Notes on the random talks I attend, ideas that I have and photos that I take living in London

Trusting people to make the right decision

I’ve added a blog post I drafted for a work audience below on the psychology of ethical decision making.  I wanted to post it here because it covers lots of things I’ve been thinking and hearing about recently.  In posting it on my personal blog I’d add 3 things:

  1. Like many people, I don’t think that you can or it is helpful to test for ethics or integrity but do think that we learn how to make ethical decisions based on our environment and the consequences of our previous decisions 
  2. Shame does the opposite of what is intended. If you have read any of my blogs about Jon Ronson you know he is bringing out a book about humiliation and you’ll also know that shaming people into ‘doing the right thing’ does the exact opposite of what you intend.  it stops people working through why they did the wrong thing in the first place and erodes their self esteem to a point where they give up hope and start behaving in an even worse way
  3. Not trusting people costs organisations money. Low-trust environments are riddled with hidden agendas, political games, team rivalries and people bad-mouthing each other in private.  With low trust, you also get a lot of rules and regulations that take the place of human judgment and creativity resulting in profound disempowerment.  

The psychology of ethical decision making 

Recent research by the London School of Economics (LSE 2014) suggests that between them, 10 of the world’s largest banks, including Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, have paid out about £157bn in “conduct costs” since 2009, equivalent to five years of dividend payments to share-holders. 

The industries response to these sanctions has been to implement controls and manage each specific conduct issue, but what about the people who made the decisions?  Would more controls have prevented them from making what were ultimately deemed to be bad decisions?  And do we know what they personally considered before making their ill-fated decisions?

Likewise, would having a control that specified that lying on a CV was the wrong thing to do have stopped ex Yahoo CEO Scott Anderson from padding his own and subsequently losing his job as a result?  Surely there just some things that we don’t need a control to tell us are the wrong thing to do? 

So, the question is does having more regulation, policies, processes and controls, mean that we will make more ethical decisions? Or do more controls actually reduce our ability and motivation to work out what is and isn’t ethical for ourselves? And what does it even mean to act ethically?  Surely it is a relative concept, one that can’t be taught? 

Psychological theory gives a number of different perspectives to understand ethical behaviour.  If we take a personality approach we could identify those people who were ‘less ethical’ relative to what we have deemed to be ‘ethical’ and select them out in the recruitment process. If we take a social psychological approach we could identify the everyday norms that create ‘ethical’ behaviour for individuals to replicate and if we take a behaviourist approach we would put in place regulation, process and controls to reinforce the right ‘ethical’ behaviour, again in comparison to what the processes, regulation and controls has set as ‘ethical’.  All of these approaches have strengths but they are also limited in the sense that they are relative and subjective.

In this paper we look at some classic thinking from developmental psychology and some more recent theory on the psychology of ethical decision making. Together they provide a lens to understand and build ethical behaviour in the workplace.

Starting with a definition, ethics are ‘universal’ principles of right or wrong that guide how people make decisions and live their lives.  A term derived from the Greek word ethos which can mean, custom, habit, character or disposition Ethics are concerned with not just what is good for the individual, but also what is good for society.  Ethics tend to cover the following dilemmas:

  1. How to live a good life
  2. Our rights and responsibilities
  3. The language of right and wrong
  4. Moral decisions – what is right and wrong or good and bad

None of the dilemmas are clear cut - otherwise they wouldn’t be dilemmas – and  these universal principles that determine what we as a society consider to be ‘ethical’ have also change over time.

Lawrence Kholberg, an American Psychologist and Professor at Harvard building on the work of  Piaget, Mead and Baldwin is widely held as responsible for the creation of a field of psychology called Moral Development. Kholberg (1984) suggests that what he terms moral reasoning, provides the basis for ethical behaviour divided into six identifiable developmental steps. The stages are cumulative and cannot be skipped, the result being, as we progress through, we become more equipped to respond to moral dilemmas.  

  1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
  2. Self-interest orientation (What’s in it for me?)
  3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Acceptance that our actions have an impact on others that drives adherence with accepted social norms)
  4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Respect for authority and the established social order)
  5. Social contract orientation (Laws are regarded as two way social contracts rather than rigid edicts)
  6. Universal ethical principles (Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws)

Kholberg suggested that not everyone, or every situation would require level 3 reasoning, but it is interesting to consider, given the work each of us does, how far through the stages we journey in our work and everyday lives.

