The UKIP Paradox: Why the party that needs to get serious will suffer when it does.

March 4, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Are UKIP serious?

Is it timely to assume that a party that appears to have a reasonable chance of topping the polls in our next national election and winning seats in our next general election must have solutions for the major problems in our lives? Presumably now that UKIP are about to get more television coverage because Ofcom have reclassified them as ‘a major party’, they will they use that bigger platform to showcase a range of big ideas?

This ‘bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ as our Prime Minister once called them, just happen to be the party ‘viewed most favourably’ and ‘viewed least unfavourably’ by the electorate in a recent ComRes national poll. Surely that indicates they must have some finely honed policies that people resonate with, or at least some coherent organising principles to indicate what they would do with respect to the economy, health, education, crime, and other such sundries?

Well actually, no, not at all, and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage admitted as much on The Andrew Marr Show this weekend. Farage said that his core aim is to continue with popular campaign themes and ideas (principally on The EU and Immigration) to try to finish first in the European elections, but he also openly acknowledged the policy vacuum and wanted to reassure prospective voters that UKIP are currently working hard on a carefully budgeted manifesto in preparation for the 2015 general election.

This might sound like a good idea, but it is likely to hurt UKIP quite badly, and to understand why we need to look more deeply at UKIP’s appeal:

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. 

The moral foundations of politics

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. We vote rather on the basis of unconscious moral frameworks often expressed in metaphors (e.g. Putin is ‘the strict father’) projective identification with leaders (e.g. ‘The barbecue test’ that apparently won George W Bush his elections – people could imagine enjoying his company more than Al Gore or John Kerry), and narratives (e.g. Bill Clinton’s ‘it’s the economy, stupid’; Obama’s ‘Yes we can’).

With this in mind, I believe UKIP’s meteoric rise relates to the way they are tapping into certain kinds of ‘moral’ foundations that have been relatively neglected by the (other) mainstream parties. Satirical takes on UKIP’s distinctive style of righteous indignation capture something important about their appeal, like the ‘UKIP keyboard’ designed “to remind you of the good old days before the country went to hell in a handcart”.

UKIP’s rise illustrates 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’.

A deeper way to make this point is that UKIP, perhaps unwittingly, appear to 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 definitely not saying UKIP 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. Indeed, while it is difficult to be precise without careful research, my reading of Values Modes suggests the values palette of UKIP supporters(principally ‘settlers’ with ‘prospector’ elements) which often finds expression in the tabloid press(The Sun and The Daily Mail are best selling newspapers) in particular, is common to between a fifth and a quarter of the population.

The thing is, most of the rest of the position may not recognise such perspectives as ‘moral’ at all…

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.

A quick overview of Haidt’s palette of moral foundations includes:

  1. The Care/Harm Foundation is based on concern for others and a desire to protect them from harm.
  2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation relates to a particular sense of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, sometimes called proportionality, as in Aristotle’s famous line that ‘justice is giving each their due’
  3. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation is about resisting domination, and the sensitivity to people being tyrannized. Haidt says this “triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.
  4. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation is about the love of tribes and team mates, about our drive to form cohesive coalitions, whether through families or nations.
  5. The Authority/Subversion Foundation is tradition and legitimate authority, grounded in respect and an appreciation for the structures provided by hierarchies.
  6. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation is about avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions but it extends to a broader conception of purity or disgust, and our ideas about what is sacred

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. More to the point, our political outlooks are shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise. Those with what Haidt calls WEIRD morality (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) may struggle with this message, because we have a set notion of what moral means, but the social intuitionist perspective forces you to reconsider.

Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of his 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. You might say progressives are ‘morally outnumbered’, which is not to say they are wrong, because there is no empirical way to determine how much weight we should give to each of the touchstones – that’s the value judgment that determines who we are.

Why UKIP Press Buttons others find hard to reach

***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***

(Image via:


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, because they are touching lots of these moral foundations,

  • When UKIP ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into the liberty/oppression foundation, resisting dominance of a foreign power, and relatedly activating ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into loyalty and sanctity.
  • When UKIP opposed gay marriage they were appealing to sanctity and degradation.
  • When UKIP speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression.
  • Note that UKIP 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.

