Overhearing Telephone Conversations in Public: The Annoyance of the Halfalogue

Why we are forced to eavesdrop on phone conversations in pubic

We have all had experience of the annoying people on their mobile (cell) phones chatting loudly in public spaces usually about nothing of particular consequence. These overhead half-conversations have been dubbed ‘halfalogues. Spend a great deal of time travelling the UK, I often encounter the halfalogue on trains particularly in the so-called quiet-zone of the train. The perpetrators may protest that their mutterings on the phone are not as distracting or as annoying as people chatting. And, yes there are some people who have two conversational volumes on trains: (i) Look at me and (ii) Seriously, you really need to look at me I’m being interesting. More often than not, they are not. However research has shown that we do find overhearing a halfalogue more distracting and annoying than overhearing a full conversation. The main reason for the increased stress to a halfalogue is that our brains are drawn to the unpredictable and try to make sense of the information. With an ordinary conversation all the information is present. With the halfalogue it is not. So it is worth being more aware of people around you. Because of our psychological make up, we can’t help but try to make sense of the overhead half-conversation. So on a long train journey, other people are held captive in the physical and psychological senses. You may think you are just being sociable by chattering away on the phone for hours on end about nothing in particular. However, what you are really doing is torturing everyone around you.

Halfalogues are annoying but are they dangerous?

On a recent bust bus journey there was a young man on the back seat of the bus intent on letting everyone on the bus know how intelligence and informed he was. As he was proudly broadcasting his views to the person on the other end of the phone, he uttered a few phrases that brought gasps, tuts, dirty looks and exclamations of ‘oh please’ and ‘for god’s sake’. On a busy bus, people were only able to hear the bits he emphasized. At one point he blurted out ‘the Germans had the right idea’ and ‘I know it’s drastic but we have just got to do what the Germans did and get rid of a few. . .’ The problem with the halfalogue is that it requires us to work hard to make sense of the information. We can’t help but trying to make sense and so employ a strategy of cognitive economy. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way, instead we apply scripts, schemata and stereotypes as heuristic devices. In short, we make educated guesses based on insufficient data. It’s often difficult NOT to jump to erroneous conclusions.

Context and communication

When I heard the ‘Germans had the right idea’ phrase, my contextual cues to interpret the halfalogue were the people at the front of the bus who turned around, tutted and scowled in disgust. My guess was that they had assumed some kind of racist, ethnic cleansing diatribe (halfatribe), or maybe that was tapping into my own stereotypes. After all, I only had a few phrases and audience reactions to go on. It was only after I continued to listen to the halfalogue that he uttered the phrase ‘on the terraces’. Immediately the context changed and the reactions of my fellow passengers on the bus became amusing. Although, if they had not heard the new information I just became a man on the bus grinning at someone on the phone proposing genocide. I was compelled to listen to halfalogue-man. It transpired that he was commenting on the new initiative in some German football clubs to remove some of the seats in the stadium and reinstate the more traditional standing on he terraces. So nothing to groan or grimace about unless you find football tedious in the extreme.

Lessons from the halfalogue?

Fortunately for the football commentator on the bus, the other passengers only had the weapon of ‘the dirty look’ and the ‘tut’ and the eye-roll in their arsenal. However it’s easy to imagine how this situation might have escalated. More than anything the mobile (cell) phone has done more to shatter the boundaries between public and private. So for the habitual halfalogger, it is worth remembering the impact on other people. Just be more socially aware. Our brains have not developed the capacity to avoid the annoyance of the halfalogue and probably never will. Rarely are people impressed with anyone’s analytical skills on the back of a bus or on a four hour train journey. People aren’t glancing over because they have discovered one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century. It’s annoyance that they have to subjected to drivel and further annoyance that they seem unable to drag themselves away from the witnessing the social skills equivalent of a road traffic accident.