The funny thing is though, when it comes to the topic of ethics and our own personal integrity, we don’t actually much like being told by others what is ‘right’ and there is evidence to suggest that the more ‘things’ that tell us what we should do to be right the less personal responsibility we take for determining for ourselves and acting upon what we personally consider to be right. 

To this point, in his research on ethics in business, Roger Steare (2013) suggests that at this time there are three dominant manifestations of ethics within modern organisations:

  1. Ethic of Obedience: our legal rights and duties. Obedience doesn’t invite us to think about what is right or wrong, it simply tells us.   For example it is wrong to steal someone else’s property because there are clear laws against it. 
  2. Ethic of Care: what is considered to be right and acceptable in a society based on empathetic moral principles such as love and humility.  The ethic of care helps us decide what is right by considering the consequences of our actions, good and bad, on others.
  3. Ethic of Reason: the rational principles that come from our experience that help us to make a thoughtful decision about what is right.  This ethic is based on our own perception of what makes ‘a good life’ influenced heavily by our own values and personal integrity. It grows as we get more experience in making good (and bad) decisions.

The rise in reliance on the ethic of obedience that we have seen in the wake of the variety of ethical scandals has its downside.  In his research Steare found that as society leans more heavily on obedience, we rely less on our care and reason.  Meaning that, over time, we become so used to referring to the rules, we forget to use our experience and empathy to guide us in making an ethical decision when the rules don’t exactly cover the situation we are facing. 

This creates a practical problem in that there will never be rules, controls or regulations that will cover every situation where we need to rely on our ethics, but in seeking to deal with the current ethical issues within our organisations, we often rely very heavily on implementing more rules, while forgetting about care and reason.  Relying on obedience alone also doesn’t work for leaders, who tend to not to be that obedient of rules to start with.

So how do you balance the three?  Steare suggests that whilst the rules are a good starting point they should never be the only factor we consider in making an ethical decision.

His RIGHT ethical decision making framework has 5 key questions: What are the rules? Are we acting with integrity? Who is this good for? Who could we harm? What is the truth?

So it appears that if ethics are based on principles we set as a society or an organisation then they are a relative concept that can’t be taught in a classroom, rather, as Kholberg suggests, they are learnt over a lifetime of making good and bad decisions.

Within the firm we have an ethical decision making framework and a set of ethical questions for us to consider as we practice making good decisions:

  1. Is it against the firms standards or professional standards?
  2. Does it feel right?
  3. Is it legal?
  4. Will it reflect negatively on you or the Firm? 
  5. Who else could be affected by this (others in the Firm, clients, you, etc.)? 
  6. Would you be embarrassed if others knew you took this course of action? 
  7. Is there an alternative action that does not pose an ethical conflict? 
  8. How would it look in the newspapers? 
  9. What would a reasonable person think? 
  10. Can you sleep at night?

When it comes down to it ethics is not just what I think is ethical, it’s what you think is ethical and what we think is ethical.  Context is key and there is simply no clear right or wrong answer.  But what is clear is that the more people you consult with, the more likely you can get closer to a ‘righter’ answer. 

References

Kholberg, L.(1984). Psychology of Moral Development: 2 Essays on Moral Development. New York, Joanna Cotter Books. 

McCormick, R (2014) Conduct Costs Project LSE

Steare, R. (2013) Ethicability; how to decide what’s right and find the courage to do it. UK; Roger Steare Consulting Limited.

We’re long term greedy: the story of a nice Canadian guy in a not nice situation

There can’t be many authors  who have managed to anger the President of one of the major US stock exchanges to such an extent that they induce them to lie live on CNBC resulting in the Attorney General no less asking them to take back what they said. In what started out as a Wall St detective story , Michael Lewis has taken his uncanny ability to use stories to explain away complexity (think Moneyball) and applied it to high frequency trading in his book Flash Boys.  

I beat the crowd of suits to secure a ticket to hear him talk to John Lanchester  at LSE about the shit storm that this book has created.  In person he is just as cool as you would expect - rememberimg that I think weird people are cool. He is  California slick, articulate and funny in a self-deprecating way.  Trying to explain high frequency trading in terms of technicalities is hard - really hard.  But the technicalities aren’t the interesting bit.  Flash boys is a study in human behaviour.  That’s the interesting bit.

