Archive for February 2014

More on decisions and defensiveness

February 26, 2014

I recently wrote about how having my decisions questioned makes me feel uncomfortable and defensive. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here. The guy who says “Why didn’t you get an earlier train?”  is not a guy who makes you feel more relaxed or more secure.

It works this way at society level too. If you’re part of a minority group, making “alternative” lifestyle choices, you will get people questioning your choice. That might be using a bike as your main form of transport, choosing not to have kids, choosing not to drink alcohol, living in a squat, whatever. And having to explain your choices takes a toll on your cognitive resources. Obviously, if it happens a lot, you develop standard responses. But it still takes some thought, some energy. And you feel slightly defensive. If it happens several times in one day, it starts to drain your tank of mental resources.

Yes, there are exceptions. Some people love their “alternative” lifestyles enough to treat each person questioning their choices as a chance to evangelise. Example: not all, but some, Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another example: not all, but some, polyamorous people. They can do this without draining the tank because they’re not re-examining their decisions in response to the question. Most of the time, they’re not even really listening to the question. They’re just trotting out a set-piece they’ve used many times before, perhaps doing a little bit of keyword-matching to make it sound like a considered response. In other words, they’re making no decisions, they’re just doing something they’re practised at. Which is easy.

Coming up with a sensible answer to “But would you eat a chicken if you were on a desert island?” or “Maybe you just haven’t met the right girl yet!”, involves engaging and thinking and briefly re-examining your choices. It can be infuriating because the people who ask these questions usually haven’t given any of the issues more than a moment’s thought, but they still want you to justify your values in the light of whatever witless thing they’ve said.

This is the toll that society forces minorities to pay. This is why, if two people are faced with the same choice and choose differently, they do not have the same level of privilege. The choice that results in having your decisions repeatedly questioned by others is a more difficult, less privileged route to take, even if it’s more worthwhile. Yes, the person who took the more difficult route took it by choice, and could always switch to an easier route. That’s part of what makes it the more difficult route.

More on pattern-detecting

February 23, 2014

My parents recently took a holiday which they said would be “longer than usual”, usual being a week. It’s always hard to pin my mum down to exact dates, but the vague dates she would give me implied a three-week holiday. So I was surprised when she rang to say “We’re off!” four days after I thought they’d already gone, and surprised again when she texted to say “We’re back!” four days before I thought they’d be returning. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because they almost never spend more than a week at this particular holiday destination; but I was surprised, because they’d told me that this time was different.

Luckily I don’t live with them, so it wasn’t a case of rushing round to find a French polisher at short notice. The “altered” dates just involved re-adjusting a couple of minor plans. But the whole thing made me think: how many times has someone’s out-of-character behaviour turned out to be not out of character at all? How many times have you thought someone was doing something a bit different, only to find it was crossed wires all along?

There’s a school of thought that says you should watch what people do rather than listening to what they say, which I find enormously problematic. (Unpacking why would take a whole separate blog post, or maybe several.) But there’s a grain of truth there. As I said in my post about persistently early or late people, you have to look at patterns over time.

I’m slowly, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that there are circumstances in which it’s OK to privilege past behaviour over stated intentions when trying to work out what someone will really do. And those circumstances, in a nutshell, are about having access to long-term past data about this person, or organisation, or maybe even this type of person or organisation.

The always-travelling friend who says he’s definitely giving up travelling: you can take his words at face value or think back to the last time he said he was definitely giving up travelling. I keep falling for this line with one particular friend because I really want it to be true; I’d be embarrassed to admit just how many times I’ve celebrated and  bought gifts and made plans on the completely false basis that she was “back for good”, but let’s just say the “WELCOME HOME” bunting is looking a bit tattered.

The bike repair shop that says “We’ll ring you when it’s ready”: did they actually ring you last time, or the time before? Your decision on whether or not to chase them up will be based on that history.

I have countless other tiny, very context-specific examples. Most of them are to do with genuinely good intentions not translating into action, like the boss who swears that next week he’ll help you sort through that pile of old paperwork, but he’s been saying that for three years. (I keep telling my partner I have plans to sort through my own towering, messy piles of paperwork, and I do, I really do, but somehow it doesn’t happen…) We think that future-us will want to watch Schindler’s List, but there’s only ever present-us really, and present-us wants to watch The Hangover Part II or Bridesmaids.

