Being Thankful (or, chipmunks dressed as pilgrims)

November 28, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

At the risk of being a bit corny, I’m going to use today – the holiday of Thanksgiving in the US – to write about what I am thankful for.

This isn’t to wave a flag and to offer even more insight into American culture than we already get on a daily basis, but rather, it’s to link the holiday to the act of paying attention, one of the key themes of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.

Thanksgiving Card


As we’ve previously blogged, paying attention to the positive aspects in your life can help to build emotional resilience (for a great exercise, see our late colleague Emma’s post about poetry and attention), and Jonathan wrote about the power of gratitude.  So with this in mind, I’d like to declare three things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am lucky enough to work in a field about which I am passionate, trying to learn and understand more about human nature and behaviour, what makes us tick, and how these insights can be applied to some of the many challenges of our time, including climate change and the socioeconomic performance gap in education among others.

I am immensely thankful for my friends and family, both near and far, many of whom will be celebrating today with a roast turkey.

And I am thankful for the great card from Louise, Associate Director of Education, which elicited a laugh and which makes me smile each time I glance at it – see the photo above!


Creating your own gratitude list is easy enough, but if you’d like to share it with others, I’ve just come across the gratitude list website where it looks like you can read what celebrities are thankful for and share your own lists, too.

To those celebrating, wishing you a very happy thanksgiving!

When email is an unwelcome house guest…

June 12, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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

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.

Just checking?

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.

Paying attention with poetry

March 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s World Poetry Day.

As an English Literature undergraduate, I spent many a happy hour absorbed in the modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams. More or less a celebrity in his native USA, he’s relatively unknown here.

Image via

His poems often convey a certain haecceitasthe quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action. It’s especially clear in these two of his most famous poems:

The Red Wheel Barrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in

the icebox
and which
you were probably

for breakfast
Forgive me

they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Flow: How not to crash into trees

March 18, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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Being a social brain researcher, I frequently find myself reading about, thinking about and talking about concepts of human behaviour in the abstract. We might be working on an idea as to how to help people alter their habits, make decisions differently or change their patterns of attention, and at times it can all seem quite far removed from the quotidian reality of my own life. So, it’s great when, on occasion, these things come to life and I experience them directly.

When it comes to attention (one of the three key themes underpinning the work of the social brain centre) the concept of ‘flow’ is, of course, of interest to us. Flow describes a state in which one becomes completely immersed in an activity, having a kind of energised focus that is fully directed at the activity and utterly absorbing. It is often associated with artistic and sporting pursuits like playing a musical instrument, tennis or chess.

Without wanting to crow about it, I’ve just returned from a week of skiing in the French Alps, and, throughout the week I found myself most definitely in a state of flow. For me, skiing is the perfect activity to generate flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, says that the necessary conditions for flow include being faced with a task that has clear goals requiring specific responses. The goals must be both challenging and attainable, and the task must be an intrinsically rewarding activity. So, skiing certainly fits the bill according to these criteria

The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions

More than that, I think skiing works for bringing about flow because it is challenging both physically and psychologically. It requires me to be to completely “in” my body as well as exercising my mind in ways that I don’t usually have to. Certainly in the early days of learning, it was necessary to overcome a whole load of instincts (i.e. when faced with a steep slope that you don’t want to career down, completely out of control; lean forwards).

The combination of needing to command your body to move in unfamiliar ways (subtle flexing of the ankles makes all the difference!) whilst not overthinking is massively challenging. Think about what you’re doing, so you do it right, but don’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up all stiff, rigid and robotic, and therefore unable to move in the right way. Like many activities that result in flow, the best skiing (at my intermediate level, at least) happens when you stop being too conscious of the precise, separate actions, and just allow the whole to come together.

My best moments of flow happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus

When it does, there’s really nothing like it. My best moments of flow during the week happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus. An extremely steep mogul field (bumps), with a base of ice, covered with a layer of soft fresh snow, plus the helpful addition of the occasional loose rock. Skiing through the forest, having no choice but to find a way to turn, even if it looks a bit too tight or precipitous. When the alternative is to crash into a tree, you suddenly find that you can pull off manoeuvres that you wouldn’t have thought you were capable of had you had time to think about it.

The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity (be it skiing, playing chess, or whatever) leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions. This, perhaps paradoxically, brings about a spontaneous sense of joy.

