Speaking Up For “Introverts”

As one who ends up more on the introvert side than extravert when I do a Myers-Briggs test, this TED talk by Susan Cain resonated with me. At last, one of us has managed to survive the glare of attention long enough to mount a defence of the introvert take on life – or as I prefer to call it, “non-extravert”. The word “introvert” makes us sound like we’re either shuffling Syd Barrett figures or we’re quietly nursing a monstrous plan to take over Western Europe from our bedrooms. But we introverts are not all – or even mainly – recluses; in fact many of us are perfectly sociable and enjoy working with people.

Syd Barrett in 1969
Syd Barrett in 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Arguably took introversion a bit far, though it was probably more the mind-bending drugs that did the damage.

I’m living proof myself, as my work revolves around watching and listening to people then understanding and explaining their points of view. There are both introverts and extraverts in my profession. I think each wonders how the other does the job – but we both manage to get to a similar place, albeit coming from different directions. So what has the introvert got to offer – I mean, who wants some shy wallflower in the workplace?

First we need to understand what is meant by “introvert” here. They are not some small segment of society, such as 7-foot-tall armchair Mansfield Town fans with rabies and the entire back catalogue of The Dooleys on vinyl (that was a tough recruit). Introverts are between one third and one half of the population. But it’s easy to forget that such a big section of society starts with this outlook on life, when so much of the media and popular culture reflect an extravert-dominated world.

Cover of "Personality: What Makes You the...
The multi-talented Daniel Nettle’s book ‘Personality’ – highly recommended

Introverts, for one thing, are not all shy wallflowers. Shyness, according to Daniel Nettle’s fine book Personality, is most often due not to low extraversion but high neuroticism and anxiety. The introvert is not necessarily shy, he/she just isn’t as driven by social activity as the average extravert and so can take it or leave it. As this suggests, extraversion / introversion is not the be-all-and-end-all of personality – far from it. It is only one of five major dimensions psychologists tend to use to describe and differentiate between human personalities. The “Big Five”, by the way, are:

  1. extraversion
  2. neuroticism
  3. conscientiousness
  4. agreeableness
  5. openness.

So Susan Cain in her TED talk and book is focussing on only one – and we shouldn’t think of this as some sweeping attempt to explain everything. But it’s a valuable ray of light shone on one of the (often misunderstood) dimensions, all the same.

So what is an introvert?

It’s mainly about how they are energised. Introverts’ energy comes from our inner engine rather than being drawn from external sources. So introverts tend to:

  • listen more than talk
  • concentrate well
  • think carefully before speaking
  • need time alone to recharge batteries
  • prefer to socialise in small groups
  • seek quiet
  • keep enthusiasms to ourselves
  • be content being on the sidelines.
English: Extraversion by state
US map of extraversion by state (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Wish there was one for the UK.

If the description of non-extroverts I gave above sounds a little surprising as a description of up to half of us, that perhaps shows how much of an extrovert’s world it is. Like Susan Cain, I love extroverts and know I rely on their greater restlessness, chattiness and spontaneity to bring out the best in me. She is not criticising extroverts, but just raising awareness of that other section of us who, as she reminds us with a cheeky smile, tend to “get better grades and be more knowledgeable”. And of course:

There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

And if some of these non-extravert qualities sound different from the template of the thrusting business person, perhaps they are. But it could be that the template’s a bit flawed. Taking my own field of qualitative research, for example – are these useful or not so useful personality traits to have as a researcher?

Well, we non-extraverts are well equipped to understand other people: we like listening and we’re good at concentrating; we think carefully before speaking; we revel in solo time mulling over our thoughts, which is perhaps why I love the analysis process; we don’t rush to grab the limelight – being an adviser is kind of perfect for us. Most of all, we don’t need a lot of external stimulus to get our thinking going – and qual research is very much the art of getting as much solid insight as possible from looking at fairly small samples of people, we are easily sparked into thought.

By the way, on Myers-Briggs, the one that I usually (though not always – a few of the categories are a very close call) end up falling into is “INFJ” (introvert/intuition/feeling/judging), which I’m told is for people who:

Seek meaning and connection in ideas, relationships and material possessions. Want to understand what motivates people and are insightful about others. Conscientious and committed to their firm values. Develop a clear vision about how best to serve the common good. Organised and decisive in implementing their vision.

That describes pretty well what I do as a qual researcher, so I can live with that.

