Being Happy: Psychology, Champagne and the World of PR

I received a telephone call from a PR company promoting a well-known champagne brand about a campaign they are about to run. Essentially they wanted suggestions for visual images that evoke happiness. These images are going to be used on TV screens in the back of a limousine. The idea being to associate happiness-evoking images with drinking this particular brand of champagne.

Now I routinely offer psychological insights and coaching tips for news stories and magazine features. The rule is that the journalist will have a couple of questions and would take up about 15 minutes of time and they then mention me in a magazine. I’ll do brief radio and television interviews too on a similar basis.  I’m listed on the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) media-friendly psychologist list. Most of the time I am. The main rule is that it has to be an opportunity to offer real psychology not gimmicks and syndromes made up by editors and producers.

So back to the ‘champagne campaign’. In this case it’s just a PR company taking liberties. I ask if they would like to consult with me on the project. She says ‘No we just want some suggestions’. I reply ‘I’m sure you do’ explain the ‘quotes for credit rule’ and then asked  bluntly ‘What do I get out of this?’ I was told that they would mention my name on the screen in the back of a limo. I politely declined as it sounded too much like advertising without the scope to inject any evidence-based psychology. I told her I would have to pass on this one. However she continued ‘Well we don’t have to credit you. We just want your suggestions’. Clearly, she was not getting the point. I asked if the PR company randomly telephones other professionals for free advice. I didn’t get a response to that one.

Now I’m assuming that the PR company will be paid handsomely for its services. I assume the person wasting my time on the phone was also being paid, so why is it acceptable to expect me to give up my time for nothing? If it had been for a charity or something of public value then I wouldn’t have even quibbled. The issue is how in PR companies’ eyes, the psychologist skill-set and expertise has become so devalued. Unfortunately this is in part down to some hack-psychologists who’ll comment on just about anything.

Back to the story. Aside from the waste of my time there is a more serious issue here. Essentially, the psychologist who will eventually agree to help with this campaign will be sending out the message that ‘drinking expensive champagne in the back of a limo’ will make you happy. I wouldn’t promote alcohol as a substitute for psychological well-being. Champagne does not make people happy. It temporarily alters mood as does all alcohol, but that is not happiness, no matter how prettily you wrap it up.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to offer suggestions for what will make you happy, check out the following posts.

Should the British Psychological Society’s Blogpost Read Like a Lads’ Mag?

I was shocked to see a post on The British Psychological Society‘s Research Digest Blog Post and as a member I have complained. The post claims to offer ‘evidence-based’ instructions, but appears more as a list of sexist, blokey tips that might you’re more likely to see in a very old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. One might easily miss the links to research on account of the arcane language. I know I did on first reading.

However, what one cannot miss is the heteronormative bias and generalizations about what men and woman do and prefer. Which men? Which woman? The answer is ‘lady’ women and ‘gentle men’. The language used in the post sounds like something from the 1950s, not from a professional body. I appreciate the importance of communicating psychological insights to a lay audience. However I do not expect it to read like an article from a lad’s mag! The post concludes with: “Apologies for male, heterosexual bias”. Should a blog on the BPS’s official site, be offering a biased article that waves aside diversity with an apology.  I cannot imagine an article ending with ‘apologies for the racial bias’. Don’t apologise, just don’t do it! It simply is not what a professional organization should be doing. It’s clear the author needs a lesson in appropriate terminology (that is, 21st Century) and a lesson in diversity before being let loose as the friendly face of The British Psychological Society for relationship issues.

Read the blog post and form your own conclusions:

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/02/evidence-based-tips-for-valentines.html

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!

Only Words? (Yet another post on the 55-38-7% body language myth)

If any body language ‘expert’ wants to prove the myth that words only count for only 7% of any communication I have a challenge.

Polish up on your open-gestures, upright, relaxed posture and perfect your smile, then next time you are on TV and get to say about 100 words, just work these seven words into the conversation and see exactly how much they count for. According to the myth, your words won’t matter, so let’s see.

Deep breath, relax, smile and repeat after me:

Sh*t, P*ss, F*ck, T*ts, C*cks*ck*r, M*th*rf*ck*r, c*nt.

Keep smiling and  try it in church, at a job interview or to a police officer. Visit hospitals and old people’s homes. Work the words into a family member’s eulogy or at the bingo hall instead of ‘house’.

So your posture, gestures and lovely tone of voice got you through all of these situations without even the ‘batting of eyelid’ or the raise of an eyebrow? Thought not.

Now actually read the research and stop talking out of your ar$€ !

Links:

“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.

Links:

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’.

If I Hear One More Idiot say “It’s a New Decade. . .”

New decades, centuries, and millenia begin with a ‘one’ not ‘zero’. We didn’t start numbering from year zero. . . so do get a grip! The new millenium began in 2001 and the new decade isn’t until next year. . . so do get a grip on reality. . . and basic arithmetic!

Vegetarians Don’t Eat Meat and Proper Psychologists Don’t Gossip About Celebrities!

To many non-vegetarians the concept of what constitutes meat is a bit of a grey area.  Many moons ago, not long after becoming a vegetarian I visited a friend’s house. His ever-hospitable mother offered me a ‘lovely chicken sandwich’ and I had to tell her that I no longer ate meat. Unperturbed, she offered corned beef on the assumption, I guess, that I could just focus on the corn. After I respectfully declined that I was offered wafer thin smoked turkey. Presumably the thinness and the smoking process eliminated the meatiness. We eventually settled on a cheese sandwich which she dressed with a little salad on the side and some crisps (potato chips). . . roast chicken flavour. Ironically, they are one of the flavours that actually don’t contain meat. However, I’m not sure that she knew that.

