15. Searching for Weapons of Mass Distortion*

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In Glasgow, its safety in numbers.

Every Sunday morning I see the same lady in the newspaper shop buying lottery tickets. I’ve always wanted to ask her why she didn’t just send her money straight to Chancellor George Osborne, cutting out a chain of middle men and reducing the queuing time in the shop for the non-gambling section of the public.

I expect her reply would be something like, ‘I know my chances of winning are statistically not significantly different from zero, however the excitement of watching the draw and the possibility, however remote, of coming into sudden riches, beyond my wildest imagination, taps into a part of my mind that believes in dreams and miracles’.

Or, she might say, ‘I won a small amount once or twice, and it seems that intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful conditioning paradigms. I am simply powerless to resist’.

Or she might just say, ‘you cant take it with you, you tight git!’

Or, the killer retort: ‘why don’t you send the £2.50 you just wasted on the Sunday Times directly to Rupert Murdoch?’

Secretly, I ‘d love to have a go on the lottery but I cannot begin to understand how you go about it. People ask for things like, ‘two butterballs and a blingo’ and receive mysterious cards, some of which you can scratch. They seem happy with their purchases, even though they have exchanged real money for imaginary money.

It’s the same kind of cellophane packaged trinket as a cigarette packet, something that lights up the anticipation of  reward pathways, if you still have them.

It strikes me that Lottery Behaviour illustrates the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This means that people have sets of thoughts that conflict with each other, but find some way of reducing the disparity.

Gambling provides a bit of a buzz, but goes against the value of prudence. The mind works to justify the behaviour.

For example, the lottery is ‘for charity’. So it is OK to give money away. The lottery company will help you with this argument by not telling you how much of the take actually goes to charity (28%). And of the 28%, how much is left for the actual good cause, after the charities have employed their staff and paid their overheads?

What does it matter anyway; the money is all recycled within the economy, generating employment?

Apart from the fact that Camelot, who run the UK national lottery, is wholly owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension fund. Nevertheless, I have nothing against retired Canadian teachers and have no problem with sending them any spare money we have. Its a way of thanking them for providing the current generation of Canadians.

Lots of people can help us reduce our cognitive dissonance, and make a good profit out of doing so.

The workings of the National Lottery mix a few different processes. Which is the odd one out:

1. Giving to charity?

2. Tax?

3. Gambling?

4. Profit for shareholders?

5. Pensions?

Clue: one of them is supposed to be a vice.

One way of reducing the difference between ideas is to soften the ideas and make them less distinct in the first place. Since ideas are usually written in words, if the words themselves are made meaningless, the ideas will get soft and fluffy enough not to jar against each other in our pockets.

Its a win/ win scenario.

Managers are people who make a living out of Cognitive Dissonance. Part of their job is to distort and reduce the meaning of language.

If you are working anywhere in business or the public sector you are  probably experiencing stress and frustration attributable to managers.

Take a typical scenario. You are sitting in a small hot room pretending to listen to someone giving a presentation. There is an ‘action plan’ to formulate. Something has to be written in 28 small boxes on a spreadsheet. People who are unable not to volunteer or avoid eye contact are given tasks to complete that will spoil their weekend. A pointless deadline is set for completion, leading directly to the affected person pulling a sickie that day.

Managers are people who like Audis, ties and bar charts, and I have no wish to offend any of them.

True, their claim to be a specific profession is undermined by the fact that the most successful managers of all have had no training whatsoever (e.g. Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Steve Jobs…). The same cannot be said for eye surgeons or train drivers. Their main offence, however, has been to pervert the course of language. The question is, why do they do this?

Some people have suggested that there is something very sinister in the distortion of language. Gore Vidal, for instance, wrote:

‘As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate’

George Orwell wrote about war propaganda as far back as the 1930s. I am sure he would not be surprised at the ‘dodgy dossier’ and other more recent examples of war related spinning of information.

People are pretty reluctant to engage in homicide, so to wage a war, some massive dissonance has to be bridged. Orwell noticed that those people creating the most extreme propaganda tended to be those furthest from the combat zone.

The more foolish the military regime, the more the medals and uniforms get brighter and shinier.

The paranoid theory of management is that it is a propaganda machine to pretend to people that capitalism is fun, like a game, and that companies are benign.

