Can Most People Be Trusted ?

173 -  TrustA few questions for you.

Do you think most people can be trusted ?

What percentage of people do you think, believe most people can be trusted ?

Have you given money to charity in the last month ?

What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month ? 

Have you volunteered your time at least once to help others during the last year ?

What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year ? 

There’s a theme behind these questions – what we do is influenced in part by what others are doing.

The fact is that most of us, most of the time, feel more comfortable when we go along with the accepted social norms, than when we don’t. No one wants to be the only person at a fancy dress party not in fancy dress, or the only one wearing it at a black-tie event.  It’s all about fitting-in and living-up to the expectations of our peers and the wider group.

Of course, it’s not that we always unthinkingly follow the crowd, but just that we tend to conform unless we have especially strong views to the contrary . . . we follow the path of least resistance. This tendency affects our beliefs and behaviours to a surprising degree; from what music we listen to and what we wear, to what newspapers we read and how we vote, and the study of social norms, how they form and develop and how they may be influenced and changed, has become an important area of research.

But the really interesting thing is that in fact it doesn’t much matter what people are actually doing, it’s what we think they’re doing that matters !

If we think everyone else is helping themselves to the office stationary, we might be more tempted to ‘borrow’ a stapler ourselves. If we think everyone else is evading paying their taxes, we might be more tempted to do the same.

And it’s not only our behaviours, it’s also our beliefs.

It we think everyone else is upset about ‘illegal immigrants coming over here, abusing the system’, or that ‘wind-farms are a terrible blight on the landscape’, then the evidence suggests we’re more likely to conform to those views ourselves.

And of course, we mustn’t forget, that in fact most of the time we don’t actually know how everyone else is behaving, or what their beliefs or opinions are.

For example -

How much does the average person give to charity ?

Most of us simply don’t know.

So we tend to either project our own opinions onto the wider world, and assume that most people broadly do the same thing we do, or we rely on our recollections of media headlines we might have spotted recently, which of course puts us at risk not only from their slant and bias, but because we tend to self-select our news sources, often only reading things we already know we’re going to largely agree with.

Needless to say we get things wrong much of the time as a result !

I think this is an important issue – it shapes opinions, actions, policies and ultimately lives.

So I’ve set myself a challenge – to try to distinguish more clearly between facts and opinion, both in others and in myself – we’re all entitled to our own opinions after all, but not our own facts! I’ll also try to challenge untruths being presented as fact wherever I can, or at least ask ‘what’s your evidence for that?’ more often.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ll try to be a little more open and talkative about the various ‘good’ things I do; from organic gardening and buying my clothes in charity shops, to recycling and giving money to charity – if you all do the same, we might start changing a few social norms . . . in a good way.

Let your good be visible. 

And finally, the answers:

What percentage of people, do people believe most people can be trusted? What percentage of people do you think, have given money to charity in the last month? What percentage of people do you think, have volunteered their time at least once to help others during the last year?

(41% of people believe most people can be trusted. 74% of people gave money to charity last month. 72% of people have volunteered their time at least once during the last year)

How much does the average person give to charity ?

(The answer to that last one is £16 a month; with poorer people and Muslims being more generous – who knew?)


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Photo by James Cridland (creative commons), via Flickr

Mandatory Optimism ?

If you haven’t ventured to the links above the banner yet, the WHY NextStarfish and ABOUT NextStarfish might be worth a visit.

On the ABOUT page you’ll find my ten point manifesto – where I try to clarify the ethos for this blog a little more.

One of the points is:

HOPEFUL BUT REALISTIC – cynical pessimism and rose-tinted optimism both lead to denial and inaction

What exactly do I mean ?

Watching or reading the news some days it seems there’s a large section of our society, and probably the world in general, that generally believes ‘everything is pretty rubbish, getting worse, and there’s nothing we can do about it’. Whether they’re discussing the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be pessimistic about things. Perhaps it makes them less vulnerable to disappointment, or perhaps they struggle to visualize positive outcomes, either way the end result can be a belief that it isn’t worth wasting your time trying to change anything.

On the other hand it also seems there’s another, almost as large, section of society that generally believes ‘most things aren’t as bad as ‘they’ make out, and anyway no doubt problems will work themselves out in the future’. Again, whether referring to the economic outlook, climate change, employment prospects, politics, pollution, the sports results or the weather – they appear to have a natural disposition to be optimistic about things. Perhaps optimism is comforting, insulating people from hard realities or bleak outlooks, or perhaps they’ve previously been so lucky as to never to face real hardship in life, so find it hard to ever ‘expect the worst’. Again, either way the end result can be a belief that there’s no need for them to act, or at least no need to do very much, or with any urgency.

The first group often describes the second as naive. The second often describes the first as cynical.

But whether you see the glass as being half-empty – with no chance of getting any more, or half-full – with no need to get any more the result is the same . . . there won’t be any more.

Half empty, half full – the truth is there’s room for more in the glass.

I once heard an economist describe both optimism and pessimism as traps !

The trick, he said, was to see things as they really are.

