kirtan), listening to a lecture(mostly free-flowing responses to an idea in one of the texts by the movement’s two founders) and sharing a meal(always vegetarian, usually lentils).

I go there for a spiritual ‘hit’, a change of scene, and a sense of community that is not mediated by social status. The setting is not without religious (mostly Hindu/Vedantic) signifiers, but they feel mythological and ritualistic rather than propositional, in that they are about the experience of symbolic meaning rather than the textual description of reality. The whole process leaves me feeling energised and renewed, but without that gnawing sense of intellectual compromise that haunts me in churches.

Tonight I was struck by something the Swami (teacher) said in her talk that got me thinking about the RSA’s emerging worldview, currently called ‘The Power to Create’. The Swami didn’t use the Gandhi quote above I was familiar with. Instead she spoke about the importance of retaining coherence between what we think, say and do, not so much for happiness, but for confidence, which may be a prerequisite for it.

If we think things are one way, but say otherwise; or if we say things should be so, but don’t act accordingly, it’s not just corrosive to wellbeing, it undermines our sense of agency.

When I strongly disagree but say I mostly agree, or when I say I want to lose weight but reach for the third piece of chocolate cake, my sense of self-efficacy is eroded. When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

This was a timely thought. I have been trying to figure out what it is about the RSA’s emerging world view that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. I knew it was something about its value neutrality and lack of emphasis on our inner lives, but I couldn’t quite place it, and now I have a clearer idea.

The Power to Create has a kaleidoscopic core, but on my current understanding it tends to pivot around the following five interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

It sounds a lot better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say, but at present what’s missing is a theory of how changes in our inner lives correspond with the changes in the external world.

The heart of the power to create vision, it seems to me, is a reconceptualisation of agency that is currently described in the third person (‘it’ language) but it will need to find form in first (‘I’ language) and second (‘You’ or ‘we’) person expression. It’s not enough for ‘people’ to turn their ideas into reality, but particular ‘I’s, ‘we’s, and ‘you’s need to consistently live in ways that retain coherence between thought, word and deed.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more than people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually work for visions of their better selves, and for the greater good of others too. 

That may be possible, and worth striving for, but is it likely? I think it comes down to how optimistic you are about human beings. I generally take the Gramscian view that pessimism of the intellect is reasonable, but optimism of the will is essential, so it’s just not enough to believe willpower or positive thinking will get us through.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually strive for visions of their better more integrated selves, and for the greater good of others too. We can’t just take that kind of personal growth for granted as an article of faith.

What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them and lives for that very purpose? 

I think the ‘power to create’ vision would become much more powerful if it could answer the following question: What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them, and lives for that very purpose?

We know that kind of shift takes deep and resilient self confidence but we also know such confidence is fragile. As I have argued before as part of our work on the social relevance of spirituality, any theory of social transformation needs a commensurately robust account of personal transformation to go with it.

We need to give more thought to our inner power to create.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Everyone starts with an A minus

March 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Just kidding.

New Report: Everyone *Starts* with an A

March 14, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s trumpet time again.

After a highly successful launch of the RSA’s first foreign language publication in Germany earlier this week, we are pleased to announce that today we are releasing the English-language (original) version of our report: Everyone Starts with an A: Applying behavioural insight to narrow the socioeconomic attainment gap in education which was written mostly by RSA’s resident Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer and supported by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, based on Berlin.

I believe it is a sound, creative and timely report, presented with suitable caveats about its grounded but still speculative ideas and its potential impact. Whenever you come to know a set of ideas well enough to believe they are ripe for further exploration, it is healthy to remember that those who are not as familiar with the ideas will struggle to share your conviction.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

This report is a bit like that, as indicated by an unreasonably simplistic and hostile (if predictable) response from The Daily Mail, and a more measured, but still cautious response at The Daily Telegraph. ,The Times, and The Times Educational Supplement. We have also had appearances on BBC Five Live, Sky News, Drivetime, BBC Breakfast Television, ‘Voice of Russia‘, a range of national German newspapers, and we had the familiar honour of being ‘bumped’ from The Today programme at the last minute due to breaking news (last time it was the Pope’s resignation and North Korean nuclear tests; this time the death of Tony Benn).

