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Scottish Independence: It’s the Psychology, Stupid.

September 16, 2014

Scottish flag

Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, stupid” doesn’t seem to apply in thinking about the remarkable social movement which is the Scottish “Yes” campaign.

A Scotsman who has not lived in Scotland for nearly a quarter of a century, I can only look on astonished at a social movement in which young, working-class men, are unusually prominent.

I am amazed because such young men across the western world have suffered a collapse in status, employment and self-esteem. The crisis in male identity is reflected in huge educational underachievement, burgeoning alcohol and drug problems and high suicide rates. Millions of young working class men have lost many if not most of their of traditional roles in work – heavy industry and mining for instance – and at home, where female-led, single-parent households are exceptionally common.

From the perspective of a psychologist, I can only look on with admiration to see the energy and empowerment of people some of whom do not normally feel particularly good about themselves. In a class-conscious society – and Scotland is only marginally less class-conscious than England – those in the lower socio-economic echelons get more sick and die younger for reasons purely to do with their status, independent of any dietary and other factors which additionally contribute to mortality differences.

So, if I had a vote, the psychologist in me would be saying, without doubt, vote Yes. I think that there is a reasonable chance that, other factors set aside, there would be a lengthening of lives and a boosting of mental health for tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands.

But I am not just a psychologist. I am a resident of a country – Ireland – which suffered a catastrophic economic shock, equivalent to Iceland’s, in 2008. I saw people suffering huge personal stress and suffering because of crippling, un-payable debt and unemployment. I saw my own take-home income slashed by at least 25-35% due to a combination of pay cuts and additional taxes and levies.

Ireland’s economic crisis was caused by a number of things – and the most important were a property bubble, a gargantuan banking sector and runaway public spending. I worry because I see risks that these three factors may play out in an independent Scotland.

The property bubble arose mainly because European interest rates were set low to satisfy a sluggish German economy: at a time when Ireland needed higher interest rates to cool its economy, the opposite was happening in the form of cheap European money – the property bubble was an inevitable consequence and it broke the lives of tens of thousands of people when it burst.

It may already be happening once more, because the Irish economy is again growing, but interest rates are set for a moribund European economy. This is in spite of the fact that Ireland is no longer master of its own economy. In 2011 the German Bundestag famously saw an Irish budget before the Irish parliament did. The same will be true for a sterling-zone Scottish economy – London will call the economic shots which may not suit the Scottish economy at all.I am not sure that these young working class men of Scotland quite realise this – I, with all my educational privileges, had no idea about these economic factors until I lived through them.

The Scottish banking sector is even bigger than the Irish one was and the question of who underwrites this is certainly not a theoretical one. But for sure, the Irish experience with the European Central Bank is that he who pays the piper, calls the tune. Independence will be far from complete with sterling as the Scottish currency.

Finally, the runaway public spending in Ireland happened because of a strong social-democratic drive to share the spoils of the Celtic Tiger and at the same time, buy votes to stay in office. Even had the banking crash not happened, Irish public spending grossly outstripped its income and had to be slashed: Irish universities have had their funding slashed by over 40% over ten years, for instance.

The social movement for Scottish independence is based on an emotional drive towards strong, egalitarian, public-spending-heavy, social-democratic policies. In Ireland, more than half my income goes in taxes and levies; a visit to the GP costs 60 euro, with prescriptions paid for at commercial prices. All this, taken with the new water and property charges, will ensure that I take home a much diminished minority of the euros in my headline salary.

Small, public-spending-heavy countries do not come cheap. Of course, Ireland does not have the oil and the risks for a small, open Scottish economy may therefore be less than those for the small, open, Irish one. But the risks are still there – small may be beautiful, but it is also vulnerable in a crowd.

All this being said, I love living in Ireland. It is much easier to feel part of, and connected with, a small country than a large one. Psychologically speaking, I have no regrets about the financial penalties I have incurred for these psychological benefits.

The Irish people tolerated one of the biggest economic crashes in a developed country ever seen with a remarkable resilience and uncomplaining good humour. They endured the cuts to wages, increased taxes, slashed public spending and diminished pensions with grit because they knew there had been a party and they knew they had to sit out the hangover.

But here is what I am not sure of: how would the people of Scotland handle an equivalent set of spending cuts and tax increases in an independent country? If the answer is – with the uncomplaining resilience of the Irish – then I say, vote Yes. If, on the other hand, such pain cannot be contemplated, then voting No is the more sensible, if not the most psychologically appealing, option.

