Category Archives: psychology

Teaching by example

A science teacher friend told me that “teaching by real life example” is all the rage these days. People have to run around the room pretending to be electrons, rather than learning about electrical current in the abstract. It’s supposed to make learning more “approachable” and easier. A creditable aim, but I am afraid that I have always despised that kind of teaching. It treats people like idiots, incapable of understanding abstract thought. And personally, I learn far more by learning the abstract concept. (Well, I’m an academic lawyer, of course I love abstract concepts.)

It seems that perhaps I am not alone in learning more readily by being taught an abstract concept.

A recent study suggests concrete examples may actually impede students from learning an abstract mathematical concept. The New York Times article explains:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The researchers said they had experimental evidence showing a similar effect with 11-year-old children. The findings run counter to what Dr. Kaminski said was a “pervasive assumption” among math educators that concrete examples help more children better understand math.

But if the Ohio State findings also apply to more basic math lessons, then teaching fractions with slices of pizza or statistics by pulling marbles out of a bag might prove counterproductive. “There are reasons to think it could affect everyone, including young learners,” Dr. Kaminski said.

As a teacher, I’ve always been a big fan of keeping it simple, and getting across the basic concepts. Seems like maybe I am on the right track. So I won’t be getting my class to pretend to be Torrens land titles or mere equities any time in the future.

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Filed under academia, children, education, psychology

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.

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Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

“Team building” exercises

I enjoy working in a team with intelligent and motivated people where communication is clear and there is respect between the members of the team. But I think I may have mentioned before on this blog that, in some respects, I’m not a team player (at least insofar as the concept is conceived of by HR departments). I hate work retreats. My attitude has always been: I spend all week with these people, and while I like most of ’em well enough, I can’t wait to spend the weekend with my family. But what I really hate are “team building” exercises.

This dislike has gone back many years, but I think it was exacerbated by a particular event. Once, longer away now than I care to remember, I was a little articled clerk, full of enthusiasm and naivety. On our first or second week, our group of articled clerks was sent on some kind of “leadership” or “team building” exercise. I don’t know what exactly the point of the exercise was, but the end result was appalling. By the end of the week, we had gone from being a friendly bunch to a group with massive schisms, full of suspicion and dislike. It certainly didn’t build a “team” mentality; in fact the very opposite. Luckily, I was a bit older, and I’d already been working full-time for over a year before then, so I didn’t take the whole thing very seriously. I have always just wanted to do my job well and go home.

One can get help from some exercises – for example, I found it helpful to do the Meyers-Briggs test, which disclosed that I was an extrovert – and almost everyone else in my family was an introvert. This helped me understand why everyone had been saying, “Why do you talk so much all the time?” since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I feel the need to talk to work stuff out, whereas almost everyone else in my family feels the need to go away and mull over things to work stuff out. I’ve even married an introvert. Fortunately, my daughter is an extrovert from what I can see so far, so I have a fellow extrovert with whom I can talk until the cows come home. At the moment the main things she says to me are “Cat! Meow! Jump!” (her new game is pretending to be a cat, and I have made her a “tail” out of an old stocking and some newspaper). But I’m sure we’ll have more to talk about soon.

Team building exercises worry me where they are supposed to help you resolve “issues” with colleagues. I’m happy to talk with friends whom I trust about my personal problems and issues, but work colleagues? If I ever raised problems I had with a colleague, I’d prefer to keep that very, very private, strictly professional, and definitely one-on-one. I think it can be very confronting to talk about personal issues in a group of colleagues. I had a friend who did some kind of weird life skills course or something like that. He described to me how participants in a group exercise were talking about occasions where they had been physically and sexually abused, and crying. He said that he thought it was very positive and cathartic for them to talk about this in a group situation. On the contrary, the very idea appalled me. I think that for some people it can be a profoundly negative experience, and indeed, if not well handled, it can exacerbate any latent mental problems. A psychologist friend of mine once said, “It’s easy to take people’s heads apart and find out what’s bugging them, it’s far more difficult to put their heads back together. If you’re not careful and clever, you might unleash some stuff and be unable to resolve it and fix it.” You have to be so careful.

I couldn’t help thinking of all of this when I read a recent post by Marcellous, entitled A sad case. The case, MacKinnon v Bluescope Steel Limited [2007] NSWSC 774 is indeed very sad. To quote from Marcellous:

…[I]n extreme summary form, in 1996, Dr McKinnon, then aged 35 and a doctor employed by BHP (now called Bluescope Steel), attended a residential leadership course run for employees of BHP. The course was a fairly intense experience. At some stage during the course, McKinnon suffered something which in lay terms might be described as a nervous breakdown, from which he has never recovered. The case concerned whether BHP, or possibly the people who ran the course breached some duty towards Dr McKinnon and so caused this breakdown so that they should be required to compensate him for the consequences of this breakdown.

The amount at stake was substantial. The lost earning capacity for the rest of his working life of a doctor aged 35 is a considerable amount of money. Altogether there were 93 hearing days: 89 in which evidence was heard and a further 4 days for closing submissions.