Failing Better

In the feedback, there have been several hundred comments, some highly sceptical if not downright dismissive, but many of them favourable and curious. For the record we didn’t ever say you should eliminate the idea of failure entirely, or that failing is not a crucial part of learning…do commentators asked for a soundbite really think we are that naive? If you look closely at the ideas in the report, they are not classic ‘bleeding heart liberal’ material at all. Some of them (e.g. starting with an A) have the potentially to be highly exacting in spirit.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

A new angle on an old and stubborn problem:

There is a hugely stubborn and intractable issue at the heart of debates about social justice and it’s called the socioeconomic attainment gap in education. The point is broadly that children from families and communities that have better social and cultural resources get better school results, regardless of the quality of school provision (Crudely: richer kids do better at school, not so much because of the schools they go to, but because their families are richer). The attainment gap is a huge part of how inequality is perpetuated and why people get uneven life chances. So not only is it hugely important for major debates about equality  but it’s perhaps the toughest nut to crack in the whole field of educational research and practice.

The attainment gap issue is relatively ‘stuck’, and we had the audacity to think that some ‘behavioural insight’ might be at least relevant in our efforts to address it. However, we also had the humility to recognise both that it might not, and that if it did, it would only be part of a much bigger picture. (Unfortunately you can’t put all those caveats in a press release, or nobody would pick it up at all). This kind of research is precisely what organisations like the RSA should be doing, because it is cross-disciplinary and too speculative for most academics to take on (although we had a great deal of academic input into the report and it is as rigorous as we could make it).

How much can we expect from schools?

Given how much of education takes place outside of the school and outside of the classroom(very different things), addressing the attainment gap without major structural and cultural changes outside the school is always going to be difficult. The question then becomes: what can schools do? And part of that answer is to work in ways that ensure the learning dispositions that are picked up automatically outside of school by relatively advantaged children, are fostered as far as possible in school, by those who have less of such advantages outside.

The question then is: how do we do that? Which is where we thought some behavioural insight might come in.

Everyone Starts with an A:

The idea in the report’s title (perhaps my main contribution to the report, most of which stemmed from the excellent work of Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer) is based on the endowment effect, which suggests that we value things more when we own them already, and are more motivated to avoid losing what we have than we are motivated to gain what we don’t yet have.

This widely known and important (it might explain rather a lot about home ownership and property bubbles, for instance…) idea made us wonder if it might make sense that starting with the top grade might motivate students to hold on to it through continuous improvement (it’s not at all about not having anything left to aim for!) rather than starting from a completely undefined place, and aiming upwards.

It’s an idea that is at least worth considering, no? The point is not the wishy-washy ‘all must have prizes’ idea, but more about how you best get all students – not just those with high levels of educational support at home – to care about continually giving their best, when you have the best opportunity to do it (i.e. in school).  

Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

The other standard objection has been: surely the only way to go is down – won’t students find that really disappointing? Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

You can, for instance, use it as a ‘love of learning’ or ‘learning to learn’ measure, and keep a different grading system for actual performance. You could interpret it very strictly so that 90% of the class lose the grade within a few weeks, or more leniently so that you really have to go quite far off the rails before losing the A. We don’t have firm ideas about such things, which are a matter for contextual and personal judgment, but what we are sure about is there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with everybody starting with an A; it’s just a different default, a new framing and a new set of teaching and learning challenges that we have reason to think might work well.

Keeping behavioural insight in perspective:

Those who are not psychologically minded, temperamentally sceptical, and wary of the idea that somebody else might know what could be good for them, instinctively feel suspicious of such ideas, but often make judgments before really knowing what is meant too, and sometimes react viscerally to the idea of behaviour change or ‘behavioural insight’.

In fact, Behavioural insight means a variety of things, as I argued in the seminal piece for the Guardian’s new Behavioural Insight blog. Moreover, behavioural insight need not be an elite discourse, and could be for everyone. Indeed I think behavioural literacy should be a core part of education.

However, some people struggle to hear new ideas as helpful additions to shed light on old ideas rather than some kind of special fix that will sort everything out. For this reason, we went out of our way to make clear that we are not suggesting our ideas are some kind of panacea.

For instance, one of the three authors of the report, RSA Associate Director of Education Louise Bamfield said:

“We’re not saying that these measures represent a silver bullet or that they will magically fix all the problems teachers face on a day to day basis. What they do provide, however, is more than a ‘nice to have’ optional bag of tricks. The ideas in this report include simple, low cost interventions that when added together could have a significant impact on the relationship between teachers and learners. Behavioural insight alone is certainly not sufficient to cure educational disadvantage, but it may be a necessary component of a larger whole.”

