Pure Romance

Online staff profile pages; now there’s a thing. These are the company webpages where pictures, role descriptions and other information about an organisation’s staff are listed for public view. At the corporate level these pages will tell you interesting things like that Jennie from finance has had 14 years’ experience “looking after our accounts” (14 famished, desolate years, Jennie?) or that Nigel is currently “responsible for all aspects of human resources in our Derby office (including Barrow on Trent)”. What you cannot tell from the profile pictures is if Jenny and Nigel really hate one another, or whether both have been steadily climbing the corporate ladder while fostering a mutually undeclared love that will explode into romance at the team building away day at Kedleston Hall. I have fun imagining such things…

In academia, the platforms for these profiles are increasingly becoming dominated by a few big players. At the institutions I have been involved with in my career that platform has been Pure. Pure is an Elsevier product, part of its “Research Intelligence Solutions”. There’s a thriving user community with two day conferences in places like Baltimore, Berlin and, er… Blackburn, for networking and sharing best practice (…yeah, I bet that’s what they get up to). The Elsevier website boasts that, “there are over 200 Pure implementations… [and] more than 160,000 researcher profiles”. There’s also, “A complete CRIS for managing REF submissions”. This is a fast-moving industry so you don’t have to put up with just the torso any more, you get all of CRIS these days.


Pure is in essence a repository for research accomplishments like publications, grants and typically includes a brief bio. Some advice on the bio – keep it short and write in the first person. Writing in the third person makes you sound like a footballer struggling in a post match interview, “Joey Barton’s not bigger than Burnley” (says Joey Barton, accurately). Institutions can tailor the format of the webpage – the King’s one is especially ugly – and things like publications and grant lists are populated from central databases, but within that academics can choose what goes up and write a lot of the textual content. So if, for example, you are choosing to list all your conference presentations and keynotes (and I reckon I have over 300 of those) you’re asking your reader to do a lot of scrolling.

Pure does some entertaining things. For instance the “graph of relations” is fun, if ultimately a little incestuous. It’s rather like the “Who’s had Who?” associations graphic feature in the student magazine I edited while I was an undergraduate at Oxford. (That feature was, on reflection, misjudged, and an invasion of privacy as well as factually incorrect for at least one of my “associations”… I wish to apologise publicly now for that. But in my defence it wasn’t me who produced it and, at the time, I had only marginally more editorial experience than George Osbourne.)

Leman Pureelsevier-integration-with-orcid-a-van-servellen-14-638

Then we have the photo. Ah… the photo. How do we wish our physical form to be projected to the world and to our colleagues? Clever (yes, certainly), good-looking (yes, probably), staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (maybe), sitting in an armchair, holding a cocktail glass and grinning like an imbecile (no)? Pure, in some respects, is akin to an academic online dating site, albeit one where the image projected is even more subtly prone to exaggeration and embellishment than regular dating sites.

With online dating sites (I imagine, I’d never do it) one would like to think people are at least hoping for a longish term, meaningful relationship. For that to happen with Pure you’ll need to move beyond the photo and look at the serious credentials like H-index and grant income. Do you really want to contemplate the prospect of an interdisciplinary collaboration with someone who lists contributing to a drive-time phone-in on Four Counties Radio as the highlight of their “activities”? Actually, maybe, yes, if they’re fun and interesting… that’s the problem with online profiles – you’re only really getting the image people feel they ought to project and in reality humans are far, far more complex and interesting than that. Or maybe I am finally the wrong side of a generational shift in research and relationships? Who knows? Who cares?

Lastly, there’s the facility to add a CV in Pure. Few take this up and it’s obvious why not: it’s a clear signal you are on the market and either pretty desperate or not getting the attention you feel you deserve from your current beau (employer). Posting your full CV on Pure is a little like turning up at a dinner party and making a show of throwing your car keys into a bowl in the middle of the table, in full view of your partner, before anyone’s had the chance to start gushing over the amuse-bouche. It is over-disclosing, more than a little vulgar, and seems certain to attract the wrong sort of attention. Better, I think, to leave the CV on the shelf rather than ending up on it yourself.

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant!

Hope, that’s the last thing I need right now. While my life increasingly resembles a mash-up of the plots of any number of soap operas – East Enders, Holby City, The Next Step – there would be some solace in knowing that we all, inevitably, go a bit Phil Mitchell in the end. (Or maybe the full Danny Dyer? Speaking of Danny Dyer, here is a video of Danny Dyer’s reflective haikus: trust me, it’s worth 90 seconds of your life.)