Ultimately I suppose the meat non-meat thing is a values clash. I remember watching a discussion on a chat show talking about vegetarians. A meat-eater stood up and said ‘How dare vegetarians force their values on their children’. It hadn’t occurred to him that meat-eaters do exactly this!

So what’s all of this got to do with celebrities. Well, as a psychologist I’m often called upon to offer some insight on media stories, whether news stories or general discussions on social issues. Over the past couple of weeks, surprise, surprise, I’ve had a lot of calls to discuss ‘infidelity’. When I ask, what’s inspired the story (as if I don’t know), of course, it’s the alleged extra marital affairs of a well-known sporting personality.  .  . okay you know it’s Tiger Woods so I may as well type it.  Now I tell them that I don’t talk about celebrities lives as it’s unethical.  I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of celebrities and neither do the two-bit hacks who cough up pithy insights for self-aggrandisement. My refusal comes as a shock, even for the producers I routinely work with. It’s become so normal to gossip about celebrities that it’s difficult to get the point across! Psychologists should not be gossiping and speculating on the inners workings of people’s minds! If they are clients then it’s confidential, and if they are not clients then they have no insight anyway. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with fellow psychologist Dr Petra Boynton who shares my view and endures the same nonsense. Basically it brings the name of psychology into disrepute and it’s against the British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines. Programme producers will complain ‘Well Dr ‘Pops-up-a-lot’ discusses celebrities all the time. I reply ‘Yes I know ‘it’ does and being a member of the BPS ‘it’ should no know better’! What invariably follows are a series of ‘what ifs’ of the ‘wafer thin smoked turkey, corned beef’ variety. Each time I decline until they run out menu choices. If it’s got celebrity in it. . I’m not going to bite, get it? They only time I make an exception is when everyone jumps on the bandwagon and bullies a celebrity, as in the over-night fame of Susan Boyle and subsequent press intrusion and ‘expert’ (fakexpert) speculation. . . even then it’s only to counter the BS.

I’ve read of so-called reputable psychologists (read ‘gossipologists’) offering mental health diagnoses of celebrities. I’ve also seem them discussing the mental states of celebrities’ young children. Nothing they say is ever meaningful and it’s certainly unethical. It’s gossip, plain and simple! The fact that someone has a degree in psychology or a PhD in ‘the social impact of jogger’s nipple’ does not mean they have any valid insight into the mental state or deepest motivations of any celebrity.

Psychologists should abide by a common set of values that shouldn’t be prostituted for a one-liner in ‘Celebrity Life’ magazine. Surely these values should be higher than picking over the bones of skeletons in celebrities’ closets. Where juicy, meaty titbits of gossip are concerned, shouldn’t psychologists be ‘vegetarian’?

Links:

Celebrity Body Language

Therapists Boasting of  Celebrity Clients

Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Phone rings. Number withheld. It’s a journalist who wants some expert insight into why it is that men get all ‘letchy’ (lecherous) after a drink. It’s for a magazine article aimed at young women. Of course what she doesn’t want to hear is that women get ‘lairy’ (loud) after a drink.  Why is that? I say ‘tomarto’ she says ‘tomayta’. . she says ‘letchy’. . I say ‘lairy’. . . oh let’s call the whole thing off. . . and move on to some hack who doesn’t quibble about gender differences. . .and has not expertise in anything except saying what journalists want to hear.

So why could it be that men get more ‘letchy’ or ‘flirty’ after a few drinks in a sexualised commercial environment such as a night club? Er. . . perhaps that would be the effects of getting drunk, exactly the same as for women. I know that ‘letchy’ and ‘lairy’ are exactly analogous . . but the point is that alcoholic lowers inhibitions irrespective of the contents of our undergarments. It can also make us more aggressive. Check out the police statistics. . .it’s not just the blokes who are kicking the living daylights out of each other on a Saturday night. . . no mere spectators. . . ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’.

During the brief exchange, I was asked about body language in the context of ‘men getting letchy’ after a drink’. Well what’s the body language of anyone who has drunk so much that they have lost control of their cognitive and motor faculties. . . a quick lunge for anything they can get hold of before falling to the ground and rolling around in their own vomit!

Now I like the occasional tipple as much as the next ‘lairy letch’ (well maybe not that much). . . and I know that these gender stories may seem like a harmless bit of fun. . but such excursions in gender psycho-babble serve to over-emphasise the differences between men and women or create new differences that only really exist in the world of magazine sales. The fact is: when we get drunk we all make arses of ourselves! Binge drinking is a massive problem with both men and women, especially with alcoholic drinks designed to taste like soft drinks.

These one-sided gender-based stories are there just to raise a smile and fill up a bit of space, but in the process they fuel gender stereotypes. They create a ‘gender filter’ whereby we look for differences where there aren’t any. Of course the additional of a bit of ‘body twaddle’ (sorry I mean ‘body language’ ) always makes things look a bit more scientific. It’s interesting the most of the ‘leading lights’ in body language have no qualifications. Many of them offer conjecture and home spun, common-sense, back-porch, pseudo-Freudian waffle presented as ‘evidence’. Many of them confuse ‘biological sex’ with ‘social gender’ and over-emphasize sex and gender differences and seem oblivious to the fact that Western gender roles have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.  Whereas the evidence shows that predominantly, men and women have more things in common than things on which we differ. And surprise, surprise. . .Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Links: