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.
The power of emotional punctuation
I was reading Cormac McCarthy's 'No Country For Old Men' recently and was a bit baffled by the
lack of punctuation. Ok, there are periods and commas, but little else. Not even
speech marks. Apparently McCarthy is minimalist and believes clear prose needs
little punctuation. It takes some getting used to and still feels oddly flat.
This made me wonder and, after much musing, I came up with an explanation.
When we read, we seek not only to understand the words but also the deeper
meaning behind the words. In particular, we want to understand the people, even
when we know they are purely fictional. In effect we seek to read what they are
thinking and feeling.
In normal real-time human interaction, we get a lot of information,
especially about feelings, from the intonation of spoken words. So how do we
cope with written text? The first stage is that we hear a voice in our heads as
we read words, as if we were reading them out loud to someone. A clever trick we
then do, often without noticing we are doing it, is to use quotation marks as a
cue to read the words as if someone was speaking them. Without this prompt, the
words would 'sound' a lot flatter, with far less intonation, as this is the way
we tend to read narrative, explanatory text.
A further flattening can be achieved by removing apostrophes from
contractions such as goin', don't, and so on, denying even these simple words
any effective humanity.
The result in reading 'No Country For Old Men' is that the characters sound
as if they lack emotion. This suits the book, as characters include psychopaths,
jaded lawmen and relatively simple other characters. For other books it may be
less effective or even counterproductive.
I dont know if this effect was intended, but it certainly affected my
experience of the book in the way described. It also highlights the subtle power
of punctuation and how understanding such detail, coupled with a creative
ability to break rules, can lead to a boldly successful book.
Clean hands, clean mind
Some people are naturally messy. Others are always spotless. Most of us kind
of fall in between, sometimes being messy but generally keeping things as clean
as we can without getting overly obsessive about it. Cleanliness is one of those
things that we generally subscribe to and stretches into a metaphor about being
nice, good and so on. We talk about 'clean living' when we mean living a moral
existence (or at least trying to be good).
Zhong et al (2010) decided to try out the effect of this metaphor to see if
priming the general thought of 'clean' would also make people more moral in
their judgements. They got 58 student into a lab filled with spotless new
equipment. Half were asked to wipe their hands with an antiseptic towel to help
things stay clean. Afterwards, in an apparently unrelated test, they were all
asked to rate the morality of six social issues, in such areas as pornography
and littering. Those had cleaned their hands beforehand made far harsher
judgments than those who had not. A follow-up study with a wider audience also
showed that priming about cleanliness or dirtiness also changed how they made
The implications are clear: if you want a person to make a moral judgement,
prime them with thoughts or actions around cleanliness. If you want them to be
less moral, make them feel dirty.
Zhong, C., Strejcek, B. and Sivanathan, N. (2010). A clean self can render
harsh moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 5,
Pythagoras' hammers and the harmony trap
There is a story that the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras (of Theorem
fame) walked past a smithy one day and was struck by the delightful musical
sound of their hammering. To cut a long story short, he investigated this
phenomenon and eventually discovered that the weight of the hammers changed
their note, and that a hammer twice as heavy as another would be an octave lower
and so sound pleasantly in tune. Other hammers that formed perfect fourths,
fifths and so on also had weights proportional to their frequencies. Pythagoras
was delighted that harmonious notes were so simply and mathematically related.
Legend has it that four hammers sounded well together, but a fifth was
discordant, so Pythagoras just rejected this. In strange way, we are still
throwing away a fifth hammer. When we try to understand things, we often select
pieces evidence that work well together and reject that which is unhelpful. Even
scientists, desperate to prove a theory may quietly ignore unhelpful
Why do we do this? Because we believe there are simple patterns that explain
most things, so we look carefully for them. Unfortunately, the world is a messy
place and many things are less predictable them we might hope. Yet faced with a
choice between confusion and false understanding, we very often go for the
latter. And it may yet have value, as partial understanding may well be better
than none. The trap, however, is ignoring non-compliant data rather than holding
it nearby, perhaps as 'unexplained', even though this may weaken your thesis.
The cafe chair problem
Imagine you owned a small cafe or teashop, with a set of loose round tables
and chairs. Now say you are tidying up after some customers have been there. Of
course you take away the crockery and so on, clean the table and re-lay it for
the next customers, but what do you with the chairs? Do you push them in, leave
them out or what?
Leaving them as customers left them probably isn't a good idea as this just
looks untidy. When things are not arranged in an ordered structure it forces
more mental effort in recognizing what is there.
It may seem like a good idea to push the chairs right in. After all, it makes
the place look tidy and allows customers to navigate more easily between tables.
The problem with this, though, is that it has a 'closed' feel, as if the chairs
are put away for the day. It also adds effort for customers in pulling out the
A more inviting arrangement is to create a 'looser' structure, with the
chairs still in a regular pattern around the table, but now pulled out a bit,
perhaps with just the front of the chair under the table.
A step further is to add a bit of seduction by rotating the chairs slightly.
Like showing a bit of ankle (in this case the seat) it tempts you in.
It is this kind of thinking that can make a significant difference for little
cost. This is not to say the rotated chair is the best for you, but it does seem
like a good possibility. Which brings up the last and critical point, which is
to constantly experiment. You can work out what should work, but you will only
know if you try.
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