Slacktivism

Ah. I was just going to write about the Eurovision Song contest this week. I’ve been neglecting important segments of my burgeoning fan base, and I had some good lines to appeal to that portion of my demographic. For instance, the berets, twerking and urban drumbeats of the final number in the UK Song for Europe show put in mind a dystopian, atonal future even more alarming than I have been imagining recently. And while we’re at it, why did those bastards rename it “You Decide” when, in fact, it is clearly the case that you and a panel of “industry experts” decide? Mind you, I’m not complaining. Democracy delivered us Trump, Brexit and Scooch. Time for benevolent dictatorship?Scooch

But events, dear boy. And some time ago I made a personal decision to release a few ropes and allow myself to be carried, free-flowing, wherever life’s stream might take me. Since then the journey has been fantastically positive, so I plan to stick by that mantra for the time being. I’m being spontaneous. Hence, this week, I will continue a theme that has emerged in these blogs 2017. On the plus side I hope it is bang on trend. On the minus, I fear I am about to alienate a portion of said fan base. Ho hum…

Long ago I gave up being riled by things in general to focus on action. But, just occasionally, some specifics still rankle. And once again this week my social media has been deluged by posts and tweets and pictures that restate and to some extent reaffirm the broad set of beliefs I, and pretty much any reasonable human being, hold. What irks me is that I no longer find residence in this echo chamber remotely consoling.

In fact, the more I see of them, the more I wonder whether posts about Trump or Brexit (Scooch, not so much) do more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong, I know Trump is a lunatic, Brexit is probably the single most stupid act of self-harm a nation has ever committed, that gender inequality is wrong, and that guns are almost always a bad thing! Listen, if I follow you on social media you are probably pretty much in my social political in group. And from my in group what I want are ideas, solutions, analysis – I don’t need my own views just restated back at me. That’s not going to help solve the problem because there are whole lot of people in my social political outgroup who think different. They are the ones we need to persuade.Daddy

Slacktivism is rife, at least on my social media. Slacktivism, effectively, is passive activism: endorsing support for a position without taking meaningful action to pursue it. Now, we all do that. And I don’t have much of a problem with it. I have a problem with those who will say one thing to one person and another thing to another person to try and keep both happy. That’s just fake and self-interest. And while I might have railed against inaction in a previous blog, I recognise no one can do everything all of the time. We have to prioritise. Opinion is always better than the wanton pursuit of ignorance. Arguably, online campaigns can generate awareness, change attitudes and affect social change in due course.

My problem with the barrage of slacktivism across my social media is the extent to which it is accompanied by virtue-signalling. Virtue-signalling is the term (of disputed provenance) coined to describe the conspicuous expression of virtue or piety among the religious faithful. And, so far as I can see, unless it takes the argument forward it serves no purposes other than for the moral aggrandisement of the individual sending the message. For me, it’s another indicative symptom of narcissism. Virtue-signalling does not contribute to the debate. In fact, it often actively polarises it.

If my comments seem harsh I would like to point out that I have no objection to a funny meme (I loved #savemelania) and I like finding out interesting facts like “Having sex can unblock a stuffy nose” or “There is a “Hug Me” Coca-Cola machine in Singapore which gives you a can of coke each time you hug it.” (for more, see @facccct). Feel free to call me shallow! I am not going to block anyone on these grounds any time soon. I just think we need to move the debate forward and we need to stop doing the things that don’t help that, and start doing the things – intelligent analysis and discussion or concrete action – that make a difference.

Enough already. Next week, depending on what executive orders are signed or repealed, an essay on disappointment entitled (possibly)… What happened to the Danny Zuko I met at the beach?

Sandra Dee

Never The New Normal

Arguably the greatest weapon in a bully’s armoury is inconsistency. A truly effective bully is mean, for sure, but if that isn’t peppered with the occasional positive interaction the victim is more likely to lose interest, disengage or move away. The effective abuser selects a victim who keeps coming back for more. That’s why bosses who bully are so toxic: the promise of something positive (recognition, promotion) can be dangled in front of the employee on condition of complying and accepting the persecution. Many bullies, ironically, give a kind of hope of inclusion and acceptance to those they oppress. The most effective bullies are Machiavellian enough to know you need to keep your victims hanging on… Victims are the source of a bully’s power.

Now, I’m not intending this blog to be a “how-to guide” for wannabe bullies. I should say that I think it is hard to see consistency alone as a bad thing, although being inflexible and closed-minded is rarely a good thing either. Rather, this blog builds on last week’s one about the moral equivalence of action and inaction (omission). Because, on Friday, I woke up in a world I never imagined I would see and one that was almost impossible to imagine a year ago. But President Trump is reality now.

There should be no doubt that Trump is a bully. It’s probably why a significant chunk of people voted for him! They believe, naïvely I expect, that he’s a “doer”. On that I am sure, he will get things done all right. Just, mostly, the wrong things. The “I can do things” approach is most certainly a characteristic of the bully because, when it comes down to it, bullying is really all about lust for power. Brush up your Foucault!

