The importance of being believed

The late celebrity Jimmy Savile is thought to have abused or raped more than 200 people, many of them children, over decades.

As his star crashed to earth, many of his victims  were able to come forward and tell their stories for the first time – stories they had locked away inside themselves, unable to find an ear that would listen to them and, more importantly, believe them.

This need to be believed and the consequences of not being believed are the focus of this week’s Blog.

A big question in the Jimmy Savile case is: How did he get away with it for so long? How could he abuse so many people and not be brought to justice in his lifetime?

This raises, for me, other questions: What is it about the distribution of power in our society that affects the nature of truth? How can we ensure that our institutions and the people who work in them are conscious of the bias inherent in the distribution of power and are able to take account of it so that the powerless are not disadvantaged?

The victims often explained their inability to accuse Savile by their fear that they would not be believed. Even when some could no longer keep their secret to themselves and had to tell someone ‘in authority’ they were not believed.Here’s a representative example, taken from a BBC interview:

Another of Savile’s victims, raped as a young girl in 1970, has revealed how she also summoned up the nerve to tell police what had happened. But nothing ever came of it.

“They were not very interested really,” the woman (who asked to remain anonymous) told the BBC. “I didn’t feel I was really believed. It has sort of haunted me quite literally. It has depressed me. It has made me feel disgusted with myself.”

It is part of the human condition to glorify certain individuals, to put them above the rest, to make them heroic. Once we put them there we have a tendency to want to keep them there. We make allowances for their foibles (or ignore them); we invest them with superhuman-ness based on their culturally significant gifts (whether it is the ability to win battles or to sing a moving love-song); and we project our own hopes and fears on to them. Our society continually reinforces this ‘halo effect’. Young people are told to find role models. The media feeds us a diet of celebrity trivia made meaningful only because it relates to someone we see on our TV or cinema screens. Football fans where team shirts with their player-hero’s name on it while they’re out shopping.

Television in particular is in the game of making celebrities – they are the currency of television. The BBC made Savile and having made him became enslaved to him – a bit like Frankenstein and his monster.

With such glorification comes power: Power to earn, power to indulge, power to command, power to abuse. Savile had power. It was both his shield and his weapon. He used it to conceal and deceive. He used it conspiratorially to bring those who could hurt him (the police in particular) into his orbit of influence. He was a star, a god.

His victims, on the other hand, were innocents unwittingly introduced to the altar of Savile’s sexual peccadilloes. The psychological harm they suffered by the need to keep secret what he did to them was worse than any physical harm he may have done them.

The negative impact on health from unspeakable trauma is well documented. See James W Pennebaker’s book Opening Up.

While Savile was alive and in his pomp, his halo protected him. His victims had to suffer in silence. Society and its institutions didn’t want to know. Being traumatised and your trauma not being believed has left more than 200 people damaged.

My suspicion is that another Savile will emerge unless as humans we learn to think better and understand, examine and act on our psychological biases.

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The End of the World and other beliefs

Why do we believe what we believe?

What convinces us we’re right, that what we believe is the ‘truth’ and that we must convince others of this ‘truth’?

A very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few weeks back featured Kris de Meyer, a psychologist, who made a film about Christian evangelist Harold Camping and his followers who believed that the End of the World would take place on 21st May 2011.

As far as I know, the End of the World didn’t happen. Please add a comment if you know different!

de Meyer was interested in how otherwise rational people could construct such a belief and how they dealt with the psychological consequences of the belief being proved wrong.

Notwithstanding the extreme, out-of-the-ordinary nature of Camping’s belief and the fact he is American, what de Meyer revealed in his interview with the excellent Claudia Hammond may, I think, stand as a lesson for all our belief creation and perhaps give us pause for thought and humility when we feel the need to stridently assert our beliefs in the public spaces of human discourse. Let’s not forget that many of those who gave up their jobs, gave away their wealth, and broke up relationships with friends and families on the strength of their belief that the world would end on 21st May 2011 were university graduates, academics, scientists, and professionals.

Here’s my summary of de Meyer’s findings.

