Before joining the RSA I played chess professionally. I learned the moves when I was five, and began studying the game properly as a teenager, when chess proved to be a refuge from adolescent growing pains. I represented Scotland and the UK in various international events. I hold the life-long title of ‘Grandmaster’ and was British Champion from 2004-6. I never threatened to be World Champion, but I did acquire ‘expertise’.
The best way to understand expertise is as ‘the exhaustion of errors’ in a given domain. To get good at anything, you have to make a lot of mistakes. In chess, this means playing a lot, and analysing your games closely. You attempt to avoid repeating errors that gradually become familiar, and you begin to notice you are getting better when your opponents appear to be making these familiar mistakes more often than before. You have moved beyond them, and see them coming, such that yesterday’s peers gradually become tomorrow’s customers.
And it doesn’t stop there. People who acquire expertise continue to look for errors in their play, and they even look at the board differently. The stronger the player, the more likely we are to attempt to falsify our own hypothesis i.e. the more likely we are too seek out reasons why what we think might be wrong.
At the risk of overlooking a thousand ifs and buts, people who make mistakes get good, and people who remain interested in the possibility that they are wrong tend to be more accurate. Jean Piaget built his reputation on his interest in children’s wrong answers, and James Joyce called errors his ‘portals of discovery’. It was with deep insight that Thomas Watson, founder of IBM said: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate”.
So why is it that we are so hung up about being wrong? If politicians admit they made a mistake we are more likely to accuse them of being flip-floppers, hypocrites, or inconsistent than to praise them for their maturity and learning style. These thoughts were prompted by a typically trenchant analysis from Johann Hari at The Independent.
Anybody seeking to explore these issues in more depth should consider the role of cognitive dissonance in perpetuating our attitude to error, and perhaps also read the wonderful book: “Mistakes were made, but not by me”.
A sublime article at the Guardian by Tony Judt who recently died after a long and public battle with motor neuron disease. He was writing about words being all we really have, and expressed himself beautifully. For instance:
“When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.”
“In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate. The vocal muscle, for 60 years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”
I read this article on the same day that I stumbled upon “Life without language” – an extended blog at neuroanthropology.net which explores ‘encultered cognition’. Language is much more than words, but does require some form of symbol system, including sign language.
The blog on language features an extraordinary story conveyed by Susan Schaller about her attempts to teach a profoundly deaf person in Idaho who grew up without any form of symbol system to communicate. Her goal was not to teach language, but to convey the very idea of language, and at the end of several weeks of sustained effort, she finally made a breakthrough:
“And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.”
“The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.”
We need our symbols, and words are some of the most sophisticated symbols we have. By reflecting on what it might be like to lose the ability to speak, or not to even understand what language is, and is for, we can remind ourselves that words are rarely ‘just words’, and that it is incumbent on us to use them well.
It’s hard to get your message across if you have a leaflet in your hand. Dressing as a giant banana gives you a 10 to 15 second window where people listen to you.
A fruity research participant in Southwark
I am reading MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy at the moment, which is the Cabinet Office’s report on how policymakers might influence individual and collective behaviour for the public good.
The overall emphasis of the report is not far from ‘Nudge’. It’s about shifting emphasis from changing more or less rational minds through imparting information, to changing contexts so that more or less socially determined behaviour changes itself.
Mindspace is presented as an acronym designed to capture the main findings from behavioural economics.
Messenger: we are heavily influenced by who communicates information(junior or senior, friend or foe)
Incentives: We are strongly loss averse, and take lots of mental shortcuts
Norms: We are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults: We tend to ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
Salience: Our attention is drawn to what is novel (hence the giant banana) and what seems relevant to us
Priming: Our acts are influenced by sub-conscious cues
Affect: Our emotional associations powerfully shape our actions
Commitments: We seek to be consistent, and reciprocate
Ego: We act in order to feel good about ourselves.