It’s hope of escape from oblivion that is making my football team’s – Leyton Orient – current travails compelling to follow but also, in turns, excruciating. The O’s, London’s second oldest club, are currently second to bottom of the entire English football league. And there are several reasons for this. First, for many years, we unsuccessfully deployed the surprise tactic of playing a long ball game with a 5’2″ centre forward. Opposing teams found this surprising but, ultimately, eminently assailable. Second, there has been managerial turnover that would make even Sports Direct seem like an employer invested in its workforce; nine managers in the last two seasons. And third, the club now faces a winding up petition from HMRC. The person perceived to be most responsible for this financial position is the club’s owner Francesco Becchetti, an Italian who had made his fortune in the Albanian waste management and recycling industry. Don’t roll your eyes, Albanians need their waste managed and recycled too, you know.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA nintchdbpict000283436141

Albanian waste management… and LOFT (The Leyton Orient Fans Trust)

The hope in question came in the form of Orient’s 4-0 away win yesterday. Yes, 4-0 and away as well. And that comes on the back of a 3-2 away win, a couple of weeks ago, at “highflying” Plymouth. Highflying and Plymouth are words that are rarely seen together although I have nothing against Plymouth and, in fact, spent a very interesting evening at the Barbican there several years ago before just catching the overnight train back to London. I like overnight trains, there is something romantic about them.

Anyway, enough! Let’s get back from the (south) west to the Orient. A win was much needed and Orient seem to like going west because yesterday’s success was at Newport County. What takes the edge off that victory, however, is that Newport County is the only team below Orient in the football league and so, technically, the only team worse than them. The O’s still need to win at places like Hartlepool – 70% Brexit country, where they hung a monkey in the 19th century because they thought it was a French spy – if they have any hope of avoiding the ignominy of the Vanarama league next season. Here’s hoping that they do.

I have it on very good authority that with the arrival of Iain Duncan Smith in 2010 at the Department for Work & Pensions a message was hung in the entrance foyer reading, “Purpose is Better than Hope”. Doesn’t that just say it all about Tory attitudes (and Lib Dem, never forget that) on welfare reform… the pesky, work-shy proletariat?  My son, I am sure being ironic, has written this in large letters on the whiteboard in our kitchen. (Yes, we have a whiteboard in the kitchen. It’s a military operation in there). And of course he is being ironic and is correct that it is an hollow precept because purpose is utterly useless without hope, just as hope is utterly futile without purpose. Purpose without hope is, by definition, pointless. The two are intimately interdependent.

But at least with hope alone you have that; you can begin to think about starting; you can generate purpose. I am not sure whether East Ender’s Phil Mitchell has great purpose to his life – the scriptwriters have not been kind enough to bestow on actor Steve McFadden a character on the sweeping scale that, say, Ibsen or Dostoyevsky gave to their protagonists. If he does have purpose, from what I can remember (I don’t watch East Enders any more), it’s probably something to do with “fam-lee” or people not showing enough “respek”. Leyton Orient’s pressing purpose is to ensure survival by getting the round object into the netty thing where the other team’s goalie stands more often then it goes into the netty thing where their goalie is standing. Oh, and to find around £500k to repay tax to HMRC. But Phil, Orient, and all of us have hope. So, for an upbeat ending, click on the ant!



Storm force TEF

The UK Government’s HE and Research Bill made further progress this week, Jo Johnson outlining a range of amendments to research practices and structures (e.g.,  enshrining the Haldane Principle, although looking at the detail that doesn’t really add up to a tin of beans). There are also plans to strengthen coordination between the Office for Students and UKRI and protect institutional autonomy. All very good, all very “motherhood and apple pie”. What matters in legislation – and I appreciate the number of people who, like me, feel obliged and even slightly enjoy getting down and dirty with the details of Higher Education Bill, is vanishingly small – is not only what structures are put in place but how robust they are when you take into account people’s subsequent behaviour. I have to say I’m still not convinced that efforts to protect the dual funding route will survive for very long; the fine words on Haldane are almost directly at odds with all the other amendments which are focused on making sure research review remains objective. Dual funding won’t survive the demise of HEFCE for long.


On the education part, there was some tinkering about the details of the TEF… delays, pilots, and a possible change in the metallic ranking of institutions. Personally, I do think they should do away with a gold, silver and bronze rating system and go for something more interesting. How about ranking universities using the Beaufort Scale? It’s a 12 point scale so you can have finer distinctions and it adds a little colour. For instance, you could have a university rated one: light air, at sea, “ripples with the appearance of scales are formed, but without foam crests”. Poetic! I suspect the government would love its universities on Beaufort Scale one; the appearance of innovation, but causing no trouble. Institutions that overstepped the mark could be rated four; “dust and loose paper raised, small branches begin to move”… Sounds a bit like LSE?

At the other end you could have those universities scoring 11 or 12. At sea, greatly reduced visibility. On land, debris and unsecured objects are hurled about. Universities operating at hurricane force will surely incur the wrath of the Department for Education! Never mind that at storm force 10 there is, “considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact”… Probably not the sort of impact we are wanting, thank you very much.

There is little doubt few in politics are minded to say that the TEF is a bad idea. Why would they? Telling students and their parents (voters) that there isn’t going to be an objective measure of quality assurance for how they spend their money doesn’t feel like a vote winner. And, as often happens in politics, the strange ways in which that system will measure teaching excellence are secondary concern. The list of Russell group institutions opting out of TEF could well start to snowball.

This week you lucky people have an HE Bill double-header… so see below (previous or right) for “The Culkin Degree“.

The Culkin Degree

The eye-catching announcement in the recent list of amendments to the Government’s HE Bill was to make possible two-year degrees. Effectively, the idea is to fast track the undergraduate degree, paying the same amount for three-year degrees (£27,000) but at a cost of £13,500 rather than £9,000 each year. The logic, I think, is that this flexibility permits the brightest and most able students to whiz through university and into the real world as soon as possible. And I suppose there are precedents elsewhere in the education system, but they are unusual. For example, it’s unusual in the UK but elsewhere it is not unheard of for bright students to take their GCSEs, A-levels or equivalents a year early.

There’s an underlying ethos here that education is a means to an end, and not a useful thing in itself. The joy of learning, and of knowledge, is no longer part of the equation. You are paying for a certificate and you want value for money! Why mess around with long university holidays temping at carphone warehouse or engaging in lowbrow repartee with similarly overqualified shelf packers at IKEA, when mummy and daddy had a trust fund so you can avoid all that nonsense? (I should note here, I do see that for some the short-sharp-shock of a 2 year £27k bill might make a certain financial sense for those of more limited means, but I don’t think that is why the ideas is proposed.)


Anyone who has been to university ought to know that the enduring benefits come from the knowledge you acquire, the friends you make, and the ways you develop personally. I have a few certificates, but I must admit I don’t know where they are at the moment… they are probably in the green box file under the printer (most things are in there). But I value more the friends I made at school and university – especially, although I won’t go into that, over the past, difficult few weeks – and the lessons, sometimes very tough, I learned about myself. I very much believe that my future would have been poorer in many ways, and my prospects diminished, if I had only two years as an undergraduate.

Accelerated degrees are not of themselves a problem. There are two problems. One, more general, which is that across the education system loving to learn has ceased to be the goal. The knowledge, the experience isn’t valued any more. What is valued as the qualification. That is why so many academics revealed total disbelief when students ask them for helpful feedback or expect personal tuition because the knowledge doesn’t matter any more if it doesn’t deliver grade. I don’t know how you fix this one, short of moving to a society where we all just chill out a bit more…

The second problem with two-year degrees is connected with the reason why so few schools favour accelerated pathways to GCSEs and A-levels. Schools, as I said last week, typically recognise that young people’s education isn’t exclusively about the grades. That might surprise some, but I know many teachers and while the pressures on schools to get good grades, and the metrics used to assess them are every bit as pernicious as those which will be employed in the TEF, they recognise too that they have a responsibility for their students well-being. If I’m honest, structures to support students well-being in universities are less effective although they are extensive, and academics have the same concern for their students’ well-being.

