Future Me – Write Yourself a Letter From the You in Six Months Time

I was asked to comment on a lovely project by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio which they called ‘Future Me’. They asked five people to write a letter to themselves from their six-months-in-the-future self. The letter contains elements of how they see themselves in six months time and advice they would give to the present-day-me to get them to achieve these future goals.

Knowing yourself as you do. . .

By looking six months into the future you are thinking about medium term goals, so it’s important not to be too ambitious. Goals always need to be realistic and achievable. The nice thing about this letter approach is that it taps into our knowledge of ourselves. In my coaching practice, I often begin questions with ‘Knowing yourself as you do. . . ‘. This helps clients to tap into their own personal expertise in their own lives. It’s typical of the solution-focused coaching approach. It’s all about building on existing strengths and abilities.

Should we always be chasing goals?

If we don’t set our own goals then life will dictate them for us. So it’s good to set your own agenda. However, goal-setting shouldn’t be at the expense of enjoying the present moment. It has become something of a cliché but nevertheless true that the journey is just as important as the destination. So take time to enjoy each step of the process not just the end result. In my life I have studied for quite a few exams but I also approach it from a point of gaining understanding rather than just cramming my head full of facts for the end result. I learn a lot about myself in the process. Sometimes that can be even more valuable than the piece of paper at the end. So with goal-setting it’s important to strike a balance.

Write your own future me letter

Begin by just sketching out some idea of how you want things to be in six months. It should involve thing over which you have some control over in life. Winning the lottery would obviously be great but how do you actually plan to do this short of breaking into Lottery HQ and fiddling with the balls using a complex series of magnets, not that I have actually thought about this!

Once you have an idea of where you want to be, realistically, write a letter to yourself, giving yourself the good advice and encouragement that you might give to someone else. It might be something more tangible like getting a new job or saving money or getting to your ideal weight. It could also be something not quite so measurable such as gaining confidence. Once you have written the letter, read it though then put it in a safe place ready to read it again in six months time.

Now take action on your own advice

As a psychologist and a coach I don’t subscribe to this passive approach of sitting back and waiting for things to happen. My job is to help people to make things happen. This means taking action. The letter is a signal of intention and is a tool to help you to tap into your resources. It’s not an excuse to opt and let the ‘universe’ take care of your wishes. The universe may be very busy! The universe doesn’t offer a life-back guarantee, in that you can’t get the life back that you wasted waiting. A better approach is to begin acting as if the ‘future-me’ is happening and actively help it along. Make the future-me letter a self-fulfilling prophecy. Try it out for yourself.

[Based on a conversation on air with Annie Othen BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio, 09 August 2013]

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodLinks:

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Reset Your Goals – First Day of Spring

The euphoria of the New Year has long evaporated by now. Stumbling with our goals is often interpreted as failure and a reason to give up. However, going off track is more likely feedback that the goal’s action plan needs to be adjusted. As we seem to put a significance of key dates as starting points for our goals, there’s a good argument to revise, refine and reset out goals on the first day of Spring. It’s the perfect day for new beginnings.

Working as a coach I work with clients to set goals all year round. That’s not to say we can’t borrow a little momentum from a significant date. The most common reasons for stumbling on goals are that the goals are unrealistic. Usually people take on too much given their circumstances. Goals may have been vaguely described which means it’s difficult to keep a track of when you are on track or not. The other main reason is one of motivation. The significance of a particular day is simply not enough to carry us through when times get tough. So spend some of this first day of Spring reading the following posts, renewing your goals and getting back on track.

More on goals:

Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.

Links:

How to Guide Your Decision Making With Your Value System

Faced with innumerable decisions we need a system to filter out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. What’s most important to you and what can you let go? Fortunately, you already have such a system. It’s called your value system. Each of us live by a set of principles shaped by our society and culture but with our own particular spin. Our values help us to focus on the essentials. Life is a bit like a supermarket. There are the budget supermarkets that have just one of everything on the shelves and there are the major supermarkets that have ten of everything on the shelf? Do we really need to choose between ten brands of ketchup when the contents are pretty much the same? The Pareto Principle states that 20% of our efforts yield 80% of the results. If we focus on the core 20% we get more time to relax, provided of course you don’t agonize over the choices for a relaxing activity.

