Steering the elephant in the room, not just nudging it

Scientists have used the “brain” of an unidentified Springfield man – after a year-long search inside his skull to find it – to highlight how doughnut and chilli-dog-related pleasure appear to dominate all human thought.

In between helping my lad complete The Usborne Book Of Things To Spot out of the Flybe plane window back from Belfast at the weekend (or Fly Maybe as they are sometimes known) I caught up with Matt Grist’s paper, “Steer”, for the RSA from a couple of years back. The report was part of the Social Brain project he led for them. Here it is: Steer: Mastering Our Behaviour Through Instinct, Environment and Reason. It’s worth a read for anyone who’s read any of the Thaler and Sunstein, Ariely or Lehrer popular science books on behavioural economics and the new understanding of decision-making. (The Social Brain project is now continued under the direction of Dr. Jonathan Rowson, who brought out an equally interesting paper as the next stage of the RSA’s Social Brain project in November 2011: Transforming Behaviour Change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania. More on that in a future post).

The purpose of the Social Brain project is for the RSA to explore how knowledge from behavioural science might help people practically to improve their decision-making and guide their own behaviours in ways that enrich their lives.

If elephants could support football teams, would they cheer or boo the Ivory Coast? Only they and Cheick Tioté know.

Grist makes some interesting points about the limited sphere in which “Nudge” operates. He calls it “the Contextual Automatic Model” (one of six behaviour change models he identifies) and sees it as applying to our automatic brain system alone. This limits what Nudge can do:

The Nudge approach can only work on very simple behaviours: ones where the automatic system can be guided without any input from the controlled system … Very few behaviours are simple enough to be influenced in this manner …

Grist champions instead what he calls “The Reflexive Holistic Model” of behaviour change – or “Steer”, if you prefer something catchier.

It is “holistic” because it spans both the automatic and controlled systems. Its great strength is that it is “based on a degree of understanding about how the two systems interact.” The “reflexive” part of its name refers to the fact that awareness of behaviours starts a dialogue rebounding between the behaviour and the awareness of it, which over time affect both sides. In short, once people become aware of the governing principles behind a behaviour, they are better able to change that behaviour.

So Grist challenges the idea that there is a simple dichotomy between the controlled system (System 1) and the automatic system (System 2). It is one holistic system, with controlled and automatic aspects:

Each ‘rational’ choice is in fact imbued with ‘irrational’ emotion, and also relies in some way on automatic processing. So it is not even simply a case of two systems working together. There is one self-organised system that operates at different levels.

This holistic system that governs behaviour is best thought of, Grist contends, as having three levels and not two:

  1. automatic responses (e.g. fight or flight). These can be conditioned to some extent, but not readily trained.
  2. habit-based behaviour – there is no particular goal in mind but we repeat patterns of behaviour that have been shown to work. Habits can be guided and trained. “The vast majority of human life consists of just such training.”
  3. the controlled and goal-directed system designed for deliberating and thinking.
Say no more …

He brings focus onto habits. Looking at how to work with the automatic system alone is great so far as it goes: but when we’re talking about habits, the key is that they span the automatic AND controlled systems. Habits are guided and refined by controlled deliberation, but the automatic system is what dominates at the time of action.

Grist borrows Jonathan Haidt‘s metaphor (he wrote The Happiness Hypothesis in 2007) of the elephant and its rider, to help explain what “Steer” is about:

The elephant represents our basic automatic responses and habits. The rider is our goal-directed and controlled decision-making capacity.

The rider can train the elephant and ride it, but only up to a point; he has to work around the elephant and its needs. The rider can guide the elephant but if it’s hungry, the elephant will go and eat; the rider can do little to influence it. We are the rider AND the elephant, of course, not just the rider.

But the picture is not complete, because there is also the forest that the elephant is walking through:

Changes in this setting affect how the elephant behaves and what he is able to do.

Nudge, Grist contends, focusses only on making changes at the environmental level; but the Steer approach can do this AND look also at how the rider trains and rides the elephant. This image of steering an elephant through a cultivated forest is the one that really captures the whole cognitive-behavioural picture.

