Denying the connection just messes with our thinking: you know that old saw "Monkey See Monkey Do" - turns out we humans are much better at copying than they (or other primates) are and our (Western) obsession with originality is not the real gift; copying is what makes us.
This is just one of many ways in which we try to separate ourselves from them, when in fact who and how we are has very strong roots in them.We are - for good or ill - a Super Social Ape and not the unique and inevitably successful creature we imagine we are (as the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, if we were to re-run the tape of evolution, it's far from clear that we'd end up as we are or as successful as we are).
Nice piece in this week's Economist on Britain's love affair with gambling and lotteries in particular (HT @lauradavies24)
Lovely descriptions of how - in the face of systematic randomness (yes, past performance has no impact on future performance) we twist ourselves inside out to make choice easier - we use shorthands to pick winners (including following "expert" advice or familiar or "special" numbers) And how we ignore the simple rule that the more familiar the number the smaller the share of any (randomly-allocated) winning ticket.
As we've discussed before, herd-thinking is particularly tricky in financial decision-making - you often need to stand back and consider the facts of the matter (however hard and unnatural that is!)
But at the simplest level, those of us who play the lottery - the "numerically challenged" as some would have us - often do it because everyone we know's doing it...
Interesting piece covered in a lot of mainstreampresstoday by Alberto Aceri of Bristol Uni and team about trends in words used in english Language novels over the last 100 years reveals about us:
" Britain's literature has grown less emotional since the 1960s, but American literature has become more so. Overall, English-language literature has used far fewer emotionally-charged words over time, but American writers have bucked the trend: They've ramped up their use of "mood words" in the past few decades as Brits have grown more stoic." With the exception of "fear" words (as the red line above indicates).
The ebb and flow of sentiment is also clear:
The point being that even really simple analyses of data that's lying about (or observations that can be turned into data) can reveal important changes in our culture
NB THIS may or may not (as the authors and commentary in the Atlantic both observe) reflect how we experience things: e.g. "the socially-conservative
mores of Elizabethan England led to an increased demand for writing ''obsessed with romance and sex"" BUT it certainly reflects the culture and the products of that culture. And it's free!
So today's challenge is this: what can you do with the offcuts of data you have lying around to reveal what's going on beneath?
Nice piece here with Dave Brailsford, the "architect" of British Cyclng success
2 interesting thoughts emerge :
1. he uses the "chimp" metaphor (like "Monkey Brain") to denote the non-human bit of ruminating consciousness which distracts us from the "flow" states that athletic performance depends on (i.e. by denigrating the human bit to animal).
2. he talks about the way doping spread through cycling but without pathologising individual dopers (quite hard given the hullabaloo surrounding it recently) or - if I understand him correctly - in blaming the thing thing.
If you're in London Tuesday next week, here's a great event from the lovely people at Creative Social built around some really stimulating folk who "probe" the future for the rest of us...[like memories of the future]
BBC have gone ape with an interesting primatology study today: when chimps and infant humans play the Ultimatum game (widely used by economists to determine real world notions of fairness and equity), both species seem to exhibit similar patterns of behaviour and thus - it is suggested - similar notions of fairness.
While the study does point to similarities, it's worth bearing in mind that what seems to be "normal" human responses often conceals wide cultural variation. Canadian anthropologist Joseph Henrich has repeatedly shown this is so, in bothering to play this kind of game with folk other than Western
Lamalera Whale hunters for example, who depend on each other much more than, say, Kalahari bushmen, tend to make much bigger offers than the norm.
So, my American friends, if you want to stop this kind of thing happening again there are at least 2 kinds of thing you need to do together:
i. stop lionising the individuals who commit these kinds of acts in media coverage (both MSM and online)
ii. change the environment to make it harder for individuals to have access to the tools that make it easy to commit such crimes (and, yes, this means regulating the availability of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry - the kind of weapons that make it easier to kill lots of people at once...)
As is so often the case, being clear what kind of thing you're dealing with helps develop better responses to it...
"My friend Harry Nilsson used to say the definition of an artist was someone who rode away ahead of the herd and was sort of the look out. Now you don't have to be that, to be an artist. You can be right smack in the middle of the herd. If you are, you''l be the richest"
[think you need a WARC subscription or membership of the Marketing Society to access]
In a nutshell: a must-read and a useful counter to what you might call our digital over-exuberance. It reminds us of the relative importance of influence the real world and influence online [and as our friends at MarketReach would remind us, Real wins].