There are lessons for researchers – and for business and government – in this:

  • When we try to understand people’s responses to stimulus, to brand communications or to the society there are in, we need to think carefully about their personality – not just where they are on the introvert / extravert scale, but all of the “Big 5”. It may be impractical and over-complicated to measure it every time, but a knowledge of the undulations of the landscape of personality can only help as background to researching modern life. Daniel Nettle’s book, helpfully, has something called the Newcastle Personality Assessor as an Appendix – it’s a brief, 12-point questionnaire. For more in depth studies, I could do worse than have participants mark themselves on it.
  • As Susan Cain suggests, creative development work is not all about groups. There has been a craze for it of late, but as I pointed out in my article on this in my Ipsos MORI days, lots of people are at their most creative alone; or in pairs; or alone first, then in a group, then alone again … group creativity can work for us but it should not be a default setting. Maybe that quick personality test is worth doing on research participants we’re about to do serious creative work with, to see which approaches are likely to work with each person. And recruit people for creative groups who are suited to creative groups but also recruit creative people not suited to groups but who can contribute through other means. One-to-one online methods, for example, may work well with some of these.
  • Teachers say they prefer extravert students, notes Cain; yet introvert students get the better marks. Why is this? Perhaps the same reason that Mo Farah is described as having a great personality, while Andy Murray rarely is – we all respond to a ready smile and people whose emotions we can read easily. Perhaps this makes them easier to manage. It wasn’t always so though: we moved during the 20th Century, says Cain, from a culture of character to a culture of personality: how you come across to strangers is considered very important. I can’t see this changing much in the near future. Even the “Olympic corrective” in the UK – the rediscovery of the importance of substance over sparkly show – is probably a fairly faint counter-blast in the long run to the much more powerful social forces that push display and appearance to the forefront. We are an increasingly visual culture. This is why to be introverted now is harder than it was for our parents and grandparents. It may be harder still for our children.
  • As managers, introverts are often better than extraverts at letting extravert employees develop and build their own ideas.

Introverts and extraverts need each other. Which is just as well, because we’re stuck with each other. Understanding our own strengths and weaknesses in these terms, as for all the Big 5 personality dimensions, can only help mesh teams, delegate smartly and get the best out of each other at work. And that’s not even going into the home …

Related articles:

A Dragon In A Pigeonhole: Gender and Stereotyping At Work

Hilary Devey’s Women at the Top

Hilary Devey at home in the Palace of Diocletian (the one off the A34, past Asda)

Despite not being a huge fan of this Dragon’s Den business celeb, I was  gripped by her documentary  about inequality in employment between the genders (see iPlayer link above for those in the UK).

There was nothing very new in it, but it was great to see a “queen bee” (as a powerful leading woman in a male-dominated business gets called these days) being jolted out of her previous simplistic take on gender in the workplace – basically the “I managed it, why can’t they?” approach. Interesting in particular to hear the success of changing gender awareness and gender balance within the ranks at P&G. Fascinating to hear the laundry team there used to be all male.

There are some areas that will always be male dominated, one suspects – but some are just that way because no one has bothered challenging received wisdom. More than a decade ago I carried out some qual work on a gender issue in the British Army and interviewed soldiers right across the ranks. I can’t share the detailed insights on here, fascinating though they were. But it is a matter of public record that there are women who can pass the physical tests for entry into the infantry – there are some superb and very tough female athletes in the Army. The barriers to the Army accepting women into the teeth arms are not physical but to do with group dynamics, culture and psychology – no less real for that, but not what you might have expected.

Even a pair of tiny red trousers can be the subject of a bitter battle of the sexes

The infantry is perhaps exceptional because its decisions have life and death consequences, but Hilary Devey’s warehouse – like the vast majority of warehouses for that matter – was all male also for no good physical reason, just a cultural one. Women have not been encouraged to think they could train as forklift truck drivers and so there are few out there, though the myth of men being safer vehicle drivers was exploded some time ago. There’s no obvious reason other than the work culture to exclude women from training up for that kind of job. It persists because of deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes about job roles and gender.

To come back to the Army again, it’s notable that, despite the continuing exclusion of women from the infantry, the Army has been a place where traditional prejudice about gender capabilities has also been challenged and in places overturned. Women take their place alongside the men in all parts of the Army except the infantry and tank corps. For example, female forward operations officers in the Royal Artillery serve actually ahead of the front line.

I wasn’t surprised to see in Ms Devey’s programme that the team exercise experiment showed a mixed gender team out-performing single gender teams. That’s been my experience of workplace teams too. I’m a big believer in not just mixed gender teams but mixed personality type too. In fact, as much of a mix as possible. In my old team – a mixed gender team also – we all did a Myers-Briggs personality evaluation as part of a team exercise. It really helped us all understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses, how to complement each other effectively and for us managers, how to get the best out of everyone.

It’s uncomfortable to be pigeonholed. This is what happened when they put Alan Sugar in charge of Celebrity Squares.

Everyone hates being gender stereotyped, but there’s an even deeper mistake in thinking here – the tendency to put people into categories not based on knowledge or observation of the person, but on assumptions. I’ve even seen it happen (actually, many times over) within qualitative research agencies, which is the last place you should expect to find it. That’s a sign of how endemic this habit of pigeonholing is, not just in the work place but in society as a whole. I think we’ll look back on the business culture of our era in 50 years’ time and see a hugely inefficient use of our “human capital” (not to mention the way we have let the relationship between work,  family life and the needs of society become increasingly dysfunctional and unbalanced.)