He then went on to explain that no matter how bleak the situation (and for most of us the economic situation was, and still is, pretty bleak) there was always something you could do, some action you could take to improve things. The best way to do this is to understand the current situation, along with what is wrong, and what can be done to improve things, as accurately and realistically as possible – but, and this is vitally important, remain focused on how to improve them, and hopeful that we will succeed.

It was impossible to do anything other than agree.

Read more about the importance of not being pulled too far into optimism or pessimism, and the importance of staying focused and hopeful about our own actions on the Co-Intelligence Institute, or by Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die, or Viktor Frankl’s powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning.


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Photo by via Wikicommons

Bogota’s Mime Police

Yes, you did read the title correctly – Bogota, the capital of Columbia and home to over 8 million people, employs mimes as police.

What ?

Like all good stories it’s best to start at the beginning.

In the early 1990′s Bogota was widely regarded as an incredibly violent city, in 1993 it had a murder rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants, leading to it’s being considered the ‘homicide capital of the world’.

In addition it was rife with corruption – in politics, the police, and almost all sections of society. Columbia and Bogota had plenty of laws prohibiting corruption, it was just that no one paid any attention to them, and the same applied to everything else, from littering and jaywalking, to muggings and murder.

During this time the President of the National University of Columbia was the mathematician and philosopher Antanas Mockus. Battling his own problems of student riots and demonstrations on campus he vented his frustration on a group of protesters by mooning them in a crowded lecture hall. Afterwards he said “Innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words”.

Although he subsequently lost his job he gained enough popularity to run as an independent to be Mayor of Bogota in 1995 – which he won. His independence meant he was able to put in place a non-political cabinet, without the usual corruption and nepotism, and removed various corrupt individuals and organisations, including sacking almost the entire Transport Police.

Mockus recognized that there were significant differences between what the law said, and what people did, which wouldn’t be fixed simply by creating new laws. He realised that ‘the rules’ governing society were partly due to the regulations and threat of punishment, but mostly due to what people had come to view as normal. Litter was thrown on the streets because it was deemed morally acceptable. People committed crimes because they believed they would not be punished for them.

He was convinced that what was needed was to recreate a culture of good governance and respect for ‘the rules’ and his solution was unusual.

He replaced the Traffic Police with 420 mimes – who followed and shamed jaywalkers and poor drivers by publicly mocking them. Amazingly pedestrian traffic compliance increased from 26% to 75% within 2 months, and traffic fatalities fell by 50% over a longer period.

He didn’t stop there.

He created 7,000 voluntary community security groups to supplement the corrupt Police Force. He introduced a Women’s Night, encouraging men to stay home in the evening, looking after the children and allowing women to go out feeling safer. He dressed-up in a spandex super hero costume to promote litter collection and promoted water conservation by showering in a TV commercial. He also distributed 350,000 cards with a ‘thumbs-up’ on one side and a ‘thumbs-down’ on the other, that people could use to indicate their (peaceful) displeasure at someone else’s actions.

Of course there were a variety of other important reforms, including stricter gun control and licensing laws, anti-violence education and reform of prisons and the police.

Overall he was successful in his two (non-consecutive) terms as Mayor in reducing crime (2007 murder rate was down from 81 to 19 per 100,000 inhabitants), corruption, and increasing clean water and sewerage provision by almost 80%.

In his own words:

“There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders. To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don’t like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved … I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.

The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitized by art, humor, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”


Photo by Scott Clark, via Flickr

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From Petrified Forests to Poor People

One of the golden rules of blogging, is that you should have just one clear message per post.

Watch in awe as I break the norm and boldly ignore that piece of advice.

I’m unashamedly going to combine two points in a single post – but you’re all such smart people, you’ll be fine (golden rule number two – flatter your readers).

Let’s begin in Arizona’s Petrified Forest.

A natural wonder of the world, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park contains the remains of a forest, stunningly fossilised and preserved from 225 million years ago. The park is hugely popular and visited by over half a million people a year, the problem is that many of them decide to take just a small reminder of their visit home with them – resulting in 14 tons of fossilised wood fragments being removed from the park every year by visitors !

Needless to say, worried by this rapid erosion, the management quickly put up signs to deter visitors from taking fragments: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood, amounting to 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”.

The results weren’t quite what they hoped for . . . losses went up significantly !

By suggesting the idea of stealing wood fragments to visitors, indicating that everyone else was doing it, and also raising the prospect that, if you wanted a wood fragment you better get one quick before they’re all gone, the signs were a Triple Fail !

Bottom line – people knew it was wrong, but when they thought everyone else was doing it, they did it anyway.

This is an example of  a perceived ‘social norm‘ trumping a moral or ethical belief. The evidence shows that we’re all far more likely to be influenced by the behaviour of others around us, than we are by our own moral or ethical code. We’re a social animal and it’s not surprising we like to fit in, rather than stand out.

With the help of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist at Arizona University, the park were able to design new signs highlighting that though the vast majority of visitors treated the park with respect, a small minority were damaging it for everyone else. These were much more successful – turns out we don’t like to feel bad about ourselves by doing something we know (or think) most of our peers would disapprove of.