If you’ve seen one stupa, you’ve seen them all … Starting to regret quitting my job for that logging company. What’s she doing with an umbrella on my back anyway? It’s neither raining nor particularly sunny. Still, if this metaphor helps humans work out their own brains, I suppose I can live with it.

The Steer paper is about empowering people to take more control over their lives – not by reverting to the old ‘rational decision-maker’ models, but by acknowledging the constantly shifting and looping relationship between the conscious and unconscious, the central role of habitual behaviour in our lives and our ability to change that behaviour through reflection. But it is not about willpower, it’s about re-ordering social and physical environments in order to facilitate more deliberate habit change.

Creative Qual Provides Fuel, Not The Chequered Flag

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
I think this is actually from the Thomas Dolby video for "She Blinded Me With Science". Magnus Pike is hiding behind the big peppy disc. (Jonah Lehrer at Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME. Photo credit: poptech)

Start The Week: Creativity, with Jonah Lehrer and others

A fascinating Start The Week this morning dealt with the subject of creativity, with that prolific interpreter of science for the masses, Jonah Lehrer discussing his new book. (OK, my bookshelf is now officially going to collapse with all these tomes I need to read). Above is a link to the Start The Week site, the programme will be available on the iPlayer for people in the UK via this link shortly. Or you can catch the repeat (abridged) tonight on Radio 4.

I was relieved to hear him explain he doesn’t believe in empirical science somehow “explaining” creativity on its own – at least not at the moment. Our understanding of what goes on in the brain may be growing fast but is still in its infancy. What it can do though is identify those parts of old / current theorising about creativity that chime with what is being discovered about how the brain physically works.

A lot of Lehrer’s exposition of creativity is what you would expect: it’s much more about perspiration than inspiration; ingesting disparate information and letting it marinate is a better way of generating something new than trying to bludgeon your way to understanding. Sorry, I’ve just conjured up the image of half-digested food festering in stomach juices there. And now I’ve made it worse. I think I’ll stop.

We qualitative researchers work with creative processes all the time – from “ideation” (or idea generation, if you prefer), to floating new ideas to people and getting them to play around with them, to working with designers to “co-create” with product users, to helping advertising agencies understand how their creative ideas connect or otherwise with their audiences. But I learnt a lot too from the process I went through myself, to come up with the name Shore for my freelance business. Here’s what happened:

1. I made a list of names. This was top of the head stuff but came from all sorts of sources, inspired by things in my own life, other agencies I admired, abstract ideas, punchy ideas, anything. This list grew like topsy.  I had several waves of just writing down names, usually at bedtime. I ended up with about 60 possibles. They included names like Interzone, which might have limited appeal, mainly to Joy Division fans; and Listening For Britain, which made me sound like a 50s Russian spy.

2. So I weeded the worst ones out. I came at this with a different hat on, thinking as coldly as possible from the point of view of a potential user of my services. This only got rid of about half.

3. I then started having casual conversations about names, mainly with colleagues (I was still at my old agency but was working out my notice by this point) and freelance friends. This was done half-jokingly, letting them in on my dilemma, sharing some of the outliers as a “joke” and seeing reactions.

4. I thought a bit more, but now with an eye to market-scanning. I started to think about which names had most potential to stretch into the various areas I might want to cover and which had been used before (looking at the AQR Handbook). I also looked at conventions of naming, is a quasi-semiotic kind of way, to see which sorts of names “sound like” qual business names (and therefore invite acceptance from clients and peers) and conversely, how to cut against that in order to stand out (to show I’m not a drone). I’m not saying I managed this, by the way.

5. By now, I had the list down to single figures. Three or four of them were starting to hook themselves into me. I started digging around and researching these names specifically. I thought very seriously about the name Seam (I liked the image of a seam of rock under the surface in which the rich material is buried; and that Seam was a homophone for “seem”, suggesting the importance of perceptions in qual research). I looked for images of seams – it’s interesting just putting the word into Google Images and seeing what comes up. I’d been thinking of rock substrata but of course images from the fashion industry popped up too. Hmm, maybe not what I was after. Shore was here too at this stage.