Sounds like something we could all do with more of in our lives. But is it possible to engineer? Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow, suggests that there are steps you can take, but in my view, flow is somewhat elusive. It’s unrealistic to wake up on a Monday morning and decide to get yourself into a state of flow. In spite of this, some surprising research has shown that more occasions of flow occur at work than in leisure time.

According to those who’ve looked into it, jobs involving activities like problem solving, evaluation and planning are particularly likely to generate flow. Come to think of it, that’s starting to sound quite a lot like my job. But do I really experience flow at work on a regular basis? There are certainly some aspects of my work which I get utterly absorbed in, but I would say the rhythm of my work is such that it’s actually quite difficult to let the flow flow, as it were.

In fact, I think flow is increasingly difficult to access, as our world becomes punctuated by hyperconnective interruptions. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is now an expectation that we are permanently available, along with a near-addiction to getting new information, through our email accounts, Twitter feeds and personal networks. These phenomena are surely major threats to flow. Flow at work seems highly unlikely to occur when you’re in an open plan office, with phones ringing all around, colleagues popping in to ask quick questions, and the general hubbub and buzz of a busy office.

I’m sure that Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that specific goals requiring specific responses, challenge and attainability are needed to produce flow. In the context of work, though, I would say that uninterrupted time, and the right conditions in terms of space are just as important. How can you really be lost in flow with a pinging smart phone by your side? For me, and I don’t know whether I’m alone in this, the physical dimension also seems critical. Sure, I can get lost in writing up a report, but it’s never as complete, as total as the flow I experience when I’m on skis, trying not to crash into trees.


You are what you pay attention to

January 10, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

We talk a lot about attention at the RSA.  It is one of Social Brain Centre’s core thematic strands, and Jonathan blogged about the potential for it to be fractured by our technological addictions earlier this week.  So I was very interested to see that the article The Essence of Optimism in the Jan/Feb issue of Scientific American Mind was largely on attention, too.

More specifically, the article by Elaine Fox of the University of Essex describes research into the effect of attentional cognitive biases on stress, anxiety and resilience.  Those who routinely pay attention to the negative, or who generally interpret ambiguous situations as being negative, experience greater stress and anxiety.

What does this mean in real life?  What does it mean to seek out the negative?   One test that psychologists carry out in the lab is to allow participants to hear words – which happen to be homonyms such as died and dyed – and ask them to write down the word that they hear.  Those who have a negative cognitive bias, which Fox states is acquired through both genetics and experience, will write down the negative word more often than average.

we can be trained to habitually tune into the positive

Interestingly, it seems that we can be trained to habitually tune into the positive (or negative) of a situation, and studies have found that the effects of this attentional training are not confined to the lab and can carry over into ‘real life’.

This training, or Cognitive Bias Modification as it is called by researchers, sets people the task of clicking their mouse when they see a certain cue, such as a letter on the screen.  The screen displays a set of images – such as a neutral and negative word, or a smiling and unhappy face – and a moment later, the letter cue is flashed on screen.  Not unintentionally, the letter cue appears in the same place as one or the other of the initial images.  By manipulating how frequently the cue follows in place of the positive image, the researchers can effectively train the participant to focus on the positive and reduce their bias towards negativity.

Finally, to test real life application, prior to going abroad for a student exchange programme in Australia, a group of Singaporean students were split into two groups which followed a programme of such attentional training; one group trained for positivity and the other for neutrality.  Those who trained for positivity later reported that they experienced less stress and anxiety when they arrived in Australia, as compared to the group who had neutral training.

As the author admits, these results are of course based on subjective self-reports, so should be used with caution.  And, more research is needed.  But it has got me thinking: what am I paying attention to in my own life?

When is the right time to eat stale doughnuts?

January 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

On a recent trip to the States to visit family for the holidays, I had the opportunity to watch a whole host of mediocre films on the transatlantic flights.  One of these was The Five Year Engagement with Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, a mix of romance and comedy with a surprising dose of psychology, too.


(Image via


In it, Emily Blunt’s character is a psychology post-doc who runs an experiment based on Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment.  For anyone unfamiliar with this study, Mischel gave young children a marshmallow and left the room.  Each child was given the following choice: wait for the experimenter to return and receive two marshmallows, or to eat just the one marshmallow while waiting.

