The Bare Necessities of Life (and Research) – What Can’t You Live Without?

I was asked (by a local radio station) to comment on the media ‘research’ story of the week: What are the things in life we can’t do with out?

(Obviously a slow week in research).

The results were:

Top 20 Bare Necessities of Life

  1. Internet connection
  2. Television
  3. A cuddle
  4. A trustworthy best friend
  5. Daily shower
  6. Central heating
  7. Cup of tea
  8. An “I love you” every now and then
  9. A solid marriage
  10. Car
  11. Spectacles
  12. Coffee
  13. Chocolate
  14. Night in on the sofa
  15. Glass of wine
  16. A good cry every now and then
  17. A full English breakfast
  18. A foreign holiday once a year
  19. iPhone
  20. A pint

Looking down the list I noticed two glaring omissions. I’d put oxygen and water pretty high on my own personal list followed closely by food. So it’s clear that questions were asked in a particular way to elicit more than just the bare necessities of life!

Gender Differences and People Studying People

A lot of press coverage has made a lot of the gender differences in responses rather than gender similarities. It’s clear for items to have appeared in the top places in the list then both men and women need to be in agreement. It’s not possible to determine if there was any interview bias in how questions were asked. Were the prompts or examples the same or was there a subtle nudge in the desired direction. This happens more than we think in any research involving human attitudes. Whole books have been written about the effects of people studying people. Prior expectation on part of the researcher influences results. Notice that ‘a solid marriage’ figures highly in the results despite traditional marriage being on the decline. It suggests that the sample is weighted towards married people or else the marriage equality (gay marriage) debate has influenced the results. Would people really mention central heating if we were having a glorious summer?

So we really need to take this ‘research’ with a pinch of salt. The warning signs should be an over emphasis on gender differences. It’s standard in most universities for undergraduates to factor in a bit of gender mainly because it’s the first thing that springs to mind and it’s easy to collect the data. Careful analysis of most of the gender differences in psychological research reveals that the crossover, that is what we have in common is greater than that on which we differ. It’s clear from the present survey that relationships and human contact figure highly for both men and women. Many items listed are about the simple pleasures in life such as a cup of tea. Yes I know that cynics might argue that people only listed cuddles (at 3) when the internet (1) and the TV (2) broke down!

An Opportunity to Reflect on Your Life and Values

So rather than considering this as ground-breaking research illuminating the modern-day human psyche, just think of it as than just a bit of fun to launch a DVD (which it is). Use it as a moment for reflection.  What is really important to you? Are there some bare necessities in your life that are getting crowded out by other pressures and pleasures. I’m always amazed when holidaying that around 8pm every evening almost everyone stops to view the sunset. It’s something we rarely seem to do when back home. It’s easy to take things for granted in our lives so that we only miss them when they are gone. Back to oxygen and water again!

So grab a nice cup of tea (or a beverage of choice) and make your own list of the top 20 things that you can easily do to improve the quality of your life. What distractions do you need to switch off to enjoy these moments of pleasure?

(In conversation with Trish Adudu, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 15/6/13)

Links:

Is it Racism, a Culture Clash or a Breakdown in Communications?

Recently I saw a picture posted on Facebook that prompted discussion. On the face of it the offending item looked like out-and-out racism but a former colleague offered an interesting analysis that made me recall a tense moment in the classroom when teaching group formation (in-groups and out-groups) in social psychology. The picture is of a bench near a river with a sign on it reading ‘No Eastern Europeans’.

Racism, Culture Clash or Communication Breakdown?

The newspaper story reporting the incident highlights the issue of fish theft, which is also a contentious phrase. What does that mean? My former colleague writes on Facebook:

This looks like simple racism – but its actually just a culture clash. British coarse fishermen never remove fish from a lake – unless its simple theft, which is rare. Game fishermen will often take trout and salmon home to eat, limited by local regulations. This is a convention.

Many European fishermen – French, German and eastern European – expect to take fish home. They see catching fish to eat to be the motivation for going fishing. But British fishery owners are not aware of this, and see it as theft.