Whilst this is in not an anti-digital book, it can be scathing about some of our worst excesses in the rush towards all things coded:
"When the history of the early 21st Century is written, will textbooks observe that internet users spent billions of dollars on 'virtual' animated online farm creatures during the worst economic slump since the great Depression?"
At the same time the combination of clear prose and strong evidence (more than mere collections of anecdote) makes this an excellent and reliable text.
And along the way there's lots to admire:
"The most successful businesses in the future will be the ones that embrace a model that puts people - rather than technology - at the center [sic]...[in particular]they will recognize that people have a far greater impact on each other than we previously realized, and that consumers are not just a collection of individuals"
A must read, even if - as I've mentioned previously - I don't happen to think that word of mouth [what people say] is even the most important part of social influence - it's what we see others do that counts.
Nice piece by the always excellent Victoria Coren in GQ this month exploring (for a male audience) the whole 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. Here she discusses why women are reading it...
"You can shelve the idea of awkward
mimicry; women are not necessarily reading Fifty Shades
because they find it sexy anyway.They are reading it for two reasons. First: because everyone
else is. There comes a point when one simply has to join in for
fear of being left out. But I was the same about getting a
recycling bin, and that didn't turn me on much either"
Here's a piece I did for the CASRO 2012-13 Journal
(based on my keynote at their annual gathering in Scotssdale (page
42ff) based on an idea that the brilliant Grant McCracken gave me when I
last had lunch with him:
"TV chat show host David Letterman used to
play a game with his audience as he sifted the day’s ephemera, asking this
simple question of the things he (and his researchers) found to point and laugh
at: is this anything? Or, is it nothing? In other words, is the
object, behaviour or utterance significant and suggestive of an important
trend? Or, is it merely junk? Should we be paying attention to it or should we
smile and nod at contemporary culture’s richness as it sweeps past our noses"
So let's ask ourselves before we start "...what
kind of thing is the phenomenon we are studying and
seeking to explain [or change]? Is it something shaped by the agency of individuals acting
independently of their peers or is it something that’s shaped primarily by
social means – by the influence of others other than the individual?"
Amongst the many fun things that I've done this year, this vido of the Sermon I gave at the School of Life in September is one of my faves.
Thanks to the lovely folk at The School of Life for the opportunity, to the audience who turned up on the day and to the folk whose ideas and insights are shamelessly stolen and re-purposed in pursuit of this counterintuitive truth about the importance of copying in our lives and in our work.
This time of year, we're awash with predictions for the coming calendar, so it's really refreshing to see a regular predictor reviewing the accuracy of last year's efforts in the run up to this year's efforts.
One of the most unhelpful assumptions I come across most when I'm talking about how things spread is this: our assumption that the thing is the thing.
In other words, that in order to spread, a thing (or idea or word) must have something special about it; that it must be something about the thing that makes it spreadable (or "sticky") if you prefer that term.
This works both ahead of time (in our attempts to predict what will spread) and also in retrospect (in post-rationalizing why a particular item has spread and become popular) - darn, are we good at the post-rationalizing success based on some spurious quality of the thing (Subo is a great e.g. of this).
This is such a plausible assumption that for many of us it enjoys the status of self-evident truth. But is it actually true?
Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. And perhaps more often than not in our modern oversupplied decision landscape - where we are faced with too many effectively interchangeable and indistinct choices.
You see, if diffusion is genuinely social - if the spread is genuniely shaped by people following the example of others, the people are as important if not more so than the thing and its qualities in determining the spread.
For example, if a thing is spread by a population tending to follow the example and recommendation of experts or authorities, then its spread will then tend to depend on who those experts are, how visible they and their enthusiasm are etc etc.
Equally if a thing is spread by a population copying in a less directed way (what we've called Copying Peers) - i.e. just following what seems to be popular then again an individual's perception of what other people are doing is essential to the spread of the thing. (this is is an example of what we disparagingly call "fashionable" choices, do denote the relative unimportance of the thing).