Poor old Dr MacKinnon lost the case. He could not prove that BHP or the organisation which ran the course had breached their duty of care, and in any event, the trial judge formed the view that even if there had been a breach, he would have been unable to prove that the breach caused the injury. It seemed he had already been stressed before he attended the course, and had had some clashes with his then-boss. A number of incidents during the course exacerbated the tension between him and his boss, such that the plaintiff became mentally ill. But he was not forced to attend the course, or to continue attending it. There had been various measures put in place to try and monitor the mental health of the employees by both BHP and the organisation which ran the course. Dr MacKinnon had shown signs of increasing distress as the course went on, but the defendants had tried to alleviate and manage this.

I wonder whether companies will reconsider these kind of “team building” exercises in light of cases such as these? Even though BHP won, it must have been expensive to defend a claim like this. Personally, I won’t shed too many tears if courses like these go the way of the dodo!

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Filed under depression, jobs, law, management, mental illness, psychology, tort law

Do blondes have more fun?

A long time ago now, when I lived in Manchester, I saw the players of mighty MUFC on the telly. The players were from all over Europe and beyond, and of many different ethnicities. On the other hand, many of their wives looked very similar. They all looked a bit like Barbie dolls. Mostly blonde, mostly blue eyed, curvaceous, with skinny waists. And then a few years later, I saw a bunch of Australian cricketers wives watching a match. Again, many of the cricket wives looked spookily similar to the soccer wives.

My sister and my mother are blondes. They have often claimed blondes have more fun. To which I snort loudly. But maybe they are right? I found this crazy article (via J.F. Beck) which says that there are evolutionary reasons why men like women who look like Barbie. Women with skinny waists and large breasts are more likely to be fertile. And blondes are likely to be young (unless, of course, they’re bottle-blondes). Finally it is easier to see if someone’s pupil is dilated if they have blue eyes, and thus it is easier to see if they are interested in a person as a potential mate.

I’m tempted to snort loudly again…but then I think of the soccer wives. Those guys were from all different backgrounds and cultures, but they all seemed to have chosen wives which fitted the above stereotype. Maybe there’s something in it?

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Filed under blondes, crazy stuff, psychology

Genius does not equal money

A US study reportedly shows that people with high IQs are just as likely to get into financial difficulties as those with average or below average IQs. I’m glad to know that just because I haven’t made my first million yet, this doesn’t mean I’m dumb…

The study confirmed previous research which has shown that smarter people tend to earn more money, but pointed out there is a difference between high pay and overall wealth.

“The average income difference between a person with an IQ score in the normal range (100) and someone in the top two per cent of society (130) is currently between $US6,000 ($A7,200) and $US18,500 ($A22,250) per year,” it said.

“But when it came to total wealth and the likelihood of financial difficulties, people of below average and average intelligence did just fine when compared to the super-intelligent.”

An irregular pattern of total wealth as well as financial distress levels – such as maxed out credit cards, bankruptcy and missing bill payments – emerged among the various degrees of intelligence, the study said.

My observation would be that knowing how to handle money has nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with whether you are the kind of person who likes to face up to problems, or whether you just like to ignore them.

Financial problems sometimes arise through misfortune (eg, an illness, a redundancy, a marriage break-up). There’s not much you can do about that. But other times, I think financial problems arise because people just don’t want to think through the consequences of their actions. They don’t imagine that disaster could ever happen to them – financial ruin is something which happens to other people. They overextend themselves with a huge loan, not thinking about what will happen if interest rates rise. They buy that expensive plasma television using a credit card, without thinking that they’re just deferring payment of the television – without thinking that if they don’t have the money to pay for it this month, what’s going to be different about next month or the month after? It’s so easy to spend on a credit card – all that lovely available credit there, waiting to be used…When I first got a credit card in my 20s, I fell into the credit card trap myself.

I met with some of my old colleagues today. At one point we all worked in banking litigation. We discussed again the “head in the sand” phenomenon, and agreed that this seemed to pervade the behaviour of many of those who defaulted on loans.

As I’ve discussed before, there may be a positive side to having unrealistic expectations – I suspect many entrepreneurs succeed because they do not see risks as other people do, and forge ahead regardless. However, this is also a reason why some entrepreneurs end up in trouble – they keep going when any prudent person would wind up the business.

I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if there’s a reason for this function of the human brain which makes us put our head in the sand and pretend there is not a problem. I guess it has evolved as a necessary personality trait because it helps humans survive against the odds in terrible situations. But it also has its downsides when it means people deny that there is a problem, and that problem desperately needs to be dealt with.

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Filed under banks, psychology, society

Justifiers and Deniers

A long while ago, a friend of mine raised her theory that people fell into two categories, justifiers and deniers. I think it was an excellent theory, so I’m going to explain it here. It all hinges around how you respond when you do something wrong and you’re caught out. What is your response?

