How we change what others think, feel, believe and do

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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave


Sunday 21-October-18

Dropping phones and tipping opportunities

We were in Bar Harbor recently and took a tourist trip up Cadillac Mountain in the beautiful Acadia national park. All was going well until the was a shriek from the back of the trolley. 'I dropped my phone!' squeaked a lady who had been meaning our and taking photos.

Jim, our driver and guide, said sorry but park regulations prohibited him from stopping. He sounded like this was a regular event. We carried on up the mountain and the lady got lots of sympathy from the other passengers.

The views at the top were truly great and we headed back down. The interesting part happened when Jim pulled in near where the lady had lost her phone. He said, "It's illegal for me to stop here, but I'm going to give us a few moments to look for your phone." We all peered out but there was no sign on the phone.

Apologizing again, Jim set off again. Down the mountain, he stood by the door, helping people off, saying goodbye and, of course, collecting tips.

What effect would you say our pause to look for the lost phone had on Jim's tips? Yes, I thought so too. The key word was 'illegal'. In saying this, Jim indicated he was prepared to break the law, risking his job and liberty, just to help his passengers. What a wonderful man! Definitely deserves more dollars for such sacrifice!!

Sunday 07-October-18

Flashing blue lights and theft dissuasion: Innovation in the Supermarket

I was in a Co-operative supermarket recently and spotted a curious feature. Inside the store, on a wall by the exit, was a blue flashing light. It was a couple of inches across, with a blue transparent cover and a regular pulsed light from inside.

What's this, I wondered. Was it a fire or burglar alarm malfunctioning? And then another use came to mind. What it it was a subtle shoplifting dissuasion? It looked just like a police light. It was the right colour and flash rate. And the flashing certainly grabbed attention. So as you approach the exit, you are reminded of the police, amplifying any fear of being caught and perhaps turning you around to replace or pay for any taken goods.

Shoplifting is a real dilemma and retailers regularly account for a significant percentage of 'shrinkage'. There are of course the usual cameras and signs, but it is nice to see creative alternatives. Many years ago I was surprised to be greeted by an nice old lady, just like my grandmother, as I entered a Walmart. This of course associates her with the shop and dissuades me from shoplifting. After all, you wouldn't steal from your granny, would you?

Sunday 09-September-18

How to be famous: Gibson Assembly and the One-step isothermal invitero recombination method

I recently watched a TED talk by Dan Gibson on DNA printing. It was an amazing story of making DNA, one letter at a time. He said he called it the 'One-step isothermal invitero recombination method' (the title of his scientific paper on the method) but the scientific community just call it 'Gibson Assembly'. (Aside: his vocal patterns curiously resembles that of Stephen Hawking. Is this a case of unconscious hero-mirroring?).

Neat. He has achieved the secret dream of many scientists, to have your name built into something scientific. The classic route is scientific units, such as Volts, Roentgens, etc. But hey, DNA printing will do.

Another way to achieve name fame is to build a company with your name on the products, such as Dyson. Or maybe you could endow a university library or hospital with a spare few million, though this will not spread your name as far. We can also achieve name fame by other means. Go into politics. Become a rock star. Kill someone famous.

But why? Why do we go to such lengths to spread our name around? Why do we seek fame?

It's all about our sense of identity. Of who we are. When we see copies of ourselves (and our name is a good substitute) our sense of identity expands. We feel good. And inside identity is the principle of continuity, that we will somehow live forever. Maybe I should rename this website to include my name? Nah.

The classic way that many of us spread our names so we can live on is by having children. Again, it's a costly business, but the deep pleasure of seeing our genes spread is the reward evolution gives us. And, clever subverters that we are, we have found that our name is a good substitute.

Sunday 23-August-18

King Lear, its modern-day relevance and the exhaustion of acting

I was lucky enough recently to see King Lear performed in London, with Sir Ian McKellan in the title role. The whole thing was utterly spellbinding and McKellan was incredible. The applause at the end was fittingly tumultuous. Acclaim is the greatest reward for actors. It is immediate and direct, a clear signifier of success. As a student I acted in Shakespeare and loved every single hand-clap (few that there were in our late-night performances for post-party revellers).

The Lear show notes made reference to its relevance to current politics, in the manic folly of seeking absolute power, in the polarization of Machiavellian versus kindly factions, and the fragility of life that we often miss. As humans, we endlessly repeat the mistakes of history as we confidently and emotionally know that this time it will be different. We need to see ourselves as capable, influential and successful, and so we avoid advice and the lessons of the past. When our leaders act like this, as did Lear and as do current leaders, then they harm us all.

My wife, as a former literature teacher was particularly stunned by the play. We reflected later on the exhaustion of playing a part. McKellan inhabited the role, putting on the mask of the troubled king and viscerally experiencing the trauma, as he does every night. It must be exhausting and he certainly looked drained at the end. There are many jobs where we have to act in some way. Teaching is a performance, as is managing, pleading, selling and so on. At the end of the day when we have played a role, we come home exhausted. And the greater the gap between who we really are and the masks we must wear, the greater that exhaustion.

I feel lucky now. After many years in education and business, where I had to wear the mask, I now live through my writing, in which I can be true to myself and true to my readers, explaining what I have learned and perhaps spreading greater understanding.

Sunday 12-August-18

The Power of Crying in Persuasion and Interrogation

I had a foreign friend stay recently, who told us an interesting story of persuasion, military trauma and interrogation.

She was not working in the military but had to deal with a very arrogant, misogynistic soldier who had been allocated to her on a team exercise. A power she had was to be able to allocate people to some charitable work, so to help the soldier develop more empathy, she send him for a period to work in a children's hospice. The action had an astonishing effect. When the soldier returned he was extremely obedient and as as helpful as he could be.

The friend then recounted a subsequent conversation with another military colleague, who worked in special forces training and who explained why the action had such a salutary effect. Apparently one thing that has a mind-curling effect on men of all stripes is the continuous crying of women and children, especially when the person is unable to stop this crying. Evolution, it seems, has taught men that the cries of women and children require immediate male attention and that it is imperative that the man acts to remove the cause of distress. This makes sense as a mechanism for preserving families. Subjected to the regular crying of patients and parents in the hospice, the once-arrogant soldier was traumatized and brought down from his high-handed position. This principle is even used in interrogation, apparently, where grown men will crumble when subjected to non-stop sounds of children and women crying.

Having heard this story, I am now wondering afresh at the power of crying.

Crying of course also has a social role, where wails and tears of children are often used to persuade parents. Indeed, it seems to be a major reason for their existence and some seem to be able to 'turn on the waterworks' at will. It can also happen with adults, though perhaps less often and especially not from men in societies where male crying is seen as displaying weakness rather than legitimate distress. I know that I have been programmed not to cry and even in extreme distress I can feel the mental blockage. While I may 'tear up', my brain somehow prevents me from breaking down into sobbing. I simply cannot remember the last time I reached this stage.

Sunday 29-July-18

Three adjectives to describe Donald Trump

Love him or loathe him, it is difficult to avoid opinions about US president Donald Trump. If you are on the political right you may think he is wonderful as he cuts taxes and gets tough on immigrants. You may alternatively see him in all kinds of negative terms.

In a recent conversation we sought three adjectives describing him, with the goal of being both alliterative and balanced. The alliteration turned out to be all Cs, and the balance was between negative and positive assessments.

Positive adjectives were Consistent, Critical and Cunning.

He is consistent in following through on campaign promises and putting America first. He is also by now fairly predictable in what he will say about various topics from the global to the mundane.

He is strongly critical of the press, other world leaders and anyone who disagrees with him. He has a turn of phrase that reaches its mark in rankling those he opposes. He does not hold back to polite or political language. He says it as he sees it.

His intelligence has been questioned yet he has still been successful. This seems to be due to a cunning ability in negotiation and persuasion, for example in how he brought the Republican party to heel and North Korea to the table. Also how his outrageous outbursts distract opponents while he is making momentous changes to the judiciary and institutions of state.

Negative adjectives were Cruel, Corrupt and Childish.

He has been cruel in his handling of migrants and their children. His comments about women and others have been unkind and insulting. He is known to enjoy taking revenge on those who he feels have slighted him.

He shows many signs of corruption. He refuses to release his finances. He has been charged with inappropriate use of his charity's funds and faces many court cases. He gave huge tax cuts to rich friends. His business past has many suspect dealings. He hob-nobs with dictators. The list goes on.

He seems like a child in his paranoid fears, his petulant outbursts, and his limited attention span. He lacks understanding of the complexities of politics, climate and other big issues. He reads little and responds reactively.

Overall, he has been a divisive figure, widening an already split society. The big question is what comes next. Will the divide increase into political canyons, or will there be a counterbalancing reunification? Is this the shake-up that America (and maybe the world) needs, or will it shake to pieces? Might America become an autocracy in all but name? Would American isolationism make the rest of the world grow up? Will a more libertarian system bring peace or war?

Who knows what next. I guess it's up to America.

Sunday 22-July-18

Persuasion in the Cathedral: Carrots, Sticks and Friendly Nudges

I was in Leicester Cathedral recently, admiring the tomb of the recently rediscovered remains of King Richard III.

And then I heard a voice from above.

It wasn't heavenly but was serene. Looking around I saw a minister standing at a lectern, addressing everybody, wherever they were. She thanked people for coming and reminded us that, while the cathedral was a wonderful place to visit, it was foremost a place of prayer and worship. She spoke briefly about Jesus, said a prayer, then stood down.

Britain and Europe are full of soaring, incredible cathedrals and churches, and I have visited many of them, yet I have never encountered this before. It was, quite simply, a brilliant piece of soft selling. It took only about ten minutes and contained no fire, damnation or any other classic admonition.