This article was first published in the London Telegraph:



Savagery Explained: 5 Reasons Humans Become Inhuman

August 18, 2014

As Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria butcher thousands of “infidels” and carry off their women and children into slavery, many in the West are inclined to see this as an unique outcrop of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet after over-running a Bosnian town on 11th July 1995, Bosnian Serb – ostensibly Christian – forces, cold-bloodedly massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Hutu genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, Khmer Rouge mass-murder of Cambodian city-dwellers, Nazi genocide of Jews, Gypsies and the disabled….the list of savagery is as long as it is profoundly depressing.

Isis Execution








Savagery begets Savagery

What, then are the origins of savagery, if they cannot be ascribed to a single religion or ideology? The first part of an answer may be horribly simple: savagery begets savagery. Callousness, aggression and lack of empathy are common responses by people who have been harshly treated themselves. In the Nazi concentration camps, for instance, many of the cruelest guards were themselves prisoners – the notorious “kapos”. Sexually abused children – particularly males – are more likely to go on to become sexual abusers themselves as adults, although the majority do not. Victims, in other words, often respond to trauma by themselves becoming victimizers.

Concentration Camp









The “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad and subsequent invasion in 2003 triggered an explosion of violence and a total break down of law and order in the country. Few Iraqis escaped the effects of savagery – marketplace car bombs and sectarian assassination squads included – and a very conservative estimate is that between 2003 and 2011, over 114,000 of them were killed and many hundreds of thousands more maimed. So a minority of these, overwhelmingly male, victims of violence are now themselves propagating savagery through Mosul and its environs.

Submersion in the Group

But victim becoming victimizer is not the only explanation for savagery. When the State breaks down, and with it law and order and civic society, there is only one recourse for survival – the group. Whether defined by religion, racial, political, tribal or clan – or for that matter by the brute dominance of a gang-leader – survival depends on the mutual security offered by the group.

War bonds people together in their groups and this bonding assuages some of the terrific fear and distress the individual feels when the state breaks down. It also offers self-esteem to people who feel humiliated by their loss of place and status in a relatively ordered society. To the extent that this happens, then individual and group identities partially merge and the person’s actions become as much a manifestation of the group as of the individual will. When this happens, people can do terrible things they would never have imagined doing otherwise: individual conscience has little place in an embattled, warring group, because the individual and group selves are one so long as the external threat continues. It is groups which are capable of savagery, much more than any individual alone.

You can see it in the faces of the young male Islamic State militants as they race by on their trucks, black flags waving, broad smiles on their faces, clenched fists aloft, fresh from the slaughter of infidels who would not convert to Islam. What you can see is a biochemical high from a combination of the bonding hormone oxytocin and the dominance hormone testosterone. Much more than cocaine or alcohol, these natural drugs lift mood, induce optimism and energize aggressive action on the part of the group. And because the individual identity has been submerged largely into the group identity, the individual will be much more willing to sacrifice himself in battle – or suicide bombing, for that matter. Why? – Because if I am submerged in the group, I live on in the group even if the individual “me”, dies.

Isis Tank Syria







When people bond together, oxytocin levels rise in their blood, but a consequence of this is a greater tendency to demonize and de-humanize the out-group. That is the paradox of selfless giving to your in-group – it makes it easier for you to anaesthetize your empathy for the out-group and to see them as objects. And doing terrible things to objects is fine because they are not human.

The out-group as objects

But here is one daunting fact as we contemplate the Sunni-Shia carnage in Iraq and Syria: in-group tribalism is strengthened – and loathing for the out-group correspondingly increased – where religion defines the groups. Even when aggression against the other group is self-destructive – as we can see so tragically across the Middle East – religiously-based groups advocated a degree of aggression against their opponents which was absent in non-religiously defined groups.

Destroyed Mosque









Finally, revenge, which is a strong value in Arab culture, may play a part in perpetuating the savagery. Of course vengeful retaliation for savagery begets more savagery in a never-ending cycle. But more, while revenge is a powerful motivator, it is also a deceiver, because the evidence is that taking revenge on someone, far from quelling the distress and anger which drives it, actually perpetuates and magnifies it.

