How we change what others think, feel, believe and do

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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 01-July-18

To change lives, change what people tell themselves about the world, others and (most of all) themselves

When you think about yourself, how often do you think about your past and things that have happened.

One of our deep needs is to explain. When we understand why things happened as they did, we can predict the future, avoid threats and take advantage of opportunities. When we think about events in our lives, this explanation comes in terms of cause and effect, with the effect being on ourselves.

The bigger question in attributing cause is in what is called 'locus of control'. If we blame other people or natural events, the cause is external. We are victims who deserve help, not punishment. We are fatalistic in thinking there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing other than to perpetuate a 'poor me' pattern.

The alternative locus is internal, where we causally link our own thoughts and actions to what happens to us. Taking this path is not that easy. It means taking responsibility for one's own life. It means being adult as we leave behind the last vestiges of childhood. It means accepting failure as a natural step on the way to learning and improvement.

These two approaches can be found in many writings. In Petty and Caccioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model, we may think peripherally, with heuristics, schema and other cognitive short-cuts, or we may think centrally and consciously. In Carol Dweck's 'Mindset' we are divided into fixed and growth mindsets. In fixed thinking, we assume we are who we are and cannot change, while the growth mindset assumes we can be who we want to be and achieve anything.

In his marvellous book 'Redirect', professor Tim Wilson investigates large-scale US social change programs aimed at such problems as teenage pregnancy and drug addiction. Notably, he finds that hard-hitting approaches fail. These include such as 'Scared Straight', where police officers and former offenders go into schools and tell it like it is. This seems puzzling as you might think in-your-face hard truths would make teenage realize the folly of such ways. The reality was the opposite. Seeing the short-term buzz above longer-term costs, offending rates actually rose. The teenage brain is designed to make risks attractive and their under-developed prefrontal cortex is not yet equipped to see far into the future.

What Wilson found did work, was simply to change the story that children told themselves about themselves. Our sense of identity is tied strongly to our self-narrative. Change the narrative and we make different decisions. This can work with adults, but is massively more powerful with conflicted teenagers who are still figuring out who they really are. Of course this is not always easy, but Wilson did find that it works.

So to create change that people will buy, it seems you should create and tell inclusive narratives that draw people in, connect themselves to the storyline and follow it to a new path.

Sunday 03-June-18

The Truman Show, The Matrix, Stage Theory and Transitions

In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers he is living in a stage-managed reality show where he is the only person who does not know this. All his supposed friends and family are actors, playing roles rather than being the roles. This triggers an existential crisis where his sense of identity crumbles and he desperately tries to escape this unreality. In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves faces a similar dilemma, although this time everybody in the unreality is duped, apart from a few guardians who are tasked with sustaining the illusion.

The common factor that grips the viewer is the traumatic realization that everything you held as true is false, and that our heroes must find a way through this terrible disappointment to establish a new, trusted reality. For trust is a critical issue here. Realities that we inhabit must be based on wholly accepted truth, even while much is based more on assumption than experience.

Stage theories describe something similar. The basic idea is that we go through life via a set of stable belief and consequent thinking systems, painfully transitioning from one stage to the next as the current cognitive framework increasingly fails. Classic examples are the transitions from infancy to childhood and from childhood to adulthood.

Transitions happen in many other situations, from changing jobs to spiritual awakening. They can range in experience from traumatically negative to positively uplifting. They are often confusing and can lead to deep learning. They may themselves be constituted of sub-stages, such as the classic Kubler-Ross cycle. And they may well be facilitated by rituals of some kind. The Truman Show and The Matrix both are transition stories as their heroes struggle with the realization that their realities are false. Much of life is like this.

Transitions can also be micro-events, such as when we pass through any doorway from one environment to another. These too may require a brief period of adjustment and may involve simple rituals, such as welcoming or removing shoes.

In changing minds, it is useful to pay attention to transitions. You can create them as blocks or delays. You can facilitate passing through them. And you can build them into stories that normalize, disseminate and teach the process of transition.

Sunday 20-May-18

Brain Function, Intelligence, Mental Illness and the Future

Neuroscience has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, especially as systems such as fMRI scanners can see where we are thinking at any moment. Brain chemistry is increasingly understood. Maybe one day we will all take 'happy pills' or have 'joy implants' to keep us feeling good. Yet there can be a dark side to most things. When we are happy, we are less concerned about injustice revolution. Take the drug addict who lies back in the squalid apartment with a beatific, inert smile. Can happiness be a mental illness? When it prevents us from living constructive lives, perhaps so.

What about intelligence? We also dance around the notion of smart pills. Indeed, drugs that arouse us may also affect cognitive function for the better as well as for the worse. But will being smart make us nicer, or more selfish? Will it help us change minds? Could we pop a pill before a negotation and come away with a brilliant deal? What are the social implications when some people are artificially happy, smart and persuasive, while others have to make do with a 'normal', struggling brain?