Just a little ignorance on both sides.

Now I admit that I do not know enough about coarse fishing or any other type for that matter. However this analysis does strike me as a better way forward than bandying about terms like ‘Eastern European’ and ‘racist’. It’s always important to remember that any communication involves a message, a transmitter of the message and that the is encoded. On the other hand, the message is received and then decoded. It’s never straightforward. There’s a great deal of scope for mis-communication.

If the aim of the sign is to enforce the rules of the game then it makes little sense to ban a whole team. If the message is to be correctly decoded we first have to consider the context for the encoding.

All of this reminded me of a lecture in group theory. I asked the class members to select a sticker from a choice of four colours (red, green, blue and yellow). Based on this basic criterion we created a number of groups to problem solve. However, a by-product of group assignment was that people started to defend their groups and how their group was superior to the others. They hadn’t been asked to do this. This effect illustrates what is known in social psychology as the minimal group paradigm. It demonstrates that the flimsiest of distinction between groups can be used as a basis of discrimination (‘us’ versus ‘them’). We discussed the principle, had a break and all students returned to their original seats. It was only then that I noticed something about the class dynamic.

I asked the group ‘Has anyone noticed anything?’ A student replied ‘Yes, and I don’t like it’. Everyone had noticed that all the ‘white students’ were sitting on one side of the room and all the ‘students of colour’ were sitting on the other. Apparently it was this way in other classes too and we set about discussing reasons for the arrangement. It transpired that skin colour was not the main reason for the division. All of the white students lived in halls of residence, they were all from different parts of the country. The students of colour were all local and all lived at home. This unexpected part of the lesson became a catalyst for the group to integrate more fully.

Now sometimes racism is unambiguous racism. Sometimes it’s an unconscious bias or a breakdown in communications. At other times it’s just ignorance, plain and simple. Sometimes communications and attitudes require outright condemnation. Sometimes we just need to be clearer in our communications, focus on behaviours not stereotypes and consider the broader context of the big picture.

Never Trust a Tabloid with Statistics

I was alerted to the great news that a pair of conjoined twins have been successfully surgically separated. Reported in The Daily Mail, it is stated that only one in ten million survive this operation. A comment on facebook questioned whether ten million such operations had been performed or was the figure just “plucked out of the air” (. . . I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate). Checking on the source of the statistic, the Facing the World website uses it slightly differently:

Cases of craniopagus (head-to-head) conjoined twins are extremely rare – only 1:10 million survive to infancy.

This is not the same as the Daily Mail’s claim. The practice of slightly altering statistics to fit the story or sometimes blatant misreporting often happens because journalists are on a deadline and often do not understand the things they report, or just want to tweak the facts and figures to make a better story. So the moral of this story is to check the sources of tabloid stories, or any news story for that matter.

If you need an easy-to-read crash course in statistics then I recommend: Darrell Huff’s entertaining book: How to Lie with Statistics

Links: 

I’m Sorry But This “Research” is Just Another Crummy, Half-Baked, PR Stunt

I took part in a radio discussion today for BBC Coventry and Warwickshire to discuss some new “research” about how “Brits” apologize too much. I’m sorry but it’s not proper research and the figures are meaningless. It’s another one of those thinly veiled PR stories that masquerades as real research. (I should know, I have been a part of them in the past, so I know how it works). The amount of free coverage in newspapers, radio and television is translated in to figures of ‘how much would this have costed if we’d have to pay for advertising’? Of course, tabloids and local radio, love this kind of stuff. It fills a few column inches or a few minutes of airtime. And so to the “research” which is really about selling a factory-made bagels, which incidentally may be full of sugar and highly processed flour and so are very unhealthy. Sorry.

Apparently, we “Brits”, if such a thing exists as the typical Brit exists, apologize eight times a day.That’s 2,920 times a year and 233,600 times a year, according to this half-baked research. It assumes that there is only one possible meaning for the word “sorry” and that every time it’s used is for an apology. It totally overlooks the subtleties of the English language and how context and tone of voice play a crucial part in defining what we say. We can use ‘sorry’ to express disgust, to be sarcastic, to imply the other person is at fault, to express disbelief, instead of ‘excuse me’ and to interrupt a conversation, as well as using sorry to mean ‘sorry’.

