The Benedictine asked his abbot for permission to smoke while he was praying. Not only was this refused but he was punished for even asking. His friend, the Jesuit, sought the same permission from his rector by asking if he might pray while he was smoking. He was congratulated for his devotion. It’s an old story, and we can easily understand how a simple choice of phrasing gave a different response. But nowadays we must call this “nudging”.

Ten years ago “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, was published. The BBC described it as “probably the most influential popular science book ever written.” Thaler won the Nobel Prize for economics and Sunstein moved to the Obama White House to give guidance on persuading the public. Apparently the core idea has been adopted by several countries, leading the BBC to use the phrase “One small book has changed the world.”

So just what is a ‘nudge’? The simplest example might be to price an item in a supermarket at £2.99 rather than £3.00. We are aware of the triviality of the difference, but we read prices from the left and so somewhere in the brain, our choice is affected. A more substantial example comes from our friends in the HMRC. In order to speed up tax returns they chose the phrase: “Most people pay their tax on time. You are one of the few yet to do so.” Its use, instead of a plain reminder, improved returns by 15 per cent. Similarly, inviting job applicants to come for a second interview was more successful when addressed to the candidate by name, and even more so when the letter wished good luck. Another class of nudge is to change a request for people to opt in by automatically opting everyone in, unless they choose to opt out. It ensured that many more poor parents got free meals for their children.

Of course the effectiveness of these little nudges is easy to understand. Indeed we have always known that persuasion requires this kind of nudge. Even the Serpent used the nudge “eat the fruit and you will be like gods”. That nudge captured the whole human race. Many decades ago I was in the business of arranging pensions, and I certainly used nudges then. When we reached the crucial point of the actual application, I prevented my client from signing until he had read the terms and conditions. At that crucial point of uncertainty my insistence communicated my trustworthiness. It never missed. Similarly, when he was considering the size of his contribution (not his premium – another nudge) I told him what other clients in a similar situation usually contributed. Funnily enough he often found that he could afford just about the same as his peers.

But I do have some beef about all of this. Some 30 years ago I wrote a book (How To Get Your Own Way in Business). It went well: good reviews and a range of foreign translations. I was teaching such things as how to persuade your boss by using his values as motivation rather than your own, or how to delegate by encouraging personal commitment in a staff member. I was asked to communicate such techniques to a wide range of organisations under the title of “As the bishop said to the actress”. (That in itself was a nudge.) The fees were good but sadly no one suggested that I should get a Nobel Prize, or sent me off to advise Trump. Perhaps this was because I failed to call it Nudges, and aimed it specifically at business.

Do we feel uncomfortable at carefully choosing phrases which reflect our understanding of the susceptibility of human nature in order to get our own way? There is deviousness here. Perhaps the most primitive example is to teach infants to say please and thank you, knowing that it will help them to get better results – to say nothing of the value of a smile.

We might also consider the use of the nudge in the Church’s methods of teaching. Historically the moral law has been communicated in a negative way. “Thou shalt not…” is the opening phrase. And predominantly its characteristics are forms of punishment right up to the threat of eternity in the fires of Hell: scarcely a nudge, more like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Perhaps it would be better to keep our focus on the positive prospect of virtue. We all understand the meaning of the word ‘grace’, but how consciously are we aware that it is the presence of Christ’s love which we are privileged to express? When we think of those who hold other religious beliefs, or none, are we aware that any one of them may be closer to God than we are? (Nudge nudge)

(published in CH 10 August 2018)

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Burka — the real problem

So Boris Johnson is in trouble again. His comment on Muslim women wearing burkas as looking like bank robbers or letter boxes has caused enough stir even to knock Brexit off the front pages. I am no particular fan of Johnson but I read him because he produces interesting and provocative ideas. My aim today is not to discuss the issue although I think our society is turning towards being a nanny state. What I want to consider is the rôle which facial expressions play in the human race.

If we begin at the beginning we go back of course to Aristotle. He tells us that humans are a social race, and he derives from this the moral laws needed to sustain this condition. For example, we must avoid falsehoods because the communication of truths sustains society. We could go back further, even to evolution, to recognise that societies can only flourish if they respect and develop their social bonds.

The process, psychologists tell us, as a result of their studies, works like this. When we listen to people we hear and understand the words, but we can also recognise the feeling of the speakers. If, for example, someone is telling us a sad story we expect to see a sad face, and that affects our feelings. What happens is that the muscles of our own faces unconsciously react in accord. The brain is then triggered to recognise the presence of a sad feeling.

Psychologists and trained counsellors, who are using talking therapy, have to be skilled at this. And it is not easy to become accurately conscious of the feelings of the client. But, without this, therapy is unlikely to succeed. After all, our feelings are at the heart of our internal attitudes and choices. But at another level it applies in the pedestrian world. What happens if you don’t correctly recognise the feelings of your child, or the feelings of your spouse? Or judge them incorrectly?

