In November 2016 Rich Pickings presented The Internet & Me, a short film programme and panel discussion at Cork Film Festival.
Speakers included: Dr. Jurek Kirakowski, a psychologist specialising in human-computer interaction; Adam Butcher, an award-winning writer/director; Carla MacKinnon, curator of the short film programme and James Mullighan, Director of Cork Film Festival.
The short films screened were a diverse mix of live action and animation, fiction and documentary. The panel discussion allowed filmmaker Adam Butcher to give further insight into the two films he had in the programme and the challenges of representing the digital space in an an engaging and authentic way on film. There was also a broader discussion about the impact of the internet on human psychology.
You can watch some of the discussion and some of the films in the videos below. You can also read a blog post about some of the films by the event curator here.
On 28th April 2016 Rich Pickings teamed up with LOCO London Comedy Film Festival to present The Science of Laughter, a film and discussion event which assembled voices from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and comedy performance to discuss the nature of laughter, comedy’s therapeutic and social functions and its physiological effects. A screening of short films was accompanied by a panel discussion with:
Prof Sophie Scott: neuroscientist, comedian and Wellcome Trust senior fellow at University College London, researching the neuroscience of voices, speech, and laughter.
Dr. Caspar Addyman: lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and specialist in baby laughter.
Jamie Wood: acclaimed performer combining fine art, theatre, clown and dance, and ‘Giggle Doctor’ with Theodora Children’s Trust, visiting sick children in hospitals throughout the UK.
Nicola Hill: general manager for the MediCinemas at Guys and St.Thomas’ hospitals in London.
The panel was hosted by interviewer and occasional stand-up comic Rachael Castell. We filmed the discussion and you can see a lot of it in the video below. Scroll further down the page to watch some of the films which screened at the event, and to find links for further reading on the science and psychology of humour.
The short film programme that accompanied the discussion demonstrated a diverse range of comedy, from gentle rom-com to surreal humour, satire, mockumentary and gross-out comedy horror. You can watch some of the films below in full and others as trailers.
Kitty, Kitty Romford (Dir. Chris & Ben Blaine, Wr. Cariad Lloyd)
Mr Madila [trailer] (Wr. & Dir. Rory Waudby-Tolley)
Croissant (Dir. Louis Hudson, Wr. Ian Ravenscroft, Louis Hudson)
The Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (Wr. & Dir. Georges Méliès)
Ducks with Engines (Wr. & Dir. Big Red Button)
Coalition Fan Girls (Wr. & Dir. Charlie Dinkin)
Let’s Play Nomad X (Wr. & Dir. Kristian Andrews)
Friend Request Pending [trailer] (Dir. Chris Foggin, Wr: Chris Croucher)
Milk [trailer] (Dir. Ben Mallaby, Wr. Toby Williams, Paul F Taylor)
The Science of Laughter was presented as part of the Rich Pickings ‘Inside Out’ event series, with the support of a Wellcome Trust People Award.
On February 23rd, Rich Pickings teamed up with the Glasgow Film Festival for a screening and discussion event exploring the psychological and cultural contexts of conspiracy theories. A screening of Alan J Pakula’s ’70s masterpiece The Parallax View was followed by discussion with experts in conspiracy theory psychology and film theory.
Prof. Karen Douglas is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. Karen studies the psychology of conspiracy theories and the social consequences of conspiracism.
Dr David Archibald is Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Film and Television Studies at University of Glasgow.
Karen Douglas shared her research and that of other psychologists and social scientists working in the area, while David Archibald spoke about the ways in which conspiracy theories have been treated by cinema, and how we respond to these stories. Below is an edited transcript of some of the discussion. A fuller audio recording can be listened to at the bottom of this post, where we also list links for further reading on the topic.
Karen, can you tell us about your area of research?
KD: I’m a psychologist, so I come at things from an empirical and usually experimental angle. I am really interested in why people believe conspiracy theories, why they resonate with so many people. Of course conspiracies do happen but nevertheless people vary a lot in how much they believe conspiratorial explanations as opposed to official explanations for events.
I am also interested in how influential conspiracy theories are, so how much they can change people’s opinions about events, and also what some of the social consequences of belief in conspiracy theories might be, especially when they relate to things like climate change, vaccination and trust in the government.
How would you define a conspiracy theory?
KD: In the literature I read it is usually defined as a secret plot by powerful groups to cover something up. Usually these alleged conspirators don’t have positive motivations. They’re not doing things for good, they’re doing things for evil, sinister purposes.
Is there a personality type that is more drawn to belief in these theories?
KD: Research has suggested that there are certain personal characteristics that might attract people to conspiracy theories. I am moving away from that in my own research because I tend to think it can pathologize people who believe in conspiracy theories a little too much. There are characteristics that have been linked to heightened conspiracy belief – things like paranoia, mistrust, low agreeableness, highly Machiavellian people…. but this paints quite a negative picture and I think maybe we need to think a bit more about positive characteristics about people that might attract them to conspiracy theories as well…
One of the things that you do come across is that the explanations for things that happen tend to become so nebulous that they can become closed off from any evidence from the official account or other perspectives – so it can become a closed mindset.
David, do you think this is reflected in conspiracy cinema?
DA: I’m going to start by mentioning a film I watched last night by a Chilean filmmaker called Patricio Guzmán. The film was called The Pearl Button. He also made famous films Nostalgia For the Light and the trilogy Battle for Chile about the Chilean coup by Pinochet that overthrew the Allende government. That’s a conspiracy film about how the CIA backed the forces that overthrew a democratically elected government. In cinema there’s lots of films that look at issues like that. And it surfaces in the United States in 1982 when a non-American filmmaker, Costa-Gavras, makes a film called Missing, where Jack Lemmon plays a man who is trying to find his son and is up against the Powers That Be to try and get to the truth of things. So I suppose my starting point is that power definitely camouflages what it does, and bad shit happens. What’s interesting is why these points emerge at certain moments historically. In the ‘70s and ‘80s in the United States there is a plethora of these films, asking questions of truth and trust. This film [The Parallax View] is really Kafka-esque. What’s interesting is why this moment arrives in a place which is regarded as a democracy. And I think that’s to do with how we understand truth and whether we trust the people we elect – for instance in the ’70s, on the back of Vietnam and post-JFK.
The film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone in ’91, is a really fragmented film. It uses footage of the actors playing out what’s going on, archive footage of what happened, footage which looks like archive but is actually actors… it looks at the past and depicts the past by saying that the past is all these different assemblages of different formats. It’s hard to get to the truth of the past… the film deliberately plays around with what’s real and what’s not.
Karen, do you think that the idea of getting a complete story with a beginning, middle and end might have something to do with why we are drawn to conspiracy narratives?
KD: I think so… some psychological research would suggest that a state of uncertainty is a very aversive state – nobody wants to be unsure. Conditions of uncertainty, and people who are predisposed to feel generally uncertain, tend lean more toward conspiratorial explanations because they do at least provide an explanation.
DA: I think there is a breakdown in how we, and history, understands truth. In the last 30 years there has been a critique by academic historians of the idea that we can have objective accounts of the past. And there is a prevalence of the idea that all we can get by looking at the past is subjective accounts.
So if you present someone with a counter-narrative which disproves a conspiracy theory, people can just say “well that’s just another story… all accounts of the past are just stories and one doesn’t have primacy over the other.” And in the philosophy of history that idea has quite a bit of currency. So these ideas which circulate in philosophy can have an impact on why people support ideas which don’t appear to be substantiated by evidence.
Audience question: The film portrays the High State assassinating political leaders. But if you look at the history of the last 30 years here, there is a whole raft of conspiracy and collusion between the state, corporations, the police etc… the Saville case is a great example of it. Maybe the film isn’t conspiratorial enough, because looking at recent history people are now thinking that the state is just utterly corrupt with regard to its delivery of justice.
DA: There’s a very interesting film called Hidden Agenda directed by Ken Loach, about collusion between British secret services and Loyalist paramilitaries. And at the time [of release] that was ridiculed for being a conspiracy. It’s now recognized that it is pretty accurate, though fictionalized… in the last year the story is that there was also collusion between British paramilitaries and the IRA. I think there is a breakdown of in trust in politicians in Britain… so that’s another reason why people are prepared to accept the counternarratives.
Audience comment: The term ‘conspiracy theory’ has negative connotations. Some people would regard me as a conspiracy theorist, but I’d regard myself more as a critical thinker. So if you’re presented with something, you question it. A conspiracy theory is only a conspiracy theory until it becomes the truth.