6. I then selected a few people I knew pretty well, a heterogenous bunch but all good at associative thinking and highly visually and verbally aware. It was important I knew them, so I would understand the nuance of their replies and was able to take their tastes, habits and backgrounds into account. I asked them to comment on just three or four names, so they would give really in depth responses to each one. I did this individually, by email and followed up with phone calls with them.

7. This didn’t produce a “winner” in the sense of one they all had as favourite – but it did produce a clear winner in my mind. I has already been veering towards Shore as a name – mainly because I always liked the idea of qual researchers as in-betweeners and the shore is the ultimate in-between place. It also had pleasant associations with being connected with nature, refreshing yourself and doing serious thinking through imbibing that environment. I didn’t get this exactly played back by my interlocutors; but I did get something of it and a lot of other helpful associations I hadn’t thought much of – the shore as safety, for example. And it didn’t ring alarm bells in anyone’s head.

So at what point did I “make up my mind”? The truth is, I don’t know. It was somewhere in the process of selecting the shortlist, reading the comments, talking to them and musing upon it afterwards. I tend to think I made up my mind before the shortlist and the rest was perhaps finding a rational structure to justify it. I felt better because I had submitted myself to a “rational” decision-making process. But I know this process had not “produced” the result, nor had that the result come rationally at all.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, Fitzwilli...
After a tough creative day, you need a good lie down. Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what did I learn from this creative business decision I had to take, that could help clients?

This: see creative qual research as something that will help you come to the right decision. It will play around with your ideas, it will expose them to the right people and you’ll see – and I’ll analyse – people responding to them. But don’t look to the audience to make that decision for you; not even to the process to produce a “result”. The process rather, at its best, produces all that vital raw material that needs to sit in your head. That is its value. It helps you think creatively when making a big creative decision.

Some might be tempted to think a creative development process that does not tell you the answer is a waste of time and money. Why bother with research at all then?

But this is to misunderstand what research does for a decision-maker: it is there to improve their decision-making, not to tie their hands. The creativity that is needed in the process – whether it’s naming a qual start-up, coming up with a new packaging idea for beer or relaunching a tired brand – should not begin and end with the research. Good qual research liberates and inspires decision-makers, developers and creatives. It generates a creative resource: a fuel tank for the next stages of development. The chequered flag comes much, much later.

More Brooks – TED talk on reasons to be cheerful about the revolution

Cover of "Bobos In Paradise: The New Uppe...
Cover via Amazon

Brooks TED talk on The Social Animal

This entertaining, brief talk gives a flavour of the book.

Must read his book about our feted but ludicrous social elites, with a great title: Bobos in Paradise. I think he writes mainly about America so let’s pretend it isn’t the same here.

For now, carrying on with The Social Animal, cracking read. Have Kahneman‘s Thinking, Fast and Slow to come next.

Slight backlog of books on my shelf, it must be said.

An Insight on Qual Analysis: from David Brooks’s “The Social Animal”

On my recent visit to the US I finally got around to buying The Social Animal (Random House, 2011) – subtitled The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement – by New York Times writer David Brooks.

David Brooks
David Brooks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reading it at the moment. It’s full of interesting stuff about what makes us who we are and how we think. There’s a great little passage about what goes to make an insight, which as a qual researcher I found very familiar.

I like his description (on page 95 of my edition) of the moment of making your breakthrough after churning the data over in your head seemingly without an opening. He narrates the process by talking about a fictional student, Harold, who has to put together an essay (which happens to be about Ancient Greek heroism):

He felt an intense and instantaneous burst of ecstasy … Patterns that had not fit [sic] together suddenly felt as if they did. It was a sensation more than a thought, a feeling of almost religious contact. As Robert Burton wrote in his book On Being Certain, “Feelings of knowingness, correctness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.”

What does happen then, in the brain?

If scientists had his brain wired up at this moment, they would have noticed a jump in the alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere … There is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe, just above the right ear. This is an area, Jung-Beeman and Kounios argue, that draws together pieces of information from wildly different areas of the brain.

So this moment of insight, when confusing things start to make sense, is about disparate information coming together in some way in the brain, rather than for example, some linear process such as following purely deductive reasoning.

