Is God fair?

Two questions: are you an attractive person? And, do you vote Conservative or Labour? You may think the questions are not related, but they are. Studies have shown (always a good phrase) that attractive people tend to move to the political right, while the ugly mugs tend to the left. The theory behind this is that attractive people have more social interaction, have better relations with schoolteachers, are more credible, have more useful contacts, and have a higher self confidence to support their resolve for achievement.

And there’s more to it than that. Standing in the dock you have a better chance to be found not guilty; in a civil case you are more likely to win and to get higher damages. The attractive child is less likely to be seen as the aggressor in a squabble, and more likely to be seen as intelligent. Go for a job interview and you have a better chance of being chosen. And so it goes on. You may think that appearances shouldn’t matter, but in fact they do. You may think that you do not judge by appearances but most of us do just that. And the final danger is that we are usually not aware of this bias, we like to think we are being fair.

Of course this is only a tendency, it’s easy enough to pick out attractive socialists or plain jane right-wingers – but nevertheless it makes a difference, and a difference which can follow us throughout our lives. Since I live in between socialism and toryism, but belong to neither, I must assume that my own attractiveness level is also somewhere in the middle.

It faces us again with the same old question: is God fair? Why are some people born with disadvantages, while others leave the starting line with a spurt. Why was I born in the leafy suburbs when I might have been born in so many countries where decent life and reasonable security is impossible – we hear about them every time we turn on the wireless.

Do I feel guilty about this? Not really, my guilt lies in my failure to use my natural advantages sufficiently to help those who are without them.

Posted in Quentin queries | 20 Comments

How do we get out of this fix?

This week I am reproducing (with permission) a leading article from the Catholic Herald of 31 August. As I had something to do with the initial drafting, it certainly expresses my view. But it may not express yours. So this is an opportunity to discuss the whole ‘abuse’ situation. How did we get to this? How do we get out of it?

“The grand jury report into Catholic clergy sexual abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania should shock but should not surprise. There have been many such reports on the US and elsewhere. Perhaps the most detailed is the Australian Royal Commission in 1917, following five year’s work. There are telling similarities. A commentator (New York Post) described some of the incidents in Pennsylvania as reading like scenes from a Marquis de Sade’s novel. Another, in the Washington Post, declared that the Church “has proved itself incapable of self-investigation and self-policing.”

It is this last issue which we need to address. Bishop Egan of Portsmouth has written to Pope Francis proposing a major synod on the life and ministry of the clergy. It would include the laity and other experts familiar with the whole area. It would be concerned with the rule of life of clergy, accountability and supervision. He goes on to note the lack of ministerial assessment and supervision between the diocese and the ordained. We wonder how many diocesan bishops have had the managerial training and experience needed by senior executives elsewhere.

We can easily understand the wish of a bishop to avoid scandal, to care for the sinner, and to live ever hopefully that he will repent and never sin again. And even if this is so for some individuals, we surely have by now the evidence that this is quite inadequate. The abuse of children is a grave crime. We know how children can be seriously damaged not just at the time of the offence but throughout their lives. We also know that the tendency to commit this crime is deep in the psychology of the offender. Whatever the proposed synod concludes, it must rule that such crimes, known outside the Confessional, should be reported to the police for investigation without delay. And that those in authority who seek concealment of the offender, irrespective of motive, should be treated as accessories.”

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries, Uncategorized | Tagged | 46 Comments

The patterns of the brain

No, I do not intend to write about Brexit, but I am interested in the process of decision we had to undertake before the referendum. I wanted to make an intelligent choice but all I was getting was acres of conflicting opinions from soi-disant experts. In the end, and not until the day of voting, I made the choice which I thought would most benefit my grandchildren. This was an important decision but it reminds us that we all make decisions every day and several times a day.

How does our brain cope? It maximises its capacity to process information through a very efficient strategy: first, by recognizing new information which is important and by filtering out information which is unimportant; second, by comparing the new information with patterns already in the brain. These stored patterns provide our pre-packaged judgments, responses and attitudes: for example, our recognition of the characteristics of certain types of people or useful ways of behaving in particular situations. Some of these patterns appear to be common to human beings, and have probably developed through the needs of evolution; others have been developed through personal experience and others through genes. Throughout life we continue to tailor our own individual patterns as we encounter new situations.

While the brain needs to work this way, the method has its problems. Some of the inherited patterns are no longer appropriate for modern life, and there is no guarantee that the patterns we have developed ourselves are correct or correctly applied. Fortunately the rational human brain is able to override the patterns and check them for objective accuracy. But to do this we have to recognize that there is a pattern at work, and that we need time to think more deeply.

