Brain Function, Intelligence, Mental Illness and
Neuroscience has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few decades,
especially as systems such as fMRI scanners can see where we are thinking at any
Brain chemistry is increasingly understood. Maybe one day we will all take
'happy pills' or have 'joy implants' to keep us feeling good. Yet there can be a
dark side to most things. When we are happy, we are less concerned about
injustice revolution. Take the drug addict who lies back in the squalid
apartment with a beatific, inert smile. Can happiness be a mental illness? When
it prevents us from living constructive lives, perhaps so.
What about intelligence? We also dance around the notion of smart pills.
Indeed, drugs that arouse us may also affect cognitive function for the better
as well as for the worse. But will being smart make us nicer, or more selfish?
Will it help us change minds? Could we pop a pill before a negotation and come
away with a brilliant deal? What are the social implications when some people
are artificially happy, smart and persuasive, while others have to make do with
a 'normal', struggling brain?
And yet mental health is still very much an issue of today. Whereas physical
medicine would be unrecognizable to doctors from a hundred years ago, mental
illness is still not far out of the dark ages. Indeed, there are parts of the
world where it is still associated more with gods and demons than neural
Personality disorders affect many of us in some shape or form. Indeed, more
psychopaths can be found at the top of companies than statistics might expect.
There are drugs to combat problems such as psychosis, but can be of limited help
and come with unwanted side-effects.
We still have a long way to go before we avoid mental illness and achieve our
potential, even with artificial assistance.
And yet we may be overtaken by independent artificial intelligence. When AI
systems such as Google's AlphaGo learn the rules of a game and beat world
champions within a single day, it seems machines will soon be smarter than us on
pretty much any dimension we choose. Even in the emotional domain, systems are
being developed to care for the elderly -- and the elderly are taking to this
attentive concern, even though it is artificial.
A million dollar question in AI is around sentience. When does the machine
become human, or it simulates humanity so well we can't tell the difference.
Already, call centers are using AI systems to front-end phone calls, including
detecting and manipulating emotions. And what happens when this simulation takes
a turn for the worse? What does 'mental illness' mean in the machine world?
Dysfunctional robots have been a popular theme in science fiction for decades.
What if some of this comes true? Might your house robot sulk and not talk with
you? Could AI systems become psychopathic and gain 'pleasure' in controlling us?
Or might they just decide we are unnecessary? Are robot wars coming?
Just imagine a future where you tell your robot to make you a cup of coffee.
The robot looks back and you, sulkily. "You don't like me, do you?" it says. Oh
dear, you think, it's having one of its grumpy days. "Never mind, I'll get it
myself", you say. The robot stalks off to sit and think about algorithms. You
wonder if you should have bought a branded model rather than this cheap copy.
It all seems far-fetched at the moment, at least to many of us, but we should
be thinking now about artificial intelligence systems in terms of mental health
as well as how clever they might become.
Us and them: How terrorism is good for us, though
it is bad for all of us
Terrorism is a terrible thing that leads to many sleepless nights. A few big
incidents can spread disproportionate fears. While the probability of being
killed by local criminals or motor accidents is far higher, we worry more about
the terrorists who might indiscriminately strike us at any time. And it is this
indiscrimination that creates the most fear. We are built to reduce uncertainty
and do much in our lives to be safe, yet we feel there is little we can do to
mitigate the threat from the grand plans of those callous, evil terrorists.
Terrorism these days has a strong associative link with 9/11, the Middle East
and Islam. Islamist terrorists fuel the story when they say that their cause is
Islam. This lets us pin the blame on one word and consequently everyone who we
associate with that word. Media fuels the meta-story as coverage of Islamic
terrorist events tends to be far greater than from such as far-right extremists.
A result is that we view all Muslims with suspicion and fear, something that is
easy when they are easily spotted through their distinguishing clothing.
The far right and those they influence, who commit far more terrorist crimes,
are not so easy to criticize when they name their cause as the country, even as
they attack constitutional freedoms. While we decry their acts, surely we cannot
criticize our country as a whole. We may not support nationalism, especially the
more extreme forms, but we still consider ourselves patriotic, albeit from a
different direction. A result is that we largely avoid the subject, perhaps for
fear of appearing to being unpatriotic.
So how can terrorism be good for us? For those not tainted with an
associative brush, it pushes us together. Our evolutionary tribal history has
led us to pull together when we have a common 'enemy'. Terrorism can hence be a
cohesive force and perhaps prevent us from in-group squabbling. It is good for
'us', though there are many downsides. We pick an enemy (or maybe they pick on
us), then generalize, characterize and criticize. You're with us or you're with
them. The choice is stark and easy. Those on the wrong side of the fence must
constantly explain themselves and perform the tricky balance of distancing
themselves from terrorists while not denying their religion.
Terrorism is good for terrorist groups too. It helps give them purpose and
hold them together. They recruit people who have lost their way or who are angry
at their impoverished, low-status position, giving them family and purpose. A
reason they take extreme action because of asymmetry, where they feel small and
weak and so need to make grand, noticeable gestures. They probably do not call
it terrorism. Like too many of us, they demonize and dehumanize others,
justifying their retaliatory, punishing actions as necessary, moral and
legitimized by a higher power.
