Saturday, 26 May 2012

Terror management theory

At a very convivial dinner party not some time ago, John, a friend I have known for years, turned to me and told me completely out of the blue that he never stops thinking about death. John is a very successful businessman. He built up a thriving property business from scratch and devotes long hours to it. My immediate thought was that by focussing so heavily on his work he was attempting to banish the thought of death from his mind for at least short periods of time. By creating and building his business, he was giving himself a purpose and an identity that would last beyond his own lifespan. After his death, his name would be remembered on estate agent boards across the north east of England.

I am being flippant, but the point is serious. I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘terror management theory’ at the time, but I now see that John’s devotion to his business can be classified as a form of terror management. And of course I can relate to his need to find a strategy to cope with the knowledge of his own ultimate fate. We all can. We all have to find meaning in our lives in order to make them worth living. For some people, religion is the answer. For me, it is not. I cannot manage my own terror by indulging in comforting thoughts of my soul residing in heaven for all eternity because I know for a fact that I haven’t got a soul. My own strategy is, in fact, very similar to John’s. I like to keep busy. I enjoy being in a state of flow. I don’t like to spend too much time alone with my thoughts.

Most people succeed in controlling thoughts of death to the extent that they are able to enjoy, or at least endure, living. The human species is the only species that comprehends its own mortality, but despite that the desire to be alive and stay alive is very, very strong.

Read an article by Stephen Cave about terror management theory and the four main strategies that people use to distance themselves from the knowledge of their own mortality. (FREE to view on the New Humanist website)

Visit the Terror Management Theory website

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Monday, 19 March 2012

Whose child would you rather be?

The child of a Tory Cabinet Minister? Or the child of an ordinary family? When it comes to opportunities in life, there can only be one answer. Here's why:

Child of Tory Cabinet Minister
  • Child starts at fee-paying prep (or pre-prep) school and stays in fee-paying education until the age of 18. (Tory Cabinet Minister has no experience of the state sector and therefore no understanding of it). Tory Cabinet Minister forks out several hundred thousand pounds per child for this education. A year at Eton, for example, costs just over £30,000 per year. (Check out the fees here). Parents are investing not only in the child’s educational future, but also its social and professional future.
  • Child moves on to university. And university fees are so much cheaper than school fees. At only £9,000 a year max (from 2012), they barely make a dent in Tory Cabinet Minster’s pocket.  Although there are living costs to be covered as well - and keeping up with the Bullingdon Club doesn’t come cheap – so Tory Cabinet Minister will have to dig a little deeper into that pocket.
  • Child leaves university with zero debt.
  • Child calls on connections made at school and university or parents’ connections to get a good job with a decent salary. Or maybe tries a few internships before deciding on which career path to follow. Banking, politics, the media, whatever – the choice is theirs.
  • Child buys a nice house in an expensive London postcode. Tory Cabinet Minster contributes the deposit and quite possibly a lot more.
  • Child is set up for life.

Child of the Ordinary family
  • Child  attends state primary and secondary schools. The chances are that they will get a good education, but class sizes will be bigger than in an independent school and the child will have less individual attention.
  • Child goes to university (if they don’t think better of it now that the fees have gone up so much).
  • Child leaves university with around £40,000 debt (if they start in 2012 or after).
  • Child realises that there are far, far more graduates than there are graduate jobs and even if they have a good degree from a good university it doesn’t guarantee a good job. Far from it. They may have to take a dead-end job way below their level of skill and ability. They may not be able to find a job at all. An internship (aka a period of unpaid labour) will only be an option if family or friends are able and willing to support them.
  • Child has absolutely no hope of buying a house. The choice is between paying extortionate rent (especially in London) or living with parents.
  • Child wonders how they will ever afford a reasonable standard of living.
 Whatever happened to the level playing field?


Saturday, 25 February 2012


I won’t attempt my own definition of this ancient Greek word as David Brooks has provided a perfectly good one in The Social Animal:
“..the desire for recognition, the desire to have people recognise your existence, not only now but for all time. Thumos included the desire for eternal fame – to attract admiration and to be worthy of admiration in a way that was deeper than mere celebrity.”