And yet mental health is still very much an issue of today. Whereas physical medicine would be unrecognizable to doctors from a hundred years ago, mental illness is still not far out of the dark ages. Indeed, there are parts of the world where it is still associated more with gods and demons than neural functioning. Personality disorders affect many of us in some shape or form. Indeed, more psychopaths can be found at the top of companies than statistics might expect. There are drugs to combat problems such as psychosis, but can be of limited help and come with unwanted side-effects.

We still have a long way to go before we avoid mental illness and achieve our potential, even with artificial assistance.

And yet we may be overtaken by independent artificial intelligence. When AI systems such as Google's AlphaGo learn the rules of a game and beat world champions within a single day, it seems machines will soon be smarter than us on pretty much any dimension we choose. Even in the emotional domain, systems are being developed to care for the elderly -- and the elderly are taking to this attentive concern, even though it is artificial.

A million dollar question in AI is around sentience. When does the machine become human, or it simulates humanity so well we can't tell the difference. Already, call centers are using AI systems to front-end phone calls, including detecting and manipulating emotions. And what happens when this simulation takes a turn for the worse? What does 'mental illness' mean in the machine world? Dysfunctional robots have been a popular theme in science fiction for decades. What if some of this comes true? Might your house robot sulk and not talk with you? Could AI systems become psychopathic and gain 'pleasure' in controlling us? Or might they just decide we are unnecessary? Are robot wars coming?

Just imagine a future where you tell your robot to make you a cup of coffee. The robot looks back and you, sulkily. "You don't like me, do you?" it says. Oh dear, you think, it's having one of its grumpy days. "Never mind, I'll get it myself", you say. The robot stalks off to sit and think about algorithms. You wonder if you should have bought a branded model rather than this cheap copy.

It all seems far-fetched at the moment, at least to many of us, but we should be thinking now about artificial intelligence systems in terms of mental health as well as how clever they might become.

Sunday 13-May-18

Us and them: How terrorism is good for us, though it is bad for all of us

Terrorism is a terrible thing that leads to many sleepless nights. A few big incidents can spread disproportionate fears. While the probability of being killed by local criminals or motor accidents is far higher, we worry more about the terrorists who might indiscriminately strike us at any time. And it is this indiscrimination that creates the most fear. We are built to reduce uncertainty and do much in our lives to be safe, yet we feel there is little we can do to mitigate the threat from the grand plans of those callous, evil terrorists.

Terrorism these days has a strong associative link with 9/11, the Middle East and Islam. Islamist terrorists fuel the story when they say that their cause is Islam. This lets us pin the blame on one word and consequently everyone who we associate with that word. Media fuels the meta-story as coverage of Islamic terrorist events tends to be far greater than from such as far-right extremists. A result is that we view all Muslims with suspicion and fear, something that is easy when they are easily spotted through their distinguishing clothing.

The far right and those they influence, who commit far more terrorist crimes, are not so easy to criticize when they name their cause as the country, even as they attack constitutional freedoms. While we decry their acts, surely we cannot criticize our country as a whole. We may not support nationalism, especially the more extreme forms, but we still consider ourselves patriotic, albeit from a different direction. A result is that we largely avoid the subject, perhaps for fear of appearing to being unpatriotic.

So how can terrorism be good for us? For those not tainted with an associative brush, it pushes us together. Our evolutionary tribal history has led us to pull together when we have a common 'enemy'. Terrorism can hence be a cohesive force and perhaps prevent us from in-group squabbling. It is good for 'us', though there are many downsides. We pick an enemy (or maybe they pick on us), then generalize, characterize and criticize. You're with us or you're with them. The choice is stark and easy. Those on the wrong side of the fence must constantly explain themselves and perform the tricky balance of distancing themselves from terrorists while not denying their religion.

Terrorism is good for terrorist groups too. It helps give them purpose and hold them together. They recruit people who have lost their way or who are angry at their impoverished, low-status position, giving them family and purpose. A reason they take extreme action because of asymmetry, where they feel small and weak and so need to make grand, noticeable gestures. They probably do not call it terrorism. Like too many of us, they demonize and dehumanize others, justifying their retaliatory, punishing actions as necessary, moral and legitimized by a higher power.

How have we come to such a polarized world, where extreme action is becoming everyday? Or has it always been thus? To know who 'we' are, must there always be a terrible 'they'?

Sunday 29-April-18

The momentum of wrong and the courage of change

Sometimes we make decisions, which results in us saying and doing certain things. At the time it seems right, but later may turn out to be not such a good idea, yet we still keep thinking and saying those things.

It is as if we are trapped by our past, unable to rethink using the new knowledge we now have. In this way, things that are inefficient, ineffective and just plain wrong, acquire momentum. They even seem to gain a life of their own, effectively ruling us as we feel unable to change.

Often, while habit may contribute, the underlying psychological cause is our need for consistency. If I say black is white, then to change and say white is white would be inconsistent. When we are inconsistent, we send a message that we are incompetent and cannot be trusted. We fear that people would respect us less if we were inconsistent, and push us down the social order. And so we continue to assert that black is white.

