I recently had the pleasure on taking part in a focus group with teachers in Berlin. The context for this was a new and exciting cross-national collaboration of the RSA Social Brain Centre with the Vodafone Foundation Germany, a think tank focusing on education, integration and social mobility. The project centers on how behavioural insights might be used to help close the attainment gap; a full report will be published later this year.
At the focus group we spent the half-day learning about and discussing practical examples of perception biases, cognitive quirks, and what role the self-perception of students and teachers, as well as mutual perceptions, play. The group was highly curious, and the quality of debate remained high until the very end.
While I do not want to give away too much, here are three takeaways from the day:
- Thinking into action
Teachers agreed that the discussed concepts certainly were of importance, and some said they had learned about biases and other behavioural concepts at university. However, interestingly, many hadn’t been applying them directly to their own classroom teaching.
- Intuition versus evidence
Evidence-based, yet counter-intuitive mechanisms like loss aversion were controversial. By and large, related ideas for behavioural applications were accepted intellectually, but rejected intuitively – and practically. This poses an interesting dilemma in the context of best-practise and evidence-led approaches to teaching.
Teachers perceived themselves as individual fighters; at the same time they longed for more collaboration, but felt they do not get enough support from the system. This highlights that the challenge of more collaboration within, but also across schools transcends national borders. The RSA Education team has recently published an excellent report on this topic, ‘No school an island’, and with its RSA Family of Academies has already gained some important insights how to make it work.
To learn more about the project, please keep an eye on future posts on the Social Brain or Education Matters blogs, or contact my colleague Nathalie Spencer at the RSA Social Brain Centre.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him on Twitter: @joseflentsch
“Free bananas!…Get your free bananas here….Anyone for a free banana?”
Actually I quite fancy a banana, I thought, while hearing this pitch at Waterloo station this morning. Why not?
As with lunches, of course, it’s never quite that simple. I was given the banana by a man about thirty holding a donation box, and wearing a t-shirt for the hospice service for children and young adults, Naomi House. He didn’t ask for any money, but my sense of reciprocity kicked in instinctively, and I found myself putting 50p in the box. I also noticed that another commuter put £1 just after me. It turns out the guy was a company director, doing some voluntary work, and he told me his task was to give away a thousand bananas that morning, while several others working for the same charity did the same thing nearby.
Now there is an excellent idea. While ‘chuggers‘, are often charismatic, creative and charming individuals working for worthy causes, they nonetheless have a mixed reputation because their modus operandi is to hijack our time and attention as a way of seeking out our money. Personally I have twice succumbed to this approach, and have given two small direct debits a month for several years to Action Aid and Shelter, as a result, so it’s not as though it never works, but the free bananas felt altogether less strenuous and more insightful.
This approach felt like a win-win. I felt lucky to have a timely and nutritious piece of fruit ‘for free’ and since the charity box was just there, it felt entirely natural that I should give something back. It didn’t occur to me to think of the wholesale cost of a single banana, or what I might pay in the nearest supermarket, because the part of me that is automatically reciprocal eats the part of me that is consciously rational for breakfast. So before I knew what had happened, my hand had reached into my pocket, found a coin that felt right, and hey ho, everybody seemed happy.
So well done Naomi House for some innovative use of behavioural insight for voluntary giving, and I hope other charities find similar ways to tap into our reciprocity, and no doubt raise significant sums as a result!
I received a lucid and helpful email in response to yesterday’s post on reaching the centre-right on climate change, from Ian Christie FRSA who is a research fellow at the sustainable lifestyles research group at the University of Surrey.
I am posting it below with very minor edits and Ian’s permission because Ian’s response helped to pinpoint the slight feeling of unease I had in response to COIN’s report. In essence, while the first round of the challenge of engaging the right on climate change may indeed come down to the framing the message, the real battle feels like it’s in the framing not so much of the message, but of the issue itself.
As context and further reading to make sense of the issue, the two key questions (with indicative quotes) are:
“Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before”
2) Is the continued pursuit of economic growth on a physically finite planet possible?