ISIS gun to head









Finally, people will do savage things if their leaders tell them it is acceptable to do so, particularly if they have given their selves to the group self. The Rwandan genocide was switched on by a series of radio broadcasts by a small group of leaders to a population who, by that instruction, were turned into savage murderers of once friends and neighbours who were in the out-group. The Soviet army committed mass rape as they invaded Germany in 1945 because senior commanders had advocated it. Islamic State fighters are slaughtering unarmed Christians and Yezidis because their leaders and – presumably – imams have told them that this is the right thing to do.

Isis Leader








Leaders at many levels from the tribe to the country, are responsible for this savagery, and so leaders can eventually stop it – just as they chose to do in Rwanda, after international pressure. But the trouble is, it is in the interests of powerful forces on several sides to keep the current Iraqui and Syrian conflicts going for their own strategic reasons. They will always ensure they have their local leaders in place to pursue their own interests. And so long as that happens, the savagery will go on.

I expand on this in my book The Winner Effect

I first published this piece in the London Telegraph.





It’s Official – We Can’t Multi-task And That Includes Women

July 23, 2014


I was interviewed on TodayFM Sunday Business Show on Sunday morning, and it became the second most downloaded business podcast on iTunes, second only to the Harvard Business Review and ahead of the BBC: here is a summary and you can listen to the interview here.

Yes, we can drive a car and have a conversation at the same time, but that’s only because driving is automatic.

When it comes to doing two tasks which demand our conscious attention, however, we have a very limited capacity and can only focus on one at a time. So, forget learning Spanish while you watch the news on television – it doesn’t work.

The best we can do is to switch rapidly between one task and another, but that comes at a mental cost. While women may be more practised at this type of switching, their over all multitasking ability is no better on average than men’s.

So, it is best to close off distractions – particularly pinging email and message notifications – and focus on one thing at a time, getting it done properly and with less of the mental costs of switching.

Less sex in Brazil tonight – and maybe less money too

July 9, 2014

Brazil player crying







There will probably be less sex in Brazil tonight because of the country’s devastating world cup defeat by Germany… and their economy could suffer, too. A trip back to the 1994 World Cup in USA explains why.

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California was the scene of the World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy on the 17 July 1994. It was a contest of enormous importance to the two nations. Italy had famously been knocked out of the previous semi-final in Rome in 1990 when their hero Roberto Baggio kicked the last ball over the net during the penalty shoot-out to lose 4-3 to Argentina. Bad though this was for Baggio, that year’s cup was a lot worse for Colombia’s Andres Escobar, whose team left the tournament after a first-round defeat on 22 June against the United States because he scored an own goal: he was shot dead outside a bar in Medellín 10 days after his team’s return home in disgrace. In sport, people take winning very, very seriously, and no more so than in Brazil.

So, for the hundreds of millions of Italians and Brazilians who watched the match that sweltering Sunday, this was a very personal matter of wanting, often desperately, their team to win. Researchers from Georgia State University took testosterone measures from the saliva of some Brazil fans watching the match in a sports bar, and from Italian fans following it in a nearby pizzeria. Immediately after the game – which Brazil won on penalties – they measured it again. The average testosterone levels of the Brazilian fans increased by 28 per cent, compared to a 27 per cent decrease in the Italian men.

The two nationalities behaved differently, too. Some Brazilians were arrested for riotous celebration in the streets while the Italian men looked depressed and apathetic. Disheartened by the loss, several had to be pursued into the parking lot by the experimenters to collect post-game samples. ‘Testosterone, and the feeling of power associated with it, increases as subjects bask in reflected glory and decreases as they experience vicarious defeat,’ the researchers concluded.

Last night it was the turn of a hundred million Brazil fans to suffer what the Italians endured in 1994. This could conceivably have been the biggest pharmaceutical trial ever conducted, where the testosterone levels of an entire nation, men and women, plummetted in the face of a national humiliation and defeat.

Higher testosterone levels increase sexual desire in both men and women. But the effects of success are not limited to sexual activity – they shape economies, too. English national soccer team victories, for instance, are associated with increases in the FTSE 100 London stock exchange share prices. What’s more, London financial traders made bigger profits on days when their morning testosterone levels were higher, a pre-crash study showed. Winning increases testosterone levels, which in turn boosts not only sexual desire, but also the confidence and appetite for risk that is the psychological underpinning of national economies.

Good news for Germany, bad for Brazil.

