Category Archives: Psychology

“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” Do you agree?

Modern society places great emphasis on not giving or taking offence. It is the reason why so many people support, and so many others are annoyed by, the idea of ‘political correctness’. But should we?Offence

The quote was from Abraham Lincoln; and we have a prima facie (at first sight) urge to agree with it. But this does not mean it is beyond dispute. In fact the statement is both imbalanced, and also inconsiderate of human emotion. The taking and giving of offense is both part of human nature, and also purposeful. Indeed as Thomas Carlyle once said:

“No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.”

Offense giving and taking are most often the least honourable courses to take. And nobody likes the person who’s quick to give or take offense. But let’s face it; emotions get a point across as reason just never could. And taking offense is an emotive reaction. Imagine you’re a Palestinian or an Israeli person, and while you live in London you meet someone who doesn’t know anything about Israel and the holocaust, or Palestine and the human rights crisis (if you don’t know already, you should note that the number of Palestinian refugees stands at a similar figure to the number of Jews killed in the holocaust). Imagine not taking offense when that person makes stupid remarks about people in the region. Wouldn’t that be a good time to start taking offense, in order to ensure that such stupid remarks are not repeated?

In the political world, umbrage seems to be a powerful tool in twenty first century politics. Announce that the opposition’s or media’s tactic is outrageous and offensive, and you will immediately frame a public response; not in terms of whether that opposition/media point has logic, but rather, whether or not they are in the wrong. In other words it shifts the negative focus somewhere else, and leaves only sympathy behind. After all, who can’t empathise with someone who’s been offended?

There are two responses to such umbrage in politics. One comes from the logic of Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say. But I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The quote actually comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her 1906 biography of Voltaire, whose opinions she was attempting to summarise. It was her interpretation of Voltaire’s attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius, and his controversial book De l’esprit. But nevertheless, the quote has gained a great deal of attention, and been repeated many times by those who believe that we should be entitled to both give and take offence as we please.

The second response is captured by widespread laws and conventions against denying the Holocaust (it is illegal inRacism in tabloids Germany, Austria, Romania, Hungary, Belgium, France, Israel, Luxembourg and many other places – in Austria it can earn you 6 years in jail), by Germany’s ban on the publishing of Mein Kampf (to be lifted in 2015), by the Islamist reaction to a series of Danish cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and by even neo-liberal groups who aim to censor the press as a means to mitigate the spread of false and misleading information such as is spread about by tabloid papers.

The two opposing views understandably create quite a bit of animosity, and trigger a lot of offence.

against press censorship

But the very fact that a debate on whether or not we should be permitted to offend causes a torrent of offence giving and receiving, surely proves that it is both natural, and also to an extent unavoidable. In the economist’s ‘ultimate game’, designed to teach us about human nature, Player A is given 20 $1 bills, and told that in order to keep any of the money, A must share it with Player B. If B accepts A’s offer, they both pocket whatever they’ve agreed to. If B rejects the offer, they both get nothing. Economists expected pure rationality at first; A would propose the lowest possible amount i.e. 1 dollar. And B would accept, knowing it was better than nothing. But in fact what happened was that when the amount given was 7 dollars or less, most people took such offence that they preferred rejecting the offer in order to teach A a lesson, rather than taking the lower amount. Indeed in Descartes’ Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio argues that humans who behave purely rationally are in fact brain-damaged. Now one could of course argue, as I would, that punishing player A based on the offence caused was in fact entirely rational. But the offence which lies at the heart of the matter still seems to call the shots.

The question that remains for you to answer, is, should such offence giving and taking be calling any shots? Was Lincoln right that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it”?

Is Society Sick?

I heard it said once that people who are overly competitive are showing signs of insanity. It was a native American tribe who held this view, and it is a view that I immediately sympathised with, even if I would never have used the word ‘insanity’. Many of my strongest political convictions are reflected in this view; that homelessness and extreme poverty should be eradicated, that all people have value to contribute within society, and that extreme capitalist and individualistic thinking has corrupted our pursuit of happiness.

However it was when I set up the Democratic Reform Party that I really started thinking about our mental/spiritual health as a society. The more I learned, the more it seemed to me that our entire socio-Anorexiceconomic system is designed to defeat itself. We are taught in homes and schools alike what “success” actually is, not explicitly of course; but we nevertheless emerge at the end with three distinct ideas: the first idea of success is fame and fortune; the second is a highly paid job, a house, a marriage, and kids; and the third is to become a hero, but we are warned away from this latter route by dint of the fact that for every hero there are a thousand failures. In fact a quote of Dorris Lessing springs to mind:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do.”

Through this indoctrination we, in our ‘careers’, are encouraged to pursue one thing above all others: money. It is polyp_cartoon_Rat_Racethis pursuit that drives so much of us into competition, that eats up our free time, limits the pursuit of leisure, results in more emphasis on career than social relationships, and indeed encourages us to move away from friends and family in the name of money. So it encourages us to spend more resources on ourselves, and also in ways which, statistically speaking, are in fact more likely to limit rather than increase, happiness.

