Politics and Persuasion in the UK General Election
Canvassing is done. TV debates gone. The UK general election is over and it's
all change. Or perhaps some change, as the Conservatives have got in this time
with a full majority. Last time they allied with the Liberal Democrats who at
provided some moderation for what have been more extreme right wing policies.
Under this new government we can expect to have public spending cut to below the
level (percent of GDP) even of the USA, with welfare a major target.
So how did they do it? Having a much bigger warchest no doubt helped, as did
general good news about the economy, though opponents will point to the veneer
over any implied depth. Falling oil prices, for example, is not a result of
government policy. And reduced unemployment figures has as much to do with how
they are measured as the fostering of value-creating companies.
One of the biggest differences was how the leaders were portrayed, which
probably had as much to do with coaching and acting ability as the real nature
of the people.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has in the past been a bit bland. He
suddenly got passionate, even getting 'annoyed' when criticized on such areas as
the subtle privatization of the health service. He also appeared often in
factories, surrounded by workers as he expounded on the importance of business.
Interviews with the workers afterwards seemed to suggest they weren't impressed,
but that did not really matter -- Cameron was playing to the camera, not them.
This was a good move for a Conservative, who are often accused of not being in
touch with ordinary people.
I saw Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, speak a few years ago and was not
impressed with his leadership style. He seemed more bemused at being leader than
grabbing the audience with passionate speeches. Even recently, he has done daft
things like forgetting to mention the economy in a critical party speech.
Nevertheless, here he was, often in the community talking passionately again. He
even took the bold step of being interviewed by an outspoken comedian and came
off pretty well. But it wasn't enough and he'll be replaced soon enough.
Nick Clegg, the terribly nice leader of the Liberal Democrats saw his share
of the votes collapse as he was punished for allying with the Conservatives in
the last government. Traditionally the third party that got protest votes, this
time they were the subject of protest. His problem in public was that he was too
nice, even apologizing for past political mistakes rather than the more powerful
politics of reframing and moving on.
The joker in the pack was Nigel Farage of the ultra-right-wing UK
Independence Party who stood on immiigration and EU membership issues, and
provided a string of OMG moments that broadcasters loved. They gave the
Conservatives a fright, but in the end, despite polling a moderate proportion of
the vote, got hardly any seats. Farage played the populist leader, pint of beer
in hand and spouting endless 'common sense' platitudes that did not bear close
And swinging up the outside was Nicola Sturgeon, leading the Scottish
Nationalist Party to a whitewash that swept Scotland clean of other party seats.
On the bow wave of a narrow recent defeat in the Scottish Independence
Referendum, her straightforward and Scotland-centric rhetoric caught the hearts
of the Scots who came out in large numbers to give her an alarming number of
In the end, what have we learned about persuasion in UK elections?
First, youth seems to be de rigeur for leaders now, perhaps as a result of
Tony Blair's ten years at the top Virtually all leaders are in their 40s, which
would never have happened a few decades ago. As Boomers retire, GenX, who have
little respect for their elders, are sweeping into power in all kinds of ways
Secondly, stage-management seems to have taken over, with carefully-scripted
'informal' scenes and politicians who seem coached into Oscar-worthy
performances on every stage. Off-the-cuff comments and interviewer-driven
interviews seem to be a thing of the past.
As always a supportive press helps, and much of it is owned by Richard
Murdoch who apparently lambasted his journalists for not criticizing Miliband
viciously enough. Media management, even with the expansions into online fora is
the order of the day, though it didn't seem quite as big a deal as it has in the
All the major parties spent a fortune hiring in experts and I wondered if I
should have offered by services. But these days I've found a good work-life
balance and somehow the hurly burly of politics this time didn't attract. Maybe
in five years I'll throw my hat in the ring, but until then I'll keep on writing
Failure and success in small businesses
I've been watching a series recently on UK TV where Alex Polizzi, a small
business owner and expert goes into failing small businesses and helps to turn
them around. It's not easy, and what we get down is not necessarily the whole
story, but it can make fascinating viewing.
The typical business info which she is parachuted is a family firm, often
consumer-facing so consuming viewers can empathise, at least worth their
customers. And customer focused is indeed a common issue. When you are
struggling to pay the bills, it's easy to blame fussy customers. Yet good
service is a key reason why many people go to small businesses and this is
common issue to sort out.
Another issue where small firms fail is tidiness. It is so easy to end up
with piles of old stock that is valued more by what was paid for it than how it
can be converted into revenue, so a good clear-out is a common task. More than
this, signage and general branding tends to be antiquated and confusing. It is
amazing how much a lick of paint can help, and a complete rebranding exercise
can be quite transformational. Of course it also makes great television in the
same way as any makeover show causes oohs and wows.
The biggest transformation, however, is the people. In family firms where
children feel trapped and their parents think they should be grateful, this can
even fall into a quick bit of family therapy. Children get to grow up fast and
the old dogs learn new tricks as the whole family gets shock treatment when they
are shown successful other businesses, where they may even get a boot camp
experience hat teaches them the value of focus and hard work.
In the end, such shows are about the modern business of transformation, where
the customer is the product. And because you are watching, you too may be
transformed as you learn more about business, life and people, and hence about
Epidemiology, Disease and Crime
Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread. Of course there are
biological factors about the workings of viruses, bacteria and the human body.
Another factor, that is not always realized, is the spread of disease is also
affected by how we behave. What we do can make diseases spread far and fast or
help to contain the outbreak.
Dr Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist who wondered if he could treat violent
crime in the same way as disease. There does not seem to be an obvious
connection between the two, yet if you think more about the dimension of how we
behave, then maybe it starts to make sense. Slutkin was remarkably successful in
making this leap, initially in Chicago as an approach called Ceasefire and later
a widespread movement called
One of the basic ways that disease spreads is when people have contact with a
diseased person. Disease thus spreads in a chain of connections. A similar
things happens as violence begets violence and it becomes normalized within a
society. Slutkin took the principle of interrupting transmission of disease,
breaking the chain of infection, and applied it to violence. A way he did this
was to train trusted members of the community in preventing retaliation and
mitigating conflict, interrupting it before it spilled into violence.
They also follow up to prevent simmering conflicts flaring up again.
Another key factor in spreading disease is the a few people can have a big
effect. For example, in its early days, HIV spread far through the profligate
actions of a single aircrew member. Later, truck drivers who visited prostitutes
added to the rapid spread of the disease. When such people are identified in the
spread of an infection, targeting them can have a disproportionate effect in
bringing the spread of the disease under control. The Cure Violence adaptation
of this is to target high-risk individuals, directly working with them to
reduce their easy tendency to conflict and violence. This may require intensive
one-to-one treatment, but again this preventative approach can pay dividends and
A third way that disease is spread is via community norms. For example Ebola,
which is highly contagious just after death, spread widely in West Africa
through burial rites that included touching corpses. When the communities were
taught of the extreme dangers of this, the practice reduced sharply, helping
significantly to contain the disease. In places where violent crime is high and
often accepted as normal, this means working with leaders and groups in the
community to help shape abhorrence of crime rather than accepting it as a norm.
One thing that this shows is that we can improve one area by seeking lessons
in another where we may not naturally look. By keeping a creative and curiously
open mind, many of your problems may find surprising answers.
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 casual 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.
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