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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

David Moyes: The Psychology of Failure

April 22, 2014



Look at the photograph of David Moyes playing football with the lads and imagine Alex Ferguson doing this. Only under very rare, ritualised circumstances, would Ferguson, the alpha-male primate, allow his all-powerful dominant image be tainted with any hint of ‘being one of the lads’.

Ferguson maintained a delicate balance between the ruthless extraction of unquestioning obedience from his “lads” on the one hand, and nurturing them, father-like, on the other. Any would-be alpha males – Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham spring to mind, among others – who even hinted that they might rival his alpha male status were crushed and expelled from the troop.

David Moyes never established himself as the dominant member of the troop, and that is why he failed. How could he impose his authority on Ryan Giggs, for instance, other than by sacking or humiliating him? – And that was neither politically possible, nor probably within the scope of Moyes’ personality to do so.

So, from the very beginning, Moyes was a lame-duck leader who wanted to be liked more than he wanted to dominate. Leadership is lonely and the best managers have an appetite for power that is greater than their need for acceptance. The boss can’t be one of the lads.

Few things bond a group more closely than a strong external threat, and Ferguson was that threat to his team, when need be. A team bonded like this performs better. Moyes wasn’t enough of a dominating threat to the team and this was a factor in their underperformance.

You might ask, how could a leadership genius like Ferguson blunder so profoundly by pushing Moyes as his replacement? There are a couple of probable reasons: First, consciously or unconsciously, Ferguson was trying to keep his position as the alpha male of Manchester United. In his mind, I would guess, Moyes was one of his “lads” over whom he could cast his spell of psychological dominance combined with fatherly nurturance.

A second reason is vanity. The sort of power which Ferguson wielded as a celebrity manger can cause changes in the brain which result in egocentricity which can transmute into a touch of narcissism. Ferguson chose Moyes because he was in some ways like himself – Scottish, dour, hard-working, gives attention to detail. But he differed in one important respect: Ferguson would never have allowed himself to be father-figured – maybe even patronized? – in the way that Moyes did in allowing himself to be brought under the protecting wings of the great alpha male in the stand.

Leadership is stressful, and the best antidote to stress is power. But because of his failure to dominate his team – this would probably have required the ritual (psychological) slaying of the old alpha male – Moyes did not benefit from the antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties of power.

Hence the post-match briefings which were full of the language of failure and submission – “we didn’t”, “we don’t”, “we couldn’t” … and so on. It always seemed to be “we”, not “they”. But the team needed more “they”.

After all, he was just one of the lads, wasn’t he? 

Peeing Where an Emperor Peed

April 20, 2014


He is unsettling his fellow world-leaders so much that they are scrabbling to form an economic and military  alliance to protect themselves from him.  His behavior across central Europe is violent and unpredictable and he has made repeated attempts to shut off key supplies to his opponents.

His well-trained troops are energized by the nationalist fervor which he has whipped up at home with the help of an intense and carefully-fostered personality cult. Their expansionist aggressions are causing intense anxiety across central Europe. He himself is driven not only by ambition for his country and erstwhile empire, but by a sense of personal humiliation at the loss of that empire which he regarded as one of the great tragedies to befall mankind.

He is a small man of 5 and a half feet (1.6 meters), narcissistic and encourages distribution of pictures of himself in a range of poses and settings conveying a high machismo. His small stature and humble origins may be key to how for him, political and military action may be an intensely personal affair unconsciously driving him to try to heal the wounds of life’s early humiliations.

Under his iron fist, political opponents have been jailed, disappeared and executed. He brooks no criticism and has accumulated vast personal wealth, but he is strangely adored by vast swathes of the populace who seem to find comfort in the certainties of authoritarianism. And their standard of living has risen under his rule, while the country indubitably works more efficiently and has modernized rapidly.

I have just followed the footsteps of a key 100 days in the career of this leader, trying to get under his skin, psychologically speaking, and to understand what drives this man who is such a threat to the peace and stability  of Europe. After all, this year is the one, I believe, which historians will see as the turning point for the whole of western civilization. For if 1815 should end with Napoleon Bonaparte again Emperor of Europe, then the world should tremble.

There is something about standing at a spot where you know that Napoleon Bonaparte took a piss – I kid you not – to get you under his skin in a strange sort of way. Each morning I woke up feeling closer to Paris and to that aching need for power and empire that drove him on like the addict’s need for more heroin.

And once you start imagining Napoleon and what was going on in his world in 1815, you simply cannot help thinking of how he as conqueror strutted the streets of Moscow three years before, Emperor of Russia. Nor can you help thinking about another, present-day, Emperor of Russia and wonder what sort of a trail of bewilderment he will lay for Europe over the next decade for us to follow in the future.   

I was following the latest in the Let’s Trail ( series – Let’s Trail Napoleon’s Hundred Days by Pier Kuipers.




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