I’m prompted to write by a piece I’ve seen today on the BBC news website. It’s about a study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (available in full here) which has found that children’s TV programmes – not the advertising, the programmes themselves – are as stuffed full of junk food as many of the kids who watch them.
As one of the researchers, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, put it:
“Programmes have teenagers after school going to a coffee shop or fast-food outlet, having lots of sugary or high-fat foods and they’re all thin and happy, and that’s not realistic.”
Now, I don’t think the good professor is suggesting that every shot of a skinny teenager shovelling down a hamburger should be balanced by an image of some poor soul with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia or cancer – but she has a point. (For more information, try these pieces from Scientific American.) Junk food is so named for a reason. It’s bad for you.
Especially in the quantities shown on television. The researchers basically watched kids’ TV for 5 days on the BBC and the Irish broadcaster RTE. They found one food cue on average every 4.2 minutes. Nearly half (47.5%) of all mentions of food were for unhealthy stuff, like sweets, and a quarter of drinks-mentions were for sugar-sweetened beverages.
Clever, clever food industry.
What particularly struck me was the comment by that most faceless of entities, a BBC spokesperson:
“We broadcast lots of programmes to promote healthy eating to children and to help them understand where food comes from, with series like I Can Cook, Incredible Edibles and Blue Peter.”
Now, this is either disingenuous or it shows a startling lack of understanding of basic psychology. Since the BBC knows enough psychology to put its comment at the end (thereby increasing its impact) … well, anyway, let’s give this respected media organisation the benefit of the doubt, and explain.
In my book Brainwashing, I talk about two kinds of ‘thought control’. Brainwashing by force is, if you like, the classic form: psychological torture, breaking someone’s resistance. Then there’s brainwashing by stealth, in which the persuader tries to slip ideas into someone’s mind without them noticing.
Take advertising, for instance. An ad for a car gives you an explicit message about how brilliant the car is; but you’re also getting unspoken messages about the kinds of people who own cars like this. You don’t see many car ads where the vehicle’s driven by elderly, ugly, sick or obviously poor people. There might be a buggy in the back, but a wheelchair?
Consumers may well not buy that specific car. But they’ll absorb the implicit messages about what society thinks is good and desirable, and all the better for not having the messages spelled out.
This study of child-specific TV programming found that food cues were much more likely to be linked to social rewards and good outcomes than to punishments and negative consequences. Unhealthy cues were presented for a shorter time, on average, than healthy ones. And overweight characters were much rarer than in real life. All of which sends the message – without saying so – that eating junk food is fine. More than fine: socially desirable and rewarding.
And so it may be, except that these childhood pleasures come with a hefty adult price tag (just ask the NHS).
If the BBC thinks that explicit messages about food health, presented in special programmes, are an effective way of balancing the stealthy persuasion uncovered by this research study, I’m afraid the BBC is wrong.
Tags: doggerel, humour, poetry, Psychology, science, verbal fluency
For information about IDS, UK politician Iain Duncan Smith, click here.
For information about IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, click here.
What is IDS?
IDS (Irritating Doggerel Syndrome) is a common and hugely under-diagnosed phenomenon. It afflicts all ages, though it may be more common in older people. The causes of IDS are not well understood and there is currently no treatment. However, recent research has opened up some promising avenues for future therapy (see Treatment, below).
IDS is characterised by obtrusive automatic thoughts in response to the perception of certain words or phrases (‘triggers’). These ‘autoresponses’ are similar to those which occur in depression, but they are not necessarily either self-related or negative in content. They are however often linked to negative emotionality, social anxiety and externalising behaviours, though the latter tend to be context-dependent.
The content of autoresponses typically incorporates cultural references such as lines from songs, advertising slogans, political soundbites or poems. (Note that the term ‘doggerel’ should be interpreted not as a judgement of cultural value, but as a reflection of the persistent, involuntary, and often unwanted nature of the thoughts.)
Example (Patient A, male, 52): “My IDS is weather-related. Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, my head’s full of the chorus from that song Knock on Wood that Amii Stewart sang. “It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening.” I don’t even like the wretched song! Lightning sets me off with Queen’s music for Flash Gordon <Patient sings> “Flash! Ah-ah!” When the sun comes out, it’s, “The sun has got his hat on“. When it rains: “The rain it raineth on the just …”
“The trouble is, once it starts, the whole lot goes through my head, as much as I know of it anyhow. Sometimes I find myself saying the words aloud, which is embarrassing. Especially the second verse of “The sun has got his hat on” – it’s terribly incorrect. Thank God I only know that one line from the Amii Stewart song.”
Example (Patient B, female, 45): “I’ve had IDS for years but never knew what it was. It’s such a relief to know it’s a recognised syndrome, even if they can’t cure it yet. Mine’s triggered by all sorts of things. For birds, I get, “Toity poiple boids, a-sitting on da koib, a-choiping, an’ a-boiping, an’ eating doity woims”. For buses, “What is it that roareth thus? Can it be a motor bus?” It does get in the way, because it’s hard to stop until you’ve said the thing through. And you have to be careful not to say it out loud.”