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There is no doubt Trump is inconsistent too. And while some of you might be feeling just a little bit grateful for that I would urge you to think again. It’s a triumph of faith over experience that an inconsistent, narcissistic, wrong minded bully will eventually deliver a good set of outcomes. No, the inconsistency that gives some a grain of hope is really just the narcissist’s belief in their own infallibility and omniscience and a technique for furthering self-interest: why bother about consistency when you’re always right anyway? We will see decades of good, careful, hard work to set up international structures for trade demolished and an ethos of tolerance, justice and expertise flattened to pursue a misguided and deeply unpleasant personal agenda.

Perhaps my greatest concern here is not the changes that will be sudden but those that will be slow and insidious. It has taken many years to create a society where it is no longer acceptable or normal to insult and degrade women, racial minorities and people with disability. Beliefs, attitudes and biases to others who are different from ourselves inevitably lie under the surface of our everyday interactions; but we were close to creating a world where what lay beneath the iceberg remained submerged and more importantly the iceberg itself was melting. Now Trump even denies climate change, so the iceberg will grow again. (This is a metaphor, right, so all the real icebergs will continue to melt…)

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When changes in leadership happen the immediate impacts are the easiest to observe. The more lasting changes to culture, people, and society are deep and hence sometimes folk forget to notice that they are occurring. But they last, and they can do more damage. If the commander-in-chief can mock the disabled or talk about women in such appalling terms then others will begin to feel it is permissible for them to do so to. The politics of hate becomes the new normal. Many people will have seen this for themselves, either their work team or department. Now imagine it writ large.

Come back in a year and look around. Do you remember how it once was? Was there a different language, feel, sense of hope and sense of future? Did you like people more or less, have your attitudes and values remained constant? Leadership changes cultures, sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse. Leadership is important because it sets an implicit moral tone and not just a sense in which tasks are managed strategically and competently.

Bullying, in the end, is all about power and the narcissistic bully is focused solely on retaining and legitimising their own power. They create a new normal that at best is anarchic and at worst malevolent. And often we don’t notice it happening until it’s too late. By which time everything’s gone down the drain… So make sure you notice. And resist the new normal. Or, even better, fight for a new normal you want and not just one you’ve resigned yourself to.

Off Your Trolley

Something really has to be done about this blog! I mean, it’s been veering off track to reflect my capricious tendencies with diversions to Gareth Southgate’s sad face and kimchee without even the slightest regard for The Greater Good. This week, I’m pulling the lever to get back on the right rails with some serious moral philosophy…

Trolley problems, in their modern day incarnation, were introduced by the philosopher Philippa Foot, but continue to generate a slew of studies in psychology and neuroscience in a bid to better understand the basis of moral judgment and decision-making. You probably already know it, but in essence the problem (dilemma) involves a trolley hurtling on a track, with a lever that will switch the trolley to one of two tracks. On one is (for example) one person tied to the track and unable to move, on the other five people similarly tied and unable to move. You can control the lever. Which track do you choose?

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You can play around with trolley problems – for example you can place your own child or Cameron Diaz on one track and Hitler, Jeremy Hunt, all the remaining members of One Direction and Zayn on the other. See, suddenly those of you who thought this was a no-brainer numbers equation are starting to think a little deeper!

That psychology and neuroscience seek to engage with philosophy is undoubtedly a good thing. If only, when devising their studies, most sought to get some bona fide philosophers on board! I won’t list all the psychology and neuroscience studies on the topic, here’s a summary of the hundreds that have been conducted since 1900.  The thrust of my point here (and I acknowledge it’s shared by some of those scientists) is that trolley problems don’t tell us an awful lot about the psychology of moral judgment. They are a philosophical puzzle.

The psychology and neuroscience of moral judgments should focus on telling us why people often act in certain (moral, immoral or amoral) ways and, perhaps, what we can do about that. However, way too many psychologists in the area are guilty of falling in to committing the naturalistic fallacy – assuming what is the case is what ought to be the case. A prime example here is Lawrence Kohlberg who didn’t so much fall in to that naturalistic fallacy as looked it up and down, said it’s dad was the milkman, and set about assaulting it with a numb chucker constructed from under-powered t tests.

A flash of light on a scan when asked to choose between killing 1 or 5 people is really just the brain’s conscious response a fancy numerical task: it doesn’t invoke the emotion, the relationships, or what judgments you make when you are looking those people in the eye, because moral judgments are fundamentally social judgments, and embedded in our relationships with others.

The simplicity of trolley problems offers sharp relief on some fundamental questions: that probably explains their appeal and longevity. Even better, you can play around with the scenario… if your solution is inaction – blame Southern Rail signalling for the dilemma and hence deny culpability – think about a baby hurtling downhill in a pram towards the M6 with only an (open) gate to prevent imminent catastrophe. You can close the gate, “action,” or leave it open, “omission”. In that case, even a psychopath knows what they should do: psychopaths just prefer not to do it.

