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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 15-February-15

What's the point of 'What's the point?'

Life can be very frustrating. You work hard and things somehow conspire to make every step more difficult. You help people and they seem ungrateful. You struggle and others constantly let you down. 'What's the point?' you say, throwing your arms in the air and rolling your eyes to heaven.

But what is the point of 'What's the point'? Why do we say it? What does it do for us?

'What's the point?' is also a rather difficult philosophical question. It does not have a good answer without delving into the purpose of life or the nature of humanity. Asking the question does not really seek an answer -- what it does is prevent an answer.

Another clue is in the gesture that commonly accompanies the phrase. Appealing to the gods, even metaphorically, assumes some other force at work, outside of your control. There seems nothing you can do to change the situation, let alone other people.

So what do you do? Most typically, you give up.

And there's the point. Saying 'What's the point?' lets you give up. The full rhetorical question is 'What's the point in my continuing when I am being constantly frustrated?' And the unspoken answer is 'None.'

In this way, 'What's the point?' gives you reason, justifying abandonment of your efforts. You can stop and still feel good. There is no need for shame. In fact you can feel a righteous indignation about the waste of your time. In this way you can transition from the pain of a difficult situation to the comfort of knowing you are morally superior. Perhaps if you continued your efforts or changed your approach you would have succeeded. But thinking about this would open the wound, so you do not.

So 'What's the point?' has a very useful point, after all. Yet it also carries dark dangers that can ruin your life.

This little question can become a rather too useful method of transforming pain into pleasure. It can quietly invade your life as it is steadily deployed more often and more quickly, until it becomes a reflexive habit. Yet while it excuses you from short-term discomfort, it does nothing for your long term prospects. In fact it can be very harmful to your future.

Life is hard. It needs you to overcome obstacles, not avoid them. If you give up, you will go nowhere.

If you want to succeed, yet you are not succeeding, you must change. And here, at this point of self-challenge, lies another danger, because 'What's the point?' can pop up and save itself by convincing yourself that even if you change, the result will be the same. So why bother, it asks.

To get away from this pernicious trap, you first have to get away from 'What's the point?' First notice yourself thinking it. Then realize what real harm it is doing to you. Get angry with it. Beat it up and throw it away. Determine never to let it back. Then replace it with other, more useful thoughts that help you overcome obstacles rather than avoid them. Like 'I can do it' or 'Let's try something different' or 'I'm not going to let them beat me'.

A secret of success is knowing what is stopping you from succeeding, and then getting past it. 'What's the point?' is just such a trap. If it is holding you back, you can now see it and stop it, forever.


Sunday 08-February-15

Guarding the royal potato. Or not.

Potatoes are staples of many diets, though at one time there were none at all outside of South America. In 1532, the Spanish invaded the land we now know as Peru. Though they didn't realize it at the time, one of the most valuable things they found there was the humble potato. By 1600, it has spread throughout Europe, especially the colder climates where many other plants will not grow. Sadly, though, not everyone thought it fit for human consumption and it was often used just as animal feed. The Russian Orthodox church even banned them simply because they were, quite naturally, not mentioned in the Bible.

A particular fan of the potato was King Frederick  II of Prussia, who fed them to his troops in the mid 18th century wars. However, when he offered them to his subjects during the 1774 famine, they were less than enthusiastic, typically declaring that "The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?" Even when Frederick threatened to cut the nose and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes they still refused. Facing an unpopular mass amputation, Frederick changed his tactics to something rather more effective.

Frederick's new approach was to declare the potato a royal vegetable and place guards around the royal potato field, though they were also instructed not to guard the potatoes too closely. The local population, now banned from eating potatoes decided that if they were good enough for the king, they were certainly good enough for the peasants. Sneaking past the incautious guards, locals managed to 'capture' some potato plants and started secretly growing their own. Before long, there was a huge underground market in in potatoes, which Frederick was forced to openly accept and eventually magnanimously legitimize.

The basic tactic that Frederick used was a combination of exclusivity, scarcity and social proof, a powerful cocktail based on the principle that we want what we cannot get, especially when our superiors are using it.

