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.

…and while we’re on The Subject

… of diversity, following last week’s blog about multicultural Camberwell, let’s detour to another type of diversity: diversity in psychology. By that I don’t mean the woeful under-representation of BME academic staff, or the under-performance of some student groups, although both of those are scandals that need addressing. And I am not referring to the psychological study of diverse populations (although a quick plug for Lindsey Cameron and my forthcoming SI “Growing Up With Diversity” – coming in 2017!) No, I am going to talk this week about British psychology’s strange intolerance for divergence, the unusual and the truly innovative. The growing lack of diversity in terms of the discipline of psychology itself. Be in no doubt, British psychology has a real problem with diversity.

Diverse brains

In British psychology a one-size-fits all approach to methodology, topics and curricula is stifling the discipline and stifling its development. Serge Moscovici (whose work was celebrated in a symposium in Paris last week) once said something along the lines that when a discipline becomes obsessed with a specific method or approach over and above the topics or problems it is trying to solve, that discipline is moribund. How true. British psychology has been heading that way for some time and only latterly have organisations like BPS begun to develop a more muscular approach to defend the discipline’s identity. In its desperate panic to project itself as a “proper” science, British psychology, the RAE, REF, and certain funding councils have pushed sub-disciplines like educational, biological and social psychology to the margins.

Exhortations by the recent REF panel, that all forms of psychological research would be valued, were honest, but almost entirely ignored by departments. Perhaps we ought not blame them. The damage started in RAE2001 when, trying to cling on to higher-banded funding, what were deemed to be more “sciencey” areas of the discipline were disproportionately valued over others. And it was compounded in the disastrous RAE2008 (disastrous for psychology, that is) where the psychology panel indulgently sought to assert its intellectual credentials by awarding a lower number of top ratings to outputs than almost any other discipline. By REF2014, even though the panel included highly esteemed, open-minded and qualitative researchers, and even though panel feedback was that outputs from areas like social and developmental psychology tended to perform better than areas like cognitive neuroscience, the damage had been done. Departments submitted social, organisational and forensic psychologists to social policy or health panels, developmental psychologists to the education panel, and clinical psychologists to medicine or allied health panels. Some really daft departments submitted only half their staff and lost a bomb of money. There, in sharp relief, is demonstration of the providence of Moscovici’s prophecy.

Rumour has it that no occupational psychologist was submitted to the REF2014 panel 4. Not one. Think about it. That means that in a nation with a GDP of £2.85 trillion, the 5th largest economy in the world (in 2015 that is), no single psychologist who works with the structures or operations of industry, the public sector or any company of any kind was viewed to have produced research of adequate quality to be included in the psychology panel. Of course, many do great work and were submitted elsewhere. But psychology, the discipline and its research image, didn’t claim a single blade of that “turf” in REF2014. That’s not so much a case of British psychology shooting itself in the foot, as a case of placing one leg in the gun barrel of a Challenger tank and pulling the trigger.

Shoot footA narrow view of the discipline pervades universities. One hears of students being banned from conducting qualitative projects, academics prevented from submitting grant applications (not just stupid, a special kind of stupid), social and clinical psychologists moved to teaching-only contracts, and anything that strays away from a narrow, experimental design getting disparaged and slowly crushed. The disrespect from colleagues in different sub-disciplines is both baffling and appalling. How did we come to this? No discipline, no department, can survive like this. This is the academic equivalent of Trump: a post-truth, no respect, “no experts but me” universe!

But now the good news. Psychology isn’t dead. It’s one of the most popular undergraduate degrees in the UK and, more importantly, psychologists in the US, Europe, and pretty much the entire rest of the world haven’t followed the self-harming, Brexit-style withdrawal from heterogeneity that has happened in the UK. US psychology is thriving and, like it is in Europe, it is a welcoming and broad church. I’m working with US developmentalists in mainstream experimental and “marginal”, qualitative, advocacy science projects. And our work is respected by colleagues from all areas of the discipline and beyond, it’s being used to inform policy, and it is funded.