All of which means that if you want to spread something, ask yourself if it's likely to be spread socially or not and worry rather less about the thing thing and more about the people thing,
And don't be surprised if your really good thing doesn't spread or something really pony does become really popular. Where people-based spread isa concerned, it's a matter of bets, of chance and the unpredictability of what people take from each other. It's a people thing, man.
And don't be surprised if your attempts to replicate a success are less than successful. Again, the people thing makes repeated success much less likely than you'd think.
Some of this is clearly to do with the rise of the geek as a cultural identity, some of it a reaction to the terrible wibbly wobbly irrationality and superstition of the vaccine refusniks, homeopathy proseltysers and the religious fundamentalists.
But let's be honest, little of it has anything to do with actual rational & independent choice.
Most of this - as yesterday's post about Alex & Mike's NYT piece suggested - is likely shaped by people copying each other, not by them making rational decisions based on the evidence. That said, it's a welcome development given the times.
How strongly this shift in attention to science and scientific work compares with the "personal opinions" on abortion and premature birth survival rates that certain UK ministers have expressed (which are clearly contradicted by the evidence).
And in our own part of the forest, with the over claimed certainties and inappropriate precision of so many vendors of what some call "neurononsense", "neuromania" or just plain "brain porn" (aka Neuromarketing).
How delightful then to watch Prof Uta Frith and other neuroscientists on the latest episode of Dara's show (particualry Frith) with their humour, humility and honesty remind us that we're really on at the beginning of understanding how individual brain activity relates to behaviour.
Lovely feature in this month's NS which uses "Cyberball" (see above) - a game for 3 players (actually only 1 and 2 computer stooges) to explore the neuroscience of ostracism.
Yes, that's right, HERDmeister is recommending a piece of neuroscience...ring out those bells
Social neuroscience is the coming thing: it's one thing to understand the neurophysiological basis of individual responses but to understand better how our interactions with each other effect us....
Folk like Marco Iacaboni whose excellent work on mirror neurons and John Cacioppo's fab Loneliness book which traced the real physiological (including neurophsyiological) impact of chronic loneliness are among those laying a great path.
Given how important we know that social influence is and the centrality of social to the diffusion of ideas and behaviour, this seems like the beginning of something really exciting.
Watch this space...
NB AMENDED December 5th: I inadvertently elided the eminent Iacaboni and Cacioppo. Apologies to you and them.
Really nice piece in this week's New York Times by my two co-authors, Professors Alex Bentley and Mike O'Brien which shows how recognising the patterns in widely available data allows you determine how different phenomena are spreading.
In this case - and reassuringly so - climate scientists adoption of key terms seem much less prone to the boom-and-bust patterns that the general public generate (as a result of what we call "undirected copying" in I'll Have What She's Having or "Copying Peers" in our long-standing commercial business).
So - whatever your personal view on climate change - it's good to know that the scientists don't seem to be vulnerable to a simple "herd-effect" - they're not copying each other blindly.
And, as ever with these two delightful and erudite gents, the prose is pellucid and enthused with a generosity of spirit that I like.
Today it's 20 years since (the company that became Vodaphone) sent the first SMS "text" message (c/o a young engineer Neil Papworth, above), "Merry Christma" [sic].
Lots of noise in the news (read this text interview) and on the wires today about this anniversary* and lots of good commentary around the unexpected success of this technology (although much of the US steadfastly refused to adopt it for a number of years...).And much sense spoken about it...e.g.
It's hard to imagine not having access to this technology and hard to
underestimate its importance and not just to teenagers - I remember teaching my own late mother
who spent a decade in a wheelchair to text and it connected her to the
outside world in all kinds of ways (this is also the origin of my "#chocsawayalgy tweets, btw).
For me, several things stand out the success of this technology:
1. SMS was not the best technology then and isn't the best now - we tend to assume the best will win or (after the fact) equally that the winners must somehow be the best
2. Rather, if you wanted to be pseudo-Darwinian about it, you might suggest SMS was the fittest - that it was most suited to the context - cheap, short, flexible, etc - ideal for economically-challenged young folk who desperately want to interact with each other, all the time.
3. This would imply that the mobile telco's just misunderstood the reality of the consumer context and presumed that the high-spending customers (business folk) - that is, people more like how they saw themselves - would necessarily be the key adopters of new technology (a mistake we've all seen lots of times).
4. However, you could also see the relative lack of importance of a superior product as strongly indicative of a socially-led adoption - these technologies are undoubtedly spread this way, aren't they? Indeed, the lack of marketing input to drive adoption (until the telco's had woken up to the scale of the adoption and that very late in the day) supports this point of view.
So if you're thinking about technology of any sort and how to spread it, ask yourself:
a. does it have to be the best to win?
b. is it the people like you that are really going to drive success?
c. how can you help them to help you spread it?
In other words have a good look at HERD and IHWSH again...
"Motivation does not come from financial incentives alone. Again, the financial sector has done us all a disservice in promoting the belief that massive financial compensation is necessary to motivate individuals".
If you think people only do stuff for money - or even mostly do stuff for money - you'd be wrong.
There are lots of other sorts of reward and disincentives - not least is the social stuff that we go on about [people doing what other people do, for instance].
Put it this way: financial incentives presume that individuals are primarily financial optimisers, acting independently in their own interest. Paul Ormerod makes this point really well in his new book - "incentives" tend to be part of an "individualist" or "I" model of behaviour.
Some people are focused on financial incentives all the time [we call them things like "greedy mothers"], all of us can be taught to be that way [ditto] but...and there's quite lot of evidence that financial incentives can overwhelm other intrinsic motivations in certain circumstances [prosocial behaviour can actually reduce when you pay volunteers].
But - it's far from clear that financial incentives always have a positive impact in shaping behaviour in the desired direction, be it in personal health, charitable activity or criminal activity. Sometimes they actually have a negative effect [as above] becoming the reason why you continue to do something.
So if you're looking to change behaviour, please be careful with financial incentives: they don't work like they say they do [not least because we're not like they say we are] and they can actually work against the desired outcome.
Look for the other - often [pro]social - motivations.
And as we ponder our own lives, it's worth listening to wise people like Sir Ken Robinson and Hugh Macleod who remind us to focus on our passions and our talents and let the money follow those two.
Whatever it is you do, don't just do it for the money...
Amusing story in the UK media today concerning the arrest of Rob Smith (above) who decided to remedy the admin error surrounding the painting gold of a Royal Mail postbox to celebrate the Olympic success of Team GB yachtsman Ben Ainslie.
It turns out that the original site selected was in Cornwall (where Ainslie grew up) but Lymington is where both men now live.
So Smith took the brush in his own hands and copied the handiwork seen elsewhere around the country on a postbox near to Royal Lymington Yacht Club - not a tricky thing to do but the obvious response, surely.
In sadder news, I've been struck by the huge cellotaph which has grown outside the home of Tia Sharp's family (12 year old who recently went missing). Flower by flower, card by card, candle by candle & soft toy by soft toy the shrine has grown as individual neighbours follow the example of others' actions to demonstrate sympathy with the family.
I've written about this phenomenon before (not least in HERD) as something shaped by individuals copying the behaviour of others but the thing that struck me in this exaple was the emergence of the particular grammar here: candle, flowers, cards and toys (when did the toys become part of cellotaph design? I've seen a few at cemetaries and road-crossings recently but think this is a new design feature evolving through the same means).
With NASA's Mars Curiosity Landing this fella, Bobak Ferdowsi - lead on the activity team at NASA - became a meme.
Partly on account of his "do" and partly...well, make up your own interpretations (as this nice lady does here).
Of course, there were lots of internet memes which started during the Olympics, my favourite being the funny diving faces...
And of course my tip for the top in Autumn/Winter fashion, the Wiggo Sidie (Tour de France Winner and Olympic champion, Bradley Wiggins sports a fine and distinctive set of ginger sidies here)
which generated a host of real world echoes from Sir Steve Redgrave
To these nice chaps at the cricket (albeit before the Olympics)
And now I learn Daniele, Nick and Graham will be running a marathon in September dressed the same way...maybe using the Mirror newspaper's downloadable stick on sidies....? Download Bradley
OK so my point is this: we all find it very easy and appealing to explain the spread of such things after the fact but most of the time we do it with reference to the thing and its specific characteristics rather than the mechanics which cause it to spread.