Understanding each other in more depth isn’t such an easy thing – but it couldn’t be more important, whether it’s a business needing to understand its customers, government understanding the needs of citizens, or just people trying to have good relationships with family and friends. It all starts with letting people talk for themselves – genuinely – and listening and thinking when they do.

For businesses, this is where really doing qualitative research in depth and then ingesting the insights from it can bring a breakthrough and a new way of thinking. The businesses that are able to get inside the heads of their customers – and their own employees – are the ones that get ahead of the game. They have an inside track on innovating smartly, because (1) on customers, they enter the process thinking about customer needs and not their own processes and (2) on employees, managers understand each employee as a whole person (especially what they are like outside work) and, through this, how to make the workplace somewhere that the talented parts of them emerge, take a look around and come out to play.

I’ll watch the rest of the series with interest.

Olympic Britain: Substance 2012

Russell Brand brandishing his medals, made using left-over lamé from his ex-wife’s bikinis. OK, so it’s a stretch, but there’s a definite likeness …

So I’ve waved goodbye to this phenomenon that breezed into my life, swept me off my feet for two weeks and now leaves me pining at the airport, watching the vapour trail. No, I’m not having an affair with a wayward airline pilot, I meant the Olympics. (I hear the Olympic village usually turns into the set of Caligula around day 8 of the Games as pent up athletes jump on each other like bonobos on Viagra. But that’s not the romance I mean.) The question is, do I forget about it and move on? Or could this be the real thing?

The Olympics been a huge success of course. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been moved to tears by an athlete’s sheer guts. We had the women’s pursuit cycling team, all in their early 20s and all having overcome health issues to compete at the top level – and breaking the world record 6 times on their way to gold. Then the Jessica Ennis gold, both of Mo Farah‘s, Bradley WigginsNicola Adams and so on and so on – too many to name. But then I was also moved to tears by Dizzee Rascal performing Bonkers at the opening ceremony – an unusual reaction perhaps. But it was the joy of seeing something so brilliant and idiosyncratically of London taking its rightful place representing Britain and Mr Rascal (as Jeremy Paxman once addressed him) so obviously loving the whole experience. I almost cried with joy during Pretty Vacant too, having worshipped the Sex Pistols since I was in primary school. I’ve been an emotional wreck all fortnight, to be fair. Thoughts now turn to the “legacy”.

dizzee rascal
Dizzee Rascal (Photo credit: gabriel “gab” pinto)

People will talk about the physical legacy, whether infrastructure, facilities or whatever. And they’ll look at sports participation figures through the Active People Survey (something I was briefly involved with; more meatily though, I also designed and moderated discussion groups with representatives of sport governing bodies for Sport England a few years back on sponsorship of grass roots sport). I hope those things do happen. But the legacy I most want to see is an emotional one. I’d like nothing better than for us all in the UK to look at Team GB and see a real example of how we can rouse ourselves from the cheap-tinselly torpor of the last few years.

The Olympics has been a corrective, a breath of fresh air. There’s been a growing malaise in Britain about what our society is becoming, but also a sense since the financial crisis that now is a time of big change and big opportunity. It’s not just that the economy is flat-lining – it’s the sense that our “elites” are not elite at all, but a pile of old cobblers. With greater transparency now the norm, we’ve shone a light upwards and not been impressed with what we’ve found.

Inspirational business leadership abounds

Politicians have looked at times like little more than morally vacuous PR practitioners – and not very good ones at that. Journalists and police have appeared mired in mutual sleaze. And while we had learned to live with the profiteering of the financial whizzes of the City, as long as the Exchequer got a decent whack from it, we hadn’t realised it was built on sand until the crash (though, as a lawyer in the City, I did see many clients signing multi-million pound deals they didn’t fully understand, so I shouldn’t have been surprised). Now we can see they aren’t doing an exceptional job, the profit margins and resultant high salaries seem farcical. Even the intelligent end of commentariat, whom I look to for intelligent insight, often come across as more concerned with having an interesting opinion than an informed one.

Most of this of course has been nowhere near as bad as it has looked. The truth is, we always walk a fine line between success and failure in this country;  we’re never too far away from either, now as when Kipling wrote If (often voted Britain’s favourite poem). But it’s been a disheartening, if fascinating, few years.

Olympic London

The Olympics could be just a flash in the pan, but at last it’s given us a vision – or rather an uplifting, hopeful feeling – of what life could be like if we rediscover some lost virtues (e.g. patience) and blend in some of our historically newer ones (e.g. respect for cultural difference).

The question has been, is there the public will and is there the leadership to grasp this opportunity and manoeuvre ourselves a little as a society towards this chink of light? Or is it going to be, like a century ago, lions led by donkeys again? To be clear, the donkeys for me are as much peddlars of mediocrity like Simon Cowell, Premiership footballers and sadly some of our sluggish big businesses, as the usual suspects in politics and banking.

