What's in a name? It depends how you make it
Words are wonderful little packets of meaning that differentiate the human
race from other animals. We encapsulate all kinds of subtlety within just a few
letters, then project and share these with one another. I came across a new one
recently while reading Dan Brown's new book, Inferno. Without giving the plot
away, there's reference to 'Transhumanism'. I'd heard of 'Posthumanism' and
wondered about the difference.
Never mind the dictionary meanings or reality; just think about what the
words suggest. Posthumanism implies what happens after humans, when we are all
dead and gone. It perhaps suggests a robotic future or other such scary
scientific scenario. Transhumanism is a softer word. It suggests transformation,
change and an altogether more gradual process that, even if a bit worrying, is
easier to accept.
Another example of a subtle tweak is when 'Global warming' became 'Climate
change'. It's probably more accurate and comprehensive to talk about climate
change as recent examples of record-breaking tsunamis, tornadoes and so on have
indicated. It is also a neatly more friendly term that is easier to accept,
while simultaneously being more vague. Global warming is very clear: it's going
to get hotter. It's also rather scary, especially for those living closer to the
equator where it's already hot enough. Climate change is easier to accept first
because it it is non-specific (and so avoids simple oppositional argument) and
also because it is less threatening. If I don't want to think about bad things
in the future, I can frame it as a bit more rain or sun.
Businesses know this too and the jargon there constantly adapts to become
more acceptable, even when people know what it really means. 'Downsizing'
(meaning people are going to get sacked) is now called 'Rightsizing'. Weeding
out the dead wood is called 'performance management'. And so on.
The bottom line: If you're going to give something a new name, remember that
first impressions are important and consider how people who do not know what the
word really means will interpret it.
One of the dimensions of personality is the degree to which people seek
excitement in their lives as opposed to being more stay-at-home safety bunnies.
We call it thrill-seeking, sensation-seeking, risk-seeking and so on, but
underneath it all is a need for
arousal, which we all have to some extent. Some of us are aroused enough by
reading a good thriller or playing a game of chess. Others, however, have a
higher arousal threshold and have to take significant risks before they feel
An interesting bit of research by Bernhard Fink and colleagues found that men
with a naturally stronger hand grip tend to be greater sensation seekers. This
makes sense as higher levels of testosterone are related both to risk-taking and
dominant behavior, which
may include displays of strength.
A socially acceptable way of displaying strength is in
greeting others is in shaking
hands. This gives a dominant person a way of subtly sending their message of
domination by gripping the other person's hand strongly. Strong handgrip can be
natural and a firm grip is associated with confidence, but a stronger grip that
causes pain has only one purpose.
Fink, B., Hamdaoui, A., Wenig, F. and Neave, N. (2010). Hand-grip strength and
sensation seeking, Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 7, 789–793
To hell with it
Have you ever been feeling rather grumpy when you had to make an important
decision? The chances were that the quality of your choice would not be quite as
good as if you had decided when you were feeling a little more cheerful. In fact
there's a good chance you thought (or even said) something along the lines of
'To hell with it' and then took a decision that included the acceptance of a lot
more risk than you might usually prefer.
Why do we do this? When we are in a bad mood, we tend to use more
control, perhaps as a way to
make us feel better. We order people about rather than ask. We may try a bit of
retail therapy. We also avoid more difficult tasks and so may make a decision
quickly just in order to get the discomfort of choice over and done with. And
taking risks is not always associated with negative mood as we are more likely
to make risky decisions if we are feeling positive, although this time it could
be the optimism that is creating the bias.
Researcher Thomas Webb and colleagues tried out a way of fixing this problem for the grumpy condition, which is basically to make firm 'if...then...'
decisions in advance. They started with a trick anagram that made some of their
subjects grumpy. This was followed by a scenario task where they could take
several levels of risk. Some of the subjects had been asked to try to stay in a
positive mood while others had been asked to do 'if...then...' task of
thinking 'If I am in a negative mood, then I will ... breathe deeply / think
only positive thoughts / think how I've dealt successfully with previous
situations'. Both groups had been asked to think about this a week before, with
three repetitions during the week.