Which brings us on to my second point = the fight against poverty.

We know there are a lot of poor people in the world, whether in far off countries, or down the road.

We may be aware there are around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. That 800 million people go to bed hungry each night. That 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes. These facts can seem very abstract when we see them printed on a screen, can’t they.

If you regularly read Next Starfish I’m sure you likely share my strong desire to combat poverty and tackle the various inequalities and injustices in the world. You probably share my ethical and moral perspective that ‘something must be done’.

But the chances are also most likely, that you’re probably living a fairly comfortable life yourself – food, clean water, warm home, healthcare, education, new mobile phone and all the rest. The odds are that you’re also surrounded by friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives who are similarly living fairly comfortable lives . . . for many of us, this is our ‘norm’.

If both the above are true, but you’re still currently giving most of your spare money away to tackle poverty and injustice across the world, then you’re acting 100% in alignment with your ethical and moral principles, and, just between you and me, you’re quite a remarkable person.

If like the rest of us you give a little of your spare money, and then sit wringing your hands about poverty, before going off to buy a new car, iphone or expensive pair of shoes, then it might just be you’ve been influenced by the ‘norm’ of living in a (relatively) affluent society and having (relatively) affluent friends to compare yourself against.

This isn’t meant to be a guilt-trip. Just an observation that we all tend to judge and compare ourselves, our lives and our behaviour, with reference to what we see around us. I don’t think we should feel bad about this – norms are normal after all.

But there are two things I’d suggest.

If, both individually and as a society, we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, then ‘normal’ would begin to shift , perhaps we’d begin to appreciate what we have a little more, want a little less, and maybe be a bit more generous with our wealth as a result.

Secondly, we should also realise we’re part of someone else’s ‘norm’. Maybe if we visibly changed our behaviour, perhaps by being personally more generous towards the poor, giving where possible, or supporting aid policies etc, those around us might feel just a little more inclined to do some of the same things themselves.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few powerful short films illustrating the lives of the poor around the world (both far and near) below.

Why not help shape your friends and colleague’s ‘norms’ by sharing some with them.


Photo by PetrifiedForestNPS via Flickr

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We Don’t Want to Believe What We Know

In the words of The Doors, People Are Strange.

Take the phrase; ’face the facts.

We probably wouldn’t need a phrase for it, if there wasn’t any choice about it. Hard to imagine Star Trek’s logical Vulcan Mr Spock, or Lt Data ever choosing to do anything other than ‘facing the facts’. But we humans are strange.

It turns out that very often, we do exactly that – simply refusing to accept the facts. Rather than change our actions and behaviours in response to new information, we change our beliefs instead.

In 1954 the social psychologist Leon Festinger and a colleague infiltrated The Seekers, a small Chicago cult, which believed the end of the world was imminent. He wanted to document what happened when, presumably, the end of the world didn’t take place on December 21st 1954 as they had predicted. Expecting the disillusionment and fragmentation of the group, what actually happened surprised Leon and his colleagues – almost all the group changed their beliefs, deciding instead that the actions of their group had actually saved the world from destruction. Rather than accept their view of the world was wrong, they changed their beliefs to accommodate the ‘new facts’.

In his subsequent book ‘When Prophecy Fails‘, Leon coined the phrase Cognitive Dissonance to describe this process of the mind becoming aware that it holds two contradictory views at the same time, naturally wanting to resolve this ‘dissonance’, and so tending to modify the ‘less strongly held belief’ so it no longer contradicts the other – and very often this might mean refusing to accept new information that challenges a particularly strongly held belief.

We all do it.

- We don’t want to believe that eating junk food and not exercising will make us unhealthy, so we convince ourselves that there’s not that many calories in chocolate or wine, and anyway they has lots of other good health benefits.

- We don’t want to accept our holiday to our dream destination actually turned out a bit rubbish, so we focus on the positives, ignore the negatives and tell everyone how great it was.

- We don’t want to accept that we didn’t study enough for the test, so we tell ourselves the exam was particularly hard this year.

Leon wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

It’s not that we ignore logic, just that our emotions work faster than our reason, so it’s our emotions that control our initial responses, and we just don’t like to admit to ourselves we were wrong . . .

It’s not hard to see how this applies to many of the world’s problems today – a couple of recent examples stand out:

- A group of climate sceptics in New Zealand have been legally challenging temperature records that show a warming trend.

- And in North Carolina legislators voted to ignore predictions of coastal impacts from sea level rise in planning decisions.

I can’t imagine there are too many climate sceptics who regularly read Next Starfish, and the rest of us might find it easy to scorn and laugh at stories like these, but perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to judge.

Spend ninety minutes watching Yann Arthus Bernard’s exceptional HD film Home below (you’ll need to open it in new browser), and then ask yourself – is my lifestyle really in tune with my beliefs ?

Cognitive dissonance affects us all, to a greater or lesser extent – it’s part of the human condition.

The good news is ‘we all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for ?’


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Photo from NASA