For two weeks we saw a lot less of the usual:

  • preening sporting primadonnas (nice to see Kevin Pietersen dropped for the next Test – the first victim of our new attitude to these ‘stars’?)
  • obsession with money (how refreshing not to hear how much they’re all going to make, or how many thousand dollars a gold medal is worth; compare and contrast to the average conversation about football, including my own).
  • mediocrity – settling for OK because that’s probably all we’ll get. England’s Euro 2012 “achievement” anyone? Or my own Northern Ireland appointing a young manager with minimal track record (not saying he won’t do a decent job but his appointment was hardly a statement of intent to put us back in the global Top 30).
  • lazy cynicism about ourselves – that we’re rubbish, we couldn’t organise a p*** up in a brewery, etc.
One of our equestrian Olympians about to do some dressage on Kevin Pietersen’s back as he contemplates Vodafone’s new texting tariffs; Our Jessica and Our Laura celebrate serenely. (Pic courtesy of Daily Telegraph)

What Team GB – and other Olympians too – have shown us has been so refreshing. It’s reminded us about what really matters:

  • it’s genuine, there is nothing phoney or over-blown about it. There is no need for hype because an Olympic medal has such untouchable status. Compare that to the false histrionics and saccharine emotion of shows like the X Factor and indeed those tacky streamers they jet out when a football trophy is awarded. The only note that brought any of this back to mind was the closing ceremony, which I thought was like an Anti-Olympics. I’m holding back on laying into it here, as I unleashed my disenchantment with that fully last night on twitter (@ShoreQual).
  • practice, practice, practice – that’s how you get good at stuff, whether it’s sport or anything else in life. The Olympians have all put in countless lonely hours training on horrible days in November. We’ve shifted from being a country that was all about hard graft and not making a fuss, to one that is about slick presentation and self-promotion. But where is the substance? We’ve been kidding ourselves. Perhaps the Olympics remind us we need more Peter Taylors and fewer Brian Cloughs (Taylor famously called Old Big ‘Ead Clough the “shop window” in their football management partnership and himself “the goods in the back”; incidentally Taylor was played by Timothy Spall, last night’s Winston Churchill, in the brilliant film of the David Peace book, The Damned United). It would be great to see us valuing unglamorous graft a bit more again.
  • excellence is to be celebrated – we’ve seen people doing great things and we’ve admired it, not felt belittled by it. Elites aren’t a problem per se; it’s self-perpetuating, unmeritocratic elites that are the issue.
  • nice guys and girls can win – it’s a myth that being nasty or selfish gets you ahead, in sport as in anything else. Look at Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Jade Jones, the list goes on. I was impressed by how humble and well-rounded many of our winners came across. Football’s attempt at a Mr Nice Guy used to be the omni-shagger Ryan Giggs.
  • the British sporting establishment is largely male, but our sporting talent is evenly split between the genders. Britain’s sportswomen showed they deserve more funding and more attention.
  • and of course we’re multi-cultural-tastic, we knew that anyway – but actually we do the melting pot pretty well, especially when you look at the problems countries like the USA, France and even the Netherlands have had.

… and much, much more. The London 2012 slogan was “Inspire A Generation” – but it can do more than that. It can inspire all the generations. London 2012 is a well that I hope we can keep dipping into in the years to come.

Proust Wasn’t A Neuroscientist: Another Icarus Falls

Jonah Lehrer yesterday

Another young journalistic Turk bites the dust: LA Times: Jonah Lehrer resigns, book recalled over invented quotes.

Having read and enjoyed some of his stuff, I feel more than a little betrayed. But it’s a reminder of the pressure on writers to keep producing. Perhaps Lehrer just needed to do some inner crop rotation and lie fallow for a year to replenish his soil.

It reminds me of Johann Hari scandal in this country last year: Johann Hari – Wikipedia entry. The then Independent journalist, who had whizzed through to the ranks of the elite commentariat at breakneck speed, was revealed to have plagiarised  interviews from other journalists. This highly-thought-of young man, with his double first from Cambridge and stellar career, had to resign, his reputation in tatters. It remains to be seen what kind of recovery he can make. It’s sad to see talent implode so publicly.

If you’re a writer getting lost in the woods, try to do it deliberately

Writing is a process that at once viscerally connects the writer with the world and dissociates her from it. Lehrer comes across as someone who’s always on and firing. So one might have imagined – pardon the pun – he’d be the last one to lapse into a Thoreau-esque retreat from society and its rules. But that seems to be what happened. When a non-fiction writer makes something up and passes it off as the truth, it is an expression of a supreme detachment from the world.

Problematic levels of social detachment are an occupational hazard among those who live in the world of ideas. That Lehrer seems to have been living in a slightly unreal bubble of his own making is perhaps no surprise at all. Life inside the writer’s bubble can only be in tune with life outside if the writer has genuine integrity – and, tragically for him, Lehrer seems to have lacked that. There may be no coming back for him: he may have ruined his journalistic reputation for good.