“A no-growth economy is a curious creature to think about, but as Sherlock Holmes once put it: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Guest Post by Ian Christie FRSA
The point you make about growth is important. I think there are broadly three positions on global ecological risks and the economy, and they don’t fall that neatly into the existing political spectrum, as you note:
1) Business as usual growth – is desirable and achievable, and we can either disregard climate change etc or adapt to it.
2) A new model capitalism – Business as Usual can’t be restored but we can have a new model capitalism (cf the B Team, Plan A, Unilever etc) that generates economic growth while respecting planetary boundaries.
3) An economic model that eschews growth: 1) is suicidal, 2) is well-meaning but delusional; we need to rethink economic systems entirely and pursue wellbeing and go beyond growth, which cannot continue indefinitely and is in any case not generating the benefits we tell ourselves it is.
Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses
1) has incumbent power on its side, makes immediate ‘common sense’ (we don’t feel at risk from the environment) but has pretty well every climate scientist and ecologist against it;
2) has at least a chance of winning more adherents in business and politics, but is still very marginal;
3) has ecological and thermodynamic logic on its side, but almost no adherents in business and government.
Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses. The problem for 3) is that there is no political and economic narrative of transition that makes sense (so far). Approach 2) is attractive as a transitional model but still falls foul of the objections from 3).
The centre-right was left out of the climate change script in the USA when Al Gore became the face of climate concern, and things have never recovered from that and from the subsequent integration of climate into the culture wars, in which evidence is assessed on the basis of ideology and motives.
I suspect the situation will only change when there is a critical mass of ‘defectors’ breaking ranks in the authoritative core groups of centre-right thinking and practice – from concerned CEOs, influential media commentators to elected members of the Republican Party and Conservatives. And that seems likely to happen only if they can frame climate action as an economic opportunity and national security issue.
Which raises your key point: is climate change an environmental issue? No – it’s a major risk to economic and social order as well as to ecosystem integrity. There are people from the centre-right who get this, and who in consequence are embracing 2) above – growing numbers of food industry leaders, for example, whose businesses are in direct jeopardy from climate disruption. But they have not got a political constituency yet with Republicans and Conservatives.
Congratulations to Dr Adam Corner of the Climate Outreach Information Network for an insightful and timely report on A New Conversation with the Centre-Right about Climate Change.
I just came back from the lively launch event at the think tank, Policy Exchange, with Adam Corner, Zac Goldsmith MP, Head of Environment and Energy at Policy Exchange Guy Newey and Claire Jakobsson of Conservative Environment Network, chaired by James Murray.
Alas, the who, where and when questions are relatively easy, compared with the what and the why, while the question of what follows is altogether more challenging.
According the executive summary: “The central argument of this report is that there is no necessary contradiction between the values of the centre-right and the challenge of responding to climate change. But until now the issue has not been framed in a way that resonates with centre-right citizens.”
That premise sounds about right to me. The claim is that the left has a relatively coherent position on climate change(it’s by no means clear cut) and that many of the potentially effective forms of action(subsidies, regulation, taxation) fall out of their worldview with less strain than they do on the right. This is somewhat problematic for those who hold centre-right political views, but more deeply problematic for addressing the climate change challenge at hand with the requisite shared sense of purpose.
The report goes on to argue for four main narratives to connect with the centre-right; localism, energy security, the green economy and the good life; and key values including: pragmatism, scepticism and stewardship – all of course unpacked in detail in the report.
I enjoyed the event. There were a few nice moments, including Zac Goldsmith saying he recently sent David Cameron back his famous speech on climate change from 2008, asking him to read it again (because he seems to have forgotten about it…). I also liked Guy Newey’s emphasis on the idea that “motives matter” – when talking about climate change the key question is always what lies behind this, what do you really want? On a related point, he highlighted the tendency to confuse and conflate climate scepticism(it’s not happening) with policy scepticism (here’s what we should do about it). I also appreciated that one of the questioners asked how we can, in the context of the financial crisis, stop action on climate change being “a fair weather issue” or “a nice to have”.
A final comment from one of Adam Corner’s colleagues, George Marshall made a deep impression: that when they work on climate change communication it is not difficult to make a connection at the level of diagnosis – people respond to the reality of the problem- but when you move to the level of prescription – what we should do about it- people become very sensitive to motives and messenger effects- fearing hidden agendas.