The crummy PR stunt (sorry, research) also offers “brashness coaching” via a helpline so that Brits can become more like New Yorkers, which according to this research means being rude and presumably throwing out all vestiges of subtlety from our language and eating more bagels.

Yes, we use the word ‘sorry’ a great deal. In fact, according to Professor Susan Hunston (University of Birmingham), the other expert on the radio programme, ‘sorry’ is used 318.3 words per million. Whereas, ‘please; is used only 192 words per million. So rather than reducing the number of times we say ‘sorry’, maybe we should increase the number of times we say ‘please’.

The ability to apologize is a mark of strength, generosity and empathy, all of which are qualities more enviable than is brashness. So let’s not apologize for saying ‘sorry’. It’s a marker of the subtlety of our language and how playful we are with words. It’s also an indication of the subtle ways in which we manage our social interactions. Sorry is an extremely effective shortcut to flag the violation of social norms whilst simultaneously taking the heat out of confrontation. ‘Sorry’ has multiple meanings. Eating too many factory-made bagels will massively increase your calorific intake, expand your waistline (and hips) and may contribute to your premature death of multiple obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart-disease. Unlike being unnecessarily brash and eating too many bagels, saying sorry is unlikely to kill you!

How’s that for directness?

Sorry!

Not!

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham

Out & About: Mapping LGBT Lives in Birmingham  is a research project commissioned by Birmingham City Council to map the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) community in the city. The data were collected over a five month period via an on-line survey by the charity Birmingham LGBT, and I analysed them. Essentially, the report aims to fill a gap in knowledge. Previously there were no data available to assess the needs of the LGBT community. The Equality Act 2010 has created the impetus to gather information to ensure equality of service provision.
The research comes at an exciting time for the city. Birmingham LGBT won a substantial grant from the Big Lottery Fund to establish an LGBT Health and Wellbeing Centre to act as a ‘one stop shop’ for the community and community groups, and will work with other service providers to address health inequalities within the LGBT Community.
Amongst the findings, Out and About indicated that one in five respondents had attempted suicide and more than one in five had self harmed. Both of these were more likely if the people had been victims of hate crimes. Cohort comparisons for experiences at school indicated that the younger cohort (under 35s) were more likely to have been ‘out’ at school than were the older cohort (35+) but also more likely to have been bullied. The general picture was of a paucity of information and resources at schools on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as a lack of active strategies in schools to tackle homophobia. The report calls for improvements in education provision to tackle homophobia and awareness raising.
Out & About also offers recommendations for improving the LGBT cultural appeal of Birmingham. The first step is simply that Birmingham needs to take a leaf out of the book of its festival of queer culture (now in its third year) and promote itself more effectively and *Shout! about what the city has to offer.
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Measuring Sexual Identity: Fundamentally Flawed, Practically Worthless, Irresponsible or Dangerous?

What’s wrong with ‘Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report’ (2010) from the Office for National Statistics?

Well for starters, the authors admit that its methodology is fundamentally flawed by using a single measure and if they had they used a more appropriate measure then the figures for gay, lesbian and bisexual would most likely have been higher! The report misleads over refusal rates and does not adequate addresses the age, emplyment status, education, and ethnicity biases in its figures. In spite of evidence to the contrary the authors slap themselves on the back for a success’ whereas they should be slapping each other in the face for this unmitigated disaster.