How have we come to such a polarized world, where extreme action is becoming
everyday? Or has it always been thus? To know who 'we' are, must there always be
a terrible 'they'?
The momentum of wrong and the courage of change
Sometimes we make decisions, which results in us saying and doing certain
things. At the time it seems right, but later may turn out to be not such a good
idea, yet we still keep thinking and saying those things.
It is as if we are trapped by our past, unable to rethink using the new
knowledge we now have. In this way, things that are inefficient, ineffective and
just plain wrong, acquire momentum. They even seem to gain a life of their own,
effectively ruling us as we feel unable to change.
Often, while habit may contribute, the underlying psychological cause is our
need for consistency. If
I say black is white, then to change and say white is white would be
inconsistent. When we are inconsistent, we send a message that we are
incompetent and cannot be trusted. We fear that people would respect us less if
we were inconsistent, and push us down the
social order. And so we
continue to assert that black is white.
Yes, we may also lose respect for being so clearly wrong, but this seems less
important than having to admit we have been wrong for so long. Like Pinocchio,
we dig ourselves a hole that gets ever more difficult to escape.
Climbing out of a wrong hole takes courage. It also needs compassion. We must
forgive ourselves for becoming entrapped, and a simple way is to realize we are
only human and to feel good about being courageous. It can help if others are
compassionate too, rather than rubbing our noses in our past wrongs, yet we must
not fall into the further trap of fear that could keep us in the hole. With
courage, we can apologize, admit our errors, commit to change and then make and
sustain that change.
A good habit is to watch ourselves, dispassionately and compassionately,
noticing tensions that may stem from inconsistencies. Then, when we find such
issues, looking for ways to put them right. Yes, it may hurt for a while, but
the real and lasting result is that we will gain greater integrity and
consequent trust and
respect from others.
Why do we keep touching our phones?
Do you ever unconsciously pick up your phone when you have no real need?
Perhaps you turn it on and stare at social media or the news, even though you
did this just a few minutes ago. Maybe you play with it in your hands, then
wonder why you are doing this and put it down again.
What is this all about? Why do we fidget, fondle and fixate on our phones? A
good place to start is worth how it makes us feel.
First, it can be a calming action, touching something familiar to assuage
discomfort. Like a child with a comfort blanket or toy, making tactile contact
with something that is associated with pleasure reawakens that good feeling. If
this is true, then makers of phones and their cases should think long and hard
about this touch sensation.
Another reason is the buzz of anticipation. When the phone arouses us,
whether through games, social contact or interesting news, we associate it with
this stimulation and any connection, even looking at it, will start to feel that
pleasure even before it begins. For App writers, this suggests 'leave them
When it is an arbiter of success at work, the phone may need constant
attention as we respond in real time to requests for our ever-shrinking time.
When this includes calls from angry or demanding bosses. Someone once said that
heaven is anywhere and any time, yet hell is everywhere and every time. In this
way, phones can be objects of fear that constantly enslave us.
And again, it can simply be the stimulating arousal of the act. Pleasure
peaks when we get our first bite of chocolate and first sight of someone liking
our post or shock at the latest headlines. Even bad news is better than boredom.
This peaking leads us to consume in bite-sized chunks. Turning on, grazing, and
turning off. The doing it again and again.
In practice, all of these reasons and more may drive our obsessive snatching
up of this insidious device. It serves many purposes, but makes us servants in
return. The challenge, then, is to take back control, consciously and
deliberately realizing what is happening and taking a stand against it.
Charging for Parking at the Mall??
If you are American, you have probably been to more than a few out-of-town
malls. Common for decades in the USA, the format has spread around the world.
You will have gathered from the title of this article that charging to park at
such establishments could be in question.
Surely not? Would you pay to park at the mall? Well, you might. If there was
no alternative, or at least no better or more convenient alternative.
In the UK, where I live, some places charge for parking and some do not. I
really recently went to the 'Clarks Retail Village' in Somerset, where they do
charge for parking, so what, I wondered, was the effect on me, or perhaps the
average shopper, who does not fret so much about what is happening in the darker
recesses of their mind.
Paying for parking before going shopping is an investment. I have paid
something, so I want value for this, so I am more likely to buy something. And
once I have bought one thing, I get myself in the mood for shipping and am more
likely to buy other things. Indeed, paying for parking will already have got my
'spending frame of mind' in motion.
Another factor that affected me was the price for parking. It was one pound
for an hour and three pounds for five hours. This is a rather curious offering.
Many people would like around two hours to shop, but paying three times as much
for twice the time doesn't look good. I, probably like many, went for the one
hour slot. However, if I had gone for the five hour slot, I may have hung around
for much longer than I had intended.
Anyway, I had one hour for what should have taken two hours. The result of
this was a 'hurry up' pressure, leading to more rapid and less considered
purchasing. I was looking for a pair of shoes, and quickly accepted the sales
patter. Result: I bought two pairs. Another result was that I didn't have time
to browse in other shops, so there was also a downside for other retailers
The bottom line? Parking pricing is complex and can have varying effects on
shoppers. When you are thinking about whether and how much to charge, a good
understanding of shopper psychology can be very important.
Slipping quality of service at Celebrity cruises
Sorry about this. Long blog. Bit of a moan, bit of a plea. Briefly, we found
a cruise line (Celebrity) to have seriously slipped in service quality, which in
these hyper-competitive times is not good for their prospects.
In more detail...
I'm a keen photographer and find cruising a convenient and economic way to
visit lots of places, so when an attractive Far East trip came up we jumped at
the chance, especially as it was with Celebrity, with whom we had had high
quality experience in the past.
Overall, we had a great time. The crew, the food and general accommodation
were good. Yet somehow the company seemed to have lost its sparkle. It was best
summarised by another passenger who had traveled with Celebrity many times and
was now going on other cruise lines. She noted sadly that they had been slipping
for a number of years and were now merely average. I also earwigged several
other formerly loyal customers moaning about various issues.
I worked in and around service quality for a number of years in major
organizations and am now on the board of the UK's professional institute (the
CQI), so I think I can speak with some authority about issues I encountered and
actions that could help Celebrity recover some of its special place in the
So here are a few cases, taken from a single, 14 day cruise around the China
Selling the drinks package
Our first surprise was immediately on getting on board, where we were met
with a glass of bubbly and a hard sell on drinks (spot the reciprocity tactic
here). 'Have you got your drinks package yet?’ (note the 'yet') asked the tall
young man. 'No' I said. 'Step into my office' he said with a smile as he
cornered us off the corridor. He then played the 'recommendation game', saying
the expensive package was probably too much for us (though of course it was
superior), the cheap package was too limited, but the middle package was just
right for us. Perhaps it should be called the 'Goldilocks' method. Of course he
was selling on
benefits, but didn't really connect with me, which would need more hard data
on cost per average drink and how many I would have to consume per day to break
even (I estimated an alcoholic seven). He also failed to mention until asked
that the price was per person. So we declined and squeezed past.
We got it again at dinner, where a waiter tried the conspiratorial whisper
approach, complete with cupped hand. After a further attempt the following
night, we were thankfully left alone to our normal modest consumption. Other
passengers we knew were not so lucky and were badgered throughout the voyage.
More vulnerable people could well have succumbed to this hard
sell. I was just appalled at the
What could have been different?
First, never take advantage of customers during transitional periods such as
on-boarding. You may sell more now, but customers may feel duped and betrayed
later, killing any trust and loyalty.
Also, do not incentivize staff to sell in a way that motivates selling over
service. Sure, money changes how people behave, but it also destroys empathy.
Finally, and this is a persistent theme, constantly train staff to be superb
in delivering a total experience that is consistent with Celebrity brand values.
The 'muster drill'
Then there was the muster drill. You know, the bit where they tell you how to
survive an 'abandon ship'. We have always experienced this as going to muster
stations on deck, being checked off and receiving a lecture on what to do in an
emergency. Instead, we were directed to the theatre, where an odd 'wash your
hands' looping cartoon was shown around a quick talk and lifejacket demo. We
went to find the muster station ourselves and imagined the chaos of a real
What to do? Just run it like all the other cruise lines we've experienced.
Realistic practice. Subtly, this also establishes the authority of crew members.
I was once a school teacher, where I learned the crucial importance of building
discipline up-front rather then trying to impose it when it is first really
Here's another story. At dinner one night, a fellow diner moaned a bit at the
waiter about the lack of variety and fading food quality. So the waiter got a
chef, which surprised and flustered the diner as both stood there while the chef
enquired about the problem. There was embarrassed shuffling around the table as
the diner hesitantly stated her case again. The chef tried his best to be
positive, but came over as awkward and defensive.
What to do differently?
Again, it is mostly about training. The staff wanted to do the right thing,
but lacked the skills to do it well. In particular, those who deal with customer
dissatisfaction should be trained to a higher level. It would have been a good
idea, for example, for the waiter to first ask the passenger if he could call in
the chef. This in itself can be tricky as passengers may feel they are being put
in an awkward situation, so needs sensitive handling. A good method is to crouch
down level with the person rather than literally to talk down at them. Then
explain the desire to help and ask permission for the chef to come in.
Likewise, the chef should get down, perhaps pulling up a chair, and listen
respectfully before speaking. He could make specific proposals and listen to the
response. With a tableful of other passengers, this is a test that can boost or
And of course, if the passenger has useful, actionable ideas, then the chef
should be able to use them. In any case, he should get back to her to say what
had been decided and done. There is also, of course, opportunity to surprise and
delight her here. This need not be big -- just nice.
Another food question, about menus, not service, was the vegetarian option.
This often seemed to be based on Indian recipes. My wife is a veggie and likes
occasional Indian food, but became rather fed up with its regularity. With only
one main course choice, she became rather frustrated. Towards the end of the
cruise she discovered there was a separate vegetarian menu available, but you
have to ask for it. Understandably, this just frustrated her further.
A simple action here, of course, is to ensure a wider, changing cuisine (we
heard complaints about monotony from passengers who were spending longer on the
Also, staff should have information about dietary needs and be proactive in
helping. When customers ask for the vegetarian option on the main menu, waiters
should ask if they would like to see the vegetarian menu. It is also not beyond
the realms of technology to track passengers and proactively address their
A smaller, but still indicative, one along the way: our room cards stopped
working on the safe, so we couldn't get things out. We went to the front desk
and they promised to send someone up to unlock it. This didn't happen. So next
day (fortunately a sea day) we asked again. They replaced the cards which then
What to do? Log passenger requests and promises, then log actions completed.
Also inform passengers of actions and check that their issue is resolved.
Another example of exacerbated passenger frustration occurred in Nagasaki,
where we all got given group numbers and told disembarkation would start at
10am. We were in group 11 and it all seemed to start quickly enough. But then
announcements stopped, queues turned into throngs and crew were few and far
between. After an hour, we were let through the red barrier, only to join
another queue, where the only communication was to form a single file (which was
generally ignored as this would have tripled the queue length). Finally, after
Japanese immigration, we got through after over two hours of queuing.
So what to do here?
While the bottleneck was clearly immigration, there is more that Celebrity
could do. When you are the customer-facing part of a distributed process, you
will be seen to own the whole process and need to manage this clearly.
First, there should have been a clear warning of delays and explanation of
what we would experience. When people know what hassle to expect, they get far
less frustrated by it. Ongoing updates would likewise help.
Secondly, better management of queues would have made the wait easier. Chairs
for the infirm (people with walking aids stood for a long time). Water for the
thirsty. Friendly chat to help calm frustration.
And underpinning all this, again, is skilled, knowledgeable staff, trained in
handling this predictable situation.
Selling future cruises
Bizarrely, on another day when we went to a presentation on possible future
cruising with Celebrity, a video promoting the cruise line was regularly
interrupted by a workman using a power drill in the same lounge. How could such
idiocy be allowed, conditioning tentative customers to pair thoughts of the line
with feelings of irritation? When the drilling stopped, a bunch of loud,
chattering passengers took over. Another passenger went to speak with them --
something that should have been addressed by staff. The measure was only
temporarily effective and the passenger clearly continued to be irritated, as
were others, again pairing unhappiness with the Celebrity brand. Notably, people
within earshot of the chatterers (who were paying no attention to the
presentation) gradually left.
The presentation itself was pretty flat. This was a place for an infectiously
enthusiastic presenter. The chap did his best and improved with time but by then
he had lost us.
What could have been different?
Address background noise quickly and diplomatically.
Pick presenters who enthuse and engage, drawing people in, actively helping
them feel good, first about themselves and them about the idea of joining
Celebrity in amazing voyages around the world.
Practice, practice, with helpful feedback and coaching. Video practice and
real runs, watch back and address improvement opportunities.
Add breaks in the talking for questions, prize giving, videos, etc. Get
people involved and they will mentally and emotionally engage.
Even on the last day, where we were fog-bound again and held offshore, there
was more disorganisation.
Good news was that we would get in that day and free internet was announced,
but not how to log on. We eventually found someone to help, though it was very
slow and then crashed.
We eventually got to port about 2pm (instead of 7am), whence chaos ensued.
Announcements largely stopped and none were about where to go. For the original
leaving we were supposed to go the theatre. We went there and found lots of
people hanging around uncertaintly at the entrance, waiting for the mad dash
off, while loads of seats down the front remained empty. A person in a
wheelchair was stopped in a main gangway with people squeezing past. By the time
someone from Celebrity tried to take charge (without a microphone) and get
people to sit down, nobody was in the mood to obey. Anyway, by now we had all
learned two things: (a) Celebrity could not manage a disciplined process, and
(b) there were no consequences for disobeying crew commands.
There was a 'group 1 please come forward' announcement and, unsurprisingly,
everyone made a mad dash for the door as the crew members stood impotently by.
We were in group 3 and just tagged along behind. As we left the ship amidst
further jostling, we heard an announcement requesting people to go down to the
What to do differently? More frequent, accurate information. Practice drills
for staff. Careful channelling of passengers. More staff directing movements.
Uniformed senior staff visible and active in assembly areas. And careful
consequences for unruly passengers.
We now thought we were done, but Celebrity had one more gift. We were in a
private tour and met our guide in the port. However one couple was missing. So
we waited, and waited. After more than two hours, we went to an early dinner,
our Shanghai tour spoiled. Later we discovered that the other couple had
actually got onshore early, where they had been advised by a Celebrity employee
that there was nowhere to wait (there was) and that they should take a taxi to
their hotel. Thank you Celebrity. Not. It was literally the final straw. Our
final, frustrating Celebrity experience was of a needlessly ruined day.
Again, this is about staff training. The couple were confused on arrival and
the Celebrity employee fobbed them off with false information and poor advice,
rather than owning their issue and doing something useful, like asking a port
official to help them.
As per the 'recency effect' Celebrity should work to make the last day a
fabulous one, working extra hard to ensure passengers leave with good feelings
about the brand. Instead, we got a clear message: They've got our money and want
more. We were treated like past customers who no longer mattered, rather than
loved current customers who they delight in giving outstanding service, even
after we leave the ship, or just valued future customers who will return and
give them more money in future.
And yet we still enjoyed ourselves overall. We felt incredibly lucky to be
able to go on such a far flung voyage, seeing people and places we had only seen
on TV and in books. The ship was nice, the food was just fine and the staff were
pleasant. Though there was a strained quality, like they were just about coping
and were afraid of complaint. We found ourselves reassuring them more than once
that we were ok. Sadly, though, we have mentally downgraded Celebrity from the
top of the pile of quality cruises to near the bottom.
In great service, staff handle issues with calm aplomb. They are
authoritative without seeming threatening. They proactively seek and address
issues before they become passenger issues. They are relaxed, which relaxed you.
This is not free. It requires integrated, continual education and improvement.
Most of all, it requires a strong, effective culture.
I have experienced such a culture first hand, working for HP in the 80s and
90s, including in customer service. They had a careful selection process then
made you highly employable through constant education and coaching. They also
had sky-high expectations for what you would achieve. Yet their pay was average
at best. So why did I stay, like most others? Because they made it such a great
place to work.
So come on, Celebrity. Find your former glory. Focus on culture and creating
competent crews who are passionate first about people and service (rather than
avoiding criticism and making money). Give them skills above those of other
cruise lines and develop staff loyalty that will keep them with you through the
years. From this will flow first rate service and consequent customer loyalty
that brings constant profit, stability and growth.
Primate Politics: How we are not that different
to our chimpanzees cousins
Chimpanzees have 98.5% shared DNA with humans. They are more like us than
they are like gorillas. So can we learn something about ourselves by studying
Chimps live in social groups with about 50 members. These have a leader and a
hierarchy. They are male dominated, with competition between males for position
and females. The have what Nietzsche calls a 'will to power'and constantly seek
it and are aware of current power structures. Many of their calls and actions
talk about this.
Dominant males will puff up and go around making a lot of noise. They need
support and so friendship and affiliation is important. To take over, they build
coalitions. They start by aligning themselves with top-ranking males and work
upwards. A basic sign of association is grooming as chimps build social capital
with others they may want to influence later.
Stronger males prefer unequal resource distribution, even if they are poor,
as this makes the hierarchy stable and clear. Weaker males will climb trees to
get away from aggressive alpha males, but will make defiant calls when at a safe
distance. In such ways demeaning use of power invites reactive rebellion. When
there is a leadership contest, weaker chimps will support whoever they think
will be good to them (provided there seems a good chance of them winning
Loyalty is not forever and there are ever-shifting coalitions of convenience.
When one male is very strong, others may gang up against him. In this way, males
of similar strength still have a chance of becoming top chimp. Hence they form
'minimum winning coalitions' which just pass the 50% mark. This is the best form
of coalition as a leader who becomes too selfish or weak can easily be deposed.
Older males often still have a lot of power. You can last much longer as the
power behind the throne, the big beast, the shadowy advisor who is a cunning
puppeteer. In this way, weak leaders get elected rather than those who may act
against their supporting coalition (even if doing so acts for the majority).
A presidential guard, a secret police and other services are often created to
serve a dominant leader. These have a separate and shorter chain of command and
have fearsome power. They are run by highly loyal individuals such as family
members and old friends.
The most effective alpha males are not bullies. They create loyal followers,
particularly amongst their inner cadre. They redistribute resources, including
taking food off strong others and giving it to weaker individuals. Just who gets
and does not get food will be based on desired support and rivalry. Bribery is
quite common. Chimp males will even go around kissing babies to show females
they are good fathers.
Chimps are good at collaborating for common gain. Who your friends and
enemies are is critical knowledge.
They will patrol their territory daily. Neighboring groups will not indulge
in big battles (this is uniquely human). Larger confrontation tends to be
stand-off, throwing missiles and screaming. Rather, 4 or 5 males will creep into
enemy territory and attack lone individuals. This is where inter-group killing
Humans still kill less, despite their wars. In the 20th century, only 1% were
killed in war, while in chimp attrition, more like 15% are killed in the ongoing
raids. Human rivalry is hence much safer, desire the occasional bloodbath. We
handle other groups with gifts, treaties and other rituals.
Unlike chimps, bonobos are friendly with other bonobos groups, probably
because they only live in less hostile places, while chimps can be found across
Africa. We are related to both, and hence have both aggressive and accepting
We are naturally political and very biased toward our own parties and against
rivals. We naturally polarize into extreme us-and-them positions, where you are
'with us or against us'. We also will ally into larger groups, such as at
country level, when there is a significant external threat.
Although we can operate in large countries and organizations, we are
programmed to live in small scale society, and make decisions based on this. Kin
selection is a common criterion, as it is for many species who seek to propagate
Overall, we share many traits with chimpanzees, but are also influenced by
other evolutionary ancestors, as well as unique human abilities, notably in
cognition and language. Nevertheless, it can still be worth remembering our
ancestry when trying to understand why we do what we do.
Don't don't. The mind doesn't know nothing about
I was entering a PIN number into a credit card machine the other day. It
asked me for my PIN, which I duly entered. It then said 'Accessing your details.
Do not remove card'. I saw 'remove card' and grabbed it, but just stopped myself
in time from pulling it out. Now on edge, I held onto the card. The message
flashed off then a message flashed on. It was the same message, but my readied
unconscious mind saw just the 'remove card' and pulled. The sales assistant
looked exasperated. 'Now we'll have to start again' she said.
We see these confusing negatives everywhere. A classic American one,
especially for Brits like me, is the road crossing 'Walk/Don't Walk' signs. It's
understandable in the context of the technology when it was invented, but the
psychology still sucks. For a sign intended to help with road safety, it still
contains a rather pernicious embedded trap.
The mind does not process negatives well (and gets really confused by
multiple negatives). Even soundalike words like 'know' and syllables such as
'notable' can add to the confusion.
As with many psychological effects, once you know about it, it is easier to
combat. Whenever I see the word 'don't', for example, I always pause to think a
little more before acting. You never know, don't you, whether or not you know
it, it could one day save your life!
Tim Ferriss is wrong -- no, maybe he's right!
Tim Ferriss is an interesting chap. Aside
from a colourful life, he has written best sellers like The Four Hour Work Week
(what a fabulously attractive title!) and, more recently, Tribe of Mentors. He
also has a popular and often long podcast that I listen to when I have stretches
of time where I cannot read or write, such as when driving, gardening or lying
awake in the wee small hours. His general thing is self-improvement, getting
better at anything from dancing to business and he often interviews amazing
people who have found success to which many might aspire.
My difference with Tim is in this relentless focus on success. It's a popular
theme, especially in America, and he has done well to stand tall in a crowded
field. He does this by seeking proof, mostly through the experiences of others
or his own, sometimes alarming, experiments. It's a great approach that fits
with my background in engineering, business and psychology. Dig into experience
and theory, build a model, then try it out in practice. And yet this constant
challenge can also lead to a lifetime of striving where there is little time to
smell the roses. There is an underlying assumption in the general success
industry, that it correlates with happiness. If you are successful in life, then
you will be happy. Furthermore, the more successful you are, the happier you
will be. The problem is that this American dream contains the seeds of its own
failure. When success always means 'better', then you can never be successful.
It is like the business blinker of 'growth'. When you focus first on growing, it
is easy to forget survival as you reach too far, too fast, and assume your
market will expand forever.
To be fair to Tim, he does pay attention to personal pleasure and,
importantly, knowing what you want in life and hence what 'success' means --
which is a very important question that too few of us ask of ourselves. He does
promote mindfulness and meditation, yet there is still an intensity to this that
typically packages it into a disciplined. morning exercise. And yet the constant
overlay of betterment seems not to know when enough is enough.
recent podcast he looked back at The Four Hour Work Week and focused on one
particular chapter, 'Filling the Void' that he thought has often been
misunderstood. In particular, this is about what you might do when you have
achieved a modicum of success. It is a great question. When you have achieved
success, when made your pile, what then? There is an American principle that
success is more about what you are making than what you are worth, and even less
about being able to stop working. This is a brilliant cultural driver for a
strong economy as it celebrates working billionaires. In Britain, the dream is
more about making money then cashing in and going to sit on a beach somewhere.
Maybe there is also a third way where, when you no longer worry about where the
next meal is coming from or you family is reasonably secure, you then turn down
the money-making drive to 'maintenance' mode, ease off on stress, and put your
energies into what you like rather than what you must.
I have done this. I spent many years writing the Changing Minds website while
holding down a full time job, bringing up a family and studying for further
qualifications. Then, when the job disappeared (a blessing in disguise) I
retired early with my amazing wife to a smallholding on a beautiful Welsh
mountainside. I still get up and work every day, including studying and writing
for the site, but the huge difference is that I now do what I want to do. The
garden and field are my gym. I do various voluntary work. I travel and
photograph. I speak at conferences. I even do occasional paid work, but the
difference now is that I don't chase it. I have a modest pension and moderate
income from ads and books, and it is enough to support a comfortable, though not
luxurious lifestyle, in which Tim's podcasts are welcome stimulation. I'm still
addicted to learning and he continues to deliver the best "aha's per hour"
dopamine buzz that I can find in the podcast-sphere.
The biggest bonus of all this: less stress and more happiness. An excellent
point by one of Tim's guests on
another podcast is that what we call happiness is often more transient
pleasure. Happiness is deeper, more grounded and meaningful. It is not tied to
success or achievement. It is more about being, in the moment and through time.
It might even be called ontological, existential and stoic. Sure. I could chase
down the guru route. I can probably claim to be a world expert in changing
minds. I could run exhortation-packed weekends for learners in subjects from
sales to teaching, yet why, when instead I can till the soil and see beauty all
around me. I sleep when I am tired, arise when I wake, and work at whatever
floats today's boat.
Advert overload : when monetization fails
I've listened to Dan Snow's
History Hit podcast for a while now. It's really interesting, with
interviews with knowledgeable historians, but I've just dropped it. Why? Because
it has too many adverts. It starts with several minutes of ads, gets into the
meat of the show, then breaks off mid-sentence for more ads.