So what about the giant bananas? One of the case studies to illustrate ‘norms’ and ‘salience’ in the report was the London Borough of Southwark’s attempt to reduce littering, which is obviously a huge resource drain. Rather than pay people to clean it up, far better to encourage people not do drop it in the first place.
Starting in 2004, Southwark adopted ‘Stalking litter’, which involved hiring actors in giant litter costumes to ‘create a scene’ in busy streets throughout the borough, for instance by cheering passers by who put litter in bins. The costumes connect the issue of litter and fixed penalty notices (£75) – reminding people of the serious nature of litter dropping, but doing so by grabbing attention in a constructively frivolous way. The costumes were explicitly designed to represent the most common kinds of litter found in Southwark, including bananas.
The premise is that these similarities are likely to make the litter that citizens encounter more noticeable, and people less likely to drop it. Moreover, if you have a message to get across, it’s important to command attention. As one research participant earnestly noted, people are much more likely to listen to you when you are dressed as a giant banana.
Yesterday’s RSA Thursday featured Robin Dunbar, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, but best known for having his own number (a sure sign of success), 150, which he argues is the upper limit on the number of people you can maintain stable relationships with.
The idea is powerful, but it’s not new. I first came across it more than a decade ago when it was already called Dunbar’s number (Dunbar’s first major paper on the idea was in 1992), but it was then a much simpler anthropological notion about optimal group sizes, i.e. the upper size that communities and organisations should maintain in order to retain the informal efficiency of mutual recognition, trust and stability, rather than creating cumbersome rules and regulations that we seem to need in society at large.
In this respect, Dunbar’s new book, How many friends does one person need? can be thought of as Dunbar 2.0, in which the idea has been revitalised as a corrective to the rampant polyphilia on facebook and other social networking sites. Dunbar 2.0 says loud and clear that you can have thousands of facebook ‘friends’ if you want, but there are constraints on how many of them can meaningfully be called friends.
There can be no uncontested notion of what ‘friend’ means, but Dunbar argues that humans consistently show a pattern of layering their social contacts, with a core of close friends around 5, 15 considered ‘good friends’, 50 as ‘friends’ and up to 150 as acquaintances. Jacob Morgan’s blog gives a powerful graphic for this idea and the discussion on socialmediatoday.com is well worth reading.
Dunbar’s work is highly complex and interdisciplinary, and his core claim is that there are two constraints on stable relationships. The first is cognitive, the neural density and processing power needed to retain detailed information on people, or ‘keep track’ of them as Dunbar put it yesterday. The second is temporal, the time we need to invest so that people to create mutual interest and regard, and so that such relationships don’t decay, i.e so that friends don’t become strangers all over again.
There are many things to say about this fascinating idea, but I want to raise one in particular. It might be true that human beings are limited by Dunbar’s number, but much of Dunbar’s work seems to be based on extrapolations on primate behaviour. He thinks in evolutionary terms that are framed principally by biology and anthropology. But I wonder whether he should pay more attention to technological change as part of cultural evolution, for 21st century human beings in the developed world are now suspended somewhere between primates and robots. Indeed, many, most notably Andy Clark, have argued that human beings should be thought of as cyborgs.
“We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.”
So that would be my challenge for developing a Dunbar 3.0. Our minds and our technologies are increasingly part of continuim, with much of our memory and functionality stored in digital form. A person may only need a certain number of friends, or be capable of maintaining 150, but what of person-plus? What of the fact that we now live and learn and think with machines? What of the Cyborgs that we are becoming? We are so now thoroughly dependent on digital tools, and our sense of self interwoven with them, that it is far from unimaginable that future technologies will overcome the temporal and cognitive constraints intimated by Dunbar’s existing work.
Perhaps we are already doing so, because it is easier to keep track of people, and it is easier to invest time in relationships than it has ever been.
