Today sees the publication of a report that Steve Broome and I wrote on behalf of Hanover Housing Association, as part of the Hanover@50 debate. It’s called ‘Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos: The end of retirement and the dawn of a new old age?’ and it explores perceptions of ageing, the implications of these for how older people are regarded in society, and what we need to do differently.
In recent years, older people have increasingly been characterised as a social and economic burden. As life-spans get longer, and the need to provide for older people’s social, economic and care needs grows, we have ended up regarding older people as a problem. The language used about older people is frequently patronising and paternalistic, and this shapes attitudes, influencing how older people are treated as well as how they see themselves.
I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.
In our report, we argue that the time is ripe to turn the issue of ageing on its head. We need to move away from a culture that regards old age as inherently undesirable, perceives older people as having nothing to contribute to society and focuses on the economic ‘burden’ of caring for the ageing population.
Could it be that older people actually represent a tremendous untapped resource? If so, how can we shift culture, remodel how we accommodate older people and attend to their care needs, whilst enabling them to continue to contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them and useful to all of us?
In order to explore these issues, we conducted a literature review and held four focus groups made up of:
- Retirement community residents aged over 70
- Fellows of the RSA aged over 70
- A ‘transitioners’ group aged 57-70
- A ‘millenials’ group of people aged 21-32
In each of these focus groups we asked participants to tell us what comes to mind when they think of old age. We showed them a range of images of older people and asked them what they thought about those images, and used a range of ‘springboard’ techniques to stimulate discussion.
The results were extremely enlightening and sometimes surprising. The retirement community residents said they were happy to be described as ‘pensioners’, saying they saw it as stating a fact about them. The RSA Fellows disagreed, feeling that that it carried connotations of inactivity, stagnation and marginalisation (as in being ‘pensioned off’).
This divergence in views around the word points to the possibility that new, positive language could reinforce a sense of empowerment and enable older people to keep contributing to society in various ways as they continue to age. For the RSA Fellows, being active professionally and feeling that they maintained a degree of influence were important elements of identity, while for the Hanover residents, this was less important that being socially active, although volunteering, and keeping up with the issues that were of interest to them before retirement were also very important to them.
The ‘transitioners’ group expressed a range of views about what it feels like and represents to be approaching old age. With 65 as the traditional marker for the beginning of old age, some members of the group talked about the way they don’t recognise themselves as being ‘old’ and felt instead that ‘late middle age’ is a phase of life that lasts longer for their generation.
I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful
When we showed this image of an older couple kissing in bed, reactions were diverse across the groups. Most strikingly for me, the ‘millenials’ group (which I’m only just too old to belong to) responded with almost unanimous distaste.
“I’m sorry but that’s just wrong. I don’t want to see that. Nobody wants to see that.” (Female, 20s, Millennials).
“I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful.” (Male, 20s, Millenials).
By contrast, reactions were overwhelmingly positive from members of the other three groups:
“Oh, yes, now that’s lovely. It’s so refreshing to see. It makes me so happy to see that. There should be more pictures like that in the media.” (Female, 80s, Hanover)
“Ah, that’s an unfamiliar image. You don’t see much of that sort of thing. Sexual images of older people should be more commonly available.” (Female, 60s, Transitioners).
“Great, that’s great. They’re in love. I love it. Most people would hate it. Young people would hate it, definitely.” (Female, 70s, RSA Fellows).
The negative reactions from the Millenials group were certainly surprising to me. Coming from a culture that is saturated with sexual images, many of which are far more salacious than this, one might assume that the younger generation would be indifferent to an image like this. The revulsion that some members of the group showed appeared to be purely on the grounds that the people in the image are older. It is noteworthy that one member of the RSA Fellows group predicted that young people would not like the image, and that the comment “I don’t want to see that,” was followed with “nobody wants to see that,” indicating the view that even older people would prefer not to be exposed to an image like this.
Although we were surprised by the vehemence of this disgust, in the context of a society that is overflowing with imagery that champions youth, assumes that getting old is fundamentally unattractive (especially for women) and side-lines older people as having no useful purpose to serve, it is, at least understandable.