The interesting results were that those who had done the 'if...then...'
thinking did not make any riskier decisions than a control group, while those
who just tried to be positive succumbed to the risk-taking. The pattern repeated
itself in a gambling task, where the programmed thinking was 'If I am asked to
make a bet, then I will pay close attention to the number of red versus blue
This aligns with business risk management, where we consider the bad things
that may happen and, if we can't stop them, we make contingency plans and do
what we can to be prepared, rather than try to handle the issue on the fly.
Running businesses by the seat of your pants is generally considered poor
management, especially if the business is big and issues are expensive.
In general, this 'if...then...' thinking gives us a simple and useful way of
avoiding (or at least perhaps reducing) the bias caused by our emotions.
Webb T.L., Sheeran P., Totterdell P., Miles E., Mansell W., and Baker S. (2011).
Using implementation intentions to overcome the effect of mood on risky
behaviour, British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 2, 330-345
The smell of anxiety
Have you ever picked up on how other people feel? Empathy is an important
human skill that enables us to connect with others and consequently respond to
their emotions in appropriate ways. When another person is upset, for example,
we will ask them how they are and maybe try to help them feel better.
But how does empathy work? How do we read how others are feeling?
A simple way we read the emotions of others is through interpreting their
body language, either
consciously or unconsciously. Likewise, we pick up on voice tone and any
emotionally significant word patterns. Another factor that may not be obvious is
smell. The sense of smell is a primitive system that many animals use to good
effect in assessing the world around them, including other animals. We don't go
sniffing other people's bodies, but subtle olfactory influences do exist.
An interesting bit of research by
Katrin Haegler and colleagues shows that smell can even cause us to behave
differently without any intermediate conscious thinking. They collected sweat
from both anxious gamblers and non-anxious bike riders, and then exposed
subjects to these while asking them to make risky bets. Rather curiously, those
who were exposed to the 'anxious sweat' took longer to decide and then made
This seems a curious reaction and even the researchers did not know how to
explain it. Perhaps a group of people being threatened by a predator would be
emboldened when some of their number became afraid, thereby increasing the
chance of somebody stepping up and fighting the attacker.
What does it mean for us? Will casino owners employ scared people to wander
around, encouraging others to gamble more? Perhaps more realisitically, when
working around anxious people, we should watch how both we and others approach
risks. Whenever research shows something, a really good response is to try to
observe it, to see if you can tell the difference. Then, if you can detect a
difference (and beware of your internal biases making you think you can
tell), then look for ways to make use of this knowledge.
Haegler K, Zernecke R, Kleemann AM, Albrecht J, Pollatos O, Brückmann H, and
Wiesmann M (2010). No fear no risk! Human risk behavior is affected by
chemosensory anxiety signals. Neuropsychologia, 48 (13), 3901-8
Happiness, Busy-ness and Laziness
Have you ever been sat in a queue somewhere and felt irritated as some person
or process steals minutes from your productive life? Maybe online, waiting for a
service agent, or at the airport, waiting for your luggage. Our lives are filled
with little queues (and sometimes not so little ones), which frustrate us as
they drain our happiness. Yet we seldom do anything about it. We could, for
example read a book, but instead we huff and puff as we stand in line, looking
at the time just to get even more annoyed. As someone once said, we could all be
happier, but most people are not unhappy enough to do anything about it. Perhaps
also we like a good moan as we play the victim, unable to do anything about our
Researcher Christopher Hsee and his colleagues gave subjects a choice between
a 'busy' option, of delivering a package to a location that was a 15 minute
round trip, or a 'lazy' option of delivering it just outside the room and then
standing there for 15 minutes. He also varied the reward for this task, offering
the same or a different chocolate bar. When the same confection was offered, 68%
chose the lazy option, even though those who took the walk reported greater
happiness. However if a different (but very similar) chocolate bar was offered
for each delivery option, then 59% now chose to walk for 15 minutes. This was
explained by the researchers that when they went for a walk, they were naturally
happier as their time was filled productively and greater meaning was created
for them. Yet we also have a tendency to laziness and having the same reward
left many with the easiest option.