In the past it was very difficult for all but a tiny number of people to achieve any recognition beyond their own communities. (Although it’s better to be recognised and admired within your local community than not at all.) You could only hope for wider recognition if your achievements merited media attention. Looking further back before the existence of broadcast media or the press or even the written word, recognition was dependent on word of mouth.  The chances were that you would live and die in the same settlement and no-one in the next settlement would know of your existence.  

The internet has brought about a fundamental change. Any individual now has the opportunity to seek recognition through establishing him or herself online. There are millions of us creating an identity in cyberspace and hoping for recognition way beyond our local communities. Through blogging and tweeting etc., our potential sphere of influence reaches right across the globe. Our audience could be anyone in the world who has an internet connection. We can look at our web stats and see that people from China and Canada and Germany have read our words (or at least visited our pages). In real life, no-one is likely to want to listen at length to our ideas because they are much more interested in talking about their own, but by digitilising and disseminating our thoughts we at least have the illusion that others are paying attention to us and recognising our worth.

More about David  Brooks
I’ve only mentioned David Brooks briefly here, but if you want to know more about his ideas you can listen to an audio recording or watch a video for free on this page of the Royal Society of Arts website.

Or find out more about The Social Animal on Amazon:

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Changing the habit of a lifetime

I’ve pretty much given up on making new year’s resolutions as I know that human resolve rarely lasts even as long as a month.  This year, though, in an uncharacteristic mood of optimism, I decided to attempt a fundamental change of behaviour.

Here is my problem. Every weekday morning I get up to go to work an hour and a half before I need to leave my house. There is undoubtedly plenty of time to make and eat my porridge, walk the dogs and get myself ready. Yet every morning I end up spending the last ten minutes before I have to go rushing round in a panic because I am not ready, then walking down the road at a ridiculously fast pace because I am in danger of missing my train. Usually I catch it, although often I only just get inside before the doors close; occasionally I miss it.

Part of the problem is that I always underestimate how long everything takes. EVERY SINGLE MORNING I start out thinking that I have plenty of time and there’s no need to rush, then I discover that I do need to rush. The other part of the problem is that I don’t like to waste time, so if I imagine that I have a spare five minutes I will fit in a quick household chore, such as sorting out the recycling, then I realise that I didn’t actually have a spare five minutes. I don’t like hanging about on the platform waiting for the train either as that is also a complete waste of time, but in trying to avoid hanging about I am only making my own predicament worse. This has all been going on for years.

My new year’s resolution was unsuccessful. I was following my normal pattern of behaviour before the first week of January was out.

All this goes to show that you can be aware of your own behaviour, you can analyse and you can understand your own behaviour, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can change your own behaviour. I’m still trying though and will report at a later date on my progress or lack of it. 

Saturday, 11 February 2012

I'm wearing my lucky pants today

I’m not really. I don’t own any lucky pants. I don’t believe in good luck charms in general or underwear in particular. When I sat exams at school and college, I didn’t have a lucky pen or pencil case to ensure that I got good grades. I’ve never had a lucky teddy to help me through interviews or other nerve-racking occasions.  I know that there is no connection between a physical object and the way that life works out. If I want to pass an exam I have to work for it. If I want to succeed at an interview I have to make a good impression.

No, my superstitious beliefs are about warding off bad luck rather than attracting good luck. I can’t walk under a ladder. As I said, I know that there is no connection between a physical object and the way that life works out, but if I am walking along a pavement and I see a ladder in front of me on no account will I walk under it. I would much rather step out into the road. I suffer inner conflict over this and embarrassment. I pride myself on being a rational person, so why can’t I just keep on walking straight ahead? I want to walk under that ladder, but I can’t – just in case something bad happens. For the same reason, I won’t open an umbrella in the house. I’m a great one for touching wood as well, often discreetly so that no-one else will notice.

Avoiding walking under ladders, not opening umbrellas in the house and touching wood are all cultural superstitions. Plenty of people share them. I learnt other superstitions when I was a child, although they didn’t all stick. I had a great aunt who was very superstitious. If I spilt salt on the table she went into a panic and wouldn’t calm down until I threw some of it over my left shoulder. She wouldn’t get into  a green car and my father would never have  bought a green car because the knowledge that her close family were travelling in one would have caused her too much anguish.  Perhaps because I regarded her as old and old-fashioned I found her superstitions amusing and didn’t adopt them myself.