Four Reasons Why Suarez Bites

June 26, 2014


Why did Luis Suarez sink his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder? – Is he a victim of child-like impulsivity or could he be a vampire? Neither of these is the case, so let me review four possible reasons for his extraordinary behaviour.

  1. The Internal Robot

Anyone who watched Suarez seize the moment to score when England’s Steven Gerrard headed a long goal kick back towards his own goal, was amazed by the speed-of-light response of Suarez to an unpredicted – nay,  unpredictable – event. Here was near-instantaneous judging of an unfamiliar situation and the execution of a brilliant, complex set of bodily responses to it. Here was a sort of genius at work.

To engage in this sort of cognition at lightning speed, you must rely on parts of the brain which function far too fast to be consciously monitored.  This includes regions called the cerebellum and striatum, where highly complex mental operations can be partially automated and “run off” at high speed.  

But to let these automatic systems – think of them as very smart internal robots if you like – do their work, you need to “switch off”, or at least tone down, potentially interfering activity from the ponderously slow parts of the brain involved in conscious thinking and decision-making.  To unleash his genius, in other words, Suarez has to enter a mental zone of relative mindlessness.

The upside of inhabiting this zone is that you can let the robots do their work. But the downside is that among them are one or two little devil-robots – negative habits which can only be let free when the conscious mind is turned down.  And one of these – unfortunately for Suarez and Chiellini – is the troubling little habit of biting. 

  1. Arousal

The expression of genius on the soccer field requires high levels of physiological arousal – a state of super-alertness involving racing heart, dilated pupils, rapid breathing and super fast reactions. This state is common to many different types of emotion – excitement, fear, challenge, anger and sex, for instance.

Suarez needs peak levels of arousal for his brain to perform its magic, but if arousal gets too high, it can tip the person over into muddled thinking and consequent strange behaviours.  It is a bit like the “death zone” for airliners, which, at high altitudes, must keep their speed within very narrow limits if they are not to break up on one hand, or stall on the other.

Suarez’s peak performance can tip into a state of confusion, where emotions are muddled up because of their common physiological underpinning. So, for instance, excitement or fear can easily be misinterpreted by the robot mind as anger – hence the biting.

So why can’t he say to himself “Oh, I’d better not do this or else I will get a 9 match ban?” First, the part of his brain capable of thinking this only does so about half a second after his robot brain has activated the bite. Second, it is a bit like asking someone in the peak of sexual arousal to suddenly stop and consider whether their partner might have a sexual disease or not – once a person is in this state, then the slow-acting high level brain areas find it very hard to keep up with the fast-acting robot brains.

  1. Tension-reduction

Millions of people across the world do things to themselves which hurt – for instance pulling out their hair or even cutting themselves. A common reason for these self-harming acts is that they release unpleasant tension. Even though the long-term consequences are bad – baldness, scarred arms or, dare I say, 9 match bans – the immediate effects are rewarding, a blessed relief from unbearable tension. 

I have little doubt that Chiellini and his colleagues would have been niggling and harassing Suarez in and out of the box and that tension and frustration would have been building up in him. In his robot-mind state, the bite may well have given him that moment of relief – followed of course by dreaded realization of its consequences, but too late. 

  1. The Satisfaction of the Bite

What I am about to say here is speculative. But I wonder whether there is some primitive, visceral, perhaps almost sexual pleasure at sinking one’s teeth into something or someone. Young children seem to gain enormous satisfaction in it, but learn to inhibit it. I wonder whether Suarez actually has satisfying revenge fantasies where he imagines himself sinking his teeth into someone who has offended or harmed him?

 I imagine he has bitten quite a few people in his life, and it is probably a pretty effective deterrent against aggression in the sort of tough environments where he was brought up. 

Should he be punished?

Of course he should. Some new little robot-routines involving fear of consequences have to be programmed into his cerebellum and that can’t be done without punishment. 

But the outrage against the bite is not particularly rational. Is a bite really worse than someone deliberately breaking another player’s leg to finish his sporting career – as we have seen at least one famous, respected ex-player, now manager, do?  The shock-horror should be confined to real sporting cruelty, not to theatricals which have no long-term effects.

Thursday’s sentence of 9 international games is about right.






