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
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
How do they do this? Through the politics of
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
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
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.
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.
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
The language used in these links tends to be very carefully created. Typical
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
is triggered, we may later stop and think in ways that we might not otherwise
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
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.
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
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
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.
The power of television and control of a
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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