And things are changing in the UK too. The future is not bleak. At IoPPN our size and stature means we have psychiatrists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, policy researchers, social scientists all working together to solve problems: no barring of qualitative research or alternative and marginal perspectives – we do what we need to answer the big questions. And research funders are showing a more enlightened approach to meaningful innovation and inter-disciplinarity. We need REF2020 (or 2021… my money’s on either 2022 or not at all) to catch up with that change. Arguably REF2014 had caught up – it was many psychology departments, those in the discipline themselves, who didn’t have the courage or vision to pursue what the science should be. And for those lacking in imagination here’s my suggestion: there should be a place for us all – majorities, minorities, normative and non-normative, neuroscientists, social, cognitive, developmental, biological and critical psychologists, clinicians, qualitative researchers, statisticians. I became an academic because I like ideas: not just my own ideas, but respecting, understanding, sometimes disagreeing with and sometimes being persuaded by those that are different from my own. We work better together and more productively when we embrace and learn from others. That is the point and value of diversity.

Camberwell Beauty

The Camberwell Beauty butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) got its name in 1749 when two were spotted near to Cold Harbour Lane in Camberwell. Its rather beautiful, but rare. In 1749 affluent Londoners were flocking to Camberwell for its clean air and wide open spaces. That has changed somewhat and I’d wager that the present urban environment in Camberwell isn’t so conducive to lepidoptera (look it up). Still, the world changes and, if it didn’t, it would be a very dull place.

Camberwell 1749 Camberwell Beauty

Eighteenth Century Camberwell (looks like fun!); The Camberwell Beauty butterfly

Today, there are at least two Britains, probably many, many more. (There are at least two Americas too; but let’s not talk any more about that this week!) And since social scientists love to categorise, and in fact we all do, let’s start with just two – a simple, binary distinction. First, we have the chocolate box ideal – rolling chalky hills, warm beer, Red Admirals in an English country garden, Horlicks, brambling, jam-making, hearty country folk, dog fighting in rural barns… You get the picture, but if not, here’s the Lego-free Daily Mail to help you out (yeah, like Dacre cares about Lego – prosecute the bastard!) For many it is a Britain in need of protection and preservation.

That Britain offers its royal subjects a warm and cosy feeling, and travel agents who market it around the world probably do so because they believe tourists (foreigners, aliens) think all British people live in Downtown Abbey. Is that a good premise for marketing? It’s a view that in many ways depends on the absence of a Theory of Mind, and even chimpanzees can do that. Do you really think Italians believe they live a country where everyone lives in an amphitheatre and eats either spaghetti or pizza? No, it is a caricature. But it probably works for some tourists – those on bus tours following a flag around Trafalgar Square. They’d be better off going to Disneyland. And, for the Brits, it’s a convenient means of internal control for a society to feast, for a while, on its own fat.

Second there is a very different, modern, urban, gritty, and diverse Britain. I say modern, but diversity of sorts has always existed in cities. There has always been immigration, there has always been change. In fact, I believe that while there is an instinctive human wariness of the unfamiliar (outsiders, change) this is balanced by an instinctive curiosity, altruism and openness.

With openness comes opportunity. That’s what attracts immigrants to London: not just the Syrians, the Afghans and Somalis who are fleeing awful conditions (and who contribute so much to our economy and society). It attracts the Russian and Chinese billionaires, the artists and the scientists. I don’t think many of these aspire to become serving staff in Downtown Abbey. And it is equally marketable and arguably, more successfully so, than the non-existent chocolate box ideal.

Since moving to the IoPPN I’d go so far as to say I love modern Camberwell. Of course there are downsides. But the richness of the tapestry inspires. I live in Buckinghamshire, in many ways the opposite, and the countryside is great too. I am lucky to have two worlds. But that countryside is nothing like the chocolate box ideal. That ideal is imagined and to see it as anything more damages just as much as it may appeal as a tourist attraction. We need to remember that. That past is a different country, and so is the future. Clinging on to the non-existent idyll is like sex with your ex: you can forego the hard work in setting up a relationship and kid yourself that the ideal once existed, but in the morning you remember why they became your ex in the first place. And the more you cling on, the more you invest, the further you self-harm and miss the opportunities for real change and growth. You ransom the future to keep the fantasy alive.