However, one of the many big suggestive points made yesterday was that we may need to physically touch people to remain close to them. The importance of touch for bonding is not fully researched yet, but it might be crucial- those handshakes, hugs and cheek-kisses may matter more than you know… and as Dunbar noted, it is hard to imagine ‘virtual touch’…but you never know…
(By Rohan Talbot, RSA Intern for Connected Communities and Social Brain)
Reading through the 2008 Social Capital Survey carried out in Camden, I came across something that piqued my interest. Among the various findings of the survey was the discovery that residents’ perceptions of whether they could influence local decision-making (either individually or collectively), are related to their satisfaction with their local area and quality of life. Higher satisfaction with quality of life was also found among those who thought they had a choice over whether or not they had to live in that local area.
This seems to chime with research in clinical and health psychology demonstrating the importance of personal ‘perceived control’ to human wellbeing. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that people in stressful circumstances (including physical or mental illness) who believe that they have some control over the situation and their lives generally tend to have better physical and psychological health outcomes.
Sir Michael Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at UCL and author of ‘The Status Syndrome: How social standing directly affects our health and longevity’, has pointed out that socioeconomic status is inversely related to health and life expectancy, even when risk factors such as smoking or high cholesterol are controlled for. Resources such as income and social support give people more choices and therefore more opportunities to change aspects of their lives that they may be dissatisfied with. Understandably, therefore, those with lower socioeconomic status often feel a lack of control over their lives. A lack of perceived control may therefore be not only contributing to the low reported wellbeing and satisfaction in deprived communities, but also to their significantly poorer health. Marmot argues that this link is due to the fact that low status leads to stress, which in turn can directly harm health.
Reviewing research into personal control beliefs, John and Catherine MacArthur also found that perceived control may buffer against some of the negative effects of low socioeconomic status:
“…among those with less education or income, those with strong control beliefs reported health outcomes comparable to those seen in higher SES groups for self-rated health, acute physical symptoms, depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.”
If we wish to improve the community wellbeing, perhaps we should seek to increase the control people feel they have over their lives. The most direct way to do this is to increase the material resources and developing education, income and public services. Nevertheless, in a time when financial belts are being tightened and there are fewer resources available for development, we may have to look at less expensive ways to increase people’s actual and perceived control.
Informing people of what decisions are being made in their local area, and ensuring residents’ voices are heard in decision making (e.g. the Tower Hamlets ‘You Decide!’ initiative to give residents a say in how the local budget is spent), may contribute to perceived control. Enabling people to connect to a wider social network of others with similar interests and concerns, who may be collectively able to influence decision-making, may also help. Perhaps even the process of surveying communities may have a positive impact, so long as those being surveyed believe that their opinions and concerns are being listened to and that the research will address local problems.
Whatever projects giving people more control over their lives and communities are pursued, they can clearly a positive impact beyond people’s engagement with the community and satisfaction with their quality of life. They may help make our communities not only happier, but potentially healthier too.
How much power do you have?
If you are struggling to answer that question, defining power and creating a suitable metric would be a good place to start. Neither task is easy, but Demos recently attempted both, resulting in: The Power Gap: An Index of Everyday Inequality in Britain, written by Daniel Leighton.
According to Demos, what makes a person powerful is a combination of three factors: the ability to shape one’s own life, to be resilient in the face of shocks and the arbitrary power of others, and the power to shape the social world. These three factors are measured in terms of eight power indicators: Education, occupational status, income, employment, freedom from crime, health, voter turnout, marginality of parliamentary seat.
The theoretical framing of power seems quite sophisticated, but the research, as far as I understand it, amounted to a large scale quantitative data survey, with several proxies used for the relevant measures. For instance, an individual’s measure of ‘personal power’ is a mixture of their level of academic qualifcations as a proxy for their critical thinking and choice of occupation, their income is a proxy for control over personal decisions, and their seniority as a proxy for control in the workplace.