Indeed this is at the heart of the idea of memetics: a meme is
"information that is copied, varied and selected – but the term is usually reserved for those that hit the big time, or "go viral" [Susan Blackmore cited in the Guardian]
The term "selected" here is important - it derives from evolutionary science (memetics being itself an attempt to apply the broad principles of evolution to cultural phenomena). "Selected" infers that there is something specific (and perhaps superior) about the thing/species and its relevance to its environment which explains its success.
Our discussion of the kind of thing we call "memes" is unfortunately also dominationed by this kind of focus on the thing (the "information"), it's unique characteristics and what its spread reveals about our culture or how people feel (as the Do-dude piece demonstrates:)
"Ultimately, memes spread because on some level, they resonate with their audience"
While it may make very good Op-Eds and very interesting intellectual showponying, scientifically it is plain nonsense. In biological evolution and in the cultural space, things spread fundamentally because of the copying activity, mostly not because there's anything particularly important or significant about them. It's the mechanic not the thing.
Of course, it's easy - looking backward with the benefit of hindsight and with reference to the thing and the culture, why that particular thing of all the things that might have spread did spread. But it's really hard to tell ahead of time (which is the important place to start from if you want to make your ponderings useful.
As the great evolutionist Steven Jay Gould observed, re-winding the tape of evolution will more often than not lead to different outcomes from the one we find - we humans might well not have got so successful.
So whilst spotting the things that "go viral" (and post-rationalising why) is an interesting and diverting pass time, can we try to ask some more important questions, please? Ones less about the thing?
Two upcoming dates for you in the first weekend in September.
First, for music lovers we've put together a fundraising night on the 7th at the Bull & Gate (4 bands including Kevin Duncan's Fastback, the Scratch Band and our own skatastic Big Shorts), raising money for the Bolivian streetkids project we've been supporting for ages!
Do come down - it'd be great to have a packed show! More details here.
In a previous post discussing what the 5-ring Circus (see pic) is revealing about us, I mentioned in passing the lessons about national identity.
Today I want to return to this part of the subject and talk about the striking split emerging between those who see the UK through the lens of Henry VIII, Mary Poppins and Beefeaters (and feel uncomfortable at any evolution of national identity from this) and those who see us as
Not my words but those of the Sun leader writers (yes, I know).
Of course, it helps that our multiracial Team GB demonstrate their prowess and determination in front of us and that as we look around (in the crowd, in the pub or in front of one of those really huge screens erected in public places) at our fellow supporters we can see the same kind of shared vibrant shared identity reflected back. And that we had such a uplfiting and novel Opening Ceremony to respond to and interact around.
But it is striking that this view of who we are is being so widely embraced as an agreed definition of who we are...
Sporting events are great for accelerating this kind of social change - remember how the Mexican Wave (la Ola) emerged from the 1986 Mexica World Cup and how other kinds of public phenomena can create widespread change (as I described in HERD) the cellotaphs (floral tributes to road accident victims) emerged from the death of Princess Diana.
Events like this bring people together and help them interact with people they wouldn't normally see and - as they do - they learn behaviour and feelings and opinions from those around them. Exposure to so many people so frequently and so strongly suggests to each of us that a. this what we now do b. this is what we now feel c. this is what we now think.
What we do, what we feel and what we think we take from those around us. Remember that line from Oscar Wilde?
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation
Probably the smartest thing that LOCOG have done in seeking to engage the UK population is to go local.
By that I mean going 8000 miles over 70 days and visiting countless "locales" - i.e. places where real people live and thrive with other people. The hard yards, you might call it.
And to create the sense of shared excitement for those on the route - offering the chance to thousands of people to participate (and compete to do so) each of which is recognisable in their own locale - it seems to have followed all the rules of the modern engagement strategy.
But it is a fantastic social diffusion idea: gathering crowds of people familiar to each other - or from the same place, at least - getting them excited with anticipation and getting them to see and feel each others' excitement. Flags, cheering, crowds, epic journey - all of these help.
Simple stuff, you might think but not something marketers today can be bothered with doing.
Go where the people are (rather than just shout at them).
Give them something (interesting & fun) to do together.
Help them see the excitement of those around them and those before and after them.
And start well ahead of time (building your audience's excitement well before you need it).
Not tricky, is it?
Key learning is this: audiences are not individuals acting independently - pairs of eyeballs or whatever the media measurement guys count.