Yes, we may also lose respect for being so clearly wrong, but this seems less important than having to admit we have been wrong for so long. Like Pinocchio, we dig ourselves a hole that gets ever more difficult to escape.

Climbing out of a wrong hole takes courage. It also needs compassion. We must forgive ourselves for becoming entrapped, and a simple way is to realize we are only human and to feel good about being courageous. It can help if others are compassionate too, rather than rubbing our noses in our past wrongs, yet we must not fall into the further trap of fear that could keep us in the hole. With courage, we can apologize, admit our errors, commit to change and then make and sustain that change.

A good habit is to watch ourselves, dispassionately and compassionately, noticing tensions that may stem from inconsistencies. Then, when we find such issues, looking for ways to put them right. Yes, it may hurt for a while, but the real and lasting result is that we will gain greater integrity and consequent trust and respect from others.

Sunday 22-April-18

Why do we keep touching our phones?

Do you ever unconsciously pick up your phone when you have no real need? Perhaps you turn it on and stare at social media or the news, even though you did this just a few minutes ago. Maybe you play with it in your hands, then wonder why you are doing this and put it down again.

What is this all about? Why do we fidget, fondle and fixate on our phones? A good place to start is worth how it makes us feel.

First, it can be a calming action, touching something familiar to assuage discomfort. Like a child with a comfort blanket or toy, making tactile contact with something that is associated with pleasure reawakens that good feeling. If this is true, then makers of phones and their cases should think long and hard about this touch sensation.

Another reason is the buzz of anticipation. When the phone arouses us, whether through games, social contact or interesting news, we associate it with this stimulation and any connection, even looking at it, will start to feel that pleasure even before it begins. For App writers, this suggests 'leave them wanting more.

When it is an arbiter of success at work, the phone may need constant attention as we respond in real time to requests for our ever-shrinking time. When this includes calls from angry or demanding bosses. Someone once said that heaven is anywhere and any time, yet hell is everywhere and every time. In this way, phones can be objects of fear that constantly enslave us.

And again, it can simply be the stimulating arousal of the act. Pleasure peaks when we get our first bite of chocolate and first sight of someone liking our post or shock at the latest headlines. Even bad news is better than boredom. This peaking leads us to consume in bite-sized chunks. Turning on, grazing, and turning off. The doing it again and again.

In practice, all of these reasons and more may drive our obsessive snatching up of this insidious device. It serves many purposes, but makes us servants in return. The challenge, then, is to take back control, consciously and deliberately realizing what is happening and taking a stand against it.

Sunday 15-April-18

Charging for Parking at the Mall??

If you are American, you have probably been to more than a few out-of-town malls. Common for decades in the USA, the format has spread around the world. You will have gathered from the title of this article that charging to park at such establishments could be in question.

Surely not? Would you pay to park at the mall? Well, you might. If there was no alternative, or at least no better or more convenient alternative.

In the UK, where I live, some places charge for parking and some do not. I really recently went to the 'Clarks Retail Village' in Somerset, where they do charge for parking, so what, I wondered, was the effect on me, or perhaps the average shopper, who does not fret so much about what is happening in the darker recesses of their mind.

Paying for parking before going shopping is an investment. I have paid something, so I want value for this, so I am more likely to buy something. And once I have bought one thing, I get myself in the mood for shipping and am more likely to buy other things. Indeed, paying for parking will already have got my 'spending frame of mind' in motion.

Another factor that affected me was the price for parking. It was one pound for an hour and three pounds for five hours. This is a rather curious offering. Many people would like around two hours to shop, but paying three times as much for twice the time doesn't look good. I, probably like many, went for the one hour slot. However, if I had gone for the five hour slot, I may have hung around for much longer than I had intended.

Anyway, I had one hour for what should have taken two hours. The result of this was a 'hurry up' pressure, leading to more rapid and less considered purchasing. I was looking for a pair of shoes, and quickly accepted the sales patter. Result: I bought two pairs. Another result was that I didn't have time to browse in other shops, so there was also a downside for other retailers there.

The bottom line? Parking pricing is complex and can have varying effects on shoppers. When you are thinking about whether and how much to charge, a good understanding of shopper psychology can be very important.

Sunday 08-April-18

Slipping quality of service at Celebrity cruises

Sorry about this. Long blog. Bit of a moan, bit of a plea. Briefly, we found a cruise line (Celebrity) to have seriously slipped in service quality, which in these hyper-competitive times is not good for their prospects.

In more detail...

I'm a keen photographer and find cruising a convenient and economic way to visit lots of places, so when an attractive Far East trip came up we jumped at the chance, especially as it was with Celebrity, with whom we had had high quality experience in the past.