Here are the core ideas in the report, as expressed in our Press Release:

1) Mind-sets and attitude towards student’s mental abilities and intelligence: The report concluded that academic ability is not a fixed personal characteristic, but can be increased through practice and diligence. The report said that teachers should focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in order to break through stereotypes (held by both pupils themselves and teachers) and subsequent expectations about ability and performance. Researchers recommended that pupils are praised for effort instead of ability. The report also suggested giving a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’ and positioning wrong answers as an opportunity to learn more and enjoy the natural learning journey.

2) Cognitive biases: Whilst most of us like to think that we make rational, calculated, carefully weighted judgments and decisions, in reality, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking. Teacher’s first impressions of pupils in the first days or weeks of the academic year may have undue weight on their continuing evaluation of them throughout the year, and pupil’s may behave and perform in response to how they see themselves in the teacher’s eyes. The report recommended that educators engage in ‘perspective-taking’ (role-playing) exercises and discuss the relevance of such biases on a regular basis to promote learning reflexivity. They also suggested structuring incentives around ‘loss aversion’ with having an entire class defend an A grade.

3) Surroundings (environment influences): Subtle and no-so-subtle cues in our surroundings can affect pupils’ effort levels, aggression and test scores, the report said. The evidence in this area is significant and given the relative ease of the interventions they’re worth exploring. Changes to pupil’s environment could include priming students with exposure to words associated with intelligence, including priming with the letter ‘A’ on top of a quiz. The report concluded that views of nature of ‘green space’ can reduce mental fatigue and reduce aggression. Poorly maintained school buildings and classrooms (cues of poverty) were also found to have increased students impulsivity and short term thinking (over long term gain).

Professor Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mindsets’ features prominently in the report, and her core message, which is also, I believe, the very heart of behavioural insight, is that the most fundamental human trait is our capacity to change. More to the point, making sure this message is understood by everyone is one of the most effective changes we can make, which is what we hope this report will help to do.


The only ‘normal’ people are the ones you don’t know very well

March 6, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Cover of What's Normal Anyway? Celebrities' Own Stories of Mental Illness by

I haven’t taken many sick days in my working life, but whenever I have I return to my desk to find a ‘sickness absence form’ asking for some basic administrative information including the line:

Details of Sickness/Injury: I was unfit to attend for work for the following reason(e.g. Influenza, diarrhoea, rheumatism, etc.):”

When I see that form, I often think to myself: Do you really want to know?

As this honest and uplifting book indicates, the only ‘normal’ people in the world are the ones you don’t know very well.

The truth is that while some of those days featured garden variety ailments, others featured ‘details’ of an altogether different kind. There are days where you are physically intact, but just can’t quite face the world, and occasionally you sense that if you don’t stop pretending all is well, you might completely fall apart.

But I always put something else on the form.

I know I am not alone in not always giving full disclosure when it comes to mental health, and there seems to be a growing awareness that we need to norm-alise, in the literal sense of making an accepted social norm – mental health challenges. Our sadly departed colleague, Dr Emma Lindley, wrote with great passion and clarity about stigma relating to mental illness, but we still have some way to go to win that battle, and fresh ammunition is timely and welcome.

It is therefore a great pleasure to announce a new book “What’s Normal Anyway?” co-authored by RSA Director of Research Steve Broome and Forensic Psychologist Dr Anna Gekoski. The book features ten candid first-person accounts of mental illness from some of the UK’s most prominent names including Alastair Campbell, Bill Oddie, Trisha Goddard, Alicia Douvall (model), Tasha Danvers (former Olympic athlete), Richard Mabey, Stephanie Cole (actress), Dean Windass (former premiership footballer), Charles Walker (conservative MP) and Kevan Jones (Labour MP).

These celebrities share their experiences of a range of conditions including bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts.  Their stories are also ones of recovery, positivity and acceptance – illustrations of how mental illness does not have to be a bar to achievement, happiness, and fulfillment in life. The book is also practical, detailing coping strategies, and will offer solace for anyone out there who feels they are suffering alone.

From a Social Brain perspective, the book clearly makes good use of ‘the messenger effect’ – building on a body of research that suggests who says something is often more important than what is said.

From a personal perspective I am just happy to see one more step in a positive direction of travel for people suffering from mental illness. Whether what you are facing is acute and enduring, or mild and temporary, it should be easier to talk openly about it.

As this honest and uplifting book indicates, the first thing we would discover about mental health, if we were to talk about it more often, is that the only ‘normal’ people in the world are the ones you don’t know very well.


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