When I work with (life) coaching clients we focus on core values and how goals support these. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows me that curiosity and learning are amongst my top values. Equality and ethics are also important to me. That’s how I got to slim down my list of shopping brands. There are just some that I refuse to buy because of what I consider to be their company’s unethical practices. So take a while to consider what  are your top ten values, the guiding principles in your life. When you have made a list of ten, cross out the bottom five and concentrate on the top five. When faced with decisions and goals, ask yourself: ‘Will doing this support my values?’ Obviously there will be exceptions. Any system needs to be flexible. However it will give you a focus if you stick to these core values 80% of the time.

Another tool I use is the ‘Absolutely Yes or No Rule’. This will help to maintain your focus. If when faced with a choice if the answer is not ‘absolutely yes’ then it is automatically ‘no’. This is particularly useful if you find it hard to say ‘no’ to people. However make sure you don’t say ‘no’ just because you find the task a little daunting. Instead ask: ‘Is this a new experience?’ ‘Will I learn anything new from it?’ Again be flexible and stick to the rule a least 80% of the time.

If you sit quietly for a moment and bring your attention fully back into the room you will begin to notice sights, sounds and sensations that you routinely blank out. This is because we cannot possibly pay attention to every tiny bit of information that comes our way. Therefore our attention is selective. We focus on the important stuff and blank out the noise. Using our value system can help us to do that when faced with too many decisions and a limited amount of time. So what are your values in life and how will you let them lead your decision making?

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 4/1/13)

Links:

End of the World or Second Chance?

According to some ‘popular’ interpretations of ancient Mayan prophecy, the world should have ended today. Alternatively this day has ushered in a new age of enlightenment. Many people are probably so sick of hearing about the end of the world that they wished it was, just so the ‘end-of-timers’ would just shut the ‘hell’ up.

In less than two weeks we may have set new year’s resolutions and already broken them. It seems we like to make grand gestures on significant dates. So, let’s work on the hypothesis that we are entering a new age of enlightenment, only we don’t have t wait for it to come to us. I’ve already been pondering what I can do differently in the coming year and the things I do well that I can do more of.

Use this ‘un-momentous’ occasion to review your strengths, values and goals including things you have been putting off, things that you have’always wanted to do’, but never seem to make the time. Part of my job as a programme co-ordinator on a psychology course meant that I had to interview prospective candidates. The question I found most useful was ‘What are you going to give up (sacrifice) to attend this course?’ It took most people by surprise as they had perhaps figured that they would squeeze it in amongst other commitments. The problem with that approach is that you ‘spread yourself too thinly’. Giving up stuff can be a positive thing. Many of the prospective candidates would be busy, mature-aged students. The one thing they had all given up was the attitude that they were not ‘student-material’. They had let go of something negative and entertained the possibility that they just might ‘do good’ second time around.

Working with these students proved inspirational and a turning point in my career. I recognized that I would need a few extra confidence building skills and that’s how I began coaching (life coaching). I went off and did some coaching training. I brought these skills back to the class room and ran extra-curricular personal development courses that formed the basis of my book, Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It. In order to attend these courses, the students sacrificed a few weekends but hopefully gained a lot more. To complete essays they probably had to sacrifice a few evening’s television, but the sense of achievement they gained was far greater.

So what can you give up in your life to make way for something you’ve always wanted to do? Have you longed to return to learning, or learn a new language or just get out more and reconnect with people? It’s often said that when staring death in the face we don’t regret the things we have done but the things we haven’t done.

So today, as we have all collectively faced up to the end of the world, what would have been your deepest regrets? More importantly, what are you going to start doing about it today? Start by sacrificing the attitude that you can’t do it or you haven’t got the time. Make way for new attitudes. Reaffirm your values in life, that which you stand for in life, and take action.