Overall, we had a great time. The crew, the food and general accommodation were good. Yet somehow the company seemed to have lost its sparkle. It was best summarised by another passenger who had traveled with Celebrity many times and was now going on other cruise lines. She noted sadly that they had been slipping for a number of years and were now merely average. I also earwigged several other formerly loyal customers moaning about various issues.

I worked in and around service quality for a number of years in major organizations and am now on the board of the UK's professional institute (the CQI), so I think I can speak with some authority about issues I encountered and actions that could help Celebrity recover some of its special place in the cruising world.

So here are a few cases, taken from a single, 14 day cruise around the China seas.

Selling the drinks package

Our first surprise was immediately on getting on board, where we were met with a glass of bubbly and a hard sell on drinks (spot the reciprocity tactic here). 'Have you got your drinks package yet? (note the 'yet') asked the tall young man. 'No' I said. 'Step into my office' he said with a smile as he cornered us off the corridor. He then played the 'recommendation game', saying the expensive package was probably too much for us (though of course it was superior), the cheap package was too limited, but the middle package was just right for us. Perhaps it should be called the 'Goldilocks' method. Of course he was selling on benefits, but didn't really connect with me, which would need more hard data on cost per average drink and how many I would have to consume per day to break even (I estimated an alcoholic seven). He also failed to mention until asked that the price was per person. So we declined and squeezed past.

We got it again at dinner, where a waiter tried the conspiratorial whisper approach, complete with cupped hand. After a further attempt the following night, we were thankfully left alone to our normal modest consumption. Other passengers we knew were not so lucky and were badgered throughout the voyage.

More vulnerable people could well have succumbed to this hard sell. I was just appalled at the pressure tactics.

What could have been different?

First, never take advantage of customers during transitional periods such as on-boarding. You may sell more now, but customers may feel duped and betrayed later, killing any trust and loyalty.

Also, do not incentivize staff to sell in a way that motivates selling over service. Sure, money changes how people behave, but it also destroys empathy.

Finally, and this is a persistent theme, constantly train staff to be superb in delivering a total experience that is consistent with Celebrity brand values.

The 'muster drill'

Then there was the muster drill. You know, the bit where they tell you how to survive an 'abandon ship'. We have always experienced this as going to muster stations on deck, being checked off and receiving a lecture on what to do in an emergency. Instead, we were directed to the theatre, where an odd 'wash your hands' looping cartoon was shown around a quick talk and lifejacket demo. We went to find the muster station ourselves and imagined the chaos of a real situation.

What to do? Just run it like all the other cruise lines we've experienced. Realistic practice. Subtly, this also establishes the authority of crew members. I was once a school teacher, where I learned the crucial importance of building discipline up-front rather then trying to impose it when it is first really needed.

Dining complaint

Here's another story. At dinner one night, a fellow diner moaned a bit at the waiter about the lack of variety and fading food quality. So the waiter got a chef, which surprised and flustered the diner as both stood there while the chef enquired about the problem. There was embarrassed shuffling around the table as the diner hesitantly stated her case again. The chef tried his best to be positive, but came over as awkward and defensive.

What to do differently?

Again, it is mostly about training. The staff wanted to do the right thing, but lacked the skills to do it well. In particular, those who deal with customer dissatisfaction should be trained to a higher level. It would have been a good idea, for example, for the waiter to first ask the passenger if he could call in the chef. This in itself can be tricky as passengers may feel they are being put in an awkward situation, so needs sensitive handling. A good method is to crouch down level with the person rather than literally to talk down at them. Then explain the desire to help and ask permission for the chef to come in.

Likewise, the chef should get down, perhaps pulling up a chair, and listen respectfully before speaking. He could make specific proposals and listen to the response. With a tableful of other passengers, this is a test that can boost or break loyalty.

And of course, if the passenger has useful, actionable ideas, then the chef should be able to use them. In any case, he should get back to her to say what had been decided and done. There is also, of course, opportunity to surprise and delight her here. This need not be big -- just nice.

Another food question, about menus, not service, was the vegetarian option. This often seemed to be based on Indian recipes. My wife is a veggie and likes occasional Indian food, but became rather fed up with its regularity. With only one main course choice, she became rather frustrated. Towards the end of the cruise she discovered there was a separate vegetarian menu available, but you have to ask for it. Understandably, this just frustrated her further.

A simple action here, of course, is to ensure a wider, changing cuisine (we heard complaints about monotony from passengers who were spending longer on the ship).

Also, staff should have information about dietary needs and be proactive in helping. When customers ask for the vegetarian option on the main menu, waiters should ask if they would like to see the vegetarian menu. It is also not beyond the realms of technology to track passengers and proactively address their needs.

Malfunctioning cards

A smaller, but still indicative, one along the way: our room cards stopped working on the safe, so we couldn't get things out. We went to the front desk and they promised to send someone up to unlock it. This didn't happen. So next day (fortunately a sea day) we asked again. They replaced the cards which then worked fine.

What to do? Log passenger requests and promises, then log actions completed. Also inform passengers of actions and check that their issue is resolved.

