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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave


Sunday 22-Nov-15

Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing politics of outrage

There has recently been another terrorist attack, this time in Paris, with simultaneous gun and bomb assaults leaving many dead and injured, and millions horrified.

Why do they do it? It's a common cry.

Aside from martyrdom, the real reason is to escalate their cause, which is to spread their fundamentalist religion and ultimately to destroy western civilisation. They believe in a prophecy of Armageddon and are working to create it.

How do they do this? Through the politics of outrage.

The first step is to outrage their enemy, who they largely see as western governments. This is the first purpose of the terrorist acts. The governments then feel obliged to respond in various ways, from rounding up suspects to intensifying proxy wars in regions where those who seem to have energized the terrorists operate.

Outraged citizens may also take the law into their own hands, attacking innocents who are seen as linked to the terrorist group, typically by religious affiliation. The media join in too, for example pressing for total condemnation by people of the religion and then condemning them for an insufficient response.

The terrorist organisation then amplifies and plays this back to their potential supporters, highlighting the oppression of their people, outraging and radicalizing many in the process. It's a game of polarization, dividing and pushing either side to opposite extremes, where outrage is used to justify extreme measures.

And so the cycle spins. With a few acts of barbarity, the terrorists create huge chaos, fear and knee-jerk reaction that is food for their cause. They will use France's understandable reprisals to persuade more to radicalism.

They also cause cause massive ongoing security and other costs that weakens their target enemies. The UK, for example, is spending billions more on defence at the same time they are cutting back on welfare.

If we want to break this cycle of hate, outrage and reaction, we each must step back from recrimination, even verbally so. We must try to understand realities and beware of demonizing the innocent majority. We must work to change minds rather than fall prey to outraged polarisation.

It may be hard, but it is the best way to peace.

Your comments

I agree wholeheartedly with this, I think we are dangerously locked in a cycle of escalating violence which only feeds the problem rather than solves it. I think you don't defeat an idea with violence, but supplant it with better ideas. What I don't know is how we combat the ideas of radicalisation in the middle east. I think we are also combating the desire in the west to respond with violence and to "neutralise the threat".

-- Dan H.


Sunday 18-October-15

Making every word count: the deep manipulation of 'news' items

You've probably noticed at the bottom of many reputable sites there are further links to places elsewhere on the web with content that you might like or which seem to be news items. Typical headings include 'You may also like', 'Elsewhere on the web' and so on. What you might not always know is that these links are not selected by the website owner -- they are, in effect, paid-for advertisements.

The language used in these links tends to be very carefully created. Typical headings include:

  • Experts shocked as new trick saves online shoppers thousands in UK
  • What man did with useless attic is unbelievable
  • An awesome dad explains the 5 revelations he's had raising 2 girls.

We can look at these and derive the rules used to set them up, including:

  • Arousal words that are designed to stimulate and amplify your emotions.
  • Surprise, shock, amazement and other indications that this is something new and interesting that must be investigated.
  • Suggestions of expert authority, often with experts being amazed or shocked. If experts are amazed, then you will certainly be.

Even solid sites that talk about academic research make use of teasing methods, for example the Psyblog site which uses headline trailers such as:

  • Happiness: 8 Awesome New Facts You Should Know
  • The Daily Chore That Can Increase Mental Stimulation and Decrease Anxiety
  • Brain Most Sensitive to New Memories and Stress At This Stage of Life

What this site does in particular is to suggest something interesting or important for you, but not name it. In other words it states the effect without the cause. This uses the completion principle, where we have a need to complete what is started, including knowing what has been suggested. For you to control your life, you hence need to click through to the article.

The problem with such methods is that when they are over-done, they are off-putting. The authors assume the reader is not that bright and is easily manipulated. But when people feel that manipulation, they are likely to react by avoiding such headlines. If you want to attract people, be subtle or genuine.

Sunday 11-October-15

Persuading at the edge of provocation

One of the trickiest (in all senses of the word) methods of persuasion is through the use of challenging provocation. In practice it can seem crazy as you insult or annoy the other person as you act in provocative ways, for example strongly criticizing them or directly calling them foolish. Yet, while this can result in angry reaction, it can also lead to them changing their minds.

A key principle is one of arousal, of stimulating the other person, of shaking and confusing them when they do not expect to be shaken. When things happen or are said that we do not expect, we pause and wonder what it means and what we should do next. This is what happens when people say something provocative. Even when our fight-or-flight reaction is triggered, we may later stop and think in ways that we might not otherwise have done.

Everything has a edge, even as that edge can sometimes be hard to find or be different from where you might expect. There is also an edge to what I will accept when others speak to me, beyond which I will fight back, yet around which I can be startled into new thinking. Provocative persuaders are good at detecting that edge and working along it, saying things that are provocative yet just safe enough for them that they can recover without destroying the relationship. People who are regularly provocative also gain some extra leeway once others forgive them for being overly bold, usually because they have already realize that the provocative speaker does not have an unkind or harmful intent.

Donald Trump is a current example of a master of this method. He has said some outrageous things in his bid to become president of the USA. And somehow he seems to get away with it, with his approval rating going up rather than down, as his opponents hope and the political pundits predict. Indeed, few of us would dare say some of the thing he has said, even in trusted company.

Another reason why people get away with provocative talk when others would be castigated is power. Social rules often say 'be nice' and 'don't talk about things that might upset people'. Yet powerful people may deliberately transgress social rules just to make the point that they have enough power to be able to withstand social disapproval. A related effect happens when people with little real power act provocatively and yet people do not call them out as they suspect the speaker has some hidden power. In this way, boldness can be surprisingly effective.

Sunday 04-October-15

Welfare, housing and unexpected surprises

The UK government currently has a problem. It's called 'housing benefit'. It's a form of welfare where the government gives those who cannot afford housing an allowance to help with the cost of rents, which can be very high indeed. For example typical rents in London at the time of writing for a one-bedroomed apartment are typically between 300 and 500 per week, and you can easily pay well over twice that for three bedrooms in the nicer areas. That's a minimum of around 16,000 per year before you even begin to pay for all the other living costs. And with a minimum wage of around 6 per hour, a full-time job pays something around 12,000 per year. It is not surprising that people need handouts. It is estimated that around one in four people in the UK are receiving housing benefit, adding up to the 23.8 billion in 2013-14, which is almost 30% of the entire welfare bill. This is a big headache for the government and also a target for their cost-cutting agenda.

It all started back in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government sold off the national stock of social housing and instituted housing benefit instead. It gave the government a windfall as well as those who bought the houses, often at bargain prices. The stated goal was to increase house ownership and it did for a while. But then, after an early-90s drop, house prices started to rise. And rise. The cost of houses has tripled and more in the past 20 years, even after taking into account the dip after the 2008 financial fiasco. Rents have increased appropriately and in London, which is particularly expensive, it is easy to pay 1500 per week for rental on a modest apartment.

So what has this to do with changing minds? Margaret Thatcher's goal was to change minds, to get ordinary people to think they could own their own homes. For a while, she succeeded, but only by fudging the system, selling them their rented houses at below market value, then topping up the incomes of those who couldn't afford even the lower mortgage. Another force was the increasingly ease of borrowing money. At one time lenders were very cautious, but over the next 20 years the push to lend and bonus payments to motivate this led to very unwise loans that ended up crippling banks and requiring massive government bail-outs. The commercialization of lending and deregulation of the finance sector also allowed traditionally cautious building societies to convert to banks (with free payouts to members), which led in turn to many more banks in the marketplace, fierce competition and the consolidation of acquisitions that had to be paid for with unrealistic lending goals.

