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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

What goals and how goals – part 2

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Way back in mid-January I posted about the distinction that sports psychologists make between outcome goals and process goals.  In a nutshell, focusing on winning a race (an outcome goal) can be counterproductive because everyone else has the same goal and simply wanting to win clearly doesn’t guarantee that you will.  It’s much better, they argue, to focus on the things you need to do to maximise performance (process goals). 

Here’s the excellent Oliver Burkeman making similar points with better examples in his Guardian column last Saturday.


Posted in management, planning, psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The worst possible system of government, apart from all the others that have been tried.

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Earlier this morning I commented on the blog post here  which is about a subject that interests me.

Over the past three or four years there has been a lot of talk about re-engaging people in politics, much of it prompted by the idea that technology can help this happen.  But terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘involvement’ are often used without serious consideration of what they would actually mean in practice.  Our systems of government are deeply engrained, based in long established institutions, legal frameworks and, perhaps most importantly, customs and practice.  Just because current information technology enables broader involvement doesn’t mean that it will happen.  

As I suggested in an comment on the same blog, portable  networked computers been around for many years – I sent my first email from a laptop device over 20 years ago.  For most of those two decades pundits predicted that teleworking would revolutionise our working habits and travel patterns.  It still hasn’t happened – those of us who telework are at the margins, most people still travel to their place of work and the airlines still rely on business travel for much of their income.  The reasons we don’t telework (or tele-educate, for that matter) have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with how we best interact with one another in groups.

Posted in cognitive surplus, democracy, government | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

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’.

Posted in cognitive dissonance, Confirmation bias, economists | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted in Change, management, planning, psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in economic meltdown, economists, psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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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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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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 »

There’s no such thing as a sure thing

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 19, 2008

A banker

A banker

Of course there isn’t.  We all knew that.  Even the investment bankers who have triggered, as G W Bush put it, some ‘adjustments’ to the world’s financial systems, knew it.  Why, then, did they behave as if there was?

Yet again, it’s all psychology.  Economics plays no part whatsoever.  If they had behaved rationally, they wouldn’t have built an enormous bubble of pretend money using financial instruments that the vast majority of them (including, critically, those at the top of the firms which have failed) didn’t understand.

The situation obviously wasn’t helped by deregulation or rather, self regulation.  (‘Now children, here’s a big box of delicious sweets.  I am going now, but I want you to make sure that none of them are eaten although frankly I’m not that bothered.’)  But at the root of it is good old cogintive dissonance.  If you’re paying yourself a few million (or tens of millions, in some cases) a year you really want to believe that the machine that’s generating all that pretend money is reliable, fault free and will continue to do so, even though deep down you have an uncomfortable feeling that it can’t.  Cognitive dissonance simply says that if you want to believe something you will, despite any evidence that your belief makes no sense whatsoever. 

If you come across a fact or argument that is ‘dissonant’ with your belief, you rationalise it away so that you can hold on to your beliefs.  Beliefs are very much more important to us than facts – they are a vital part of the mental models we use to understand the world around us.  And as I’ve mentioned in posts on cognitive behaviour therapy, you feel how you think.  These guys really did think that they’d mastered the system and it made them feel good.  They certainly didn’t want to think that they were wrong.

But they were, and spectacularly so.  Astonishing, isn’t it, that no one spotted this coming?  Actually, no: It’s not astonishing at all.  Most of those who might have spotted it, and done something about it – notably our governments, which deregulated financial markets in the first place – were subject to cognitive dissonance as well, of course.   They couldn’t afford to admit that they’d allowed far too much deregulation.  And they really did convince themselves that the children would behave, even when faced with a very large box of delicious sweets.  

Virtually everything seems obvious with hindsight.  But we often don’t spot obvious things in advance. There are good reasons for cognitive dissoance being part of our highly evolved mental software: we need well developed mental models to make sense of the world around us.  But these internal models can have dangerous side effects.   As Mark Twain said, we can easily end up ‘believing things that just ain’t true’.

Here’s the BBC’s Robert Peston writing on his blog this morning:

“The breathtaking rises in the price of bank shares this morning are symptomatic of a stock market that is bereft of reason and is being driven almost purely by hysteria and momentum.”

Posted in economic meltdown, economists, psychology, thinking | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why didn’t they tell us before?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 14, 2008

Some unpredictably nice weather

Some unpredictably nice weather

I’ve been wondering a bit recently why economists are so bad at forecasting things.  After all, the one thing you really want to economists to be good at is forecasting, isn’t it?  Perhaps something is going seriously wrong in our universities.  The one thing you’d want architects to be good at is designing buildings which have roofs that don’t leak, but all the large building projects around here recently (such as our PFI funded FE college and Vodafone’s Global HQ) have featured leaky roofs from day one.

Anyway, returning to economics, Alastair Darling, in his infamous interview with Decca Aitkenhead, confessed that the credit cruch had come as a complete suprise: I believe he said that the first time he knew about it he was on hoilday when he read about it in a newspaper.  

On holiday?  Read about it in a newspaper?  There he was, probably the best equipped person in the land when it comes to getting economic advice, and he has to read about it in a newspaper just like the rest of us. After all, who could possibly predicted, except in general terms, that the combination of runaway personal debt and massive increases in property prices would all end in tears?  And if they did, why didn’t they do anything about it?

On reflection it’s not surprising that economists are bad at telling us what’s about to happen.  I mentioned my former boss’s ‘for every economist there’s an equal and opposite economist’ crack in an earlier post and that probably explains some of it. Also, the global economy is very much like the climate: pretty much unpredictable if you try to look further ahead than next Tuesday.  Unless you count ‘cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer’ as a prediction.

I came across this guy recently.  As you’ll see, he’s the world’s first stand up economist.  An academic economist who is also a stand up comedian.  It sounds like an oxymoron but he’s very funny and, coincidentally, mentions one of my Desert Island Quotes in his first Youtube clip so he must be OK.  He says ‘microeconomists are wrong about specific things while macroeconomists are wrong about things in general’.  LOL!  Believe me, if you’ve ever worked in a building populated almost entirely by economists, as I have (see biog, it was the same building in which A Darling is currently working, although possibly not for much longer) you’ll think that that’s very funny indeed.  

I’ll try to remember to say something about pscychological research into the phenomenon of hindsight in a future post.  The main reason that economists are always wrong about the future is, in fact, all to do with psychology.  But you knew that already because in a previous post I pointed out that psychology is relevant to everything.  This is a bit ironic because some economists are trying to argue that all psychology is economics.  They are, without doubt, wrong about that: I’d draw you a Venn diagram if I had a whiteboard.

The photograph, incidentally, was taken durng a holiday in Cornwall in 2004.  Those of you who know Cornwall may be able to recognise the spot.

Here’s another photo, taken from the excellent and environmentally friendly National Trust cafe at Kynance.

Posted in economists, psychology | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »