Wanted: people with a phone like yours. Just
I was just scrolling through Facebook, keeping up with the kids and other
parents, when an advert grabbed me. It said 'Wanted: Nokia Lumia 1520 users!'
Gosh, I thought. I've got one of those. It must be just for me. Reading further,
Do you own a Nokia Lumia 1520? Then we are looking for you! We are looking
for Nokia users who want to answer online questionnaires. No need to be an
expert, anyone can do it. For each completed questionnaire you will receive a
nice reward. Are you interested? Click here and join now
Now what does having a Nokia Lumia 1520 have to do with this? And why would
having one make me want to answer online questionnaires. Maybe the 'nice
reward'? Or just because I'm interested (as they suggest I am, just before the
command to 'click here'). Frankly I was a bit annoyed by this crass
manipulation. I also wondered how many people fell into this hole and who knows
where the link would lead. In fact I took another route to explore the link (to
avoid the tracker) and found it went to a Dutch language site that promised me
lots of Facebook 'likes'. No doubt in exchange for a slice of my wallet.
It was a sharp reminder that Facebook is not free. I give them details of my
life and they sell these to advertisers who get more and more under my skin. I'm
perhaps lucky as I can see through most manipulations. But many can't and that
lead them into danger.
The bell and the cry
I was walking through our local town today and heard a hand-bell ringing
occasionally in the distance. I wondered what it was all about. As I approached,
it got louder and I headed in its direction to see what was up. I found a stall
outside the local baker, with one of the staff standing there, dressed up in
period costume, ringing the bell while calling out their wares.
What a splendidly traditional thing to do. And so effective, too. Our
ancestors did not know about psychology theory. In fact psychology as a
discipline really only took off in the 20th century. But our forefathers
certainly knew how to change minds, and ringing a bell proved a brilliant way to
The frequency response of the bronze or brass and the nice curvy shape of the
bell are all perfect for creating a penetrating sound that, with a big bell,
carry for miles. It is no surprise that churches have bells, mounted up high, to
call their flocks for service. Nor is it a surprise that ringing bells have been
used as a signal for both danger and victory for so many centuries.
Another means of gaining attention is the human voice. Children know
instinctively that crying will automatically grab the attention of any nearby
adult. Another non-surprise is how adults on public transport will sit as far
away as possible from young children.
So what is your bell? How do you cry for urgent attention?
The Puzzle of Free Speech, Insult and Harm
Free speech is a bastion of what we call the free world. But is it? While we
can stand on our soap boxes and rant, we are also constrained in what we say by
legal, organizational, and other rules. And those rules are changing, reacting
to shifting social and technological forces in an increasingly globalized world.
A challenging element of freedom of speech is the freedom to disagree, to say
things that others would rather you did not say. But what happens when the
things you say are taken as an insult? What if it causes distress? What if it
Insult has long been a weapon of argument, arousing anger and provoking
heated debate. It is also a political tool, used to belittle opponents. And it
permeated culture, with jokes about wives, in-laws, various nationalities and so
on, over-spilling into causal conversation.
With rising concern for equality and defending the vulnerable, the system of
formal and informal rules has, in recent decades, changed to effectively
prohibit much insult. This is good for minorities and the oppressed, who now
have the power to respond to insulting and distressing comment.
And, in the manner of power, it is also abused when the excuse of being
insulted is used as reason for damaging retaliation. Even in simple
conversation, playing the 'I'm insulted' card can stop a rational argument in
its tracks. It is easy to wonder if we have become overly politically correct.
Which all leads to a rather fuzzy puzzle. If we want both free speech and
protection of the vulnerable, where do we draw the line? What should be allowed
and what should be banned? If we place the bar too low, we risk radicals and
trolls spoiling society and hurting people by preaching hate and preying on the
vulnerable. Yet if the bar is too high, free speech is choked as the weak get
high on crying wolf and the powerful subvert laws to hide corruption from prying
Rejection-and-retreat in action
There's a simple persuasion method that is sometimes useful, sometimes known
as 'Rejection and Retreat' or 'Door
In The Face'. The basic idea is to make a bold request that may well be
rejected. When it is refused, then you retreat to a far simpler request. Doing
this makes the second request far more likely to be accepted.
This works for several reasons. First, having already refused you, the person
would feel mean to say no a second time. There is also an element of
exchange as your acceptance of their
refusal obliges them to do
something in return. Another factor is the
contrast between your first and
second request -- the large first request makes the second request seem much
We had a perfect candidate for this method recently when my wife was taking
advertising flyers around the shops in town for a bingo evening at our village
hall. Shops often are not keen on obstructing their products and distracting
their customers with posters, even if this is for a good cause. So we needed a
strategy to cope with refusal.
I produced two sizes of poster, one A4 (about 8" x 11") and others one eighth
of this size. So my wife went into shops, from one end of the high street to the
other, first asking if they would put the A4 poster in their window. If they
refused, she sighed a little and asked if they would put a small pile of the
mini-posters on the counter. It worked! Many poster-rejecters accepted
retreat-request for mini-posters.
Further, if they accepted the A4 poster, she still asked for the mini-posters
to be put on the counter. Many agreed to this too. The psychological principle
at work here was the
Effect, where a person who has done you a kindness is more likely to agree
to a second request. This is because they rationalize their first agreement as
being because they like you, and so helping you again becomes important for
sustaining their internal consistency.
So our bingo should be an even greater success, thanks to some judicious use
of persuasion methods. Splendid.
Frat House Psychology
Fraternity houses have been in the news recently, where a video of Oklahoma
'Sigma Alpha Epsilon' frat house students chanting a racist song contributed to
the house being closed down (given the furore, the college probably had little
other option). History is also littered with injuries and fatalities (and
consequent lawsuits) associated with frat house life. So what are frat houses?
For many around the world they are an odd phenomenon that appears in American
movies from time to time, with Greek-letter names and raucous students. In
America, they are a staple of college life.
A classic way that street gangs induct new members is that the inductee has
to pass various trials, from being beaten up to committing serious crimes. Frat
houses are not dissimilar when they use hazing as a rite of passage and when
initiates are required to, or gain status by, engaging in hazardous pranks and
breaking of rules. This rule-breaking has a powerful effect of bonding the
student into the fraternity, making them 'one of us'. It also closes the door
behind them as there is now an implicit threat that if they leave or betray
their brothers, their crimes may be exposed and they will suffer the
consequences. Stepping outside the law and getting away with it can also feel
very liberating. You feel different to others, more powerful, and closer to
other rule-breakers (like your frat house friends).
The person is then locked in further with stories of heroes and villains,
with the clear implication of what happens to each. Living together and
continued risky actions only serve to bond people together. Secret rituals and
other 'knowledge' add to the mystique, as do pins, coats of arms and the
two/three letter Greek signifiers (often themselves shrouded in significance,
such as being the first letters of a motto). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, fraternal
societies go back to the ancient Greeks and have appeared ever since in groups
that range from the crusaders to the freemasons.
Getting into a frat house is not easy and may not be cheap. You have first to
be accepted and then you have to pay, both of which act as filters to ensure the
right type of people join up. At that age you are unlikely to be independently
wealthy, so this also tests for well-off, supportive families. You are also
readier to take risks just to gain admiration. Interestingly,
membership often correlates with lower ability and grades, perhaps due to a
greater focus on fun than serious study. Where there are many frat houses in a
college, there will also be a hierarchy, with the richer congregating at the
higher end of a wannabe hierarchy.
Being a member of a fraternity is a lifetime's commitment. It's an old-boys
club, not just a college club. The commitment to one another will reach across
careers and may indeed define one's own career, as such close relationships and
deep obligations means that fraternity members will go well out of their way to
help each other in life and business, counteracting any academic limitations.
And it works. Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices
since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and,
historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators and 85 percent of Fortune 500
It's human to help your friends, of course. And you will naturally end up
with rich friends who will do their best to ensure you get a good leg-up in
life, joining their elite society through the well-paid jobs that they push your
way. It also, of course, sets you up for corrupt practices, from unethical
support to turning a blind eye on illegality. But then you had to break the
rules to join, so what's a little more?
All this does not mean that fraternity people are all bad, and many may go on
to do great things. Yet it also sets an environment where bad things can happen
and be seen as the norm. Where such questionable acts as significant tax
avoidance and doing anything to help frat friends is seen as common and
necessary. Where feeling superior and beyond the law can lead some to illegal
action that does not seem illegal. Where being one of the elite feels like your
rightful place and that having an elite is never questioned.
Displaced anger and control freakery
I watched a tv show recently that got me thinking. It was one of those ones
where a business expert goes into a small, struggling business and helps them
turn it around. Only this time the expert gave up in despair. You've guessed it:
It wasn't the business stuff that was the trouble. She helped fix that. It was
The story was about a little tea shop in Torquay run by a retired couple and
their daughter. It started with the daughter wailing that she'd told her parents
what the expert said about modernization, which absolutely typified a family
business trap where the child stays a child and the parents keep looking
backwards. They seemed to get over that, but the bigger stumbling block was the
The man in this triangle turned out to be something of a control freak who
knew best about everything and dismissed the experts that were wheeled in as
incompetents. When the place was given a free and makeover, he raged about most
of it. And three months later he had replaced the elegant styling with a garish
mish-mash of uncoordinated clutter.
Angry people are often angry about something they can't control, and in his
case I suspect it was a disability where he had to use a walking stick. He was
also shown struggling in moving tables and chairs. And when a TV crew descended
on his business he clearly felt a further loss as he fought every new idea.
I've seen similar reactions in a career in business change where people who
feel under threat fight back, both openly and covertly. When we feel a loss of
control we get scared and frustrated, perhaps displacing the pent up anger to
elsewhere in our lives.
A secret that can help is to recognize what is going on. Understanding goes a
long way towards restoring our sense of control. It also gives us the means of
making effective decisions rather than falling for emotional reactions that,
while they grab control in the short term, have the potential to do longer-term
Exaggeration and the power of satire
Recently, a satirical movie was created that lampooned Kim Jong Un of North
Korea. The producer, Sony, had their computer systems hacked and backed down
when threatened with further reprisals if the movie was released. The result was
a political firestorm, with presidential outrage and international condemnation.
Under massive pressure, Sony backed down and released the movie.
Clearly, some pretty powerful minds were changed here, just by a bit of
satire. So what happened? Was North Korea right to worry about a minor movie?
Satire is a cunning means of attacking others, especially the powerful. From
everyday conversational dismissal to scurrilous newspaper cartoons, it is a
popular device. So how does a deliberate untruth cause such a strong reaction?
The mechanics of satire is exaggeration to the point of ridiculousness.
Satirical cartoons often take up this principle with enlargement of physical
features. This is no accident. With exaggeration, we turn the real into
When the target is powerful, this denial of reality also works on their
power. In removing the truth of the person, by association we take away their
perceived abilities. Power, after all is largely in the mind of the observer.
A critical component of satire is that it portrays the powerful as weak, at
least in part. It suggests that beneath the outer show of strength lies
uncertainty, incompetence or fear. It sows doubt that opens the doors to
rebellion. It removes respect or fear as we realize the apparently superhuman is
A part of this process is the psychologically curious state of amusement.
Arising perhaps from the paradox of exaggeration or perhaps from the release of
tension as fear is removed, we laugh at the joke and so also at the person. And
in doing so, we reduce the status of the satirized, further draining their
A dilemma when people poke fun at you for being serious is that an angry
response merely proves the point. A strong reaction also risks confirmation of
power loss as people, particularly en masse, laugh rather than fear, and perhaps
even rise up against you.
So yes, satire should be feared, especially and paradoxically by those who
rule by fear.
What's the point of 'What's the point?'
Life can be very frustrating. You work hard and things somehow conspire to
make every step more difficult. You help people and they seem ungrateful. You
struggle and others constantly let you down. 'What's the point?' you say,
throwing your arms in the air and rolling your eyes to heaven.
But what is the point of 'What's the point'? Why do we say it? What does it
do for us?
'What's the point?' is also a rather difficult philosophical question. It
does not have a good answer without delving into the purpose of life or the
nature of humanity. Asking the question does not really seek an answer -- what
it does is prevent an answer.
Another clue is in the gesture that commonly accompanies the phrase.
Appealing to the gods, even metaphorically, assumes some other force at work,
outside of your control. There seems nothing you can do to change the situation,
let alone other people.
So what do you do? Most typically, you give up.
And there's the point. Saying 'What's the point?' lets you give up. The full
rhetorical question is 'What's the point in my continuing when I am being
constantly frustrated?' And the unspoken answer is 'None.'
In this way, 'What's the point?' gives you reason, justifying abandonment of
your efforts. You can stop and still feel good. There is no need for shame. In
fact you can feel a righteous indignation about the waste of your time. In this
way you can transition from the pain of a difficult situation to the comfort of
knowing you are morally superior. Perhaps if you continued your efforts or
changed your approach you would have succeeded. But thinking about this would
open the wound, so you do not.
So 'What's the point?' has a very useful point, after all. Yet it also
carries dark dangers that can ruin your life.
This little question can become a rather too useful method of transforming
pain into pleasure. It can quietly invade your life as it is steadily deployed
more often and more quickly, until it becomes a reflexive habit. Yet while it
excuses you from short-term discomfort, it does nothing for your long term
prospects. In fact it can be very harmful to your future.
Life is hard. It needs you to overcome obstacles, not avoid them. If you give
up, you will go nowhere.
If you want to succeed, yet you are not succeeding, you must change. And
here, at this point of self-challenge, lies another danger, because 'What's the
point?' can pop up and save itself by convincing yourself that even if you
change, the result will be the same. So why bother, it asks.
To get away from this pernicious trap, you first have to get away from
'What's the point?' First notice yourself thinking it. Then realize what real
harm it is doing to you. Get angry with it. Beat it up and throw it away.
Determine never to let it back. Then replace it with other, more useful thoughts
that help you overcome obstacles rather than avoid them. Like 'I can do it' or
'Let's try something different' or 'I'm not going to let them beat me'.
A secret of success is knowing what is stopping you from succeeding, and then
getting past it. 'What's the point?' is just such a trap. If it is holding you
back, you can now see it and stop it, forever.
For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or
the Blogs by subject. To
comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to