In honour of Michael’s style, very simply, I would explain the story thus: a nice Canadian trader working on wall street trying to buy and sell stock on behalf of his clients realised that every time he hit enter to buy , the price of the stock would change on his terminal. At first he thinks he is going crazy or there is some IT glitch or that he has an insider trading problem.  He becomes obsessed with solving the problem and it doesn’t take long for him to realise that it is his trades that are the event causing the price to jump.  In essence, high frequency traders were using his buy order as a jump off point for them to use their faster systems to buy up all of the available stock on each of the exchanges and then fulfill his order at a very slightly inflated price. This front running of the market allowed these firms to keep the profit from the slightly inflated price for themselves. It’s a little like insider trading, except you actually know the price that is being offered to buy the stock first!

They were able to do this because when you hit a buy order for stock, you do not buy it from one exchange.  There are 13 public exchanges in the US and numerous other private exchanges or dark pools selling stock to the market. So when a buy order is sent, the order arrives at the exchanges at different times based on where the servers for the exchanges physically  sit relative to the server from which the buy order was sent - where the servers are located matters so much that some exchanges started leasing the space right next to their servers to the high frequency traders for them to park their own servers.

It’s hard to imagine these increments of time being valuable. It takes 100 milliseconds to blink your eye and only a quarter of that to front run the market.

The loophole that the high frequency traders are taking advantage of was, in part, created by a well-intentioned regulation that forced brokers to go to the market to buy at the best price for their clients.  So yes, this is a loophole and the SEC knows about it.   The nice Canadian guy(lets call him NCG) told them that when he built some software to ensure that his trades arrived at the exchanges at the same time to prevent the high frequency traders using their superior speed and location to their advantage.  But, and ths is where the human behaviour aspect starts to come into play, there were people within in the SEC who did not think that what the high frequency traders were doing was wrong or bad for investors, even if they ended up paying more for their stock. 

Lewis suggests this is because quite a few people from the SEC join the industry at some point.  I think it’s more complicated than that.  It’s nigh on impossible to fix such an insanely complex, highly secretive system from the outside.  You have to work from the inside out.  Just like the NGC.

People from across the industry knew that this was happening.  But many investors, even the serious professional investors, did not. With 13 public exchanges and any number of dark pools it is bordering on impossible for investors to find out how and where their money is being handled. After speaking to the SEC, NCG decided to go out and start telling investors what he had found out.  Most were equal parts shocked and weirded out that this guy from inside the system was sharing this information, just because it was the right thing to do.   Lewis claims that NCG even had to pretend to have an ulterior motive of being ‘long term greedy’.

I’d also make sure to say that Lewis is not anti-electronic trading.   In fact the opposite is true.  To his mind it was a good thing for the world to get the brokers out of the middle.  Getting people out of the middle actually eliminated many of the middle manager jobs on Wall Street, returning money to investors.  But electronic trading and the regulations that followed also served to make the market far more complex and fragmented, ripe for very smart people focussed on and rewarded for gaming the system. Lewis believes that much of the regulation today is focussed on catching people out, making them feel like criminals, rather than encouraging them to be more trustworthy or interested in acting in the best interests of their customers. 

Despite all this, Lewis claims to have written a hopeful book.  Perhaps it is.  Certainly the events that followed have been hopeful.  NCG has used the credibility he gained telling investors the truth about how their orders were being executed to set up his own exchange that intentionally slows down orders and does not allow anyone who will invest on the exchange to invest in the exchange.  The IEX is now used by many of the major brokers including Goldman Sachs who have gone so far as to endorse the exchange, despite being a major investor in other exchanges including the BATS Exchange.  The reasons why I think that they have done this are worth a whole other blog post.  Apparently, the book has also encouraged the Attorney General to launch an investigation into the claims of front running   

The infamous CNBC interview that allegedly stopped Wall St and inspired spontaneous applause from the faux trading floor behind the CNBC newsdesk was the first time the nice Canadian guy Brad Katsuyama had ever been on TV.  What a debut!  Alongside Michael Lewis explaining to the furious President of the BATS exchange and the audience why they believe the stock market is rigged.

The straw poll that Michael took in the room of suits at LSE seems to support that view with 70% voting that they believed the market to be rigged.  Michael describes how a friend of his was watching the CNBC interview from the floor at Goldman Sachs, standing next to one of their ‘old timers’.  The old timer says to his friend: the angry guy, so we own £150m of his exchange? The friend replies yep.  And the smart, little Canadian guy, we don’t own any of his exchange? Nup the friend says.   We’re fucked the old guy replies. Indeed.   