Audiences are individuals interacting with each other around your activities. The more you encourage this further things spread.
I thought - and I can blame no other than the lovely Matthew D'Ancona for encouraging me - that maybe now would be a good time to add to that ever popular Op-Ed trope which blossoms around the time of global sporting events: what does this thing - this (oh yes) social object - that we're all flocking around (in this case the 2012 Olympics) tell us about ourselves? What hidden truths does it reveal about who and how we are?
A lovely piece in yesterday's Telegraph describes how the interesting opening ceremony reveals a lot about us Brits as a nation (referencing surprisingly the Britishness book that Matt edited and I contributed to) and what we value about our world and our cultural inheritance (which is neither the Beefeater and Bearskin stuff of the tourist trail nor the cycling spinsters and warm beer of former PM John Major's sentimental memory). I've read a number of foreign news reports on journalist's responses to the 'bonkers' opening ceremony (as well as the social media feeds various) and am interested to hear what you made of this (particularly if you hail from outside the UK).
But if I'm honest, I'm really rather less interested in what the whole 5-ring circus tells us about the parochial issue of Britishness but - as you'd imagine - rather more interested in some simple truths about how all behaviour is shaped.
First, there's what you might call the "Vonnegut syndrome": famously, in a late interview, author and hero of many in 1970s and 80s counter culture, Kurt Vonnegut advised:
Form a little society of your own. And, hang out with them. Get a gang
Gangs, tribes, teams - all of these are good, safe and rewarding contexts for us social creatures to live in.
And let's be honest, cheering on for "our team" seems more important than the sport (the thing) itself (unless that sport actually has some other features worth engaging with). Isn't this what the flag waving is really all about? Fans talk about "us" and "we"...as if they were athletes themsleves...
Effectively, the sport itself reveals itself as a social object (despite the efforts and skills of the individual athletes)...as something to interact with other people around.
The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.
Sporting events like the Olympics provide us with a means to gather together - as the Ancient Greeks did - and interact with each other, both those inside our group and those in other groups in safe but nonetheless thrilling ways (some studies suggest that sportsfans' experiences are underpinned by huge swings in testosterone levels, depending on whether their team is winning or losing).
Second, it's clear that the way that engagement and excitement about the games has built over time - or "cascaded" through the population - through social means, rather than one based on the appeal of the thing itself. Just a few weeks ago, most of the population of London were sceptical; now - post-Boyle - and following the excitement of those around us, it's hard not to feel excited, too. Even grumpy old me.
Everyone seems to be talking about it - at the office, on the bus, on TV, in the pub. Everyone, everywhere is talking Olympics. Different events bring different talking points and different stories to tell to others (from Michael Phelps' extraordinary achievements in the pool to the disappointment of the GB Judo team). Even the most ardent non sportsfan has something to say about things like these.
That's why the architecture of the venues (and their approaches) is like it is - encouraging intuitive and non-verbal interaction and allowing us to see what others feel, too. Again the Greeks understood this all too well.
Again, the transmission of this excitement is not primarily driven by the events themselves but rather by social means. As Paul Ormerod points out in his latest book, it's genuinely hard for modern humans not to pick up ideas, feelings and behaviour from the many souls with whom we share our (undeniably) social worlds (networks) with.
Interesting question here (about what evidence it might take to convince a climate change sceptic of the reality of human-generated climate change).
The simple answer - and one worth bearing in mind the next time you try to persuade someone by argument - is this: nothing.
Not because people are stupid (dumb), wilful or ignorant but simply because much of the time the opinions we hold are not based on rational thinking and the impartial sorting of evidence.
People rarely persuade each other to change their points of view by disputation (which is not to say that we don't enjoy a good rhetorical tumble) but this kind of "show me the facts" thinking doesn't shape much of our view of the world. We are highly selective - we only see what we expect to see, distrust and discount the witnesses who present what we don't want and devalue their evidence if they turn out to be from the other side.
Most of our opinions are received opinions - as Oscar Wilde put it disdainfully,
"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation"
They're not based on facts and evidence but on other people's (already second hand) opinions. Very often, the trickiest opinions to shift (like articles of faith) are stubbornly resistent because they are badges of membership to some group or other - a necessary cost of membership.