Political Psychology

When you think about these moral foundations, you can see that the risk of getting serious is partly that UKIP might lack the ideas, intellects and infrastructure to develop a credible and creative manifesto, and also that UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all.

UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all. 

However, the most profound risk for UKIP lies deeper, because people are voting for them for ‘moral’ reasons that the other parties do not view as moral at all, and which are ‘moral’ in ways that are inherently anti-policy in spirit. The fifth or so of the electorate that are currently inclined to vote for UKIP are finding nourishment from UKIP’s manner and message, which appears to me to be a mixture of lionised ‘common sense’ and self-righteous indignation. ‘Policy’ is antithetical to both, because it requires details that are technocratic in spirit, and a position of one’s own that makes indignation more self-conscious, and vulnerable to counter-attack.

The other risk of developing policies is that the nature of the messenger changes from being a particular kind of anti-politics, anti-policy morality, to being another political party that looks less moral for fraternising with the enemy. UKIP are therefore in an interesting bind. They need policies to get serious, but getting serious about policy will dilute and diminish their ‘moral’ appeal.

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

You can follow him here.

The problem with fines is that they can turn into fees

January 24, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

If you are late, you have to pay a price. Normally it’s the social price of mild shame, but what happens when you are asked to pay an economic price instead?

The front page of yesterday’s Metro announced a £60 fine imposed on parents if their children are late for school.  At first blush this might seem like an obvious solution to a simple problem: to deter an unwanted behaviour, make it less attractive by imposing a monetary fine on it. But research from behavioural science shows that this model of change does not always pan out in real life.

The question is whether and how this £60 fine will affect parents’ actions; to this end research by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini detailed in their paper “A Fine is a Price” offers a potential answer. The researchers tested the effect of imposing a fine on parents for late collection of their children from a child care centre, and found, perhaps surprisingly, that late pick-ups increased under the fine.

The researchers tested the effect of imposing a fine on parents for late collection of their children from a child care centre, and found, perhaps surprisingly, that late pick-ups increased under the fine.

Whereas prior to the implementation of the fine policy parents would typically feel guilty about coming late, the monetary penalty served as a way to “pay” for their tardiness, thus absolving them of their guilt. It seems that for many people simply paying a fee is preferable to the emotional penalty of feeling ashamed or guilty. The take home message from Gneezy and Rustichini’s research is that introducing a monetary penalty can change a context from being a social transaction to a market transaction, and once this change occurs, it is very hard to revert back to the original relationship which is guided by social norms.

According to the Metro article, at least someone is aware of this risk. “Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education, warned: ‘They could undermine relations between school and parents – the cornerstone of any school’s success.’

It is possible, if not likely, that the £60 fine policy being imposed by three schools in Milton Keynes would fall prey to the same surprising results as the child care centre experiment, where the intrinsic motivation to be on time is crowded out by extrinsic drivers.  But the £60 policy may have other surprising consequences too, due to the conditions of the fine.  According to the article by Le Marie, the fine is imposed on parents for each child who is late 10 or more times in a 12-week term, payable within 21 days.  If the fine goes unpaid it doubles to £120 payable within 28 days.

Firstly, the policy changes the norm. Since a child needs to be late 10 times to get the fine, those parents or carers who are frequently late – say 6 or 7 times in a 12-week term – might change their point of reference.  Perhaps they will no longer compare themselves to the ideal (always on time) but instead to the most salient marker (which now is being late 10 times), so rather than feeling relatively bad about their tardiness they may start to feel “better than average” or at least “better than the worst”.

Secondly, one could question the efficacy of such steep non-payment (or late-payment) penalties.  A 100% penalty would be considered heavy, even compared to the oft-vilified payday loans (on average charging a £12-£25 late fee on a £100 loan).  Behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Psychologist Eldar Shafir explain in their book Scarcity that humans’ cognitive resources are limited, and when we are struggling to deal with not having enough of something such as time or money, our decision-making ability is impaired.