Since this experience I have not learned anything which has shaken these ideas and thoughts from my mind. I’ve known many friends with severe depression, several of whom have attempted suicide. I received a message only two days ago from the mother of a close friend, saying that my friend needed help. I have even experienced the loss of one of my family members in a manner which seems to me certain to be linked to the depression which plagued his mind. It was hard writing that. It’s been quite some time now, and I have talked about it, if fleetingly; yet even a sentence brings tears to my eyes.

So yesterday, when I heard Tim Macartney (social entrepreneur and leadership expert) talking at the London School of Economics about the ‘Children’s Fire’, I thought that this is definitely something I wanted to blog about. The ‘Children’s Fire’ was literally a small fire placed at the heart of decision-making councils in some ancient native American tribes. It served as a reminder to those present that no decision should be passed which might harm a child, irrelevant of whether that child be human or animal.

Tim Macartney told his audience that he had once introduced this idea to a council of leaders, and been told that it was a little naive, and perhaps even childish, to think that we could employ the same idea today. Yet Tim responded by asking the audience to think in the exact opposite manner. He asked them to think of a society where that fire was never used.

“Don’t you think” he said, “that this society without the children’s fire, is sick?”

A few years ago I read a report explaining that clinical depression would, on current trends, become the world’s second most disabling condition behind heart disease by around 2020. I felt saddened, and immediately wanted to raise money for charities working to help people with depression. Yet I, like many others I guess, held hope that the trend would slow. In fact however, it sped up. In late 2013 experts reported in the journal PLOS Medicine that depression had already become the second biggest cause of disability in the world! You can see the BBC report here:

Based on the work of psychiatrists, psychologists and academics such as Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, this trend in fact seems to be much broader than depression. They published a book in 2007, arguing that the rapid increase of mental illnesses since 1750 was an invisible plague that urgently needs to be tackled. The prevalence of insanity for example, according to their research, was once considerably less than one case per 1,000 in the total population, and yet by today has risen beyond five cases in 1,000. If true, the implications of such findings are quite scary.


Unfortunately the data over the period analysed by Torrey and Miller is sketchy, and so we can’t be sure of the validity of this argument. However we can be a lot surer of records gathered since the 60s and 70s. Based predominantly on census data from the period stretching back to 1971, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that a staggering 97% of communities studied in the UK have become more fragmented and “rootless” over this period, and also levels of “anomie” (social instability caused by erosion of standards and values) have risen significantly. In the US, over a similar period, it was also found that the rate at which Americans invite people into their homes has declined by 45%. Indeed findings such as these are not hard to find. Robert Putnam, in ‘Bowling Alone’, reported significantly increasing levels of dis-cohesion and social fragmentation. Cacioppo & Patrick published similar findings in 2008. Carne Ross had a significant rant about such statistics in his book published in 2011, ‘The Leaderless Revolution’. Professor Mark Stein drew the conclusion in a ‘Psychoanalysis of the Financial Crisis’ in 2012 that Western Society has been behaving neurotically for 20 years ( And I could cite many more sources!

Statistically speaking, happiness is no higher today than it was in the 1950s. And what’s worse is that our replacement for it i.e. the pursuit of money, isn’t helping us either. Since the 1970s the average income of the most wealthy has skyrocketed. But the median income of the average person has if anything fallen slightly. What does that suggest to you? Is our system broken? Is society itself sick?

Of course we could take any time or place in history, list the problems, and somehow come out with an argument that society is sick. So maybe these problems aren’t nearly so huge as they seem. But to me personally, they certainly seem to be pretty huge. How do they seem to you? Is society sick?

Do identities stick?

Sticky IdentityYou might be familiar with the concept of wage stickiness. It’s a theory that the pay of employed workers tends to respond slowly to the changes in a company’s or the broader economy’s performance. But what about you? Is the person you are flexible to the world around you? Let me clarify briefly as to what I’m talking about; personality is no more than a set of characteristics and traits; I am not talking about this. But identity is more fundamental, and is about who you are. My hypothesis is that identities are sticky on three levels:

