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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 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.

Disembarking

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.


Sunday 14-January-18

Getting the job: the least worst candidate, Theresa May and the hoped-for great saviour

Sometimes, when you are looking for a job, it is more important to not be disliked than be outstanding in any areas. In this way, average, bland and uncontroversial people get the job rather than those who might be more effective.

A common time when this kind of appointment is made is where there are strongly differing views among those who have a hand in the appointment process, and in particular where any individual or group have the power of veto. In such cases, the likely successful candidate will be a person to whom no selector objects.

This is a common pattern in political appointments, where factions and power players can all veto any appointee, and none more so than when people are seeking a new leader. An example of this happened in the UK after the Brexit referendum, where David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and enmities between people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove made them insufficiently popular with all sides. As a result, the moderate and flexible Theresa May got the job of guiding Britain out the EU, even though she voted against it. Yet without the fanatical support that strong leaders get, she has floundered as in-party warring has continued unabated. This, during a time where unity is essential for successful Brexit, could well lead to national disaster.

This least-worst decision-making appears in many other choice scenarios, from business strategizing to buying a family car, where keeping everyone on board beats innovation and high-potential risk. The averaging effect of compromise destroys companies, brings down governments and kills passion. It creates grudges as behemoths lumber on, even to their doom.

In balancing this dismal state of affairs, there is an answer which can seem impossible when all parties are entrenched in blinkered views. This is of visionary leadership that speaks to all and breaks through the impotent gloom. Great leaders bring people together, speaking to their deep fears and desires, yet not being beholden to them.

There is a theory, sometimes debunked, that explains this, proposing that a 'Great Man' will arise when there is great need. Despite the old sexism of the idea, it is a common pattern in times of stress, where we seek a magical saviour who will deliver us from anticipated evil times ahead (and look no further than recent presidential elections for evidence of this). Practically, this is unlikely to happen as the Conservatives are paralyzed by a fear of socialist Jeremy Corbyn winning another election. Better the weak leader they know, it seems.

Never mind the cynicism, we desperately need such a person now, and not just in Britain. Let's hope our Churchill (an oft-quoted example) will step out on the shadows soon.


Sunday 8-January-18

But is it art? The tricky question of whether computers can be artists

Can computers, perhaps in the guise of a future artificial intelligence, be creative? Can they create something whereby many people agree that the result is true art?

The first question here is 'What is art?' Is it about the result, created by whatever means? Is it about the customer, the user, the observer? Do people have to agree something is art before we can agree that it is art? Or is it about the artist, and the process of creative thinking? And if so, does this preclude computers from ever being creative? To plunder an over-used metaphor, can there be creativity in the forest when nobody is there?

A simple definition of art (though not the only one) is of something that deliberately stimulates. This allows for art in music, cooking and other areas. It also allows for varying pleasure. While creating widespread pleasure can be profitable, others may scorn such populism and delight in anguished expression. Stimulation may be gained through representation, which can range from a simple photograph (where machines have long played a part) to a clever sculpture made with scrap-yard parts. Even in more abstract representation, if rules can be defined, then machines may create.

An extension of the question of stimulation which resonates with this site is that art changes minds. Through its provocation, it makes people think differently and maybe become different people. In such ways, art can changes lives.

A key aspect is emotion. Art stimulates feelings as reactions to a creation. This is more difficult for machines, but not impossible. While provoking some feeling is quite feasible (we are emoting creatures, after all), gaining the awe and wonder great art may be a more difficult challenge.

A further consideration is in the balance of familiarity and surprise. Representation, even in abstract terms, needs something familiar. From this base, corruption and unexpected variation grabs attention, and the art of the artist is in knowing the line between pleasure and irritation that this creates. This task is far harder for machines and is a boundary that will be hard to cross.

Jack Tait is a retired photography lecturer who builds simple machines that draw, using a careful combination of determinism and randomisation. It uses pens, driven by various motors, gears and cams. Not all drawings are good art, but he is making progress in improving the good-to-bad ratio.