In effect, we become so busy trying to juggle certain pressures that we don’t have the mental energy left to deal with other challenges, such as, for example, bringing our child to school on time. One way to mitigate this sub-optimal decision making in the peripheral domains is to relieve some of the pressure on the major problem (e.g. lack of time or money) – exactly the opposite of slapping an expensive fine onto a parent, potentially further exacerbating the underlying issue.

This point was echoed by Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard’s statement that “‘Children who are frequently late to school are often from chaotic family backgrounds. Taking money away from struggling parents could just make a bad situation worse.’

Last November an article in The Guardian noted that parents wishing to take their children out from school for holiday during term time would be faced with a similar fine.  The initial results of this policy show that applications for taking children out of school have in fact increased since its introduction.

It is yet to be known whether Milton Keynes’s borough-wide £60 fine policy will change rates of tardiness.  But both the behavioural science research and the failure of the term-time holiday penalty suggest that the policy will not work.  These effects, surprising to many, illustrate why it is so important to question our underlying assumptions about human nature, and to trial interventions on a small scale before rolling out a large scale policy change.


Nathalie Spencer is a behavioural economist at The RSA’s Social Brain Centre. Reach her at

Article on term-time holiday penalty h/t Chris Gaskell.

Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem

January 20, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact.  While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:

  1. We know that many of the things we do are ‘bad’, but can’t see any way of making constructive changes that don’t require a drastic and unrealistic transformation in how we live
  2. We know that most changes won’t make a difference unless other people do the same, so acting seems like a pointless sacrifice

I think that a bit more information might change our minds on both these points, and make it a bit easier to motivate positive behavioural changes.

Revolution vs Evolution

To take just one area where these factors apply, consider what we eat.  It is widely acknowledged that eating meat is probably not the most ethical thing one can do.  In addition to animal rights concerns, the production of meat is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation.  To summarize:

  • Livestock accounts for almost 1/6 of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
  • An area of the world’s rainforests 2/3 the size of the UK is destroyed each year to create grazing land
  • Over 2/3 of global agricultural land is used to grow crops for animals in feed lots while a billion people go hungry

With population growth and the rise of new meat-eating middle-classes in developing countries, all of these problems are set to multiply.  It is therefore clear that current Western levels of meat consumption are completely unsustainable.

The implication is that we should all be vegetarians.  But personally, though I had long accepted the moral argument, I simply couldn’t envisage changing my behaviour so drastically. The end result was that I didn’t change at all.

But that was until I made an interesting discovery. To paraphrase Orwell, while all animals are equal, it seems some are more equal than others.  Red meat (lamb and beef) is by far the biggest offender, requiring many times more land, feed and fossil energy to produce.  This is partly because these animals are such inefficient converters of feed into meat.  Cows require about seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to around three kilograms for pork and less than two kilograms for chicken.  NPR made this useful infographic to illustrate just how resource and emissions-intensive beef is: 

What It Takes To Make A Quarter-Pound Hamburger

What it takes to make a hamburger

The above doesn’t even include the copious quantities of methane these animals produce – a gas which has 23 times the impact of carbon dioxide.  Factoring that in, it becomes even clearer that acting on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a radical change like vegetarianism; just cutting out red meat can make a huge difference.

Or can it?  The second part of the dilemma described at the outset concerned the link between this kind of individual action and the kind of collective action that will be required to avert dangerous climate change.

Individual vs Collective Action

Game theory describes a classic example of the collective action problem in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  In this thought experiment, two prisoners in solitary confinement each inform on the other in order to get a reduced sentence.  The end result is that they both get heavy sentences.  Its logic applies, to a certain extent, to acting on climate change.  No-one wants to be in the situation where they act but others do not, making them both absolutely and relatively worse off, and rendering their sacrifice meaningless.

But that is where the analogy ends.  We do not live in solitary confinement.  On the contrary, our decisions are influenced more than anything by social values, social norms and social judgements.  A big part of our decision not to change our diet is the fact that hardly anyone else is doing it.  But if the social landscape can cause negative outcomes, then it can also engender positive ones.  If most people were making personal sacrifices for the sake of others, it would be much easier to make (and much more difficult to resist making) those same sacrifices ourselves.