The traditional motivation system of the Christian church is carrot and stick, promising the rather vague glories of heaven for compliance and nastily specific fires of hell for transgression. And my memory of a choirboy youth is that the stick was waved far more than the carrot. It's the 'nasty medicine' school of thought, where pain is considered a necessary step on the road to recovery or learning. However, like the way Shakespeare is often taught in school, it leaves many of its children feeling uncomfortable rather than enthused, and a tendency to flee whenever they hear those familiar intonations.

So it was refreshing and delighting to hear a kind and non-threatening pitch. I also noted the generally inclusive tone, which is probably a good move in Leicester's multicultural climate. So well done Leicester Cathedral. You also had friendly people at the door, chatting without any request for donation, even though there was a collection box right there. It's a good reminder to all of us. Persuasion need not be pressured or direct. A kind word is often the best way to win people over.

Sunday 08-July-18

The Power of Doubt: How uncertainty undermines even strong arguments

Doubt is a powerful little tool if you are opposing something. It gives you an excuse not to agree. It also gives you a crack you can lever open as you polarize the argument.

Doubt says you are not convinced, that there is either insufficient evidence to persuade you or unexplained contradictory evidence. All you need is one exception to disprove the weight of data that the other side is wielding. It lets you say ’Ah, but what about' or simply 'I'm not sure.' It lets you introduce and extend delays. And, by showing that you are not certain, you put the onus on the other person to prove their case.

Doubt can be good and has many legitimate uses. In science, a healthy skepticism keeps a focus on proven facts and keeps the door open for new explanations. In law, a person is convicted only if evidence is 'beyond reasonable doubt'. And here lies the power of doubt. Lawyers are expert at sowing seeds of doubt and growing them until juries and even judges acquit the accused. When the law seeks to prove something 'beyond reasonable doubt', a lawyer only has to introduce doubt to get their client off the hook. The opposing lawyer in such situations may focus on what is reasonable or not. This principle is also seen in everyday conversations where doubt is used less rigorously but for the same purpose of discounting and rejecting a potentially strong opposing argument.

This effect was used for years by the tobacco industry for years as it held back the tide of evidence about cancer and smoking. They sponsored contradictory research and pointed to cases where no harm had been done. The same is happening now with climate change.

One of the tricks of doubt is that it can be used to push the other side into making stronger claims which are logically weaker and so easier to attack. Those making the case mistake artful doubt as uncertainty. This leads them to making further assertive statements, and in doing so they fall into the trap. Now the tables are turned and the doubter becomes the logician as the persuader becomes the emotional complainer.

Once you have the other person on the ropes you can go for the kill with ad hominem personal attacks. Question their motives. Dig for other dirt on them. Show them as self-serving and anti-social. Imply that their lack of morals undermines their whole argument.

In this way doubt is used every day in situations ranging from family arguments to national politics. It may be lazy and disingenuous but it is common nonetheless.

Sunday 03-June-18

The Truman Show, The Matrix, Stage Theory and Transitions

In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers he is living in a stage-managed reality show where he is the only person who does not know this. All his supposed friends and family are actors, playing roles rather than being the roles. This triggers an existential crisis where his sense of identity crumbles and he desperately tries to escape this unreality. In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves faces a similar dilemma, although this time everybody in the unreality is duped, apart from a few guardians who are tasked with sustaining the illusion.

The common factor that grips the viewer is the traumatic realization that everything you held as true is false, and that our heroes must find a way through this terrible disappointment to establish a new, trusted reality. For trust is a critical issue here. Realities that we inhabit must be based on wholly accepted truth, even while much is based more on assumption than experience.

Stage theories describe something similar. The basic idea is that we go through life via a set of stable belief and consequent thinking systems, painfully transitioning from one stage to the next as the current cognitive framework increasingly fails. Classic examples are the transitions from infancy to childhood and from childhood to adulthood.

Transitions happen in many other situations, from changing jobs to spiritual awakening. They can range in experience from traumatically negative to positively uplifting. They are often confusing and can lead to deep learning. They may themselves be constituted of sub-stages, such as the classic Kubler-Ross cycle. And they may well be facilitated by rituals of some kind. The Truman Show and The Matrix both are transition stories as their heroes struggle with the realization that their realities are false. Much of life is like this.

Transitions can also be micro-events, such as when we pass through any doorway from one environment to another. These too may require a brief period of adjustment and may involve simple rituals, such as welcoming or removing shoes.

In changing minds, it is useful to pay attention to transitions. You can create them as blocks or delays. You can facilitate passing through them. And you can build them into stories that normalize, disseminate and teach the process of transition.

Sunday 20-May-18

Brain Function, Intelligence, Mental Illness and the Future

Neuroscience has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, especially as systems such as fMRI scanners can see where we are thinking at any moment. Brain chemistry is increasingly understood. Maybe one day we will all take 'happy pills' or have 'joy implants' to keep us feeling good. Yet there can be a dark side to most things. When we are happy, we are less concerned about injustice revolution. Take the drug addict who lies back in the squalid apartment with a beatific, inert smile. Can happiness be a mental illness? When it prevents us from living constructive lives, perhaps so.