AC Boxing Club

Ironically, the Camberwell Beauty butterfly is not a British native. It is an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where it breeds, and commutes (migrates) during the summer. A mural of the butterfly adorns the Lynn AC Boxing Club building (formerly a public library and baths) on Wells Way. It is part of the past and part of the future; it is very much a Camberwell Beauty. Oh, and in America it is known as the “Mourning Cloak” butterfly. But as I said, let’s not talk about that this week…

“I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”: Narcissism in Academia

FormbyPoor old George Formby. A difficult life, in the end, punctuated with a glimpse of what it might have been to be a National Treasure as the ukulele-stranging buffoon in 1930s and 40s films. His shtick was that he was no leader at all; he was a hapless everyman who accidentally won the girl. The chorus from one of his most famous songs – When I’m Cleaning Windows – caws, “I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”. You didn’t though, George, did you? You fell off it. The song pushed the boundaries of decency too far for the BBC at the time (there were risqué lyrics about ladies’ nighties) and they banned it! Things went downhill after that.

Now, George Formby sang about what he saw when looking through windows, but (metaphorically) in his career he spent too much time focusing on the reflected image, an inflated sense of his own talent. After a series of post war cinematic failures and unrealistic wage demands, he ended up an embittered, end-of-the-pier act in Cleethorpes. I’ve always felt window cleaners are an “at risk group” for narcissism – staring at your face reflected in a flat sheet of glass all day could certainly trigger unhealthy self-obsession. But are there other at-risk professions? Hairdressers? I don’t know, but I reckon we ought to include academics in any list. A long focus on your own ideas, reading and re-reading your own work, lecturing (performing?) to large groups of students writing down everything you say. And many academics have developed an “I am right, the world is wrong” coping mechanism to maintain self-esteem in light of negative reviewer feedback on papers and grant submissions.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we are in the midst of an epidemic of narcissism. Sure, the internet and social media are a potential part of this (more below). And who, honestly, can say there is not at least one borderline narcissist in their department or university?

Narcissists come in two flavours. There are vulnerable narcissists, who seek constant affirmation for themselves, swinging between feelings of inferiority and superiority. They cannot understand, and become emotionally sensitive, when the world does not treat them like royalty. However, there is very definitely no such problem with inferiority for grandiose narcissists. The world is collapsing around them but they don’t know, they don’t care. For the grandiose narcissist, the world will always be just tickety-boo so long as they’re in it (and others, who are to blame for its woes, are out)!Narcissus&Echo

There are a few ways to spot a narcissist: they often need a small clutch of admirers (and they want them physically close by), literally love the sound of their own voice and are preoccupied with power in interaction. Decisions are impulsive and at best inconsistent; dissenters subject to an auto-da-fé. And narcissists really cannot handle rejection or being passed over for a promotion.

One advantage of the rise of social media is that narcissists may be easier to spot. Psychcentral advises how to spot a narcissist on Facebook but the rules probably apply equally well to other social media. Narcissists have a high turnover of friends because anyone critical or failing to support the narcissism is quickly unfriended. Their posts are often grand or even pompous, commenting on some high moral or political matter that is way beyond their sphere of influence, but horribly repetitive and limited to a rather narrow set of issues. These posts are often reactionary and lack detail or a nuanced understanding. And they will twist others’ posts to present them as support for their position.

I have my own theory/approach to diagnosis online, and a little test. Try it yourself. Look at someone’s social media posts on politics, a major national issue or major news story. Do they talk about themselves, how they’re single-handedly leading the charge? Are they doing it a lot? Are they espousing values, ideas or behaviours that seem completely at odds with how they operate on a day-to-day Ievel in the workplace? If so, you’ve got yourself a narcissist!