So how do we get from this social landscape to that one?  Work by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the tragedy of the commons has highlighted the need for institutions, rules and incentives for behaviour.  But whilst these structures will be vital to global action, we must not lose sight of the role of individuals.  Your decisions do not just change your own tiny contribution to climate change; they also change the social landscape for those around you.

I am lucky that a significant proportion of my peers are genuinely altruistic, and their leadership made it much easier to motivate my own behaviour change in cutting out red meat.  And hopefully my decision adds a tiny bit more momentum to that movement, making it a fraction easier for the next person to prioritise the common good over personal interests.

If you do not have such role models around you, you can become one yourself.  If just one other person decides to follow your lead then you’ve doubled your impact.  If you share two more close friends, suddenly they are each confronted with the fact that two-thirds of their friends are making personal sacrifices, massively altering that social landscape and turning it from an inhibiting to an enabling force for change.

This ripple-effect of individual action can (and will need to) play a major role in overcoming collective action problems like climate change.  So if you are put off acting because you don’t want to change your entire life, or are discouraged by the collective action problem, it may be time to reconsider.  There is probably something much more manageable you can do, and it might have a bigger impact than you think.

Thinking about thinking about climate change

December 13, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

“If you wanted to invent a problem to induce confusion, disbelief and the turning of blind eyes, it would be hard to come up with something better than climate change.” – Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, ‘The Burning Question’

Having recently attended Duncan Clark’s RSA event (based on his new book quoted above), and worked on the forthcoming climate change report by Dr Jonathan Rowson, I’ve been confronted with a host of different reasons for why we are collectively failing to respond to climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is the greatest single threat to our health, economy and security in the 21st century.

Whilst they are all interesting – from the orientation of our economy to the influence of powerful interest groups – most of these factors are external. But there is another element which is not about that or them, but about us.  This blog highlights a small selection of the quirks in our psychological makeup that are causing us to ‘sleepwalk’ into so much danger.


Firstly, our brains are hardwired for optimism – we buy lottery tickets believing that the one in a million could be us, yet when confronted with the fact that almost one in two marriages end in divorce, we don’t see it as having any relevance to our own relationships.  This optimism bias is great for protecting us from depression and inspiring us to be ambitious, but is really bad for dealing with looming problems like climate change.

Secondly, we stubbornly cling to our beliefs, only acknowledging evidence that supports our opinions.  This confirmation bias is pretty familiar to us – we read the newspapers that share our world view, and dismiss as unreliable those which challenge us.  Particularly stubborn is our self-image – so if we think of ourselves as funny, we remember all the times we made people laugh, and forget those quips that went down like a lead balloon.  Facing up to the reality of climate change would force us to re-think not only our behaviour, but our view of ourselves as morally decent people, so we (consciously or unconsciously) choose not to face up to the uncomfortable truth that we have a role to play in all of this.

Added to these personal traits is the fact that we are essentially social creatures.  We look first and foremost to our peers to determine our opinions and decision-making, not the facts.  A perfect illustration is my own behaviour recently, when a fire alarm went off.  If I was alone in the room at the time, I would have gotten up and left the building.  But because there were other people present, I looked around and, seeing no-one else moving, decided it must be a false alarm and continued with what I was doing.  In the case of climate change, our peers don’t seem alarmed, so we assume it can’t be that big a problem.  This also creates ‘social inertia’ between political leaders and the public – we assume that if it was serious, governments would already be addressing it, yet governments aren’t compelled to take serious action because voters are not yet demanding it.