So, what do we do? In our paper we suggest three potential ways forward.
- The word ‘retirement’ is part of the problem – we should abolish it. Retirement literally means withdrawing from active life. Whether or not older people continue in paid work, they should be encouraged, enabled, and even expected to remain active, in whatever capacity they can, until the end of their lives.
- Society needs to completely rethink older people’s care. Policymakers and providers must lead a move away from institutional care that disempowers people and forces them into passive dependence. They must develop models of care with roots in the community, for instance by enabling older people to share their homes with each other or younger members of the community.
- These changes should be part of a broader campaign to reposition older people’s place in society. Demographic changes mean that older people not only should be but have to be seen as a part of our human and social capacity. The point is not that older people are all ‘wise’ but rather that there are enormous reserves of experience and time that we are not currently drawing on. It is up to us to choose to see them in this way rather than as a cumbersome burden. This could include a think tank run by older people with a remit that covers the entire spectrum of social issues facing all of us.
- Industry should look at the design of products, buildings and services that older people use. Most age-related goods and services are needlessly vanilla. They are overly institutional and bland in perspective and design. A specialist design agency could rethink design, revitalising and popularising products to make them appealing to everyone, not just older people.
I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways. Such an investment will reap huge rewards for all of us.
Dr Emma Lindley is Senior Researcher at the RSA’s Social Brain Centre – you can follow her @DrEmmaLindley
Today, the Division of Clinical Psychology has issued a statement that essentially says that our system for diagnosing mental illness is unreliable, lacks validity and is not fit for purpose. This follows a similar statement from the American National Institute for Mental Health last week in which it was announced that NIMH would not be using the new DSM-V (the prescribing manual for mental disorders) because of concerns about its validity and use value. These two announcements are of tremendous significance, and could herald the beginning of a bona fide revolution in how we respond to and treat mental illness.
I think that mental health services will change so radically within my lifetime that they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation
For several years I’ve been saying, albeit tentatively, that I think that mental health services will change so radically within my lifetime that they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation. I really hope these recent announcements are the beginning of that transformation.
Arguments about the revisions to the DSM have been simmering for a long time, and the new issue is already several years later in being published than expected. You could look at this as a predictable and relatively insignificant resurgence of the long held divisions between psychology (which assumes mental distress is caused by traumatic life events) and psychiatry (which treats mental illness like any other physical condition, and assumes causes are biological).
You could regard it as being politically driven – in both the UK and US, the cost of mental illness is utterly unsustainable, and anyone who’s ever taken time to look at the figures will know that a majority of prison inmates have a history of mental illness. As Barack Obama put it rather starkly, it’s easier for a mentally ill person to buy a gun than to get proper treatment in the US. In the UK, the political narratives are spun separately, with few people joining the dots to see what’s really going on.
it’s easier for a mentally ill person to buy a gun than to get proper treatment in the US
On the one hand, mental illness is on the rise. It costs us £36 billion a year, in sickness absence, unemployment, not to mention treatment. The pharmaceutical industry produces more and more psychotropic medications, most of which are incredibly expensive, and all of which are developed on relatively limited understandings of how they work or why they work (if they work, which, frequently, they don’t). On the other hand, the voices of mental health service users are finally started to be heard, and the resounding message is that things need to be done differently. In support of that, both the critical psychology movement, and critical psychiatry movement have both been asking questions with increasing urgency. Running alongside are parallel problems around mental illness and employment; mental illness and education, and mental illness and social exclusion. All of this needs unpicking and exploring in a lot more detail.
This week is mental health awareness week, and the focus is on physical activity and its benefits for mental health. I’m fully in support of this, and a firm believer in the importance of physical health for mental health. But it strikes me that there are bigger and more important issues happening too.
My PhD thesis, Making sense of mental illness: The importance of Inclusive Dialogue, goes into some of these arguments in a lot more detail, some of which I hope to return to and develop in another blog post.
It’s been a big week for Manchester, what with Fergie finally hanging up his hat at United, and the arrival of his replacement, David Moyes. I’m not, have never been and doubt I will ever be, a fan of football. But having grown up in an industrial town in West Yorkshire, my Dad being a lifelong and committed Chelsea supporter, and living much of my adult in Manchester and Liverpool, football has been unavoidable.