The bottom line is:
- When given equal action choices, many will choose the path of least
- It only takes a small reward to nudge people into taking wiser, more
- You should hence be able to persuade people to do things rather than be
lazy by offering them a a small reward such as interest, meaning and
Hsee C.K., Yang A.X. and Wang L (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for
justifiable busyness. Psychological science : a journal of the American
Psychological Society / APS, 21, 7, 926-30
The simple complexity of avoidant instructions
A lot of persuasion is about how to get people to do things you want them to
do--but what if you want them to not do something? One of the big
problems with this is that when you say 'Don't do X', you are talking about X,
which means the other person has to think about X. In other words, you are
implanting a suggestion to do the very thing you don't want them to do.
of handling this is to reword the instruction to avoid the 'don't'. For example,
rather than tell a child carrying a fragile plate 'Don't drop it', it can be
more effective to say 'Hold it tight' or 'Be careful with the plate'. This can
still cause problems, for example that the child pays so much attention to the
plate that they do not see a toy on the floor and consequently trip over it,
breaking the plate. A typical adult example where things go wrong is in giving
instruction for sports, such as golf, where whatever you say can cause
distraction, over-compensation and other unwanted effects.
Christopher Russell and his colleagues got subjects to repeatedly use a computer
mouse to trace an imaginary straight line between two on-screen dots. Some
subjects were told 'do not move to the left'. The result for many was
over-compensation, as they moved more to the right, and consequently making more mistakes in this
direction. Others followed the suggestive effect and moved more to the left.
This second group scored higher in anxiety in personality and current-state
tests. This implies that anxious people are more suggestible and that others are
more likely to over-compensate in the opposite direction.
A curious effect happened when the researchers provided a cognitive
distraction by asking the subjects to keep a seven digit number in mind while
repeating the experiment. Now, the effects were reversed! The anxious people now
over-compensated to the right while the other people drifted to the left. A
conclusion may be drawn from this that suggestion seems more effective either when
the person is anxious or when they are distracted (and that perhaps anxiety
itself is a distraction that makes suggestion more effective). But what of
the reversal for the anxious people? Perhaps the task to remember the number
served as a secondary distraction that pulled their attention away from the
What perhaps this research shows is that the basic wisdom of positive
language is not as straightforward as may seem, and for subconscious influence
to be more effective, then distraction of conscious attention is important. And
the corollary of this is that to reduce subconscious effects, distractions
should be removed.
Russell, C. and Grealy, M. (2010). Avoidant instructions induce ironic and
over-compensatory movement errors differently between and within individuals. The
Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (9), 1671-1682
Asking for the Truth
How do you get teenagers to tell the truth? Threatening them is usually a
good way to banish truth altogether as teenagers are struggling to find their
independence and are likely to react against any attempts to impose coercive
control, especially if all it takes is blank denial.
Curiously, all you need to do, it seems, is to ask them to tell the truth.
Evans and Lee gave over 100 eight to sixteen year olds a trivia test, including
some impossible questions. They also asked them not to peek at the answers which
were just beneath a flap. And guess what, 54% peeked. This actually seems pretty
good considering there was a $10 reward for getting everything right. Yet it is
still not good news for the truth.
The plot thickened when the researchers asked the teenagers if they had
peeked. No surprise here: 84% of the peekers continued the deception and denied
having looked at the answers. Then came the real trial: the researchers asked
them to tell the truth in the next question, which was a repeat of whether they
had peeked. Now the number was 65%. Still big, yet a significant drop. Remember
that they had just lied twice so this was a big deal to admit.
Perhaps the most useful point from this is that all you have to do is
explicitly ask for the truth and you are immediately more likely to get it. If
the researchers had started with this request, I suspect the final lying would
have been at a distinctly lower level again.
Evans AD, and Lee K (2010). Promising to tell the truth makes 8- to
16-year-olds more honest. Behavioral sciences and the law, Brain Cognition,
74, 3, 210-24
Blue Lights Behind
Have you ever been driving along and suddenly noticed blue flashing lights
behind you? Most of us have. The first response is usually to assume that it
could well be a police car and so we check our speed. We next will want to get
out of the way, to let the vehicle past, as it may also be an ambulance or a
In any case, we feel a sudden pang of panic and would far prefer the
blue-flashing vehicle to be in front of us.