For example, how could our decisions concerning the opposite sex be affected by our patterns? We might start off with evolution: we inherit patterns which have developed over countless of years. Then we have a lifetime of living with the opposite sex – from our parents, our siblings, to our day to day observations and relationships.

Take the following list: Englishmen, Jews, Irishmen, homosexuals, Italians, West Indians, Muslims, atheists, Catholic Herald columnists. We may find that each of those groupings suggests characteristics – good and bad – to our pre-packaged minds. And this suggests that our judgments about members of the group we encounter are affected by our expectations. But stereotyping goes far beyond such well-defined groups; it could cover tall men, attractive blondes, university graduates, adolescents, homosexuals, musicians – and so on. We hold in our minds assumptions about scores of groupings which provide a starting pattern against which we make judgments about the individuals we meet.

Psychologists have field days about all this. For example many different studies have shown that we are more strongly motivated to avoid loss compared with an opportunity to make a gain. A recent study demonstrates that stimulating a part of the brain substantially increases the tendency to avoid loss or to escape dangers. We must assume that our level of fear, written into our brains, has proved important for survival. But it often leads to bad judgments.

So the world is divided into the great mass of people and the relatively few who take care to learn their own patterns. These are also likely to be good persuaders. This is because effective persuasion relies on our presenting the case in terms of the target’s internal patterns rather than our own. Then we are three quarters way there. For instance, when I wanted to get my wife to agree to a domestic change I was more successful when I spoke of the children’s needs rather than my own. No doubt she did the equivalent to me but my fond belief that I was always rational allowed me to ignore my existing patterns.

I once had a boss whose preeminent pattern appeared to be getting his name in the papers. When I presented a new strategy his acceptance depended on the probability of this outcome rather than the quality of the idea. But there was a penalty: he took the credit for beneficial changes rather than me. I have described before how those who wear spectacles are credited on average with twelve extra IQ points. Or that taller men have better chances of promotion than their shorter brothers.

And last, but by no means least, we are strongly influenced by the groups within which we naturally move. As a result of evolution, groups who were united in their values prospered though their corporate strength. And so today we are inclined to agree with the values of our companions. Pick up your newspaper any day and you will see the damage which is caused by internal discord within societies, and even within the Church.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience | 1 Comment

Sexual education

Several years ago, after I had retired from full time work, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon a week with a young relative and her best friend. We did all sorts of things: poetry, philosophy, debates and so on. We were focussed on the higher aspects of culture which were missing from their convent education.

Being in their mid teens I asked them to write a joint paper on sexuality. I pointed them towards useful sources, and off they went. It was clear to me that they would be better prepared for the next stage of their life through finding the facts in this way than through the mistakes which accompany ignorance. When I asked them how what they had learnt meshed with their convent information they said “We were taught what the Church teaches, but now we know more about real life.”

The memory came back to me this week because of a recent article in Scientific American (September 2018). The author (Michel Shermer) was looking at several studies over the last decade on the relationship between sexual education and likelihood of abortion. I just give you a quote which convey the sense of the article.

“(Among American adolescents ages 15 to 19) abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse…adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence only or no sex education.” Other studies from a variety of countries showed complementary results.

The information from the studies was insufficient to allow me to question the quality of the quoted studies so I have to rely on the reputation of the magazine for its broad accuracy.

The conclusion and indeed the point of the article is that we should not rely on the law alone to control abortions. Rather, we should work to increase the practical knowledge of sexuality among the young. And particularly on contraception.

My immediate reaction, and perhaps yours, was that the advent of artificial contraception – and particularly from the pill in the ‘60s when women got personal control – has altered society’s views on sexual intercourse. From broadly considering it as belonging to marriage alone, and only used outside by default, it seems now to be considered as a proper expression for any couple who share a serious wish for intimacy.

But we are where we are. This clock will not be turned back. And occasional remarks on this Blog suggest that the young of many Catholic families are no different from their peers. What are the choices? Sniff and take no notice? Ensure a broad realistic sexual education combined with orthodox Catholic teaching? Simply teach orthodoxy and leave it at that? And I would want to take into account which approach affects the likelihood of abortion. I hope you share my view that artificial contraception is small beer compared with that.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 9 Comments


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)

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | 3 Comments

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 | 15 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.

Posted in Quentin queries | Tagged | 2 Comments