Sunday 01-February-15

Choice blindness and the taste test

When we have options, we think we choose well and know our choices, yet often those decisions are momentary and we might want to change them in the future. This is well illustrated by an experiment by Lars Hull and associates who set up a market stall and gave people a taste of two jams before choosing one. Just before they took away their purchase, they were given one last taste to confirm that this was indeed the jam they wanted. The twist is that in this final taste, they were given the jam they had just rejected, yet 80% said yes, this was just what they had chosen, even though one was Cinnamon-Apple and the other was Grapefruit.

A key point here is that there is a lot of belief in taste. If we believe we are consuming X then we are very likely to taste like X. A typical similar experiment that you can try is to give people cheap wine poured out of an expensive wine bottle. Even experts have been fooled by this into declaring the wine is quite wonderful. Likewise, a cheap meal in a posh restaurant can taste far better than in the corner cafe (and vice versa). It is said that we eat with our eyes. It's more than this: we eat with all our senses plus the complicit help of our subconscious minds. If it looks great, we think, then it must taste good.

Taste testing is fraught with other problems too. In the 1980s, Pepsi rattled Coca Cola with a taste test that had people saying they preferred Pepsi. Coke even changed their formula, to disastrous PR and eventually had to return to the original taste. The trick was that the Pepsi test was a sip test, not glugging a whole bottle. In limited, small sips, Pepsi does indeed taste nice. But then that's because it uses more sugar. When drinking a whole can full, it can be a bit too much. In other words, 'taste' is a limited term that may well need far clearer definition before you can compare things.

Hall L., Johansson P., Tärning B., Sikström S. and Deutgen T. (2010). Magic at the marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea. Cognition, 117, 1, 54-61


Sunday 25-January-15

Us, them and non-violent extremism

I watched a BBC documentary recently about Islam in Britain and the tensions around religious terrorism that are now being felt in a number of countries. The underlying question was how people become radicalized, going from peaceful citizens to violent jihadists who justify murder in the name of belief.

At the root, it seems, is the separation of groups that creates a them and us situation. This often happens between religions where those with other beliefs (including secular ones) are mentally distanced, enabling them to be talked of in a polarized way, as if they are all very similar and very unlike us. The different clothing of Muslims probably has an effect here. In the multiculturalism found in Britain, there are large homogenous communities of people of single ethnicities and religions within which a them-and-us narrative would seem to very likely take root.

This mental separation and polarization naturally leads to more extreme views where the other side are easily depersonalized and seen as bad and deserving of harsh punishment. Yet most people also feel the weight of law and social values that say we should not harm others. The result is a form of passive aggression where they talk politely about punishment without directly advocating it. In the BBC documentary, for example, people were calmly expressing understanding of why others would want to stone to death a person who left the religion (committing apostasy) while they themselves would of course not take part. This 'non-violent extremism' was found to be a jumping-off point, a key step taken by those who did take up jihadism.

Another underlying issue is the question of primacy: state or religion. This is a question that has caused controversy in many countries, for many centuries. Religious belief is so personal, it can easily lead to people putting it before all other beliefs, including that we should obey national laws.

A question is what to do about all this. The government is considering extending its anti-terrorism laws to encompass non-violent extreme groups. Others are questioning multiculturalism and demanding a policy of integration rather than allowing separated communities, although just how this might be achieved is unclear. The UK government is also being seriously challenged by nationalist groups who have been gaining ground with their own version of non-violent extremism. Increased isolationism seems likely, with possible exit from the European Union and strengthening of immigration restrictions.

All that I feel we can do individually is to not get swept up by it all, seeking to understand rather than blindly oppose others, including the extremists, violent or not. If we can accept without condemnation, then we have the first step to a more peaceful coexistence.

Sunday 18-January-15

Teaching Geniuses

I recently went to see 'The Theory of Everything', a movie about the famed Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking. While the movie was mostly about his relationship with his first wife, Jane, it struck me how difficult it must have been for the professors at Cambridge to teach him. Not because of his disability, but because he is so damned clever. In fact it must be a regular occurrence there, as in other top universities. Even in everyday schools, the dilemma arises: How do you teach a genius? In the movie, as in life, his professor, Dennis Sciama (himself a noted physicist), as well as the famed Roger Penrose were generous in their support, even when Hawking backtracked on some of his previous claim (which itself says much about the open-mindedness of the man).

