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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 03-December-17

Subtle headlines and deeper psychology: language used in reporting of the retweet scandal

Donald Trump has expertly grabbed the headlines again, this time retweeting old videos posted by a small, far-right group in the UK. Unlike many others, who strongly criticized the president, Prime Minister Theresa May rather weakly just said it was 'wrong'.

Rather than go into the sordid wrongness and international damage of such acts (even leading Republican Paul Ryan seems appalled), let's look at how the major UK newspapers reported this, on Thursday, 30 November, 2017. In particular, it is interesting to look at the subtle effects of different wording.

The Telegraph: May attacks far-Right Trump tweets

The Times: May criticises Trump over far-right video tweets

The Guardian: May condemns Trump's far-right retweets

The Financial Times: Trump rebuked by Downing Street for retweeting posts by UK far-right group

First, look at the main verb. The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper, which is perhaps surprising as this is the most aggressive wording, with the language of war in 'attack'. The Times is more clinical, using 'criticises'. The Guardian uses the language of a judge condemning a prisoner, framing May in a morally superior role. The FT also places May in a superior position, but now as a parent rebuking a child.

As well as war language, the Telegraph has an embedded indictment of 'far-Right Trump'. This seems unlikely to be editorial accident as it aligns Trump with the extreme racists he retweets. Interesting also is the capitalized 'Right' (unlike other headlines), giving this extra significance as a proper noun.

The Guardian has the shortest headline. Brief headlines can add punch, while longer headlines, like the Financial Times, engages you for longer, giving more time for the message to sink in.

Three papers name the prime minister as 'May'. Using just the surname can be more depersonalizing and pejorative (this insult is frequently used for 'Trump'), although depending on context it can also lend authority (which seems the case here). The Financial Times interestingly uses the indirect metonymy of 'Downing Street', in the same way that 'The White House's may be used, sending a signal that this is a criticism from the whole UK Government, and not just Theresa May.

Headline writers know what they are saying, including from these serious broadsheets (the tabloids were more interested in local gossip). This analysis will not be a surprise to them. It is useful for the rest of is to watch the detail of language used and wonder about the subtle intent behind the words.


Sunday 26-November-17

The illusion of confidence and the road to mastery

Confidence is a watchword of our day. We learn at home, school, work and with friends that confidence is cool and cool is confidence. It is considered an attractive attribute and a basic essential for success in life.

But what exactly is it? You can't put it in a bag and you can't buy it. One way to understand it is that it is the opposite of self-doubt, awkwardness and not knowing what to do. Often, a lack of confidence is based on a fear of criticism by others. Conversely, confidence implies being sure of one's own ability and being less vulnerable to social manipulation.

A problem with confidence is that it easily assumes certainty, stability and detailed knowledge which leads to a state of wilful blindness or blissful ignorance whereby that which is not known is not needed.

And it works. Better than self doubt, at least. It activates you, getting you to at least try when you might otherwise be paralyzed by fear. Confidence also reduces doubt in others as they mistake certainty for knowledge or competence. It is not surprising that it is considered an important skill for leaders.

Yet fake confidence cloaks doubt, which can stubbornly cling on as we project confidence while hiding our uncertainty. But this can cause unbearable inner tension that needs an escape. We want to be confident. We act confident, but doubt. And eventually our minds concede and believe our own propaganda. In this way, we gain real confidence that is not justified.

Overconfidence means ignoring risk. Pride goes before a fall and failure may be denied even as that walls crumble. But what then? If it can't be me, it must be others or external factors. To sustain confidence, we excuse ourselves and blame others.

Confidence does not give space for learning. Or does it?

It seems that doubt is bad, unhelpful and unhealthy. And it can be. Yet it can be healthy too. Healthy doubt does not undermine confidence. Indeed, it makes a great, if paradoxical, partner. It adds realism, humility, and a pause that gives time to consider alternatives.

To be properly confident means taking time to acquire knowledge and skills. It means a long apprenticeship that leads to real mastery. Even then, real confidence means being realistic about failure, indulging in neither excessive doubt nor prideful certainty. What mastery gives is the confidence to cope with variation, surprise and even failure. When you know from experience you can handle whatever happens, you can then be truly confident.