Links:

Avoiding Negative People or Changing Your Attitude?

I saw a postcard circulating on the internet that read:

‘Avoid negative people for they are the great destroyers of self-confidence and self esteem. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you’.

I have no issue with the second statement but do take exception to the first.

Firstly, what exactly are negative people? Is this negativity a fixed state? If so, what a depressing view of humanity. It’s more accurate to refer to use the phrase ‘people holding negative attitudes’. It also offers the possibility that attitudes may change. However we can take this further. Using this absolutist mindset is not psychologically healthy in which we posit black and white categories of ‘positive people’ and ‘negative people’. In fact, in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT),  the ‘black and white mindset’ is seen as something the needs to change. Many of the CBT techniques are aimed at ‘logically disputing’ the results of black and white thinking.

As a coach, many of my clients hold negative attitudes which are usually directed towards themselves. So, as a coach, should I avoid such people? Instead should I surround myself with ‘positive people’? Working with people with negative attitudes is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a coach and as a teacher. Such clients bring out the best in me and I can clearly see that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

Going back to the idea of all-pervading negativity, are there really people who are absolutely negative about absolutely everything, all of the time? Of course not. Admittedly, people can get into a negative cycle but I have yet to encounter people for whom this is all encompassing. My coaching practice is heavily influenced by solution-focused therapy skills. As with CBT, I work with clients to explore the exceptions. I will ‘look for what sparkles’ in someone’s life rather than consign them to the scrap heap. Admittedly this is not the easiest route but it is infinitely more rewarding. My coaching practice is also significantly informed by my psychological training. My PhD was in attitudes and ‘black and white thinking’. I very much view coaching as process to facilitate attitude change.

The assumption in the self-help quote above is that ‘negative people’ destroy self confidence and self esteem.  However, there is another saying offering a different perspective: ‘Difficult people are our teachers’. Many people tell stories of triumph over adversity and overcoming obstacles. Sometimes ‘difficult people’ test us. It’s not necessarily a reason to avoid them. Obstacles can strengthen our resolve. There is also the question of perception. Sometimes ‘negative people’ and ‘difficult people’ are those who don’t agree with us. Of course, it’s different when faced with bullies and those who seek to put us down. However is total avoidance necessarily the right strategy? Will avoidance preserve confidence and esteem? Surely habitually using avoidance over assertiveness could actually lead to lower confidence and esteem. Is it really a strategy to run off to people who always tell you what you want to hear? I can think of countless times in my life when ‘difficult people’ brought out the best in me. I’m not alone in that. There isn’t a success story ever written that does not contain an element of triumphing over adversity. Yours will be no different.

The problem with much that is written in self-help circles is that it is simply not thought-through. It bears little relationship to real life or evidence based psychology or models teaching and learning. Much of it is written in an over-generalized style (says he over-generalizing). Often self-help stuff reads like newspaper horoscopes. it’s easy to pick and choose and distort the message to get out of it what you want. Explanations of psychological types can often be used to prevent people from moving on, such as the myth of the addictive personality, the myth of significant gender differences or in this case the myth of toxic people. Surrounding ourselves by supportive people is one thing but what happens when one of those people starts telling you what you want to hear? Do they get labelled ‘toxic’ and are then avoided?

Often it’s not what happens in our lives that counts but how we perceive it and deal with it. The same applies to difficult people. These people may offer you an opportunity to let your positive attitudes shine. The call to avoid people with negative attitudes taps into an emotional-focused coping strategy in life. It’s easier to deal with the emotions than it is to get to the heart of the issues. To avoid ‘negative attitudes’ is a short-term fix. Managing our attitudes towards people with negative attitudes is a longer term solution. Otherwise, you may as well go and live on a desert island.

Often people displaying negative attitudes just want to be seen and heard. It’s better to be a people manager than operate a people-waste disposal system. Managing your perceptions, actions and reactions will help to build your own self-esteem. Avoiding opportunities never will. There are always going to be people that push us to the limit and we feel that if we don’t get away that they will drag us down. I admit that I have met a few people like that in my life. On the odd occasion I did opt for self-preservation but that process took years not at the first hint of ‘trouble’. Giving up on people should be the last resort not our default ‘speed-dial’. Inevitably you will give up on people but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try first. So before you reach for the ‘self-help short cut’, ask yourself if there is not a better lesson in there somewhere than that offered by the ‘inspirational’ self-help postcard approach.

Links:

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.

Look Before You Leap – They That Hesitate Are Lost! Be Bold but be Scientific with Your Goals

Each new year brings a new impetus to make life changes: the perennial ‘New Year, New You’ mindset. Unfortunately, the changes are rarely maintained long term. The motivation gained from the special date (1st January) weakens with each passing day, and is not enough to sustain us when we stumble. All too often a glitch in the plan is interpreted as absolute failure, whereas in real life there are few if any absolutes. More often we live our lives based on a serious of approximations.

Each year we embrace the ‘It’s now or never, they that hesitate are lost’ philosophy over the ‘look before you leap’ philosophy. To maximising our chances of getting positive lasting change we need to embrace both. No, that’s not a contradiction. Yes, by all means leap towards positive change but also have a game plan. Work out an action plan that maximises your chances or staying on track and, above all, be flexible.

New Year’s Resolutions and Goals are better approached like a scientist.

Scientists do a lot of preparation for experiments and come up with a best guess. In life we are all scientists too. Babies learn to walk, talk and get to grips with a bewildering complex world with a scientific trial and error approach. So when faced with making life changes, do your homework. There are numerous formulae out there such as SMARTER to sharpen up that best guess. It may be accurate the first time around in which case you have to do it all over again to demonstrate it wasn’t a fluke. You may also have to make some refinements to get it even more accurate. Of course, you could be way off the mark in which case you use that feedback and redesign your experiment by coming up with a better guess, Then you test that out. This approach builds motivation and confidence in your goal setting skills.

So if you find your resolve weakening one week or two weeks into your New Year’s Resolution or even one day in, then act quickly, use the feedback and make an adjustment  to your plan.

Be Bold, Be Scientific. Be Successful.

Here are a few past posts/links to help you stay on track:

The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Why We Grieve For People We Have Never Met

As music sales of Michael Jackson‘s music soar following his untimely death (25/06/09) at the age of 50,  I was asked by various radio programmes to comment on why celebrity death affects us the way it does. Why do people leave tributes or rush out to buy CDs? Other media requests have been about Michael Jacksons private life or mental state, which it is unethical for me, as a psychologist, to comment on. However, this is about how it affects our emotions and our mental states.

Emotions and Memories
Music
has a powerful affect on our emotions. We talk about our favourite songs as being ‘the soundtrack to our lives‘.  Some songs evoke happy memories and others help nurse us through heartbreak, such as the break up of a relationship or the loss of a loved one. Couples have ‘our song’, favourite songs are played at weddings and funerals.  We connect with music on a primal level so that we can use it to change our emotions too. Sometimes it just makes us want to dance.

Identity and Relationships
Some  radio presenters have commented that in the case of Michael Jackson, he had followed Jackson’s career and grown up with his music so felt it was like they had lost an old friend.  This is indeed true for many people who usually get really interested in music around puberty. Becoming a fan is also a low-threat way of exploring  emotional connections in virtual relationships. We find out about this person through their music and interviews and assess what we have in common and what we identify with. It is about making important another person in our lives. Music taste and allegiance to particular performers becomes part of personal identity, especially as many artists have very distinct style, such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, Madonna and so on. Some music can be described as ‘values driven‘, certainly in the case of Marilyn Manson.  The same probably applies to Michael Jackson, for many people. So often, music is not just about what we enjoy to listen to, it is a statement of who we are. Being a fan and enjoying music establishes a common ground for meeting other like-minded souls.