I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I know very little about the details of the beautiful game and am not especially interested in improving my understanding of the rules. However, there are many things about football and the cultures it carries that capture my imagination. Sitting in pubs with my friends, seeing the way the results of a Chelsea game impact on my Dad’s mood, or being caught up in the strange, edgy feel that takes over the city I live in when there’s a Manchester derby going on, I’ve made observations and maintained an interest in football because of what it means to people around me.
When the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, made a throwaway statement about Alex Ferguson being the ‘greatest living Briton’, it was quite surprising. But the comments he made by way of justification on Radio 4 this week were fascinating, moving, and highlighted precisely some of the things I’ve noticed about why football and its influential leaders matter so much.
Whether you subscribe to the view that it is the opiate of the masses, a tool of political oppression, see it as the front-end of everything that’s wrong with capitalism, or simply enjoy the game, you can’t deny that football is a powerful social force.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about football is its aesthetic. Although I’ve never sat and watched an entire game on telly, have only been to one ‘actual’ match (Liverpool v Fulham at Anfield in 1998), I always like looking at the photographs in the sports pages. The expressions on players’ faces, the shots of people caught, mid-air in infeasible positions, all that biting and scowling – it’s all very guttural and just so interesting.
The picture above, which I was shown over dinner last night, is a particularly striking example. Bobby Murdoch, the terrifying chap on the left of the shot, seems to exude fury in a way that’s easily as palpable as more recent images of players being actually aggressive. On the right, Ferguson’s body language is incredible. The expression on his face, the position of his hands, the relaxed fingers, left leg softly at ease – everything about his stance is placating, non-confrontational.
I know practically nothing about what had actually happened in the game, but the power of the image to communicate so much about one moment makes it possible to imagine – even for someone like me who is ignorant and naive about such things. And for those who do know and care, the image is even more transporting.
The comments on this discussion forum include, “every time I see that image I feel like shouting HIT HIM BOBBY, HIT HIM!’, and “you can see the fear in Sir Alex’s face and you can also see what is causing that fear when you look at Bobby”. What I interpreted as an expression indicating Fergie backing off, apologising for something, looks to Celtic fans like fear, justifiable fear.
So, although this post is kind of about Ferguson and football, it’s really about photos. As a researcher, one of the most interesting challenges is finding ways to get people to tell you about things on their own terms. If you ask someone a question, they will give you an answer, and much depends on how you frame the question.
“Are footballers aggressive?” although closed, and only requires a ‘yes/no’ response, is actually very leading. By asking if footballers are aggressive, you’re planting the seed that they might be, therefore making it more likely that the person you’re asking will consider all the examples they can think of of footballers being aggressive before they answer. The fact that you’re asking them to stereotype and generalise is obviously rather problematic too.
Show them a photo, like the one above, and ask them “What’s happening here?”, and you’ve got a much higher chance of getting closer to the nitty gritty of what they think aggression between footballers actually is. Juxtapose it with an image like the recent one of the Suarez biting incident, and you’ll find out even more, on a deeper level about their perceptions, beliefs and understandings.
UKIP is in fact a four letter word, but we need to learn to say it without discomfort. Two recent posts by colleagues; Adam Lent on UKIP’s inconsistent approach to freedom and Anthony Painter on UKIP’s success being a symptom of democratic stress, got me thinking about another way to understand their recent breakthrough, if indeed that’s what it was.
I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they might be tapping into certain kinds of ‘moral’ foundations that are largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties.
Many have argued that the three main parties are too close together in spirit and policy, and that huge swathes of the population do not see themselves adequately reflected in this group. On this account, UKIP is not just for people who believe immigration is insufficiently controlled, or who strongly dislike Europe, but more generally for those who do not identify with Westminster, or who have been ‘left behind by the relentless mark of globalisation and glib liberalism’.