Having taught statistics in several UK universities at all levels and  with a PhD in gender stereotypes and attitudes to sexuality (from an accredited university), I recognise, in this report,  many of  pitfalls I’ve taught undergraduate psychology students to avoid.  If it was an undergraduate report, I’d struggle to give it a ‘pass’. So let’s look at some of the main problems:

Attraction, Behaviour, Orientation, Identity
The report distinguishes between sexual attraction, sexual identity,  sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. So the expectation is that the report will take a multidimensional approach. However, it does not.  It states that whereas legislation focuses on sexual orientation, the report choses to look at sexual identity. It  also clearly states that behaviour may not form a basis for identity but goes on to argue:

‘Research during the development of the question also deemed sexual identity the most relevant dimension of sexual orientation to investigate given its relation to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ (p4).

Unfortunately, the research on which this conclusion is based is by the Office for National Statistics. It’s a classic example of groupthink. Much cutting edge research would dispute this assumption.  I certainly dispute it. It became clear very early on in my research that a single question to measure sexual identity or sexual orientation, at best would be misleading. So I didn’t.  It could be considered irresponsible to publish  research based on an imappropriate tool. In fact, the curremt report probably would not be published in any peer reviewed journal.

This report warns:

“[N}o single question would capture the full complexity of sexual orientation. A suite of questions would be necessary to collect data on the different dimensions of sexual orientation, and to examine consistency between them at the individual level (p4).”

The report goes ahead and uses a single question anyway! Whether or not a person labels their sexual orientation should not be the issue where ‘experiences of disadvantage and discrimination’ are concerned. Clearly, the reluctance to feel able to or be comfortable in declaring one’s sexuality is also a form of disadvantage and an aspect of discrimination. The current approach distorts the issue through over simplification.

So what’s the difference between attraction, behaviour, orientation and identity. Well, identity is how we describe ourselves or how others label us. Well people who are attracted to the same gender might not act upon it. People who act upon sexual attraction may do so in very specific circumstances. Orientation may be indicated by attraction, behaviour or a label with which a person identifies. I would argue that behaviour and attraction are more important than the label a person uses. For instance, in sexual health there is a recognised category of ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), who do not identify as gay. They see themselves as straight men who occasionally have sex with other men. The rest of the time they lead ‘straight’ lives. In sexual health services and health promotions, ‘men who have sex with men’ are at risk from sexual transmitted infections, and are targeted as a specific group.  However, assumptions made by this report concluded:

“Testing showed that respondents were not in favour of asking about sexual behaviour in a social survey context, nor would it be appropriate in general purpose government surveys (p4)”.

Again, this conclusion was based on reports from the Office for National Statistics.  In the present study, worryingly, the authors state:

‘As in the UK, deriving an individuals sexual orientation from a suite of questions results in higher LGB estimates in the US compared with using a single sexual identity question (p15)’

It is accepted in attitude measurement that single item responses are unsuitable.  Using a multiple response measure, properly administered would produce a more accurate figure. Furthermore, research suggests that this figure would have been higher.The figures cited in the report for more methodological sound research range from 5% to 9% ( Joloza, Evans and O’Brien, 2010, p15). The current report says 1.5%.

In a survey with such political impact, the decision to use a single item is ill-advised and  arguably reckless. Research convenience should not compromise validity. In this instance, it does.

Sensitivity of Measurement
Having abandoned the methodologically sound approach of using a ‘suite’ of questions, one might hope that at least the report would use a sensitive measure beyond crude, simplistic nominal categories. Actually no. In the 1940s, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey developed a more sensitive  ‘sliding scale’ of sexuality. Instead, the present researchers ignore this and opt for the bluntest of instruments: Straight, gay or bi. This report didn’t even bother to include transgender in its analysis.

Firstly, consider the approach of ‘measuring’ ethnicity based on a ‘Black, White or Mixed’ categorisation. How accurately would this categorisation produce a representation of ethnicity in the UK? Any reputable survey offers a whole range of options for ethnicity with quite subtle distinctions. Even then, people may declare ‘other’. I would argue that sexuality is more complex than ethnicity.  So why is measurement tool in the present report, measurably more simplistic? The answers is: ‘because the study has not been properly designed to fit the subject matter’. It has little or no ecological validity, that is, it means very little in the real world, except perhaps to fuel prejudice.