Example (Patient C, male, 33): “I’ve had severe IDS as long as I can remember. I was exposed to a lot of T.S. Eliot as a child, my dad loved his stuff. Not that Eliot wrote doggerel, but you can get a bit cheesed off with anything if it won’t stop. My friends are used to me suggesting we do things with, “Let us go then, you and I,” but it can be awkward with strangers – I’ve been known to greet random women with, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree!” My worst trigger is April. “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land …” The Waste Land>.
There is little research into IDS, but some studies have suggested that it is associated with education, cultural consumption, and with having wider social and cultural networks. Individual factors linked to IDS include the personality factor ‘Openness to Experience’, working in a language-related profession such as academia, and higher-than-average scores on tests of verbal intelligence and fluency. Some IDS patients are also particularly susceptible to ‘ear-worms’ – catchy tunes – but not all. Exposure to bad poetry, especially in youth and young adulthood, is a well-established risk factor. Parental occupation has also been linked to IDS, with children of writers, teachers and academics particularly at risk.
It is thought that IDS involves over-activation of the brain’s semantic networks. Neuroimaging studies show activation of parietal and temporal brain areas involved in processing language and emotion. There are two major hypotheses of how IDS develops. Some researchers have suggested that the link between trigger and autoresponse is abnormally strengthened by, for example, concurrent strong emotion (the ‘Single Hit’ hypothesis). Others propose a more gradual formation, with weaker positive reinforcement repeatedly serving to strengthen the link (the ‘Slow Burn’ hypothesis). Most studies agree that positive, rather than negative, reinforcement is more likely to be involved in IDS.
There is no current treatment for IDS. Studies are underway into whether methods developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder may be effective. These involve altering intrusive memories, either with drugs, repetitive brain stimulation, or – as a last resort – deep brain stimulation. Anecdotally, some patients have found hypnosis helpful.
In the 1960s it was thought that IDS could be treated with aversion therapy: associating the trigger word with an alternative, highly unpleasant experience such as electric shock. However, this line of research was discontinued, on ethical grounds after some patients suffered serious side-effects, such as anxiety and psychosis.
In short, insufficient evidence currently exists to recommend any of these treatments.
Much clinical attention has therefore focused on prevention, rather than cure. Current guidelines for IDS patients, and for parents wishing to reduce the risk of IDS in their children, are as follows:
- Parents should refrain from teaching their children poetry, or rewarding them if they recite it. Access to poetry books should be restricted. In many households this will already be the case, but Internet access should also be monitored.
- Access to pre-2000 popular music should be restricted. (Much of the more recent music in this genre is entirely concerned with dance and rhythm, so the words tend to be inaudible or unmemorable, posing less of a risk for IDS.)
- Listening to classical music should be encouraged, as any words are often foreign, or complicated, and are thus less easily remembered.
- Media channels which carry advertising should be avoided. Any temporary discomfort will be offset by the increase in viewing quality.
- People with severe IDS should be quarantined where possible, as the condition can be highly contagious.
- If avoidance is not possible, at least try not to smile when someone with IDS says something bizarre. It only makes them worse.
Tags: BT, data overload, humour, internet use, science
Owing to a technical fault, I have only just got back online. Yes, from Sunday to this morning I had no Internet access. No email, no Twitter, no Skype. No BBC news website, no science news updates. No iPlayer to download programmes I then forget, or don’t have time, to watch. No instant fact-check or query-satisfaction or just another look at the inbox.
I couldn’t even find out whether my niece’s hamster, boarded out while the family go on a proper holiday, can be safely left alone with a piece of cucumber, or should be restricted to carrot.
I exaggerate somewhat, because on Tuesday morning — Monday was a Bank Holiday here — a friend went back to work with a list of things to check. Of course, a good person shouldn’t be using work time to look up hamster diets. Then again, in my book a good person shouldn’t be using weekends, evenings, and national holidays for work, yet I’ve never heard the friend’s employers complaining. So they can put up with a little extramural research. (With such small steps is the path to corruption taken, but until my friend’s employers stop expecting apparently endless working hours, I’ll stay corrupt.)
I work at home. And BT take their bank holidays seriously, so they couldn’t possibly do anything about the problem for almost a whole working week. Or so they said. They sent me an email. I know this because the friend checked — another thing you’re not supposed to do. The email told me that they were investigating the problem. That’d be the same problem which stopped me checking email … at least, officially.
To be fair, they sent a “We know you’ve got a problem” text on Sunday. Then an engineer turned up, completely unannounced, this morning, just as I was about to brave the local library in a desperate hunt for internet facilities. Hey ho. They did fix the problem. We’ve stuck with BT for the reason Churchill recommended democracy: other telecoms firms have always looked worse. I’ll stay with that judgement for now.
There’s been one glorious upside to all this. I’m doing background research for a new book, and it hasn’t taken long to discover that the literature I ought to know about is catastrophically massive. Every week far more new articles come out than I can possibly read, and I’d already built up a to-do list of over 500 which I really ought to do something about. There’s no way this is going to happen, but at least this week I’ve started catching up on some of the backlog: ruthless weeding’s got it down to around 460.