We face a crisis in student mental health at all our universities. Beginning life as an independent adult is a testing time. A handful of students at 18 years of age might be able to complete a two year degree without the need for the social, emotional and personal development that’s the space of a three-year degree affords. But the pressure to take a two year degree will be great, particularly on a high achievers, who are likely over represented in the group of young people with mental health problems in education. In my experience it is life – mental health problems, failed relationships, financial problems – that explain educational underachievement for many students: strong universities admit only students who have excelled academically already… it is the rest of life that gets in the way of continuing educational achievement all too often.

mvv vvv lll

Two-year degrees will compound this crisis and devalue learning. And, anecdotally, child stars in other industries (notably TV and film) do not have a distinguished record of personal and emotional well-being into adulthood. And then there’s that antique expert kid who every Brit of a certain generation knows from Wogan. I am sure some do, but what message do we want to send about the value of education and the value of people? That is the ethos that underlies the current HE bill and explains what it is getting wrong.

Mental Health in Schools

This week, rather than the usual spontaneous musings and rantings, I promised to convert a talk I gave to the WCSiL Conference in London on mental health in schools. Don’t worry… normal service should be resumed next week although this does rather depend on what iniquities life continues to throw at me!


In the UK one in 10 young people aged 5 to 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Nearly 80,000 children and young people, and over 8,000 children under age 10, suffer from severe depression. This number has nearly doubled in the past two decades. One in every 12 children and adolescents deliberately self harm. This figure, too, represents a huge increase in the past 10 years. Nearly 300,000 young people have an anxiety disorder, and one in 10 boys and one in five girls suffer from depression. There has been a near doubling of hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders in the past four years. And only 14% of suicides of those under 20 had been in contact with specialist mental health services.The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental disorders. Half of all mental illnesses begin at the ages of 14-24 years.

There can be little doubt that, in the UK, we are facing a crisis in mental health care. And  at the sharp end of that crisis are Britain’s children, adolescents and young people. The problems they face are not new to those of us at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience nor to those involved in mental health across the country either as researchers or practitioners. Of course many problems stem from inadequate funding – you can find out how much your local health authority spends child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) here.

biopsychosiclacamhs risk1

Failure to identify mental health problems at an early age exacerbates problems into adulthood. There is a renewed emphasis from research funders in the UK to understand and develop early interventions for mental health problems. The UK government promises a Green paper on mental health in young people this year including the idea of training “mental health first aiders” for all schools. However, there is a clear gap in resources for the delivery of mental health services that cannot be met by research and re-training alone. So, one imagines, the UK government is exploring ways of delivering more mental health provision at a lower cost. An obvious way to do this is to charge schools with responsibility for prevention, identification, and perhaps also support for school pupils with mental health problems.

There is also work needed for schools to address the issue of stigma in mental health. Developmental and social psychological research has learnt a good deal about effective interventions to change attitudes and behaviour in areas such as racial and gender attitudes. However a recent review of interventions to address young people’s beliefs about mental health suggests only patchy positive outcomes. There is an issue of emphasis here: a Royal College of Psychiatry review argues that interventions need to last at least four weeks, that societal contact is not necessarily beneficial, and that whole school and senior leadership support is required for lasting success. Pernicious media representations of mental health influence many people’s beliefs and attitudes towards the mentally ill. In adolescence these representations merely compound stigma and the isolation many young people feel.

MHPicture1 MH2Picture1

Schools and teachers also have a role in assessing whether the pressure of expectations felt by young people are helpful in their education. The adolescent world, for sure, is awash with expectations: social, academic, family, personal, peer, physical…The transition to university or to work is often a difficult one and schools ought to take some responsibility for preparing their pupils for these transitions. That means not just building resilience but also helping young people to be aware of their own and others’ mental health and how to manage it.

My view is that schools should not be operating at the front line of mental health services; if they are to do so that requires significant resource. Of course, all the teachers I meet care deeply about the young people in their schools and many offer excellent support to their pupils. However, caring for children’s and young people’s mental health is not the purpose of school. The purpose of school is, at least as I was led to believe, to educate. But herein lies a different and more difficult challenge. Because with a current emphasis on academic achievement at all costs schools (and universities) have participated in creating an environment where getting the grades is an end in itself. Parents and the young people themselves participate in this too, but it is the children who face the sharp end of this culture and internalise a pressure cooker environment with inevitably negative consequences for many.

So perhaps the greatest challenge is to start to rethink what our schools should be doing. Should they be pressure cookers for academic excellence? Have we lost a sense in which learning should be fun and that school should be an education not just of facts and grades but about oneself, one’s aptitudes? And the flip side of this, reconciling oneself with inevitable failure at some point… The best schools I have seen, and there are many, are fundamentally communities for mutual support and learning where children and adolescents enjoy their education without the pressure of achieving the highest grades at all costs. They are places where pupils love learning and feel happy and safe.