I’m a justifier. I admit that I’ve done something wrong, but try to justify and explain why I’ve done it. So: “Yeah, I know I stole the cookies from the cookie jar, but I was really hungry, and they were just sitting there, and I thought it was at least two hours before dinner so it wouldn’t affect my appetite and…and…and…”

My adored sibling is a denier. A case in point: she booked a taxi the other day. A taxi arrived, but it wasn’t the one she specifically ordered. She thought “Stuff it, I need to go home” and got in the taxi. About 1/2 an hour later, the taxi company called and asked if she’d booked a taxi. “No!” she blurted (and then her brain wondered why on earth she said that – too late, too late!). “But you must have done,” said the woman, “I’ve got your number because you booked one.” “No,” my sister said. “Must be a mistake!” She tells me her conscious mind is saying one thing (“admit it’s your taxi”), but her unconscious has already responded and denied. She hung up the phone, felt guilty, and wondered what was going on in her mind. I think I may have an idea…

The problem with being a justifier is that you end up in conflict. If someone tells me to do something I don’t want to do, my instinctive response is to explain why I don’t want to do it. My sister was far more adept at getting around parental precepts; she’d just smile sweetly, nod and then go off and do whatever she wanted to do (clever, clever girl). Whereas I had a need to justify my actions, and as a result, I’d get into big arguments with parents, school and authority figures. My theory is that deniers don’t like conflict, and their instinctive reaction occurs as a result of their desire to prevent conflict. I don’t like conflict either, but I also hate the thought that someone might not understand my actions. Although, as the taxi example shows, sometimes you get into worse trouble by being a denier.

There may be a third category: the fantasiser. At a few points in my lovely legal career, I have acted for banks who are repossessing people’s houses. It’s a hard job, but someone’s gotta do it. As I’d tell mortgagors when they called up, the Bank don’t give you nothin’ for free (particularly not a house). Some of the responses were amazing. Like the woman who pretended she was three different people (none of them herself). She also pretended she was dying of brain cancer, that she had won the lottery and that her husband had run off and left her. It was quite extraordinary. None of the stories or identities were true (I had to get them all checked out).

So gentle reader, which category do you fit into? Justifier or denier?

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Filed under psychology, society

KISS – What’s it all about really?


No, I’m not talking about the 80s glam-rock/heavy metal band. Gene Simmons’ tongue fetish freaks me out far too much. I’m talking about the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Also known as Occam’s razor (ie, the fewer assumptions on which an explanation depends, the better it is.)

I have decided that true genius lies cutting to the heart of things; in describing complicated things in a simple manner. In explaining why I feel this way right now (and why I have not blogged for a while) I have just marked about 70 university law essays. Only 40 more to go. Sigh! This experience has filled me with enthusiasm for the KISS principle anew.

Despite the drive towards plain English in the law, many lawyers seem to feel that it is part of their job to make things complicated. Express your argument with as many big words as you can! Put words like eleemosynary into your letters of advice, just to show learned and clever you are… Now, as you can guess from some of my previous posts, I like words which are rare (or indeed, rarefied) but not when I’m trying to get my point across.

When I was a solicitor, I often found that I lacked the time to sit back and think about a case. I always intended to put a big sign on the back of my door which said “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT…REALLY?” just to remind myself to whittle things down to their essence.

I once heard a story about a QC (now a Judge). The QC was acting for the respondent in an appeal. The barrister for the appellant took three days to present his argument, painstakingly going through every aspect of his argument. The QC stood up at the end of all this, and said “Your Honours, the appellant’s case is wrong for one simple reason…” 15 minutes later, after outlining the fundamental flaws in the appellant’s case, the QC sat down. He was finished. The Associate who told me about this performance said that it was simply breathtaking. Guess what? The QC won.

The moral of the story is that, sometimes, if words are carefully chosen, less is much, much more. One of my favourite judgments of all time is the judgment of Lord Denning in Thorton v Shoe Lane Parking Ltd [1971] 2 QB 163, in particular this extract describing the “offer and acceptance” procedure when one takes a parking ticket from an automatic machine:

“The customer pays his money and gets a ticket. He cannot refuse it. He cannot get his money back. He may protest to the machine, even swear at it; but it will remain unmoved. He is committed beyond recall. He was committed at the very moment when he put his money into the machine. The contract was concluded at that time.”

Brilliance, say I! No sentence with over 15 words. The passage paints such a vivid picture. I can just imagine the poor man remonstrating and pleading with the parking machine, then descending into swearing, and finally physically assaulting the machine.

It seems to me that sometimes, lawyers forget why they exist. This includes solicitors, barristers, legal academics, legal aid lawyers, government lawyers, judges…indeed, every facet of the legal profession! I know that I am guilty of this sin from time to time.

The point of being a lawyer is to communicate with the rest of the word. We are the mediators between the law and everyone else. If you are a solicitor, you are trying to explain the law to your client (and sometimes other parties). If you are a barrister, you are trying to explain the law to the Court and your solicitors. If you are a legal academic, you are trying to explain the law to students. If you are a judge, you are trying to explain the law to the parties who have asked you to determine their dispute and to the legal profession at large.

Before I get too carried away (and make a simple post complicated), I’d better stop. If you’re a lawyer out there reading this post, I implore you to remember your audience and KISS!

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Filed under law, psychology, society