Monday, August 15, 2011

Cameron, circumstances and priests

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...Image via WikipediaOne of the points of my previous post on how riots spread is Monkey See, Monkey Do.

Or to put it less simply, we are less rational than we would like to think - we act like those around us and as allowed, persuaded, nudged or otherwise cajoled to do by the circumstances in which we find ourselves (the behaviour of other folk being a very key part of those circumstances).

Now, even our nice Mr Cameron (remember the one, when he first became Tory leader, when he seemed more interested in what is right rather than what is Right), knew that.

As HM Opposition are all of a dither to point out, Cameron himself proclaimed "there are connections between circumstances and behaviour" five years ago...

Damn right. Primed with the right conditions, given the right circumstances - you too are at great risk of behaving in a very irrational way. Once again, I point you at Mark Earl's excellent Herd for more on this.

This is really important because once we understand this is what drives behaviour, then we can start on the business of ascribing blame for that behaviour and (rather more importantly) doing something about it.

It's why I am getting increasingly annoyed at the misdirection the Government PR machine is employed in. First every talking head spouted 'criminality' to focus our attention on the outcome. Now that is being replaced by 'moral collapse'. Both make us focus on the outcome. Which is convenient because it's hard to pin the blame on the Government for outcomes. Circumstances and conditions? Now there some Governmental blame can be laid.

So, I had best demonstrate what can turn even good people bad - to act irrationally - if the conditions are set for them. I best show how it's more the context and circumstances to blame and less the moral fibre of the people concerned...

Take for example the study at Princeton Theological Seminary quoted in Malcolm Gladwell's often-bought-but-rarely-looted Tipping Point.

In the story he tells, each student priest is asked "to prepare a short talk on a given Biblical theme, then walk over to a nearby building to present it."
Along the way to the presentation each student comes across a man slumped head down, eyes closed, and clearly in some distress.
Obviously being good God-fearing folk (with no doubt all the parental support our dear leader would desire) they stop and help, don't they?

Wouldn't you?

Well. The researchers included three variables: background of the subject - whether they had entered seminary as a way of helping people or not, (2) which parable they were to prepare - several were given the Good Samaritan... and (3) a time context, saying either that they were running several minutes late and should hurry up, or that they were early and had some time to spare.

Guess what?

The only thing that impacted how likely our trainee priests were to stop and help our hapless fallen guy was how late they thought they were running.

In other words whether you were planning to help folk as a vocation, and whether or not you had just been hard at it thinking about the Good Samaritan, mattered little. Their attitudes and feelings were instantly  over-ridden by subtle clues in the environment - in this case being told whether they were running late or not.

 I can't claim to be any better than any of those flawed priests-to-be. I can't claim to be able to resist temptation to act irrationally if the conditions are right - if the circumstances so nudged me. You see, I'm human too. So is David Cameron if the stories of the Bullingdon Club are to be believed.

The good news is I do think there is something your rational selves can do to avoid those contexts.

My guess is many of us would loot in the right (wrong) circumstances. But I'm also pretty sure most of us would employ our rational moments to guide us away from those circumstances.

And that's where the Government - and others bent on behaviour modifying must focus, too.
We can rationally decide to join together with good things in mind - and we can support each other - be good monkeys to be seen and copied, too.

That's how the brooms came out - en masse - for the twitter clean up. We can use social media to find folk thinking positively, too and coordinate and cooperate with them.

Call it rational if you like...

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?