I am intrigued by what I have read of the report so far and keen to return to the issue, perhaps with some of Jonathan Haidt’s work in mind and in connection to our own research on climate change that will be published soon. However, for now, a few meta-questions about the report and event are loitering in my mind.
1. Is the political spectrum a useful lens for an issue like climate change at all? The report is aware that this is not self-evident, and perhaps it is semantic to get hung up on this question given the underlying desire to reach millions of people, whichever category they belong to. Still, every time we use the political spectrum in this way it becomes more entrenched as some sort of social fact and less like a relatively old-fashioned cultural heuristic that may no longer be fit for purpose.
2. The link between environmentalism in general and climate change in particular needs to be challenged. I had the sense that it suits those on the right to place them together, while it generally suits the left to pull them apart. We need to at least reflect on the question: What if Climate Change is not an environmental issue?
3. More profoundly, given the fairly central but my no means exclusive emphasis on the green economy as a way to reach the right, What if green growth is just an illusion? i.e. has anybody developed a convincing macroeconomic model of continued economic growth that factors in population growth and the material basis of the economy that keeps us within environmental limits? Perhaps the main challenge to the centre-right on climate change is not from the centre-left, who broadly share the view that such green growth is possible. The deeper challenge is the radical but in my view profoundly sane view that argues that the continued pursuit of economic growth is a kind of madness, albeit a forgivable and understandable one.
My first impression is that the report represents an invaluable introduction to a critical communication challenge. However, I feel the goal of reaching the centre-right, while relatively challenging, arises in the context of a communication challenge that is anyhow so deep and multifaceted that this issue is merely a case in point, rather than a critical end in itself.
And yet, given that we are in this together, it’s really important to be reminded that the end point cannot be universal agreement, but a growing capacity to disagree constructively and precisely, so that we are not waiting for an impossible consensus on a problem that will not wait for us.
As I wrote in a previous post on the same theme: Climate Change: Left, Right and Wrong
“Let’s stop pretending that those who share an understanding of the problem are natural allies, and start thinking more deeply about the values we share and the values that separate us. We will continue to disagree, but it would be great if we could begin to understand the nature and depth of the disagreement well enough to help each other deal intelligently with the shared problem at hand.”
Today’s report is a good step in that direction.
Email means different things to different people. Some wise souls use it almost exclusively at their workplace, and view email as a tool for tasks, to be dealt with efficiently and dispassionately. But many, and probably most, now view their email as an extension of themselves. In this sense it’s more like a portal to quench curiosity, or a stage where we play our part, or worse, it’s a ticking bomb of words that may or may not explode at any minute. As such, email has become the vortex of choice for our unquiet minds.
While I aspire to be more like an email technocrat, and manage it for short periods, I am part of the generation that uses email, despite its various limitations, as the default means of communicating. And I have noticed, largely through the use of email on smartphones, that I am gradually being sucked into the vortex.
Image via medibeauty.biz
To illustrate, yesterday evening I reached home about 6.30, connected with family, had dinner, took my son out for a brief walk and came back home ready to put him to bed. I was a little tired, but otherwise present, relaxed, at ease. And then I made the mistake of just quickly checking my smartphone for new work emails.
There were a few that made no psychic impact, but one that read like an implicit rebuke to a previous email I had sent, and it lingered uncomfortably in my psyche for the next two hours until I managed to sleep. I did lots of other things in that time, but the impact of the email was still there, a centrifugal force pulling my attention away from the thoughts and feelings of the people around me, and diluting the quality of experience in the here and now.
Many people view email as a portal to quench restless curiosity, or as an identity update, or as a verbal bomb that might explode at any minute, and as such it becomes the default vortex for our unquiet minds.
The cost of convenience
Of course, there is the enormous convenience of being able to easily work from home and out of office hours and it helps to have work email accessible on your phone. Still, that expectation and convenience creates habitual patterns of behaviour that are by no means entirely benign.
The collapse of boundaries between work and home is not always a bad thing, but the ubiquity of smart phones means that there is always an imminent threat of such a collapse happening at the wrong moment. Perhaps some people can absorb news about a funding application, troubling information about a colleague or a reminder of an imminent deadline and return to the mood and attentiveness they had before checking, but I haven’t met them yet, and suspect they are few and far between.
