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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12. Grappling with the wrong trousers.

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What the well dressed tree is wearing this year.

A procession of girls moves jauntily down Oxford Street. Each girl carries an identical Gap carrier bag and wears brightly coloured skinny trousers. The legwear ranges through many colours and materials – there are 23 different types in the shop.

It took me a while to realise it was an advertising event. Initially I just assumed that ‘Jeggings’ had really taken London by storm, either that or Mayor Boris had passed a new bye-law banning big trousers.

How tempting was it to join that line? So called ‘modelling’ is one of the strongest determinants of human behaviour. But by the time I had got into those trousers the line would have reached Tottenham Court Road and disappeared.

Some animals are hard-wired to behave exactly the same as their neighbour, making possible formations like shoals of fish and flocks of starlings. Someone explained to me that starlings and fish do not need to be particularly clever to pull off this trick. All they need is the instruction ‘do the same as the one next to you’.

Humans like to create this effect too, in Busby Berkely movies for instance or the Red Arrows air display team.

We are used to seeing similarly clad people in other contexts, such as children in school uniform and North Koreans in boiler suits. We like to be wearing the right things.

A demonstration of modelling behaviour is one of many attractions to be found in the local shopping centre. Since social services closed all the day care facilities, shopping malls and libraries are the best places to hang out to keep warm.

Compared with the library, the shopping centre is quieter and more studious in atmosphere. Also there are more books to read.

This part is vital – before you visit the shopping centre – establish the goal. On this occasion the target is: 1.To experience the sensation of being out of place; 2. Not to respond to this sensation by buying something.

For your day out, start by re-framing the shopping centre as a kind of art gallery.

All the familiar shops / exhibits are there (not you Woolworths). There are lots of things you can do free: try out the mattresses in John Lewis, try on lots of jeggings, use the computers in PC world to look up reviews on the same model you are trying, so you can spurn the attentions of the salesperson, use the cameras to take pictures of other people testing cameras on you, try on tester perfumes and marvel at their interesting names.

Or go into Superdrug, and ask for a super drug, such as beta interferon. Ask why they call themselves Superdrug when the best drug they have is ibuprofen.

My hypothesis is that shopping behaviour is a sublimated form of hunting, or at least gathering. The important thing to remember is that all the fun is in the hunt, and once the quarry is cornered then the fun is over. It is all about the expectation of reward – pulling the trigger on a purchase is entirely unnecessary.

Buying something is like coming home from a day’s fishing with a small trout you could have bought in Morrison’s for £3. The trout’s dead eyes communicate to you: So what?

You should have thrown it back in.

Things are not always what they seem, and shopping malls allegedly have a purpose beyond amusement or art.

Shopping malls are meant to part people with their money, rather than act as a recreational facility for escaped psychiatrists. The architects and designers have put in some subtle influences to work on your mind.

One of these is the so-called ‘Gruen Transfer’. This is a place, within the centre, that is designed to disorientate people, by using a combination of unusual shapes and textures and lighting, often accompanied by Muzak.

Apparently the effect is similar to a unit of alcohol or other anxiolytic. People slow down through the Transfer, and co-incidentally this is where the higher priced items are located.

I am not convinced that there is a strong evidence base for the Gruen Transfer, or other devices perpetrated by the advertising industry. Certain low budget shops seem to generate the same emotional disruption.

The oddly named B and M store, sometimes sub-headed ‘Bargain Madness’ can induce such profound despair that it could probably be used as a testing lab for possible new antidepressant compounds. Here the store has been less discreet about its use of disorientation – the clue perhaps is in the word ‘madness’.

Agoraphobics, who tend to have panic attacks in shops, seem to dislike places where there is no clear sightline to the exit. The entrapment induces a sense of doom. Though Morrison’s have an excellent range of vegetables, the way they are laid out can set a person on edge.

Individually, fruit and veg items are not threatening, but when they gang up like this, piled high on all sides, it creates a kind of jungle effect reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.

Another piece of (probably bogus) psychology I have read, relating to supermarkets, is that people have an ‘innate tendency’ to gravitate anti – clockwise. This led to supermarkets placing their main entrances on the right hand side of the shop.

If it was on the left, people would just drift further leftwards into the vegetables section and beach themselves in the courgettes.

Staff would come out to spin customers into the next section, like fairground attendants on a waltzer.

I wonder if it is different in the southern hemisphere, or for the left handed?

It is perhaps a little frightening to think that someone has manipulated the environment in such a way that you have unwittingly bought yourself an expensive, weirdly named perfume.

I am not just referring to ‘Obsession’. What about ‘Hypnotic Poison’, ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘Thallium’? The internet tells me there is a perfume called M-75, which is the name of the rocket Hamas fires into Israel.

Perfumes, like the Gruen transfer, and the clockwise supermarket, are designed to create an altered state, but what exactly is the state of mind called? In the case of perfume, if it isn’t the name, it is probably solvent intoxication.

Or perhaps it is the feeling of being out of one’s element, or out of step with others. A warning that you are on unfamiliar territory.

Behaviourally, it is supposed to trigger a purchase decision.

The purchase decision is a learned behaviour that creates comfort, possibly by stimulating the ‘anticipation of reward’ section of the mind. The unsettled feeling is briefly quelled, only to be replaced by regret that you have suddenly become poorer and the shop richer.

How comforting is it to be in a herd of people all dressed appropriately and behaving in the same way? Enough people must love formations of soldiers to make it worthwhile dressing thousands of people this way and arranging them in large city parks. Everyone seemed to love the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Lots of people like to be in queues, and will probably join the end of any queue if they find one. If other people are after something, instinct says there is probably something there to have.

There is often not much to be found at the end of a motorway queue, which is formed by the pulsatile dynamics of traffic flow rather than obstacles, but the queuing instinct has evolved over the lengthy period of human history before tarmac and has not yet abated.

The instinct to behave like the person to the left of you is deeply rooted and possibly imprinted at an early age. Experiencing the feeling of being in the wrong place or in the wrong outfit is deeply discomforting.

Many people hate the moment in a restaurant when they have to set out to find the toilets. The fear is not that they will never find the toilet, but rather they will make them-self look foolish to others by dithering round the restaurant.

That is why I think it is a very tall order for CBT to try and get people to fight the idea that it matters a lot what other people think of you.

In the golden era of CBT, pioneers tried to attack this set of cognitions using grand behavioural tasks.

Albert Ellis, pioneer of CBT and our hero, in his list of the top 12 Irrational Ideas, included this as number one:

‘the idea that it is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in his community’

Loved? Maybe not. Approved? Maybe not? But thought to be wearing the wrong trousers? I’m afraid it’s a deal breaker.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter. Maybe not as much. Certainly try and test how much it matters. Certainly try and get it back into proportion.

But it just does.

That leaves us with a burning question. If it is so important to blend in with everyone, why do certain people do everything they can to attract attention to themselves? For instance by dying their hair a florescent colour?

This is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, since these people are relatively few in number, especially in professional groups like accountants or dentists.

Several answers to this – you choose the one you like best:

So that they are visible in traffic?

Reaction to feeling left out or insecure?

Mating ritual?

Group or gang identity?

Genuine lack of insight about how they look?

They are doing a CBT assignment to reduce the irrational cognition that it matters what people think about them?