Sunday 05-November-17

Reconnecting: a natural response to vulnerability

A relative recently became more friendly they have been in the past and I wondered what was up. Did they want something from us? No, didn't seem so. Notable, perhaps, was that they had been unwell a couple of times. Hmm. This could be a case of hedging ones bets in case of future need.

Being sick, suffering losses or otherwise experiencing problems, makes us feel vulnerable. And, while we may not like to impose on others, it can make us realize that we may have to in the future if things become more problematic. A natural response to this is to re-evaluate our relationships, thinking about who are our 'real' friends and who we could depend on in an emergency. A result of this thinking is that we turn down attention to more frivolous friends that, while fun, are less likely to help out when we are in need, and turn up the time spent with those who seem likely to be more empathetic and who would offer practical assistance.

Reviewing relationships is a good idea for many of us in any case. You don't have to wait until you are vulnerable before standing back and taking stock. It doesn't mean ditching all your fun friends, but you might want to wonder who would step up if you fell down. This is not necessarily an easy task. My daughter has been through many ups and downs and has been surprised by who turned out to be fair weather friends and who really cared about her.

Life is a game of give and take, though some take more than they give. Figuring out this balance in people is a useful skill. If you are feeling really brave, it can be a challenging task to look in the mirror and ask: Am I giving as much as I am taking? Pragmatically, you also need to ask if you are giving to the right people, because if you are giving only to takers, when you need to take, there may be nobody to give.


Sunday 29-October-17

The madness of Brexit and blind, belief-based decision-making

I was listening to a podcast recently by a reporter who was covering the UK's Conservative party conference. She noticed there a particularly alarming attitude towards 'Brexit', the exit of Britain from the European Union. The Conservatives used to focus first on the economy, but now they seem to have developed a mad obsession with Brexit. And not just a negotiated, gradual exit but the 'hard Brexit' where we leave completely, overnight. And not even just that, but we should be putting up two fingers as we leave.

The chaos that this would cause may delight the ultra-right and survivalists who can grab power or hunker down, but it would be disastrous for the vast majority. As the borders slam shut, yes, excess immigration would be addressed at a stroke. But so also would other imports be halted, resulting in empty supermarket shelves and long queues for fuel. And this would just be the start.

Europe also would be seriously affected as British funding dries up and trade tanks. Yet there is also a madness there, as they refuse to progress talks until a massive 'divorce bill' is agreed. It probably doesn't help that we have a long history of conflict with them.

Further out, this extreme, polarized, intolerant approach is appearing elsewhere. Even within terrorist groups, it is not whether you believe, but how ardently and blindly you believe, even to the ultimate madness of self-destruction.

What causes this madness? How do people get so fixated on one issue? How can suicide seem so attractive?

A. starter is discontent. A person is unhappy about something in their lives. They may lack purpose. They may have difficulty reaching their goals. Whatever it is, they are unhappy.

The next step is simplification and blame. They reduce the problem to simple issues, then blame others for this. Very quickly, this becomes an us-and-them polarization. They get together with like-minded people and create amplifying echo chambers of agreement.

After this comes organization and status, which means social games come into play. Within this group, status comes from holier-than-thou purity, of who follows the ideals more closely. Which means more extreme simplification and blame. And to gain the ultimate status position of hero, it means turning extreme views into extreme action.

And so we stand on the brink. Perhaps we will jump. Perhaps we will wake up and step back. These days, there are no guarantees.


Sunday 15-October-17

Poundland Boris, Trumpelthinskin and the corrupting fascination with narcissists

You can hardly look at the news these days without seeing reports of the latest faux pas of those in power. Two in particular come to mind. In the USA, Donald Trump has been expertly vacuuming up air time and column inches for over a year now with his attention-gathering tweets and alarming statements. Here in the UK, our own cunning buffoon is Boris Johnson, recently and scurrilously described as a 'Poundland Trump'. The insult is that Poundland is a low-cost store and infers that Boris' attentional efforts, while somewhat effective, are not in the same league as Trump.

