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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 17-May-15

Politics and Persuasion in the UK General Election

Canvassing is done. TV debates gone. The UK general election is over and it's all change. Or perhaps some change, as the Conservatives have got in this time with a full majority. Last time they allied with the Liberal Democrats who at provided some moderation for what have been more extreme right wing policies. Under this new government we can expect to have public spending cut to below the level (percent of GDP) even of the USA, with welfare a major target.

So how did they do it? Having a much bigger warchest no doubt helped, as did general good news about the economy, though opponents will point to the veneer over any implied depth. Falling oil prices, for example, is not a result of government policy. And reduced unemployment figures has as much to do with how they are measured as the fostering of value-creating companies.

One of the biggest differences was how the leaders were portrayed, which probably had as much to do with coaching and acting ability as the real nature of the people.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has in the past been a bit bland. He suddenly got passionate, even getting 'annoyed' when criticized on such areas as the subtle privatization of the health service. He also appeared often in factories, surrounded by workers as he expounded on the importance of business. Interviews with the workers afterwards seemed to suggest they weren't impressed, but that did not really matter -- Cameron was playing to the camera, not them. This was a good move for a Conservative, who are often accused of not being in touch with ordinary people.

I saw Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, speak a few years ago and was not impressed with his leadership style. He seemed more bemused at being leader than grabbing the audience with passionate speeches. Even recently, he has done daft things like forgetting to mention the economy in a critical party speech. Nevertheless, here he was, often in the community talking passionately again. He even took the bold step of being interviewed by an outspoken comedian and came off pretty well. But it wasn't enough and he'll be replaced soon enough.

Nick Clegg, the terribly nice leader of the Liberal Democrats saw his share of the votes collapse as he was punished for allying with the Conservatives in the last government. Traditionally the third party that got protest votes, this time they were the subject of protest. His problem in public was that he was too nice, even apologizing for past political mistakes rather than the more powerful politics of reframing and moving on.

The joker in the pack was Nigel Farage of the ultra-right-wing UK Independence Party who stood on immiigration and EU membership issues, and provided a string of OMG moments that broadcasters loved. They gave the Conservatives a fright, but in the end, despite polling a moderate proportion of the vote, got hardly any seats. Farage played the populist leader, pint of beer in hand and spouting endless 'common sense' platitudes that did not bear close examination.

And swinging up the outside was Nicola Sturgeon, leading the Scottish Nationalist Party to a whitewash that swept Scotland clean of other party seats. On the bow wave of a narrow recent defeat in the Scottish Independence Referendum, her straightforward and Scotland-centric rhetoric caught the hearts of the Scots who came out in large numbers to give her an alarming number of seats.

In the end, what have we learned about persuasion in UK elections?

First, youth seems to be de rigeur for leaders now, perhaps as a result of Tony Blair's ten years at the top Virtually all leaders are in their 40s, which would never have happened a few decades ago. As Boomers retire, GenX, who have little respect for their elders, are sweeping into power in all kinds of ways now.

Secondly, stage-management seems to have taken over, with carefully-scripted 'informal' scenes and politicians who seem coached into Oscar-worthy performances on every stage. Off-the-cuff comments and interviewer-driven interviews seem to be a thing of the past.

As always a supportive press helps, and much of it is owned by Richard Murdoch who apparently lambasted his journalists for not criticizing Miliband viciously enough. Media management, even with the expansions into online fora is the order of the day, though it didn't seem quite as big a deal as it has in the USA.

All the major parties spent a fortune hiring in experts and I wondered if I should have offered by services. But these days I've found a good work-life balance and somehow the hurly burly of politics this time didn't attract. Maybe in five years I'll throw my hat in the ring, but until then I'll keep on writing this website.

Sunday 03-May-15

Failure and success in small businesses

I've been watching a series recently on UK TV where Alex Polizzi, a small business owner and expert goes into failing small businesses and helps to turn them around. It's not easy, and what we get down is not necessarily the whole story, but it can make fascinating viewing.

The typical business info which she is parachuted is a family firm, often consumer-facing so consuming viewers can empathise, at least worth their customers. And customer focused is indeed a common issue. When you are struggling to pay the bills, it's easy to blame fussy customers. Yet good service is a key reason why many people go to small businesses and this is common issue to sort out.

Another issue where small firms fail is tidiness. It is so easy to end up with piles of old stock that is valued more by what was paid for it than how it can be converted into revenue, so a good clear-out is a common task. More than this, signage and general branding tends to be antiquated and confusing. It is amazing how much a lick of paint can help, and a complete rebranding exercise can be quite transformational. Of course it also makes great television in the same way as any makeover show causes oohs and wows.

The biggest transformation, however, is the people. In family firms where children feel trapped and their parents think they should be grateful, this can even fall into a quick bit of family therapy. Children get to grow up fast and the old dogs learn new tricks as the whole family gets shock treatment when they are shown successful other businesses, where they may even get a boot camp experience hat teaches them the value of focus and hard work.

In the end, such shows are about the modern business of transformation, where the customer is the product. And because you are watching, you too may be transformed as you learn more about business, life and people, and hence about yourself.

Sunday 19-April-15

Epidemiology, Disease and Crime

Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread. Of course there are biological factors about the workings of viruses, bacteria and the human body. Another factor, that is not always realized, is the spread of disease is also affected by how we behave. What we do can make diseases spread far and fast or help to contain the outbreak.

Dr Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist who wondered if he could treat violent crime in the same way as disease. There does not seem to be an obvious connection between the two, yet if you think more about the dimension of how we behave, then maybe it starts to make sense. Slutkin was remarkably successful in making this leap, initially in Chicago as an approach called Ceasefire and later a widespread movement called Cure Violence.

One of the basic ways that disease spreads is when people have contact with a diseased person. Disease thus spreads in a chain of connections. A similar things happens as violence begets violence and it becomes normalized within a society. Slutkin took the principle of interrupting transmission of disease, breaking the chain of infection, and applied it to violence. A way he did this was to train trusted members of the community in preventing retaliation and mitigating conflict, interrupting it before it spilled into violence. They also follow up to prevent simmering conflicts flaring up again.

Another key factor in spreading disease is the a few people can have a big effect. For example, in its early days, HIV spread far through the profligate actions of a single aircrew member. Later, truck drivers who visited prostitutes added to the rapid spread of the disease. When such people are identified in the spread of an infection, targeting them can have a disproportionate effect in bringing the spread of the disease under control. The Cure Violence adaptation of this is to target high-risk individuals, directly working with them to reduce their easy tendency to conflict and violence. This may require intensive one-to-one treatment, but again this preventative approach can pay dividends and save lives.

A third way that disease is spread is via community norms. For example Ebola, which is highly contagious just after death, spread widely in West Africa through burial rites that included touching corpses. When the communities were taught of the extreme dangers of this, the practice reduced sharply, helping significantly to contain the disease. In places where violent crime is high and often accepted as normal, this means working with leaders and groups in the community to help shape abhorrence of crime rather than accepting it as a norm.

One thing that this shows is that we can improve one area by seeking lessons in another where we may not naturally look. By keeping a creative and curiously open mind, many of your problems may find surprising answers.

Sunday 19-April-15

Wanted: people with a phone like yours. Just click here.

I was just scrolling through Facebook, keeping up with the kids and other parents, when an advert grabbed me. It said 'Wanted: Nokia Lumia 1520 users!' Gosh, I thought. I've got one of those. It must be just for me. Reading further, it said:

Do you own a Nokia Lumia 1520? Then we are looking for you! We are looking for Nokia users who want to answer online questionnaires. No need to be an expert, anyone can do it. For each completed questionnaire you will receive a nice reward. Are you interested? Click here and join now

Now what does having a Nokia Lumia 1520 have to do with this? And why would having one make me want to answer online questionnaires. Maybe the 'nice reward'? Or just because I'm interested (as they suggest I am, just before the command to 'click here'). Frankly I was a bit annoyed by this crass manipulation. I also wondered how many people fell into this hole and who knows where the link would lead. In fact I took another route to explore the link (to avoid the tracker) and found it went to a Dutch language site that promised me lots of Facebook 'likes'. No doubt in exchange for a slice of my wallet.