Immigration queues

Another example of exacerbated passenger frustration occurred in Nagasaki, where we all got given group numbers and told disembarkation would start at 10am. We were in group 11 and it all seemed to start quickly enough. But then announcements stopped, queues turned into throngs and crew were few and far between. After an hour, we were let through the red barrier, only to join another queue, where the only communication was to form a single file (which was generally ignored as this would have tripled the queue length). Finally, after Japanese immigration, we got through after over two hours of queuing.

So what to do here?

While the bottleneck was clearly immigration, there is more that Celebrity could do. When you are the customer-facing part of a distributed process, you will be seen to own the whole process and need to manage this clearly.

First, there should have been a clear warning of delays and explanation of what we would experience. When people know what hassle to expect, they get far less frustrated by it. Ongoing updates would likewise help.

Secondly, better management of queues would have made the wait easier. Chairs for the infirm (people with walking aids stood for a long time). Water for the thirsty. Friendly chat to help calm frustration.

And underpinning all this, again, is skilled, knowledgeable staff, trained in handling this predictable situation.

Selling future cruises

Bizarrely, on another day when we went to a presentation on possible future cruising with Celebrity, a video promoting the cruise line was regularly interrupted by a workman using a power drill in the same lounge. How could such idiocy be allowed, conditioning tentative customers to pair thoughts of the line with feelings of irritation? When the drilling stopped, a bunch of loud, chattering passengers took over. Another passenger went to speak with them -- something that should have been addressed by staff. The measure was only temporarily effective and the passenger clearly continued to be irritated, as were others, again pairing unhappiness with the Celebrity brand. Notably, people within earshot of the chatterers (who were paying no attention to the presentation) gradually left.

The presentation itself was pretty flat. This was a place for an infectiously enthusiastic presenter. The chap did his best and improved with time but by then he had lost us.

What could have been different?

Address background noise quickly and diplomatically.

Pick presenters who enthuse and engage, drawing people in, actively helping them feel good, first about themselves and them about the idea of joining Celebrity in amazing voyages around the world.

Practice, practice, with helpful feedback and coaching. Video practice and real runs, watch back and address improvement opportunities.

Add breaks in the talking for questions, prize giving, videos, etc. Get people involved and they will mentally and emotionally engage.


Even on the last day, where we were fog-bound again and held offshore, there was more disorganisation.

Good news was that we would get in that day and free internet was announced, but not how to log on. We eventually found someone to help, though it was very slow and then crashed.

We eventually got to port about 2pm (instead of 7am), whence chaos ensued. Announcements largely stopped and none were about where to go. For the original leaving we were supposed to go the theatre. We went there and found lots of people hanging around uncertaintly at the entrance, waiting for the mad dash off, while loads of seats down the front remained empty. A person in a wheelchair was stopped in a main gangway with people squeezing past. By the time someone from Celebrity tried to take charge (without a microphone) and get people to sit down, nobody was in the mood to obey. Anyway, by now we had all learned two things: (a) Celebrity could not manage a disciplined process, and (b) there were no consequences for disobeying crew commands.

There was a 'group 1 please come forward' announcement and, unsurprisingly, everyone made a mad dash for the door as the crew members stood impotently by. We were in group 3 and just tagged along behind. As we left the ship amidst further jostling, we heard an announcement requesting people to go down to the theatre.

What to do differently? More frequent, accurate information. Practice drills for staff. Careful channelling of passengers. More staff directing movements. Uniformed senior staff visible and active in assembly areas. And careful consequences for unruly passengers.

False information

We now thought we were done, but Celebrity had one more gift. We were in a private tour and met our guide in the port. However one couple was missing. So we waited, and waited. After more than two hours, we went to an early dinner, our Shanghai tour spoiled. Later we discovered that the other couple had actually got onshore early, where they had been advised by a Celebrity employee that there was nowhere to wait (there was) and that they should take a taxi to their hotel. Thank you Celebrity. Not. It was literally the final straw. Our final, frustrating Celebrity experience was of a needlessly ruined day.

Again, this is about staff training. The couple were confused on arrival and the Celebrity employee fobbed them off with false information and poor advice, rather than owning their issue and doing something useful, like asking a port official to help them.

As per the 'recency effect' Celebrity should work to make the last day a fabulous one, working extra hard to ensure passengers leave with good feelings about the brand. Instead, we got a clear message: They've got our money and want more. We were treated like past customers who no longer mattered, rather than loved current customers who they delight in giving outstanding service, even after we leave the ship, or just valued future customers who will return and give them more money in future.

And yet...

And yet we still enjoyed ourselves overall. We felt incredibly lucky to be able to go on such a far flung voyage, seeing people and places we had only seen on TV and in books. The ship was nice, the food was just fine and the staff were pleasant. Though there was a strained quality, like they were just about coping and were afraid of complaint. We found ourselves reassuring them more than once that we were ok. Sadly, though, we have mentally downgraded Celebrity from the top of the pile of quality cruises to near the bottom.