The Kinsey scale requires a respondent to use a zero to six scale. Where zero equals ‘exclusively heterosexual’ and six equals ‘exclusively gay’.  This gives varying degrees of bisexuality, that is, from one to five. Now clearly, these sensitive data can be collapsed into cruder categories if needs be. The problem with collecting crude data from the outset, is that we can do little else with it. It offers nothing very meaningful just the willingless of people to use a limited set of labels.

Now imagine, we take three measures of attraction, behaviour and identity all of the sliding ‘zero to six’ scale. Wouldn’t this be a far more accurate reflection of a person’s sexuality orientation? It’s just a pity they didn’t do it in their report for the Office of National Statistics. Would it produce a higher percentage of lesbian, gay and bisexual people? Well, Joloza, Evans and O’Brien (2010, p15) would probably say ‘yes’. So why didn’t they do it?

So what exactly does this study measure? Well it doesn’t measure sexual identity in the UK. It measures the percentage of people sampled  who are willing to declare a sexual identity label from a limited choice  in interviews, with or without others present, in a particular time frame (for a study with poor ecological validity).

But the problems don’t end there. The report also reveals questionable interpretation from by its authors.

Confidentially and the Willingness to Respond
One statistic almost jumps out of the page to indicate that there’s something wrong with this study:

[P]eople (aged 16 and over) who identified as LGB had a younger age distribution than heterosexuals – 64.9 per cent were aged under 45 compared with 48.6 per cent of people who identify as heterosexual (p16).

In other words, younger people are more likely to report a ‘non-heterosexual’ identity than are older people. With no evidence to support the notion that older people are less likely to be gay, it has to be an artifact of this research. That is, older people either don’t identify with a ‘gay, lesbian or bisexual’ so readily, or are not so predisposed to tell a stranger with a clipboard. As such, the one-shot sexual identity is not fit for purpose. It’s possible that older people are more likely to remember the days before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and police entrapment strategies. It’s possible that they don’t use the word ‘gay’ and may prefer ‘homosexual’. It’s possible that they don’t like to divulge personal information to strangers unless absolutely necessary. There are definitely confounding variables at play and not just age.

According to this study gay, lesbian and bisexual have better jobs and are better educated. Again, the myth of the pink surfaces. Could it not be that young, well-educated, finnacially secure people are more likely to divulge their LGB sexual identity to a stranger? This means that less-empowered people more in need of support and services are not. Again the one-shot measure doesn’t appear to do its job.

The report makes a claim in the face of its own evidence that confidentiality basing this on the refusal rate:

There is no evidence of an adverse impact on response rates confirming the general acceptance of the question. Our analysis suggests response rates are broadly in line with earlier quantitative testing. Non response to the question was low with less than 4 per cent of eligible respondents refusing to answer, saying they did not know the answer or not providing a response  (p26).

Perhaps this  should read  ‘no adverse impact on response rates, except for older, less financially secure, not-so-well educated, non-professionals’.  For those in routine and manual occupations, the most frequent response to the sexual identity question was ‘other’ at 31.1%, more ‘popular’ than heterosexual at 29.4%. Almost a half (49.1%) of those who identified as gay and lesbian had managerial or professional occupations, compared to less than a third (30.6%) who identified as heterosexual/straight? Furthermore, 38.1% of Gay/Lesbian had a degree compared with only 21.9% of Heterosexual/Straight. Doesn’t all this seem odd? Yes! It suggests a significant bias in the sampling, the method and the results. In short, the flaws are evident but largely overlooked by the authors. Failure to do this in an undergraduate report would be severely penalised. But far more is at stake here. This report may inform social policy!

Looking at ethnicity, there’s a bias here too. For Heterosexual/Straight people 90.7% are White, whereas for Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual its 93.5%. However, for the ‘Other’ category for sexual identity, 14.1% are ‘other ethnic group’. For the ‘Don’t knows’, the figure for ‘other ethnic group’ is 18.2%. People from ‘Other ethnic groups’ were almost twice as likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as say ‘Heterosexual’ (9.3%). They were almost three times more likely to say ‘Don’t Know’ as ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’ (6.5%). This suggests either a reluctance to declare sexuality or that they did not understand what the terms meant. Either way, it’s a shortcoming of this research.