Both reflect an alarming modern pattern where narcissistic people gain the public eye and somehow seem to get wide approval for doing things that you or I might get thrown in jail for doing. It's a bit like that cool kid in school who could get away with things that would get lesser kids into deep trouble. We wanted to be like that kid but didn't dare be that bold, so instead we extended our identity to encompass them, vicariously enjoying their chutzpah. The underlying dynamic for the narcissist is about power. Powerful people deliberately break rules to demonstrate and strengthen their grip on control. The narcissistic lock is that power feels good as the resultant attention boosts their sense of identity.

Is this what we want? To be ruled by blatant rule-breakers? It can seem attractive, that those in charge can cut through all the red tape and get things done. The trouble comes, however, when power corrupts or when the already-corrupt seek power by dishonest means.

When the corrupt and selfish are in charge are they going to act for the greater good? Only if they have to, and then in a minimal, lip-service manner. They may indeed make grand promises, but the reality will be delay and dilution. For every good they do, they will take far more. They may set up apparently social systems and generous laws, but they may also make these deeply corruptible, filled with the loopholes that lawyers love. Perhaps worst of all, they weaken and dismantle the institutions that make the nation great, especially where thinkers can see what they are doing and call them out.

In this way, we may allow democracy fall into autocracy, where rulers become untouchable as they bend the rules to enrich and protect themselves. We also must accept our part in this. If we become fooled or corrupted by their promises, if we put fascinating narcissists into power so we can goggle at their antics, if we place our hopes in those who are so patently in it for themselves, we may enjoy the ride but will be ultimately and bitterly disappointed.

A free and honest media. A fair and independent judiciary. A challenging education system that teaches us to think. These are signs of a great nation, not braggodocio and bullying. It is also why the discipline of voting is so critical. It is said that we get the government we deserve. One vote seems a drop in the ocean, but it is so critical that each of us listens, thinks and votes for the people who make sense, not for those who promise and lie.


Sunday 01-October-17

Elitism, literature and identity: how we all like to feel special

Elitism is a common cry these days as we point collective fingers at the super-rich fat-cats. That 1%, or maybe 0.001%, are ruining the world with their ostentatious greed, we say. They have so much, why don't they give it away? But hang on -- many of the pointers are themselves so much better off than millions, perhaps billions, of others. Who should be casting the first stone here?

The root cause here is not money, nor envy, though these have a part to play. Digging deeper, a key way we construct our sense of identity and self-respect is by comparing ourselves with others. We like to be better, somehow, and though money is a handy metric, it is not the only way.

In fact if we narrow our scope enough, most of us can find something where we are better than others. This is a reason why we take pride in our jobs, so even a plumber can feel good as they point out how they are paid to know just where to tap the pipe (which, by inference, their hapless customers do not know). Even though plumbers may jostle for superiority amongst themselves, they all know that any one of them is better than any householder.

Like plumbers and bankers, we associate with named groups so we can borrow their status and collective power

All this came out of a conversation with my wife about literature, and whether authors like Terry Pratchett's and J K Rowling will be considered great authors in the future. This question depends on those who decide on greatness, which is not necessarily connected to book sales. This group of academics and critics, who hand out prizes, teach students and write reviews, form a literary elite, whose views are respected by the media and who enjoy the power this gives them, even as on-the-ground English teachers like my wife consider them arrogant idiots. Her identity is bound up in teaching expertise and I'm careful not to gainsay her on matters of literature (like she does for me on matters of psychology and science).

In changing minds, this offers a useful approach. When you want people to feel good and like you, flatter them by praising their ability in some subject that seems important to them, but which is not significant for the matter at hand. Then claim your own superiority in a small but critical point. Basking in the warmth of your elevating them to elitehood, they may more easily cede the point and so let you convince them.


Sunday 10-September-17

Climate change, Pascal and belief

I went to an interesting local talk recently about climate change. It was not so much interesting because it presented a convincing argument. The more interesting aspect was the use of fallacy and the way that the audience reacted.