Now take the case of vehicle decoration. As well as paint jobs, some drivers
like to decorate their vehicles with lights, under the body, in the grille, and
so on. I experienced this recently when a lorry turned up behind us with a whole
bunch of blue LEDs shining through its radiator grille. And guess what? I had a
sudden urge to pull over and let it pass.
It seems the blue light effect still works even when the lights are not
flashing. Cognitively, I knew it wasn't an emergency vehicle, so I knew there
was no problem. I could see the pattern of LEDs and the shape of the truck. But
my unconscious system had been triggered and somehow I just seemed to slow down
and I then let the truck overtake me. Just in case, of course.
So how can I use this effect, I wondered?
I could try this on my car, but I'm not really the car decoration type. I
also suspect I might find everyone in front of me dutifully slowing down.
However, don't let this stop you. If your country allows blue lights on cars
(and your police use blue lights), you could try it out. Do let me know what
What is winning?
As I write this, there's an article on TV about how Formula 1's Sebastian
Vettel ignored team orders to not try to overtake team mate Mark Weber. He got
past, nearly causing both cars to crash out, and won the race. It has caused a
lot of angst and highlights a big dilemma when team and individual goals differ.
A similar thing happens in business when people are rewarded more for
individual performance than business success, and as a result they will clamber
over their colleagues, stealing credit and knocking others in order to look
better. And this highlights the problem: if individual wins are rewarded more
than team wins, then the team will lose.
This all is based on a wider culture of individual success, where people are
judged by their personal wins. Winners are lauded and given high status, while
team players who help teams to win are lost in the background. When winning is
everything, everyone wants to win.
This s all based on the assumption that people do their best when they have
their own interests at heart rather than a more altruistic, social interest. Yet
soldiers sacrifice their lives for greater goal or just to save their
colleagues. I spent many years working for HP when the key value of
'contribution' make helping the company more important than helping yourself.
It's possible, yet continues to be uncommon. I suspect this is connected with
human nature, where selfishness is more basic and altruism is a higher
motivation that requires conscious and moral choice.
While I don't approve of Vettel's actions I can't blame him either. He is a
product of his culture and his genes.
The three Ls of a good marriage
A recent article on
the BBC website
offers a simple formula for a happy and lasting marriage: lust, laughter and
loyalty. It's simple and, by my chalk, a fair stab at a difficult topic. I've been married to the same
woman for 37 years and I don't think I could have found a better partner.
Lust, of course, is about eros, the passionate desire for consummation with a
partner. A ready partner makes for convenient sex which may lack the fire of a
new relationship but yet still can be enough.
While the need for sex varies with the person and time, it is important that
both partners each get enough for their personal gratification. A similar sexual
appetite is hence important (lest one partner seek satisfaction elsewhere) and
that the one who needs it less is willing and able to make up the difference. As
men are less able to fake it, this commonly falls to the woman.
Without going into details of my own sex life, I can report that I am happy
with it, and that I still find my wife to be gorgeous. It has always baffled me
why she agreed to my college-boy stumbling proposal and I believe myself very
lucky, which may be another sign of a good relationship.
Personally, I would replace lust with
love, which includes
affection and companionship as well as carnal desire.
A good marriage is a happy marriage and laughter is a good sign of happiness.
A shared sense of humour allows for much pleasure together. Laughter is a form
of closure that relaxes and lets people safely come together and form bonds of
Humour in heterosexual relationships tends to be asymmetrical. Men laugh less
but provide more fun for their women to enjoy. There is evolutionary sense in
this. Power is the classic aphrodisiac as it promises status and protection, yet
this is a two-edged sword as strong man can also harm the woman as well as
competitors. Humour offers an alternative way to happiness that is harmless and
This is certainly true for me. I enjoy creating language-based wit, and my
wife, an English teacher, is very good at decoding my obscure observations. I
delight in amusing her and love the sound of her laughter.