Less commonly, the mismatch between patterns and stated intentions can be about manipulative behaviour. The second woman I described in my study of two poor decision-makers does this. She doesn’t like friends knowing her plans and always pretends to be more spontaneous than she is, possibly out of some obscure fear that her fun could be stolen by other people knowing about it in advance. So she pretends that confirmed arrangements are still vague ideas. With her, it’s incredibly helpful to look at past patterns because almost nothing that comes out of her mouth is true. If she makes vague noises about going on holiday in the UK, you can be pretty sure she’s already booked a holiday in the same coastal town she always goes to, even if she’s still pretending that she might change her mind and go to Florida instead. People who know her better than I do have made an art form out of working out what she’s really up to.

I still believe that listening to what people actually say is hugely underrated,  and I think it’s dangerous to ignore what people say in favour of obsessing over things like body language. But I  also believe that when someone’s stated intentions are at odds with the patterns of their behaviour in the past, you don’t have to take what they say at face value. It’s helpful to look at past behaviour when you’re trying to work out what will really happen. And sometimes just saying “That’s unusual,” or “You don’t normally do that,” will get you a useful response.

Living with a leak in the tank

February 19, 2014

I wrote last year about a friend of mine who has enormous problems with making, and sticking to, decisions. I called her A and mentioned that she has various other problems.

I thought it was a separate issue that with her, conversations don’t seem to follow the flow that they do with other people. There’s a disjointedness to them, and I often find myself feeling frustrated – why isn’t this conversation working? (What does it take to make a conversation “work”, anyway?) Part of the problem is the non-linear nature of her thought patterns, combined with deafness she doesn’t like to admit to. Both those things lead to abrupt changes of subject. But the thing that bothers me the most is how often I feel defensive when I’m talking to her. And recently, I worked out why.

I started telling a funny story and A jumped in with: “But why doesn’t she just buy a breadmaker?” Obviously, I don’t know why the person I was telling the story about doesn’t just buy a breadmaker. Other people’s purchases of kitchen gadgets aren’t really my business. I was just trying to tell a funny story about someone making bread. But I stopped the story to try to answer the question, even though I didn’t have an answer, only guesses. So I had no answer and no story any more either. The conversation was dead in the water. A lot of conversations with A go this way, and I couldn’t work out why.

Then I realised: A doesn’t just ceaselessly question her own decisions. She questions everybody else’s decisions too. I’d grasped this on one level, which is why I avoid saying certain types of thing to her. If you tell her: “I liked this one and the Motorola, but I thought this had more battery life,” she will want to examine your decision and discuss all the merits of the mobile phone you didn’t buy until you feel uncertain about the one you did choose. Same with any past decision, however carelessly it’s mentioned. So I instinctively avoid mentioning past decisions to her; I just hadn’t explicitly worked out why until now.

And it’s not just either-or decisions. I think we all know someone who tries to solve everybody’s problems. A is one of those people, but she takes it further by trying to solve problems that are already solved. If you tell her that you used to have back pain until you started getting physio, she will bombard you with help for the back pain you no longer have. Sure, the physio might be working for you, but why not try acupuncture instead? Or hot baths? Or yoga? Re-solving solved problems is another way of reopening decisions.

Now I understand why this woman is so anxious all the time. Now I understand why she gets so little done. Making decisions and sticking to them takes willpower and energy, sure. But living in a state where you’re permanently reopening decisions, a state where nothing is fixed or settled, puts a massive leak in your cognitive tank.

Body armour is offputting

February 18, 2014

“Once you see somebody wearing body armour, even if there’s no shooting, you think ‘Christ I’m not going down there if they’re wearing body armour to go down that street.’ It scares people off.”

Chris Boardman understands about the anti-gift of safety.

Safety: the anti-gift

February 16, 2014

The more we talk about safety, the less safe we feel. Because talking about safety is talking about the things that threaten our safety. It means talking about what we should do to handle those threats to our safety, or talking about how powerless we are in reality.

Visible security measures make us feel less safe. Think about how safe you feel walking into a pub on a summer’s evening. Now imagine a security guy standing at the door of that pub, slightly blocking your entrance, wearing his yellow tabard-y thing that might as well have “I WISH I WAS A REAL POLICEMAN” printed on the back. Do you feel more or less safe because he’s there?

The book Ground Control by Anna Minton is great on how security paraphernalia makes people feel less safe: CCTV cameras, gated communities. Of course you have to consider what’s cause and what’s effect; sometimes a building has metal shutters on the windows for a damn good reason, and it’s that damn good reason that’s making you feel afraid rather than the shutters themselves. But in my mind, there are two kinds of safety.