People who don’t run internet providers or telecoms companies often say cutting down on internet use makes you more productive, happier — all the things you’re supposed to be when you’re not consuming news, being bullied by capitalism, chasing links across the web, and being distracted by cybertrivia. In four days, I can only hint at increased productivity, but maybe I should look into voluntarily restricting my internet access. Anyone know a good freeware programme that does this?
Meanwhile, once this blog post’s up, I’m disconnecting once again. Honest.
So, enormous heap of biochemistry papers, it’s just you and me now.
A link, a link, my kingdom for a link …
There’s a lot of both about these days. The news is full of people being praised for their passion and commitment, from volunteers to athletes to science communicators. The media seethes with thrilling stories of ‘high drama’, from Ukraine to South Africa. Public discourse, it seems, is all about excitement; yet however much we have, we’re constantly being told we ought to have more. And that’s a problem, because excitement is not an unqualified Good Thing.
I knew this already, but if I hadn’t, writing a book on cruelty would have made it clear. Passion, after all, originally had to do with suffering. As for commitment, suicide bombers, war criminals, religious maniacs and other fanatics have tons of it. (Some cruelty is about thoughtlessness and lack of empathy, but not all.) Commitment to their beliefs can drive people to commit horrific atrocities. In the worst crimes, excitement — rather than sadism — is often an additional motive. Being cruel can really get the adrenaline going, and adrenaline’s a powerful drug.
Away from the terrible darkness of cruelty, however, there are more mundane reasons for wishing we could just all calm down a bit when it comes to this societal thirst for continual excitement. One is that, here in the West, we have ageing populations, and older people tend to prefer life to be less of an emotional roller-coaster. (Which adult, honestly, would go back to the agonies of childhood and adolescence, when everything mattered so intensely?) Another is that life’s too full of stuff already; we deal with far more, daily, than our grandparents had to think about.
Both those reasons, of course, may actually be driving the emphasis on excitement, as people long to stay young, or the competition for their attention gets fiercer. It’s also possible that the demand for thrills is a response to our increasingly safe and managed world, and perhaps to the feeling, well expressed by Paul Bernal, that much of that management rather dehumanises the managed.
Whatever the cause, there seems to be a prevalent expectation that excitement is, if not a human right, at least an ideal to which we should all aspire. Information by itself is not enough; it must be garlanded with gimmicks to catch the wandering consumer’s eye.
In my home territory of science, and in the news I sample every day, this is a potentially catastrophic problem. At its heart is a conflict between two domains: factual knowledge, and the media. It’s made worse by private ownership and the profit-motive, but even public sector organisations like the BBC are vulnerable to financial pressures for accountability, value-for-money and ratings. As indeed, increasingly, are public sector scientists.
The problem is simple. Media reporting is about what sells, or what boosts ratings. That constrains what is reported towards short, simple, highly salient (attention-grabbing) material. Since only unusual things are salient, the media is silent about most of everyday experience, and greatly distorts much of the rest. Yet the same media outlets are also presumed to reflect, in some way, how society is, and many people take their views about many things not from direct experience but from what they see on the telly, or read in the papers or online. The result: false beliefs all over the place.
This may seem old-fashioned, but news — including science news — shouldn’t be kow-towing to the impact agenda. It marches, or it should march, under a different flag, because what matters is not impact, but accuracy. Scientific findings aren’t true in the absolute sense in which ‘truth’ is often used; they’re not religious revelations or political convictions. But in the more ordinary sense of carefully trying to reflect reality, they’re far more true than a lot of media output.
For example, it’s irksome to see people talking, enthusiastically, about how exciting science is. Sure, once in a while. The rest of the time they could be hauled up before the Advertising Standards Authority for misdescription. I love science because it’s interesting, but interesting is not the same as constantly exciting (and my tastes are somewhat specialised). Not all science even manages to be interesting even to the scientists doing it, let alone the general public. Why should it? It’s not there to entertain, it’s there to figure out how the world works and help us work better in it.
Passion and commitment, so praised elsewhere, are an active danger for scientists. If your beloved theory is too beloved, you may not be able to see its flaws, and if it’s disproved, your commitment to it needs to stop. As for excitement, it’s often the most exciting papers that get the most publicity — and are then retracted. (Scientific misconduct is a problem that rarely makes the mainstream news.) Meanwhile, the boring stuff goes on quietly making progress.
As for the ability to communicate science, to bring out its interest for people who don’t know much about it, IMHO it has less to do with being exciting, and more with the ability to see the world from their point of view and make the topic relevant to them.
Excitement is over-rated. When it comes to science, and to news in general, it may be actively damaging. At the very least, we shouldn’t be letting it take priority over accuracy. Leave entertainment to the entertainers, drama to the dramatists, and commitment to anyone harmless. Science isn’t a cult. It doesn’t need more passion and excitement; if anything it’s got too much already. Passionate believers can lead a field astray and waste vast amounts of funding; thrilling tales can become distorting myths; high drama can distract from accurate research. (The same goes for news.) Better to treat our sciences the way we should be treating other areas of knowledge: with care, doubt, and in-depth investigation. And if that doesn’t sound totally thrilling … well, so what?
Tags: benefits, cognition, dementia, Education, unemployment, work
A study making headlines today in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology suggests that having a mentally demanding job before you retire is associated (in about 4000 Americans) with “higher levels of cognitive functioning before retirement, and a slower rate of cognitive decline after retirement”. Use it or lose it, in short.
And who wants to lose it? A retirement spent blowing the kids’ inheritance on having fun is one thing; a retirement blighted by stroke or dementia is quite another.
A letter to my local paper last week, meanwhile, remarked on the way we insist on people ‘finding jobs’, even as companies increasingly use technology to replace them. Or to shift the work elsewhere: the forms which would once have been filled by a secretary are often now completed by customers, online.
Which got me thinking — as I and many before me have thought — about work and the way we organise it.
Frankly, it’s rather silly. The timing’s inept, the concept old-fashioned, and the execution often cruel. For much of history this hasn’t mattered, as there’s been plenty of work to go around; also many people didn’t live long enough to worry about retirement. But things are changing, as the available labour shrinks. And not only shrinks, but shifts towards two extremes: the much-puffed ‘knowledge economy’, and the rest.
- ‘high-end’ jobs pay relatively well and demand a lot of skills and brainpower (e.g. university teachers and researchers). They also have high workloads and long hours;
- more manual jobs, which we can’t yet replace with technology, are typically much lower-paid, despite the fact that it’s hard to see how caring for the sick and elderly is less important than teaching kids why Hamlet, or quantum mechanics, matters. Of course, you don’t need extensive training to be a carer.
(We might infer that high pay is perhaps a reward for time invested in previous study? — except that investment bankers can earn far, far more than university lecturers. Is it then a reward for effort, or physical labour? Tell that to a farmer. For danger? Ask a fireman. For being brilliant and/or irreplaceable? That’s what the most highly-paid often seem to be saying, but there’s very little evidence that they’re right.)
There’s less work to go round, especially for those without the best qualifications. And what work there is doesn’t always pay enough to live on. The private sector is on a win-win here. They can get away with paying low wages because the state will fill the gap. They can hike rents, or drive up house prices, because that’s ‘the free market’. They can make profits by pushing their costs onto others, and still whinge about the tax they have to pay — when much of that tax goes on payments that wouldn’t be needed if they weren’t so utterly focused on making money.
In Britain, we hark back to the days when great companies built houses for their workers, or gave their kids schools. That kind of philanthropy may still go on, but we don’t hear much about it. Instead we hear a lot about companies who seem to live by the ancient Roman principle: “homo homini lupus” (“Man is a wolf to man.”) And they have the cheek to complain about government ‘red tape’! Guys, if you behaved better we wouldn’t need to impose the regulation on you — and on everyone else.
As work becomes scarcer, the rhetoric of its desirability intensifies. You’d think humans lived entirely and only to work. The unemployed are stigmatised, their benefits decried (yet the far more expensive pensions of the elderly are OK, because they earned their rewards). Kids are so indoctrinated with the need to find a job that they spend much of their childhood cramming, agonising over exams, struggling with homework, knowing they have to achieve — at a time when they’re dealing with the massive social pressures of growing up. Small wonder some drop out. People who can’t work feel dreadful guilt. Some who lose their jobs are driven to suicide.
There’s something pitiful about a first-year university English Literature student distraught because she’s “wasted time” reading Wuthering Heights when it wasn’t on her course. Or a seventeen-year-old whose only idea about all the cultural riches available to them is how to get work that will pay them enough to buy lots of stuff. Come to that, there’s something pitiful about a middle-aged adult lying awake at night worrying about how they’ll cope with both a sick parent and the demands of running their own household, while working all the hours their job demands. And there’s certainly much to be pitied in the lonely senior, deprived by retirement of company and stimulation, or the hard-working tax-payer who, as they reach retirement, is diagnosed with some appalling illness, like dementia.
Why do we do it this way? It’s bad for our brains, our health and our happiness. At the time of life when we are most able to enjoy ourselves, some of us are working ridiculous hours while others face empty days. Women lose out if they have kids, especially if they choose not to deposit the sprogs in childcare. Some people aren’t paid enough to live on; others earn far more than any human being could reasonably need. Then we reach retirement age, and suddenly that’s it: we’re pensioned off, our productive days over. Yet creativity doesn’t cut out at sixty-five, nor intelligence shrivel at seventy. A man who turns 65 in the UK can expect to live a further 17.8 years, a woman 20.4 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s a lot of years to write off, especially with an ageing population.
There are many ways in which we could change this mess. Most of them are extremely unlikely to happen, not least because the mess didn’t come about by accident. It suits the people in charge, insofar as anyone’s in charge. Yet it may be worth stating some options anyway, if only because they’re far too radical for serious politics and so aren’t often heard. (I’m not a politician, so I don’t need to be serious.)