On policy, UKIP’s ideas are nascent and hard to pin down, but perhaps their lack of credible policies is because they are not really a party of ideas at all. Instead, I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they may be tapping into what some social psychologists view as ‘moral foundations’, which appear to be largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties. To be clear, I am not saying they are more or less moral than anybody else, but rather that they are tapping into certain kinds of moral sentiments that a significant number of people feel and seek expression for.
Six Moral Foundations
Moral Foundations Theory has recently been popularised by Jonathan Haidt, who spoke at the RSA last year, and kindly stayed afterwards to speak to Social Brain about his work in more detail. While I hugely recommend Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, I also recommend the more sophisticated critiques which suggest that the gap between science and morality cannot be bridged with quite as much conviction as Haidt seems to suggest.
The book includes a detailed account of the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological case for social intuitionism, which is a particular account of cognition and morality. Crudely, it says that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly, which forms the true basis of our morality. On this account, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited.
For now, a quick overview (unashamedly via Wikipedia) of Haidt’s palette of moral foundations is below.
- Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
- Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
- Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
- Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
- Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
- Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
The claim is that we all have these moral foundations to a greater or lesser extent, but the degree to which they matter to us varies hugely depending on our political outlook; while our political outlook is shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise.
Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of this argument “What Makes People Vote Republican?” offers evidence to show many vote against their economic self-interest because they are motivated mostly by the extent to which candidates speak to the values above, and those on the right tend to speak to all of the moral foundations, while those on the left usually only offer a very concentrated form of the first and a little of the second and third.
One way of thinking of UKIP’s appeal
***Disclaimer: What I’m about to say should not be read as an endorsement of any position, nor a justification for why it is held***
If you tune in to the tone and language of what UKIP say, rather than analyse the claims rationally, you begin to see the breadth of their appeal- they are touching lots of these moral foundations, in ways that the other parties may not be.
- When they ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
- When they speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into ‘the loyalty foundation’.
- When they opposed gay marriage they were trying to tap into ‘the purity foundation’.
- When they speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
- When they speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into ‘the justice foundation’.
- They actually say very little about ‘the care foundation’, which is why people on the left, who see the world mostly through the care foundation, tend to think of UKIP as barmy, extreme, or callous.
None of the above serves to justify UKIP’s positions, but I hope it serves to indicate why people may well vote for them in spite of their policies, not because of them. Moreover, it may also indicate why it will take much more than a simple shift of policy on immigration or Europe to erode their appeal.
Flushing the toilet is something that most people do automatically without putting too much thought into it. But given that the average Brit flushes the toilet five times per day and that older toilets can use up to 9 litres of water per flush, perhaps this is something we should be taking more notice of.
According to these websites here, here and here, flushing toilets is the largest single use of a household’s indoor water consumption, making up roughly 30% of indoor water consumed. The average family moving from a single flush to a lower-use dual-flush system could save 80 litres per day. And on a very sobering note, “Many people in the world exist on 10 litres of water a day or less. We can use almost that amount in one flush of the toilet.”
I must admit that I myself don’t often think about flushing the toilet; but recently a sign in a public toilet made me think twice. I was at Federation Square, a building complex and public space in downtown Melbourne, to catch up with Bri Williams, an Australian-based consultant and fellow behavioural-science-enthusiast. The toilets at Fed Square had a dual-flush system with the following sign above the flusher:
half-flush and full-flush buttons at Fed Square public restrooms
Working at the RSA in the Social Brain Centre, we are often looking out for examples of tool that help with behaviour change. So the design of these public toilets stood out for me as a way to help make water conservation easy, salient, and normal.
First, the dual flush system makes it easy to conserve water – at the push of a button, even. No need to contemplate about whether to use the old saying “if it’s yellow let it mellow”…
Next, the request to save water is highly salient – the sign is placed immediately above the flush buttons, right at eye level. You can’t miss it. This is important because the request happens at the time of the behaviour (known as a hot trigger, as opposed to a cold trigger which would ask for an action at some point in the future, decoupled from the time of the request).
And finally, the sign makes water conservation normal. By stating that toilets use rain water to flush the toilets, it shows the ‘user’ that the rest of Fed Square is committed to reducing water wastage. Normalising a new behaviour – in this case water conservation – is an important component of successful behaviour change.
To find out more about the benefits of dual-flush toilets, visit the websites listed above, or even take “the ultimate dual flush toilet quiz” here (it is amazing and somewhat terrifying what you can find googling “toilets”). Big actions, such as building redesign to capture rainwater for practical use, are crucial to make a large impact on outcomes (pro-environmental and other). But changes that each one of us can make to small, frequent actions, such as flushing the toilet, all add up to have a large impact too.
‘Get Britain Cycling‘, the report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into cycling has been published today. I attended one of the inquiry sessions at Westminster earlier this year, where I was able to listen to expert witnesses give evidence on cycling, so it’s exciting to see what came of it.
The report emphasises the need for urgent action to help get Britain cycling and highlights the range of ways in which cycling can play a significant role in addressing problems that need to be tackled. These include sedentary lifestyles and obesity, air pollution from cars and our increasingly congested towns and cities.
The major conclusion is that there are “massive and unnecessary” barriers which prevent people from taking to their bicycles. The report insists that we need a bold vision from government to get Britain cycling, which, like many things, really rests on top down support. It also talks about the need for a “fundamental cultural shift” in how Britons think about travel.
The report calls for a target of increasing cycle journeys from the current less than 2 per cent of journeys to 10 per cent by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050. It suggests that to do this we will need a national cycling champion and a national action plan. Key elements the report identifies that will be needed include:
- Better, more consistent and more coherent funding
- Incorporating the needs of cyclists at every stage of road design
- Safe speed limits (20mph in all residential streets)
- Training and education (for children and adults)
- Political leadership
The issue of funding is clearly key, and the impact of long term lack of investment in cycling shouldn’t be underestimated. Outside London, less than £2 a head is spent on cycling in England – compare that with the £24 a head spent in Holland and you can see why the Dutch are leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of having a national cycling culture.
I haven’t yet read the full report, but the headlines from the summary and recommendations seem to me to hit the nail on the head. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been examining the issue of cycling in recent months. From the perspective of the Social Brain Centre, the need to get people cycling can be seen as a behaviour change challenge, and I’ve been working on ways which small steps can be taken to contribute to what the report has called a fundamental cultural shift.
There is a need to normalise cycling, as well as the very urgent need to invest in better infrastructure to make it safer and more appealing. Part of the process of normalising cycling is to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of cycling, and it is this side of things that we’re intending to focus on in the action research currently under development.
Watch this space for more on that as it develops. In the mean time, the report is going to be presented to the government, and a coalition of charities and cycling organisations, led by the Times, have set up an e-petition calling on the government to implement the recommendations. If you agree that it’s time to get Britain cycling, do your bit and sign the petition now!
Maybe I’ve lived in the big smoke for too long. Or maybe cynicism comes with getting older. So when I picked up my free newspaper last night at a busy tube station before my commute home, and it revealed a blue envelope with the words “open me” hand written on it, I wasn’t so sure what to do.
Looking to my left and then to my right, I thought: is this a joke? Are there hidden cameras trained on me? Maybe the envelope contains some indecent photos. Or anthrax. Or instructions sending me on a bizarre scavenger hunt through the city to save a hostage’s life. So many horrible possibilities ran through my head (and the realisation that perhaps I watch too many Hollywood movies to encourage such an imagination…).
I seriously considered just walking away and leaving the envelope there, but then decided to just go for it and look inside. And what a good decision that was, because what I saw lifted my heart and put a smile on my face.
The envelope contained a pin, a ten pound note, and a message reading “Happy Monday! Whether this Monday was fantastic or miserable I hope this brightens your day”. This surprise gift seems to be the mastermind of an organisation called GiveMondays, which encourages people to start their week off right by doing a good deed or making someone else smile on a Monday. The group of anonymous givers tweet on #givemondays.
This surprise couldn’t have come at a better time. Having grown up in Boston, last week was a nerve-wracking rollercoaster of emotions (fear, worry, anger and relief – on repeat) while watching the news and checking in with friends and family. Of course, their safety is the ultimate mood-booster, but this blue envelope was a nice little addition and great way to start off a new week.