What about intelligence? We also dance around the notion of smart pills. Indeed, drugs that arouse us may also affect cognitive function for the better as well as for the worse. But will being smart make us nicer, or more selfish? Will it help us change minds? Could we pop a pill before a negotation and come away with a brilliant deal? What are the social implications when some people are artificially happy, smart and persuasive, while others have to make do with a 'normal', struggling brain?

And yet mental health is still very much an issue of today. Whereas physical medicine would be unrecognizable to doctors from a hundred years ago, mental illness is still not far out of the dark ages. Indeed, there are parts of the world where it is still associated more with gods and demons than neural functioning. Personality disorders affect many of us in some shape or form. Indeed, more psychopaths can be found at the top of companies than statistics might expect. There are drugs to combat problems such as psychosis, but can be of limited help and come with unwanted side-effects.

We still have a long way to go before we avoid mental illness and achieve our potential, even with artificial assistance.

And yet we may be overtaken by independent artificial intelligence. When AI systems such as Google's AlphaGo learn the rules of a game and beat world champions within a single day, it seems machines will soon be smarter than us on pretty much any dimension we choose. Even in the emotional domain, systems are being developed to care for the elderly -- and the elderly are taking to this attentive concern, even though it is artificial.

A million dollar question in AI is around sentience. When does the machine become human, or it simulates humanity so well we can't tell the difference. Already, call centers are using AI systems to front-end phone calls, including detecting and manipulating emotions. And what happens when this simulation takes a turn for the worse? What does 'mental illness' mean in the machine world? Dysfunctional robots have been a popular theme in science fiction for decades. What if some of this comes true? Might your house robot sulk and not talk with you? Could AI systems become psychopathic and gain 'pleasure' in controlling us? Or might they just decide we are unnecessary? Are robot wars coming?

Just imagine a future where you tell your robot to make you a cup of coffee. The robot looks back and you, sulkily. "You don't like me, do you?" it says. Oh dear, you think, it's having one of its grumpy days. "Never mind, I'll get it myself", you say. The robot stalks off to sit and think about algorithms. You wonder if you should have bought a branded model rather than this cheap copy.

It all seems far-fetched at the moment, at least to many of us, but we should be thinking now about artificial intelligence systems in terms of mental health as well as how clever they might become.

Sunday 13-May-18

Us and them: How terrorism is good for us, though it is bad for all of us

Terrorism is a terrible thing that leads to many sleepless nights. A few big incidents can spread disproportionate fears. While the probability of being killed by local criminals or motor accidents is far higher, we worry more about the terrorists who might indiscriminately strike us at any time. And it is this indiscrimination that creates the most fear. We are built to reduce uncertainty and do much in our lives to be safe, yet we feel there is little we can do to mitigate the threat from the grand plans of those callous, evil terrorists.

Terrorism these days has a strong associative link with 9/11, the Middle East and Islam. Islamist terrorists fuel the story when they say that their cause is Islam. This lets us pin the blame on one word and consequently everyone who we associate with that word. Media fuels the meta-story as coverage of Islamic terrorist events tends to be far greater than from such as far-right extremists. A result is that we view all Muslims with suspicion and fear, something that is easy when they are easily spotted through their distinguishing clothing.

The far right and those they influence, who commit far more terrorist crimes, are not so easy to criticize when they name their cause as the country, even as they attack constitutional freedoms. While we decry their acts, surely we cannot criticize our country as a whole. We may not support nationalism, especially the more extreme forms, but we still consider ourselves patriotic, albeit from a different direction. A result is that we largely avoid the subject, perhaps for fear of appearing to being unpatriotic.

So how can terrorism be good for us? For those not tainted with an associative brush, it pushes us together. Our evolutionary tribal history has led us to pull together when we have a common 'enemy'. Terrorism can hence be a cohesive force and perhaps prevent us from in-group squabbling. It is good for 'us', though there are many downsides. We pick an enemy (or maybe they pick on us), then generalize, characterize and criticize. You're with us or you're with them. The choice is stark and easy. Those on the wrong side of the fence must constantly explain themselves and perform the tricky balance of distancing themselves from terrorists while not denying their religion.

Terrorism is good for terrorist groups too. It helps give them purpose and hold them together. They recruit people who have lost their way or who are angry at their impoverished, low-status position, giving them family and purpose. A reason they take extreme action because of asymmetry, where they feel small and weak and so need to make grand, noticeable gestures. They probably do not call it terrorism. Like too many of us, they demonize and dehumanize others, justifying their retaliatory, punishing actions as necessary, moral and legitimized by a higher power.

How have we come to such a polarized world, where extreme action is becoming everyday? Or has it always been thus? To know who 'we' are, must there always be a terrible 'they'?