It doesn’t mean everything he wrote in books like Proust Was A Neuroscientist and The Decisive Moment was wrong or invalid. (Just to be clear, there are no allegations around those works, only his most recent book on creativity, Imagine. I haven’t read Imagine yet and in a time-starved world with lots of books to read, I won’t be doing that now.)  But unfortunately, though Lehrer’s mistake might have been limited to a few Bob Dylan quotations, trust in a writer’s integrity is an all-or-nothing thing. When authorial integrity is in doubt, it can’t help but cast a shadow over everything he has written. Not because the reader is being judgmental but because the reader needs a basic level of trust in the writer for the reading experience to be worthwhile. That is now gone.

 

 

 

The Happiness Objective: the ONS Reports on British Well-being

The ONS’s first reporting of the “happiness” statistics – based on “subjective” answers to specific survey questions, rather than so-called “objective” forms of data – came out on Tuesday 24th July. No big surprises and it will only become really interesting, I think, once it beds in and we get year-on-year comparisons going.

You can’t be happy all the time: here, former chart topper Badly Drawn Boy has a bit of a temperature.

I was struck, looking at the data a little more closely, how high the anxiety scores were – and I wonder if this is a sign of the economic times or just how we are in the UK. “Brittle Britain” anyone? Time will tell.

BBC News: ONS releases happiness stats

ONS subjective wellbeing results 24th July 2012

If I can lapse into tabloid speak for a minute, there has been some slamming of the whole exercise by the boo-boys, who see asking people about well-being as either somehow irrelevant or meaningless, because it is “subjective”.

But to quote Richard Layard in his book Happiness, quoting Kenneth Boulding:

Economists are like computers. They need to have facts punched into them.

To dismiss something as meaningless because it is subjective is of course the ultimate non-sequitur when it comes to understanding human beings. Most of the meaningful aspects of our human lives – our feelings, our deepest thoughts and fears – are experienced subjectively and are only partially, if at all, capable of being “objectively measured”. These emotions, feelings and even forms of logic cannot be accessed or evaluated by others without the person themselves as a guide. They are no less meaningful for that. “Objectivity”, in the sense statisticians might use it, is a rather misleading and limiting ideal if we’re trying to evaluate all the evidence.

There’s a time and a place for measuring things; the trick is to know not to indulge in Victorian cranial measurement quackery when you’re a nursery teacher

Measuring, or modelling, is indeed only part of the trick of understanding someone’s motivations and behaviour. The real understanding comes from drawing all the data together – including observation (again, subjective in part), questioning (subjective), ethnography (partly subjective again), creative exercises (subjective), footfall in a store (objective), EPOS data (objective), survey responses (which look more objective but are often involved subjective judgements and self-reporting) and so on. But while we should be wary of getting too fixated with measurement itself, if we are going to measure,  “subjective” things, like personal well-being, should surely be part of the picture.

Looking at it the other way: asserting that GDP per head is all we need to know about our progress and health as a society is patently absurd. What is the point of life anyway – getting richer or living a fulfilled life? But one’s easily measurable, the other not. Guess which one Western cultures privilege? Back to McGilchrist on the Tyranny of the Left Brain (shorequalblog) again.

The point about the well-being stats is not that they represent everything we need to measure, but that they are one important thing to look at. The stats need to be read in conjunction with all the other things we know, both measured and immeasurable.

Why pursue happiness? Why not some other abstract good or other? That’s a big question and to answer it I’d thoroughly recommend Richard Layard’s book, which I briefly blogged about last year: Stampede of the Social Animals – Layard’s “Happiness”. He is both idealistic and realistic, visionary and completely practical. But just getting more efficient, he points out, is a road to nowhere:

Mankind has come a long way since the Stone Age, and we in the West are probably happier than any previous society. But the anxieties that were useful in the Stone Age ought to be unnecessary today. So we should rededicate our society to the pursuit of happiness rather than the goal of dynamic efficiency. Life is for living.

 

Driving Our Man Machines Towards Distraction: Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”

Cover of "The Shallows: What the Internet...
Cover via Amazon

The Sunday Times described it as a “bold reactionary book” – and so it is. I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr‘s The Shallows (subtitle: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember). Its main point is a simple one: the Internet is a medium that revolves around distraction and our usage of it is eroding our ability to concentrate and think deeply – even when we’re not using it. It’s turning us into gadflies. It improves our ability to skim and assess disparate information superficially, but it is eroding our capacity for calm and deep thought.

Carr is a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, who usually earns his crust writing for Wired and the FT. A Luddite he ain’t – much of his adult life has been spent heavily engaged with IT and writing passionately about the information revolution. But then he noticed that all his time on the Internet seemed to be changing the way he thought:

It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes … my brain, I realised, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.