So, to the givers at Give Mondays: thank you so much for this lovely little gift. I will keep the pin for myself; the £10 I will pass on to someone less fortunate later today. And now there are 6 days left to think about what do to pass along this smile next Monday.
It’s Earth Day, the 43 year old annual environmental awareness day, observed internationally. It’s pretty amazing, really, that its founder, Gaylord Nelson, had the vision do something to ”activate individuals and organizations to strengthen the collective fight against man’s exploitive relationship with the planet” back in 1970.
There’s lots I’d like to say about it, but I’m busily working on the RSA’s own project which we hope will go some way towards activating individuals to reconsider their part in our collective exploitation of the earth. So, for now, I’ll just point you to a few of the links that have caught my eye.
You’ve probably checked out Google’s Doodle, whether you intended to or not. There’s some good musing about the Google Doodle and Google’s commitment to environmental causes on the Guardian’s environment blog. Also from the Guardian, a great selection of images from around the world. The Mirror’s live updates from around the world include more great pictures.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Google’s Doodle seems to be more of a news story than Earth Day itself, but it seems to be the case whether you look to sources in India, here or in the states.
And of course,
#earthday is trending on Twitter, where you’ll find everything from people letting us know it represents a good opportunity to walk around naked, displaying what looks like climate denial masked as cavalier humour, posting stunning time-lapse video to remind us of our planet’s beauty, and the odd bit of Native American food for thought.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
From the boardroom to the classroom to the livingroom, we aren’t always as in control of our decisions as we think we might be. As uncomfortable as it may feel to some, scores of academic studies and personal anecdotes point to the fact that our decisions, actions, and behaviour are often not the result of calculated reasoning, but rather, are often snap responses based on emotion and intuition, shaped by the surrounding environment.
Judgements underlying our behaviour can systematically differ from what we might otherwise expect them to be given the facts of the situation, and this is called ‘cognitive bias’ in the behavioural science literature. At the RSA, the Social Brain Centre and the Education team are currently exploring the ways in which an understanding of cognitive bias might be applied to education policy and practice.
One of the biases we are looking at in detail is the confirmation bias – which is the tendency for us to seek out and to interpret information in such a way as to confirm or support our pre-existing beliefs. (It is often so much easier to recognise this in others than in ourselves. Consider the last heated difference of opinion you’ve had with your spouse, a friend, colleague, parent, or politician…).
Why is this important? To start, the way in which we praise students may actually serve to reinforce the confirmation bias. If we praise a student for providing only evidence that supports his or her claim -rather than asking for counter-evidence as well to get a fuller, more balanced perspective- then the natural tendency to confirm their own claim is further supported by these social norms.
the confirmation bias may perpetuate a certain self-perception
Additionally, the confirmation bias may perpetuate a certain self-perception. For example, a student may begin a school year with an expectation about his or her own potential, or what ‘type’ of student s/he is. Similarly, a teacher may form an expectation of a student’s likely performance based on an initial impression (this is sometimes known as the ‘halo effect’ in behavioural science; I’ve been told that this same term is used slightly differently in other circles). Given our natural tendency to notice cues and information that support what we already think, these student identities might be reinforced and locked in. In turn, this self-perception itself could have implications for student performance, student-teacher or peer interaction, and effort.
Given that this particular bias seems to be so important for how we learn content, our potential careers, and on a student’s self-perception, I have already devoted a lot of thought to it. So I was absolutely delighted when Rolf Dobelli, speaking at the LSE on Thursday, referred to the confirmation bias in passing as “the mother of all thinking biases”.
Even though we are currently exploring cognitive biases specifically in the context of educational policy and practice, it is not hard to see how they are relevant to non-educationalists, too. Of course, many people reading this have themselves been formally educated at some point, or have children who are in school. But even beyond that, replacing the word ‘student’ with the words ‘colleague’ or ‘family member’ in the paragraphs above may help shed light on unexpected outcomes stemming from decisions made at work or at home.
To find out more about the work of the Social Brain Centre and the Education Matters team, sign up to receive our blogs directly to your inbox, and if you are interested in supporting our work please contact me at Nathalie.firstname.lastname@example.org