What is even more interesting for me is the way Brooks describes the process that leads to this point of break-through in sense-making. Because, as every qual researcher knows, you have to digest the material first. Here’s what he says happens (Ms Taylor is Harold’s teacher):

Ms. Taylor had guided Harold through a method that had him surfing in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together – first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then willfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product. The process was not easy, but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another step. By the end, he was seeing the world around him in a new way. There was, as the mathematician Henri Poincaré observed, “an unsuspected kinship … between facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

It’s a great description of the qualitative research analysis process. I hope this is yet more evidence of why doing analysis properly – over days, not hours – really is what makes for good thinking. In qual research, it’s kind of the point of doing the research in the first place.

Happy to say, I have ample time for analysis on my current project, which is on online shopping. In fact, time now to go off and master some more of the core knowledge …


A Nice Throw-Back: Ads That Are Actually Funny

I had a week in the USA this month and caught this series of ads in between my son’s Lego Ninjago cartoons. There are several in the campaign and nearly all are laugh-out-loud funny. Great job by Grey New York.

Cover of "Platoon (Special Edition)"
I always preferred Full Metal Jacket anyway

The acting is spot on. What also makes it is the director having an acute eye for what’s visually funny in someone suffering self-inflicted misfortune and the copywriter’s construction of the still plausible while highly unlucky chains of events. Check out one of the others that ends up with the protagonist re-enacting a scene from Platoon with Charlie Sheenin his living room.

Morrissey‘s question in The Queen Is Dead, “Has the world changed, or have I changed?” often comes to mind – we both have, is the short answer – but these Directv ads had me pondering on whether it’s me or whether there are fewer really out-and-out funny ads about these days. There was a time (the mid to late 90s feels like the peak) when British ad breaks were a real source of comedic delights: the increasingly surreal Tango ads, Reeves and Mortimer’s immortal Cadbury’s Boost tagline (“Slightly rippled with a flat underside”) and that man Bob Mortimer again talking to people about cod’s roe through a loud hailer for First Direct. These were belly laughs.  And talking of bellies, I am still haunted and thrilled by Reebok‘s sublimely disturbing “Belly’s Gonna Get Ya” ad, where a disembodied stomach chases a man around town, to a growling soundtrack:

I know advertising isn’t there just to make my little demographic chuckle, but it’s nice when it does.

Fuel “panic”: when laissez-faire crisis management met the rational herd

We’ve seen over the last week a great illustration of why government and companies ought to listen to behavioural economists – and social researchers generally for that matter.

What the government minister thinks he's communicating: "There probably won't be a fuel shortage, there's no need for panic buying. It would be sensible to take precautions such as filling up a jerry can and storing in your garage."
The message he's actually putting across: "Blah blah blah FUEL SHORTAGE blah blah blah PANIC BUYING blah blah TAKE PRECAUTIONS blah blah PUTTING PETROL INTO OBJECTS LAST HEARD OF IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR blah blah blah blah THIS BLOKE THINKS WE ALL HAVE GARAGES."

I bought fuel on the way into my meeting in London on Friday, though my tank had enough petrol to get me there and back. Why?

Not because I was thrown into a panic by the prospect of a strike. It was because I’d heard Mr Maude’s statement, assumed a significant proportion of people (feeling unsure of what to do) would play safe and fill up their car; and I’d seen on the news people doing just that. So the calculation was: if I don’t fill up soon, I may find myself unable to, as a lot of other people will be having this same thought. And it only takes a small proportion of the driving public to do some extra filling up to make quite a big impact on supplies. This is all without any actual fuel shortage from the tanker drivers’ dispute, in which no strike had actually been called.

That this is a communications cock-up by the government is pretty much beyond dispute by this stage. The defence by Lib Dem minister Sarah Teather and a back-bench Conservative MP on Question Time on Thursday was half-hearted and was met with an unusually visceral derision by the audience. The public’s verdict was confirmed in today’s newspapers: in one poll, 81 per cent blamed the government for the queues at the pumps: The Independent: Government Blamed For Needless Fuel Panic.