It’s interesting to note that option one on the interviewers card (market research style) was ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ and option two was  the less formal ‘Gay or Lesbian’, with option three as ‘Bisexual’. It’s interesting that whereas ‘both terms in option one and three can be applied to either men or women. For option two, you can’t have a lesbian man!The options do not use comparable terminology. If different terminology had been used, would the results have been different? If the options had been re-ordered, would the results have been different?Why is heterosexual the first option? Did this slightly increase the heterosexual figure. Research into research and experimter bias suggests it might.  Had the survey not been carried out in a market research format would the results have been different?Did interviewer the tone of voice affect the way in which the questions were answered. I’s done endless market research interviewers on the street and most of the time I can work out what the researcher ‘wants’ me to say. Are you heterosexual <smiles with rising intonation? or gay <frowns, with falling intonation> or bisexual <spits>? It’s a slight exageration but it does happen.

Now let’s turn to the ‘less than four per cent refusal rate’ that caused the authors to discard the other evidence.

The authors state:

‘Prior to developing and testing work on the sexual identity question, the expectation was that the higher the number of adults in the household, the higher the proportion of item non response. This is be because some household members might be reluctant to disclose their sexual identity in the presence of others. However, the results from the IHS do not indicate this (p12).’

However they don’t make the connection between non-response rates and the willingness to declare a true label:

‘Another observation here is that the proportion of people reporting to be LGB in a household decreases as the number of adults in the household increases. There is currently no explanation why this is the case but this is something that could be considered for further investigation in future (p12)’.

One explanation might be that, the more people in the house the less likely people are to declare themselves to be ‘Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual’. They didn’t necessarily refuse they may have felt the need to protect their own privacy and lied or said ‘don’t know’.

So for people identifying as the as the number of people living in the house increases, the figure for ‘Heterosexual/Straight’ increases slightly. For Gay/Lesbian it falls from 1.3% in a single person household to only 0.3% in a four person plus household. The figures for Bisexual remain roughly the same. For ‘Don’t Know/Refusal’ the figures increase slightly as the number of people in the house increases.  This suggests that there is an element of self-censorship in responses.

Think about it logically. If you want to keep your sexual identity secret from other members of the house, do you ‘refuse’ and cause the other house members to ask why, or do you just lie?  Or if you live a ‘heterosexual’ life for 95% of the time and have recreational sex, exactly how do you respond to the stranger on the door step with the crude market research question?

What’s clear is that the current report has not adequately addressed the numerous problems it has generated with an inappropriate methodology for a complex subject. White, Black and Mixed would not be good enough for ethicoity, so why is it good enough here, for a subject arguable more sensitive and complex?

Improvements
It’s important to remember that the Kinsey Team in he 1940s put the gay and bisexual figure as high as 37%. Of course the sampling has been criticised over the years. It probably did lead to an overestimation. Nevertheless the measure on which the Kinsey team based their research was exemplary. A one-shot question does not work for something as complex as human sexuality. The Kinsey measurement was complex and fit for purpose. It is not good enough to side step the issue of instrument accuracy with protests of convenience and acceptability to researchers. Rather than go for the easy, convenient option, get better researchers and design a better study where appropriate measures can be used.  Otherwise all you get is conveniently produced meaningless results. Garbage in, garbage out.

Conclusion
So is this report, fundamentally flawed, practically worthless, irresponsible or dangerous? In my professional opinion, considering the plitical climate, I’d have to say that it’s all of those things. The ONS needs to stop engaging in groupthink and stop treating the complex notion of sexual orientation as some crass market research exercise.  Patting themselves on the back, the authors conclude:

‘The introduction of the sexual identity question. . .  in January 2009 followed rigorous testing and feasibility testing by ONS. The findings of this report suggest its implementation on the IHS in the first year has been a success (p26)’.