My own theory is less conspiracy orientated and more based on seeing managers as a cult. Their world is highly ritualised. They are very fond of assembling in groups, presided over by a priest-like person.

Their prayer-books and rosary beads are laptops and projectors and their altar is the Powerpoint screen.

They speak to each other in jargon, but they do not fully understand the meaning, much as Catholics used to say prayers in Latin.

Though lots of commentators have recorded items of management-speak few have attempted to explain the phenomenon.

Like any species, managers’ main purpose is to increase in number and safeguard their various niches in the social fabric. Sometimes they are parasitic, but parasitism is only one of their methods of survival. They often prosper where there is chaos and decay, since they promise to create structure and harmony, mainly on diagrams.

A recent survey of 2000 managers, carried out by ILM, found that management jargon is used in two thirds of offices across Britain and nearly a quarter of workers considered it to be a pointless irritation.

The incredibly frightening interpretation of these findings is that one third of offices had not noticed they are jargon-infected.  And over 75% of workers did not think it was an issue.

That’s like 75% of people not regarding bubonic plague as a serious health problem.

The same survey listed the most – hated phrases, such as Blue Sky Thinking, Going Forward, Touching Base, Close of Play, Drilling Down, Right Sizing things, etc.

Is such misuse of language a harmless eccentricity to make dull work seem more exciting, or does it have a more sinister purpose?.

Many professions have invented their own jargon, doctors being prime offenders. It’s much more fun to call a male person ‘a 46XY’ than ‘a man’, for instance.

The main difference is that professional jargon usually serves to sharpen a meaning, whereas management jargon does the opposite.

In IT for instance, we have become used to acronyms like RAM, LAN and WiFi, not to mention Killer Apps. In sport, we know exactly what a Try, or a Birdie means and we have strong views about LBW.

Engineers can tell us what a double over head cam does. In Costa, we have the Latte, the Cappuccino and the Flat White. All these terms are highly valid and reliable.

Compare the expression: ‘granularity’. Or ‘leverage’. Or ‘synergy’. Not valid or reliable at all.

Two explanations here: Managers are simply aping other professions’ use of technical terms in  pretending they are a distinct set of experts.

Or, management speak is actually a way of reducing disharmony by abolishing conceptual distinctions.

This leads me to a surprising conclusion.

Management is not an exclusive club at all. Almost anyone can join in. No special qualifications are needed. Management speak is a free for all. Like Esperanto, its an attempt to unite all the professions and none. Managers can go from one type of company to another without having to know that much about what the company makes or provides.

Managers don’t need to be able to do maths or write proper sentences, let alone buy lottery tickets.

The management icon, the Venn diagram, celebrates the easy maths we can all do in year 6. Management is like bingo or ten pin bowling. Anyone can do it and they’re glad to have you.

Maybe we need managers to provide this kind of unity that masquerades as conflict. To portray the world of work as an exciting drama, or gladiatorial contest.

Just as we need politicians to give the illusion of political argument and lawyers to give the illusion of adversarial justice.

Managers may function as a kind of ecumenical movement to stop people fighting about whose God is best. The penalty is having to sand down the theological edges.

In serving to reduce cognitive dissonance, managers are probably helping us survive in a hopelessly conflicted world.

Perhaps the problem, again like politics and religion, is not the profession itself, but rather the type of people it attracts. The danger of abolishing the meaning of words is people taking liberties with the rule-book. Bullies and narcissists love to hide in these kinds of hierarchies.

If you feel that management culture is ruining your life, try re-framing your managers differently. An old – school CBT technique was disempowering a tormentor by imagining him wearing a tutu or sitting on the toilet.

Try imagining your manager as a pirate.

The empire once needed pirates to advance its cause. This resulted in one of the best PR exercises ever done, in effect re-badging cut-throats and thieves as swashbuckling heroes.

Your company might need pirates of a kind, if only to fiddle the government targets.

Your manager is just a pirate who likes to dress up.

Like Captain Shakespeare, (Robert De Niro) in Stardust, he’s probably got a penchant for ladies clothing.

Watch that movie if you haven’t already. Your manager won’t have seen it. Beware of pirate copies though.

*Weapons of Mass Distortion was a book by Brant Bozell III about a supposed liberal bias in the US media.

Your manager won’t have read it.

Much better, it was a track on Crystal Method’s Legion of Boom album.

Your manager won’t have bought it.

