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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 18-June-17

Poverty and the dysfunctional focus of chronic lack

When we have too little of something we need, whether this is time, food, money, love or whatever, we focus on it. And when this lack becomes an intense constant, it closes off our world, until all we are is that lack and we dysfunctionally act to sustain it. This is real poverty. It is constricting because it narrows our focus. It stops us thinking about wider issues and alternative possibilities as we obsess about the lack.

Poverty, in this sense, is not without its rewards. Indeed, it would not be self sustaining if there were no satisfaction, no matter how perverse. This inward collapse can boost our sense of control as it excludes much of the messy outer world. While we do not have the control to satisfy the lack, this is all we need worry about in those periods of painful focus. In this way, there can be a means-ends inversion as the sense of control that focus gives becomes a reward in itself.

Poverty can also find satisfaction in our sense of identity. When I think 'I am poor' I am attaching poverty to my core sense of self. Money is not me and can acquire a strange revulsive property. Likewise the lonely can come to hate love and the busy to feel twitchy when there is nothing to do.

There is a similar effect in addiction, where the intense pleasure of chemical consumption leads us to repeatedly seek it out, to the exclusion of everything else. Again, this in an inward collapse, where our functional world in replaced by a single point. Addiction and poverty can this be seen in the same light.

George Orwell said 'The essence of poverty is that it annihilates the future'. Not only does lack limit our choices, it stops us thinking about them.

A danger of poverty is dependency on kind rescuers. In our desire to help the vulnerable, we give, and so condemn them to dependence on us while entrapping our selves as perpetual saviours. Backing off is no answer either, as their suffering just continues.

There have been many government initiatives aimed at educating the poor and the addicted, yet few have much effect. Those that have the greatest effect change self-image through rewriting the stories the poor tell themselves about themselves. In other words, to raise people from mental poverty we should focus on their sense of identity.

A radical idea that seems to be gaining ground is of a universal basic salary. This would replace many welfare handouts that say 'you are poor' with 'you are the same as everybody'. In this way, at least the basic lack of food and shelter can be satisfied, helping raise the people to think about wider issues.

Sunday 11-June-17

Politics, Brand and the Detoxification Problem

As I predicted in last week's blog, the UK parliament is now 'hung', with no party having an overall majority. Prime Minister Theresa May ran a dreadful campaign based on a presidential personal appeal, during which she often appeared nervous and unsure, where she would not even engage in a leader's debate. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn demolished a 20 point poll disadvantage with a very human presentation in which he came over as honest and committed to 'good' socialist principles. Even with the appalling terrorist events that should have played to the natural 'law and order' territory of the Conservative party, May got wrong-footed as she had just presided over a cut in police numbers of 20,000 while Corbyn was proposing restoring 10,000 of these.

So here we are. The Conservatives are trying to make up the numbers for a majority by allying with the DUP party from Northern Ireland. In some ways, it is a natural match as the DUP are right wing. However, it is not that easy. First of all, the DUP represent one side of the Irish divide, with the Catholic Sinn Fein on the other. Sinn Fein are not going to be too pleased with the DUP getting a seat at the top table, especially as the rift between the two means there is currently no functional NI governing assembly.

The other problem is that the DUP have fairly extreme views on topics including gay marriage, creationism and climate change. This is a particular issue for the Conservatives, who are occasionally labelled as 'the nasty party' and who have had a long project to improve their brand image. This has been called 'detoxification' or, more vaguely, 'modernisation'. They have worked for a long time on this, which is natural as changing one's image is hard work. An example was where the previous Conservative government legalised gay marriage. However, they declared it as 'done' far too early. Now, even if the DUP hold fire on attacking this, the mere association with them sets the Conservative image back years. It's a calamity in the making.

As 'Kingmakers', the DUP are also flexing their new political muscles. After the Conservatives announced they had come to an agreement with them, the DUP contradicted this by saying that they were still negotiating.

Meanwhile, the Europeans, who are due to begin Brexit negotiations with the UK in a few weeks must be laughing into their beer. In trying to get an overpowering majority and a strong mandate, the Conservative government has collapsed into a weak pile.

Their biggest mistakes?

  1. Hubris. Taking the electorate for fools. Assuming that Brexit would be the main concern, and with such a large poll advantage they could walk in with a harsh manifesto.
  2. Brand. Not understanding how important this is and how easy it is to damage. Brand is about image and trust, and the Conservatives have played too fast and loose with this.

A key lesson for many of us is that brand is more central to reputation than we may realize, and that if we want to 'detoxify' it, removing elements that harm our reputation, then this is both hard work and requires constant attention. In practice it often means culture change, whereby those who sustain unwanted old views are corrected, contained or ejected. Personally, we also need to realize that when we make friends with a person, then all of our other friends will notice and may change their opinion of us based on what they think of that new friend. This can cause moral as well as personal problems, but it is a reality and we need to be aware of the dynamics of our personal brand.

Back to politics. Here's my prediction: The Conservatives will stagger on for a while in this damaging relationship. Theresa May will be kicked out as leader before too long. They will develop a new manifesto that avoids some of the more toxic elements of the previous one (such as the 'dementia tax' where people pay for elderly care with their houses). The new leader will be much better at self-presentation. And they will call yet another general election. Probably in the Autumn or next Spring. In this, I suspect they will get more seats, perhaps returning to their former position with a reasonable, but not large overall majority.

Let's see.

Sunday 04-June-17

Elections, leadership and the ever-shifting polls

The UK will be voting for a new government this week. A month ago, it looked like a guaranteed landslide for the Conservatives. They were 20 points ahead of a Labour party that was turning further left and whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was very unpopular with his parliamentary colleagues and regularly criticized in the press as being vague, extreme and out of touch. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, was charging ahead with the Brexit preparations and appearing to be rather like her forebear, Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, the party faithful must have thought it was some kind of second coming.

Yet so much can change in just a month. Now, with the election on Thursday, the Conservative lead has collapsed to just three points.

What happened? In the recent terrorist attack in Manchester where Theresa May got plenty of air time and gave very Churchillian 'we will fight them on the beaches' speeches. While Jeremy Corbyn also condemned the acts, he was less visible and has something of a history of connections with terrorists. It should have been a massive political boost for the Conservatives, yet after a slight poll uptick, it faded back down.

The bottom line cause of the Conservative collapse is hubris. When they saw that they had a 20 point lead, they thought they could have a quick landslide election and then do whatever they liked, ignoring the dissenters within their own party who had of late been a rather annoying moderating force. They thought their 'Hard Brexit' position would see them through after last year's referendum vote and the general acceptance now that Brexit is real. 'No deal is better than a bad deal' they kept repeating as they took a strong competitive stance. This, however, seems to have made the electorate rather nervous and Corbyn's collaborative approach seems more desirable. They also got tangled up in social policy where a promise that payment for care of the elderly could be paid through house value after death. This got called 'the dementia tax' and is hugely unpopular, especially with young people who would inherit massively less if their parents have high end-of-life care costs.

Also, Theresa May rather oddly refused to appear in a seven-way party leader TV debate. Unsurprisingly, she got ripped apart on the show and roundly criticized in the press. It's actually not surprising given her rather nervous appearance on other shows where she ignored questions and repeated unconvincing catchphrases, while rather facilely using the interviewer's forename at regular intervals. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, was relaxed and impressive, answering questions and challenging some of the stereotypes. For example he explained his meeting with terrorists as seeking peace and certainly not giving approval. Whoever has been coaching May should be fired, while Corbyn's coach deserves a big bonus.

Thursday will now be a rather interesting day and not the pushover that the Conservatives once thought. Indeed, there is the possibility that either they will lose or the situation will end up with a hung parliament, where no one party has a majority. According to the polls, they should still win, but at best will be with far less MPs than they once thought they'd have. A key variable will be how many young and old people turn out, which is a major area in which different polls differ. The majority of the young prefer Labour, while the majority of the old prefer the Conservatives. A strong young turnout will be very bad news for Theresa May.

So let's wait and see. My prediction: a hung parliament.