There’s the kind of safety that’s about logically-calculated risk, and reasonable steps to reduce that risk.  And there’s the kind of safety which is a state of mind, and a fragile state of mind at that. Often we think we’re talking about one when we’re really talking about the other. We say things like “The stupid woman should have been wearing a cycle helmet,” when what we really mean is: “That wasn’t my daughter, but it could have been my daughter, and I need a reason why it couldn’t possibly have been my daughter, because I can’t stand the thought that it could have been.”

Humans are shit at making reasonable calculations of risk, and that would be kind of OK if we were good at trusting the people who make these calculations properly on our behalf. But because safety is an emotional issue, and because our media and education system doesn’t train us to think about this stuff properly, we often don’t trust the right people or do the right things. We ignore Richard Doll and listen to Andrew Wakefield. We victim-blame to reassure ourselves that bad stuff could never happen to us. We buy oversensitive alarm systems that teach bystanders to ignore alarms.

What I’m trying to say is: safety is an anti-gift. It’s something that’s much easier to take away than to give.

You probably feel at your safest when you’re not thinking about safety or doing anything about safety. Going to a fire safety workshop and learning about how to reduce your home’s fire risk is a great idea – but afterwards, you will feel more worried than you were before. You’ll feel less safe, even though you’ve just reduced your chances of a house fire.

That’s because the two kinds of safety, logical and emotional, don’t fit together too well. Rational steps to reducing risk can make us more frightened and anxious than before. But psychological stuff like othering, victim-blaming, distraction and obsessive-compulsive rituals can make us feel safer even if they don’t do a damn thing to protect us.

My only advice, which I don’t always take, is to respect both aspects of safety. Yes, definitely do examine statistics, try to put incidents in context, look at the science, get advice from professionals, ignore the Daily Mail. But don’t ignore or deny the part of you that just feels afraid, whether or not that’s rational. Don’t feel silly about acknowledging what makes you feel uneasy and taking steps to make yourself feel safer. Sometimes your instincts can save you. But emotions don’t have to be of any practical use to be respected.

How I continued to deal with my hoarding habit

February 12, 2014

I worked out what makes me keep things: it’s the fact that throwing things away is hard.

Throwing things away is hard because it involves making decisions.

Making decisions is hard. I’ve blogged several times about how decision-making uses up cognitive resources. I’m not the source of this idea; many others have written about it too. It’s becoming widely acknowledged that decision-making drains your “tank” of willpower, energy, emotional intelligence, decision-making ability.

A decluttering session involves making lots of micro-decisions, one after another: do I get rid of this? How should I get rid of this? What about this? And this? As if that wasn’t enough, your tank is being drained still further by the emotional resonance these objects have for you: reminders of paths not taken, of people who made you unhappy, of people you miss, of things you did wrong.

It’s a massive tank-draining headfuck. And we make it worse by trying to do massive decluttering sessions where we go through loads of things at once, treating it as a chore on a par with laundry, berating ourselves for not getting round to it sooner, generally being unkind to ourselves.

I am no decluttering expert, believe me. But what’s finally worked for me personally is acknowledging all the problems and pain involved in clearing out stuff, not being nasty to myself for being nervous about a “trivial” task like emptying a cupboard, and setting boundaries. I set an alarm so that I get to choose an end to the decluttering session in advance, rather than ending when I get exhausted. That way I don’t have to feel bad about stopping. And I plan things to replenish the “tank” of cognitive resources: a nice meal, a frivolous book, a trip to the pub, whatever. If really fun things aren’t an option immediately after the declutter, my fallback strategy is to at least do a task that’s straightforward and doesn’t involve decision-making: ideally housework, but routine admin tasks are OK too.

I also know that forming habits is useful because it reduces the amount of decision-making you have to do. Again, not my own insight, just one that’s doing the rounds at the moment. So I try to make decluttering a habit too. If I’m choosing a book to read, I take a quick look along the shelf to see if there are any books I don’t want any more. There was a time when taking things to the charity shop was a big deal for me. Now it’s a habit.

I have a specific place in the house where I keep stuff for the charity shop. Before a pile of stuff leaves the house, I go through it to make sure there’s nothing I actually want to keep. This makes it much easier to let go. At the point of adding something to the pile, I know I can change my mind; at the point of taking the pile to the shops, I know everything has already been sitting there for a week or two, marked for departure.