With climate change, all of these mental flaws are exacerbated by specific characteristics of the problem at hand, which is caused by particles we can’t see, has effects we can’t yet discern (although that is changing with all the recent instances of extreme weather events) and will impact firstly and most severely on people we will never meet.  None of this changes the fact that there is a clear moral imperative to prevent the suffering that will be caused by inaction but, collectively, these factors give our minds all the ‘wiggle room’ they need to duck, dodge, and deny its relevance to us.


virtuous cycle


All this sounds pretty bleak, but the good news is that the social cycle mentioned above works both ways:  if more of us start talking about the reality of climate change and how we can begin to address it, it loses the social taboo it currently has and encourages others to talk and act on it.  And if we start demanding action from our governments, they will begin to see that addressing climate change is key to winning elections.  And once they start taking it more seriously, that sends a signal to the rest of the population that climate change is the key issue of our time, and the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly. 

 the vicious cycle of inaction can become a virtuous cycle of action very quickly

A similar phenomenon happened with Western society’s attitude to slavery in the transition from the disinterest of the 18th century to the mass mobilization of opposition in the 19th.  In that case, though, there was no deadline – no ‘tipping point’ at which more slavery would take the issue beyond human control and into a deadly, downward spiral.   With climate change, there is.

So if you do one thing after reading this (and there are many you could do – from divesting from fossil fuels to supporting calls for fee and dividend policies), then make it a social act.  Talk about this with the next person you see, or with your online connections, or with your family when you go home.


Because we are social brains, after all.


For more factors behind our ‘stealth denial’ of climate change, and possible solutions to break the deadlock, see Jonathan Rowson’s climate change report, coming out on Tuesday 17th December. 

Conor Quinn is Communications Intern at the Action and Research Centre, RSA.  You can follow him  @conorquinn85

When was the last time you went on a saving spree?

August 8, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Saving money can be hard to do, especially given the current economic climate and falling real wages. It can be difficult emotionally, too, with a recent report published by the Money Advice Service finding that many people prefer to spend their money “more on the here and now than on planning for the future.” But with the right help, maybe saving can even be fun.

Picture the scene: you are browsing online just about to purchase a t-shirt. You don’t actually really need another t-shirt, after all it looks exactly like all the others in your closet, but it is 30% off, so for £10 why not? But just before your online checkout, a message pops up asking whether you’d like to add £10 – instead of (or in addition to) making the purchase – to a savings account named “new computer”, “honeymoon fund”, or perhaps more important but somewhat less motivating “unforeseen emergencies”. Or, as you are waiting for the barista to hand you your coffee you eye up the croissants on the café counter. It looks tasty, so you consider adding it to your order, but instead, you use your phone to transfer the £2 you would have spent on the croissant into your savings pot designated for a gourmet foodie weekend in Paris. savings-400x264

image via

This is what ImpulseSave, a small Boston-based organisation is helping savers to do. Their motto, “go on a saving spree!” reflects its basic function of replacing spending with saving.  According to this article, ImpulseSave allows you to transfer money into a savings account via text or app, and provides prompts to save while you are shopping online.  Similar to some other savings tools, your savings account is named for a specific goal, so you always have in mind what your savings is building towards. Smarty Pig, another savings tool, also uses named accounts to keep the goal salient, but rather than making impulse saves, you set up automatic transfers from an existing account. How it differs from more conventional bank accounts is that you can share your progress online via various social media and friends or family can actually contribute to your savings pot to help you towards your goal.

The Social Brain Centre has argued elsewhere that saving money can be hugely beneficial to people; having a financial buffer can influence upward social mobility, effective decision making, and psychological wellbeing. But despite its benefits, many people find it hard to save.

So what do savings tools like ImpulseSave and SmartyPig offer to help people save more, that more traditional tools such as budget planners, while helpful, don’t seem to provide? Traditional tools assume that as long as people understand their incomings and outgoings, they will behave in such a way as to stay within their means. But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people to actually achieve their savings goals. Instead, we are often side-tracked by impulse purchases (the ImpulseSave website cites a staggering 15-20% of our take home pay is spent on impulse purchases “that we don’t need or even remember buying”!), short-sightedness, or lack of social support.  

But just knowing the budget, while necessary, is not sufficient for many people actually achieve their savings goals.