Demos are of course aware that such measures are approximations, and if your ambition is to map levels of something as intangible as ‘personal control’ over the whole country, it is hard to see how you could do much better. For several thousand individuals the data and the proxies will not adequately capture their power level, subjectively or objectively(whatever that means in this context) but in aggregate the data does seem meaningful and powerful. The map may not be the territory, but it’s a pretty impressive map nonetheless.
I found it a fascinating report to read, not least becasue The Connected Communities Project is based on a less formalised understanding of the inequality of ‘power’, and driven by attempts to foster empowerment through building social capital in deprived communities. When he was recently speaking at the RSA, John Kamphner said he didn’t like the word ‘empowerment’ because it sounded too ‘NGOish’, but it is not easy to find a suitable replacement. The question of giving individuals and communities more control over their lives and their environments is very much the heart of the connected communities project, and the Demos report, and I think ‘empowerment’ captures that idea quite well, NGOish or not. (Demos also use ‘resilience’ as a key component of power i.e. the ability to withstand shocks and arbitrary changes. Their proxies for resilience are health, crime and unemployment, while our main claim is that resilience is a function of the range and density of social networks).
Inequality comes in many guises, but the Demos report contends that the inequality that impacts on life quality most tangibly is the inequality of power. At first blush, inequality of power sounds like a tautology, because we are used to thinking of power in hierarchical or ‘power over’ terms, whereby power is a zero sum game, traded between boss and worker, state and citizen etc. But the power at stake in this report is principally the power to shape one’s own life i.e “The power of the effective agent to make things happen.”, as they put it in the report, or as Bertrand Russell put it even more succinctly, “The production of intended effects”.
The report is heavily informed by Amartya Sen’s work on Capabilities, who refers to the central importance of people having “The opportunity to lead lives they have reason to value”.
I refer you to the report for more detailed considerations about the relative power of different areas in the uk, but what I didn’t find there, and what I would like to have known, is how a map of the inequality of power differs from a map on the inequality of income; such a comparison would have been illuminating.
In terms of closing gap between the powerful and powerless, I think we need a deeper understanding of surplus powerlessness, an idea of Michael Lerner’s that was highlighted in the report: “Surplus powerlessness refers to the fact that human beings contribute to their existing powerlessness to the extent that their emotional, intellectual and spiritual makeup prevents them from actualising possibilities that do exist.” Lehrer is clear that such surplus powerlessness is a direct cause of real powerlessness i.e. that the inequality of power in socio-economic terms creates a vicious circle and becomes compounded by our psycho-social makeup. On this analysis, the inequality of power literally goes from bad to worse.
On a more optimistic note, at the RSA we believe that becoming empowered is about recognising that our autonomy increases as we recognise our interdependence. While we encourage policy makers to address the inequality of power at whatever levels policy can have impact (education, employment, health, law and order etc) we can begin to address surplus powerlessness by a deeper appreciation of our connectivity, and by accessing sources of power through available networks. Hannah Arendt puts the point more powerfully:
“Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’, we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain group of people to act in their name.”
RSA thursdays fill a gap in our popular imagination of the working week, sharing the honour with manic mondays, pancake tuesdays, ash wednesdays and crunchy -be-thankful fridays. One of the best things about working here is ambling into an RSA Thursday event at lunchtime and having your mind informed, amused and expanded.
I missed the event on October 1, but dutifully listened to the podcast chez london transport, and deliberately took a circuitous route home so that I could finish it uninterupted. The event, Saving Kyoto: Copenhagen and Beyond was chaired by Mark Lynas and featured the astoundingly impressive Professor Graciela Chichilnisky. The talk concerned the complex scientific, economic, and political issues around climate change, and the multi-faceted challenge of preventing planetary degradation.
I mention this event in the context of connected communities because a blunt question naturally arises: why bother trying to understand community regeneration, when faced with imminent global destruction?