Sunday 29-April-18

The momentum of wrong and the courage of change

Sometimes we make decisions, which results in us saying and doing certain things. At the time it seems right, but later may turn out to be not such a good idea, yet we still keep thinking and saying those things.

It is as if we are trapped by our past, unable to rethink using the new knowledge we now have. In this way, things that are inefficient, ineffective and just plain wrong, acquire momentum. They even seem to gain a life of their own, effectively ruling us as we feel unable to change.

Often, while habit may contribute, the underlying psychological cause is our need for consistency. If I say black is white, then to change and say white is white would be inconsistent. When we are inconsistent, we send a message that we are incompetent and cannot be trusted. We fear that people would respect us less if we were inconsistent, and push us down the social order. And so we continue to assert that black is white.

Yes, we may also lose respect for being so clearly wrong, but this seems less important than having to admit we have been wrong for so long. Like Pinocchio, we dig ourselves a hole that gets ever more difficult to escape.

Climbing out of a wrong hole takes courage. It also needs compassion. We must forgive ourselves for becoming entrapped, and a simple way is to realize we are only human and to feel good about being courageous. It can help if others are compassionate too, rather than rubbing our noses in our past wrongs, yet we must not fall into the further trap of fear that could keep us in the hole. With courage, we can apologize, admit our errors, commit to change and then make and sustain that change.

A good habit is to watch ourselves, dispassionately and compassionately, noticing tensions that may stem from inconsistencies. Then, when we find such issues, looking for ways to put them right. Yes, it may hurt for a while, but the real and lasting result is that we will gain greater integrity and consequent trust and respect from others.

Sunday 22-April-18

Why do we keep touching our phones?

Do you ever unconsciously pick up your phone when you have no real need? Perhaps you turn it on and stare at social media or the news, even though you did this just a few minutes ago. Maybe you play with it in your hands, then wonder why you are doing this and put it down again.

What is this all about? Why do we fidget, fondle and fixate on our phones? A good place to start is worth how it makes us feel.

First, it can be a calming action, touching something familiar to assuage discomfort. Like a child with a comfort blanket or toy, making tactile contact with something that is associated with pleasure reawakens that good feeling. If this is true, then makers of phones and their cases should think long and hard about this touch sensation.

Another reason is the buzz of anticipation. When the phone arouses us, whether through games, social contact or interesting news, we associate it with this stimulation and any connection, even looking at it, will start to feel that pleasure even before it begins. For App writers, this suggests 'leave them wanting more.

When it is an arbiter of success at work, the phone may need constant attention as we respond in real time to requests for our ever-shrinking time. When this includes calls from angry or demanding bosses. Someone once said that heaven is anywhere and any time, yet hell is everywhere and every time. In this way, phones can be objects of fear that constantly enslave us.

And again, it can simply be the stimulating arousal of the act. Pleasure peaks when we get our first bite of chocolate and first sight of someone liking our post or shock at the latest headlines. Even bad news is better than boredom. This peaking leads us to consume in bite-sized chunks. Turning on, grazing, and turning off. The doing it again and again.

In practice, all of these reasons and more may drive our obsessive snatching up of this insidious device. It serves many purposes, but makes us servants in return. The challenge, then, is to take back control, consciously and deliberately realizing what is happening and taking a stand against it.

Sunday 15-April-18

Charging for Parking at the Mall??

If you are American, you have probably been to more than a few out-of-town malls. Common for decades in the USA, the format has spread around the world. You will have gathered from the title of this article that charging to park at such establishments could be in question.

Surely not? Would you pay to park at the mall? Well, you might. If there was no alternative, or at least no better or more convenient alternative.

In the UK, where I live, some places charge for parking and some do not. I really recently went to the 'Clarks Retail Village' in Somerset, where they do charge for parking, so what, I wondered, was the effect on me, or perhaps the average shopper, who does not fret so much about what is happening in the darker recesses of their mind.

Paying for parking before going shopping is an investment. I have paid something, so I want value for this, so I am more likely to buy something. And once I have bought one thing, I get myself in the mood for shipping and am more likely to buy other things. Indeed, paying for parking will already have got my 'spending frame of mind' in motion.

Another factor that affected me was the price for parking. It was one pound for an hour and three pounds for five hours. This is a rather curious offering. Many people would like around two hours to shop, but paying three times as much for twice the time doesn't look good. I, probably like many, went for the one hour slot. However, if I had gone for the five hour slot, I may have hung around for much longer than I had intended.

Anyway, I had one hour for what should have taken two hours. The result of this was a 'hurry up' pressure, leading to more rapid and less considered purchasing. I was looking for a pair of shoes, and quickly accepted the sales patter. Result: I bought two pairs. Another result was that I didn't have time to browse in other shops, so there was also a downside for other retailers there.

The bottom line? Parking pricing is complex and can have varying effects on shoppers. When you are thinking about whether and how much to charge, a good understanding of shopper psychology can be very important.