KD: I agree that the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is quite pejorative and unfairly so. One of the main problems is that anyone who believes in any kind of conspiracy tends to be lumped in with the David Icke, lizard people, extreme sort of thing.
One interesting thing psychologically is that if someone is inclined to believe in one conspiracy, they’re also inclined to believe in others. I think this is one of the reasons why research has been pointing the finger at certain individuals who might be quite likely to opt for the conspiracy theory – the image of strange, paranoid type who will believe anything. I do think that is unfair and more research needs to be done to focus on more positive aspects, such as critical thinking and creativity, which might lead to people entertaining conspiracy theories.
Another factor is that on some level we are all predisposed to think that conspiracies happen, because from an evolutionary perspective it’s not very adaptive just to blindly trust and not to think that there are threats in the environment – that people are against us. If you see a predator but don’t imagine its intentions might be to kill you, you might not be able to run away and save yourself. So from a psychological perspective, being sensitive to the idea that there is agency out there and things happen is not an entirely irrational way to think about the environment – and people who show a tendency to over-attribute agency tend to go for conspiracy theories as well.
DA: I think there is something potentially paralyzing, faced with the idea of the Kafka-esque ‘dark state’, because you can’t beat it. If the Crusading White Journalist [in The Parallax View] can’t do it, that kind of closes down dissent. That would be my critique of the film. Although it shines a light on something it also says that the machine is impossible to defeat – step out of line and you’ll be crushed. So you feel more powerless. You narrativize it, get a handle on it but say “nothing can be done because the powers that be are too well organized”.
There’s no shortage of organised conspiracy. Until 1970 the kids in Spain were taught, in the state education system, that Guernica was the work of Spanish anarchists. So organized power definitely does stuff that we don’t know about. History tells us that. But for me it’s nothing like on the all-encompassing scale that is presented in this film.
Audience question: Do you think that when popular figures like JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana – people who people identify with – die, that this helps conspiracy theories to snowball?
KD: Possibly. Definitely with the death of someone very important to people, if the explanation for their death is not proportional to the event itself it can seem insufficient. For instance if Princess Diana got in a car, the driver was drunk, he drove to fast, the car crashed – that’s very mundane. And the sheer volume of people who loved her won’t necessarily accept that. And you could match that up with various types of conspiracy theories. In the 9/11 attacks the official explanation is, while not mundane, fairly simple. The conspiracy theories aren’t, and sometimes people find them more satisfying. And I guess that’s due to the proportionality of the event.
Audience question: I’d like to ask about gender and conspiracy theory. The Parallax View felt like a very male film.
DA: You’re right, the film is totally male. It’s not only that there are lots of men in it doing Western-type fighting, but I’d argue that even its form is masculine – dark shadows, those beautiful elevator shots. I wonder whether men are more attracted towards conspiracy theories?
KD: I don’t know that they are. If you think about the prototypical person who believes in conspiracy theories, you tend to think of American middle-aged men, and if you read conspiracy discussions, those are the people that tend to appear. But in my research I have participants of both gender and I don’t find a great deal of difference between the genders in terms of how much they believe standard conspiracy theories. We usually give them a scale to rate agreement with a variety of different, quite well-known conspiracy theories and don’t really find gender differences. If anything, women tend to go for conspiracy theories more than men. Not necessarily significantly so, but that’s the trend – so that goes against the stereotype of the conspiracy-thinking male.
Audience question: Are there any differences socio-economically?
KD: Older people tend to believe conspiracy theories less than younger people, people with higher levels of education tend to believe conspiracy theories less. I’m not so sure about socio-economic status. Religiosity predicts conspiracy belief. This is just a standard system of getting people to answer on a 1-7 scale, and it’s all correlation, so it doesn’t mean for instance that religiosity causes conspiracy belief. But those relationships are there.
The way that psychologists and political scientists tend to quantitatively measure belief in conspiracy theories is by asking participants to rate agreement with certain well-known conspiracy theories. Other scales rate a more general tendency to believe in conspiratorial explanations, so you might say ‘governments act behind the scenes against the best interests of citizens’ or ‘powerful corporations hide information from the public’. And you tend to find that people who score high on one of those types of scale also score high on the other, so a lot of people feel it’s more of a general mindset.
Is there other research that people can look at if they want to know more about the psychology behind conspiracy theories?