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And so we come to the sort of real-world dilemmas psychologists ought to be studying: to act or not to act? The truth is, faced with clearly immoral behaviour by a superior, a raft of studies in psychology show us that many people stand by and do nothing; they become bystanders who either think they’re merely powerless to do anything or trying to ameliorate a situation with a bad boss. Many everyday judgments are awash with abrogation of responsibility. But in such cases, really, there is total moral equivalence between acting and not acting because the outcomes are the same. (For the truly devout, I should mention that Shira Haviv and I did a study many years ago looking, a bit as an aside, at this form of consequentialist thinking in children and adolescents.)

Saying you can’t do anything is a lame excuse and the pursuit of self-interest. In fact, from a psychological perspective, I suspect much of our psychological reasoning about trolley-like problems in everyday life is to do with how we perceive our ability to operate or access the lever – and how we justify our impotence to ourselves. And even if you can’t pull the lever, you ought to be clear what you think the person pulling the lever must do. You cannot bequeath your moral responsibility to someone else. You always have choice. And if you don’t act in any way you can, you’re still making a decision, and you’re just as culpable as they are if you throw your hands in the air, cover your ears and close your eyes, and do nothing.

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Turn and Face the Strange

One outcome of the brief period of “sabbatical” from my blog (if not from much else) is that I have had a chance to engage in a little self-reflection. And amongst many other epiphanies, it has dawned on me that I might be a tad capricious because in my spare time I do tend to get into slightly random things. It’s fun; I am not apologising for it. Just to give a flavour of the range, variety and general weirdness of these small obsessions, over the past few months I have become an armchair expert on projection mapping (kind of temporary graffiti), breeding butterflies (surprisingly difficult), and producing homemade kimchee (surprisingly easy, but time-consuming if you insist on growing your own cabbages).

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These mini-obsessions are, I like to think, the eclectic consequence of an enquiring mind rather than an overactive intellectual thyroid. But, it also made me think, that it is rather sad that what is divergent is generally squeezed out of our intellectual lives these days – there’s little time or space (or incentive) in modern science to head off the beaten track for a while, to learn something new that can offer new insight to work and/or personal development as an academic. Being an academic scientist these days typically means mining a single seam, often for a whole career, and it rarely pays to look above ground. While you need to keep abreast of new work in your area, an open mind is only beneficial in so far as it is left just slightly ajar. Modern psychology, perhaps most modern science, all too often suffers from a closed-mind culture.

Thinking outside of certain boxes is high risk, generally not core business and seen, by many, as a dilution of the mission. It’s bunking off, spending your free periods smoking and fumbling behind the bike sheds when you should be getting down and dirty with the revised OCR chemistry syllabus. (Of course, as any millennial school child will tell you, “free periods” were rebranded into “study periods” long ago because, of course, we’re such slaves to linguistic nuance that the rebranding is enough to suppress even the most vigorous cravings.)

Often, what interests me most, is what is on the peripheries – the stuff I don’t know about.  And while I concede that my capriciousness is probably on another level – the psychology of kimchee, butterfly sex or projection mapping will probably not feature in major grant awards in 2017 – across science, more generally, something gets lost when intellectual enquiry becomes too narrow.

Indeed, one problem with much of current academic is that capriciousness is regarded as a weakness, not a strength.  It’s the anti-renaissance, and that is just wrong. Modern science, the REF, TEF, the emergence of dreadful registered reports, stultify and funnel research into silos and any engagement with the different, the new, the strange or the truly challenging is regarded with disdain. And while, increasingly, some funders do recognise the utility of the peripheries, more broadly the system militates against people exploring them. I wonder, how many Heads of Department and Deans will regard arts-science collaborations as a good use of their staff members’ time? Too often, in the past, I’ve heard fellow psychologists disparage other disciplines: ridiculing contemporary artistic, musical and theatrical interpretations of scientific work. Academics who want to explore creative, novel areas are told to focus on the real job. That’s rude, ignorant, and stifles innovation. In the end, it’s bad for science too.

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I am going to try to open our minds a little and explore the links between science and art with gusto. This year, at IoPPN, we’ll be initiating an “Arts in Mind” scheme to explore creatively the links between arts, science and education. In fact, with initiatives like the Bethlem exhibitions, the forthcoming Manifestations of the Mind, and numerous other events, and a forthcoming student art exhibition we will continue our tradition of genuinely open, curious, inter-disciplinary, intellectual enquiry. It adds vibrancy (and a little joy) to the workplace but also it presents intellectual challenges in a world where inevitably there is often little room for thinking from the peripheries. If you’re lucky, I might bring along a couple of jars of kimchee or project a cascading façade onto one of the walls. Sadly, January is not a good time for amorous butterflies.