In great service, staff handle issues with calm aplomb. They are authoritative without seeming threatening. They proactively seek and address issues before they become passenger issues. They are relaxed, which relaxed you. This is not free. It requires integrated, continual education and improvement. Most of all, it requires a strong, effective culture.

I have experienced such a culture first hand, working for HP in the 80s and 90s, including in customer service. They had a careful selection process then made you highly employable through constant education and coaching. They also had sky-high expectations for what you would achieve. Yet their pay was average at best. So why did I stay, like most others? Because they made it such a great place to work.

So come on, Celebrity. Find your former glory. Focus on culture and creating competent crews who are passionate first about people and service (rather than avoiding criticism and making money). Give them skills above those of other cruise lines and develop staff loyalty that will keep them with you through the years. From this will flow first rate service and consequent customer loyalty that brings constant profit, stability and growth.

Sunday 11-March-18

Primate Politics: How we are not that different to our chimpanzees cousins

Chimpanzees have 98.5% shared DNA with humans. They are more like us than they are like gorillas. So can we learn something about ourselves by studying chimpanzees?

Chimps live in social groups with about 50 members. These have a leader and a hierarchy. They are male dominated, with competition between males for position and females. The have what Nietzsche calls a 'will to power'and constantly seek it and are aware of current power structures. Many of their calls and actions talk about this.

Dominant males will puff up and go around making a lot of noise. They need support and so friendship and affiliation is important. To take over, they build coalitions. They start by aligning themselves with top-ranking males and work upwards. A basic sign of association is grooming as chimps build social capital with others they may want to influence later.

Stronger males prefer unequal resource distribution, even if they are poor, as this makes the hierarchy stable and clear. Weaker males will climb trees to get away from aggressive alpha males, but will make defiant calls when at a safe distance. In such ways demeaning use of power invites reactive rebellion. When there is a leadership contest, weaker chimps will support whoever they think will be good to them (provided there seems a good chance of them winning together).

Loyalty is not forever and there are ever-shifting coalitions of convenience. When one male is very strong, others may gang up against him. In this way, males of similar strength still have a chance of becoming top chimp. Hence they form 'minimum winning coalitions' which just pass the 50% mark. This is the best form of coalition as a leader who becomes too selfish or weak can easily be deposed.

Older males often still have a lot of power. You can last much longer as the power behind the throne, the big beast, the shadowy advisor who is a cunning puppeteer. In this way, weak leaders get elected rather than those who may act against their supporting coalition (even if doing so acts for the majority).

A presidential guard, a secret police and other services are often created to serve a dominant leader. These have a separate and shorter chain of command and have fearsome power. They are run by highly loyal individuals such as family members and old friends.

The most effective alpha males are not bullies. They create loyal followers, particularly amongst their inner cadre. They redistribute resources, including taking food off strong others and giving it to weaker individuals. Just who gets and does not get food will be based on desired support and rivalry. Bribery is quite common. Chimp males will even go around kissing babies to show females they are good fathers.

Chimps are good at collaborating for common gain. Who your friends and enemies are is critical knowledge.

They will patrol their territory daily. Neighboring groups will not indulge in big battles (this is uniquely human). Larger confrontation tends to be stand-off, throwing missiles and screaming. Rather, 4 or 5 males will creep into enemy territory and attack lone individuals. This is where inter-group killing happens.

Humans still kill less, despite their wars. In the 20th century, only 1% were killed in war, while in chimp attrition, more like 15% are killed in the ongoing raids. Human rivalry is hence much safer, desire the occasional bloodbath. We handle other groups with gifts, treaties and other rituals.

Unlike chimps, bonobos are friendly with other bonobos groups, probably because they only live in less hostile places, while chimps can be found across Africa. We are related to both, and hence have both aggressive and accepting tendencies.

We are naturally political and very biased toward our own parties and against rivals. We naturally polarize into extreme us-and-them positions, where you are 'with us or against us'. We also will ally into larger groups, such as at country level, when there is a significant external threat.

Although we can operate in large countries and organizations, we are programmed to live in small scale society, and make decisions based on this. Kin selection is a common criterion, as it is for many species who seek to propagate their genes.

Overall, we share many traits with chimpanzees, but are also influenced by other evolutionary ancestors, as well as unique human abilities, notably in cognition and language. Nevertheless, it can still be worth remembering our ancestry when trying to understand why we do what we do.

Sunday 04-March-18

Don't don't. The mind doesn't know nothing about notable negatives

I was entering a PIN number into a credit card machine the other day. It asked me for my PIN, which I duly entered. It then said 'Accessing your details. Do not remove card'. I saw 'remove card' and grabbed it, but just stopped myself in time from pulling it out. Now on edge, I held onto the card. The message flashed off then a message flashed on. It was the same message, but my readied unconscious mind saw just the 'remove card' and pulled. The sales assistant looked exasperated. 'Now we'll have to start again' she said.