There have been several replications of this study, and there is a great clip on youtube filming the children – the effort expended to resist temptation is palpable, and it is fascinating to see what strategies the children come up with to help them stay on course and refrain from eating the first marshmallow.  The study, its replications and follow-ups are generally thought to be about self-control, and have produced various findings about the correlation between the ability to delay gratification and various measures of ‘success’ down the line including, for example, SAT scores.

Emily Blunt’s character runs a similar experiment but, instead of pitting one marshmallow now against two marshmallows later, she uses stale doughnuts immediately and the prospect of fresh doughnuts later.  She unintentionally catches her fiancé, Jason Segal, chowing down on the stale doughnuts she is about to bring to the lab for her experiment, and in a nutshell, concludes that his lack of self-control essentially destines him to be a life-long loser and the couple eventually part ways.  When she confronts her now ex-fiancé about it, he replies something along the lines of: “when you aren’t sure that the future promise will ever actually materialise, being impulsive can be a good strategy.”  Effectively, eating stale doughnuts is better than eating no doughnuts at all.

This is a very interesting point, and sheds a different light on the interpretation of the famous marshmallow study.  Celeste Kidd and colleagues from University of Rochester recently published a paper on this very question. I’m not sure which actually came first, the movie or this new study, but both attempt to tease out the role of trust in the future, or reliability, from simple self-control.

These findings support the ‘something is better than nothing’ idea discussed above, and show that reinforcing stability and reliability (or instability and unreliability) in a person’s environment can substantially influence their behaviour.

The researchers run the marshmallow experiment as per Mischel’s original study, but prior to doing so they create an environment which is either “reliable” or “unreliable”.  To do this, they set the children the task of an art project, and provide them with a supply of not-too-great broken crayons.  The children are told that if they wait, the experimenter will come back with much better art supplies.  In the reliable treatment, the experimenter does indeed return with a set of much better art supplies, but in the unreliable treatment, the experimenter returns without anything and apologises for making a mistake – there are no new, better art supplies and the child should go ahead and use the existing supplies.   After this task, the researchers then conduct the marshmallow test.

Children in the ‘reliable’ group waited on average roughly 12 minutes before succumbing to the temptation of the marshmallow, whereas those in the ‘unreliable’ waited a mere 3 minutes.   This is compared to an average of roughly 6 minutes in the control group.  These findings support the ‘something is better than nothing’ idea discussed above, and show that reinforcing stability and reliability (or instability and unreliability) in a person’s environment can substantially influence their behaviour.

The original interpretations of the marshmallow study are of course fascinating in their own right, and I am especially interested in the use of strategies to redirect attention away from the marshmallow to help with self-control; attention, along with decisions and habits, is one of the core thematic strands of the Social Brain Centre.  But the marshmallow study revisited throws up other questions: when is certain behaviour driven by impulsivity and when is it driven by unreliability?  Should creating a reliable environment be the job of parents, teachers – and even employers?  And is the economic and environmental uncertainty that we all are currently facing impacting our behaviour and encouraging us to eat stale doughnuts?

The Myth of Multi-tasking

May 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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Many blogs are neophilic, about stuff just posted that has to be seen, but the web is also an archive, and sometimes you stumble upon something of value from yesteryear. So I  just wanted to share my rediscovery of the following thoughtful Atlantic article by Christine Rosen from the Jurassic period of 2008 called ‘The Myth of Multi-tasking’.

It is about attention  which is a key thematic concern for RSA’s  Social Brain work, and the following highlights, which are direct quotations from the article, were particularly striking for me:

  • Advice from father to son: In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence. “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”
  • Worse than marijunana? In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
  • Infomania and partial attention: The psychologist who led the study called this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity…. we are “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing.”
  • The Key to Newton’s success: When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention. When asked about his particular genius, Isaac Newton responded that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”
  • Cultural impact: When people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

To give some balance, it is worth considering a previous RSA blog on this subject which rightly questions the evidence base for such claims.

Is Twitter turning us into addicts? Research suggests it can

April 28, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Due to excessive consumption of internet, video gaming and pornography boys are increasingly developing arousal addictions, according to research. They are becoming so used to constant stimulation provided by IT that their attention spans are withering away. Analog teachers in classrooms pose no serious competition to digital Facebook in the marketplace for children’s attention. This is particularly relevant to boys who tend to be keener on video games and pornography (which I have never watched myself).