It’s bad news if a narcissist becomes your boss. Not all are on the Kim Jong Un scale of things, but I’ve heard tales of some who come close in academic life! Whether it’s a PhD supervisor, PI, Head of Department or Dean (I’ve had myself tested, I’m in the clear, by the way) three things will happen. First, everything starts to fall apart – finances go awry and targets are missed, NSS scores down, grant income flat-lining – because narcissists are fixated on themselves, not the job at hand. Then, second, others make their moves: people start to leave, some completely disengage, and others (the toxic ones) will do their best to enable the narcissism… but that can’t last because no one can feed an insatiable beast forever. And third, in the end, the narcissism implodes. This always happens, although the quality of the fireworks show varies. But, by then, the damage has already been done and you find yourself weeping, as the jangled echoes of a ukulele float out to sea from the end of the pier in Cleethorpes.

The Parable of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

RuthWakefieldIt’s 1937 (or 1938 according to some sources), and Ruth Graves Wakefield was milling around the kitchen in the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Mrs Wakefield ran a popular restaurant serving home-cooked fare, and was a dietician and a food lecturer, noted for her desserts. It was a blustery autumn evening, and Ruth was distracted and running out of time. We can’t be certain, but maybe she was recovering from a particularly vigourous Charleston the night before, or trying to calm down after a frustrating argument with her husband Kenneth about the shopping, or maybe the rise of Nazism or something like that? That is, after all, how people spent their evenings when they couldn’t just crash out on the sofa with a Charlie Bigham ready meal and a couple of episodes of the Great British Bake Off to catch up on.

In preparation for the next day’s menu, Ruth was whipping up a batch of her “Chocolate Butter Drop Do” (sic) cookies. We do not know what the feckless Kenneth was up to at the time. Perhaps he is for ever destined to be remembered as a misunderstood Renaissance man? Perhaps he was reading Kierkegaard or embroidering a cushion. Perhaps he too was nursing a stiff back as a result of the previous night’s Charleston. Or maybe he was sitting by the fire having a fag with the boys and working his way through a large box of Nestlé chocolate that had appeared on the sideboard, and a bottle of slugger McGee’s homebrew to help ease them through a conversation about the moral decline of society, the younger generation, and his wife’s god-awful Butterdrop cookies. Maybe some of the usual locker room stuff too, you know…

In fact, it may well have been that box of chocolate that triggered the argument. Earlier in the day a dashing young man by the name of Andrew Nestlé had called on the house offering Ruth a free sample of his company’s latest product. Maybe the beguiling Andrew stayed a little longer than was strictly necessary to pass on a box of freebies. Maybe Kenneth’s shackles were raised by the young man’s exotic surname complete with an accent on the final letter. Such pretensions probably didn’t go down too well in 1930s rural Massachusetts and still, today, if Donald Trump gets together a list of people to fling back over the wall, anyone with a surname that deviates from standard Anglo-Saxon scripts is likely to find themself on one list or another.

Ruth was starting to panic. Kenneth had returned from his shopping expedition with little more than the standard dough ingredients and assorted salty snacks for the booze session he had planned that evening. But her customers would be eagerly anticipating the chocolate cookies and she had spent the last two hours searching in vain for cocoa powder. She warily sidled into the living room where slugger appeared no longer to be wearing any pants and Kenneth was doing his hilarious Franklin D Roosevelt impression. She remembered the gift she had received earlier in the day from the delightful Andrew. While the contents of the box were significantly depleted there was still enough chocolate left to give her the chance to pull things back round with the cookies. She took them back to the kitchen, broke them into little pieces, and added them to the dough thinking the chocolate would melt into the mixture.

At this stage Ruth herself was already half a bottle of gin down and, trusting her redoubtable skills as a baker thought, “to heck with this, I’ll just make them anyway”. What emerged from the oven became the world’s first batch of chocolate chip cookies. Today 7 billion chocolate chip cookies are eaten in the US alone every year. These days, and even then if she’d had the nous, this sort of invention would have been patented, branded, and Peter Jones would have made a Dragon’s Den offer while pontificating about his unrivaled access to supermarket buyers across the known universe. However, and I like her for this, Mrs Wakefield decided instead to sell the recipe to the Nestlé family in return for a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. Or maybe Kenneth had input into the terms of the payoff?