Francis Maude seems to feel hard done to, that he was using faultless logic. See what you make of his responses to Dermot Murnaghan here:

The thing is, it was faultless logic until it came into contact with real life. It reminded me of Sunstein and Thaler’s criticisms of assumptions old school economists used to make about how people act: as “econs”, rationally acting beings without any discernible human traits.

The reason Francis Maude’s advice was a very poor piece of government communication was that he assumed everyone in the public would receive the message as he meant it – in full, with complete attention and an eye to the nuances. There appeared to be no awareness on his part of how it would be interpreted: to the do-I-don’t-I-fill-up driver, he was a senior government minister saying, ‘Do.’

Repeatedly in the interview, though, he gives clues to why he appears to have stumbled unawares into this mistake. He doesn’t, he says, need to tell people what to do: it is for them to choose.  The government’s role is just to provide them with clear information and the rest takes care of itself. There is an implicit assumption that people are rational actors who, left to their own devices, will act sensibly both for their own good and for the common good. That’s quite an assumption and, frankly, an unfounded one. What led him to it is unclear, but it certainly wasn’t the analysis of real life human behaviour. I hope he feels a little less sure about it now.

Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office
Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be fair to Mr. Maude, he means to treat people like grown-ups and trust them to make their own good judgements. The problem is, in emergency situations it fails on a number of levels. In emergency situations people do look to those in charge to tell them what to do – and they expect to be looked after. Mr. Maude’s libertarian instincts may have led him to neglect the different role government has in such situations. If he had been with me on my recent work in an area prone to flooding, listening to people at serious flood risk and emergency responders, he might not have made his gaffe. In fact, five minutes with the fire chief I interviewed would have sufficed.

And what lessons are we drawing in the media about all this: why did people queue up at petrol stations? I’ve seen two main ideas and both miss the point.

The more basic version is that the people doing this were being stupid or did not listen properly. Yet people did listen: the problem was they were given mixed messages. “We told people not to panic buy fuel,” say the government. Yes, but you also told people to buy fuel. Indeed it was not really panic at all, it only looks like panic when a lot of people act in their own self interest to the wider detriment. But we were all doing (1) what the government advised us to do and (2) what was necessitated by the simple fact of other people doing it. The importance of filling the tank then grows exponentially as time passes and fuel resources diminish.

"Whose idea was it to come here? I'm usually happy to just tag along, but to be quite honest my vote was to hang out in the Marais ... And if you think I'm getting in the lift behind Flossy, think again."

The slightly more sophisticated explanation in the media is that this was ‘herd behaviour’: which was explained as people seeing other people buying fuel and blindly copying them. Again this misunderstands the phenomenon and indeed what herd behaviour is in humans. Of course we copy what people around us are doing: we do it as a strategy to help us make decisions or work out a way through an unfamiliar situation. But I don’t think the fuel buying this week was about simple copying, where we don’t know what to do and so take guidance from others. It was more calculated than that for most of us: once some extra people started buying petrol, there was a real prospect supplies could run out. Buying sooner rather than later became the only rational course of action if you wanted to make sure you had petrol. So it was decision-making informed by judgements about how others would behave in the future – motivated by the need to pre-empt future purchasers, rather than copy past purchasers.

Thora Hird - an expert on herds. Here she is drinking the last drops of Super Unleaded from the BP garage at Beaconsfield Services

If it were about simply copying, then people would have copied others even if petrol supplies were infinite. But this surely would not have happened. The point was that people were looking ahead to the dwindling supplies of fuel that remained and solving the problem of how to get their share. Far from blind, knee-jerk copying, it was simply a rational response to increased competition for a limited resource which is distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

So a kind of herd behaviour, yes of course: we are social animals and it pervades most of what we do. But herd behaviour does not mean people following each other like sheep; we are human and human herds act in human ways. Rational calculation is part of human herd behaviour, it’s not separate from it.

The government, to be fair, had the foresight to set up the Behavioural Insights Unit and it has been making progress: The Economist: Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think. Perhaps this week, the government wished it had paid a bit more attention to the wisdom of Halpern & Co.

