Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Cognitive surplus and government policy

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 29, 2009

In my review of Here Comes Everybody I pointed out that I was surprised that Clay Shirky didn’t have more to say about the connection between cognitive organisation and the business of government.  The premise of the book is that the social media enable us to ‘organise without having organisations’.   Government is, of course, all about organisation: agreeing rules, deciding how to implement and fund them, allocating responsibilities, raising funding and so on.

Yesterday I posted a comment on the article here, at Emma Mulqueeny’s blog, on this topic. She’s one of a number of people working in/with government organisations in the UK to help them make better use of social media: blogs, wikis, discussion forums, Twitter and so on.  To cut a not very long story shorter, I think that the main reason the exploitation of these technologies – and of the internet/web in general – hasn’t been quite as exciting as it might has little to do with the technology itself and everything to do with our system of government here in the UK.  Although we like to think of ourselves as having one of the world’s oldest democracies the influence and involvement of the general public, as opposed to pressure groups, business and other vested interests – has always been rather low.

It needn’t be like that.  The nature of the engagement isn’t about technology, though.  Here’s a good example of engagement.   Here’s a bad example which includes the nice phrase ‘fake listening’ which neatly sums up the very worst kind of engagement. To use one of my least favourite words, this is all about ’empowerment’ and on the whole politicians aren’t in the business of  empowering.  All that carefully collected political capital buys them – and the interest groups closest to them – power.  They aren’t about to hand it back to us any time soon.  They need to remember that fake listening is by far the worst kind of listening: most people would rather not be listened to at all.


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Finger in the wind

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 29, 2009

After hearing yesterday’s IMF forecast for the UK’s economy I wondered what they were saying this time last year.

According to this, they were suggesting that the economy would grow 2.4% in 2009.  By April they had revised this to 1.6% in both 08 and 09.  As late as July of 08 they’d revised the forecast for 09 to 1.7% and for 08 to 1.8%.

Their latest guess is that the UK economy will actually shrink by 2.8% this year.  What’s that line about past performance being no guide to future performance

I haven’t read the actual report so I don’t know whether the IMF’s economists are hedging their bets (‘the UK economy might shrink by 2.8% this year but, quite frankly, we haven’t got the faintest idea’).  Such is the level of gloom at present I guess that anything is possible.  One thing’s for sure, though: behaviour will determine what actually happens – the behaviour of politicians, investors and everyone else and how we will actually behave is impossible to predict with any certainty.

Talking of fingers in the wind, here’s how things looked in 2006 when US house prices had started falling but either probably would/or probably wouldn’t lead to a recession.   You can see how easily cognitive dissonance would ensure that readers only saw the ‘probably wouldn’t’.

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Obama inauguration – the big picture

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 28, 2009

This is well worth a look.  Use the on screen controls, double click or your scroll wheel to zoom.  This explains how he made the picture: it’s based on 220 high resolution photos stitched together.  You can’t see the expressions on all 2,000,000 faces, but it’s the next best thing.

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What Goals and How Goals

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 18, 2009


Someone who has just achieved an objective goal

Last summer the UK experienced a rare fortnight of success in sport.  Having only won nine gold medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and a total of 30 altogether, we had no great expectations of success in 2008.  Instead ‘Team GB’ (a moniker which can only have  been picked to annnoy the Northern Irish) won a total of 19 golds and 47 in total.  Rather astonishingly, we finished fourth in the medal tables.  Most of the residents of these islands experienced a growing sense of disbelief as the medal tally grew.

There are a number of possible explanations for this dramatic improvement.  Our team focussed its resources onsports it was good at, in particular the ‘sitting down’ sports: rowing, cycling, sailing and so on.  

It was also interesting to listen to the competitors talking about their success.   Some of them talked about the sports psychology that had been applied by their coaches.  In particular they mentioned the distinction between process goals and objective goals.  An objective goal would be to win a heat or to win a medal.  Focussing on an objective like this can be stressful and unproductive, particularly given that its reasonably certain that every other competitor in a given event will have the same goal.

Process goals are to do with the ways in which success if achieved.  Sticking to a particular training regime, improving technique, achieving a target weight and so on.  I remember one athlete talking about the fact that process goals were about things she could influence directly: she could determine whether or not she achieved her process goals.   She found this much more helpful than focussing on winning per se.