Many people would look at my crazy piled-up desk and say I have a long way to go. And maybe I have. But I try not to feel bad about it, because feeling bad about clutter is mental clutter. And the more I try, the easier it gets. The easier it all gets.

Tube strikes and a culture of mean

February 11, 2014

This #tubestrike just makes me hope the ticket offices are closed. Machines dont strike. #NoMoreSympathy

TFL workers striking because people are losing jobs to ticket machines, but ticket machines will never go on strike.

TBH I never use the ticket office, the machines are just more convenient. #tubestrike

Strikes are meant to inconvenience people, to cause disruption to the running of things. So it’s not surprising that lots of Londoners last week had crappy journeys to work and back, and lots of Londoners feel angry with members of the TSSA and RMT unions for causing all this hassle by going on strike. But there’s a streak of meanness in these messages that goes beyond simple exasperation. And that meanness is shared by the people trying to force through Tube cutbacks (the subject of the dispute that led to the strike). I’d go as far as saying that there’s a whole culture of mean at work here.

The culture of mean says: there isn’t enough, so you shouldn’t ask for more.

Transport for London is facing a cut in its budget of £78 million. A government spending review in June 2013 ended with a decision to reduce the money available, eventually by a quarter. Why? Is the population of London set to reduce by a quarter? Are the people of London going to start travelling less? Is transport in London simply so quick, cheap and easy that nobody thinks any improvements need to be made? Of course not. TfL is simply having to take its share of the government’s ideologically-driven spending cuts. But the culture of mean says you don’t ask for more, you just pass the misery onwards. Boris Johnson claimed to have done battle with the Treasury mandarins and gained an “unprecedented” settlement, but this still represents a fall in the money available for TfL. I wonder if he really asked for more. I wonder if he really argued against the cuts.

The culture of mean says: people who ask for more are stealing from you, because there isn’t enough to go round.

The idea that others are taking more than their fair share is a powerful narrative, because it goes to the heart of human fears. We want to get our fair share on principle – and if it seems that there won’t be enough to go round, getting our fair share is a matter of survival. That fear is behind the narrative that the Tube strike involves “greedy Tube drivers” who “want more money”. How dare they go on strike when doctors and nurses get less? How dare they ask for “extra pay”? How dare Bob Crow live in a council house when there aren’t enough to go round?

For the record: the Tube strike is not about getting “extra pay” for anybody. It’s about fighting a plan to make hundreds of people redundant, cut the pay of the remaining workers by about 20% and close all the ticket offices. But the narrative of greedy strikers “asking for more” is very strong. And the culture of mean says you should never ask for more. If you’re a nurse who feels it’s unfair that you get paid less than a Tube driver, you should deal with that by hoping that Tube drivers end up with less. Remember: don’t ask for more, just pass the misery onwards.

The culture of mean says: things that I don’t use are no use.

Many Tube commuters have pointed out that the closure of ticket offices won’t affect them at all, because they personally never use them. Yes, lots of Londoners have turned Tube travelling into an art form. They’ve got their Oyster card in hand, they’ve memorised the bits of the Tube map they need and they’ve long ago worked out the ideal place to stand on the platform. But this level of Tube-competence doesn’t stop other people existing. Confused tourists, elderly out-of-towners, people with learning difficulties. Those people need help from a human. When you argue that ticket offices can be replaced with machines, you’re arguing that those people don’t matter.

OK, so let’s assume those people actually don’t matter and it’s fine for a Tube journey to be some kind of survival-of-the-fittest contest that’s hell for anyone who isn’t able-bodied and sharp-witted. We’ll leave those people to flounder…where? Well, actually, they’ll probably be in front of you in the ticket machine queue, maybe trying to voice-activate it or feeding drachma into the coin slot. That’s when it becomes clear that the ticket office is, paradoxically, a big time-saver for people who don’t need to use the ticket office.

It’s the same thing with the station supervisors: you’ve probably never used them, right? Well, I’ve never been in the operating theatre of a hospital, but that doesn’t mean I think we should close all operating theatres. TfL’s plan is to do away with the idea of having a supervisor for each station, and instead have one member of staff covering several stations. This means that if there’s an emergency at any given station, there’s a good chance there will be nobody officially in charge. The culture of mean says that’s OK, because putting extra resources in place to cover contingencies is a waste. Let’s just strip back everything, set ourselves up for disaster and then, when the disaster happens, we’ll say that “lessons have been learnt”.

The culture of mean is about taking away the things that feel like extras but actually aren’t. And unless we are very careful, we will buy into the mean mindset and let others set the terms of the debate.