Want to be creative? Stop watching TED talks.

I spent my Saturday morning this week at Selfridges, which if you know me is unsurprising.  Well there was one surprising thing about this particular visit, I was hanging out with Neuroscientist and University Professor Vincent Walsh thinking about creativity and my brain. Is that surprising? Maybe not.  Anyway.

Walsh, a passionate taker of naps, lover of Arnold Schwarzenegger and player of trumpets started with some good news – there is no such thing as a creative person.  We can all be creative.  Scientifically speaking there’s also no such thing as the left brain/ right brain view on the world.  In fact he believes that we can all be creative if we bring something together in a new way that is measureable.  If we are to be creative, it’s likely we will be passionately obsessed about the topic and that the act of creativity will take courage, preparation and knowledge. 

He asked the audience to give him examples of creativity.  A couple of lame (authors note) examples followed before he shared his favourite, simple example: Muhammed Ali’s invention of the rope-a-dope. The rope-a-dope meant he could take on a whole heap of punches from the biggest puncher in the world at the time George Foreman (of George Foreman Grill fame) and win the bout.  I would agree that this is creative and is an example of how expert knowledge of subject – boxing – can help you work out how to do something in a new way.

According to Walsh, there are four key stages to creativity:

  1. Preparation – this is the grind where you gather the knowledge you need to become an expert on whatever problem you are trying to solve
  2. Incubation – you never solve a problem when you are thinking about it really tricky problems need to simmer.  The answer will probably come to you when you are out for a run
  3. Illumination – that aha moment
  4. Verification – the cold light of day when everyone poo poos your aha moment.  This can go on for a while.

Creativity is very difficult to measure, so it remains a highly subjective judgement as to who or what is or isn’t creative. Walsh is slightly sport mad so most of his examples of the uber creative, bar Arnie and Albert E, were sportspeople.  On this point, I’m not sure I would have said that Andre Agassi or the William’s sisters were particularly creative.  Yes absolutely experts at tennis, but not bastions of creativity. I’d suggest that in these examples he has mixed up the definition of expert with creative.  But I’m happy to be wrong, as per point 8 on the list below.

Walsh’s key tips to becoming creative, Chief Creative Officers of Fortune 500 companies take note:

  1. Have bad hair – all you need to be creative is a base level IQ of 120. There is no evidence to suggest that being smarter makes you any more creative than having mad hair
  2. Be a little crazy - but not too crazy no maiming or killing a la  Muybridge
  3. Sleep a lot – sleep improves brain function. It just does.  I don’t know how those executives I meet who boast of only getting 4 hours a night function. Presumably other people think for them
  4. Know your stuff – be an expert first, then get creative. As we all know Einstein was average at school and he didn’t start making history until he found his passion much later in life
  5. Be prepared – inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy and creativity is not always a eureka moment, sometimes it’s a slow burn. So do your homework and be patient
  6. Dare to be simple –  take your lead from Richard Fyneman, simple is beautiful , complexity means you have something to hide
  7. Be courageous – you are going to be challenged.  This is why it helps to be prepared and know your stuff
  8. Be wrong – experiment, practice and improvise in the right way.  Embrace failure.  If you are not failing you’re not trying hard enough.  Practicing and failing in the right way is the key to creative success.   

There are two key things that get in the way of creativity, which I absolutely agree with.  The first is the external setting of goals, which is all the rage for executives and others who think monitoring their own performance is beneath them.  If you are going to be creative, you need to define your own problem space. The second is giving people the wrong kind of reward.  There are thousands of studies, mostly in the behavioural economics space, that show that cash incentives are great if you are a digger and your employer wants you to dig more holes faster.  Cash incentives are not the right reward for creativity, in fact most of the time they worsen creative performance by focussing their eye on how they can get the big cash reward, rather than the best way to solve the problem.

So why should we stop watching TED talks? To Walsh’s mind science isn’t entertainment - its deep thought.  Also rather creepily he pointed out that they all speak at the same cadence (I checked a few out and for the most part this is true) and all we get is some received wisdom rather than a conversation. He also doesn’t like how they dress. Having said this, Walsh looks and dresses like Simon Cowell.  He also auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent.  On these grounds I am invoking the people in glass houses rule. 