Part of the answer was provided at yesterday’s RSA Thursday by Madeleine Bunting who answered a question about everybody belonging to Gaia. The author of The Plot suggested that while we may be intellectually attracted to the idea of one people, one planet, Gaia is not a natural human scale, and that environmental responsibility is grounded in attachment to a sense of place or places. She also remarked that the geographical conception of community is the most useful one.
Earlier this week, Anne Gutowski, senior fellowship support at the RSA, forwarded an email she had received from an RSA fellow, Charlene Collison, who had enclosed what she believes to be “the first community sustainability plan to be published in England” and that this was something she had been directly inspired by the RSA to do. Forest Row is a large village in the heart of Sussex that subscribes to transition culture and is one of many transition towns that is attempting to forge effective and inspiring local responses to global challenges.
In the email forwarded, Charlene Collison wrote:
“I decided the only way not to despair is to change what you can. So I started in my local community, coming together with others concerned about climate change, energy shortage, population growth, resource poverty and so on. We formed a group to create a vision for a sustainable village, under the banner of Transition Initiatives.
The future is certainly looking ominous. But I have experiences that when you join together with others to do something about it, something extraordinary starts to happen. You might start with something that seems small or insignificant in the face of the huge scale changes that are needed, with “ordinary” people, not experts, and no idea how to begin. But in the process, such groups can come up with really robust ideas and initatiatives that start things moving and create a momentum that gradually infects the wider community.”
Action is often the best antidote to despair, but no matter how inspiring and effective a local initiative in the UK manages to become, does it make a meaningful impact given that that the US and China between them emit roughly two thirds of the carbon in the global atmosphere?
I think so. First, as a moral and spiritual duty, we should do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Local transition initiatives are not merely rearranging the deckchairs on a global Titanic, they are more like a fleet of luminous lifeboats populated by those wise and brave enough to jump ship before colliding with the ice flow and giving those still on deck a way out (of course, less figuratively, it is the not the presence of ice but its absence that is the problem…).
Secondly, perhaps eco-inertia can only be shifted on a small and tangible scale where there is a clear relationship between actions and outcomes. The recent IPPR report suggested the British public were generally disinterested in climate change, and would be more likely to change their behaviour if it saved them money, rather than helping to save the planet, but it is not clear what follows from this finding. Joe public may not care about preventing the destruction of the Amazon, the ‘lungs of the earth’, but he might be interested in planting trees in a local public space, and giving his own lungs a workout in the process.
Or he might not, and perhaps we should despair, but findings about the essentially social nature of our brains tell us that we are prone to copy, imitate, and feel pressure to conform to what others around us are doing. Part of the problem is that becasue so many people who care about climate change do so little about it, the people who don’t care literally don’t see a reason to care. So you have to make your concern visible, and the best way to do that is often local, and on issues that people around you are also likely to care about.
Third, have you got anything better to do? We know that one of the consistent and reliable findings from happiness studies is not just that we are happier when we feel connected, but that one of the best ways to get connected is through volunteering, and one of things most worth volunteering for is to save the planet, one place and person at a time.
I feel there is more to say on this subject, but I am not the best person to say it. Will Shaw of the RSA Arts and Ecology team covers such issues in more depth on a near daily basis, and I am keen to hear from others, but the question remains: If the most urgent and important question of the day is climate change, what meaningful role, if any, do communities have to play?
Three items from today’s news that point to the importance of knowledge of psychology for policymakers:
“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”
2) Vince Cable said:
“It is becoming clear that for the foreseeable future there is a higher risk of deflation [in the UK economy] than inflation, which is why it is inevitable and sensible that the Bank of England should be moving towards expansion of credit and the money supply directly… “
“Cervical cancer specialists are putting a rise in demand for screening down to a “Jade Goody effect” after the reality television star revealed at the weekend that she was terminally ill with the disease.”
What I’m interested in are the psychological assumptions that underlie these examples and how they are being used by policymakers.