Living Vicariously
With the cult of celebrity and indeed our near obsession with reality TV, it has never been easier to live vicariously through the lives of others. Why bother doing anything ourselves when we can avidly consume the glories, trials, tribulations and mistakes of others?

Some fans are feel devastated at the death of their idol simply because the focus of their own lives has been to follow the life of another. Often people take personally any sleight against their idol and rigorously defend them, in much the same way as people follow sports teams in an almost religious way. The idol (or team) is something we care passionately about. It becomes an achievement in itself to be the best fan one can be. People often refer to themselves as someone’s ‘Number One Fan‘. Thus an idolised person dies, it takes away a life’s focus, leaving the avid fan feeling very empty. However, it’s not just the avid fan who is affected.

Intimations of Mortality
The sudden death of someone famous also strikes a chord for people who are not avid fans. There are undoubtedly people affected across the world in their 40s and 50s who are thinking about their own mortality and probably reviewing what they have achieved in their own lives. ‘It was such a shock, it just goes to show it can happen to anyone, it could happen at any time, it could happen to me’.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity. . .
Although not strictly true, some forms of publicity can damage a career, there is no doubt that when some of the calibre of Michael Jackson dies, suddenly and prematurely, it is bound to generate an enormous amount of publicity, as indeed it has. Every news channel has led with the story, it has been the headline on front page of every newspaper (across the world), Jackson songs have dominated radio play lists, TV stations have hastily created tribute programmes and in some cases have even suspended normal programming. Music stores have been playing Jackson music and created displays front of store. Online stores have created dedications on homepages and linked to back catalogue. It would be impossible to calculate the value of this free publicity, so of course sales have increased. It would be surprising if they hadn’t. It’s also interesting that prior to his death, Michael Jackson CDs were often seen in sales promotions, and now the prices have increased following the demand. Never underestimate the will of some people to exploit a tragedy (although not on the same scale), just as we saw people selling postcards at Ground Zero (after (11/09/01), so we see hastily printed tee-shirts being hawked outside places of tribute for Michael Jackson. There’s no business like show business, and the show must go on, another day another dollar.

Buying Into The Moment
When faced with a shock or a sense of helplessness we often feel that ‘we should do something’. We see people creating makeshift tributes at the side of the road when total strangers are killed in accidents. It just seems the right thing to do.There’s also the, almost superstitious, thing of showing respect at death so we don’t jinx our own lives, and because maybe that’s what you would want people to do for you. We all want to be remembered, that’s why we make the effort to remember others, in times such as these, even strangers.

When a famous person dies, we may feel like we want to acknowledge the part they have played in our lives. We may be near to a tribute site and so may just want to talk with other people. Fans go because that’s what fans are supposed to do, especially number one fans. Some go along because they caught up in the oceanic feeling and the spirit of the moment. It just feels like the right thing to do. Others maybe turn up that they recognise the significance of the event (as with Princess Diana) and just want to be a part of a history. Yet others just hope that they’ll get on TV.

The death of a major music artist also causes us to review their body of work basically because we have no choice but to listen to it again. We say the same thing happen with Elvis Presley and John Lennon, although probably not on the same scale as Jackson. But then again, communication technologies are more advanced now. Following an artist’s death, we rediscover favourites or realize that we never did buy that classic album, and make an emotional purchase. This is often fuelled by panic buying off the back of the publicity.  So, the CDs lying in the rack only a few days ago, now seem more significant, more rare. They may sell out. It’s now or never. There’s also the fact that buying a CD or downloading at this time helps to create history, as the charts are dominated by Michael Jackson music. With downloading it’s easy to pick and choose favourite songs and you don’t have to leave home to buy into the moment, and relive the memories that those songs evoke.

Pause For Thought
The sudden and premature death of a famous person should also give us pause for thought so that we ask the important questions in life:

How will I be remembered? What  contribution have I made? Have I made the most of my talents? And, perhaps, most importantly, do I let the significant people in my life know what they mean to me?

Finally, if you had to compile a soundtrack of your life, right now, what would it be? What would you like it to be?

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

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