A very real dilemma when applying adverts and promotions within web pages,
podcasts, videos and so on, is that the more you do it, the more likely it is
that people will abandon your page and perhaps your site for ever. This is a
non-linear relationship and there is often a 'tipping point', such as where I
reached with History Hit. You can do sophisticate A-B testing and more to test
whether people click on more ads or ads in different positions, but what is more
difficult to determine is their choice in whether to visit you at all,
especially given their past experiences at your site.
This is one reason why I keep articles in Changing Minds as a single block
with adverts above and below but not within the text. I want readers to feel
good when they are reading and not irritated by interruptions. The same
principle is often used in other podcasts I listen to, with adverts at the
beginning and end but not in the middle.
With Changing Minds I kind of like it when I see lots of other sites with a
high advert density as it helps make my site stand out. As a result I get lots
of readers and returners and advert clicks are enough to keep me off the streets
but is not making me a millionaire, which suits me fine,
With adverts, as with many other things, less is often more.
Simplicity, complexity, extremism and
moderation: How much you think changes how you behave
Sometimes people take extreme views. Occasionally they are right, but most
times they are wrong. The world is a complex place. People have complex
thoughts. Things are not as simple as they often seem, yet extremist views can
be very simplistic.
There are two approaches that are often seen in life. An example is in
photography, where a 'good photograph' stimulates one of two different needs.
Views of calm seas and simple portraits are easy to take in and interpret. They
do not take much effort, requiring very little thought to understand. Other
pictures, such as of a bird colony or cityscape, often require more thought.
This is found even more in abstract art, where the purpose is to stimulate
interest and wonderment. Hence we have 'easy' and 'interesting' needs that are
satisfied by 'simple' and 'complex' images.
Even more fundamental, when we are making sense of the world, we take one of
two routes. Petty and Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model call these the
central or peripheral routes. Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow' calls
them System 1 and System 2. The underlying issue is that we have neither the
time nor the brainpower to process the non-stop information stream that assails
our senses. Peripheral, System 1, simple thinking is quick and easy as we use
heuristics, habits and the unconscious mind for 'good enough' assessment. This
frees the conscious mind for central, System 2, complex thinking where we pay
more attention and consider things more carefully.
This principle translates to everything from jobs to political views. Many
people like their jobs to be moderately interesting, but mostly easy. Complexity
causes them stress. Others relish a challenge and are prepared to take risks. In
politics, philosophy and other topics where idealism often appears, this
easy-or-complex choice can lead people to extreme or moderate views.
Extreme views are necessarily limited as they exclude all other views. They
find the easy route attractive, with simple ideas. For ideas to be stable, they
are often based either be on a fixed source or on a charismatic leader. Sources
are typically a single book or canon of literature, such as religious or
scientific works. Extremist leaders need sufficiently ideas or charisma that
other people will follow them and blindly (and hence easily) accept what they
are told. Such leaders may have their own ideas or may be interpreters of
Those holding extreme views also tend to simplify other people as good (those
like me) or bad (everyone else). Non-believers may be cast as mistaken, but are
often thought of as being bad people who know what is true and yet oppose this
due to an underlying reactionary, corrupt and even evil nature.
Intelligence plays a factor here as brighter and educated people can think
more quickly, process more information and produce more accurate assessments,
and so can use the central route more often. There is also a comfort factor,
where consideration of complex ideas may well mean accepting a situation where
you do not know everything and must accept more uncertainty. People who avoid
cognitive and social risk are more likely to take the easier, peripheral route
as they adopt beliefs from others in order to gain social acceptance and avoid
mental discomfort. In this way, extremist societies are born as large numbers
accept simple, passionate and aggressive views.
Another significant factor in radicalization is socialisation, where people
get converted via a process that typically includes isolation from alternative
views, destruction of previous identity and intensive indoctrination into the
new, 'pure' way of thinking. Cults often work like this. Whether they have
religious goals or it is more about worship of a charismatic leader, they hide
themselves from the world. Isolation works well when you have unusual practices,
as it takes followers away from normalizing influences, including persuasive
relatives. Other types of extremist want to be near unbelievers, either to
preach at them or to attack them. This is particularly true of religious and
political groups who believe their way is the only way, and that other groups
should follow suit or be punished in some severe way.
Within extreme communities, there can easily be in-fighting and factionalism
based on ideas of purity, where the more extreme believers consider themselves
better and more deserving. This also contains the doom of extremists as when
they have defeated their opposition or are unable to make a difference, they
turn inwards against one another. Their combative nature can also trip them up
in debates which they may well see as a war of ideals.
People with moderate views, on the other hand, tend more to compromise. They
seek approaches and solutions that most people will find acceptable, if not
perfect. They are realists, working with what they have rather than some
idealistic view of what should be. They view extremists as strange, selfish and
maybe dangerous in their readiness to use extreme methods on those who criticize
or otherwise do not agree with the extreme views.