Add to this the fact that often times, they are also post-rationalisations of what you've already done or chosen (as Andrew Ehrenberg famously observed, I have to think my girlfriend is attractive because she is...after all...my girlfriend) and you can begin see the difficulty in lifting distinguished opponents out of their denial mode.
So next time don't try to win the argument - don't worry about the theology of the piece.
Get your opponents to do something - ideally together - and help them change their own minds after the fact.
For those who were at the fantastic launch of MarketReach from Royal Mail last night (more of which anon), here's the 1960 Journal of Marketing piece by Robert J Keith of PillsburyDownload Kelley I mentioned in my speech
First, science isn't primarily an individual activity. Of course, individuals are involved (and those that get lucky get to have stuff named after them and have stories told about their heroic efforts).
Most scientific research is a team game in two or three really important ways: in experimental science most studies are carried out with other people and in analytic and theoretical science most papers are jointly authored.
Equally, scientific breakthroughs don't tend to come out of the blue - the product of crazed loners or isolated teams. Most modern scientists are part of a larger conversation - that's what e.g. journals and conferences are about.
And of course, the point about the scientific method as opposed to other non-fiction research is that the measurement (and thus the findings) should be replicable by those other than the key authors (otherwise the findings are of little use). Or as Popper suggested, open to falsifiability.
All of which is curiously designed to stop the individual scientist or research team merely following the accounts of respected authorities (as ancient and medieval science was prone to) - another different social kind of thing.
So when the Standard sub-editor choose to stick the headline "The hunt for Higgs boson shows what our wonderful minds can achieve" don't be mislead: the author's not talking about neurononsense and what the individual human brain is capable of.
Rather he's referring to what our minds are capable of when they're harnessed together (albeit in very strict ways).
Nonetheless, like the man says.
"the bigger point is that it is the most effective way we have to answer some of the biggest questions of all. Science should be cherished for that alone. This great human endeavour has given us the most grand and compelling glimpse of the universe. Enjoy the view."
Following on from yesterday's post on the invisibility of Kindle-book titles , here's a nice link from Carol about what the publishing industry's up to.
However, as Jon (@jonhildrew) and I were discussing on twitter last night, while Amazon might find it attractive to feel that taking control of what readers see of others' choices (and locating them online in the walled garden of the Kindle store), this loses something important - for both the marketer and the consumer.
On the one hand, losing the widespread real-world window into what others are doing should significantly reduce our ability to see what is popular and how things are shifting reduce the spread of new and different titles and authors - real world influence being more powerful than online. For marketers for this kind of thing, this is going to make it harder to launch new and unfamiliar titles, authors and genres. Much more focus will need to be paid to POS and promotional deals.
On the other hand, for once, the people who buy books are also going to lose out as much as the marketers. For a long time now, covers have been part of our experience of books and turned them into social objects.
Nice line in Sunday Times piece on the "mummy porn sensation" Fifty Shades of...
"It started as a dirty secret for the stuck-at-home mum, its success put down to the fact that middle-aged women could buy and read it secretly on Kindle. It has since acquired a new, younger following, who far from reading it furtively on screen, carry their paperback with the same self-conscious pride as their Cambridge satchel. What's the point of joining a craze if nobody sees you doing it?"
One of the downsides of the rise of e-readers and tablets as replacements for physical books is that it's hard to see other people's choices. In a (culture) market, flooded with alternative choices & hard to spot expertise, popularity is a key heuristic.
I wonder when the publishing industry will clock this one?
Much of the time when we think of populations of individuals - be they political or commercial - we imagine that they are merely an aggregate of those individuals (that's why market research uses the notion of sampling to represent a larger population).
However, mass behaviour is more than the sum of individuals' actions: mass behaviour is more often the result of the interaction of individual agents with each other.
In IHWSH we show how patterns in market-level sales data are fundamentally different when a behaviour is rooted in social rather than independent choices (long tails of popularity distribution vs. short tails of popularity distributions).
Two interesting pieces around today - first, Res Publica's report on the wealth of pre-existing community structures (which is interesting, despite the predictably Trollopian tone of some of their output).
And then the return of the twitter trial and the iamspartacus phenomenon.