There are many examples of computers doing incredible things. Perhaps one of the most astonishing of late is the story of the Go-playing supercomputer. In 2016, Google's AlphaGo Lee beat Lee Sedol, 9th Dan master, at a game that is reputed to be the greatest intellectual challenge. It did so by analyzing many, many previous games, giving it more options at its super-natural fingers. But then, only a year later, AlphaGo Zero soundly beat its predecessor with only knowledge of the basic rules of the game. Observers of the games were confused by the unorthodox moves the computer made, but were later convinced of the genius when these proved very effective.

Even given all this seems unlikely that computers will create great art any time soon, especially given the emotional sensitivity required. Yet it may come, alongside great empathy when this is cracked. When your computer understand you better than anyone, when you prefer its company and laugh uproariously at its hilarious new jokes, then maybe, only then, will it creates you amazing artworks in its spare time.


Sunday 31-December-17

The years spin by: the psychology of time perception and how our priorities change

Well that's it. 2017 done and dusted. Good stuff and bad stuff, as most years, and whether we see it as one or the other has more to do with our attitude than what actually happened. Because how we experience life and especially how we remember it is what makes our lives pleasant or not. Another common perception that is much remarked upon at this time of year is how fast time flies by. Life is like driving down a road with your foot hard down on the accelerator. Things go by faster and faster until one day, a wall pops up in front of you and that's the end of your journey. Sometimes we see the wall from a way off and sometimes it appears so quickly it is all over in a moment.

How we perceive time is kind of funny. We classically have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We also know that there are four things in the universe: space, time, energy and matter. We can detect space, energy and matter with our senses, but what about time? We can't see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. So how do we perceive it? The answer is that it is a mental construction. We imagine it as an explanation for changing experience. Time flies when we're having fun and drags when we are bored.

So why do older people in particular complain about the speedy passage of time? One way we assess time is by comparing the time we have spend in our lives with the time we have left to live. For children, their future lives stretch infinitely outwards, while older people know that most of their lives are done and the wall could pop up any time now. This happens too to the terminally ill, who strive to make the best of the limited time left they have. If you were told you had only a month to live, what would you do? Probably something different to what you have planned (if anything) for the coming 30 days.

What is important for us changes as time goes by. When we are young, having fun is often the most important. If we are lucky, we will enjoy learning, as this pays most back in future years, though another tricky factor gets us here: the areas of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain where we imagine the future does not develop fully until we are in our early twenties. In middle age, time floats by as we are often too busy getting on with our lives with jobs, relationships, families and children. Then children leave and jobs end and our remaining years stretch out before us, fading away into a worryingly near term. In that autumn period if we are lucky enough to be self-sufficient, we may seek to do those things we could not afford or had no time for earlier in our lives. We take up new hobbies. We travel and see the world. We reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Or maybe we stare into the approaching headlights like frightened rabbits.

And so, as we stand on the brink of 2018, what will your priorities be for the year? Are you looking ahead? Imagine you are standing here a year hence, looking back. What do you want to say you have achieved? Because now is the time to look forward to the real differences you want to make. And there is one thing that you must do in order to get it: think differently. If you think how you always thought, you will get what you always got. Is that enough? No? So think again. Change your attitude, change your future.


Sunday 24-December-17

Are we sleepwalking back to an age of feudal, absolute power?

For many, many years, mankind lived by what we sometimes call 'The rule of the jungle', in which might is right and those who ruled did so strength. Up until recent centuries, kings had absolute power, as did every person of position within in a strict hierarchy. Even in families, children were 'to be seen and not heard' and women often had an inferior role.

Such power structures tend to be brutish, with harsh punishment for minor infractions, meted out with little real justice, other than that chosen by the person in charge. Positions of power at any level was often gained by what we would today consider as corrupt means, including bribery, blackmail and bullying. This gave rise to 'leaders' who managed by fear and who could be wantonly cruel at will. While some today might wish for simpler times of past ages, they would probably be horrified by the accepted practices of the day.

Along the way, often through revolution, democracy emerged as a means for the people at the bottom of the tree to control the people at the top. Now, through this distributed power, they could vote in representatives who would truly represent broad social interests and look after weaker members of society.