I have other superstitions that I have invented for myself. I won’t go into the details her, but I think this is a common phenomenon. And I think that there is probably a very thin line between superstitious behaviour and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Inventing rituals to create security and to prevent bad things happening is a way of coping with fear and unpredictability, but for some people the rituals completely take over and dominate their lives.
These are just off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. I haven’t done any background reading, but I will at some point and then I will return to the subject.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The strange ideas of Dr Samuel Hahnemann

In 1796, Dr Samuel Hahnemann  (1755-1843) published his Essay on a New Principle for Ascertaining the Curative Powers of Drugs, (starts page 249) explaining the ’ law’ of similars, (‘like cures like’), a concept that dates back to ancient Greece if not before, but revived, refined and popularised by Hahnemann. He believed that in order to cure a disease, you should use a watered-down version of a substance (in some cases a poison) that produces similar symptoms in the human body to those produced by the disease. The new, artificially produced, symptoms would then eradicate the original symptoms and voila! your patient would recover. In Hahnemann’s own words:
“We should imitate nature, which sometimes cures a chronic disease by superadding another, and employ in the (especially chronic) disease we wish to cure, that medicine which is able to produce another very similar artificial disease, and the former will be cured; similia similibus. “

Caffeine causes insomnia. So if you want to cure insomnia, you dilute some caffeine and give it to the insomniac - who will soon recover and sleep like a baby. Hahnemann gives many examples of like curing like. He has plenty to say about the beneficial properties of spotted hemlock, for example, including:
“It has removed spasmodic complaints, hooping (sic) cough, and epilepsy, because it has a tendency to produce convulsions. It will still more certainly be of use in convulsions of the eyes and trembling of the limbs, because in large doses it developes (sic) exactly the same phenomena. The same with respect to giddiness.”

I have used the terms water down and dilute but these seriously understate the process. In fact, so much water is added to the substance that no trace of it is likely to remain in the remedy. The remedies are actually little more than water (administered in tablet form) so that’s why you don’t have to worry about the use of poisons in homeopathy. The ‘law’ of infinitesimals holds that the more you dilute a substance the more powerful it becomes, although, as every primary school child knows, the more you dilute a substance, the weaker it becomes. NB: In homeopathy the word ‘law’ is not used in the generally accepted scientific sense but rather to mean ‘made up on the grounds of no evidence whatsoever’.

It’s hard to believe that one man’s ludicrous ideas are still taken so seriously.

For a concise overview of homeopathic methods  and an explanation of why it is not just harmless mumbo jumbo take a look at writer and cartoonist Darryl Cunningham’s story-strip.

I would really like to know what readers think about my blog posts, so please leave a comment in the box below.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Was your personality beamed down from the planets?

Was your personality formed by nature, by nurture or by a complex interaction between the two? Or was it beamed down from the planets on the day you were born?  If you believe in astrology it was the latter and your genes and/or upbringing have not determined the person that you are today.  Neither have you got any control over your own future because it is dependent entirely on what is going on out there in space.

As with religions, astrological belief systems developed independently in many countries and cultures as a primitive means of coping with the terrifyingly unpredictable nature of human existence. By assigning power and control to external forces (whether that be the gods or the stars) our early ancestors could deceive themselves into believing that hardship, disease and death were subject to the laws of supernatural cause and effect and not  just random occurrences that could happen to anyone at anytime for no reason at all.   

 Some centuries ago, as advancing scientific knowledge led to an increasingly less fanciful understanding of the nature of planet earth and its place within the solar system, astrology was recognised, at least by some, as mumbo jumbo.

“A conjectural science which teaches us to judge the effects and influences of the stars and to foretell future events by the situation and aspects of heavenly bodies. This science has long ago become a just subject of contempt and ridicule.”  That was the entry about astrology in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1771. The author would be amazed to know that 240 years later belief in astrology is widespread (and not just among those who lack education) and successful astrologers can make themselves a fortune.