I assume that the burka exists to defend Muslim women from having any social interplay with others than their own family. They can use words for necessary communication but avoid the emotional intimacy which their faces inevitably express. So I think they are a bad idea as they interfere with the social bonding a society needs. A moral theologian might describe it as against the natural law. But, unlike those countries which forbid the burka, I think we should permit it (leaving aside occanions such as court appearances or aviation passengers). I am very much against any regulations which prevent people making their own choices, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

So, thanks to Boris for putting the burka into the limelight, and making me think about it.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 8 Comments

Words, words, words

The English language is remarkable for its richness, and often allows for a choice of word or expression according to the flavour which the speaker intends to convey. The two versions of the same statement which follow are both saying the same thing. Or are they?

The modern advertising executive is full of creative ideas which can turn a rather staid image into something new and exciting. He knows what aspiring consumers want and he makes sure that the product really fits their expectations. He makes the best use of the latest scientific and psychological methods to ensure that a client’s major investment in publicity gets the very best return. After all his fees depend on satisfied clients.
The trendy advertising guy touts the latest gimmick needed to turn a respectable product into a slick package. He’s onto the yuppie wavelength and knows just how to appeal to the punters’ greed. He’ll describe the current, fashionable theory of consumer behaviour, with a good sprinkling of psychological jargon, and suggest that you can safely bet a fortune that it’ll work for you. Win or lose, he still gets his cut.

I’ll leave it to you to decide between those two descriptions. But it’s worth spending a minute or two analysing the methods they use to convey totally different impressions. What is the difference between ‘creative ideas’ and ‘latest gimmick’, or between ‘major investment’ and ‘betting a fortune’? The contrast is exaggerated in order to make the point; but it reminds us of the importance of the choice of language needed to appeal to the right patterns in the Target’s mind. Care must be taken to avoid giving the wrong impression, or endangering the impact you intend.

Secondsight Blog is of course largely designed to stimulate discussion on a variety of issues. Sometimes these are serious and important, others are rather lighter. Nothing pleases me more than contributors disagreeing – including of course disagreeing with me. It is interesting to note how contributors choose their language to support their impact.

When I wrote recently about rhetoric I did of course include rhetorical writing. And we considered whether rhetoric could be judged a little underhand since we are deliberately choosing to persuade our readers by using techniques of which they are not aware.

So we might pause for a moment and consider how often, whether on this blog or elsewhere, we use rhetoric to get our point across – perhaps at the expense of our reader.

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Do you remember?

We need a little discipline for this week’s question. Before you read another word pause and think of your very earliest memories. It might be sitting in a room when something relatively dramatic occurred, or really something quite minor which struck your attention at the time. It will probably have a visual content such as the room you were in. Think about it, try and place your age, then read on.

You’ll find it hard to beat my first example: it comes from the day I was born. I was sitting in my Granny’s house eating my tea when the telephone rang. It was to tell us that I had just been born. The picture is clear in my mind – down to the details of Granny’s room. So I have been forced to reconstruct. As it happens my brother is two years older than me, to the day. So I think that in reality he had been sent to tea with Granny next door when the call was made. I was later told the story and somehow exchanged myself for my brother. It is relevant that in later years I was often in my Granny’s house, which was next door.

Another example may actually be true. I am standing in the back garden and I ask my father about the house being built next door. I asked him about the wooden planks, and he tells me they are part of the roof and will be covered with tiles. I am impressed with the thought. My checks tell me that I was under three years old.

An interesting study, published many years ago, asked people where they were when they first heard that Kennedy was assassinated. They were able to identify the very room. But checking with the family showed in many cases that this was not so. A serious study published this July showed that some 40 percent of people had faulty memories of these early events. Middle aged and old people were most likely to experience this. Current research claims that memories cannot be formed before the age of three and it was suggested that the apparent infant memories were formed by connecting several different incidents – such as a pram, to which we mentally attach a favourite toy or some such.

So have a good look at your early memories and consider whether they are really true. You may find that your relatives or older friends can remember the situation and can confirm or correct them. And then tell us.

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The beginning of a person

You may remember that on my posting of 31 May (The Control of Life) I included “But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.” And we had some discussion to try to understand this further.

Interestingly a new study which is relevant to this question, has just been published. Until now, it was believed that the male and female genes blended at fertilization – producing the whole genome of the conceptus. But now it is understood that this does not appear to be the case: the male and female genes do not blend until after the first cell division – some 24 hours later.

If this discovery is confirmed it is clear that we are not talking about an individual human being until this stage. Here is one secular issue, noted in the study.

“Furthermore, the knowledge from this paper might impact legislation. In some countries, the law states that human life begins — and is thus protected — when the maternal and paternal nuclei fuse after fertilisation. If it turns out that the dual spindle process works the same in humans, this definition is not fully accurate, as the union in one nucleus happens slightly later, after the first cell division”.

