Old whine in new battles? - RSA

Old whine in new battles?


  • Social brain

I trace my amateur interest in psychology to a trick my parents used to play on me. When, as I fear was often, I was in a rebarbative mood one of them would say 'oh dear, Matthew's got a whine'. Then they would get me to stand still with my eyes closed while one of them pushed some tweezers into my open mouth. Then, as they commanded me to open my eyes, they would triumphantly wave a small white object which they had 'found' at the back of throat; this was 'the whine'. It wasn't until some time later that I realised this was a simple sleight of hand deploying one of my mother's coffee sweeteners. But at the time it worked and I would immediately cheer up responding positively when mother would say 'now then,  up to your bedroom and back to work on the A levels'.

The work paid off and here I am at the RSA preparing to chair an event with one of the world's leading public intellectuals, Steven Pinker, whose latest book 'The better angels of our nature' is subtitled 'The decline of violence in history and its causes'. I know some people are a bit stuffy about Pinker (including, I have to admit, one of the aforementioned parents) but I think it's a great book. As it's over 700 pages long I planned to dip in to it selectively over the weekend but wherever I started I found it hard to stop reading.

On my way to Edinburgh to chair the RSA Scotland Angus Millar Lecture featuring Matt Ridley (a writer who shares Pinker's optimistic world view),  I got engrossed in the chapter on our inner demons. Pinker reminds his readers of what he calls the 'moralisation gap'. This is the gap between the sympathetic, indeed self satisfied, way we perceive our own behaviour and the critical way we view behaviour (including exactly the same behaviour as our own) in others.

This got me to thinking about an issue I have raised in previous posts: how can we make groups of people - say, for example, a group of RSA Fellows meeting to discuss the possibility of a local initiative - work more effectively? A starting point is to think about some of the recurrent problems that can  affect such groups. Here are three: people dominating the conversation, reacting badly when their view doesn't prevail or not volunteering when it comes to the tasks necessary to take forward decisions made in the meeting.

According to the research, we are all likely to think we are less guilty of these failings than other people. So, how about a process in which the chair of the meeting explains to the participants that research has shown that these three failings (although it could be others) are the biggest dangers to a meeting and asks people to write down on a piece of paper how guilty they think they are of committing them on say a five point scale ranging from very (5) to not at all (1). Then the chair collects the bits of paper (which have been filled in anonymously) and makes a quick calculation. As most people will have written either '1' or '2', the chair can declare delightedly that the group is well above average. The hope then is that a combination of solidarity, self fulfilling prophesy and a raising of normative thresholds will lead everyone in the room to live up to their self perception.

The design isn't perfect. It uses our narcissism but it doesn't channel the energy of our critical tendencies. Maybe readers can think of cleverer ways of using the moralisation gap for the common good. Of course, some people might object that no one is that gullible. To them I cite a small boy standing in a kitchen in York with  his mouth open. But to be fair to me (and I do tend to be just that) it was very stressful doing A levels at the age of six!

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