Looking forward to Glastonbury already 

Looking forward to Glastonbury already 


Love this David Foster Wallace on leadership, in gorgeous felt-on-felt typographic artwork by Debbie Millman. Available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 
Transcript and a beautiful reading here.


Love this David Foster Wallace on leadership
, in gorgeous felt-on-felt typographic artwork by Debbie Millman. Available as a print, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Transcript and a beautiful reading here.

(Source: explore-blog, via creativemornings)

Winter wonderland 2013

Winter wonderland 2013

Romance, sadness and joy

After failing on a number of occasions, I finally made it to the exhibition celebrating Isabella Blow at Somerset house on Saturday. I’m so glad I did – how many exhibitions include outsized, yet elegant, Swarovski crystal lobster necklaces.

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The exhibition really shows her life though the lens of the designers she worked with.  In her years as a fashion muse and stylist she discovered and no doubt inspired, Philip Treacey, Julien McDonald and Hussein Chalayan, but it seems that the exhibition and perhaps she truly belonged with Alexander McQueen.  

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She first saw McQueen’s work at his RCA fashion show and even though it was well beyond her means, she bought his entire collection on the spot. He remembers “she came marching through with these great collapsed black organza horns on her head.  I just thought she was incredibly fab. She bought the entire collection, and after that she was well in with me! McQueen demanded £300 per item, which after commenting how expensive that was for a new designer promptly began paying him a retainer of £100 per week.

That first collection from McQueen, an East London boy, claimed to be inspired by Jack the Ripper.  You can see it and not just in his early works. So many of his works incorporating off center shapes, fringes and tortured lace, that covers one side of the body leaving the other side lopsided and exposed. Rather like his Jack the Ripper would have done.  She claims what attracted her to McQueen was “the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cuts to make them thoroughly new and in the context of today. It is complexity and severity of his approach to each cut that makes him so modern”.

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But I think it was simpler than that.  They just seemed to get each other.  I imagine it would have been a challenge to even start to look for someone who truly gets you when you are known for your idiosyncrasies like she was.  The exhibition told a couple of stories in words to illustrate these idiosyncrasies.  She was known for cleaning her desk at Vogue with bottled Perrier. But the real story was of course the clothes. The story the clothes told was of an intellectual, almost academic woman with a punk rocker’s anarchic sense of presentation.  The collection of outfits was altogether unlike anything else in the world, befitting of someone described as “the most interesting person” Philip Treacy had ever met.

Warrior sea anemone, meets Roswell resident, with a dash of ostrich tartan princess. Her outfits made use of glitter, crystal, glass, feather, leather, lace, paper, wire and I presume anything else on hand at the time. I would have loved to have met her. I’m wondering what I would have asked her if I did. She’s another one who makes me think, I wish I had enough guts to live my life like that - to jump in fully, rather than playing around the edges.  But as with all lives, hers came with caveats.

She had a long history of manic depression and when she died in 2007, Treacy and McQueen staged a Collection in her honour titled La Dame Bleue. It was a mix of feathers, leather, corsets, trailing skirts and of course intricately crafted hats. But the exhibition fails to mention, with good reason that at the time she died, all three weren’t on the best of terms with difficulties reported to go back to 1996 when McQueen hit the big time and she perceived that he failed to secure a role for her a Givenchy.  If the exhibition is anything to go by, I imagine that their difficulties would have faded over time.  McQueen also took his own life in 2010.

My memory of the videos that dotted the exhibition, memory was a mix of feathers black eyeliner and purple glitter. Isabella used to wear Fracas.  If you’ve never heard of it.  I went through a Fracas wearing phase in my twenties.  Wearing it used to make me feel glamorous, but it’s a strange smell. Very distinctive, full of tuberose and almost musty. You just can’t find it anywhere anymore. 

Light, physics and sandals

Light is a lofty topic for a talk but who better to tackle such a broad topic than a sandal wearing ex Anglican Priest, with a degree in Physics and Theology and a PhD in Philosophy.

How do you begin such a conversation? By asking them what they think of when they think about light to gauge the intelligence/ physics qualifications of your audience.  It is a proven fact that individual responses to that question will usually reveal a hidden PhD in Astro Physics.  This is important to do if you are about to embark on a crash course in the science, perception and philosophy of light. For those of you looking to put me in a box, I said light is the opposite of heavy.  I, of course, was in the minority with that response.