In this short and entertaining speech acclaimed psychologist Philip Zimbardo shares that:

  • An average boy watches 50 porn clips a week
  • By the time a man is 21, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games
  • Boys are 5 times more likely to have ADHD than girls
  • Boys’ brains are being rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. They are totally out of sync with traditional classes at school and in romantic relationships

This time I will spare you from discussing my own romantic relationships but I can share that I can totally relate to the addictions bit. When I surf the web for my own pleasure, I notice that I don’t have much patience for anything. Almost always there is this nagging feeling that there is something more interesting out there. Something more interesting than what I am reading now. More interesting than this clumsy blog, perhaps. And I click, and I click, and I click… This never ending craving for novelty… In fact, internet, and especially checking my email, can be so addictive to me, that I had to set rules for myself. I have rules for when I allow myself to check my mail and when I can surf the web. Otherwise, before I know it, I get sucked into this black hole with ever intensifying gravitational pull. And even when I know I am being sucked in there I keep telling myself “one more article” or “well, this will be the last one”. And it rarely is the last one. In the same way I have also struggled with quite serious video gaming addictions when I was in my teens.

I consider myself to be a recovered IT addict. I am clean now. Hopefully I will stay that way a bit longer. As much as I love the freedom provided by IT, I am convinced that any pleasurable freedom can turn into a prison if not handled carefully. Thanks for checking this blog and by all means please enjoy your next Twitter read.

Developing humility by seeing my own blindness

April 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it” (1)

One may think that this may be a quote by a self-help guru, a Buddhist monk or a philosopher. Actually, I came across it yesterday reading Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s latest book. What he means by this is that “any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation” (1).

Daniel Gilbert provides examples how terribly inaccurate people are guessing what will bring them happiness and what will bring misery. Apparently, winning in lottery or getting married brings much less happiness than most people are absolutely certain they will. Also, becoming paraplegic by far does not bring as much misery as we think (2).

It seems that our intuitions constantly magnify the importance of specific aspects of our lives that we are paying attention to. Attention is a bit like magnifying glass: whatever we bring our attention to seems bigger than it actually is.

It is my common experience that when I do a mistake or do not meet some sort of criteria I have set for myself, often I get a feeling suggesting that this is really bad. It feels like this will have a big negative impact on my life even in the total context of my life they are pretty minor things. However, as I continue deepening my practice of mindfulness and as I become more observant of the patterns of my mind, I start noticing things I was not noticing before. I start seeing my own blindness. I notice myself developing an intuitive feeling that tells me when I am blowing things out of proportion again. It’s like a little voice inside me going ‘here you are doing the same again’. After becoming aware of this intuitive impulse, usually I discount whatever my initial reactions of fear or frustration suggest. More often than not, this leads to being more level-headed and making better decisions.

Also, it’s a very humbling experience to see how flawed my perceptions are. This makes it into a lifelong quest of learning more and more when my perceptions can and cannot be trusted.


  1. Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast & Slow, p. 402
  2. Gilbert, Daniel (2006). Stumbling on Happiness

Twitter is to humans as….grooming is to primates?

February 27, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

As I argued in Transforming Behaviour Change (see ‘attention’ in chp 5) I think new technologies pose important questions about how we regulate our attention. However, I also think the issue is important enough to tread cautiously about one’s claims….there may be complex things to understand that might be lost if we lash out too generically, without grounding our concerns in evidence, or (even) arguiing from our own personal experience.

I therefore feel a bit ambivalent about the recent Twitter v Susan Greenfield debate. I symapathise with Greenfield’s desire to say ‘let’s be a bit careful about the impact technology has on our brains, our attention, and our relationships’, but I don’t think she does the case any favours by making the argument as it it were self-evident that such impact was largely negative. It also harms her case that she has little or no experience of social media, and- somewhat like Dawkins with religion-shows few signs of empathy or understanding for those who do.

I found it hard to imagine why anybody would want to use a mobile phone, until I had a mobile phone. And more recently I couldn’t imagine myself tweeting until I started…tweeting. Now that I do, I can see why twitter is anything but anti-social, and by no means replaces or impedes offline social relations.

With this in mind, I enjoyed the following thoughtful piece on conversation by Sophie Scott. In a sense, twitter is merely a form of conversation, and conversation is vital for human beings to create and strengthen social bonds. The analogy is a bit of stretch, but replying to a friend’s tweet serves a similar function to primates grooming each other….

And now that I have written this, I had better go and tweet about it…before having a phone call, a face-to-face meeting with a colleague, sending a few emails, enjoying a drink with a friend, and then some quality time alone.



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