Mind changers

Regular listeners of the BBC world service will know Claudia Hammond as the presenter of the weekly magazine show Health Check. However, she is also one of the most engaging psychologists around making potentially complex theories accessible to those of us who struggle with a Psychology 101 test! In London she has recently launched her new book ‘TimeWarped’ and in order to find out what it’s all about most people have already been enjoying the tests of their own time perceptions with the games on her website.

At the end of April Hammond presented a fascinating programme in her Mind Changers radio series focused on ‘Donald Broadbent and the Cocktail Party‘. Most people who know about this programme have already listened to the 30 minute broadcast. It looks at the groundbreaking research of Broadbent, the Director of the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit from 1958 to 1974 who launched the cognitive revolution in psychology in Britain. With his innovative dichotic listening experiments, Broadbent gained a unique understanding of the ‘cocktail party effect’: significant information, such as our own name, intrudes on our consciousness, even when it’s embedded in auditory information we’re not apparently attending to.

There are some pretty neat dichotic listening experiments to play along with (make sure you listen through headphones!) on the show, and you soon learn that when different conversations are happening in different ears it’s actually quite hard to pick up the key messages. However, with a little bit of help from Hammond – notably to focus your attention on one ear rather than both – you can effectively tune in to key points and cancel out the background noise. Equally, subtle changes in the messenger itself has an impact such at the the pitch of the voice (essentially a women’s voice, as we know, is better than a man’s dulcet tones!)

Now, this got me thinking about public policy! In the UK and the US pre-teenage children are bombarded with loud and subtle commercial messages on a daily basis: drink sugary sodas to become as sporty as David Beckham, eat fatty fast food to be as cool as your dad, wear padded bras to be the next Britney Spears (seriously!), pester your dad to spend $100 on trainers that cost less than a $1 to make and will last less than 3 months, pester your mum to buy that cheerios cereal not just so you can have a sugar high on the bus while going to school but also a sugar low in time for the first maths lesson of the day. Brilliant! Of course, one parent’s obese, materialistic, hyper-active child with developing type II diabetes is also a shareholder’s dividend, a salesmanager’s bonus, a factory worker’s salary and a Government’s GDP growth figure.

Both the effective functioning of society and the state are currently dependent on mass consumerism, whether you like it or not. However, couldn’t the state help shape consumer demand towards products which are in the interests of society and citizens? Surely this would be a win-win as producers could also shift their production from sugary sodas to fruit smoothies and from crap breakfasts to nutritional ones in response to changes in consumption patterns. The problem is that – given current path dependencies of mass production and the mark-up that can be made from crap (i.e. refined sugars and hydrogenated fats) rather than the genuine deal (fruit and wholemeal products) – it is not in the interests of the producers to change their marketing practices – it’s much easier to socially engineer kids into thinking crap is good for them.

So, this brings us nicely back to the dichotic listening experiments Broadbent did. For those of us passionate about a stronger society, supported by the state, we need a way of getting children to focus on those messages which inform how they look after themselves, the people around them, and the communities they live in. Many children already get these messages from good parenting, but the state should help parents who have to struggle day-in-day-out against multi-million dollar commercial messages all aiming to socially engineer children to behave and consume in ways that are counter-productive to a stronger healthier society.

The state’s role remember is to support society. One of the ways it can do this, and help parents struggling to build resilience against ever-stronger commercial pressures, is to really think about the messaging kids receive in schools and how they receive it. In the UK schools are monopolised by teachers – their job is rightly to empower children with new knowledge and skills to learn. In the 21st century this is necessary but not sufficient to strengthen a liberal society.

In the same way commercial companies hire advertising consultants to sell a message, why can’t schools employ specialists in the dark arts of advertising to explain to kids how they are being socially engineered? In the same way David Beckham employs a nutritionist who would never dream of recommending high sugar drinks to further his sporting careers, why couldn’t schools employ specialist nutritionists to explain to kids the right sort of diet they need to achieve sporting greatness. While Britney Spears employs personal stylists, why couldn’t schools convince local hairdressers and make-up artists to share some their skills with the kids about how to enhance natural beauty (and self-esteem) themselves through creative thinking and having the courage to be original rather than paying for branded goods endorsed by a troubled singer whose body language on stage actually conveys a very sad, and ugly, inner-misery.

Perhaps the UK Treasury could encourage advertising agencies, nutritional experts and local beauticians to work with schools by either introducing a business rate discount or some conditional deregulation for those that approach and work with schools?! We know the opportunity for state institutions to strengthen society is huge, but increasingly challenging in a world of increasingly loud commercial messaging. However, by ensuring kids have the tools to focus on those messages which strengthen society the state can really support all those parents and teachers who are trying so very hard everyday, every hour to strengthen the next generation of society.

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