The former tools, however, use insight about human nature and what drives our behaviour to help us (once we know our budget) stick to our savings goals. For example, with such busy lifestyles and our tendency to conserve mental energy, we are more likely to do something the easier it is to do. These tools make saving easy, either through automatic transfers or via simple digital tools. By naming the accounts, this brings our savings goals to the front of our attention, and helps keep us motivated by reminding us what we are working towards, even if that is to be spared the stress and anxiety of an unexpected expense (think a broken boiler or car repairs). And the social aspects of these tools may improve the motivation to save by evoking the desire to remain consistent with your publicly stated commitments, and also perhaps in some way by changing social norms around discussing openly what may be still somewhat of a taboo subject.

This is not to say that financial literacy is not important, but rather that beyond learning how to budget we may need some extra help along the way to achieve our savings goals. Tools like those discussed above seem to using behavioural insight to reposition saving from being something onerous to being something fun. So go ahead and try going on a saving spree, and comment below; we’d love to hear how it goes.


Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.   

Can behavioural insights help to close the attainment gap?

June 19, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

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.

  • Collaboration

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

After homo economicus, is homo biomedicus next?

May 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.

The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project  in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.

Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.

The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)

Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.

There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:

Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.

Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.

Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch

Fergie, Football and Photos

May 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

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.

Via @thecelticwiki

Via @thecelticwiki

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.





Discrimination: why mental illness is a special case

January 11, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I’ve had a great response so far to my post about mental health and employment on Monday, and some important issues have been raised. One of the comments made directly in response to the blog was particularly challenging, and pointed to some important issues which I have tried to tackle in some of my previous work on anti-stigma education.

The commentator suggested that people with experience of mental illness being unable to get secure employment leads to them setting up in self-employment and drew attention to the downsides of this. It sounded to me as though the writer might have had first-hand experience of dealing with a freelancer who had continued to work during an episode of acute mental illness. The “ranting paranoid accusations” sound very difficult to deal with indeed, and it is exactly this sort of troubling behaviour that employers presumably have in mind when they say wouldn’t employ someone with a mental disorder. The response also drew attention to the lack of support available to self-employed individuals experiencing mental health problems and the damage that can be left behind for clients and business partners who “tried to work with them in good faith.”

Interestingly, I had a respondent write to me directly (rather than in the public forum) expressing horror at what they saw as inherent stigma in this analysis. However, despite my interest in reducing prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness, I do not think that this is an instance of such prejudice. In fact, it very helpfully draws attention to what I see as the real nub of the problem in terms of discrimination and stigma in the context of mental illness.

for individuals who experience it, mental illness is not a constant, unchanging feature

Discrimination is treating someone unfairly on the basis of characteristics which ought to be irrelevant. We are familiar with the idea that not employing someone because of their gender, race or sexuality is unfair, and amounts to sexism, racism or homophobia. It could be assumed that comparably unfair treatment of a person with a mental illness is the same. However, I think that mental illness is actually a special case, and differs from gender, race, or sexuality in the way in which discrimination functions in relation to it. It is different in that, for individuals who experience it, mental illness is not a constant, unchanging feature. Forgive my massive oversimplification, but at the simplest level, if you are a woman, you are a woman every day – your ‘womanness’ is relatively fixed and definite; likewise with skin colour or sexuality.

If you have a diagnosis of a mental illness, your status is not only likely to be, at some level, contested, but also fluctuating, transient and shifting. There is the issue of the hugely various types of mental illness you may have. Furthermore, no matter what your diagnosis, it is likely that you have had periods of your life when you have been less able to function than others, along with periods of your life when you are entirely able to function. In other words, the way in which the mentally ill part of a person impacts on their life is inconsistent.

What this means is that there are times when it is appropriate and right to treat a person with a mental illness differently to someone who does not have a mental health problem – for example when they are currently in throes of madness ‘proper’. 

What this means is that there are times when it is appropriate and right to treat a person with a mental illness differently to someone who does not have a mental health problem – for example when they are currently in throes of madness ‘proper’. However, a person with a mental illness who is free of symptoms and yet is unfairly treated differentially is therefore being subjected to discrimination in the sense that they are being judged on the grounds of characteristics which ought to be irrelevant.

The result of this is that the idea of ‘stigma’ in relation to mental illness simply does not make sense as a fixed dimension of people’s attitudes. The interaction between the fluctuating, changeable nature of mental illness along with people’s context-specific, plural position taking in relation to it is characterised by too much subtlety and nuance to be rendered simply in terms of stigma.