Both of these point up the importance of the space between - the space where most stuff really happens
The alternative is not a Copernican one - shifting the focus from one planet/individual to another while retaining the structure of concentric circles around the focal point.
No, a better conceptual map would be more like this: a repeated pattern of Crawford's individual circles or a series of interacting individual balls:
And most importantly of all, a dynamic pattern - one that is changing all the time (which leads to this kind of thing - a dynamic fitness landscape).
So two really big lessons here: 1. most humans live most of their life responding to the ideas, feelings and behaviour of those around them 2. those others are not fixed but in flux because they (too) are responding to those around them.
That's what leads to this kind of real or robotflocking and shoaling behaviour. The smooth running interspersed with sudden and rapid changes in direction are the result of this dynamic interaction.
BE can't begin to describe this level of complexity - which lies at the heart of social worlds - because of the central failure to get beyond the individualist perspective.
Admittedly, it's hard to conceptualise this dynamic supra-individual alternative - our cognitive gifts seem much better suited to the individualist models - but that doesn't make it wrong to try. And we could do with a bit more trying here, I reckon.
That's what the priest said at my mother's funeral, two years ago this week.
Today I'm off to another funeral (second one this week).
Our dear friend John Cronk died on 12th April in the Royal Marsden. Although he'd been ill for a while, it still seems like a ghastly adminstrative mistake. A real friend, through thick and thin. A genuine 'mensch' who made our lives better just by being part of them.
I'll post the professional appreciation I've done for him at a later date.= but today, just do this for me: whatever else you're worried about - lying ministers or your next big meeting or whether your trainers are the right ones - take a moment to think about the people who make your world and your life worth having.
And treasure them. Because all that matters in the end...
Am feeling for Jonah Lehrer this weekend, following Steven Poole's review of his latest book, Imagine - How Creativity Work in the Guardian. I've met Jonah a couple of times and read his work frequently and - as is often the case - feel for the real person I've construed in my head.
Unflattering reviews are never pleasant to receive (I've had a few in my time and much as I'd like to pretend they don't hurt, they genuinely do) but at the heart of this one is a critique that I have a lot of sympathy with, if it's true - namely Imagine's overwhelming neuroscientism.
"...(The term has been employed by the philosopher Colin McGinn and the critical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, among others.) Scientism is the confidence that science can explain all aspects of human life; neuroscientism is the more specific promise that brain-scans (using the limited current technologies of fMRI and EEG) can explain the workings of the mind"
In recent posts, I've talked about neurocartography and brain-porn: others - such as the ineffable David Penn - have used the term neuromania. All of us share a concern at the very reductionist approach that sees brain activity (and groovy pictures of brains in action - which btw are reconstructed as-if they were based on a clear view of what goes on inside the skull rather than being a reconstruction of readings of changes in the electro-magnetic field in different parts of the brain) as essentially the "truth" about mind and decision-making; a rhetoric that defaults to the synaptic without further thought.
Some - like Poole? - primarily resist the reduction of the mental and cultural to the physiology of the grey matter between our ears on the grounds that these phenomena are much richer than these pictures - this brain porn - suggest. A fair point, you might think, given the relative youth of neuroscience as a discipline - we're far from the claimed precision in understanding the functionality, let alone from understanding the relationship between specific brain activity and specific action.
Me, I have another - additional - problem with looking to the individual brain for answers: most human life is lived in the company and under the influence of others - looking between the ears of an individual is only going to get you so far in understanding our fundamentally socially-shaped behaviour. It's just the wrong place to look for much beyond general principles - however well one reads the literature.
And - let's be clear - our biology is only part of our evolutionary success: for sure, it's our biology that has enabled us to develop, share and exploit culture but that culture itself is the same thing as our biology. Focusing on the biological roots - as if they are the ultimate grounding - seems to me myopic at best.
Trying to understand human behaviour through the lens of individual brain activity in the lab is like understanding dolphin behaviour by dragging individuals away from the pod and out of the water: it tells you somethings but misses the key contextual pieces.
PS The notion so widely trumpeted in support of what I'm sure is a very enjoyable book - that we are all creative - also found its way into the heart of a tome call Welcome To The Creative Age (which I published a decade ago)...and I certainly wasn't the first to suggest it!
UPDATE: John points out the fascinating debate (including Jonah's comments) around this post