Man Machine: Kraftwerk replaced by Lego Mini-Figures for added emotion

The book details the growing evidence from psychological research studies about how our online behaviour is changing our whole selves, not just our online selves. Over time, given how neuro-plasticity works (of which I have only the sketchiest idea), using the Internet is not only changing how we conceptualise and interact with the world, it is  physically altering our brains. The busiest areas of our brains develop and get more complex and richer, the ignored areas wither. We are becoming good at the kind of things the Internet needs us to be good at.

That might be OK, but we seem incapable of doing anything but accept the historical inevitability of the process we are all going through. The tail is wagging the dog.

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...
Marshall McLuhan. (Didn’t he turn up in Annie Hall?) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan‘s Understanding Media, where McLuhan says that new technologies have always had a counter-intuitive effect: our tools end up numbing whatever part of the body they amplify. Farmers through decades of mechanisation lost their feel for the soil, weavers lost manual dexterity with the advent of power looms, car drivers cover many miles of road but are disengaged from the land they move through. Internet tools numb the very parts of our brains they help.

As John Culkin put it:

We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.

Carr exposes a number of fallacies about the Internet in The Shallows, including one I had unconsciously swallowed myself: that if we outsource the difficult task of remembering facts, we somehow “free up” our brains to focus on more creative thoughts. I suspect many people believe this. But we’re kidding ourselves, if the latest clinical psychology research is to be believed.

We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion on our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence.

We make the mistake that out-sourcing our learning will make us smarter because we confuse long-term memory, short term memory and working memory. The calculator has genuinely helped us get better at maths, but it’s because it relieves pressure on our working memory. It helps us focus on pulling out the key point from the maths and transfer into long-term memory, where it becomes part of our knowledge. Ergo, some argue, our greater reliance on computers has the same positive effect. Wrong, says Carr. Our interaction with the Internet has quite the opposite effect:

It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas … The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.

The key to memory consolidation – what helps us build up our knowledge – is “attentiveness”, he explains. And it’s attentiveness that is in short supply when we interact with online information, because the medium is fundamentally about short, intense bursts of concentration, punctuated with multiple distractions.

Don’t try this on humans, it doesn’t work

The brain-as-computer metaphor is pervasive but could be leading us down the developmental low road. It’s a metaphor that seems to be accepted implicitly by many in the IT industry, such as Google’s Larry Page (Carr argues that this kind of mechanistic Weltblick is endemic at Google). But the truth is, our brains are not much like computers at all.

Brains are organic, living things – their workings and development simply do not follow the same rules of finite, built, dead systems. “Outsourcing” our knowledge to Wikipedia – rather than actually learning facts – creates a kind of aridity in previously fecund areas of our brains. It does not “free up space” so much as rip out the vegetation, leaving infertile scars in the landscape. Starved of solid knowledge, areas of our brains that were thriving rainforest turn to scrub. Life goes on, but some of the richness and depth is lost.

When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.

Does it matter? Maybe it’s a good thing that we are leaving the stodgy old ways of learning behind us? Maybe it’s good for us to think more widely even if it does make “deep knowledge” a rarer commodity?

Well, for a start, it is troubling if the direction of human culture is being so influenced by the worldview of organisations like Google, which seem infected by scientistic (as opposed to scientific) values. One worries about the habit of the technologically-minded towards reductive, mechanistic models of human behaviour and motivation. See shorequalblog on RSA Animate: The Divided Brain.

The crucial take-out for me is that our online habit is not just affecting our ability to think clearly – it’s having negative effects on our emotional selves. Antonio Damasio, director of the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, has shown that higher emotions like empathy emerge from neural processes that are characterised by how slowly they emerge.

… the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.

To get inside other people’s emotional states requires calmness and, crucially, time and reflection.

This struck a chord with me as a qualitative researcher, where immediate reads, and rolling ‘analysis’ are becoming prevalent. Empathy is at the heart of what I do – getting into the shoes of disparate people and seeing an issue or a piece of communication from their point of view. I’m lucky: empathy for me is kind of immediate, as it’s an instinctual thing (to an almost crippling extent – the struggle can be to keep a strong sense of yourself when you inhabit other people’s minds so much of the time). But even for me, the process of fully understanding a discussion I’ve had or a behaviour I’ve observed can take time to gestate into an insight. Time with the research participants, time afterwards reflecting on it, alone and in discussion with other researchers going through the same process.

Turning the world upside down, then stopping it to get off: the Slow Movement strikes a chord, even if it doesn’t offer a coherent programme

Life at 100 miles an hour is exhilarating but very often it’s, ultimately, empty. Just look at your average racing driver. I don’t think we’ll be reading a Lewis Hamilton sonnet any time soon. But we don’t need to go back to the Pre-Industrial Age either. What we do need to do is reflect on where our technologies are taking us and ask whether that’s where we want to go. If it isn’t, let’s find some ways of changing the route and heading somewhere else.