The moral of this story? Well, there are several. First, a dysfunctional home life can be a productive environment for business. Second, always open the door to strange French sounding people bringing you chocolate. (No, don’t do this, especially with Halloween coming up… and especially if they’re dressed as a clown… terrifying!) Third, necessity can be the mother of invention and serendipity can sometimes be the child of informed experimentation. And the higher education point in all of this? Well, one of my first blogs was critical of new ideas about introducing registered reports into grant writing and publishing science. Of course good science needs a plan. But good science needs good scientists more than that. If we close our world off to invention, creativity and, yes, serendipity we can impoverish the field. Open science means open minds and opportunity for all.

Academic Job Adverts, Deconstructed

In celebration of the return of The Apprentice to the BBC last week, I thought I’d give my take on many of the academic job adverts we see. Such adverts give an opportunity for unfettered spin, and sometimes downright misrepresentation. Below, from a recent trawl of psychology job adverts – none from King’s, I hasten to add – I’ve tried my best to translate “what they say” into “what they mean”. Enjoy…


What it says:  “Applications are invited for the post of Lecturer”

And what it means: The Dean made us take an extra 50 students through clearing and we urgently need someone to take the strain while we work out how we are going to fit them all into the slightly soiled portacabins they craned in from a TKMaxx in Peterborough. We’re framing this as an invitation as a courtesy but, to be frank, if you’ve got any nous you’ll realise we’re not asking you to come to a party.

“This is a temporary post for a researcher with a track record of high quality publications and the potential for substantial grant income.” – Listen, Cinderella, even if this was a party, it has a strict ‘carriages at midnight’ clause. It’s not like anyone planned for 50 more students, is it? We don’t actually plan anything any more. Who knows where we’ll be in 2 years? You won’t even be around long enough for probation… get the hint? And if you’re wondering what “track record” means; we’re hoping if you’ve battled through adversity in your post doc and developed sufficient resilience to cope with that, you might just handle the marking and personal tutee load we’ve got lined up for you…

“You will join a department that is a global leader in the field, 7th in the UK Research Excellent Framework (REF2014).” – Ah… statistics…. We’re also the 3rd best in Wessex, and the 2nd best university beginning with the letter ‘T’ in England, but we don’t shout about that so much, do we? If you manage to stay here long enough you’ll realise that these stats work for us like soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And while we’re on the topic, of course it’s entirely coincidental that this contract ends just before the expected census date for the next REF. Please don’t ask about that in interview.

“The department has the latest, state of the art equipment” – Well art is a very subjective thing, isn’t it? Some people like Botticelli, some like Pollock. We’re more at the arts and crafts end of things here… more “Kirsty Allsopp’s Handmade Fair” than Turner Prize. No one really wants a pickled shark in formaldehyde or Tracey Emin’s dirty bed in their place of work, do they?

“Shared access to an fMRI scanner” – shared access, like when those neighbour disputes turn nasty because someone can only get to their house by driving through someone else’s front garden and they build a wall across it. Like, that kind of shared.

“A driving simulator” – a 24 inch monitor and the discarded Mariocart steering wheel from a Nintendo Wii… It’s a few years old now but its main claim to fame is that it was used in a study that got them to reduce the speed limit in a housing estate in Portsmouth. Its sentimental value really, and we’ve got nothing else to put in the room, so…

“An observation lab” – a room.

“Our beautiful, rural campus” – you’re going to need to get a car, and did we mention we charge staff for parking? That landfill site next to the Engineering building will be a lovely park, decorated with interesting plastic tubes to release the methane – a bit like Telly Tubby Land – in about 20 years’ time.

“Our exciting, city centre campus” – it’s certainly “exciting” … there’s a security guard on reception for a reason!

“Our award winning new building” – Open plan office…

open plan

“Successful applicants should possess the skills needed to teach across a range of areas. They should be enthusiastic about contributing to teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.” – Here’s the money shot. You are going to walk in to a stack load of teaching, marking, personal tutees, and all the other stuff the rest of us here would rather not do. If you can shoulder that with the veneer of enthusiasm and generally not upset the apple cart too much we’d appreciate it. Of course, we are hoping you do a good job. If you don’t, you can be sure, you’ll be taking the rap for that.