This is kind of complex, and it’s something people might only really come to understand through personal experience – either of going through some kind of mental illness themselves or by being close to someone who has. Another respondent to my earlier post told me about being a manager of staff with mental health problems and regarding them as “weak willed fools”. It was only after experiencing a breakdown himself that his perspective changed and he seemed clear in his conviction that without this personal experience he would never have shifted his view

There is no substitute for first-hand experience. Indeed, one of the insightful fourteen year olds who participated in some research I did said to me, “You can’t know what it’s like unless you’ve been through it yourself. I could talk to someone with schizophrenia, or whatever, all day long, but I still wouldn’t know what it’s like.” But, that’s not to say our capacity for empathy cannot be enhanced.

I’m convinced that attitudes to mental illness in the workplace can be improved, but that only through greater understanding of personal experiences, including those which have been troubling. Most crucially, the difference between a person with a mental health problem who is currently acutely unwell, and someone with a diagnosis but no impeding symptoms is vital to understand if progress is to be made in managing mental illness and employment.

What is evidence anyway?

November 28, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The idea of rigour is pretty important when it comes to research. In a previous post I’ve expressed the view that we need to acquire and properly understand evidence before investing a lot of money in rolling out interventions. But, that’s not to say that collecting ‘evidence’ for efficacy and effectiveness is always as rigorous as it might appear.

I’m very interested in anti-stigma mental health education, and I do think it’s important to know that approaches to such education are working well before they are rolled out on any large scale. But, how do you know that they work?

Conventionally, quasi-experimental designs are used in which participants complete attitude surveys before and after taking part in an intervention, and differences in attitude scores are compared. Early in my research career, I constructed a questionnaire designed to measure adolescents’ attitudes to mental illness. I followed a rigorous procedure to do this, interviewing young people in order to generate statements to include on the questionnaire, piloting the questionnaire and conducting factor analysis.

Even though my questionnaire was quite well put together, and appeared to be able to produce valid and reliable results, the process of constructing it caused me to develop a highly critical stance in relation to measuring attitudes in this way.

My feeling was that while an analysis of young people’s responses to the questionnaire may able to indicate general trends and patterns in respondents’ views, the instrument was also reductive. In order to generate material for the questionnaire, I held group discussions with young people. The content of these was rich and complex, with individuals frequently holding contradictory views and occupying ambiguous positions in relation to mental illness. The level of detail, nuance and subtlety which I observed during the focus groups could simply not be captured by a questionnaire using a bipolar response scale.

Another limitation of attitude measurement techniques is that they force responses to be recorded as either positive or negative. It became clear through my discussions with young people that ambivalence and confusion were very genuine features of their understanding, which questionnaires are unable to capture.

Not only that, but using a questionnaire to measure attitudes to something as complex as mental illness is problematic for semantic reasons. Most questionnaires about mental illness, including the one I constructed, rely on people responding to the phrase ‘mental illness’, without knowing how the term is understood by individual respondents. Given that ‘mental illness’ can describe such a vast spectrum of experience, from full blown madness, to fairly mild sadness, it may well be that different respondents are thinking about completely different things as they complete the questionnaire.

This has important implications. A common item on attitude to mental illness questionnaires is ‘people with mental illness are dangerous’. If you are imagining a person in the throes of paranoid psychosis, it’s likely that you’ll answer the question quite differently than if you are imagining someone with postnatal depression or anorexia.

not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted

The interpretation of the answer to such a question is also problematic. If someone agrees with the statement, their response is interpreted as indicating a negative attitude to mental illness. However, although most people with mental health problems are not dangerous, some people with mental illness do sometimes do dangerous things. It is possible that someone may agree with the statement on the grounds that they know this, but that they are generally supportive towards people with mental illness and therefore hold a broadly positive attitude.

So, although it’s important to have some evidence which demonstrates that interventions do what they are supposed to do, it’s also important to be critical about the nature of that evidence. As Einstein said, “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”.

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