The definition that he went with, to set the tone for the talk was, that light enables us to see, but we don’t actually see it.  Oh a sign of things to come.  Further the scientific aspect of light allows us to see things differently, for us to be enlightened, if you will.  If it wasn’t inappropriate for people over 30 to use smiley faces, I would have used one after that sentence. 

Physics is the most accurate science known to man

We started with the physics of light, running through the work of: Aristotle; Newton; and Maxwell. It’s at this point that I learn that quantum physics is the most accurate science known to man.  Given my limited IQ, I have no way of validating the accuracy of this statement.  Further, physics envy is defined as scientists and other lay people who wish that their area of expertise was as accurate as physics.  Again, with my brain and in my line of work, I don’t have this issue, but I sympathise with those, such as our fearless lecturer, who do.  Given, this physics envy, he most definitely deserved a hefty round of applause for dealing with the topic of light on so many levels. I am not going to comment any further on the physics of light, for the aforementioned IQ related issues.

But humans mess it up by never truly seeing anything objectively

As humans, we are incapable of seeing things objectively.  I’ve never thought about it before, but for us to make use of light to physically see, we require some understanding of the context or environment within which we are seeing.  Think about it, even our language tells us this, for example we never say, my eye saw, rather, I saw.   It’s not just our eyes, rather our whole brain seeing. This is something explored by Sartre in his works, nothing has a value in and of itself, we assign value or context to what we see based on our own culture, traditions and experiences. This is why there is really something to be said for a great artist, who truly changes your perceptions of what you see. Or why I would say that I saw that the sea in Greece is blue, but that there is no word in Ancient Greek for blue.

During the two hour session we were awarded a 5 minute peanut break.  Typically this is a good opportunity for those who consider the talk to be bullshit to slip out unnoticed. But not to our theological guide!  Who named and shamed every person who left in the interval.  Lucky for them, most had just gone out for a smoke - although eternal damnation obviously awaited those who did actually leave. I thought Priests had an inner light and were somewhat impervious to the dark lord of self-doubt.  Knowing this makes me feel bad about leaving church early at Christmas all those times.  I’ll stay right to the end this year.  Even though the service always finishes with Away in a Manger – my least favourite carol.

That’s why we need ‘enlightenment’, to expand our otherwise narrow horizons

While it is true, we ‘see’ a combination of what our society, experiences and brain hemispheres allow us to see, there are some noble creatures among us who believe that we can ‘transcend’ these filters to achieve true enlightenment. Essentially, awakening yourself to possibilities other than what you have always know to be true.  Kant describes true enlightenment as: not accepting something just to be true, rather daring to know something for yourself; and then once you have convinced yourself that this thing is true, putting it to the test of public opinion.  To illustrate this, we spent a long time talking about Plato’s cave

Plato’s cave is a long story, but the idea is that there are a group of people fixed at the bottom of a pit, trapped by a combination of circumstance, apathy and fear of the shadow people on the wall.  One day, say one of the pit dwellers is released or the curiosity of what goes on beyond the pit wall, becomes too much for one pit dweller, who decides to climb over the wall and up and out if the pit.  Having done so, she makes various painful discoveries, including fire - it hurts her eyes - other humans who are using the fire and their bodies to cast the shadows on the wall and eventually sunlight, outside the cave.  Having made these discoveries, she chooses to follow Satre’s definition of enlightenment and returns to the pit to put her findings to the court of public pit dwelling opinion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work out well for her.  Watch the video

So it seems to me that we are all trapped, up until the point where we choose to be freed – or enlightened.  Simply freeing ourselves is painful and difficult, but the second step, the test of public opinion, can be downright deadly. Plato’s cave applies to our lives in so many ways, one of which being via physics, where the analogy put forward by one of the participants to describe the cave - of course there was a physics analogy - is the idea of being ‘able’ to see the world in 2D, 3D, 4D etc.

I don’t mind maths, but words are better 

You can’t argue that maths, physics and geometry bring light to many situations, by explaining things that we can’t use our spoken languages to explain.  I think that it is fair to say that the expansion of the scientific field has stilted progression of the other obvious definition of light, enlightenment.  Apart from Slavoj Zizek and Alain De Botton are there any other rock star philosophers out there working today?  Well Alain is actually more of a pop star, but the point is that we just don’t seem to spend the same amount of time just thinking or revere those who do - if not in the name of a particular problem that needs solving.  Philosophy, it seems, has become the domain of 1st year university students and jailed oligarchs. And that’s a shame. 

The fair at London Fields. Fun for hipsters young and old!