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6. Getting Wiser using items you can find in your kitchen*

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Its time for a quick win, before we delve into things any further. Today’s goal is becoming a slightly wiser person.

Our friends in Psychology have been very active over the last few years, explaining how the mind deals with day to day activity. There have been some great popular psychology books, such as Thinking, Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, and Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein, that have become bestsellers.  A particularly useful scheme they have developed is the separation of mental activity into two types.

The first type, sometimes called ‘Type 1’ or ‘System 1’ or ‘Automatic’ is running slightly under the surface of consciousness. It deals with routine activity. Type 2 /System 2, or Reflective thinking, is the more conscious part of the mind, where we might actively try and process a task, like a piece of mental arithmetic.

It is usually tiring to use System 2 and we tend to avoid it. We use System 1 by default, and it can handle a surprising amount of day to day functioning, including quite complex tasks like driving a car.

Despite books such as ‘Nudge’ and ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ being best sellers, the impact of this new cognitive psychology has been surprisingly slow to affect how psychologists and other therapists work with patients. Though the automatic / reflective model seems to make sense, everyone is struggling with how the amorphous goo of the subconscious gets turned into the crisp waffle of a considered idea.

In particular, the type of therapies that are often called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) often seem to depart in some ways from ideals we can infer from the Automatic / Reflective model.

For instance, one very commonly used type of CBT involves keeping a diary of negative thoughts. CBT fully acknowledges the presence of AutomaticThinking, the idea being that people suffering from depression or anxiety have Negative Automatic Thoughts. Just a little below the surface runs a downbeat commentary on the persons value and capability.

At a simple level such negative self statements are easily visible in everyday life. How often do you hear people say ‘I’m no good at maths’, or ‘I cant sing’ or ‘I’m not musical’? Depressed people tend to have a more negative set of thoughts, such as ‘I am useless’ or ‘People generally don’t respect me’ or ‘I can’t control what happens to me’.

An aim of CBT is to identify the negative thoughts by writing them down and considering them. In effect this means bringing them out of System 1 and into System 2. Yet we know that this is a process that generally people find unpleasant, even for ‘neutral’ tasks like trying to solve a puzzle or a maths question. And this is perhaps why patients very often struggle to complete the diary and homework tasks set by their therapist. Very often the patient fails to do the homework, relying on the mercy of the therapist at the start of the next session.

Of course, Freud and his followers would take a different view of such a process. First of all they would expect the truly negative thoughts to be buried deeply in the mind and not easily brought into consciousness. Furthermore they would expect ‘defence mechanisms’ or ‘resistance’ to digging these ideas up, since the mind buried them deeply for good reason.

So what? Thinking can take place at different levels of consciousness.  Freudian and Cognitive Psychology would agree on that. And they would also agree that people struggle to bring thoughts from a lower to a higher level. Freud would say this is because the thought is emotionally charged and dangerous to consider – for instance a strong aggressive or sexual impulse. A cognitive psychologist might argue that the conscious System 2 is easily overloaded, much like the RAM on a computer. It is governed by a limited amount of ‘working memory’ which is easily exceeded. If asked to do more than one task at the same time, System 2 runs very slowly or stops altogether to get a beer from the fridge.

It has been clear to many CBT therapists that so called ‘second wave’ CBT, involving identifying negative thoughts and countering them is often unpopular with patients. Much of CBT has moved on to so called ‘mindfulness’ based techniques, which have imported an element of meditation or spirituality.

In embracing ‘mindfulness’ so enthusiastically however there is a danger of CBT exploding in all sorts of different and largely untested directions and falling prey to the usual cranks and charlatans normally confined to the alternative sector.

One of the strengths of CBT was that it attempted to measure its own effectiveness by using charts and scales. One of the weaknesses was that CBT became an incredibly wide church, to the point where the term ‘CBT’ became almost meaningless.

For instance CBT could span so called ‘psychoeducation’ or ‘activity scheduling’ which turned out to be fairly simple bits of lifestyle advice. Or it could mean 20 one hour fairly deep sessions with a Clinical Psychologist. So when someone tells me ‘I have had CBT and it didn’t work’ I am quite skeptical. (Just like I am skeptical when I am told ‘I tried lithium and it didn’t suit me’ or ‘I am allergic to bananas’ or ‘ I am dyslexic’. These statements always call for further enquiry and clarification.