A lot has been written about the topic of process and objective goals.  This simple idea rang lots of bells with me because I have for many years thought in terms of ‘whats’ (aka, amongst other things, objectives’) and ‘hows’ (aka, amongst other things, processes).  Also, I’m a big fan of simple ideas.  

(Incidentally, one of the items that my Googling into this topic threw up was this astonishingly accurate forecast.) 



Part of

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How frightened are you?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 13, 2009


The BBC's 'the end is nigh' logo

The BBC's 'The End is Nigh' logo

Since early this morning the lead story at the BBC News website has been this report on a survey of business confidence in the UK.  Clearly the ‘business leaders’ (the British Chamber of Commerce) who conducted the survey reported in the item are running out of adjectives to describe the awfulness of the current economic situation.  So ‘frightening’ is what they went for.  Dramatic stuff.  

Having lived through three recessions (1973-5, 1979-82 and 1989-92) I can’t remember any of them being described as ‘frightening’.   

The BBC, meanwhile, continues to pile on the agony with it’s ‘hell and damnation’ logo featuring on all TV news broadcasts and web pages related to what it is still calling a ‘downturn’.  Downturn is much too mild a word, don’t you think?  If they really want to scare the bejaysus out of us I would have thought ‘Meltdown’ at the very least or perhaps ‘The (economic) End Is Nigh’.    I wonder if they’ll replace the logo with an upwards pointing arrow if and when the downturn ever becomes an upturn.

Language is so important when discussing these things, isn’t it?  I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of our current situation – inasmuch as anyone actually understands it –  but I can’t help feeling that the use of such hyperbolic language by the media, politicians and ‘business  leaders’ is helping to ensure that a vicious cycle is deepening by the minute.

It’s at times like that this that real leadership is needed.  People who really can change the way that people think and act.  On this side of the Atlantic at least, real leaders seem to be in very short supply just now.

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Summer time

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 9, 2009

At this time of year in the UK – particularly during a very cold winter like the one we are currently experiencing – it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it can get rather warm here.  As it’s Friday and minus 1.5C as I write here’s a photo I took in deepest Dorset when we were on holiday there way back in the Summer of 2008.  


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Economic depression – largely a state of mind

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 5, 2009

Here’s someone else arguing that psychology – how people are thinking – is a significant factor in the current economic downturn.

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What will change everything?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 2, 2009

For the past four years http://www.edge.org have asked assorted thinkers – scientists, philosophers and so on – to answer a question.  Previous questions have included ‘What do you believe which you can’t prove?’ and ‘What have you changed your mind about?.

The short version of year’s question is ‘What will change everything?’.   For some reason they didn’ t ask me, but that doesn’t matter because Douglas Rushkoff gave the first answer that crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine anything more interesting – or more thought provoking – occuring.

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Catch 22 revisited

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 2, 2009

I’ve just, thanks to a very bad cold that’s keeping me awake, posted this to Whitehall Webby Jeremy Gould’s blog.  A couple of references for those who follow the link from the comment.

I suggested that working for government is a Catch 22.  Many of those who (like me) join the civil service eventually end up feeling, like Yossarianm that, in the interests of their sanity, they have to leave.  Thankfully, unlike the US Army Airforce in time of war, people like Jeremy and me have the option of leaving – Yossarian had to stay due to the legally enforcible strange loop that is Catch 22.

I also suggested in my comment that politicans – and their closest civil servants – live in a never land in which things are never as bad as people say they are and there’s never a problem/issue/challenge for which they don’t already have a ready solution.  As our friend Kotter points out, both of these viewpoints are a recipe f0r disaster.

I may well be wrong, of course: if so, all comments welcome!

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And so we say farewell…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 31, 2008

No one else could bring a smile to our faces over the last eight years in quite the same way as the 43rd President of the United States.  If only he’d pursued a career as a stand-up comic rather than a politician.

Here are David Letterman’s Top Ten George Bush moments – some real classics here.  I think my favourite is left hand/right hand.

I hope you have a very happy 2009

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Thinking, feeling and the placebo effect

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 30, 2008

The placebo effect takes the idea that ‘you feel how you think’ (an idea which, as I’ve mentioned in various posts, is at the heart of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) to quite astonishing extremes.