- Make the private sector pay its way. Rent caps (why should taxpayers spend masses on housing benefits so that landlords can get rich?). Tackling tax evasion and business subsidies. Redistribution: in the UK this year, a few lucky bankers collected over £5 million each from Barclays Bank. Why are they worth 50 times what we pay our most senior nursing directors, let alone frontline nurses?
- Encourage job-sharing, volunteering, hobbies and part-time work. Make it acceptable for people of both sexes to take career breaks in midlife. Pay parents better: bringing up kids is hard work. Defusing the social pressures around work and worklessness with clear financial incentives would do wonders for the nation’s health bill, apart from its other benefits.
- Rethink education. Currently it’s mostly stuffed into our youngest years, and some of it’s pretty irrelevant to most adults. It should be lifelong, as much a part of our routine as running a bank account. That old canard about brain development ceasing around 18 is nonsense.
- A living wage and/or minimum income guarantee (discussed here in the US context). Many people who’d like to volunteer can’t afford to; many who can afford to can’t spare the time. Making sure that everyone has a minimum guaranteed income to live on would help with at least the first of these problems, as well as reducing the devastating costs of stress-induced mental illnesses. It would also save on the gigantic benefits bill, not least because it would be a good deal simpler to administer than current systems.
- High-end jobs like running a university, company or bank may be extremely hard and stressful, but the work itself is not intrinsically unpleasant or dangerous (except insofar as the sedentary lifestyle brings health risks). Jobs which are unpleasant and dangerous should be paid more, or workers given a tax break, to express the nation’s gratitude that we don’t have to do this stuff. And if that study I mentioned is correct, perhaps we should be targeting the financial rewards towards encouraging workers to continue their education.
- Abolish retirement except on health grounds. If work — in moderation — is so good for us, we shouldn’t be driving people away from it. If there’s less work to go round, we need to be more creative in how we organise it — because there’s plenty to do; it’s just that much of it isn’t currently paid work. Making high-end jobs less demanding and low-end work more interesting, and giving people more life space to do unpaid work, would make retirement look less attractive, as well as providing benefits for workers and society.
Work is bound up with many half-acknowledged ideas: about fairness and reciprocity, status and identity. While there was plenty of it, there wasn’t much need to examine its rationales, and how deep-seated feelings and ways of thinking affect them. But work is changing, and we need to change our ideas about work.
Tags: beauty, cosmetics industry, fashion, media, moral psychology, morality, sins
We tend to think of morality as long-lasting. Think of the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, or the claims of evolutionary psychologists that moral sentiments have ancient origins. Morality is associated with permanence, certainty, and truth. So it’s odd how rapidly our moral opinions can change.
Each of us could plot our own moral profile, a graph showing how much we care about a range of topics, from the environment to immigration. Concern, however, doesn’t necessarily imply understanding of an issue. You can see why: there’s so much to know about nowadays that we have to outsource most of the knowing to others. Yet expressing moral judgements is a common form of social bonding, and there are many situations in which we’re expected to have an opinion about a topic – often by people as ignorant of it as we are.
In part, this might explain why morality can change so fast: as people learn more, they may revise their judgments. However, many moral opinions are driven by fashion and the media, the sources from whom we learn about stuff we can’t be bothered to learn about. These sources don’t exist to impart information, but to sell things – and moral outrage sells; so it is in their interests to foster judgmental fervour. The result is a lot of strong opinions with a shaky factual basis. New facts alone may not suffice to modify these beliefs, but a wider cultural shift, with its changing social, legal and financial incentives, can.
In the UK a few decades ago, many women – and even young teenage girls – ran a gauntlet of sexual comments and touches by men. It was part of life, however unwelcome. Now the culture has changed so much that ageing celebrities are being hauled through the courts, and the media, for acts committed years ago. Current stars, and the public, know it’s no longer acceptable to fondle fourteen-year-olds or force yourself on an unwilling female. They know they may lose their job or even go to prison. This doesn’t mean such acts no longer happen, but they now carry more social risk.
We’ve certainly noticed the moral change in this case; there’s been so much public comment on sexual abuse. Yet there are some features of morality which have slipped out of our culture almost unnoticed. These forgotten sins (and their opposites, since every vice has its complementary virtue) used to be common, but no more. Is it that we simply don’t have the mental capacity to think about the older sins because our heads are so full of new ones, in this world of cyberbullying and online grooming? Or is it that older sins have become unfashionable – partly through their link with previous generations, and partly because they’re too uncomfortable for us complacent moderns to think about?
If so, might it be worth taking another look at them? It’s very hard for someone immersed in a particular social situation – i.e. living as most humans do – to see that situation’s problems. This is why outsiders, though often unwelcome, are so useful. They add new perspectives, whether you’re an organisation thinking of employing more diverse staff or a nation debating some hot-button moral issue.
If you haven’t a helpful outsider handy, another approach is to look at what isn’t in the public conversation. Silences can sometimes speak louder than words, and if no one’s talking about certain kinds of bad behaviour, that may be because it suits today’s society to encourage that behaviour.