The fair at London Fields. Fun for hipsters young and old!

Thoughts on humiliation courtesy of the most awkward man on the planet

This is the second time I’ve seen Jon Ronson speak publicly and he continues to be the most awkward man on the planet – well, out of all the men on the planet that I have observed anyway.

There is something about him that is so self conscious it’s almost physically painful to be in his presence.  Luckily, or maybe because of this, he has some great stories on humiliation.  Traditionally his own humiliation.  However, now he is also researching the humiliation of others as part of his new book. 

He’s currently trying to understand, why it is that some people can literally die of shame while humiliation, seems to slide right off others . He started thinking about humiliation during the research for his previous bestseller “the Psychopath test” – a must read for any amateur psychologist.  He was interviewing a corporate restructurer, called Al Dunlap(chainsaw Al), who had an almost Teflon response to shame or remorse.  Jon was desperate to put Al into a box labelled psychopath.  In reality whilst Al is technically not a psychopath,  he does seem to have less of a shame and remorse response than the average bear.

Humiliation, shame and guilt are big topics for us humans.   We hate to be humiliated ourselves, but we love to watch others being humiliated. Reality TV, gossip mags, admitting to watching neighbours, we love it!  It’s an incredibly strong driver and barrier in our lives. 

We know we should do better and use our time more productively, but we are also fascinated by our own fallibility.  Seeing celebrities without makeup makes us feel alive/ less ashamed about how we look when we go to the shops or roll out of bed. 

Jon told a story, one you may have heard, about James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who, in the 1970s was tasked with reducing the huge amount of violence taking place in state prisons in Massachusetts. He interviewed thousands of prisoners and they told him the same thing: they had died inside the day they killed someone; and more violence was the only way for them to feel anything at all. At this time, many of these prisoners either continued to be violent inside prison or take their own lives.

James found that in response to violence from prisoners  the prison officers often took it upon themselves to administer justice, by way of humiliation and that the ridicule and humiliation that these prisoners suffered at the hands of prison officers, far from shaming them into stopping, ate away at their self respect to the point where they were so ashamed of themselves that they gave up caring about the guilt and shame and acted out even more.  It was only when prisoners were given ways to rebuild their own self-respect that the violence and suicide rates fell.

The use of shame or humiliation as a formal disciplinary tool, has been almost universally derided. Remember the criticism of that Harvard shame guy, who suggested that petty thieves wear placards around their necks as penance for their crimes.  But at the same time it is still ok for Prosecutors to use their prosecutorial discretion to push very hard to make an example of people. 

One area where they are pushing hard to set a precedent is cyber crime – even in cases that are crimes to some, but freedom of information to others.  Regardless, in the realm of cyber copyright related crimes people are being humiliated and in some cases going to jail.  One of these characters is Kim Dotcom.  The FBI claims he is the biggest profiteer from piracy around.  Commenting on his recent arrest he said: ‘Prosecuting me is like putting a hand in a river. You can’t stop a river with your bare hands. Water just flows around them’.  

This response from Dotcom to prosecution contrasts dramatically with the story of Aaron Schwartz, the brains behind RSS and the founder of Reddit.  He killed himself in 2012, when it looked likely that he would be sent to prison, for a maximum of 35 years, for releasing copies of MIT journal articles in bulk that were already freely available on the internet.  The Attorney General who prosecuted him, sought to make an example of him.  But to what end?  Surely she hadn’t intended to drive him to suicide, but most people that I’ve spoken to about the situation believe that the level of persecution, did not fit the crime.  

So it seems that some people who are publicly shamed are scarred and broken, while others, like Kim Dotcom and “chainsaw” Al Dunlap turn out fine. 

Brad Blanton is a radical psychologist who claims that you can learn how to avoid humiliation.  He even runs a course on it, the essence being that you have to humiliate yourself before anyone else can.  Firstly by revealing a secret about yourself that you’d never revealed before to a group of strangers.  The stories revealed in the course?  One hit and run murder and another proclivity for bestiality.  And these are the people who want to learn to not be humiliated!

If I have to murder someone to cure myself of the risk of humiliation, or have sex with my cat, I think I’m ok with just being easily humiliated.  I really hope Ronson’s book offers some reasonable, alternative solutions to minimizing our humiliation.  However, given that Jon describes himself as a bower bird, patchworking all the interesting bits that he hears together into one big sensationalist quilt - it probably won’t.