Loyalty means sticking together through thick and thin. It means helping one
another through sickness, depression and hard times. It means defending them
when others attack. It means not straying, avoiding sexual relationships with
Loyalty engenders trust, and trust is the essential dimension of human
bonding. Trust means exposing vulnerabilities and knowing the other will not
take advantage. It means knowing the will help when you are in need.
How a person speaks to and about their partner is a good indicator of how
they think about the other person. In particular speaking with respect and
affection indicates a strong relationship while speaking with contempt is a good
predictor of divorce.
I believe my wife and I have a strong, shared trust. While I still find other
women attractive, I resist the urge to pursue opportunities. This is a clear
choice as men have a polygamous tendency to spread their seed. I have always
trusted her, too. As an attractive woman she would have no problem finding
alternative company, but I know jealousy is a destructive and self-fulfilling
route. I have also scared myself by wading in on the few occasions when my wife
was threatened by another man, although she knows I would never harm her.
Is that it? Are the three Ls all you need? While these are a sound base, good
relationships can have confounding complexity that defy definitive
decomposition. There is also something about balance.
My wife and I are not personality clones, though we have much in common. We
have similar intelligence levels. We are both practical. We have a similar
cultural background. Yet I am at root an engineer while she is an artist. I am
analytic while she is expressive. I like studying new subjects while she
remained an English teacher. I will talk business and psychology all day while
she has an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and movies.
Similarity and difference work well together. Similarity gives a base for
common interest and shared activity, while difference gives space for
exploration and sustaining your own identity within the relationship.
It's not magic. There are distinct things you can think and do to sustain a
relationship. Yet there is also magic, an undefinable spark that keeps it going.
All I can say is that it has worked for me and I'm grateful.
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16-Jun-13: What's in a
name? It depends how you make it
09-Jun-13: Gripping fun
02-Jun-13: To hell with it
26-May-13: The smell of
19-May-13: Happiness, Busy-ness
12-May-13: The simple
complexity of avoidant instructions
05-May-13: Asking for the
21-Apr-13: Blue Lights
14-Apr-13: What is winning?
07-Apr-13: The three Ls of
a good marriage
31-Mar-13: Extremism and
24-Mar-13: The Cult of the
17-Mar-13: Being Welsh
10-Mar-13: The Purpose of
03-Mar-13: Selling to
24-Feb-13: The flattering
17-Feb-13: Does money make
'Keep Calm and Carry On'
03-Feb-13: More Good
27-Jan-13: Hey, your
computer booted up 102% quicker!
20-Jan-13: Air fresheners
13-Jan-13: Famous for
06-Jan-13: Doggy game
30-Nov-12: Luck, numbers
and wishful thinking
21-Nov-12: The End of the
09-Nov-12: Getting good
02-Nov-12: Our helpful
18-Nov-12: Moving house,
walking and multitasking
26-Oct-12: The Bond Blitz
19-Oct-12: Photos and
12-Oct-12: Men, women,
crisis and leadership
28-Sep-12: Divided by a
07-Sep-12: Don't name the
24-Aug-12: Face learning
17-Aug-12: Listening to
10-Aug-12: Oooh, hello!
03-Aug-12: How to reduce
27-Jul-12: A teacher's end
criminalizing and confession
intelligent signage and traffic calming
06-Jul-12: Getting kids to
eat their food
22-Jun-12: A public revenge
08-Jun-12: Hot desking and
01-Jun-12: Here and there
25-May-12: Connecting with
18-May-12: Truth, lies and
11-May-12: Selling raffle
05-May-12: Attentional bias
27-Apr-12: The limits of
20-Apr-12: Selling the
13-Apr-12: Assertion or
Persuasion in Politics
06-Apr-12: Customer service
30-Mar-12: Managing and
23-Mar-12: How to sell more
shampoo (or use less)
16-Mar-12: How you look
changes what they say
09-Mar-12: Freedom, abuse
02-Mar-12: Housing pains
24-Feb-12: Store designs
17-Feb-12: Painting the
10-Feb-12: The extrinsic
end of education
03-Feb-12: Real intimacy