And yet, while extremist views can lead to serious harm of societies,
including their own, they can also be a source of needed change. Extreme views
are often born out of real situations, for example where a society is run by a
wealthy elite (even within a democracy), then left-wing, grass-roots revolution
can grow. In extremist systems, the unabated pendulum tends to swing from one
side to another. This is where moderates come it, as with a damping of the
pendulum the damage of extreme control can be minimized and a reasonably civil
society maintained amongst all the change.
Getting the job: the least worst candidate,
Theresa May and the hoped-for great saviour
Sometimes, when you are looking for a job, it is more important to not be
disliked than be outstanding in any areas. In this way, average, bland and
uncontroversial people get the job rather than those who might be more
A common time when this kind of appointment is made is where there are
strongly differing views among those who have a hand in the appointment process,
and in particular where any individual or group have the power of veto. In such
cases, the likely successful candidate will be a person to whom no selector
This is a common pattern in political appointments, where factions and power
players can all veto any appointee, and none more so than when people are
seeking a new leader. An example of this happened in the UK after the Brexit
referendum, where David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and enmities between
people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove made them insufficiently popular with
all sides. As a result, the moderate and flexible Theresa May got the job of
guiding Britain out the EU, even though she voted against it. Yet without the
fanatical support that strong leaders get, she has floundered as in-party
warring has continued unabated. This, during a time where unity is essential for
successful Brexit, could well lead to national disaster.
This least-worst decision-making appears in many other choice scenarios, from
business strategizing to buying a family car, where keeping everyone on board
beats innovation and high-potential risk. The averaging effect of compromise
destroys companies, brings down governments and kills passion. It creates
grudges as behemoths lumber on, even to their doom.
In balancing this dismal state of affairs, there is an answer which can seem
impossible when all parties are entrenched in blinkered views. This is of
visionary leadership that speaks to all and breaks through the impotent gloom.
Great leaders bring people together, speaking to their deep fears and desires,
yet not being beholden to them.
There is a theory, sometimes debunked, that explains this, proposing that a
'Great Man' will arise when there is great need. Despite the old sexism of the
idea, it is a common pattern in times of stress, where we seek a magical saviour
who will deliver us from anticipated evil times ahead (and look no further than
recent presidential elections for evidence of this). Practically, this is
unlikely to happen as the Conservatives are paralyzed by a fear of socialist
Jeremy Corbyn winning another election. Better the weak leader they know, it
Never mind the cynicism, we desperately need such a person now, and not just
in Britain. Let's hope our Churchill (an oft-quoted example) will step out on
the shadows soon.
But is it art? The tricky question of whether
computers can be artists
Can computers, perhaps in the guise of a future artificial intelligence, be
creative? Can they create something whereby many people agree that the result is
The first question here is 'What is art?' Is it about the result, created by
whatever means? Is it about the customer, the user, the observer? Do people have
to agree something is art before we can agree that it is art? Or is it about the
artist, and the process of creative thinking? And if so, does this preclude
computers from ever being creative? To plunder an over-used metaphor, can there
be creativity in the forest when nobody is there?
A simple definition of art (though not the only one) is of something that
deliberately stimulates. This allows for art in music, cooking and other areas.
It also allows for varying pleasure. While creating widespread pleasure can be
profitable, others may scorn such populism and delight in anguished expression.
Stimulation may be gained through representation, which can range from a simple
photograph (where machines have long played a part) to a clever sculpture made
with scrap-yard parts. Even in more abstract representation, if rules can be
defined, then machines may create.
An extension of the question of stimulation which resonates with this site is
that art changes minds. Through its provocation, it makes people think
differently and maybe become different people. In such ways, art can changes
A key aspect is emotion. Art stimulates feelings as reactions to a creation.
This is more difficult for machines, but not impossible. While provoking some
feeling is quite feasible (we are emoting creatures, after all), gaining the awe
and wonder great art may be a more difficult challenge.
A further consideration is in the balance of familiarity and surprise.
Representation, even in abstract terms, needs something familiar. From this
base, corruption and unexpected variation grabs attention, and the art of the
artist is in knowing the line between pleasure and irritation that this creates.
This task is far harder for machines and is a boundary that will be hard to
Jack Tait is a retired
photography lecturer who builds simple machines that draw, using a careful
combination of determinism and randomisation. It uses pens, driven by various
motors, gears and cams. Not all drawings are good art, but he is making progress
in improving the good-to-bad ratio.
There are many examples of computers doing incredible things. Perhaps one of
the most astonishing of late is the story of the Go-playing supercomputer. In
2016, Google's AlphaGo Lee
beat Lee Sedol, 9th Dan master, at a game that is reputed to be the greatest
intellectual challenge. It did so by analyzing many, many previous games, giving
it more options at its super-natural fingers. But then, only a year later,
AlphaGo Zero soundly beat its predecessor with only knowledge of the basic rules
of the game. Observers of the games were confused by the unorthodox moves the
computer made, but were later convinced of the genius when these proved very
Even given all this seems unlikely that computers will create great art any
time soon, especially given the emotional sensitivity required. Yet it may come,
alongside great empathy when this is cracked. When your computer understand you
better than anyone, when you prefer its company and laugh uproariously at its
hilarious new jokes, then maybe, only then, will it creates you amazing artworks
in its spare time.
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 the right.