Sunday 28-May-17

Needy or greedy: a blind political assumption

There is a general election soon in the United Kingdom, and the parties are out canvassing for votes. Manifestos are being leaked and steadily revealed in attempts at grabbing the daily headlines. Politicians are thumping the table on TV and in town halls up and down the realm.

The UK, as with other countries is politically divided along socio-economic lines (although this has been complicated of late by separatist issues). And herein lies a common trap. The left looks at the right and caricatures it as greedy, while the right looks at the left and sees it as needy. There is some truth in this, but the whole truth is very different.

The general right wing concern for low taxes and small government seems to indicate they serve the rich only, who greedily want to hang onto their fortunes and not to give any of this for the greater good.

The left, on the other hand, seem concerned only for the needy, who are caricatured as being lazy and given to fraudulent seeking more state benefits than they deserve. In this way, the right also sees the left as greedy, and perhaps themselves still needing all their relative riches.

The UK has a history of aristocracy and feudalism. Paradoxically, it also has a far more generous welfare system than many other countries. This was largely ushered in by the political left which grew out of civil war and industrial unrest. This has led to polarized politics and a focus on the needy-greedy debate. It has also caused internalization of this dualist-materialist view, where each focuses on greedy self-interested needs while framing the other side as being more greedy and less needy.

Within this schism lies a huge middle ground, where people seem more understanding and generous, where they are more than willing to pay their taxes in order to help others and fund a stable, safe society. In the UK the Liberal Democrats perhaps represent this best, yet they have few parliamentary seats as oppositional, polarized views hold sway. Maybe this election will see them recover though, like the left, they have weak leadership.

The most likely result this time will be a Conservative landslide, giving a strong, right-wing government. They have been promising social policies to help the needy, but history suggests these will be weak and subordinate to greedier drives. History also suggests a long rule with arrogant hubris as their eventual downfall. Yet again, the gaping hole in the middle ground could provide an alternative to a reactive swing to the far left.

Who knows. The monochrome, planar pendulum has a powerful tendency to swing between opposites. It will take a strong, visionary leader and an emergent, intelligent following to damp the forces of left-right, needy-greedy history.

Sunday 21-March-17

Blame and Shame: Negative methods, destructive results

When we are trying to persuade somebody do to something (or maybe not do it again), we often use 'blame and shame'.

Blaming uses a number of assumptions:

  • Actions are good or bad. There is no middle ground. There is no accident.
  • People who do bad things are themselves bad.
  • Bad people must be punished severely.
  • People who call out bad people are good.

This makes the person who blames both judge and jury and absolves us from any challenge or guilt. As it makes them good, it also makes them superior and worthy of praise. This is a temptation that many people find difficult to resist, including when they are seeking to change minds.

Blame can lead to shame. Shame is effectively blaming oneself, which leads to self-judging and self-punishing. A typical way this is done is with repeated self-recrimination and feelings of unworthiness. This can lead to depression and even a self-destructive repetition of socially unacceptable actions that invite blame (and so confirm the person's feelings of shame).

Blame very seldom leads to anything constructive. Forgiveness is another trap as it assumes that the subject has already been blamed. In any case, there are far better ways to motivate people into acceptable action. A simple method is to ignore unacceptable acts and lavish praise on actions that you like. A simple approach is to show appreciation for good acts and give extra praise for improvement.

If we can avoid blaming other and indulging in shame ourselves, it is remarkably easy to build a far better life for both ourselves and also for those around us.

Sunday 14-May-17

Bashful billionaires, billionaires that bash, and those that become puppeteers

There are a few people in the world who have money. Lots of it. Some were lucky enough to inherit it. Some have achieved it through owning raw materials, most notably oil. Some make it through financial dealings. And of course there are the technology billionaires who come up with the next big thing and float their small companies into a wildly enthusiastic stock market. No matter the route, these people find they have remarkable power. They get invited to exclusive clubs where they talk with other billionaires. Politicians court them, hoping for sizeable donations. And so they find they have massive influence.

Some of these billionaires like to use their money for good, almost bashfully giving back some of what they have acquired. Most notably of late, Bill Gates has poured money into many good causes. This is a continuation of a history of philanthrophy, where people like Carnegie and Rockefeller first prove they are clever by earning lots of money, then prove they are good by giving it away. Who knows, they may even be 'buying a stairway to heaven' as Led Zeppelin once sang.