The presenter took the controversial position of denying climate change, showing some graphs that suggested that carbon dioxide is a tiny aspect of atmosphere and the human contribution to it as miniscule. He also suggested that evidence for climate change was shaky at best. For example noting that, in the Communist era, Siberian meteorologists got a greater fuel allowance if they reported that it was cold, which was removed after communism faded -- as a result the early falsified readings contrasted with the truer later readings made it seem as if the temperature had increased. Stories such as this are beautifully convincing, but are full of holes. For example we do not know the number and duration of reports, nor can we see isolated data to prove the implied hypothesis.

In the ensuing heated argument, I interjected with the comment that this was much like Pascal's dilemma. This created a pause, as intended, which gave me space to explain my odd comment. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher whose famous dilemma was about the puzzle whether he should believe in God. If he believed in God there would be a cost over his lifetime in going to church, and if God didn’t exist he would have wasted his time. Yet if he did not believe in God, he would spend an eternity in damnation. Overall, it seemed, it was safer to believe in God (or at least act as if he did).

The same argument applies to believing in climate change. If I choose to not believe then I will not act to reduce my carbon dioxide footprint and otherwise try to save the planet. If climate change is not happening or is not caused by human activity, then this is not a problem. But if it is, then the result of my denial could be calamitous. More to the point, if many people act this way, and especially those in power, then their negative belief could kill us all. So, like Pascal, it seems a better bet to accept that we should act to reduce our energy consumption and general carbon production.

So how do we decide what to believe? The first step is about sense. We gather data and listen to argument and decide whether it seems to make sense, at least on the face of it. The other factor in deciding whether to believe or not is in our assessment of those who already believe. On one side of the climate debate we have a few scientists, a number of politicians and even more business people who have something to lose if we cracked down on carbon creators. On the other side are many, many scientists including high-visibility people with a lot to lose if they are proven wrong.

Hmm. I think I'll side with the 'believe in climate change' people.


Sunday 03-September-17

Drink and disorderly: the case of the confusing wine menu

I was at a restaurant last night, looking at the wine menu. It was my wife's birthday and I got to choose the drink. Like many other people, I didn't want to spend too much money (very easy with fancy wines) but also wanted to avoid appearing to be a cheapskate. So I started looking a few bottles down the list, keeping a health eye on the price.

It was then that I noticed something odd.

Most wine lists are sorted from cheapest to most expensive. I've wondered about this. If the restaurant owner wants you to buy an expensive wine, wouldn't it be a better idea to start with the most expensive and gradually get cheaper? Like a reverse auction, readers go as far as they dare and then stop. Most would never get to the end and the restaurateur would make more profit. But then some customers would baulk at the high prices and abandon the wine for something cheaper. Maybe, even, they would not return to the restaurant.

Another method would be to use a random sorting, so customers would have to hunt for the cheaper bottles, but this again could cause irritation and abandonment.

The restaurant I was at did neither of these. Instead, it had the wine list sorted roughly into price order, from lower to higher, but not strictly so. Towards the beginning were cheaper bottles, not quite in price order, and further down were kind of more expensive bottles.

Hmm. I thought. What's going on here? This slight disruption was not enough to annoy me (not hence make me disloyal), but it did disrupt the 'second or third in the list' strategy. I ended up being a bit less careful about price and a bit more attentive to the wine type. Which was probably more profitable for the restaurant owner.

The wine, by the way, was delicious, and my wife had a very happy birthday.


Sunday 20-August-17

Tragedy, Opportunity, Privatization and Politics

When New Orleans flooded, economist Milton Friedman declared it a tragedy, but also an opportunity. Though opportunities for some can lead to problems for others. Schools, for example, became highly privatised as the government balked at the cost. Landlords rebuilt high value housing. Those with money made more money.

The same principle applies widely. Chaos is a gravy train for contractors who profit from rebuilding and restoration. Have a war; rebuild after the war. Government contractors benefit from both. Natural disaster; rescue and rebuild. More profit. Economic collapse; bail out the 'too big to fail' banks and prop up bonuses. Problems in government policy; call in the consultants to sort out the mess. Criticize a public broadcaster as biased; cut its headcount and force outsourcing. Run down a government service; declare it incompetent and further privatize it.

The list is long and riddled with corruption. Why? Because the separation of government and private profit is breaking down. When people from industry are employed in supporting government. When government officials are allowed private incomes. When those letting contracts are friendly with contractors. These and more are opportunities for corruption, for secret and even brazenly open personal gain.

It is human nature to put me and mine above you and yours. We are naturally selfish, which is a key reason why we need laws and a moral society. Sure, we can also be altruistic, but when there is a big pile of money on the table in front of us and we think we will suffer no consequence for picking it up, many would reach forward and try not to think about where it might come from or where it might take us. This is the basis of corruption.

And if governments and officials become corrupt, even in small and understandable ways (and we all excuse ourselves from blame), then society pays the price. Because the result is trickle up of money to the few and declining standards for the many.

There are three ways all this could be avoided.

One way of containing all this without swinging to the hard left (which is still a distinct possibility) is the principle of 'fair profit'. Accept that governments will employ private contractors, and that private industry needs to pay both its bills and its shareholders. But constrain the profits that they can make. Define a 'fair profit' and include it in the contract. Then require full financial transparency that prevents creative accounting.

The second lock against corruption would be to prevent those in public service from ever gaining personal profit out of their work. Again, this would need transparency and due scrutiny. This is not a new idea. Plato identified 'philosopher kings' as an ideal governing system, where officials were paid modestly and forbidden from gain.

A third leg is leadership and culture. There are many public servants who still believe in public service, but when whistleblowers risk their futures and power is casually abused, keeping your job means keeping your head down. An honest, caring culture starts from the top, where leaders set the example and do not tolerate corruption of any kind.

Will this happen? It seems unlikely, because it would require that governments restrict their personal income and turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas. Yet a continued swing towards elitism, privatization and 'fat cats' will leave increasingly more in the dirt. And when people feel they have nothing to lose, they take radical action. Trump is a step on this route, voted in as a populist rescuer. When he fails, the replacement may be more radical and more corruption result.

Until eventually what? New politics? Revolution? I guess we'll see.


Sunday 06-August-17

Capitalist Carpe Diem: Hedonism and Despair in the Modern World

Do it now, say the adverts. Buy it now. We live in a capitalist culture that thrives on accelerating spend, where having drives status and dreams are sold on shelves, online and on every possible occasion. We live in an apocalypically intense time, where pleasure looms large. And so also does threat, as danger and death are shockingly peddled by monetized pages in our clutching hands.

Experience it now, say the young Millennials. Let us drink and be merry for tomorrow is hopeless. We will have no houses, no pension. Our Boomer parents have broken the world so let's have fun while we can. We work for it, though. Oh, how we work for our perfect careers that never happens. We were told we were wonderful and would have it all, but why is it so hard?

Ski, reply the Boomers. Spend the Kids' Inheritance. Vacation, cruise, again and again. We've worked hard all our lives, for what? Our profligate kids? We've given them our all, so now it's our turn. We silver surfers, we band of Peter Pans. We stave off age until decrepitude forces lavish care upon us, lapping up the last of our fortunes.

Or else we Boomed but never shone as jobs slipped through our fingers, as technology, elites and migrants stole our futures. We have struggled too, and every day we seize what we can, as our broken dreams fuel impotent fury. Why us, we silently cry. Who will save those left desperately clinging on?

Seize the voting slip, say the populists. We understand your woes. We name the elephant in the room. We will fix the unfixable. We will borrow, build, bring back jobs and make those who are not like us pay and pay, or else we will send them away. Listen blindly to our trumpeting platitudes. Vote, not really for change, but for numbing your existential agonies.

Oh Ozymandias, do not weep. No matter who you are, Utopia beckons, today. Just grab the promise and forget the cost. You may be lost, but all is not so. Close your eyes and believe, as hard as you can. You are not to blame -- they are, so take glorious vengeance in the moment. Eat, drink and fake merriment, for tomorrow is unthinkable.


 

 

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,

 

Dave

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