“Sign On” Of The Tynes

A sign of the high unemployment times we find ourselves in, from the terraces of St. James’s Park. Newcastle Utd, at the time of writing, are beating Liverpool and the Geordie faithful are starting to indulge in some taunting of the travelling Liverpool support. Their choice of taunt is the old pastiche of Liverpool’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone‘, first used by fans of one of the London clubs in the 80s: “Sign on, sign on, with hope in your heart, cos you’ll never get a job.”  I haven’t heard that one in a while. I also wasn’t aware the North East economy was in such great shape … but if you say “people in glass houses” to some football fans, they’ll take it as an invitation to break your windows.

An evening in A and E: a stitch in space-time

Having just listened to Melvyn Bragg‘s In Our Time (In Our Time, 29th March 2012: The Measurement of Time) – discussing the history of the measurement of time, appropriately enough – here I am posting about the ultimate time-devouring black hole, an evening waiting in A&E. It was nothing major, just a bad wrench of my knee playing football, so I needed to get some crutches. A&E is one of the few places, apart from through qual research work (sometimes), where you can see a cross-section of society thrown together.

My Monday night, minus the pithy language

Also good for this are zoos and swimming pools; and some public parks, but it depends on the catchment area. In Oxford, where I live, it’s South Park (the big one going up Headington Hill) yes, University Parks no. Any of these are more fun than a night at A&E. But an interesting snapshot all the same. Maybe snapshot isn’t the right word. It was about as snappy as watching Geoff Boycott and Chris Tavaré opening the batting at Edgbaston through a vat of treacle. (For non-cricket-fans, Tavaré was an England batsman in the early 80s who was very hard to get out but showed virtually no interest in actually scoring runs. He was frequently depicted by cartoonists as a tree, with roots reaching deep into the earth below the crease. Boycott, for all his many serious faults, is a national institution. He did much the same thing, only better, and with his mouth hanging down at one side).

Waiting time on Monday night was five and a half hours. An electronic board flashed up a four hour waiting time as soon as we walked in; by the time I left, it was flashing six hours. Mobiles are not allowed of course, so I had plenty of time to flit discontentedly between my badly translated 1950s Mexican novel and a Bill Bryson tome on spelling and grammar. There was a coffee machine. At five hours and twenty five minutes of waiting (by now 12.40am, having arrived at 7.15pm) I snapped. I hobbled up to order a coffee, in my bleariness taking several minutes to negotiate a path through the non-intuitive vending interface. (Do these companies not consumer-test their contraptions?) No sooner had I taken my first sips than, you guessed it, my name was called and I had to abandon my hard-earned, steaming trophy. Definitely one of those nights. What made it worse was that I was supposed to be at a Stewart Lee gig at Oxford Playhouse I’d been looking forward to for months.

The John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England
The John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Located in Oxford so that astro-physicists working on the curvature of space-time can study the remarkable black hole that has emerged in the A&E Department.

So what had we in the John Radcliffe Hospital A&E waiting area, then? I’ll use good old  research social grades to get around the awkwardness of class:

  • a teenage student party-goer (BC1), who had, shall we say, peaked a little early. She arrived by ambulance amidst much screaming and wailing. After being decanted into the waiting area in wheelchair (yes, a wheelchair) she was passed out much of the time but woke up occasionally to scream a bit more and throw lewd glances at an embarrassed bloke sitting across from her. She was looked after by an apparently sensible friend, though that 90s public information film about the perils of over-partying came to mind: the one where the doctor pointedly asks the friends around the bedside: “Are you her friends?” Also: Monday night?? Students really have no sense of time …
  • a young black guy handcuffed to a policeman. Let’s put him as a D. Hard to see what was wrong with him, but presumably there had been some kind of a fracas and maybe he’d taken a couple of stern whacks from the Peelers that needed to be checked out. Seemed very chipper though, the most upbeat person there in fact.
  • various 30-something blokes with football injuries (mix of B, C1, C2 and D). As a 40-something bloke with a football injury, I could only laugh at their callow inexperience before wondering why, 27 years after my first busted knee trip to hospital, I hadn’t learned my lesson.
  • a man in his 20s walking around bleeding from the head, looking either drunk or concussed, or possibly both. The fact he was about to collapse didn’t seem to move him up the queue particularly. I’d have him as a C1.
  • a young woman with a really, really black eye. (C2D)
  • two very loud Americans behind me, probably mature students (Bs), who maintained high volume conversation for at least the first four hours. They struck me as the types more likely to support “Obamacare” than not; if so, I hope Monday night didn’t put them off. At least, I hope, they’re not the sort to go on the Rush Limbaugh show to talk about their experiences of Britain’s goddang commy NHS.
  • a young girl of about 6 who had fallen off her rocking horse and broken her leg (B). I imagine it was a beautifully crafted rocking horse, sitting on a magnificently polished hard wooden floor. I can talk, my son broke his leg on our floor when he was one, somehow.
  • lots of old people, by which I mean 75+. Nice to see all of them there with family or carers. Mainly C1C2D.
Life is a waiting room. Luckily, not this one.