I promised a list of resources associated with this talk. Here they are, in no particular order:

WHO Atlas: Child and Adolescent mental health resources


Mental Health in International Schools

Reducing stigma about mental health in schools

Young Minds BOND initiative

British Psychological Society Promoting Mental health in Schools 

King’s, IoPPN website

What happened to the Danny Zuko I met at the beach?

When Sandra Dee met Danny Zuko at the beach “somethin’ begun”. She nearly drowned, he showed off. They got friendly: there was hand holding, late nights (well, until ten o’clock, which is technically late evening), cramp. He splashed around, she got her suit damp… oh, behave, it wasn’t like that!  But then, would you believe it (no) Sandy turned up at Rydell High with what, in 1959 California, was the most impossibly exotic Australian accent? And Danny played it way too cool. The Danny Zuko that Sandy had met at the beach had morphed into the delinquent love child of Shakin Stevens and Tara Reid. Turned out he wasn’t that into bowling and lemonade after all. No, Danny had history, and an interest in cars and illegal drag racing. Sandy, to put it mildly, was disappointed.

Sandra Dee9bb3b984e0e16c6fa2fdfd26019f79f3

We all encounter disappointment in our lives. Whether it’s disappointment with something, someone or oneself, in the end we have to understand the reasons for it, live with it and learn from it. And of course there is a whole range of healthy to unhealthy ways of living with it, and a similar range of successful to unsuccessful ways of learning from it. You can adjust things based on what you learn; you can realise that something wasn’t important, or that your expectations of someone or of yourself were unrealistic or unreasonable. There you go; the beginners’ guide to CBT.

We’ll come back to how Sandra Dee handled her disappointment. For now, let’s consider how we deal with disappointment in the academy because, disappointment, is part and parcel of academic life: paper and grant rejections, results you didn’t expect to get (although they can be the most interesting results… save us from registered reports). And academics also often share disappointments with those exotic phantasms from the “real world” like missing out on promotion, romantic failures, politics. What, broadly, are the ways of living with disappointment?

Well (1) you can suck it up. That can work, but not always. It depends, I suspect, on how robust your self-confidence is, but it’s arguably a healthy response if there is no collateral damage. You can (2) choose to externalise – share the load! You can (a) moan a lot (kind of works short term, but you’ll need to find a way to resolve it in the end), (b) start attacking the source of the disappointment or the person you believe was responsible for it. On the plus side, there are lots of creative ways you can do this which can range from a frank conversation to spreading rumours and conspiracy theories). Of these options, (a) is certainly preferable; with (b) you end up irrevocably diminished in others’ eyes. Option (2) is unhealthy because you’re unlikely to learn much about yourself or others and that makes it likely that you’ll be disappointed again. Your third option (3) is to learn from it, understand why it happened, and act to change. That’s the healthiest, so long as you do the learning honestly and objectively.


A couple of months ago one academic described how he had sold out his research in response to years of disappointment at failure to get funding, and started working in an area that would be more lucrative. I thought at the time that this perhaps made some sense in personal career terms, but that it was also perhaps a little sad. We all need to adapt, but if we end up going chasing the money and forget about the things that made us passionate about research in the first place, academic life loses a lot of its charm, diversity and a fair chunk of its potential to innovate too. Informed transformation is a good way to avoid and manage disappointment but  total submission to a notoriously fickle funding culture can backfire in the longer term.

Anyway, that’s how Sandra Dee dealt with her disappointment; she chose to change. Specifically she transformed her image to win back Danny. To be fair, Danny also changed his image in a bid to win Sandy back. However in a sartorial metonym for 20th-century gender role power dynamics, Danny’s transformation just involved a cardigan. Sandy’s involved a lycra cat-suit, scalp-tight perm and piercings. Sandy’s transformation was, well, more transformative.

It all worked out in the end of course – Sandy and Danny drove off into a dreamy celestial future (although, had they known that the real future was Xanadu and Scientology, they might have turned back, got their heads down, worked harder, and got themselves into university). Still, it was a million times better than Grease 2. Now that was disappointing!

Head in Hands


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!


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…)


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?

trolley1trolley 2

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.


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.


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).

kimchee projmap butter

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.

artscie bethlem

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.