[Gary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to put a bit of social conscience back into self-help]


Attitudes and the Karma of Confidence

Bringing social psychology into coaching for confidence

Attitudes, karma and confidence and are not three concepts that obviously go together. However, they are connected. It was making this connection that helped me bring my expertise in social psychology into my coaching practice to create a unique approach to confidence and esteem building. What karma, attitudes and confidence have in common is ‘action’. Ultimately, to build confidence means to increase our courage to take action. To build anything requires action otherwise it remains a fantasy. So where do karma and attitudes come in?

Karma = Action

We use the word ‘karma’ in everyday life to mean ‘what goes around, comes around’ usually in the context that people will eventually pay for their misdeeds in one way or another. However karma literally means ‘action’.

Poster: What is Confidence Karma?I’d noticed in my own career that when I worked with mature students I focused on more intently building confidence in them. It was the beginning of my coaching career. The by-product was that my confidence in my own abilities also increased. In confidence terms, what goes around comes around. And so, the concept of confidence-karma was born. Often we get the idea from reality TV programmes that we gain confidence at the expense of others. We see people making themselves look better by putting others down. This is not authentic confidence. It’s not even assertiveness. It’s actually a form of aggression. At the heart of aggression is the inability to assert oneself in a productive way. Truly self-assured people put others at ease. Fake confidence is all about the self; real confidence is all about the social.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThis became a guiding theme in Unlock Your Confidence. It may sound a bit grand but I wanted to put the social conscience back into self-help. All too often self-help books are a bit ‘me me me’. Building assertiveness, esteem and confidence in other people puts the focus outside of the self, but still keeps the self at the centre, only in a more productive way. Passing on confidence always has a knock on effect. It’s positively contagious. So where do attitudes come into the equation?

Attitudes make us ‘fit and ready for action’

In social psychology one of the key areas of study is attitudes. The word attitude means ‘fit and ready for action’. It is through out attitudes that we make sense of the world, they comprise our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. To increase the likelihood that our behaviour will change we can work on our thoughts and feelings. Attitudes are the ‘get ready’ before the ‘go’. In confidence building, I take this triangular approach and bring social psychology into my coaching practice. Ultimately one of my main aims as a coach is to get people to re-appraise their attitudes towards themselves. In so doing, you jettison attitudes about yourself that do not support your values and goals. You also get to consider attitudes that do. This builds courage. So, are you someone who seeks to build others up?  Do you compliment, praise and show gratitude? Do you have the courage to nurture and encourage?

Building Confidence is Always Good Karma

Confidence-Karma is about having the courage to see the bigger picture. We shape our social world as much as it shapes us. We can make a difference just by taking control of this cycle of influence, even if just in a small way. Just as there’s no such thing as an insignificant random act of kindness, there’s no such thing as an insignificant act of confidence building. An attitude worth adopting is: building confidence is always good karma – and for it to have real meaning to take action on it.


For more information about coaching to build confidence contact: Gary Wood. Coaching is face-to-face in Birmingham and Edinburgh, via telephone in the UK and worldwide via Skype.

‘Are You Fit and Ready for Goal-Setting’ Quiz?

Fit and Ready for Action

At the most basic level, an attitude is a feeling or evaluation towards something, that is, our likes and dislikes. So, we can have an attitude towards just about everything, from foods, to people, to situations and courses of action. If we look at the Latin origin of the word ‘attitude’ it means ‘fit and ready for action’. So, attitudes create ‘a mental state of readiness’. Just like athletes on the starting line they provide the’ get ready and steady’ before the ‘go’. However, although they prime us ready for action, it doesn’t mean that we will always ‘go’. Attitudes don’t necessarily lead to behaviour; they just set up the mindset to make it more likely. So, for instance, you may have the attitude that going to the gym and eating healthily are good for you but that doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll follow up on this and do either of them.

Coaching as Attitude Change

As a social psychologist I have incorporated my specialism of attitudes into my coaching practice. Essentially the coaching process is a process of attitude change. Part of the process involves exploring attitudes to the self, the way the world works and our place in it and the benefits of setting goals. For many of us our first experience of goal-setting is the ill-fated new year’s resolution that tend to fizzle out after a few weeks. So perhaps it is not surprising that goal-setting, for some people, has a bad name. However, this attitude may prove a barrier to personal and professional development. We know that one of the conditions to maximize learning is to start with a positive mental attitude. It’s more difficult to retain knowledge if you resent having to learn it!

Attitudes have three components (ABC): affect (feelings), behaviour (actions) and cognitions (thoughts) and . Coaching deals with thoughts and feelings about ourselves, the world and how we act and interact in the world. It’s often expressed as ‘the viewing influences the doing, and vice versa’. Coaching can help to change feelings and thoughts and create a mental state of readiness for action. Goal-setting provides that extra nudge to take action. It’s often said that ‘if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching’.

In order to explore your attitudes to goal-setting, here is a brief quiz.

Are You Ready for Goal-Directed Action Quiz?

For each of these statements just answer (circle) true or false. For the purposes of this test there is no maybe.

  1. True or False? I’ve done alright so far, so why bother with goal-setting now?
  2. True or False? If I achieve my goals, people will expect even more of me.
  3. True or False? I get weighed down by the idea of a constant, lifelong pursuit of goals, and yet more goals.
  4. True or False? If I don’t try then I won’t fail.
  5. True or False? I don’t need to set goals.
  6. True or False? Things tend to work out as fate intended whether or not I set goals.
  7. True or False? I don’t want to feel constrained by goal chasing.
  8. True or False? Goals are just another way of getting us to ‘tow society’s line’.
  9. True or False? All the energy I spend setting goals may as well be used to get the job done.
  10. True or False? I’m just not a goal-setting kind of person.

What do your goal-setting quiz results mean?

If you answered ‘false’ to most of the questions it suggests that you are ready to take the plunge and set goals. Otherwise, you may already been routinely setting and achieving goals. If you answered mostly ‘true’ it indicates that you are not mentally ready to set goals. Perhaps you are more inclined to let the hand of fate sort it out. That isn’t resolution; that’s resignation.

Goals as Future-Desired Outcomes

There is debate as to whether we have all become somewhat ‘goal-obsessed’. This is more of a problem if you are just setting goals for goals’ sake. If the ‘future desired outcomes’ for your goals are personally meaningful to you, then goal-setting can help to streamline the personal development process. It take a lot of the ‘hit and miss’ out of the process.  So, review the questions in the quiz and consider the ‘true’ questions. What evidence can you find to challenge these statements? Have you attitudes to goal-setting changed (enough for you to give it a go)?

Goal-Setting Approaches

In my early coaching training, I learned to use goal-setting models (in the form of acronyms) and have developed some myself – GO-FLOW). However some people prefer not use such a prescriptive system. In my coaching practice I use Solution-Focused Brief Coaching which involves a series of focused conversations. Instead of acronyms, I ask questions to tap into your imagination, take stock of your strength, skills and achievements and ask you to consider small meaningful steps forward. Although I structure the process, each time its very different depending on the client who decides what the steps should be.

We all have goals. We all value and pursue different things. Goal-setting methods and systems can help us to signpost the way forward and encourage and motivation us to take action. After all, if there ain’t action then they ain’t goals.


A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

See also:

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?

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.

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’.


Measuring Sexual Identity: An Evaluation Report

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:

Down the Back of the Couch: The Problem with Big Brother

Poor George Orwell must be turning in his grave. Two concepts from his dystopian novel 1984, have been mauled and distorted beyond recognition to form two of the naffest TV programmes, namely Room 101 and the interminable Big Brother.

So what’s wrong with Big Brother? Well, for starters, doesn’t it now just stink of desperation as the producers  seek to wring every last bit of advertising revenue from a tired old format that never lived up to its promise? Each season the choice of contestants gets  more bizarre and tasks become more degrading in a attempt to boost the flagging ratings. Isn’t it just all a bit sad that this is what passes for entertainment today? Once billed as a ‘social experiment’, yeah right! It’s a delusion to suggest that this so-called ‘reality TV’ programme tells us anything about human social behaviour in real life, except how people behave in the Big Brother house. That’s it!

If you want to find out about social behaviour then get yourself a social psychology book. It’s all in there. You can real about the Obedience to Authority experiments of Stanley Milgram, the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo and the inspirational work of Jane Elliot with her Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes experiment. And there’s so much more. A great deal of the material to be found in the humble social psychology book gives us real insight into why we behave in the way we do, how we behave in strange situations and why. Big Brother has added nothing apart from  maybe footnote here and there.  Reality TV has never had anything to do with reality.

So what exactly does Big Brother offer? Well, it tells us that people desperate for celebrity status will do almost anything to achieve it. It also tells us, that programme makers can broadcast people sleeping using night vision cameras some members of the audience will stay up into the early hours in the vain hope that someone will snore or better still ‘let one off’ and startle the other house mates! Oh how we’ll laugh! It’s also the modern day equivalent of Bedlam, where the programme makers create insane situations and people behave insanely.What a surprise.  In the past, a ‘gentleman’ would take a lady out for a nice fish supper then off to the lunatic asylum to laugh at the mad people. What foreplay! Nowadays, you can just order a pizza and stay at home and watch the mayhem from the comfort of your own couch. You can also vote on the fate of the inmates, which is a great way for the producers to get the audience involved and make a lot of money. It’s perhaps a sad indictment that many people are more likely to vote for ‘reality TV’ than they are at elections.

Much has been made of the ‘shrinks‘ who advise on the show stringent psychological screening process for contestants, but let’s have a reality check here. ‘Psychologists’ or ‘counsellors’ or ‘therapists’ (we are never clear which) band together to make sure that the contestants are psychological sound enough to undergo psychological distress. Surely that’s a conflict of interest for any psychologist. Maybe there’s a temptation to let a few borderline cases through to spice up the show a little. Watching the predictable meltdowns each and every year, it’s clear that some vulnerable people do ‘slip through the net’. Maybe, the best qualified shrink associated with Big Brother, is the shrink in ratings.

Now hands up, I confess,  I have been involved with a spin-off of the show, appearing on Big Brother’s Little Brother (many moons ago). It was my first live TV appearance and an amazing learning experience. I was treated very well by all involved on the show. They were all very nice people and a pleasure to work with. The mistake I made was believing that the show wanted any real psychological input. The sad fact is that ‘psychobabble and pseudoscience’ just sound a lot sexier, especially as there’s no issue with making up quirky theories to fit the events. And yes, I have to agree with colleague Petra Boynton that the producers have settled on a motley crew of analysts. I just wouldn’t want to be sitting on the same couch with many of them, much in the way that any reputable trades person would want to be seen to endorsing the kind of cowboys who appear on consumer programme Watchdog.

Occasionally a suitably qualified commentator does some manage to fly in below the  radar and offers some  insightful comments and may even, occasionally,  sneak in a bit of psychology. However, they are in the minority, as a number of regulars are have no qualifications whatsoever, although they claim to be psychologists and one even claims to be a psychiatrist. Now a psychiatrist has a medical degree but having checked the website of this particular BBLB regular all I can find that remote applies to anatomy is the ability to walk in high heels!  I suppose the equivalent is saying you are a surgeon, just because you own a craft knife. The sad thing is that instead of any real psychology getting out there, we get to hear utter drivel. It’s dressed up to sound significant but is more often than not just stating the bleedin’ obvious.

If we think about it, there have been ten seasons of Big Brother with what, 12 people per show (120 in all)? Now this tiny sample is in no way selected to represent the general population, just in the likelihood that the people will ‘kick off’ or ‘crack up’. So, in terms of the psychology of social behaviour in general, it tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t even tell us very much at all about the people on the inside, except how they cope in a particular season in the Big Brother house. Again, not an every day occurrence and in no way generalizable to the real world.

One spin off show, Big Brother on the Couch, offers the kind of detritus usually found stuck down the back of the couch! We are served mainly crumbs of psychobabble largely from a bunch of phonies and quacks who engage in meaningless discussions about manipulated clashes and disputes in a make-believe house full of self-absorbed people, duped in to believing that this could be their big break, and placed under psychological stress for the amusement of others. What does this say about us? Even George Orwell didn’t dream it would get this bad! Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ but perhaps today it’s the cult of reality TV.


The Apprentice & The Pink Pound

Following on from my post on homophobia in The Apprentice, it is interesting to note that the ‘Rebranding Margate‘ episode was broadcast last night (BBC1, 13/05/2009) without the alleged comment that sparked the controversy.

However, although the homophobia was not proudly on display, the stereotypes most certainly were. It seems that the myth of the pink pound is still offered as fact. Throughout the discussions the rationale offered as ‘they’ have more disposal income than the average person. So are there no gay men and lesbian women currently struggling with the economic downturn? If not, then I think we have found the answer to the worldwide recession. We all go gay! It would be great. Lots of holidays with people actually displaying good taste in their holiday attire. No worries of unemployment. Businesses would be immune from poor trading. The pink pound would be stronger than Sterling unless of course our European brothers and sisters bring out the pink Euro, then we’d all be f***ed again!

The ‘pink pound’ on one level may seem like positive stereotyping. However, it does tend to gloss over the fact that gay men and lesbian women are from all walks of life, which includes lower paid people with less disposable income.  It has a parallel with assuming that all Jews are wealthy. Clearly any segment of the population incorporates more diversity than a simple pigeon-hole (stereotype) dictates.

As the mighty pink pound is yet to appear at the Bureau de Change, it looks like it might have to be a holiday in Margate this year!


Getting Fired Up About Homophobia in The Apprentice

His Dark Homophobia (Materialized)

I was very disappointed that a great production of Phillip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials at The Birmingham Rep had to be marred by a little negative stereotyping. In Part Two, the  angels were portrayed by the two male actors as rather ‘delicate’ and fey enough to get ripples of laughter. I was discussing the portrayal with someone in the bar at the interval who protested that ‘the angels are supposed to be asexual’, so why did it get a laugh and one did one bright spark in the audience whisper rather too loudly  ‘they must be gay‘.

For me portrayal was unnecessary and would have been the equivalent of having two black angels sing ‘De Camptown Races’ and saying ‘Yes Masser, No Masser’.

I would be interested to know from whom the idea for ‘camp’ angels came? Was it the playwright (Nicholas Wright) or the directors (Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdail).  I wonder what Phillip Pullman thinks about it, given his criticisms of C.S.Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, as sexist and racist. The difference it that the Lewis books need to be understood in the historical context of the 1950s. Maybe that’s no excuse, but it does beg the question: What excuse could there be for a 21st Century production to use cheap, lazy and unnecessary stereotyping?

The Great ‘Typical Alpha Male’ Delusion

Commenting on Barack Obama‘s trip to the UK, it was interesting to hear a journalist refer to the President Obama as ‘the typical alpha male, laid back and relaxed’ which is exactly not what an alpha male is supposed to be!

The alpha male (in animal groupings) usually has to fight off aggressively his ‘young-buck’ challengers so that he can continue to shag anything that moves. Er. . . I’m not sure that this President would be too pleased with that assessment.  Also, imagine the alpha male in an animal grouping saying to the young aggressive contenders ‘Chill out! Relax’ before getting his head or antlers torn off.

Mr Obama may well be the most powerful man on the planet, politically, but thankfully he possess none of the typical alpha male qualities. When we use the term ‘alpha male’ to refer to ‘powerful men’ we are more or less saying they are ‘bastards’ in the symbolic sense of the word. When men refer to themselves as ‘the alpha male’ they are usually dickheads or bullies or both! Being the ‘alpha male’ is never a compliment! It usually refers to a thoroughly unpleasant bloke who doesn’t have enough friends to tell him that his people skills stink!

So please, just let go of this same-old  tired  ‘alpha male gender stereotype BS’ that we heard too many times before. Instead, let’s focus on the best of our human qualities of compassion, understanding, leadership and the ability to listen to other viewpoints without seeking to crush them. . . just as Mr Obama seems to be doing in the early stages of his presidency. We need models of exemplary human behaviour to aspire to, not lazy-ass ‘stock phrases’ from journalists who don’t appear to know their ‘alpha males’ from their elbows!