But not everyone is that nice. Some just want more and more, and will bash whoever gets in their way. Money give power and the powerful do not have to be nice. Normal people are civil because if they are not, they can get into social trouble as even their friends criticize them for being unkind. But when you are the big boss or can hire clever lawyers to get you out of trouble, you can get away with a lot more incivility.

Billionaires may also get into politics. Sometimes they want to be visible, maybe even going for the top job. Politics is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of power as you gain influence over millions of lives. Yet many billionaires do not want a public face. Indeed, they shy away from cameras, preferring to deal in back rooms and face to face. These are the people behind the thrones, who whisper in the ears of public politicians and fund organizations that subtly support their causes. Rather than fame, such people are often driven by either further wealth and power, or by ideology. The billionaire ideologues are perhaps the most dangerous in the way they may drive whole nations into courses of action that could ultimately do massive damage to people, the country and even the whole world. 

Just search for 'billionaire politics' on the web and you will find plenty of detail, and not just on conspiracy sites. Credible sources such as The Guardian and the Washington Post have uncovered alarming stories about how billionaires are becoming global puppeteers. Search for 'billionaire climate change denial' for a specific example. You don't have to be rich to be pull strings, but it most certainly helps.

Sunday 07-May-17

One dollar, ten dollar: the power of embarrassing bargains

I was recently Nepal, walking around Bhaktapur, an ancient citadel near Kathmandu, when I was approached by a street seller, offering me a little brass bowl. 'One dollar!' she cried. One dollar? That's 100 rupees (being a closed-currency country, dollars seen often to be preferred). I'd seen the same bowls for sale elsewhere for much more, so I paused, at which point she thrust the bowl into my hands, followed smoothly by the demand 'Ten dollar'. I paused, blinked and asked 'How much?' 'Ten dollar' she replied, and launched into her sales spiel.

How clever! I had passed by many other stalls, ignoring their pleas. By starting with a fake bargain, this lady had made me stop. Also, she could have easily triggered an embarrassment response, whereby I realize that arguing for the impossibly low one dollar price would make me seem greedy and mean, and so continue with an acceptance of the low price. In fact I would not even be able to just walk off without giving away my unethical act.

Even arguing that she said 'one dollar' would get me nowhere, as her easy response would be to assert that she said 'ten dollars' or, with her limited English, just look pained (more guilt tripping) and repeat the ten dollar price.

For me, this was interesting, though I can see many others feeling trapped and end up paying the ten dollars. It is surprising how much we will do to avoid embarrassment and the disapproval of others, even complete strangers who we will never see again. I briefly considered responding to the game, but felt this would not be right, so I moved on.

A coda to this story is that the exposure to the bowl aroused my desire and the ten dollar pricing anchored me to this value. So when I stopped at another stall where the seller just asked straight out for ten dollars, I paid up without question.

Sunday 16-April-17

Culture, anger and negotiation

With upcoming Brexit negotiations in Europe and emotions running high, it is going to be a bumpy ride. Britain wants free trade and border control. Europe wants to set an example to stop other black sheep leaving the fold.

A question in negotiation is the extent to which you are cool and professional or whether you should express emotion. Anger in particular is a tricky one as it easily provokes the fight-or-flight reaction. The result is either one side capitulating (which is the implicit purpose of anger) or a stand-up fight where reason flies out of the window. Culture can make this a doubly dangerous game as we misunderstand the likely reactions of the other side. For example Adam et al (2010) found that students from different cultural backgrounds who used anger in negotiations could suffer from a significant backfire effect.

Yet anger, used carefully, can have a helpful effect. Adam's experiments made this work when subjects were warned beforehand of cultural tendencies of the other side to become angry. When you come from a culture where public displays of anger are disapproved of, then seeing anger can be alarming as you assume the other person has lost control of themself. Yet there are also cultures where non-expression of emotion means you are not really committed. If you know if it is normal the other side to express anger, then you will be less likely to be aroused by its use.