In other words, the extrinsic money motive (greed, to you and me) motivated people in the lending sector to flood the market with money, which had the predictable result (coupled with inadequate house building) of pushing prices up and up. Oh, and the non-stop upward motion of London property prices has continued to make it a safe haven for foreign investors, further pushing up prices. And yet another factor, add net population increase as EU openness and global conflict has led to lots of immigration, further increasing demand for houses. And of course rents have followed, and of course necessarily along with housing benefit.

The game has yet to play out. When inflation takes hold again, many who can barely pay their mortgages will need housing benefit to keep their families off the streets. People will not be able to afford living in London and will move, perhaps to other cities further north and perhaps abroad. Banks may crash again as borrowers default on their debts. And this time the government may not bail them out, resulting in financial chaos and ordinary people ending up taking the brunt again.

The bottom line is that decisions that seem simple and well-minded are not that straightforward. In a supply and demand situation where demand outstrips supply, prices will go up, especially if the buyer can borrow or otherwise acquire money (including from lend-mad banks and government benefit). And when there is money to be made, people will do whatever it takes to make the money. The UK housing situation has been characterized by greed and desperation. Not nice motivators but powerful nevertheless.

Sunday 27-September-15

The power of television and control of a country

As all dictators know, there are three things you need to control in order to subjugate a country. First, you must have command of the military and the police, so you can protect yourself and coerce others. Force, however, is not the best way to control people, especially a lot of them, as it uses much resource and breeds resentment. Better is to change minds. So the next control is of the media, including all newspapers, radio and television. Control of the internet has been a particularly thorny issue for a number of less liberal countries and censorship has been common in places such as China. The last area of control is education. If you can manage what children are taught, you can build 'right' minds without the need later to change them. China again has strong nationalistic elements throughout their school system.

It's a big subject for a blog, so for now, let's just consider television. In his recent book, The Invention of Russia, Arkady Otrovsky explains the power of television in the recent years of transition within Russia. In particular, during the period of transition during the 1990s, when there was a broad hope for a Western-style freedom, television channels emulated the style and content of European TV, portraying a society. It was like television was trying to define the country and was surprisingly effective in creating belief that the full trappings of democracy had really arrived. A reason for this is that the Russians were trained to believe in ideologies and signals under the Soviet system.

The oligarchs who owned television were impressed with their success and, feeling the power at their fingertips, decided that they could run the country. They chose a relatively unknown official, Vladimir Putin as their puppet and he soon rose to power with their solid TV support. However Putin is nobody's puppet and promptly took over the TV system. He also runs the military effectively and is now looks like he will be in charge for a long time.

Meanwhile in the UK, for many a paragon of democracy, the Conservative government is busy working to wrest away the independence and authority of the BBC. As a (theoretically at least) independent broadcaster, the BBC has been long suspected as being rather too socially minded and a bit too liberal for our rather right wing government, who have put John Whittingdale, a known disliker of the BBC system, in charge of 'reform'. The Conservatives are also much cheered by the election of leader of the opposition (Jeremy Corbyn) who looks likely to lose the next general election and are also going ahead with redrawing electoral boundaries to further lock opponents out of power for what could be decades. Will we become an effective one-party state? It seems possible.

Sunday 20-September-15

The 'Next Village Effect' and 'thinking makes it so'

When my parents-in-law were young, they lived in two adjoining villages in South Wales, called Pontarddulais and Hendy. You might think that the villagers would be friendly with one another, and on one level they were. They would mostly speak civilly and would all be Welsh when Wales were playing England at Rugby. Yet there were also many niggles, disputes and long-running feuds. While openly civil, they each whispered dark judgement on the other. And when the Boxing Day rugby 'friendly' came around, legitimized violence was the order of the day as scores were settled and blood flowed.