A problem with democracy is that it is not always wise. Like any system of trust it is open to deception and there are many who can be deceived. For those in power, feudalism can be an attractive system to not only keep their power but also to pass it on to their family and friends.

The internet came along with such promise of openness. When everyone could know everything about everyone, universal social trust seemed inevitable. Yet when those who sought to shape opinion got hold of this tool, the tail started to wag the dog. Activists who used it in repressive regimes suddenly found that the tables were turned as the authorities followed the links back to source. Then with troll farms, clickbait and deceptive tweeting, the internet turned from a tool for freedom to a means of propaganda and social control.

Where will it all end? Democracy, which reached a high water point at the turn of the millennium, seems to be fading in influence. Authoritarian rulers are on the rise through the world, even in countries that elect their leaders, and even again in the heart of the Western world. In particular, the far-right seems to be grabbing more control and working to change the system so they stay in power. Dictatorships easily arise out of democracies when the population vote for empty promises and grand, nationalist speeches. It can seem unthinkable, but history, notably in the last 100 years, is littered with instances of unwise voting leading to appalling autocracies.

It's not about whether we get a left or right government. More, it's about protecting our fragile democracies. The only way that we will avoid returning to feudal times is if people listen, think, organize and most importantly, get out and vote.   


Sunday 18-December-17

Negotiating chaos and lost trust: the price of bluff and bravado

In the recent Brexit negotiations, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May made yet another negotiating error that further weakened the British position in their bid to wiggle our of the European Union. All ready for a triumphant announcement of agreement about Northern Ireland, her parliamentary partners, the ultra-conservative DUP, scuppered her compromise agreement with the EU and Ireland about borders.

How things have changed. Back in May, she was talking tough about 'No deal is better than a bad deal' and her party was scoffing at EU demands for a massive divorce payoff. ’They need us more than we need them' was a common cry. Yet now we are offering tens of billions and conceding at every turn.

So what's up? What should we have done differently?

The first step should have been to understand realities, instead of the 'have your cake and eat it' echo chamber ideals of the hard Brexit advocates. We should have realized their experience of hundreds of years of British conquest and arrogance, and the long desire for revenge. We should also have realized their fear that conceding to UK demands would encourage other doubters. Even then, the temptation to 'divide and conquer' by approaching individual countries (a classic negotiation tactic) was not a good move (ministers tried it) as this just soured the relationship further.

The next step should have been to show respect and empathy towards the Europeans, not disdain. We should have listened and demonstrated concern. We should also have understood the real impact on us and prepared detailed plans for how to handle disagreement. We should have been organized and not shown our internal divisions. The list goes on.

I feel really sorry for Theresa May, trying to stitch together all the different interests and emotions. Even if she cobbles together some deal, she has lost the respect of many, including the electorate. So too has her disorganized party.

Enough. What are the lessons for the rest of us?

First, never get arrogant nor underestimate your negotiating partners (and don't think of them as purely opponents -- it a joint process to find optimum benefit for both). Remember also the partners on your own side of the line. The DUP were not sufficiently engaged and the result was last-minute collapse.

Then get your data and facts straight. During the 2016 referendum, Minister Michael Gove said that we had had enough of experts. On the contrary, listen to your experts carefully.

Listen to your partners, too. Research their situation. Understand their deep interests. Build trust, not anger. With this, help them understand you.

Then talk process. How should you proceed? Agree how to agree. The EU blindsided the UK earlier in the year by demanding agreement on a huge divorce bill before moving to the trade talks that the UK desperately wanted.

And manage time. The UK government have had a year and a half so far and are still disorganized. They set the two-year clock ticking last Spring without a plan nor a clear organization, which they made worse with a disastrous election (again, failing to change minds).

Negotiation is a serious business, especially when there are big stakes and many interests. It takes time and planning. Political bluster is no substitute.

All we can do now is watch and learn from this masterclass in failure. And determine not to fall down such rabbit holes ourselves.


 

 

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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