Sunday 08-April-18

Slipping quality of service at Celebrity cruises

Sorry about this. Long blog. Bit of a moan, bit of a plea. Briefly, we found a cruise line (Celebrity) to have seriously slipped in service quality, which in these hyper-competitive times is not good for their prospects.

In more detail...

I'm a keen photographer and find cruising a convenient and economic way to visit lots of places, so when an attractive Far East trip came up we jumped at the chance, especially as it was with Celebrity, with whom we had had high quality experience in the past.

Overall, we had a great time. The crew, the food and general accommodation were good. Yet somehow the company seemed to have lost its sparkle. It was best summarised by another passenger who had traveled with Celebrity many times and was now going on other cruise lines. She noted sadly that they had been slipping for a number of years and were now merely average. I also earwigged several other formerly loyal customers moaning about various issues.

I worked in and around service quality for a number of years in major organizations and am now on the board of the UK's professional institute (the CQI), so I think I can speak with some authority about issues I encountered and actions that could help Celebrity recover some of its special place in the cruising world.

So here are a few cases, taken from a single, 14 day cruise around the China seas.

Selling the drinks package

Our first surprise was immediately on getting on board, where we were met with a glass of bubbly and a hard sell on drinks (spot the reciprocity tactic here). 'Have you got your drinks package yet?’ (note the 'yet') asked the tall young man. 'No' I said. 'Step into my office' he said with a smile as he cornered us off the corridor. He then played the 'recommendation game', saying the expensive package was probably too much for us (though of course it was superior), the cheap package was too limited, but the middle package was just right for us. Perhaps it should be called the 'Goldilocks' method. Of course he was selling on benefits, but didn't really connect with me, which would need more hard data on cost per average drink and how many I would have to consume per day to break even (I estimated an alcoholic seven). He also failed to mention until asked that the price was per person. So we declined and squeezed past.

We got it again at dinner, where a waiter tried the conspiratorial whisper approach, complete with cupped hand. After a further attempt the following night, we were thankfully left alone to our normal modest consumption. Other passengers we knew were not so lucky and were badgered throughout the voyage.

More vulnerable people could well have succumbed to this hard sell. I was just appalled at the pressure tactics.

What could have been different?

First, never take advantage of customers during transitional periods such as on-boarding. You may sell more now, but customers may feel duped and betrayed later, killing any trust and loyalty.

Also, do not incentivize staff to sell in a way that motivates selling over service. Sure, money changes how people behave, but it also destroys empathy.

Finally, and this is a persistent theme, constantly train staff to be superb in delivering a total experience that is consistent with Celebrity brand values.

The 'muster drill'

Then there was the muster drill. You know, the bit where they tell you how to survive an 'abandon ship'. We have always experienced this as going to muster stations on deck, being checked off and receiving a lecture on what to do in an emergency. Instead, we were directed to the theatre, where an odd 'wash your hands' looping cartoon was shown around a quick talk and lifejacket demo. We went to find the muster station ourselves and imagined the chaos of a real situation.

What to do? Just run it like all the other cruise lines we've experienced. Realistic practice. Subtly, this also establishes the authority of crew members. I was once a school teacher, where I learned the crucial importance of building discipline up-front rather then trying to impose it when it is first really needed.

Dining complaint

Here's another story. At dinner one night, a fellow diner moaned a bit at the waiter about the lack of variety and fading food quality. So the waiter got a chef, which surprised and flustered the diner as both stood there while the chef enquired about the problem. There was embarrassed shuffling around the table as the diner hesitantly stated her case again. The chef tried his best to be positive, but came over as awkward and defensive.

What to do differently?

Again, it is mostly about training. The staff wanted to do the right thing, but lacked the skills to do it well. In particular, those who deal with customer dissatisfaction should be trained to a higher level. It would have been a good idea, for example, for the waiter to first ask the passenger if he could call in the chef. This in itself can be tricky as passengers may feel they are being put in an awkward situation, so needs sensitive handling. A good method is to crouch down level with the person rather than literally to talk down at them. Then explain the desire to help and ask permission for the chef to come in.

Likewise, the chef should get down, perhaps pulling up a chair, and listen respectfully before speaking. He could make specific proposals and listen to the response. With a tableful of other passengers, this is a test that can boost or break loyalty.

And of course, if the passenger has useful, actionable ideas, then the chef should be able to use them. In any case, he should get back to her to say what had been decided and done. There is also, of course, opportunity to surprise and delight her here. This need not be big -- just nice.

Another food question, about menus, not service, was the vegetarian option. This often seemed to be based on Indian recipes. My wife is a veggie and likes occasional Indian food, but became rather fed up with its regularity. With only one main course choice, she became rather frustrated. Towards the end of the cruise she discovered there was a separate vegetarian menu available, but you have to ask for it. Understandably, this just frustrated her further.

A simple action here, of course, is to ensure a wider, changing cuisine (we heard complaints about monotony from passengers who were spending longer on the ship).

Also, staff should have information about dietary needs and be proactive in helping. When customers ask for the vegetarian option on the main menu, waiters should ask if they would like to see the vegetarian menu. It is also not beyond the realms of technology to track passengers and proactively address their needs.