Perhaps the core issue is the default verb we use for email. This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check? It suggests a kind of vigilance and surveillance that a responsible person ought to undertake, like “I’m just going to check I have my passport” or “I’m just going to check I locked the front door.” If we shifted this mindset of ‘checking’, the presence of email on our smartphones may not be such a threat to our presence and peace of mind. If email was instead something one had ‘to do’ or ‘to write’ or ‘to read’, the perceived urgency ‘to check’ would not be there and the restless habitual tendencies that underpin it might thereby be weakened.
This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check?
To be clear, I think this challenge of handling emails is significantly complicated by smartphones, not least because 78% of people check email on their smartphones. When you sit at your desk you can (and really should) get better at managing your mails, and Oliver Burkeman, for instance, is excellent on how to achieve what he calls ‘inbox nirvana‘. However, when your phone is synchronised with your work email, as most now are, this kind of management is much harder. You read your emails on the phone while waiting in queues, while travelling, and more generally when you are not strictly ‘working’, so you are much more likely just to scan them and leave them in your inbox rather than act on them with the requisite clarity of purpose.
So what to do? The crux of behaviour change is often distilled as the challenge of making good things easier to do and bad things harder to do. In this case, I don’t want to lose the option of using/reading/writing/enjoying my work email on my phone when I actively choose to, but I do want to be saved from my my tendency just to ‘check’ for the wrong reasons. Is there software or an app that might help here? Otherwise we are back to wrestling with the brute binary of the on/off button, and we all know who tends to win that one.
Looking around at the environmental degradation, financial turmoil, and increased social inequality around us, perhaps you’ve had the sinking feeling that we are creating our own demise. Presumably you are hoping there is a way that we can work ourselves out of this mess. You wouldn’t be alone.
Robert Kegan, Professor at Harvard University, gave a fantastic, if somewhat haunting, lecture here at the RSA last week. The event, “The Further Reaches of Adult Development: Thoughts on the ‘Self-Transforming’ Mind” chaired by Jonathan Rowson, briefly reviewed Prof Kegan’s work on adult development and introduced the audience to his intriguing theory – lovingly called “Bob’s Big Idea”- about the implications of more people reaching the ultimate stage of development.
image from wrike.com
To get the full effect of Bob’s Big Idea, at least a basic knowledge of his adult development work is needed. I encourage you to watch the event in its entirety, but will very crudely paraphrase the first half of Kegan’s talk here, where he asserts that humans undergo various stages of development of mental complexity. We are “makers of meaning” and to organise this meaning we have basic frameworks through which we look at life. We work through these various frameworks, or stages, over our lifetime. Kegan’s talk focused on the fourth and fifth stage of development (a summary of the adult development stages, produced by Dr Jennifer Garvey Berger, can be found here).
The fourth stage, called the self-authoring stage, is where people start to loosen the reins of others’ expectations. As the name suggests, this is the phase when you are able to begin to write your own identity, rather than viewing life through the lens of what others think of you. The self-authoring stage is one in which “we are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal “seat of judgment” or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations”.
According to Kegan’s research, some people reach the fifth and final stage, the self-transforming stage. If it is reached, it is generally at some point in life after middle-age. In this stage, people can start to hold more than one position. They are able to grasp that even their own way of seeing things might be flawed. With a self-transforming mind,
“we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other.”
Bob’s Big Idea
Why is the population living so much longer? Not how, but why? Why do we live 20-40 or more years beyond our fertile years?
What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?
Kegan’s idea is that, as a species, we are trying to figure something out: how to survive. He suggests that whenever a species moves collectively in a direction, it is always for one reason, to ensure survival, and it is exactly the same for us. The self-transforming stage, as mentioned above, is usually reached after middle age, if at all. So the longer we live, the greater the chance that more people will develop into self-transforming level of mental complexity. Kegan notes that we are creating our own demise and effectively asks: What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species? “Are we looking for a way out of hell?”
As RSA colleague Matthew Mezey summarises: old people will save the world.
Is higher better?