It was a sharp reminder that Facebook is not free. I give them details of my life and they sell these to advertisers who get more and more under my skin. I'm perhaps lucky as I can see through most manipulations. But many can't and that lead them into danger.

Sunday 12-March-15

The bell and the cry

I was walking through our local town today and heard a hand-bell ringing occasionally in the distance. I wondered what it was all about. As I approached, it got louder and I headed in its direction to see what was up. I found a stall outside the local baker, with one of the staff standing there, dressed up in period costume, ringing the bell while calling out their wares.

What a splendidly traditional thing to do. And so effective, too. Our ancestors did not know about psychology theory. In fact psychology as a discipline really only took off in the 20th century. But our forefathers certainly knew how to change minds, and ringing a bell proved a brilliant way to get attention. The frequency response of the bronze or brass and the nice curvy shape of the bell are all perfect for creating a penetrating sound that, with a big bell, carry for miles. It is no surprise that churches have bells, mounted up high, to call their flocks for service. Nor is it a surprise that ringing bells have been used as a signal for both danger and victory for so many centuries.

Another means of gaining attention is the human voice. Children know instinctively that crying will automatically grab the attention of any nearby adult. Another non-surprise is how adults on public transport will sit as far away as possible from young children.

So what is your bell? How do you cry for urgent attention?

Sunday 05-April-15

The Puzzle of Free Speech, Insult and Harm

Free speech is a bastion of what we call the free world. But is it? While we can stand on our soap boxes and rant, we are also constrained in what we say by legal, organizational, and other rules. And those rules are changing, reacting to shifting social and technological forces in an increasingly globalized world.

A challenging element of freedom of speech is the freedom to disagree, to say things that others would rather you did not say. But what happens when the things you say are taken as an insult? What if it causes distress? What if it causes harm?

Insult has long been a weapon of argument, arousing anger and provoking heated debate. It is also a political tool, used to belittle opponents. And it permeated culture, with jokes about wives, in-laws, various nationalities and so on, over-spilling into casual conversation.

With rising concern for equality and defending the vulnerable, the system of formal and informal rules has, in recent decades, changed to effectively prohibit much insult. This is good for minorities and the oppressed, who now have the power to respond to insulting and distressing comment.

And, in the manner of power, it is also abused when the excuse of being insulted is used as reason for damaging retaliation. Even in simple conversation, playing the 'I'm insulted' card can stop a rational argument in its tracks. It is easy to wonder if we have become overly politically correct.

Which all leads to a rather fuzzy puzzle. If we want both free speech and protection of the vulnerable, where do we draw the line? What should be allowed and what should be banned? If we place the bar too low, we risk radicals and trolls spoiling society and hurting people by preaching hate and preying on the vulnerable. Yet if the bar is too high, free speech is choked as the weak get high on crying wolf and the powerful subvert laws to hide corruption from prying journalists.

Sunday 22-March-15

Rejection-and-retreat in action

There's a simple persuasion method that is sometimes useful, sometimes known as 'Rejection and Retreat' or 'Door In The Face'. The basic idea is to make a bold request that may well be rejected. When it is refused, then you retreat to a far simpler request. Doing this makes the second request far more likely to be accepted.

This works for several reasons. First, having already refused you, the person would feel mean to say no a second time. There is also an element of exchange as your acceptance of their refusal obliges them to do something in return. Another factor is the contrast between your first and second request -- the large first request makes the second request seem much smaller.