I’m not a believer in historical inevitability. But powerful cultural forces are at play here. Clearly anyone wanting to hold onto aspects of culture that the rise of the Internet threatens will have to fight very hard and very smartly to to ensure their survival.

But the tides of history, as Ulster historian ATQ Stewart put it in The Narrow Ground, have eddies. It’s not impossible that educators will come to a consensus about what constitutes healthy Internet usage; it’s not impossible that we may come to treat our interaction with the Internet in similar ways to how we now treat alcohol consumption – healthy in moderation but with a wary eye on how many units we’ve consumed per week. Could we now be in the middle of an online binge that future generations will regard as naively irresponsible? Victorians’ sensibilities in Britain were in part shaped by their snooty disgust for what they saw as louche behaviours that their 18th Century forbears had indulged in. Could our online behaviour now suffer the same treatment from 22nd Century sociologists?

It’s more likely that the Internet’s diktats will infiltrate more and more of life (with the Internet of Things just the next stage in the process). Future generations may live so hand-in-glove with the Internet and its successor technologies that Carr’s concerns may come to seem quaint chaff blowing in a passing breeze. After all, concerns about the outsourcing of knowledge have been around since Socrates fretted about the widespread use of written texts in a previously oral culture. The die was probably cast back then.

Like Carr, I blog and I do my @ShoreQual tweets and so on. But I’m now thinking carefully about how to make sure the Internet can continue to enrich my life, without losing an important part of myself in the process. Step 1: read more books …

Young Guns Go For It

Here’s the video for the AQR’s Young Guns pilot evening, which Lesley Thompson and myself moderated.

This was a fascinating evening spent talking to a group of young researchers from some of the leading research agencies about what life is like for people early in their qual research careers now. Some fascinatingly different perspectives, for example that the research industry seems to feel a lot more integrated to them than it did to me ten years ago when I was at their stage.

I’ve written a piece on it for the next In Brief, which I’ll put a link to when it comes out. I’m also talking to the new AQR committee about it later in the month.

The evening was set up by Louella Miles and Vanessa Rogers of the AQR. Many thanks to them and everyone involved, especially the young researchers themselves. They probably don’t feel young, but compared to me they are. I think Rupert Murdoch feels young compared to me these days.

Longitudinal Qual: Triangulating With A Spiral Staircase

An excellent briefing yesterday on a new study I’m excited to be involved in. Massive team of us involved, but the interesting thing is the project is a proper piece of longitudinal qual. And it’s inspired me to mix geometrical metaphors like William McGonagall sharing a third bottle of Talisker with Kevin McCloud on the set of Grand Designs.

Moving up by going round in circles

I’ll be following two or three families over a year, with diaries, catch-up calls and quarterly half-day visits to their homes. Because of the timescales and costs inevitably involved, longitudinal research is under-represented really in the ledger of what gets commissioned out there. But I’ve always learned things longitudinally that I couldn’t have got from a standard project.

I recall one study I did in Edinburgh with old colleagues Ann Whalley and Louise Skowron of the People Partnership, where I followed several individuals over two months looking at their financial decision-making. The morphing from how people presented themselves to me initially to how they talked about their finances by the time of the third of fourth contact was fascinating. There was a building of trust and a familiarity – with some, not all, I should point out, as some kept their guard up or even raised it – that gave me and my colleagues a privileged view into what was really happening.

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog – see Creating Memories: Jonah Lehrer and Faux Monty Python and shorequalblog.com: Knocked Unconscious – what we hear from people in any one interview is not some definitive statement of truth, but is necessarily contingent and inchoate. Researchers need to triangulate – draw upon other reference points – in order to get a firm interpretation of what we have heard or seen. This is why qual researchers like me usually propose mixed methodologies: not because we’re just wanting to do more research or try out a new technique, but because we need to see people from several angles before we can understand what they are doing and why.

Kevin McCloud: now don’t confuse things with cylinders, I was just getting my head around the spirals and the triangles …

Longitudinal research is really a form of triangulation: its real value is in being able to use our earlier encounters with participants to help interpret our later ones – and vice versa. I will understand my first meetings with the families much better once I’ve had my second and third. The opportunity to follow up on hypotheses like this is, for an analysis-focussed qual researcher like me, hugely exciting.

The Glorious Land: TomTom Club On Tour

So, I’ve negotiated the straits between Scylla and Charybdis and my sat nav is raring to go. On the off-chance a random client strays by mistake onto my onanistic blog, this is a public service announcement (without guitars).

I’ve been on a break for the last few weeks, yesterday was my first proper day back in the black leather swivel chair from Ikea. Happily I’m straight back into a project for the next few weeks on pet care. But I’ll be on the look-out for new projects from early July onwards. Then I am around and working for the whole summer this year – holidays are now out of the way for me (but as David Coleman squawked when Steve Ovett burst past Seb Coe’s shoulder, “Has he gone too soon?”).