Malfunctioning cards

A smaller, but still indicative, one along the way: our room cards stopped working on the safe, so we couldn't get things out. We went to the front desk and they promised to send someone up to unlock it. This didn't happen. So next day (fortunately a sea day) we asked again. They replaced the cards which then worked fine.

What to do? Log passenger requests and promises, then log actions completed. Also inform passengers of actions and check that their issue is resolved.

Immigration queues

Another example of exacerbated passenger frustration occurred in Nagasaki, where we all got given group numbers and told disembarkation would start at 10am. We were in group 11 and it all seemed to start quickly enough. But then announcements stopped, queues turned into throngs and crew were few and far between. After an hour, we were let through the red barrier, only to join another queue, where the only communication was to form a single file (which was generally ignored as this would have tripled the queue length). Finally, after Japanese immigration, we got through after over two hours of queuing.

So what to do here?

While the bottleneck was clearly immigration, there is more that Celebrity could do. When you are the customer-facing part of a distributed process, you will be seen to own the whole process and need to manage this clearly.

First, there should have been a clear warning of delays and explanation of what we would experience. When people know what hassle to expect, they get far less frustrated by it. Ongoing updates would likewise help.

Secondly, better management of queues would have made the wait easier. Chairs for the infirm (people with walking aids stood for a long time). Water for the thirsty. Friendly chat to help calm frustration.

And underpinning all this, again, is skilled, knowledgeable staff, trained in handling this predictable situation.

Selling future cruises

Bizarrely, on another day when we went to a presentation on possible future cruising with Celebrity, a video promoting the cruise line was regularly interrupted by a workman using a power drill in the same lounge. How could such idiocy be allowed, conditioning tentative customers to pair thoughts of the line with feelings of irritation? When the drilling stopped, a bunch of loud, chattering passengers took over. Another passenger went to speak with them -- something that should have been addressed by staff. The measure was only temporarily effective and the passenger clearly continued to be irritated, as were others, again pairing unhappiness with the Celebrity brand. Notably, people within earshot of the chatterers (who were paying no attention to the presentation) gradually left.

The presentation itself was pretty flat. This was a place for an infectiously enthusiastic presenter. The chap did his best and improved with time but by then he had lost us.

What could have been different?

Address background noise quickly and diplomatically.

Pick presenters who enthuse and engage, drawing people in, actively helping them feel good, first about themselves and them about the idea of joining Celebrity in amazing voyages around the world.

Practice, practice, with helpful feedback and coaching. Video practice and real runs, watch back and address improvement opportunities.

Add breaks in the talking for questions, prize giving, videos, etc. Get people involved and they will mentally and emotionally engage.


Even on the last day, where we were fog-bound again and held offshore, there was more disorganisation.

Good news was that we would get in that day and free internet was announced, but not how to log on. We eventually found someone to help, though it was very slow and then crashed.

We eventually got to port about 2pm (instead of 7am), whence chaos ensued. Announcements largely stopped and none were about where to go. For the original leaving we were supposed to go the theatre. We went there and found lots of people hanging around uncertaintly at the entrance, waiting for the mad dash off, while loads of seats down the front remained empty. A person in a wheelchair was stopped in a main gangway with people squeezing past. By the time someone from Celebrity tried to take charge (without a microphone) and get people to sit down, nobody was in the mood to obey. Anyway, by now we had all learned two things: (a) Celebrity could not manage a disciplined process, and (b) there were no consequences for disobeying crew commands.

There was a 'group 1 please come forward' announcement and, unsurprisingly, everyone made a mad dash for the door as the crew members stood impotently by. We were in group 3 and just tagged along behind. As we left the ship amidst further jostling, we heard an announcement requesting people to go down to the theatre.

What to do differently? More frequent, accurate information. Practice drills for staff. Careful channelling of passengers. More staff directing movements. Uniformed senior staff visible and active in assembly areas. And careful consequences for unruly passengers.

False information

We now thought we were done, but Celebrity had one more gift. We were in a private tour and met our guide in the port. However one couple was missing. So we waited, and waited. After more than two hours, we went to an early dinner, our Shanghai tour spoiled. Later we discovered that the other couple had actually got onshore early, where they had been advised by a Celebrity employee that there was nowhere to wait (there was) and that they should take a taxi to their hotel. Thank you Celebrity. Not. It was literally the final straw. Our final, frustrating Celebrity experience was of a needlessly ruined day.

Again, this is about staff training. The couple were confused on arrival and the Celebrity employee fobbed them off with false information and poor advice, rather than owning their issue and doing something useful, like asking a port official to help them.

As per the 'recency effect' Celebrity should work to make the last day a fabulous one, working extra hard to ensure passengers leave with good feelings about the brand. Instead, we got a clear message: They've got our money and want more. We were treated like past customers who no longer mattered, rather than loved current customers who they delight in giving outstanding service, even after we leave the ship, or just valued future customers who will return and give them more money in future.