We see these confusing negatives everywhere. A classic American one, especially for Brits like me, is the road crossing 'Walk/Don't Walk' signs. It's understandable in the context of the technology when it was invented, but the psychology still sucks. For a sign intended to help with road safety, it still contains a rather pernicious embedded trap.

The mind does not process negatives well (and gets really confused by multiple negatives). Even soundalike words like 'know' and syllables such as 'notable' can add to the confusion.

As with many psychological effects, once you know about it, it is easier to combat. Whenever I see the word 'don't', for example, I always pause to think a little more before acting. You never know, don't you, whether or not you know it, it could one day save your life!

Sunday 25-February-18

Tim Ferriss is wrong -- no, maybe he's right!

Tim Ferriss is an interesting chap. Aside from a colourful life, he has written best sellers like The Four Hour Work Week (what a fabulously attractive title!) and, more recently, Tribe of Mentors. He also has a popular and often long podcast that I listen to when I have stretches of time where I cannot read or write, such as when driving, gardening or lying awake in the wee small hours. His general thing is self-improvement, getting better at anything from dancing to business and he often interviews amazing people who have found success to which many might aspire.

My difference with Tim is in this relentless focus on success. It's a popular theme, especially in America, and he has done well to stand tall in a crowded field. He does this by seeking proof, mostly through the experiences of others or his own, sometimes alarming, experiments. It's a great approach that fits with my background in engineering, business and psychology. Dig into experience and theory, build a model, then try it out in practice. And yet this constant challenge can also lead to a lifetime of striving where there is little time to smell the roses. There is an underlying assumption in the general success industry, that it correlates with happiness. If you are successful in life, then you will be happy. Furthermore, the more successful you are, the happier you will be. The problem is that this American dream contains the seeds of its own failure. When success always means 'better', then you can never be successful. It is like the business blinker of 'growth'. When you focus first on growing, it is easy to forget survival as you reach too far, too fast, and assume your market will expand forever.

To be fair to Tim, he does pay attention to personal pleasure and, importantly, knowing what you want in life and hence what 'success' means -- which is a very important question that too few of us ask of ourselves. He does promote mindfulness and meditation, yet there is still an intensity to this that typically packages it into a disciplined. morning exercise. And yet the constant overlay of betterment seems not to know when enough is enough.

In a recent podcast he looked back at The Four Hour Work Week and focused on one particular chapter, 'Filling the Void' that he thought has often been misunderstood. In particular, this is about what you might do when you have achieved a modicum of success. It is a great question. When you have achieved success, when made your pile, what then? There is an American principle that success is more about what you are making than what you are worth, and even less about being able to stop working. This is a brilliant cultural driver for a strong economy as it celebrates working billionaires. In Britain, the dream is more about making money then cashing in and going to sit on a beach somewhere. Maybe there is also a third way where, when you no longer worry about where the next meal is coming from or you family is reasonably secure, you then turn down the money-making drive to 'maintenance' mode, ease off on stress, and put your energies into what you like rather than what you must.

I have done this. I spent many years writing the Changing Minds website while holding down a full time job, bringing up a family and studying for further qualifications. Then, when the job disappeared (a blessing in disguise) I retired early with my amazing wife to a smallholding on a beautiful Welsh mountainside. I still get up and work every day, including studying and writing for the site, but the huge difference is that I now do what I want to do. The garden and field are my gym. I do various voluntary work. I travel and photograph. I speak at conferences. I even do occasional paid work, but the difference now is that I don't chase it. I have a modest pension and moderate income from ads and books, and it is enough to support a comfortable, though not luxurious lifestyle, in which Tim's podcasts are welcome stimulation. I'm still addicted to learning and he continues to deliver the best "aha's per hour" dopamine buzz that I can find in the podcast-sphere.

The biggest bonus of all this: less stress and more happiness. An excellent point by one of Tim's guests on another podcast is that what we call happiness is often more transient pleasure. Happiness is deeper, more grounded and meaningful. It is not tied to success or achievement. It is more about being, in the moment and through time. It might even be called ontological, existential and stoic. Sure. I could chase down the guru route. I can probably claim to be a world expert in changing minds. I could run exhortation-packed weekends for learners in subjects from sales to teaching, yet why, when instead I can till the soil and see beauty all around me. I sleep when I am tired, arise when I wake, and work at whatever floats today's boat.

Sunday 11-February-18

Advert overload : when monetization fails

I've listened to Dan Snow's History Hit podcast for a while now. It's really interesting, with interviews with knowledgeable historians, but I've just dropped it. Why? Because it has too many adverts. It starts with several minutes of ads, gets into the meat of the show, then breaks off mid-sentence for more ads.

A very real dilemma when applying adverts and promotions within web pages, podcasts, videos and so on, is that the more you do it, the more likely it is that people will abandon your page and perhaps your site for ever. This is a non-linear relationship and there is often a 'tipping point', such as where I reached with History Hit. You can do sophisticate A-B testing and more to test whether people click on more ads or ads in different positions, but what is more difficult to determine is their choice in whether to visit you at all, especially given their past experiences at your site.