There are theological consequences too. The Church argues that we are talking about a human being, with its consequential rights, ab initio (Evangelium Vitae, para 60), nevertheless we may think that our moral duties to a conceptus which is not yet an independent human being vary from those which apply to one who is.

You can find the report at

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#METOO and evolution

#METOO has caused a great fuss on the press and in social news. But its profile has been overtaken by new issues. It will come back with the next scandal. But in the brief break we may allow ourselves to look at the question at more leisure. Today I want to take a peep at the contribution of evolution.

We can sometimes see evolution in action. A simple example is the peppered moth. Before the Industrial Revolution the moths with light-coloured wings flourished because they were camouflaged against the light tree trunks — while their darker kin were gobbled up by the birds. But after the Industrial Revolution the tree trunks became darker. The light coloured moths got eaten and the dark coloured, now safely camouflaged, flourished. So the purpose of evolution is to preserve the species in their, sometimes changing, environment.

This development could of course be studied directly through careful observation over time. But how about the human race? We can only make intelligent guesses based on the little evidence we have. We know for instance that until quite recently women tended to spend most of their adult life producing children, many of whom did not survive to breed in turn. Menstruation, for instance, was rare because of the frequency of pregnancy. It wasn’t thought of as the ‘curse’ but as a blessing. The great apes menstruate but, for the same reason, this rarely occurs.

So we may speculate about what effect evolution had on the human mating game. What I am writing here is a brief list of the possible evolutionary outcomes. Look at it, see if you agree, see what you might add. I am not a woman but I am a Catholic who was married for 6 decades, with five children – so perhaps I know a little more about female reproduction than the next guy.

A woman must continuously keep an eye open for potential breeding mates, but she must not be too proactive to avoid being seen as a flighty, and so unreliable, woman. She will often dismiss a pass because she needs time to assess qualities. Personal attraction expands the range of male possibilities. She looks for: health (seen in symmetry, particularly the face), reliability. general competence, authority, resources. The instincts remain even if she is satisfactorily married. She notes men as attractive on the same criteria.
A fundamental tendency to spread his seed widely, encouraging him to be proactive. This is tempered by the need for a fertile woman capable of bringing up a family. He will not expect to be chosen immediately and accepts that he must persist, even against a negative response. He will look for good health (symmetry again) and maternal proportions such as breasts, hips/waist. Attractiveness in his mate will boost his standing amongst his peers. The instinct remains after marriage since mistakes have a low biological price for him.

So what do you think?

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 12 Comments

I’ll solve your problem

Looking at a long life I sometimes try to recall incidents or discoveries which I took to heart, and have continued to benefit from since then. The first one which occurs to me is when I learnt how to listen. Back in the late ‘60s I became a marriage counsellor. Of course I was trained for this, and before long I was sitting in a presbytery, and meeting a range of people whose lives were going wrong. In theory they would all be married couples, in practice it could be people with gender change or deep-rooted homosexuality – or almost any other personality distress you could think of.

So I had to learn to listen. I had started under the impression that I was a good listener, and even better at providing workable solutions. But I was taught that this was not the listening required. It was no more than a form of narcissism which gave me a conceited sense of wisdom.

If you think about it, normal conversations are like a tennis match. We take in quickly what the person has to say and, already, we are preparing our answer. And so the ball of conversation flies backwards and forwards. Minimal listening, maximal responding. Counselling is the opposite. Here, the counsellor listens very carefully, taking in every nuance and watching any nonverbal signals. Then he (or she) reflects what he has understood, both in terms of information and emotion. The client, who is not used to anyone actually listening, gains the confidence to explore their difficulties at a deeper and deeper level. Later the counsellor will help the client think about what they have described, and how they might takes steps to improve the situation.

Of course formal counselling is a specific situation, but I found that really listening: to my wife, children, friends, colleagues was enormously valuable. I no long appeared as the ‘know all’ . Instead I was someone whom you could talk to and who wouldn’t judge you, and who might help you to solve a problem or two.

I would like to claim that I am constant in this approach. But no. The gravity of my ego pulls me down to becoming the ‘know all’ again. I regularly have to look at my conversations and check how well or badly I have been listening – and to make a new resolve.

So you might like to try an exercise. Look out for an occasion when someone, perhaps close to you, starts a conversation. And then see what happens if you use listening in the way I have described. You may find that difficult to do. I was obliged to practice again and again, and in different circumstances, before the message began to stick. A phrase I was taught to keep in the back of my mind was ‘you feel X because of Y’. As in ‘you feel low today because you had some bad news yesterday’. I found that helpful.

You may find the outcome surprising. The speaker may well have never had the experience of someone really listening to him. And, as in the counselling room, a great deal more will emerge. It may end up not with ‘I’ll give you the solution for that’ but with ‘what do you think the solution for that would be? This could lead to practical objectives which the speaker is helped to identify. The listener is not solving the problem but guiding the process which enables the speaker to solve the problem.

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