If you are faced with the anger of the other person, the first step is to bite your tongue. Do not get provoked into unthinking reaction. Take a break if needed to cool down, or just say nothing. Then think about why they may be anger. Is it something you said? Are they deliberately trying to manipulate you? If you have said something that could reasonably be interpreted as a provocation, apologize but do not offer negotiation concession (this is often the target). If they are trying something on, you can even turn things to your advantage, even by winding up the argument, being 'insulted' yourself or otherwise working for your own advantage.

A way to make anger work in a Western context is to remain relatively calm while indicating in words that you are feeling angry, for example by politely saying something like 'I am becoming very frustrated' or even 'I find that insulting'. When working across cultures, a good understanding of whether anger is acceptable (or even expected) can also help you choose your strategy and hence be successful.

Adam, H., Shirako, A., & Maddux, W.W. (2010). Cultural variance in the interpersonal effects of anger in negotiations. Psychological Science, 21, 6, 882-9

Sunday 03-April-17

Anti-Political Correctness as Power

Political correctness is a term that first appeared in about 1990 as a criticism of liberal values that promote equality and fairness. It has never been a real term to promote fairness. Instead, it was only an insult, a denigration that declares attempts at fairness as being excessive, wrong and illegitimate.

We are naturally biased. We unfairly criticize and act against the interests of others. We seek out reasons, real or imagined, for those who are not like us to be wrong and bad. We excuse our ill-treatment of them and justify punishments. In this way, we build our identity. We are not like them. We are good and right.

We are also biased towards people who are like us, who share our beliefs and values, who are similar in all kinds of ways. We seek out such similarity and focus on being the same. This is the basis of tribalism, of bonding like-minded people into a cohesive, supportive unit, of creating a powerful 'we' who can defend ourselves and oppose others.

A tricky tribal problem lies the social rule of caring for the vulnerable, who are less able to care for themselves. This can make them an uncomfortable burden and an acid test of morality. Helping our friends is good, but helping the vulnerable is extra-good. For some, this has been a path to social superiority as they champion the weak and chastize those who do not provide sufficient support.

This championing is, by definition, laudable. Yet it has also led to unexpected, immoral effects. Over the past decades, attention to the vulnerable has escalated at a steady rate. For some, this has not been fast enough. For others, it has spiralled out of control. In particular, those just above the 'vulnerable' level feel especially hard done by. They see the weak getting help, with massive funds being used to help the helpless minority. Yet their own majority position has been losing out as their standard of living is constantly eroded and jobs threatened or lost. Worse, they feel themselves now at the bottom of the social order as positive action and other support lifts the vulnerable above them. They can't even tell biased jokes like they used to, that made them feel momentarily superior, without the PC police kicking them back to the bottom.

Feeling ignored, mistreated and downtrodden, many in this underclass had given up voting, considering it a waste of time as neither of the major parties seemed interested or able in improving their lot. So when some canny politicians woke up to this situation, they realized here was an untapped source of great power.

Paradoxically, the majority parties who had adopted the politically-correct position of helping the vulnerable (even if they dragged their heels in practical action) were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Those able to grasp the politically-incorrect nettle have been thick-skinned demagogues and parties on the political fringes. With conventional rules of politics cast out, they play to their audience, giving voice to common bias and making bold promises that seem politically suicidal or financially impossible, yet which their audience laps up.

This style of politics has been labeled 'populism' by a cynical mainstream. In some ways it is indeed cynical as it tells people what they want to hear, yet impossible promises have long been a political ploy. Politics is a performance and playing to the crowd an essential game.

If the dirty truth be known, there are many more beyond the lower classes who still have plenty of bias and who have tired of ever-escalating politically-correctness. There are also those of power who have smelled opportunity in the shifting winds of opinion and played canny backroom games. The result has been bombshell referenda and elections where the PC-free have gained power. Even those not elected have found themselves listened to, if not in awe then at least in fear.

Has the game changed for good? Is political correctness a thing of the past, a blip in history? I think not. A thing creates its opposite and the shocked mainstream is regrouping and good people will come to the aid of the party. The war of politics is never finally won and I expect more battles and further swinging of the political pendulum.

We live in interesting times and the one thing I don't expect is boredom.



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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