And much, much more. OK, so not quite all of human life. What amazed me was how patient people were. Perhaps they were all seething inwardly like me and just lacked the outlet to vent their frustration. But despite the stressfully massive waits, there was no angry shouting at the admin staff behind the window, not even much visible annoyance. The only exception was when a few of the admin staff shared a joke and we heard laughter coming from their little booth: several of us waiting exchanged snarls, though in retrospect this was unfair of us perhaps.

Not to Melvyn brag about Ulster fortitude but I’ve managed ten in-home depth interviews since my disabling injury, in Wisbech (hobbling around without crutches – agony), Reading and South-West London (with crutches, embarrassing but fine). I did ask myself whether I would have just cried off had I not been self-employed. Answer: I would have lined up a substitute for at least one of the fieldwork days.

Being on crutches for a few days – I’ve been on them for several weeks during previous football injuries – does give you a tiny insight into the difficulties of travelling that people with long term disabilities have to work around.

I had to travel by Tube across London on crutches for several weeks in early 2000, when I was living in Finsbury Park and working in Richmond. I was amazed at how many people, even after noticing the crutches, were happy to barge past me; and how few people offered to give up their seats on the trains. Escalators were a nightmare  – getting on an off – and when an escalator was broken, it was a complete disaster. The hardest thing with crutches, for a fumbling idiot like me, is carrying things and getting things in and out of your pockets. I had to make my way out of the flow of people into a quiet spot to put down crutches, balances, get out my tube pass (pre-Oyster days of course) and so on. Then get back into the flow again. By the time I got to work I was physically and mentally exhausted.

They had a logo and everything.

A few years later, in 2003, I did some work for the European Year For People With Disabilities (EYPD). It was a four country qual study for a human resources firm who were one of the sponsors of the EYPD, aimed to produce case studies and illustrative insights on experiences of working life for people with disabilities. About one in seven of the EU population has a disability, yet the funding to help people with disabilities across the whole EU for that year was a paltry €13m. The issue is always massively under-estimated. My clients, who were in this HR firm’s CSR team, were fantastic and very engaged in the project. But when a colleague and I travelled to Brussels at their invitation to give a quick debrief of findings to their colleagues (as part of a mini-conference), we found the wider audience shockingly brazen about their lack of interest in the topic. It was a polite “Thanks for the talk but can we move on with important things, please?” I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier in my research career. Don’t get me started on that …

The big idea we had from the research was that all firms should have a Disabilities Champion – someone whose job it is to be aware of the needs of employees who have disabilities and also to make sure disabled applicants are given a fair crack at landing a job. In my old agency, in our office of around 200 staff or so, we had one disabled worker, and she lost her job when the financial crisis started. Asking around, hardly anyone knew she was disabled or had any idea of her life history (e.g. being abandoned as a baby due to her disability and raised by foster parents and in care homes) or had thought very much at all about how hard it was for her to get into work; or what it meant to her to be there.

I’m not saying it was a particularly heartless place, quite the opposite a lot of the time. It was probably fairly typical of most workplaces, where disability issues were simply not on the radar. By the way, in my project, Marks and Spencer stood out as a really fantastic employer for disabled people. They couldn’t have been nicer to me or more supportive, from what I could see, to their disabled staff.