Ben Goldacre’s two programmes about placebos are well worth a listen.  As he points out, some of the findings – particularly those related to the physical changes that placebos can bring about are ‘outrageous’: all the more so because they are true.  The programmes are only available in streaming audio, rather than MP3 downloads, incidentally so you will need to listen to them on your computer.

Meanwhile Peter Preston writes about an aspect of the GEM (Global Economic Meltdown) that’s worth remembering.   He points that there is ‘no bonus for keeping calm, or in any way downplaying the state we’re possibly in’: it all adds to the rather extreme loss of confidence that has afflicted the markets and banking system. Perhaps we need to organise some assertiveness training for the former Masters of the Universe?

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Daily Mash explains why Bank of England didn’t spot looming meltdown

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 22, 2008

This seems entirely plausible to me.    Not so sure about the BBC’s version of the story, though.  The deputy governor of the bank says that they knew that borrowing was ‘crazy’ but they didn’t think it was ‘serious’.  

In what sense was he using the words ‘crazy’ and ‘serious’, do you think?  As I understand the situation (i.e. not very well, which means that I’m well qualified to run the BoE) a large part of the problem was that the accumlated debt was being converted into derivatives that no one really understood and which were being traded on the markets.  

This led to a vicious cycle: the investment bankers wanted more and debt to trade.  In the face of this insatiable demand,  the lenders handed out more and more money to people who would never be able to afford to repay it. Once the value of the underlying assets started to fall, the whole house of cards collapsed.   ‘Crazy’ certainly seems to be an appropriate adjective.  

As I pointed out in a previous post, psychologists have confirmed that everything – even things that didn’t actually happen – seem perfectly obvious given the benefit of hindsight.  Perhaps we should insist that the Bank of England’s board – and probably all other corporate boards – must include a fully qualified psychologist.

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Yay! Mammoth cloning!

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 19, 2008

Here, courtesy of the New Statesman, are 30 reasons to celebrate in 2009.   The words ‘barrel’ and ‘scraping’ came to mind when I saw ‘mammoth cloning’ at number eight.

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More proof that everything is psychology

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 18, 2008

Those pesky scientists are at it again – debunking everything we thought was thorougly, er, bunked.  This time it’s hats.  We’ve all been told for years that we lose more heat through our heads than from any other part of our bodies.  It seems that’s completley wrong.  Someone in the American military misinterpreted some data.  Apparently heat is lost evenly by every part of the body, but our heads and chests are more sensitive to cold which is why it feels as though it makes sense. 

I’m sure that it still makes sense to wear a hat when it’s cold – 10% is still 10% and feeling warmer than we actually are (which, presumably, is an implication of the recent findings) is probably no bad thing.  We now know that it also makes sense to cover up everything else as well.

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Bailing out – generally to be avoided

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 16, 2008


Gratuitous glider photo

Gratuitous glider photo

It’s been many years since I was cured of the gliding bug – having young children and spending most summer weekends attempting to aviate wasn’t really very compatible, and the children took up much more of our time as they got older.  However, it’s still a good source of analogies.  

Take bailing out, for example.  Glider pilots, unlike most light aircraft pilots wear parachutes.  Like life jackets, you sincerely hope that you never have to use the things in anger.  We were advised not to make practice jumps as far more people would be injured practising: if the worst happened and you had to bail out, you were told to do the obvious things: jump, pull rip cord, roll over on landing etc.  There were only two reasons why you’d need to bail out at all: a serious malfunction of your machine (eg the controls stop working – this happened to someone I knew) or a collision with another aircraft, usually a gilder.  Below about 2,000 feet a ‘chute wasn’t of much use in any case.  Bailing out was a Very Bad Thing and to be avoided if at all possible.

I can’t help feeling that bailing out the US or UK car industries would also be a Very Bad Thing.  In last Sunday’s Observer Andrew Rawnsley suggested that, if job preservation is the issue, the money could be used in better ways.    Surely he’s right – paying vast sums to keep these companies going only makes sense if you think the recession will be short and that afterwards people will start buying again.  Somehow, I can’t see that happening but then, as I’ve pointed out in a number of posts, I’m not an economist.