I ask: How many sessions did you have? Who were they with? What did you do in the sessions? (Just talked), Did you have to keep a diary? (no), Did you have homework? (no), Did you have to try and look at your negative thoughts? (don’t think so).

Is there still some value in ‘old school’ CBT? By this I mean the process of identifying and challenging negative thoughts, using diaries and homework?  Behaviour Therapists have  a slogan:  ‘if you do it you ‘ll get better and if you don’t do it you won’t’. That might hold for changing behaviours, such as facing a phobia, but how much can it hold for thinking differently? How much can the mind be forced, against the grain, to reflect?

Incidentally I have seen a very similar blindness in the fields of education and personal development, where ‘Reflection’ became all the rage. Reflection, at least if forced, is effortful and tiring to most people, even if they are not depressed and reflecting only about the price of carrots.

People will find any excuse not to reflect; the mind will default to System 1 whenever it can. The best reflection seems to occur when the mind is bored and free to wander where it likes, for instance, while you pretend to listen to the chief exec going on about drilling down into more challenging granularity, while you wait for the 8.23 at Platform 1b, or during the period between your parachute opening and avoiding the pylons.

Old school CBT has failed to recognize the difficulties people have in moving unexpected items into the bagging area of Reflective thinking. This is perhaps why most patients I meet prefer a counselling type approach, by which they often mean talking to someone until they feel a bit better. What we need is a better waffle iron to turn mental goo into considered thoughts.

Somewhere between the two approaches, CBT and Counseling, probably lies a better way of dealing with negative thinking. For instance I like the use of ‘mind maps’ rather than diaries,  sketches or diagrams of what issues are affecting someone. Say it with cake if you want to.

Then there are little shortcuts. Management folk like these, e.g. 4 Ds. When presented with a problem you can Do it, Decide when to do it, Don’t do it, or Delegate it. (There are many variations on this one, as so many words begin with D, like Destroy it, or Dissect it, or Drop Dead Trying to Do it.)

Managers like little acronyms and mnemonics to bring in to solve a problem. Its something to focus the mind, or in other words, make the transition from System 1 to System 2 less noxious. Since we know System 2 is a scarce resource, which we are reluctant to use, we need to create a shortcut or scheme for using it efficiently.

Its sad that the road to wisdom turns out to be paved with acronyms and diagrams.

We used to have exams called ‘viva’ at medical school. They are the most feared type of exam for most people, as the format is one- on- one questioning. The problem is trying to operate the mind under very high anxiety conditions. The trick is to have a system to fall back on, something cast iron, like a grid, heated obviously, and teflon coated. Something to stamp out a well formed answer quickly and possibly even coat it with sugar.

If you are searching for a way of dealing with a problem, its very helpful to find a similar example, as Blue Peter would put it, ‘we’ve already done’. Like a Proverb for instance.

Proverbs have quite a poor reputation among psychiatrists. This is because – in my day anyway – we were taught to ask patients routinely to try and explain what proverbs meant. For instance we would ask them, ‘what does this saying mean: people in glass houses should not throw stones’?

Presumably this was meant to be a test of abstract thinking, and the correct answer I presume would be something like ‘beware of retaliation if you criticize someone’ or ‘ this illustrates the danger of criticizing other people for deficiencies you yourself might have’. The latter version seems to be intruding dangerously far into pot and kettle territory.

However most people gave quite poor answers, either ‘don’t know’ or overly ‘concrete’, e.g. ‘ the stones might break the glass’. That led us to the concluding that most people did not use proverbs day to day and were rather unfamiliar with the concept of metaphor.

Maybe people with mental health problems have a lesser use of metaphor in their thinking? Comments gratefully received on this one.

Another problem with proverbs can be the annoying existence of an equal and opposite proverb, such as ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and ‘many hands make light work’. Perhaps proverbs where there is no counter are superior and should be put in a premier league.  Proverbs may not be used widely to support reflection, but that does not mean that they are not a useful tool. It just that the noise of modern life has drowned  out a lot of wise words.

So, regarding CBT, or Proverbs, Diaries, Mind maps,  or any other tools to help us organize our thinking, as SportsTalkExtra might put it: Lets not throw the dirt out with the bathwater.

Enough waffle for today.

*pencil, paper, pot, kettle, cooks, broth, beer, cake, waffle, waffle iron.