To the AQR’s credit, they let me write an article for In Brief on it, albeit with a weird picture of me: Who Is Missing? Simon Riley AQR article on disabled people in research

Adding that to my Monday listening to people in some of Wisbech’s more deprived districts, I do count my lucky stars – a few days on the crutches really isn’t the end of world.

New improved Shore website is coming soon …

As I like design-y things, I’m excited to reveal I’m re-doing the main Shore business website, in the coming weeks. Helping me with design is Sascha von Pander, who created the Shore pebble logo that the world has come to know and love. Well, I like it anyway:

Because of this – and because Microsoft who were hosting it are being gits – is temporarily unavailable, until the new site is up. I’m hoping it will be ready in early April.

Should be a joy for lovers of images inspired by beaches, coasts, the sea edge generally … you know the kind of thing.

Knocked unconscious

Last night’s Horizon on BBC2 was really fascinating – throwing some light onto the unconscious mind. Thanks John Habershon of Momentum for alerting me to this through the ICG email group.

Horizon: Out of Control?

Some great stuff to show how unaware people are of what their brain is making them do: an experiment where camera-ed up volunteers chased down an errant toy helicopter and then gave remarkably deluded explanations of how they had done it. The brain scientists could track what was really happening.

This is why in qual research we have been shifting our emphasis so much towards behavioural observation and triangulation of techniques in order to get to the truth underneath the self-explanations. We even use cameras a little like those in the experiment sometimes (I’ve done it extensively with Eyetracker in the shopping arena). Indeed qual has been on about this – and the death of ‘rational actor theory‘ which over-emphasises the rational and conscious elements in our decision-making – for decades. It’s great that it’s really going mainstream now, with programmes like this and the growing acceptance of the basic tenets behavioural economics.

It’s no one’s fault we are inaccurate reporters of our own selves, it’s just how we are. And it’s because conscious thinking is such a small element of what is fully going on up there.

It's not just the captain of the Titanic who missed the big bit underneath

The programme shows how, when we master a skill like knitting, the part of the brain that we need for hard conscious thinking effectively packages up “knitting skill” and passes control of it further back into the brain. There, a different part of the brain keeps the exercise of this established skill ticking over. This frees up the conscious part of the brain to direct its energy to other things we have to think hard about to do.

It’s a remarkably good system, because the part of our brain that consciously processes things has quite a limited capacity, according to the programme. We can only take in between two and three objects at a time, for example, in our field of vision and we miss the rest. We think we see the world around us, but we see tiny fragments at best.

The other thing I found fascinating was the finding that we are much better at taking on board optimisitic information than negative information. That is, if we are told our chances of getting Alzheimers is lower than we had expected, we bag that and retain it. But if it’s higher than expected, our brain tends to reject the bad news and carry on as it is. The speculation is that there must have been some evolutionary advantage in our under-estimating the risks around us. It sounds counter-intuitive – surely the more risk-averse would prosper? – but if true, it’s an interesting insight into our successful ancestors. We are the offspring of survivors, who in turn were the offspring of survivors further back, of challenging climates, natural disasters and human-made ones. It could be that these people who made it through were the most optimistic and willing to overcome the risks around them.

That we’re “hard-wired” to be optimists would be good news indeed (or maybe I’m just ignoring the bad news). It needs to be seen in context though: as Thaler and Sunstein pointed out in Nudge, loss aversion is nevertheless one of the more universal human traits. Experiments indicate that we see avoiding a loss as roughly twice as valuable as making a gain. So if it’s optimism is the optimism of the cautious.

It reminded me of Daniel Kahnemann‘s story about his poor performance in screening candidates for officer training school for the Israeli army. After he saw how bad he was doing, he actually didn’t change his method, though he “knew” it was wrong. It really is hard to take on negative information, because essentially it seems our conscious brains seek to offload complex tasks in one way or another. Negative information – “you must rethink what you are doing” –  is harder work for the brain than positive information – “steady as she goes”.

But anyone who has given “bad news” in a research debrief knew this anyway! This is why framing this information positively – here is what you CAN do and here are the opportunities – is not just weak, yes-manly Pollyanna behaviour, but really the best way to get your findings across. “OK, so all the concepts we showed got panned; but here’s what we learned about what concepts you should be developing …”

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