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Incipient hubris syndrome?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 11, 2008

A Roman conqueror

A Roman conqueror

Former neurologist and Foreign Secretary David Owen suggested in his recent book ‘In Sickness and in Power‘ that some heads of government succumb to a variation of the manic phase of bipolar syndrome. They become excessively self-confident, convince themselves that they never make mistakes and are contemptuous of advice particularly if it runs counter to what they believe. He cites Anthony Eden, Margaret Thatcher, the Shah of Iran and Messrs Bush and Blair as probable sufferers.

It may have been a slip of the tongue, but Gordon Brown’s claim, while speaking in Parliament yesterday, to have ‘saved the world‘ sounded to me like a possible early symptom of hubris syndrome.

Perhaps all heads of government should, like Roman conquerors during their triumphs, have a slave or civil servant standing behind them at all times whispering “all glory is fleeting”? The PM could also read the post below in which I quoted Kotter’s observation that one of the main reasons that change programmes fail is the tendency to declare victory too soon.

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English Not Worst At Everything Shock

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 10, 2008

I’m never really sure why the English have a reputation for arrogance.  Perhaps it’s a hangover from the days in which we set out from the small island we share with the Scots and Welsh and planted our flag on most of the continents we came across.  That’s arrogant.

These days things are rather different.  We are, for example, conditioned to believe that we’ll never win any major sporting contest (particularly in the sport in question happens to be one we invented) and that pretty much everything else here in England is awful.  Our tendency to grumble, reinforced by the determination of the media to seek out everything that’s bad and give it as much publicity as possible, probably doesn’t help.  And when we’re not grumbling we’re apologising.

So, conditioned as I am to believe that everything about England is either as bad as it could possibly be or is steadily getting worse, I was delighted to spot this news item yesterday.  Yes that’s right.  If you believe the numbers, English students are in the global top ten ranking for maths and science (at least as measured at ages 10 and 14).  If there’s one ranking in which I’d want us to do well, this is it.   Makes me proud  – in a quietly pleased, not-at-all arrogant and rather apologetic way – to be English.

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Epictetus and CBT in the first century AD

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 10, 2008

David D Burns, one of the original exponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see various previous posts) once pointed out that the underlying principles of the approach are nothing new.

He mentions the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who, as you will see from his Wikipedia entry, was born in 55 AD.  Epictetus suggests that ‘suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.’

CBT is based on the ideas that what we think (our ‘cognitions’) determines how we feel and that we can exercise some control over what we think.  Epictetus said, for example, that “”Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things” and as this book points out, Taoism and Buddhism both regard cognition as a primary force in determining human behaviour.

Epictetus had views on every subject under the Sun.  Here are just a few of them.  One of them is clearly the original of Shakespeare’s famous CBT related quote.

Incidentally, I came across an advert earlier in which IBM claim that they can help to ‘solve business challenges’.  Further evidence that ‘challenges’ are what we used to call ‘problems’, I think.  Before long ‘challenge’ will have the same negative connotations as ‘problem’, so we’ll have to think of something else to call them.  Can’t be ‘issues’ though: that’s already been taken.

Posted in cbt, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, consultancy, consultantese, psychology, thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

What’s to be done about ‘reporters’?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 9, 2008

bbc21I don’t know about you, obviously, but virtually every time I read a report in the media about a topic I actually know something about it contains either glaring errors or very significant spin.

The current economic situation is a case in point.  The BBC have decided that we are, almost literally, going to hell in a handcart.  The graphic which accompanies their ‘downturn‘ coverage is, without doubt, pointed directly towards eternal damnation.  All it needs is some fire and brimstone and a devil or two and it would be perfect.  As I write there are no items at all on the ‘downturn’ page which point out that there are glimmers of good news ftseamongst the gloom.  Meanwhile, the FTSE has been performing reasonably well over the last couple of days, as the second image – from elsewhere on the BBC News site – illustrates.  It’s as if they actually want things to turn out as badly as possible, isn’t it?

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Not going down a storm

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 7, 2008

My Vodafone mobile phone is nearing its upgrade date so I’ve been wondering about getting a Blackberry Storm to replace it.   If you’re a sentient inhabitant of this planet you’ll be aware that Vodafone have been spending hundreds of millions promoting the things recently.  If these comments from users in the US are accurate, I certainly won’t be doing so.  If the phone is as awful as the comments suggest I’d be rather surprised.  Vodafone, our local multi-national here in Newbury, test these things to death before they allow them onto their network.

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