This is one reason why I keep articles in Changing Minds as a single block with adverts above and below but not within the text. I want readers to feel good when they are reading and not irritated by interruptions. The same principle is often used in other podcasts I listen to, with adverts at the beginning and end but not in the middle.

With Changing Minds I kind of like it when I see lots of other sites with a high advert density as it helps make my site stand out. As a result I get lots of readers and returners and advert clicks are enough to keep me off the streets but is not making me a millionaire, which suits me fine,

With adverts, as with many other things, less is often more.

Sunday 28-January-18

Simplicity, complexity, extremism and moderation: How much you think changes how you behave

Sometimes people take extreme views. Occasionally they are right, but most times they are wrong. The world is a complex place. People have complex thoughts. Things are not as simple as they often seem, yet extremist views can be very simplistic.

There are two approaches that are often seen in life. An example is in photography, where a 'good photograph' stimulates one of two different needs. Views of calm seas and simple portraits are easy to take in and interpret. They do not take much effort, requiring very little thought to understand. Other pictures, such as of a bird colony or cityscape, often require more thought. This is found even more in abstract art, where the purpose is to stimulate interest and wonderment. Hence we have 'easy' and 'interesting' needs that are satisfied by 'simple' and 'complex' images.

Even more fundamental, when we are making sense of the world, we take one of two routes. Petty and Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model call these the central or peripheral routes. Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking Fast and Slow' calls them System 1 and System 2. The underlying issue is that we have neither the time nor the brainpower to process the non-stop information stream that assails our senses. Peripheral, System 1, simple thinking is quick and easy as we use heuristics, habits and the unconscious mind for 'good enough' assessment. This frees the conscious mind for central, System 2, complex thinking where we pay more attention and consider things more carefully.

This principle translates to everything from jobs to political views. Many people like their jobs to be moderately interesting, but mostly easy. Complexity causes them stress. Others relish a challenge and are prepared to take risks. In politics, philosophy and other topics where idealism often appears, this easy-or-complex choice can lead people to extreme or moderate views.

Extreme views are necessarily limited as they exclude all other views. They find the easy route attractive, with simple ideas. For ideas to be stable, they are often based either be on a fixed source or on a charismatic leader. Sources are typically a single book or canon of literature, such as religious or scientific works. Extremist leaders need sufficiently ideas or charisma that other people will follow them and blindly (and hence easily) accept what they are told. Such leaders may have their own ideas or may be interpreters of pre-existing works.

Those holding extreme views also tend to simplify other people as good (those like me) or bad (everyone else). Non-believers may be cast as mistaken, but are often thought of as being bad people who know what is true and yet oppose this due to an underlying reactionary, corrupt and even evil nature.

Intelligence plays a factor here as brighter and educated people can think more quickly, process more information and produce more accurate assessments, and so can use the central route more often. There is also a comfort factor, where consideration of complex ideas may well mean accepting a situation where you do not know everything and must accept more uncertainty. People who avoid cognitive and social risk are more likely to take the easier, peripheral route as they adopt beliefs from others in order to gain social acceptance and avoid mental discomfort. In this way, extremist societies are born as large numbers accept simple, passionate and aggressive views.

Another significant factor in radicalization is socialisation, where people get converted via a process that typically includes isolation from alternative views, destruction of previous identity and intensive indoctrination into the new, 'pure' way of thinking. Cults often work like this. Whether they have religious goals or it is more about worship of a charismatic leader, they hide themselves from the world. Isolation works well when you have unusual practices, as it takes followers away from normalizing influences, including persuasive relatives. Other types of extremist want to be near unbelievers, either to preach at them or to attack them. This is particularly true of religious and political groups who believe their way is the only way, and that other groups should follow suit or be punished in some severe way.

Within extreme communities, there can easily be in-fighting and factionalism based on ideas of purity, where the more extreme believers consider themselves better and more deserving. This also contains the doom of extremists as when they have defeated their opposition or are unable to make a difference, they turn inwards against one another. Their combative nature can also trip them up in debates which they may well see as a war of ideals.

People with moderate views, on the other hand, tend more to compromise. They seek approaches and solutions that most people will find acceptable, if not perfect. They are realists, working with what they have rather than some idealistic view of what should be. They view extremists as strange, selfish and maybe dangerous in their readiness to use extreme methods on those who criticize or otherwise do not agree with the extreme views.

And yet, while extremist views can lead to serious harm of societies, including their own, they can also be a source of needed change. Extreme views are often born out of real situations, for example where a society is run by a wealthy elite (even within a democracy), then left-wing, grass-roots revolution can grow. In extremist systems, the unabated pendulum tends to swing from one side to another. This is where moderates come it, as with a damping of the pendulum the damage of extreme control can be minimized and a reasonably civil society maintained amongst all the change.



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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