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 is how people become
from peaceful citizens to violent jihadists who justify murder in the name of
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
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). 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 government is also being 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. If we can accept without condemnation, then we have the first step
to a more peaceful coexistence.
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
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
I recently went to see 'The Theory of Everything', a recent 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. 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
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 and 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 a piece 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
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.
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
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
- A wall poster with a pair of eyes increases people's use of an honesty
- 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
Get famous -- do yourself an index
I came across a neat way of gaining influence recently famous that I've known
about for ages. It was on BBC's More or Less and is called the index. Not heard
about it? Of course you have. Here's how it goes.
First do yourself a survey. Pick a controversial topic of you can, or you can
just chew into any issue that is bothering you. The most important thing is that
it should be about something where a category of some sort is being judged. For
example you could run a survey about what people think about hospitals,
politicians, beers, tourist attractions and so on. Be a bit more specific in
your questions that just asking 'What do you think?', for example asking about
cleanliness, taste, communication skills, etc.
Now do some magic sums on the answers to your survey that ends up with a
single number that sums up how good or bad the item under investigation is. Then
publish the results as an 'index', a 'top ten' that helps people decide which is
the best item in the category. For example you could publish an index on the
cleanest hospitals, tastiest beers, clearest politicians etc. You can also do a
reversal, starting from the bottom up with an index on the dirtiest hospitals,
blandest beers, etc. In fact such an index can be rather more newsworthy than to
You can dress up the index with a big and snazzy report. Hardly anyone will
read beyond the front-page list or the executive summary, but the thud factor
will add impressive credibility. Your survey also doesn't have to be that
careful. In fact statisticians could drive a whole herd of horses through some
of the most reported indices out there. All it needs to be is plausible.
In fact you don't have to do a survey at all. If there in information already
available, your numerical magic in turning sorted data into a ranked index may
be all you need.
Why do this? Well, it can support issues you care about. You can sell the
report. You can use the attention you get to link in what you really want to
promote. Many consultancies get well-paid work of the back of insights they
publish, for example in helping hospitals impure their services.
So there you are. If you want to make money, make a point out just get
attention, just publish an index.
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