There's a nice story about Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the 20th century's smartest philosophers. He had arrived at Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell, who was already a famed British philosopher. He asked Russell whether he was a genius or an idiot, which itself highlights one of the dilemmas of genius: When your thinking is so different from everyone else, how do you know you are right? Russell thought about it, then asked him to write something over the holidays. After the break, Wittgenstein handed in his piece. Russell read one sentence and declared him a genius. Then he effectively handed over the throne by declaring himself retired from original philosophical work. In practice he continued to mentor and support Wittgenstein. These simple and generous acts gave Wittgenstein a platform on which he could launch as good a career as a person who thought so differently could achieve.

My wife (now retired) was an English teacher in a standard high school in the UK and talks with pride about the geniuses she taught, including that she really loved finding students who were brighter than her (unlike some of her peers, who hated being contradicted). She taught in a highly Socratic manner, drawing out their thoughts and encouraging them to challenge other ideas as well as carefully reasoning their own innovative arguments.

Teaching geniuses is perhaps the greatest form of changing minds. It is less a matter of providing them with information and more about releasing them, facilitating their entry into ways beyond your own comprehension.

Sunday 11-January-15

Males, mates, aggression and war

Are men the cause of all evil? Some feminists believe so, even to the point of thinking that if we could just get rid of them all, the world would be a much better place. But of course there's that sticky question of fertilization and children. It takes two to make a baby and both men and women are driven to engage in the act of sexual intercourse. Given the later pain of childbirth, it is a testament to nature's drives that women go anywhere near men. Also that the aggressor in abusive relationships is very largely the man.

So is it true? Are men naturally warlike? Is it in their nature to fight, and fight big? Researchers Lei Chang and colleagues showed heterosexual men just a picture of attractive women's legs and then tested their attitudes. They found that the legs provoked more aggression towards hostile other countries, and led the men to find a soldier or war-related words on a computer screen. Looking at men's legs did not have this effect.

Men have a natural attraction towards beautiful women (mostly because firm breasts, clear skin and so on are also indicators of fertility). And, naturally, they are most attracted to the most beautiful women. So the more attractive the woman, the more men she will have seeking her out as a mate. Which means they must compete for her, and in a tribal situation that includes literally being able to fight off other men. This can be helpful for the women too, (if she has a choice) as powerful men will give her status in the tribe, will protect her and her children and of course will pass on those powerful genes to her children.

So how does this translate to war? After all fighting the next man is not the same as all out war against the next tribe. Perhaps it is a simply a fact of generalized aggression, and that the leader of a primitive tribe is likely to be the most aggressive, just to keep his place (and get the first choice of women). Yet this does not fully explain the experiment. This would seem to be case of priming, where the aggression triggered by the women's legs has momentum, simply keeping on going such that it informs and biases any subsequent short-term decisions.

L Chang, H Lu, H Li, and T Li (2011). The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Mating-Warring Association in Men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 37,7, 976-984

Sunday 04-January-15

Persuasive contexts (how things around you change your mind, without you noticing)

As we grow and learn about the world around us, one thing we discover soon enough is that other people want to change our minds. They may do this rationally, with reasoned argument. They may just tell us what they want us to do. They may well also be deceptive, tricking us into agreeing with lies or when they do not intend holding up their side of the bargain. And as people get more deceptive and more skilled in their persuasions, we also get more skilled at spotting these and resisting persuasive attempts.

However, there is one category where we often completely miss the persuasive power that can have a significant influence over us.

This is the environment, the things around us. For example:

  • Pink walls are likely to calm agitated people.
  • A briefcase on a table, but not a rucksack, leads people to act more competitively.
  • A wall poster with a pair of eyes increases people's use of an honesty box.
  • Pictures of companionable dolls will increase the chance that toddlers will help another pick up sticks they have dropped.
  • A picture of people holding hands will make us more likely to seek help.

In other words, we respond to cues, sometimes surprising ones. We do not even have to consciously notice things for them to have an effect on our unconscious minds and consequent actions. The last item in the above list, where an image of human contact leads to greater readiness to seek help, is a good example of how such subtleties can be used in advertising. Adverts often show people acting in certain ways. We say 'yes, yes' and ignore it. Or at least we think we do, because when next at the supermarket, we may find that pack of detergent even more attractive, especially if the advert showed somebody buying one.

Rubin, M. (2011). Social affiliation cues prime help-seeking intentions. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 43 (2), 138-141



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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