  1. Personal/Social Identity
    1. The personal identity is that which is self-relevant, and the social identity is that which exists with reference to others (it’s important to note that social identity theory is different to group identity, for where one is personal identity influenced by the group, the other belongs to the group). If these identities are sticky then identity that we build for ourselves may be more powerful than analytical/rational thinking. In 2004 Lisa Bolton and Americus Reed published an article in which they argued that past components of a person’s identity have prolonged impacts on judgement. The authors examined judgements on issues that were linked to identity, such as pollution linked to environmentalist identities, legalising marijuana linked to liberal and parental identities etc. They tried to weaken these participants’ judgements using a variety of methods, but when the judgements were linked to identities they had little success. Social influence i.e. peer pressure, was the most influential method, but even this had its limitations. So effectively their message was that identity is important. Not rocket science of course; but the implications are significant, because if the effects of identity are prolonged, and perhaps sometimes irrational, then they are also open to manipulation. For example Bolton and Reed concluded that companies should try and build brand loyalty along identity lines.
  2. Group/Collective Identity
    1. A group identity is one which is held in common with a collective. And there are numerous examples of where such identities can be seen to stick. For example many have argued that ethnic conflicts arise when an ethnic group identifies itself as marginalised, oppressed and/or weakened by the dominant group. Yet when such groups find themselves involved in a shifting balance of power, their self-identification of vulnerability usually stays. One example is the growing power of the Hutus in Rwanda vis-a-vis the Tutsis prior to the Tutsi genocide. Another example is the growing power of Israel in the world, and the clear evidence of their power from military victories, together with the enduring identity of vulnerability coming from the holocaust.
  3. 3rd Person Identity (I made this concept up because I couldn’t find a label for it):
      1. One aspect of it is obvious. Does your boss think you unready for a promotion? It may be that they have identified you as young and inexperienced, or it may be that they have built an identity for you based on mistakes that you made early in the job. And it often takes a lot of persistent evidence that you have grown beyond this in order to justify your promotion. What you’re really trying to do is not only provide empirical evidence of your competence, but actually change your own identity as exists in your manager’s head. The implications of this are numerous. Should we try and change jobs and locations  as often as possible in order to ensure that others’ identities of us is always at the latest, most competent stage? Should we focus a lot more of our energy on ‘anchoring’ conversations i.e. suggesting/implying what you want the other person to believe early, so as to ensure the other person’s identification of you is as positive as possible? Or should we recognise that there is a trade-off between others’ identification of us, and the enjoyment that can be realised from a sense of enduring community?
      2. The second aspect is less obvious, for it involves a feedback loop. It is a part of human psychology that we act on guesses about what other people are thinking about us. But of our course our guesses are all based on past data and perceptions i.e. what the other group/person has done in the past, as opposed to what they’re thinking at the moment. And thus if these identifications stick, then we could not only build very obscure identifications of others, but also end up letting that influence our actions, and thus the reactions of the person we are identifying, and thus their, and again our, identities.

Do you think identities stick? And if so what do you think the implications are?

What is the primary motivation behind group formation, actions and interactions?

Group psychology focuses on how groups come to be, how their identities are forged and shaped, how they grow, and ultimately even what they come to do e.g. if they tend towards violence or arm theirselves why do they do so?

Given that these questions are so wide ranging the subject obviously finds ground in various other subjects. Yet for example in International Relations there is a lot more research needing to be done. The main theoretical branches of IR use almost no psychological justification, and yet all are willing to base their ideas upon very profound psychological components of human nature. Realists cite power and security as the main motivation for group actions, Liberals cite utility or wealth maximization, and constructivists call human nature nothing more than a social construction.

Do any of these views hold true to you? Or would you need to see the data? Why do you join and/or start groups? And if there could be one then what do you think is the primary motivation behind group actions?

Why do we persist in wishing away our own lives?

Most of us want to live. In fact most of us would do almost anything to stay alive. But at the same time we have a tendency to wish our lives away.

‘After I’ve finished school things will be better.’
‘I can’t wait until I’m out of education.’
‘I just need to get these few years out of the way, and then I can do a job I actually enjoy.’
‘I can’t even remember what rest feels like. We’ll get more when the kids go to university.’
‘Just 3 more years until retirement. I wish they’d go faster.’

‘I wish I was young again.’

Why do we do this? Might there ever come a time when we don’t?

Are we too future oriented or not enough?

Watch the video above. It presents an interesting view on why certain cultures exist, and why the pace of life varies from place to place. But if it’s right, and you can group people into past, present and future-oriented groups, then it means that we can change a great deal by making people more or less future oriented.

The video implies that future-oriented people are likely to increase economic growth more than those who live in the present. Does this then mean that we should make people more future oriented? Or should we instead realise that future orientation is causing people to say “I sacrifice friends, family and sleep for my success”? Should we encourage more future orientation or less?

>"Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule."

>This is a quote from Nietzche. It’s perhaps quite odd to come from someone that many people would have labelled mad himself. Indeed the very next thing he wrote was “the thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets succesfully through many a bad night”, which at the very least suggests mental illness, and also a different way of thinking.

But was Nietzche right? Is this why we frequently get so angry with decisions taken at the group level, but can accept the freedom of individuals to act as they will? Is there anything to what Nietzche said at all?

>How do we cope with the disease of pointlessness?


When critics of Western society actually have a point they usually draw parrallels to Ancient Rome and Greece. In recent years athiests, agnostics, and those believing in philosophies of religion rather than the supernatural, have boomed in number. Ferdinand Mount, who was once head of Thatcher’s policy unit in Downing Street, has written a book called “Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us”. In this work he paints: Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher, as the first Darwinian; Lucretius as the Richard Dawkins of 55BC; Mithras and Mick Jaeger as the God and semi-God on the brink of satisfaction. Mental illness, and declining belief in what we had once said the West stood for: democracy, liberalism and freedoms; have resulted in apathy, depression and a feeling of pointlessness.

So how do we avoid/tackle this problem? If they followed from the lack of strong beliefs then how do we avoid the widespread immoralities often referred to throughout Ancient Greece and Rome?

I know this picture is a bit biased but imagine it correlated against a graph showing how many people felt life was pointless. And secondly, if Mount is right then might we be headed for a new Dark Ages?
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