How not to make friends and not to influence people - RSA

How not to make friends and not to influence people


  • Social brain

Did my isolated upbringing stop me becoming Prime Minister? As I traipse from party conference to party conference for (actually rather good) RSA events, I am reminded of how important a skill it is for politicians to be able to remember a good proportion of the hundreds of Party activists who know them.

Sadly this is a skill I lack. This was brought home to me when writing Monday's post about the evolutionary foundations of human motivation. In it I mentioned research  on the evolution of leadership and followership undertaken by Professor Mark von Vugt.

It is a great thing nowadays that having identified an interesting academic one can often find lectures by them on the internet. So a few days ago I entered 'Mark von Vugt' into Google and pressed the video link. I was delighted to see that the first lecture to appear took place last year here at the RSA. The problem was the identity of the chair of the event - me!

I have always been very bad at remembering faces and names (interesting how these nearly always go together). It seems this affliction is getting worse. I have tended to attribute my failing to three possible explanations: one self serving, one self critical and one neutral. Perhaps it is because I give lots of lectures and perform from time to time in the media that more people know me than I know. This doesn't however explain why I have forgotten chairing an event and conducting an interview with a fascinating academic only a year ago. Maybe, my frailty is a reflection of my arrogance and self obsession; whoever I meet the most memorable person in the interaction is always me. Or is it a genetic flaw?

My father is just as bad. Indeed one of his former wives (yes, I know) used it as a punishment. Normally, when she saw the telltale signs of non-recognition on Laurie's face after he had been enthusiastically engaged by someone who seemed to think themselves a good personal friend, the agreed procedure was for her to break into the discussion, look at the interlocutor and say 'Hi, I'm Laurie's wife, I don't think we've met'. But if Laurie made the mistake of leaving the house in her bad books she would change her approach, looking at her husband and playfully saying 'Laurie, I don't think I've been introduced to your friend...'

On reflection I have opted for a different explanation. For a variety of reasons I had a pretty isolated childhood. Not only do I have no brothers, sisters or cousins and only one grandparent who was much involved in my upbringing, but my folks moved around the country in my early years and had little scope to build up a close circle of friends. Nurture rather than nature may also explain Laurie's failing - although he did have siblings they were younger and my father has also told me his parents rarely invited friends into their home.

In our modern service economy a good memory for faces and names can be a vital quality (arguably of much greater value than much of what children are taught at school). And networking skills are important to everything from being a good citizen to - as I say - succeeding in politics. The hypothesis is that children with smaller social circles in their early years (say, between birth and three years old) develop weaker faculties for interpersonal recall.

Here indeed is a neat research project for a student doing a psychology masters: choose a sample and give them a questionnaire and a test, the former  covering their childhood and the latter testing their recall.  If my theory is right there will be a strong correlation between the size of the infant's social circle and later aptitude.

If this proves correct there will be a case not only for strongly encouraging parents to bring their infants into regular contact with a group of other people,  but also for developing corrective interventions to strengthening the frail memories of the more isolated.

But, much more importantly, it will prove (a) that my failure to become a successful politician was not due to a lack of effort or talent and (b) nor, as it as widely alleged, am I rude, self obsessed and arrogant. Instead, I will be rightly seen as the innocent victim of a deprived childhood who has battled bravely in the face of almost overwhelming odds.

Indeed, this is just what I told an old student colleague of mine who approach me recently in Asda. Now, what was his name?

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