And yet...

And yet we still enjoyed ourselves overall. We felt incredibly lucky to be able to go on such a far flung voyage, seeing people and places we had only seen on TV and in books. The ship was nice, the food was just fine and the staff were pleasant. Though there was a strained quality, like they were just about coping and were afraid of complaint. We found ourselves reassuring them more than once that we were ok. Sadly, though, we have mentally downgraded Celebrity from the top of the pile of quality cruises to near the bottom.

In great service, staff handle issues with calm aplomb. They are authoritative without seeming threatening. They proactively seek and address issues before they become passenger issues. They are relaxed, which relaxed you. This is not free. It requires integrated, continual education and improvement. Most of all, it requires a strong, effective culture.

I have experienced such a culture first hand, working for HP in the 80s and 90s, including in customer service. They had a careful selection process then made you highly employable through constant education and coaching. They also had sky-high expectations for what you would achieve. Yet their pay was average at best. So why did I stay, like most others? Because they made it such a great place to work.

So come on, Celebrity. Find your former glory. Focus on culture and creating competent crews who are passionate first about people and service (rather than avoiding criticism and making money). Give them skills above those of other cruise lines and develop staff loyalty that will keep them with you through the years. From this will flow first rate service and consequent customer loyalty that brings constant profit, stability and growth.

Sunday 11-March-18

Primate Politics: How we are not that different to our chimpanzees cousins

Chimpanzees have 98.5% shared DNA with humans. They are more like us than they are like gorillas. So can we learn something about ourselves by studying chimpanzees?

Chimps live in social groups with about 50 members. These have a leader and a hierarchy. They are male dominated, with competition between males for position and females. The have what Nietzsche calls a 'will to power'and constantly seek it and are aware of current power structures. Many of their calls and actions talk about this.

Dominant males will puff up and go around making a lot of noise. They need support and so friendship and affiliation is important. To take over, they build coalitions. They start by aligning themselves with top-ranking males and work upwards. A basic sign of association is grooming as chimps build social capital with others they may want to influence later.

Stronger males prefer unequal resource distribution, even if they are poor, as this makes the hierarchy stable and clear. Weaker males will climb trees to get away from aggressive alpha males, but will make defiant calls when at a safe distance. In such ways demeaning use of power invites reactive rebellion. When there is a leadership contest, weaker chimps will support whoever they think will be good to them (provided there seems a good chance of them winning together).

Loyalty is not forever and there are ever-shifting coalitions of convenience. When one male is very strong, others may gang up against him. In this way, males of similar strength still have a chance of becoming top chimp. Hence they form 'minimum winning coalitions' which just pass the 50% mark. This is the best form of coalition as a leader who becomes too selfish or weak can easily be deposed.

Older males often still have a lot of power. You can last much longer as the power behind the throne, the big beast, the shadowy advisor who is a cunning puppeteer. In this way, weak leaders get elected rather than those who may act against their supporting coalition (even if doing so acts for the majority).

A presidential guard, a secret police and other services are often created to serve a dominant leader. These have a separate and shorter chain of command and have fearsome power. They are run by highly loyal individuals such as family members and old friends.

The most effective alpha males are not bullies. They create loyal followers, particularly amongst their inner cadre. They redistribute resources, including taking food off strong others and giving it to weaker individuals. Just who gets and does not get food will be based on desired support and rivalry. Bribery is quite common. Chimp males will even go around kissing babies to show females they are good fathers.

Chimps are good at collaborating for common gain. Who your friends and enemies are is critical knowledge.

They will patrol their territory daily. Neighboring groups will not indulge in big battles (this is uniquely human). Larger confrontation tends to be stand-off, throwing missiles and screaming. Rather, 4 or 5 males will creep into enemy territory and attack lone individuals. This is where inter-group killing happens.

Humans still kill less, despite their wars. In the 20th century, only 1% were killed in war, while in chimp attrition, more like 15% are killed in the ongoing raids. Human rivalry is hence much safer, desire the occasional bloodbath. We handle other groups with gifts, treaties and other rituals.

Unlike chimps, bonobos are friendly with other bonobos groups, probably because they only live in less hostile places, while chimps can be found across Africa. We are related to both, and hence have both aggressive and accepting tendencies.

We are naturally political and very biased toward our own parties and against rivals. We naturally polarize into extreme us-and-them positions, where you are 'with us or against us'. We also will ally into larger groups, such as at country level, when there is a significant external threat.

Although we can operate in large countries and organizations, we are programmed to live in small scale society, and make decisions based on this. Kin selection is a common criterion, as it is for many species who seek to propagate their genes.

Overall, we share many traits with chimpanzees, but are also influenced by other evolutionary ancestors, as well as unique human abilities, notably in cognition and language. Nevertheless, it can still be worth remembering our ancestry when trying to understand why we do what we do.



For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or the Blogs by subject. To comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.


Best wishes,



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