Right-wing flames that have licked Europe fanned by lack of education

May 26, 2014



As Europe wakens to a wave of newly elected right-wing Members of the European Parliament, our multi-racial continent needs to understand what are the psychological roots of this movement. We have some comprehension of the economic and social origins – including a devastated economy with crippling levels of unemployment, and new waves of immigration into and within the continent.

Taken together, these make a heady mix, so does psychology add anything to the analysis? – Yes, it does.

Common to many of the right wing parties is prejudice against immigrants and certain racial groups. For instance, Italian Senator Roberto Calderoli, a prominent member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, in 2013 described black Italian government minister Cecile Kyenge as an “orangutan”.

The London gap

In the UK, the remarkable rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was made even more notable by the huge gap between its success in London (7%) versus the rest of England (20%). Suzanne Evans, a former UKIP councillor who lost her London seat, explained that the “educated, cultured and young” of the capital was less likely to support UKIP.

And indeed, psychological research does support this view: lower educational attainment is strongly associated with prejudice. In London, with its higher than average level of education, prejudice is therefore less likely and so the attraction of anti-immigration parties like UKIP is diminished.

But why should lower intelligence make you more likely to sign up to extreme right ideologies? One answer, first proposed in the early 1950s by social psychologist Gordon Allport, was that prejudice reflects a style of thinking about anything.

Order, structure

This style of thinking has been described as “Need for Closure” (NFC) which has been defined as a desire to have a clear answer to any problem or topic, spurred by a real discomfort with any confusion or ambiguity.

Two aspects of need for closure are urgency and permanence. Urgency means that people want quick and definite answers to problems and permanence means that once given, the answer should be fixed and unchangeable – and hence not open to change in the light of new information or ideas.

People who have a high need for closure prefer order and structure in their lives, as well as predictability. They tend to want clear and quick answers to problems and feel intense discomfort with ambiguity or situations where there is no clear answer, or where there are different interpretations. They also tend to be close-minded and don’t like to have their knowledge and beliefs challenged.

Need for closure tends to produce what is known as “essentialist thinking” – which means creating simple categories – for example “blacks” – members of whom automatically have characteristics associated with the category. This easy and quick thinking habit avoids the need for any more complex analysis of individuals: if high NFC people are faced with contrary evidence to their quick categorization – eg a member of the out-group who is better educated than they are – they experience this as very uncomfortable and tend to shy away from it.

High NFC individuals are also very attracted to authoritarian ideologies because such ideologies satisfy their deepest psychological needs for certainty, quick solutions and unchanging, permanent answers.

Mix and learn

With one quarter of the French population voting for a far-right party, for instance, it is clear that Europe is facing a crisis of massive proportions. Are there any solutions? One is to ensure meaningful day-to-day contact between different racial groups – easy racial stereotypes tend to be weakened when prejudiced people are faced with the stereotype-busting individuality of neighbours and workmates. And the second is education.

Education builds IQ and IQ reduces prejudice – though obviously not on the part of some bright but ruthless far right party leaders. Educational also helps people think more abstractly, and if you get someone to think about a problem in more abstract terms, their prejudice towards the out-group is temporarily diminished.

If Europe is going to survive against this massive anti-Europe and anti-immigrant surge, then it has to invest in good education. This is a long-term solution, clearly, but the current devastation of education provision in countries such as Greece means that Europe is going to have a hard time facing up to this challenge. The “need for closure” and its easy, scapegoating, solutions could drive Europe to a very unfortunate place unless the continent invests in education and its economy.

This article was first published in The Conversation

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So Much For Iraqi Democracy

April 23, 2014

Professor Ian Robertson:

Here is a nice example of how unconstrained and excessive power creates political monsters. Thanks to blogger Shane O’Mara for this:

Originally posted on The Dish:

Dexter Filkins details Maliki’s growing authoritarianism:

Maliki has grown steadily more imperious, reacting violently to the slightest criticism. He often claims to have files on his rivals, filled with evidence of corruption and killings. “I swear to God, if the parliament wants to summon me, I will go, but I will turn the world upside down,” he said on Iraqi television last year. “I will take a list of names with me and call them out one by one, and tell everyone what they have been doing.” Maliki has even resurrected a Saddam-era law that makes it a criminal offense to criticize the head of the government. He has filed defamation suits against scores of journalists, judges, and members of parliament, demanding that they spend time in prison and pay damages. “For any political difference, any rivalry, he makes a case,” a senior Iraqi politician told me.

A depressing, concluding…

View original 122 more words


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