  1. TRUST. The followers trusted Camping. Although the basis of this trust was not discussed in the programme, I assume it was based on Camping’s Christian teachings over the radio. So his followers were already predisposed to believe him. Camping obviously believed his own prophecy too, but we know of leaders who have led their followers into some very dark who did not have such integrity.
  2. DECISION. At the points in time that Camping made his prophecy public, listeners had a choice to make. They could either believe him or not. Many could not follow him. Even those who did believe Camping, on the evidence of his previously sound biblical teaching, needed further proof. They decided to ‘look into’ his prophecy.
  3. LOOKING INTO. For de Meyer, this was a crucial step in becoming convinced of the truth of the prophecy. Again there was not a lot of detail in the programme in terms of what ‘looking into’ actually entailed, but I would hazard a guess that ‘looking into’ leads one into the logical structure of the leader’s belief, like a fly into a spider’s web. Once inside that structure, it is difficult to get out. The ‘fact’ of the belief is so overwhelming it blots out other realities. This belief becomes your life and you adjust you life to match this new belief – you leave your job, give away your money…whatever the new belief requires of you in the name of cognitive assonance. (I’ll come back to that).
  4. PROSELYTISE. The belief is reality. It’s unbearable to think that others can’t see the truth that is staring you in the face. You must go out and convert others to the truth. It’s incredibly important for humans to relieve their cognitive dissonance – in this case, the need to resolve the fact that you know an absolute truth that others are either ignorant of or deny.

De Meyer’s associates, Aronson and Tavris, use the analogy of a pyramid to describe this process. Once you step off the top, where to a large extent you share your world view with your friends, family and associates, you are on the downward slope to belief in a different reality to them; and gravity just keeps you going.

Finally, the psychologists looked at the impact of the beliefs of Camping’s followers when the End of the World failed to materialise.

The psychologists sat with Camping and his followers waiting for news of the massive earthquake in Asia that was to herald the destruction of the world.

Their discomfiture grew as the predicted hour approached and passed without the news the were waiting for.

de Meyer ascribed this uneasiness to cognitive dissonance – reality and belief competing for the same neural pathways in your brain.

There are two ways Camping and his followers dealt with cognitive dissonance: some found reasons to sustain their belief in the world’s end by suggesting that the calculation of the date may have been out. Camping himself, soon after 21st May, did a minor mea culpa and told the world he’d miscalculated – the new date for the end of the world would be 21st October. As that happens to be my birthday, I was quite pleased to learn that this date too passed without the end of the world materialising.

The other way followers dealt with their cognitive dissonance was to accept that their belief had proved false. Once they admitted this, they found it difficult to understand how they’d even held the belief that the world would end on 21st May 2011. As one follower said: “How did we not see what was going on? We’re not naive people.”

To believe in something is to be human. Belief is a powerful motivator of human action. We attack and kills others who do not share our beliefs. We fight wars over our beliefs. Are we any wiser than Camping’s followers?

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Dissonance reduction can be accomplished in various ways, broadly including the addition of more, consonant elements, or else changing the existing elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Improving organisational culture – an approach

In my previous blog I talked about the Bystander Effect – the name for a psychological phenomenon in which bystanders see or experience something shocking, are close enough to act or react, yet do nothing or walk on by.

The context for writing about the Bystander Effect was the Francis Report into events at a hospital in Stafford in the UK where hundreds of patients died prematurely because of the atrocious care they received. One of the findings of the Francis Report was that many professional staff knew what was going on, knew that care was being compromised and was often of poor quality, yet did nothing about it.

At the time of writing my blog I was simply attempting to explain some of the behaviours from a psychological standpoint.

Little did I think that a week later, more by chance than by design, I have stumbled upon something which I believe could help to change negative workplace cultures.

I was reading an email from a regular correspondent which suggested I click on a link to a TED talk by American academic Jackson Katz (it’s on YouTube). Now Katz has done a lot of work about addressing domestic and gender violence. His point is: the most effective solution is not in working with victim or perpetrator but in working with those who witness the violence – the bystander. The method is called The Bystander Approach.

Well, you can imaging how my eyes lit up! A few days earlier I had been writing about the Bystander Effect in bad cultures and here was an approach using the same science to alleviate domestic and sexual violence. Could, I wondered, the Bystander Approach be applied to organisational culture?

First, I had to check out whether anyone has connected the Bystander Approach with organisational culture. It seems not. It appears (from my quick Google Search) that the Bystander Approach is still rooted in the field of domestic and sexual violence. I was both surprised and relieved. Surprised because it struck me that the Bystander Approach has a cultural as well as a psychological context; relieved because I think I now have a ‘blue-water’ business idea (until someone posts otherwise!) which will add value to potentially thousands of organisations.

For me, the Bystander Approach is as relevant in a hospital where staff are bullied and patients receive poor care as it is in places where violence is latent or actual. There is a cultural context. There are interventions which can successfully diffuse difficult situations with minimal risk to the bystander, the victim or the perpetrator.

The NHS has made a lot about the importance of whistle-blowing. I don’t want to knock it. it has its place. But whistle-blowing has certain drawbacks. Firstly, the whistle-blower is anonymous to those being accused. This can lead to false accusations arising because the whistle-blower does not have to face the people s/he has accused. Secondly, knowing the potential impact on those being accused, a potential whistle-blower may rationalise away bad practice or behaviour even while experiencing discomfort about what they are witnessing. Thirdly, whistle-blowers often emerge from a painful process worse off than when they went in. Many get fired for their trouble.

The Bystander Intervention Approach would be a way of dealing with situations that will change ‘the way we do things around here’ to ‘the way we want to do things around here.’ It’s about Leadership. It’s about everyone having an equal voice and to use it to speak up for the patient, or the customer or whoever is at the receiving end of bad practice or behaviour unwittingly sustained by poor cultures.

In his TED talk Katz used a quote from Martin Luther King which I think it appropriate to end on: “In the end, what hurts us most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” For friends read nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants, call centre operatives…all of us.

Mid-Staffs and the Bystander Effect

An article in Health Service Journal about Leadership in the NHS post-Mid-Staffs got me thinking about some of the psychological processes that must have been going on amongst staff at the time.

Mid-Staffs has become a by-word for appalling care in the British health system.

Hundreds of patients died needlessly as the Trust which ran the hospital channelled its efforts and energies into becoming a Foundation Trust – a status which gives Trusts more autonomy.

One of the themes of the Francis Report into the scandal (quoting the article author Chris Gordon of the NHS Leadership Academy) is that the Trust was “a failed organisation with a corrosive culture, focused on delivering unsustainable short-term savings to achieve a title and external approval – the cost of which amounted to the systematic neglect of patients’ needs. A weakness of leadership allowed staff to disengage from their responsibilities, turn a blind eye or walk on the other side.”

Now, we all like to think of ourselves as individuals of a certain moral fibre, able to judge right and wrong in any given situation. We’d also like to think that we’d be the one to speak out and act if we saw wrong-doing or people suffering.

The truth is: our behaviour is highly influenced by how others behave. There is a general human default to ‘fit in.’ We are social animals and for some of us our survival instinct is closely meshed with being part of the troop. Fear of expulsion or disgrace is social death. Much better to tailor our behaviour to group norms than to stand out from the crowd and risk opprobium and ignominy.

We have seen many examples throughout history (Nazi Germany being the uber beispiel) of perverse cultures moulding individual behaviour, rewarding conformity and punishing dissent. In advertising, the example is inverted – those rebel children with the hair gel being expelled from their conformist communities.

One of the psychological manifestations of this need to conform is called the Bystander Effect. This states that fear of embarrassment (or other socially negative responses) is more likely to determine our behaviour in a group situation.

I love to quote a couple of well-known psychology experiments that demonstrate the Bystander Effect. One is by Latane and Darley from the 1970s when they had a few people in a room filling in a questionnaire then began filling the room with smoke. The subjects in the group setting took far longer to respond to what could have been a dangerous situation. Afterwards they confessed they were freaking out ‘inside’ but because no-one else was reacting they didn’t react either.

The other example, by Darley and Batson, involved seminary students who were told to prepare a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were then asked to fill in a spurious questionnaire. Some were then told they were late to give their speech in another building; others were told they had plenty of time. Along their path to the other building, an actor was slumped over and groaning, pretending to be sick and in need of help. Of those seminary students with plenty of time, around 60 per cent stopped to help the man. Of the ones in a rush, only 10 per cent helped, some even stepped over the actor on their way to give their speech.

So, while it’s of no comfort to those who suffered at Mid-Staffs or to their relatives, our human propensity to ignore smoke because it no-one else is reacting to it is equivalent to ignoring harm and poor care because no-one else is reacting to it. We quickly adapt to bad environments and perverse cultures.

In the example of the seminary priests (and don’t you just love the irony of the Biblical text they were asked to base their speech on?) there is another human behaviour – inattentional blindness – which describes the events at Mid-Staffs pretty well. This posits that when we are engaged in a task we tend to ignore all other data that does not contribute to the processing and outcome of the task. This was probably true at an individual level but was definitely true at the corporate level (the Trust’s obsession with jumping through financial hoops and its ignorance of the distress signals from patients, carers and (some) staff) and at the systemic level (Government, regulation etc) where financial concerns were prioritised over quality of care and patient safety.

One would hope that events like those at Mid-Staffs will not reoccur. The HSJ article focuses on Leadership as the space where systems and processes are designed to get the best out of people. Improving the quality of Leaders in the NHS is therefore paramount.

Ref: HSJ, 3 May 2013.