See the link to the Shore website on the right if you have a project for me. (Apologies that the site is in its rather untidy temporary home – the new-look site will be finished in the next few weeks!)

Let England Shake (under the wheels of my Toyota Prius en route to a depth interview in Wakefield).

Looking forward to more delving under the surface of Britain this summer – like Michael Wood without the looks and the wistful lapses into lines from Piers Ploughman. Some may be aware of my relish for the less trampled corners of our weird, frightening and lovely country. 2012 has been a vintage year for me getting into some less frequently researched households and localities. I’ve had a Wisbech resident dismissing the residents of King’s Lynn as “carrot munchers”; toured housing estates in inner-city Birmingham and Hemel Hempstead; and spent a Sunday afternoon in the moneyed Cheshire footballer belt talking to owners of fabulous new 4x4s, including a former anti-terrorist protection officer. And I’ve been let into a flat in the Black Country to find a pile of dog poo in the middle of the living room floor. Luckily it was laminate flooring. I let the occupier clean that up, but I was still sat down next to it and she urged me to start the interview while she cleaned up. Lovely start to the day.

The highlight though was an interview that wasn’t, because it was in Chatteris. Chatteris is an obscure Cambridgeshire village known only for the equally obscure but utterly wonderful Half Man Half Biscuit ballad For What Is Chatteris?, a paean to a satisfactorily resourced village from which the singer’s beloved has departed:

One fine chandler’s, two good butchers,
An indoor pool and a first class cake shop,
Ofsted plaudits, envy of the Fens,
Crick barriers at both ends,
But what is Chatteris if you’re not there?
I may as well be in Ely or St. Ives.

Fittingly, my Chatteris interviewee wasn’t there.

My latest sample list – which I’d requested be geographically clustered – has turned out to be about as spread out as you could imagine. It offers the tantalising possibility of combining Kentish seaside resorts, Scottish oil towns and rural Lincolnshire in the same study. Bring them on.

I can’t think of Lincolnshire without thinking of (1) Graham Taylor, (2) Jeffrey Archer‘s open prison, and (3) Stephen Fry as the Duke of Wellington in Blackadder III, reporting on the mental state of Mad King George:

He currently believes himself to be … [unfolds parchment scroll and reads] … a small village in Lincolnshire, commanding spectacular views of the Nene valley.

“Country road, take me home, to the place I don’t quite belong but sort of do in a funny way at the same time …” (This is why qual researchers don’t become pop lyricists)

So here’s to exploring the by-ways of the nation this summer. While the eyes of the world will be on Olympic London, I’ll be getting my kicks in Coventry, North Ayrshire and Rotherham. But if I’d wanted glamour, I wouldn’t have become a qualitative researcher. Not sure what I would have done really … Graham Norton’s PA? A member of Legs & Co?

Olympics 2012: Good Time For Fieldwork Outside South-East

A bit of self-promotion here, but hopefully a useful tip too. It’s to flag that, this summer, there’s a particularly strong reason to base your qualitative fieldwork in the Midlands or North, rather than the South-East region. And get me to do it, obviously.

Admit it, naysayers, the logo’s growing on you

Many of us will have received another Transport for London email this morning warning us about the traffic and transport problems expected in the capital in late July / August, when the London Olympics take place. So for researchers or clients considering qual fieldwork at that time, why not avoid it all and do the groups in Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, or any of the other fine “viewing-facility ‘n’ good recruiter” cities?

You get easier recruiting and less risk of no-shows; the interviewer or moderator will be able to get to fieldwork on time; and you’ll generally avoid all the stress of London’s busiest month.

What’s that you say, oh London-based research manager type person? You can’t be a***ed schlepping up to Brum or Manc? But here’s the beautiful thing: you don’t need to! I can do it for you. For, being based in the South Midlands hub of Oxford, the geographical centre of the nation*, I can take care of the fieldwork (and analysis and reporting for that matter) while you dodge stray javelins and give up your seat on the Tube to the Peruvian modern pentathlon team.

It would be a fitting tribute to the Queen on her Jubilee and to our fine Olympians if agencies were to commission me to carry out extensive programmes of qualitative research fieldwork in the Midlands and North during July and August. I can think of no better way of crowning Britain’s summer of glory.

From Daily Telegraph: UK map as adjusted to reflect relative populations by region. Proof that Oxford is a reasonable place for a qualitative researcher to live.

* not technically true. The centre’s probably nearer Sheffield. But with the disproportionate weight of population in the South East (20-25 million in that corner alone), Oxford can claim to be close to what geographers might call (but never have) the Populational Centre of Gravity of Britain.

P.S. a fascinating Riley Family Olympic fact: my mum attended the last London Olympics in 1948. She came all the way from Strabane, Northern Ireland to London to watch the Dutch “The Flying Housewife” Fanny Blankers-Koen et al breaking records while having to eat their own ration books and graze in the fields for sustenance.

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