As an example, how about vanity? It’s generally considered a form of pride, and we think of it as pride especially concerned with physical appearance. A quick check with Google Books shows that, at least in written words, discussion of vanity is declining, and has been since early in the nineteenth century, as this graph from Google ngrams shows.
Meanwhile, industries concerned with personal appearance are worth billions, and forecast to grow still further. Data from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery show that in the decade-and-a-half between 1997 and 2012, surgical cosmetic procedures in the US grew by 75%, to nearly 1.7 million. Procedures not requiring the beautified to be cut open grew by 920%, to over 7.5 million. Apparently, in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on ‘personal care’, which would be enough to reduce world poverty by half … if it had been spent on reducing world poverty.
It’s as if being ugly is now a worse moral flaw than being conceited. Which is peculiar, because we know from celebrities that where beauty leads, good behaviour doesn’t always follow. Nor are people with facial disfigurement incapable of the highest human virtues, whereas being conceited is associated with bad behaviour. Yet the beauty-is-good stereotype is so prevalent, it’s even featured in an fMRI experiment.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t talk so much about vanity these days. Maybe the moral principles which used to condemn it came up against the market’s demand for profit. Plus, technologies have turned what was once a matter of fate – personal appearance – into a matter of personal choice. (Providing you have the money, of course, but that takes us into yet another minefield, the morality of poverty, and this post has touched enough sore spots for the time being.)
The constant demand for economic growth, the new powers to change our appearance, and the earning potential of playing on human vanities – and anxieties – together make up a powerful set of forces to set against an elderly moral principle. With respect to vanity (and the vain demand a lot of respect), it seems that the clash between market and morals has been won by the market, at least in the West and for now.
Of course, vanity isn’t the only unfashionable vice. I wonder if the market’s winning on the others too.
Tags: Birmingham, Brum, competitiveness, goals and values, inequality, winner-takes-all, winners and losers
Heresy though it may be to admit it in our competitive culture, there’s a lot to be said for being runner-up. Winners may increasingly take it all in financial terms (in the US, income inequality has been rising for decades), but as Christmas should remind us, there’s more to life.
I live near England’s second city, Birmingham, and recently went there for a concert in its fabulous Symphony Hall (see my previous post). Whenever I visit Brum, I’m always conscious of being deliberately unsurprised by how pleasant it is these days. Stereotypes linger, and when I was growing up the place had a pretty poor image. For many people it still does. Besides, it’s the second city – i.e. not the first. Loser!
The prejudice is unfair. Yes, there are parts of Brum where I wouldn’t walk alone in daylight, never mind after dark. But that’s cities for you, and Birmingham’s council has done wonders in recent years to make it an attractive and enjoyable place. Even the oppressive ugliness of New Street rail station is being transformed. Another big project, the splendid new library, was publicly-funded (fat chance of that these days) and, astonishingly, came in under budget, unlike many projects, public and private. Centenary Square, where you’ll find the library and Symphony Hall, is as handsome a space as anything you’ll see in London. And no, I’m not on commission.
Yet Birmingham is widely despised. It’s often ignorance; the national media and government, largely based in London, seem rarely to notice Brum unless someone’s been killed in it (to be fair, this is true of much else outside London). Yet the place has much to offer:
- concert venues which attract top artists (from Andreas Scholl to Rihanna)
- excellent sporting, arts, shopping and conference venues
- fantastic architecture and public spaces
- fine universities doing world-leading research. Every UK institution is now expected to do this; fewer actually manage it
- plenty of history, science and technology
Birmingham is, after all, not only an industrial city; it was home to major artists like the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, great Quaker families like the Cadburys, scientists like Joseph Priestley, poets like Louis MacNeice, etc. (there’s a longer list on Wikipedia).
But it’s not London. Birmingham always comes second (if not fourth, behind London, Oxford and Cambridge, the so-called Golden Triangle).
Yet being second has its advantages. House prices, for one. They’ve rocketed in recent decades, but they’re still nowhere near the extortionate levels of the Triangle. The countryside’s easier to reach and the city easier to drive through than London – and nicer; my route into Brum soars through the spectacular Spaghetti Junction. The people seem better-humoured and less self-important, the pace less ruthlessly frenetic, and the London attitude of charging you for every possible thing hasn’t altogether permeated the Midlands. London’s a superlative city and a great place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t have to live there.
As for cities, so I suspect for people. Second-raters tend to be better balanced, pleasanter, less wearing to interact with, less highly-strung.
When I was at university, there seemed to be – at every stage, in every subject – one person singled out for special favour. We called them BMGs (‘brightest mind of their generation’). Some of them, I hope, have lived long and prospered, but many failed to develop the predicted stellar careers. Why? Because, I suspect, of the weight of confidence placed in them. Either they writhed with anxiety at having such great expectations to live up to, or they became insufferably lazy and complacent.
Some BMGs dropped out. Others now have academic jobs, and make their colleagues’ lives hell by not pulling their weight. They’re the nuisances every department suffers, the ones who wriggle out of any work they can (except research), who exploit good will until everyone longs to get rid of them. Less flashy candidates are much more useful in real-life institutions, where too many putative geniuses can be a nightmare for actually getting things done.
Real life doesn’t need a world filled with winners. Society isn’t built for it, whatever the ‘all can have prizes’ brigade would have you believe. And not everyone who doesn’t win is a loser. Some simply opt out of the game. Others, too smart to chase the fantasies of money, status and fame, value longer-term goals, like being useful and having friendships with people. In the long run, a wealth of research now suggests that chasing these goals is far better for human well-being. Winners, in other words, win at a nasty cost.
At Christmas and New Year people tend to review goals and values. Perhaps we should think about whether the constant emphasis on coming first is really as fine a thing as it’s made out to be.
Tags: classical music, cognition, emotions, Mozart, music
Today I’m thinking about the different ways we know music.
Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to have tickets for a classical music concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. The event was, I think, the first all-Mozart concert I’ve ever attended, and it was wonderful.
The program began with the Marriage of Figaro overture, ended with the Requiem, and in between we heard one of Mozart’s loveliest pieces, the Piano Concerto No 21. It’s sometimes called ‘Elvira Madigan’ – not by Wolfgang Amadeus himself, but since it was used in the 1960s movie of that name.
I like listening to Western classical music for many reasons, but one is because of the depth and range of experiences involved. The music’s structural complexity and long traditions allow it to tap into many emotions. There’s the sublime simplicity of Mozart, which held the Birmingham audience completely spell-bound. There’s the exhilaration of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, or the exaltation of Wagner’s great ‘Valhalla’ motif from the Ring cycle. You can get a supernal chill from Bartok (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), breath-taking flamboyance from the likes of Sarasate (his Zigeunerweisen), heart-breaking grief from Bach (in the St Matthew Passion), or overwhelming awe from Saint-Saens (try the Organ Symphony) or Berlioz (in his Symphonie Fantastique). You can hear the sea in Britten’s Peter Grimes, feel the seduction in Bizet’s Carmen, sense the Shakespearean tumult in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and smile at Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumble-bee. And these are only a few examples.
(Other genres, like hip-hop, pop and R&B, are doing something quite different, in which tunes and chords share the limelight not just with rhythms but with images and dance moves. Often their structure is simpler, their emotional range narrower, and their dynamic range set permanently to ‘loud’. Personally, I find the results immensely boring, just as fast food’s dull compared with decent home cooking. But there are times when fast food’s what you want.)
As well as the emotions, how you listen to classical music can vary, often within a single piece. Whether you’re consciously savouring the flow, self-consciously attentive to the structure, letting the feelings wash over you, or even drifting off into other thoughts (i.e. hearing, not listening) – that depends on how well you know the music, your concentration, the performance, and much more besides.
It was the piano concerto that set me thinking about how we listen to, and recognise music. It’s a piece I got to know when I was very young, as my parents had a tape of it, performed by the great Hungarian pianist Geza Anda. I’ve never formally studied it, though, so I don’t know it the way a musician would. And until the concert, I hadn’t heard it for years.
Yet as soon as it began, the gap of time was bridged. The feeling of recognition was like relaxing into a warm bath. I knew instantly what was coming next; I knew every point at which the performance differed from the Anda version, and if the pianist had put a finger wrong I’d have been instantly, wincingly aware of it. I’ve often, hearing something on the radio, known that it wasn’t ‘my’ recording, without being able to say what piece it is or who wrote it. And hearing something live, of course, is quite different from hearing recordings, especially when the acoustics are as fantastic as they are in Symphony Hall.
At two points in the piece, there are cadenzas – show-off moments, basically – where the pianist has a choice of what to play. As soon as the pianist started his first cadenza, I knew it wasn’t the one Geza Anda played, and I felt the internal switch from warm emotional bath to cooler cognition. I became interested in the music, its structure, how each phrase reflected aspects elsewhere in the concerto … in other words, I was listening much more analytically.
The slow central movement switched me back into the fuzzy glow of – not memories, exactly, but the feelings associated with them. It’s surely one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written (available on YouTube, if you can put up with the preceding ad for something very different). It needs limpid, delicate lightness – think sunlight gleaming through a waterfall – as so much of Mozart’s music does. I was on tenterhooks for the first few notes of the piano’s entry, until I realised he’d basically got it right. Phew!
And yet, as I said, I’ve never played this piece, and hadn’t heard it for years. Music digs deep tracks in the mind, especially in childhood. Works I’ve learned to love as an adult, and listened to much more recently, don’t bring the same intense awareness of details.
Research suggests that, like language, music is easily and naturally picked up in childhood, and that children who don’t encounter it early in life may lose the ability to revel in it later. Yet many schools, and parents, see classical music as too difficult, or an unnecessary luxury (even nowadays, when recordings are cheap and orchestras are working hard at outreach). Anyone classically-trained can easily move into pop music – and many have – but it’s harder to move the other way. Yet for many kids, all they ever hear is what Freddie Mercury (I think it was he!) called ‘Kleenex music’: simple, disposable, forgettable.
People claim that classical music is elitist. (Here in the UK concerts are cheaper than football matches.) I can’t help wondering how much of that response is defensive. Calling something elitist gives you an excuse for not making the effort required to learn more about it. Classical music needs work, certainly, unless you’re young enough to soak it up without effort. So does learning any new skill, but does that mean that anyone with a skill is somehow ‘elitist’?
A child who learns to love classical music has been given a great treasure. He or she will have immense resources to fall back on, in good times or bad. Music engages our brains much more extensively than many other activities. It’s good for us, too, reducing stress markers and promoting that sense of ‘flow’ which is associated with rest and relaxation. It’s “amongst the most rewarding experiences for humans”. And learning to play teaches teamwork and self-discipline, quite apart from being fun to do and a boost to self-esteem.
It’s a real shame that so many children miss out on these life-enhancing joys.
(The performers at the concert were the Orchestra of the Swan, with the City of Birmingham Choir, Anthony Hewitt piano, Rhian Lois soprano, Anna Huntley mezzo soprano, Samuel Boden tenor, Benjamin Cahn baritone, and Adrian Lucas conductor.)
Tags: humour, language of science, media, media science, satire, science communication, Science in Society
Like science itself, mainstream media reporting of scientific findings can be confusing, not least because ordinary words are given specialised meanings. To help the perplexed, here’s a light-hearted gloss of some of the commonest terms used by media folk to talk about science and scientists.
“Expert” – knows more than we do.
“A leading …” – we’ve heard of this person (and we can barely spell their research discipline), so they must be important.
“Professor” – can mean either a) a professor or b) anyone with a doctorate.
“Scientists believe …” – the ones we asked said …
“X says [something controversial]” – and so they did, with a little judicious editing. Whaddya mean, “out of context”?
“New” – almost certainly not, but if even the researchers aren’t thorough about their literature searches, you can’t expect us media types to know about previous work. We can barely remember what happened yesterday.
“Extraordinary” – it sounded weird to us (but then, so does most of this science stuff).
“Important” – we can see how this might have something to do with the real world.
“Breakthrough” – something useful may possibly result from this at some point in the future.
“Landmark” – every scientist we asked, the press release, and the journal’s editorial all said this might make a difference.
“Revolutionary” – contradicts something said by somebody else.
“Controversial” – we suspect the only researchers who think this are the study’s authors, but hey, it’s eye-catching.
“A study suggests” – even we recognize that this one’s so provisional we need to say so.
“Abstract” – we haven’t a clue what this means, let alone if it’s any practical use.
“Theoretical” – see “Abstract”.
“Challenging” – we have no idea what they were banging on about.
“Developing” – we’re pretty sure they haven’t either.
“Theory” – anything more than a guess, put forward by a scientist.
“Hypothesis” – an irate scientist complained about how we misused the word “theory”.
“Anecdote” – a term of abuse used by scientists to complain about the media. We prefer to see anecdotes as baby datapoints.
“X causes Y” – X has been linked Y to by some statistical method. You don’t want to know the details, do you? Good.
“Correlated with” – a patient scientist explained to us that “correlation is not causation”, so now we can show off.
“X doubles the risk of Y (no baseline risk given)” – trust us, we’re headline-writers. And we’re not telling you what the original risk was because it’s so tiny that you’d realise this is a total non-story.
“X doubles the risk of Y (baseline given)” – we know you can’t make any sense of this statement without knowing what was doubled, so we’ve fed you the number. What we haven’t told you is that there are probably so many other factors causing Y that you don’t need to panic over X, at least until you’ve stopped smoking, changed your diet, done more exercise, moved to somewhere less polluted, and stopped worrying about all the crap in the media.
“A gene for X” – this gene produces a protein which may have some small influence on something in the body which eventually has something to do with X.
“Brain regions associated with X” – these brain regions seemed to be doing something when the few people tested in the study were X-ing, so they may have something to do with X. They’ve also been associated with lots of other things, but we like to keep the story clear and simple.
“Brain activity” – some complex statistical measure which some specialised research-folk think may be quite highly correlated with changes in brain cells, and a lot more less specialised folk think may have something to do with “the mind”, whatever the hell that is.
“Neurologist” – anyone who does anything related to actual brains (i.e. not a psychologist).
“Neuroscientist” – any person working on brains who’s explained to us that they’re not a neurologist.
“Remarkable” – a scientist who shows signs of being successful despite being a woman.
“Brilliant” – this guy’s a better self-publicist than most of his colleagues.
“Maverick” – weird even by scientific standards, and quite likely to be wrong.
“Confident” – probably a bully, and even more likely to be wrong.
“A lone voice” – the probability of wrongness is close to 1.
“Professor X could not be contacted …” – Professor X has had dealings with the media before.
“Fluent communicator” – wow, a scientist who doesn’t just stare at their feet!
“Engaging communicator” – this one smiles!
“Brilliant communicator” – this one can talk and they’re not bad-looking, for a geek.
“Difficult” – we suspect this one has autism.
“Dedicated” – you really chose to spend your career doing that?
“Committed” – it’s ridiculous how seriously you take this stuff.