A success why what standards? Certainly not of academic rigour. We need high quality research data on which to make sense of our world and inform our social policy decisions. Sadly, this report fails to deliver and cannot be treated as anything other than a pilot study from which serious lessons need to be learned.  The simplistic method does not work evidenced by the reports own figures. It fails to meet the standards of an undergraduate report, on which one can only conclude ‘must do better next time’. Sadly, the decision not to consider the ethical ramifications of publishing a flawed report is inexcusable and sheds light on the ability of the ONS to produce high quality data. It’s argubale negligence. Researchers have a responsiblity to consider how their research will be used. The ONS has  failed to recognise its responsibility.

Maybe it does  not commit the sin of commission of homophobia but it does commit the sin of omission in that it justifies the heterosexist ideology of rendering invisible sexual diversity.

So if we add in the refusals and the don’t knows, if we adjust the figures for age, ethnicity, education, profession and number of people in the household, what exactly would the figue be for ‘non-heterosexuals’? Well, your guess is as good as mine.  It’s disappointing that this overblown, expensive pilot study has thrown up more questions than it answers, and we are back to simply ‘guessing’.

Links:

Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report

“All are equal, but some are more equal than others” – Minister for Equality

“All are equal but some are more equal than others” is not a direct quote from Minister for Equality but more verbal representation of the actions of our newly appointed Minister for Women and Equality, Theresa May. The Minister’s voting doesn’t read as the best curriculum vitae for the job. The course of Theresa May’s political life does not shout equality, it doesn’t even whisper it. It was expected that Chris Grayling would get the job, but he hasn’t exactly got a great voting record on equality issues relating to gay rights either.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet we can actually view the voting record of our MPs and Ministers to see if they actually do represent our values.  Our Minister of a ‘equality’ shows a less than impressive record on equality issues relating to gay rights. Looking her record published on They Work For You, Ms May is classified as being moderately against equality relating to gay rights.  Since 2001 she has mostly voted against equality, when she actually turn up to vote! Her rating is 31% for equality on this issue! Compare this to David Cameron’s 61.3% although he was absent from a few votes too, including the one to repeal Section 28.  Nonetheless, Mr Cameron comes out as ‘moderately for’ equality. Of course it could be worse. William Hague only ‘chalks up’ 26%. He was either absent or opted against equality on this issue. However, all three did manage to drag themselves in to vote against the hunting ban. Cameron and Hague attended all votes and May only missed one.  It doesn’t exactly shout ‘fairness and equality’. Gordon Brown‘s rating at 61.9% is equivalent to David Cameron’s on equality but voted ‘for’ the hunting ban. Chris Grayling scored 39.4%, only slightly better than Theresa May. However,  it certainly could have been worse if Communities Secretary (although probably not gay communities), Eric Pickles had landed the equalities post with his 15.7% rating for equality. Even worse, ‘the quiet man’ Iain Duncan Smith, who is remarkably quiet on equality at a mere 7.7% rating. These last two make Theresa May look like Peter Tatchell!  Furthermore, these cabinet choices undermine and contradict Cameron’s assertion that the Tory’s are ‘no longer the nasty party’. Suspending MPs for marking anti-gay comments contradicts  his choices to put an habitual anti-equality voter in charge of equality.

Nevertheless, Ms May claims she is the right person for the job and that ‘homophobic bullying’ will be one of her priorities, despite having voted against the repeal of Section 28.  Given her voting record, it’s hardly surprising that thousands have joined a facebook group and signed a petition calling for her  resignation as ‘Minister for Equality’.  And does her call for an International Day Against Homophobia sit easily with her heterosexist voting record on equality issues!  It’s easy enough to smile for the camera and wave a flag for the day, but better to actually make a difference with the power of your vote. Otherwise, it’s PR tokenism and hypocrisy.