We had a perfect candidate for this method recently when my wife was taking advertising flyers around the shops in town for a bingo evening at our village hall. Shops often are not keen on obstructing their products and distracting their customers with posters, even if this is for a good cause. So we needed a strategy to cope with refusal.

I produced two sizes of poster, one A4 (about 8" x 11") and others one eighth of this size. So my wife went into shops, from one end of the high street to the other, first asking if they would put the A4 poster in their window. If they refused, she sighed a little and asked if they would put a small pile of the mini-posters on the counter. It worked! Many poster-rejecters accepted retreat-request for mini-posters.

Further, if they accepted the A4 poster, she still asked for the mini-posters to be put on the counter. Many agreed to this too. The psychological principle at work here was the Ben Franklin Effect, where a person who has done you a kindness is more likely to agree to a second request. This is because they rationalize their first agreement as being because they like you, and so helping you again becomes important for sustaining their internal consistency.

So our bingo should be an even greater success, thanks to some judicious use of persuasion methods. Splendid.

Sunday 15-March-15

Frat House Psychology

Fraternity houses have been in the news recently, where a video of Oklahoma 'Sigma Alpha Epsilon' frat house students chanting a racist song contributed to the house being closed down (given the furore, the college probably had little other option). History is also littered with injuries and fatalities (and consequent lawsuits) associated with frat house life. So what are frat houses? For many around the world they are an odd phenomenon that appears in American movies from time to time, with Greek-letter names and raucous students. In America, they are a staple of college life.

A classic way that street gangs induct new members is that the inductee has to pass various trials, from being beaten up to committing serious crimes. Frat houses are not dissimilar when they use hazing as a rite of passage and when initiates are required to, or gain status by, engaging in hazardous pranks and breaking of rules. This rule-breaking has a powerful effect of bonding the student into the fraternity, making them 'one of us'. It also closes the door behind them as there is now an implicit threat that if they leave or betray their brothers, their crimes may be exposed and they will suffer the consequences. Stepping outside the law and getting away with it can also feel very liberating. You feel different to others, more powerful, and closer to other rule-breakers (like your frat house friends).

The person is then locked in further with stories of heroes and villains, with the clear implication of what happens to each. Living together and continued risky actions only serve to bond people together. Secret rituals and other 'knowledge' add to the mystique, as do pins, coats of arms and the two/three letter Greek signifiers (often themselves shrouded in significance, such as being the first letters of a motto). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, fraternal societies go back to the ancient Greeks and have appeared ever since in groups that range from the crusaders to the freemasons.

Getting into a frat house is not easy and may not be cheap. You have first to be accepted and then you have to pay, both of which act as filters to ensure the right type of people join up. At that age you are unlikely to be independently wealthy, so this also tests for well-off, supportive families. You are also readier to take risks just to gain admiration. Interestingly, membership often correlates with lower ability and grades, perhaps due to a greater focus on fun than serious study. Where there are many frat houses in a college, there will also be a hierarchy, with the richer congregating at the higher end of a wannabe hierarchy.

Being a member of a fraternity is a lifetime's commitment. It's an old-boys club, not just a college club. The commitment to one another will reach across careers and may indeed define one's own career, as such close relationships and deep obligations means that fraternity members will go well out of their way to help each other in life and business, counteracting any academic limitations. And it works. Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and, historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators and 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.

It's human to help your friends, of course. And you will naturally end up with rich friends who will do their best to ensure you get a good leg-up in life, joining their elite society through the well-paid jobs that they push your way. It also, of course, sets you up for corrupt practices, from unethical support to turning a blind eye on illegality. But then you had to break the rules to join, so what's a little more?

All this does not mean that fraternity people are all bad, and many may go on to do great things. Yet it also sets an environment where bad things can happen and be seen as the norm. Where such questionable acts as significant tax avoidance and doing anything to help frat friends is seen as common and necessary. Where feeling superior and beyond the law can lead some to illegal action that does not seem illegal. Where being one of the elite feels like your rightful place and that having an elite is never questioned.



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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