This is the 'Next Village Effect' and is not unique to the Swansea Valley where Pontarddulais and Hendy still probably seethe. Villages, towns, streets and even individuals are often only superficially friendly with the lot next door. When you are near but not the same as others, they easily become a dark mirror in which you can project your lesser feelings. In this way we easily envy and look down on those next door. We judge them imperfect and may not be shy in letting them know this, especially when angered. And when we disagree, even over trifles, we find it hard to blame ourselves for anything, so all the badness is laden on them. Familiarity, if not managed, can easily breed contempt.

A reason for this bias against those nearby is simply that they are available. We see them often and conversation about them becomes habitual. When things go wrong we do not like to blame ourselves, so having another person or group to be the cause of our ills is useful. It is also helpful to talk about others simply as a distraction. If others are worse, then we can feel better about ourselves and our lot in life.

The Next Village effect need not be as aggressive as those two Welsh villages. Many local relationships are more friendly than combative, yet there is always an essential difference and unkind thoughts may easily stray into our musings, even as we try to keep them at bay. A lesson, perhaps, is to guard against such thinking. Just as we can spiral down into feuds, so also can we rise above it all. When you think kind thoughts, you act more kindly. And when people are kind to you it becomes harder and harder to think unkindly about them. So you become kinder as well. And so it spreads.

Underlying all this is the principle that 'Thinking makes it so'. That how we think is how we act and eventually becomes who we are. 'Fake it 'til you make it' is a variant of the same thing. When you smile, your brain actually creates positive feelings (and vice versa). So choose who you want to be. Work hard not to think ill of others. And have a great life. Just like that.

Sunday 13-September-15

Red for Sexiness

Red is a hue that has deep meaning. Blood is red, leading perhaps to red signifying danger. Red in the face and limbs is also indicative of anger, another dangerous thing, as blood rushes around the angry person, speeding the adrenaline that makes us able to fight harder and with less concern for pain. Even Olympic boxers who wear red are more likely to win their contests. Interestingly, the eyes are more sensitive to the red end of the spectrum, which is why red things stand out so much. Perhaps this is not a coincidence.

Red is also associated with sexual arousal, where blood again rises as blood vessels dilate. It is not just people who this affects. Ovulation makes female chimps redder, making male chimps in turn sexually aroused. Humans too are aroused by red. Researcher Daniela Kayser and colleagues showed male students were a photo of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman. Half the subjects were shown a picture in which she wore a red shirt, while the other half saw an identical version with a green shirt. They were then asked to choose five questions from a list of 24 to ask the woman. The men who saw the red dress opted for more intimate questions. This has been reproduced by others to the extent that it is sometimes called 'The Red Dress Effect'.

It is not that simple, though. If you filled a bar with women in red dresses, the conservative one in blue would probably get more attention, just because she was different. So why don't women were red more often? Possibly because they know it makes them stand out and they may not want overt attention that red gains. 

As well as just sexiness, women wearing red may also be seen as warmer and more competent. And yes, if a woman puts an image with red in on a dating site, she will get more connections. Also of note is that women are more likely to wear red when they are most fertile, which seems to be an unconscious drive to mate.

The reverse is somewhat true too. Studies such as Wen et al (2014) have shown that men who wear red are rated more attractive by women, though nowhere near as strongly. Interestingly, few men seem interested in wearing bright red. Or any bright colours for that matter. Men are more interested in appearing powerful, which is why black is such a popular option.


Wen, F., Zuo, B., Yang, W., Shan, S. and Ke L. (2014). Red Is Romantic, but Only for Feminine Females: Sexual Dimorphism Moderates Red Effect on Sexual Attraction. Evolutionary Psychology. 12, 4, 719-735.

Kayser, D.N.., Elliot, A., and Feltman, R. (2010). Red and romantic behavior in men viewing women. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 6, 901-908.

Pazda, Adam D.; Elliot, Andrew J.; Greitemeyer, Tobias (2011). "Sexy red: Perceived sexual receptivity mediates the red-attraction relation in men viewing woman". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 3, 787.



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.


Best wishes,



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