It will be interesting to see how these issues affect the Con-LibDem Coalition over the coming months. Compare Ms May’s record with that of Liberal Vince Cable with a 90.4% rating for equality. Treasure Secretary  David Laws gained a similar rating of 90.1%. As for Nick Clegg, with only three opportunities to vote (and one missed), his rating of 64.3%.  The appointment of Junior Minister for Equality Lynne Featherstone does in part help balance the equality with an equality rating of 64.3% (based on only three votes). However, she didn’t turn up for the vote on Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations.

Cary Gee makes the point in Tribune Magazine that, “A day before the general election was called, Cameron spoke of ‘the great ignored” – specifically mentioning gays. Ignored? But I would rather be ignored by a Tory government than crapped on”.  Arguably, Ms May has made a political career of crapping on equality and gay rights, as have many of her colleagues. It could be argued that we should give Ms May the benefit of the doubt, but so far ‘equality’ has not benefitted from her conviction that some people are not as equal as others!

To protest about the appointment of Theresa May, write to your MP, sign the petition and  join the FaceBook group, see links below. And, to see how your MP votes on equality issues visit: TheyWorkForYou.Com.

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Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

Matching Your Values to Your Vote (UK General Election 2010)

One of the things I do as a personal development coach is to help people allign their values and goals. The same applies to casting a vote in an election. It’s an important decision and really needs to reflect your values and what you stand for. Sometimes when the issues are complex it’s difficult to come to a clean, unambigous conclusion. So here are three resouces designed to help you match your values and attitudes to your vote in the 2010 UK General Election:

  1. Quiz One: Who should I vote for?
  2. Quiz  Two: Who should I vote for?
  3. Quiz Three: Who should I vote for?

My field of expertise is attitudes and attitude measure so it was interesting to see that although all three quizzes take a slightly different approach, they all came to the same answer (for me a least).  So, take a few minutes and see if they work for you too.

p.s. Unfortunately quizzes 1 & 2  have a rather ‘mainsteam, three party bias’ although quizz 3 has on option to fous on each of the four UK countries.

Look Out! Look Out! Psychobabble Blue Monday is About! The Most Gullible Day of the Year

Every year I get asked by journalists and producers to comment on ‘Blue Monday’. . .the supposed most depressing day of the year based on a cod-equation. Every year I tell them that it’s just a PR exercise dreamed up by a PR company to promote a travel company to encourage us to cheer ourselves up by ‘booking a holiday’. One factor in the equation includes the longest gap between paydays. . which means ‘blue monday’ always falls in January, since most people are paid earlier in December so they can spend, spend, spend at Christmas.

So isn’t it just a harmless bit of fun? Well apart from bringing the subject of psychology into disrepute and trivializing depression. . . surely it’s just an innocent bit of trivia to fill a few column inches or tag onto the end of a news programme.  I hoping that the story would have gone away by now, but every year it re-appears like a  kind of journalistic herpes!

So why does it matter to me? Well, I was one of the psychologists originally approached , 22 December 2004, by a PR company with a pre-written equation that they were going to ‘validate’ by ‘research’. They wanted a male psychologist as it would carry more weight.  I turned it down explaining that “I don’t support ‘made-up’ psychology”. The PR company, of course, went on to find someone who would put their name to it.

I’m not anti-media and have fronted campaigns for the Learning and Skills Council to promote adult learning.  If I can legitimately bring evidenced-based psychology to the campaign and its a worthwhile message and it isn’t for a company with dodgy values then I’ll consider it.

It’s no point in protesting that ‘Blue Monday’ is anything but a PR stunt. It doesn’t tell the general public anything about evidence-based psychology. It just illustrates how psychology can be mis-used and gives the impression of the psychologist as ‘side-show, snake-oil peddler  (in my opinion).

So there you have it. May I urge you all on ‘Psychobable Blue Monday’ to go out and do something nice for someone else. Pay someone a compliment, give a small gift, or just smile and pass on good cheer. . . but whatever you do. . . don’t feel manipulated to book a holiday! And if you do make sure it’s not with the company peddling the cod-psychology! And always, always be aware of ‘psychological formulae’. There’s a quote from systems expert Checkland who said ‘Life’s too quixotic to be modelled’.