1*) Stella Rimington is worried about how the UK Government is scaring people into accepting intrusive laws. This is an example of policymakers playing on our irrational fears – we are far more likely to be the victims of road accidents than terrorism. But it also tells how the Government thinks of us – in this case, feeble and wanting protection at all costs. As well, it tells us how the Government thinks about ensuring our safety – not through engaging our diligence (our reporting suspicious activities etc.), or trusting communities to sort out their own problems.
2*) Vince Cable is worried about deflation. He thinks the Government should print more money so as to enable credit flows to thicken. When the money in circulation is cheap enough to borrow and there is enough of it, he believes we will surely start borrowing and spending again. This is economic policy based on the assumption we are all completely rational – that information about the price and plenitude of money will be enough to get us borrowing, lending and spending again.
3*) Jade Goody’s tragic illness has motivated many more women to go for cervical cancer check-ups (and from sections of society previously unaware of the dangers and the screening system).
What can we learn from all this?
1**) That in the case of terror legislation the Government treats us in an infantile way, scaring us into submission and not utilising our abilities to help keep our society safe. They overplay the risk to get what they want and they disenable our capacities to police our own affairs.
2**) In the case of impending deflation, Vince Cable’s suggested monetary intervention treats us as informed quasi-experts. But we are not. Most people don’t understand economic policy and where they do (in the case of some financial workers), they are not necessarily acting rationally – they are scared and fearful, rather than being made to feel scared and fearful. Policy ought to reflect this, and whilst pumping money into the economy might be one neccesary step towoards it, restoring a (rather nebulous) sense of public confidence should be the focus.
3**) With regard to the ‘Jade Goody effect’: here we see that on issues of health, emotional engagement through known public figures and accessible media is far more effective than giving people reams of information and expecting that to motivate them to change their behaviour.
What all this says is that in some cases the Government treats us as resilient rational types, to be ‘pushed’ through our own intrinsic motivation; in others, as irrational subjects to be ‘pulled’ through extrinsic factors that play on our emotional-instinctual attributes.
Nothing wrong with this ‘context specific’ approach to the psychology of policymaking. But it is clear that the Government very often gets it wrong in which cases to push and in which to pull.
So the moral of the story is that effective policymaking requires a better knowledge of psychology.
Stella Rimington is right to conjure up the spectre of an Orwellian police state in the same breath as anti-terrorism legislation. She’s right because she identifies the way that fear is a political currency in our society, and that in recent years we have seen its value inflate several times over.
Does it matter? Yes. Fear and the way it spreads, reproduces and morphs was perhaps the shared mental crisis of the twentieth century.
The study of fear has long preoccupied social psychologists. Some of their research has yielded disturbing results. For example; if something is seen as unbearably fearful, we start to allow it to affect our perceptions of the world and its risks. These “fear appeals” form the backbone of most public health campaigns.
At its most basic this can be seen in social psychological studies of the impact of American oral hygiene classes in schools in the fourties and fifties. The research found that they were too effective and terrifying; some kids were so freaked out that they just stopped looking after their teeth altogether.
That may seem trivial, but this behaviour has been recorded playing out in other, bigger contexts.
There is a theory that we actually respond to fear in two, parallel ways. We act to control danger (brush your teeth, use a condom, join a picket to protest job losses); these are usually the behaviours fear appeals try to induce.
But we also act to control our fear itself, and that’s where all sorts of bad behaviour can come into play; denial, avoidance, projection of the danger onto innocent people (so never brush your teeth, avoid the smear test, join the National Front and go about telling people to f*** off home and stop stealing your job). Add up the effect of an entire population doing this stuff, and the stage is set for some gross abuses of our fellow humans and ourselves. Sadly, the history of the last century is littered with this sort of behaviour.
Fear appeals have a venerable history as a rhetorical device. These social studies show what Cicero could have told you anyway; to be effective fear appeals need to arouse real panic. That’s why politicians use them; they’re a superb way of mobilising huge numbers of people. They’re one of the most consistent mass communication techniques we have for changing attitudes and behaviours. But of course, in acting to control the danger, we often act to control our fear in unintended, disastrous ways.
In the case of our response to the threat of terrorism we have accepted infringements of our hard won civil liberties that in Ms Rimington’s own words are disproportionate to the risks involved and might not have been allowed in another climate. It will be truly disturbing if it turns out our decision-makers did not act to expose alleged torture being used in the “War On Terror“, even if it wasn’t carried out by our own intelligence agents.
This is a good time to stand back and ask searching questions of our use of fear as a way of weilding power. Espionage and torture may be the sexy stuff, but things as banal as the dwindling number of children who are allowed to play outside their street are indices of how much fear rules our lives and changes our communities.
“It would be better that the Government recognised there were risks, rather than frightening people in order to pass laws,” says Ms Rimington in her La Vanguardia interview. These are sound and sobering words, and they actually throw down a challenge to all of us. We all need to develop a capacity to understand our responses to fear, and create social structures that mitigate our more neurotic responses to it. Something for my colleagues Matt Grist and Jamie Young, perhaps?
It’s already been noted that Barack Obama’s election seems to have had a positive affect on the educational achievements of African-American students. This affect stems in part from what social psychologists call self-image or self-expectation theory. The idea is that a lot of what we do is motivated by the kind of person we want to be, the kind of social groups we take ourselves to belong to, and the kind of person others think we are.
People will often not do something if it doesn’t chime with their values, or if they feel they will be judged to have behaved badly by people they respect, admire or simply identify with. They will try to make their actions cohere with a self-image and social identity that they project ahead of them.
Or conversely, if people find themselves doing something regularly, they will adjust their values to their behaviour in order to maintain coherence: if I find myself regularly reading trashy magazines, I may well adjust my prior attitude that reading them is a waste of my time. But when I make this adjustment it must fit with the overall coherence of my values and attitudes: I tell myself reading trashy magazines is an acceptable form of relaxation for a busy person like me, as long as it doesn’t take up too much time.
So we will often mimic others we take to share our values and attitudes. But we will also mimic those we take to be adept at adjusting their attitudes and values to their actual behaviour – we will trust them more because there is no dissonance between what they say and do. In short, we find a combination of a shared orientation on the world and personal integrity highly inspiring.
What is inspiring about Barack Obama so far is his presentation of himself as an intelligent, empathic, balanced, determined, elegant, patient, calm, virtuous person. But he has also shown himself to be skilled at adjusting his values and attitudes to the behaviour these uncertain times have forced upon him. He has tempered his ‘can-do’ self-confidence with the humility that austerity brings. But he hasn’t simply jettisoned the former – rather, just seen when and where it is appropriate. And he has found the words to express this adjustment in a way that the public can identify with.
I think it is important for leaders to possess this ability. For then we, the public, will identify with the image they project, and adopt it as our own. They can provide a lead on maintaining certain values and attitudes in uncharted waters, and, conversely, on what adjustments in those values and attitudes are required by the times. If they are successful, we internalise the image they project which helps us to motivate ourselves to change our behaviour for the better. In present times that means, for example, feeling good about saving more money, being more energy efficient, being more concerned for others around us. And one should never underestimate the power of such motivation.
But if Obama’s words become too dissonant with his behaviour, or vice versa, we will lose trust in him. So we are as much influencing him as he us.
Gordon Brown showed himself to capture the spirit of the times for a brief moment. But he seems to be a one-trick pony. Thus politics in the media age is not as anti-democratic as we might think: his apparent inability to adjust his behaviour to maintain his values and attitudes in uncertain times, as well as his apparent inability to adjust his values and attitudes to match behaviour that was forced upon him; all this causes a cognitive dissonance it seems many find uninspiring.