So does this mean that we should all be striving to reach ‘level 5’?
The phrases “adult development” and “mental complexity” get banded about the office from time to time, and in the past I was somewhat reluctant to join in the conversation. This partly down to lack of knowledge about the topic, but mostly down to the feeling that this type of language felt terribly elitist to me. It’s not that I don’t believe that people can be at different stages of development (because I do), but more that I am not yet convinced that higher is necessarily better. Is there any correlation between level of mental complexity and happiness or wellbeing?
Speaking to Kegan after the event, I learned that the answer is twofold, and depends on the sense in which we talk about wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing is about affect and an element of life satisfaction; that is, it is what we mean when we think of wellbeing as being in a good mood, enjoying the moment, and having general life satisfaction. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between stage of development and hedonic wellbeing; people at all stages are subject to a similar rollercoaster of joys and sorrows.
Eudemonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is less about feeling pleasure and more about having feelings of meaning, purpose, belongingness; having competence; being self-accepting. It is imaginable that indeed reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing.
reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing
When the conversation turned to mental illness, Kegan explained soberingly that paranoia might look very different to someone in a self-authoring stage of development than someone in self-transforming stage of development.
As with so many important questions, the answer is nuanced. This blog post has not done justice to Kegan’s talk last Thursday. I encourage you to listen to the talk, regardless of your views on Bob’s Big Idea, as a great way to learn more about the higher levels of adult development and to open up similar thought-provoking questions.
Nathalie Spencer is part of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre
One would assume that using less of something every time you need to use it would mean that you use less of it overall, right?
Alas, it’s not that simple. It seems we cannot take efficiency gains for granted, particularly with respect to energy where we most need such gains. If you use less petrol per mile, perhaps you travel further. If you save money on your domestic energy bills, perhaps you spend it on a foreign holiday.
This crude rendering of a complex idea is known as ‘the rebound effect‘, which is a controversial issue in certain circles.
Some say we drastically underestimate how big it is, and therefore squander resources in trying to improve efficiency; gains that are later wiped out because we don’t address underlying causes relating to attitudes and values. Others says we drastically overestimate the rebound effect and undervalue and fail to prioritise perfectly good and tangible environmental gains (e.g. cavity wall or loft installation) for fear of rebounds. My own view is that the effect is likely to be quite large, but in most cases energy efficiency gains are still well worth pursuing. It seems to make sense to start on the relatively easy target of energy waste before moving on to the much tougher target of energy use.
the idea is not just that increasing energy efficiency doesn’t always save that much energy, but that, perversely, it actually leads to more energy being used.
The question of how big the effect is is ultimately empirical in nature, but extremely hard to measure. Clearly it varies depending on the product and the activity. Efficiency gains in fridges are likely to be absolute for instance, because they are on all the time anyway, while efficiency gains in lights are not so clear, because you may feel less bothered to turn them off.
A couple of years ago we built a whole project around the fuel efficient driving of taxi drivers, because we believed we might learn important things about behaviour change as a result. I think we did, but my strong impression is that the drivers were motivated by cash savings rather than any environmental benefit of those changes, which at least begs the question of how much embodied carbon the chosen product or service they buy with the money saved will have.
Anyway, the real purpose of this short blog was to introduce you to one version of the rebound effect, known as the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, which is rather extreme, and slightly amusing, at least partly because of the name. In this case the idea is not just that increasing energy efficiency doesn’t always save that much energy, but that, perversely, it actually leads to more energy being used.
The simple expression of the postulate is: “energy efficiency improvements that, on the broadest considerations, are economically justified at the microlevel, lead to higher levels of energy consumption at the macrolevel.” Needless to say this postulate is not universally accepted as being true to reality, which is probably why it’s still called a ‘postulate’.
I mention this now in response to a tweet message from Nick Stanhope, The CEO of ‘We are what we do‘ who kindly forwarded an article in Scientific American suggesting that, at least in the US, the rebound effect has been shown to be small. In fact, the article quotes a few experts with that point of view, with no real supporting evidence, so to my mind the key questions remain:
How big is the rebound effect? How might we find out? And can you say Khazzoom-Brookes with a straight face?
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.