KD: Yes, there’s a book called Suspicious Mindsby researcher Rob Brotherton about the psychology of conspiracy, which is really accessible and gives a very broad overview of what we know so far. There are other disciplines that study conspiracy theory belief as well – quite a few people in political science study conspiracy theories in a quantitative way like a psychologist would do, including Oliver & Wood and Joe Uscinski. But it’s also dealt with in all sorts of other disciplines: cultural studies, sociology, film studies, literature.
David, what are your top conspiracy theory films?
DA:JFK may be the most interesting. People like it for all sorts of different reasons: for its impact, because it questions, because it suggestions that the past is complicated and fragmented, not a closed world. Missing is a good film. It’s an interesting film because it’s the United States dissenting against its own foreign policy. If you look at the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s there is no shortage. Hidden Agenda, the Loach one, is slightly different and it’s a bit of a thriller.
Another point is that one of the reasons that conspiracy theories circulate is because they’re stories. We understand the world we inhabit through the use of stories. Conspiracy theories lend themselves to good cinema because, whether or not you agree with the politics, it’s a good story. Hollywood excels at stories of an individual up against powers. In classical Hollywood they tend to overcome them, following the classical path of antiquity in terms of drama. Someone is faced with a series of obstacles, overcomes them and lives happily ever after. Conspiracy stories often don’t follow that narrative. They’re interesting because they unsettle the traditional Hollywood triumph over adversity narrative. But there’s something there that gives us another kind of satisfactory story, even if you come away thinking “that’s really unsettling, but I understand it”.
Audience question: Could you talk about how cross-cultural conspiracy theories are? We’ve mostly talked about Europe and America.
KD: Absolutely, different countries have different conspiracy theories for different reasons. It’s a real flaw in terms of the type of research that I do that it’s mostly done in countries like Britain, the United States, Australia. I’m working with a Macedonian student at the moment who argues that things are really different over there, it’s a different political climate and that people who are very left wing would be more likely to believe conspiracy theories against their government than you would expect to be the case here. So we’re looking at a possible cross-cultural difference between a British and Macedonian sample in terms of the psychological factors that predict conspiracy belief. But there isn’t a lot of that research done yet.
Historically is this tendency to see and believe conspiracy theories new or does it go back throughout history?
KD: I think some psychologists would say that it’s a general tendency and people are wired to believe in conspiracy theories, it’s something that has always been with us and always will be. There was an analysis done fairly recently in which Joe Uscinski looked at letters to the New York Times from the 1800s to now, looking for instances of the word ‘conspiracy’ and various related words. He expected to find great big peaks at crucial times in history, but didn’t find this. So he argues that conspiracy theorizing is something we have always done and will always do.
DA: That’s interesting – so you might argue that there’s a constant in terms of what people believe, but you can certainly detect trends in culture where this seems to have prevalence, to surface and have more purchase.
KD: Another thing is that a lot of people assume conspiracy theorizing is on the rise because of the fact that people use the Internet now. But again people aren’t find a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Internet is entirely responsible for any spike in conspiracy theorizing. Nevertheless it is easy for people to share ideas, so maybe it changes the way that people think and talk about alleged conspiracies.
DA: It’s also created the conditions where someone can cut up footage from the news and put an alternative account of the past on the Internet. So people have got the capacity to construct a narrative and put it out in the public domain, which has got the potential to reach everybody on the planet – even if in reality it might get four hits.
Is it possible that film, with its impression of indexical, recorded truth-telling and it’s huge potential for manipulation of footage and meaning, isn’t a reliable format for getting to real truths anyway?
DA: I’m not sure about that. The Chilean films directed by Guzmán are canonical works of truth-telling about what happened in Chile in 1973 – unquestionably useful for countering the narrative presented by those in power, through the use of archive footage. Of course Hollywood is a dream machine which constructs lies, but nevertheless there is some kind of truth we can get, certainly in documentary and non-fiction cinema, and sometimes even in fiction.
28 April 2016, Barbican Cinema 3, 8.30pm. Tickets: here. In partnership with LOCO London Comedy Film Festival.
This short film programme and panel discussion assembles a range of voices from the fields of film, neuroscience, psychology and comedy to discuss the nature of laughter.
A screening of comedy shorts is followed by a discussion investigating comedy’s therapeutic and social functions and its physiological effects.
Prof Sophie Scott is a neuroscientist, comedian and Wellcome Trust senior fellow at University College London, researching the neuroscience of voices, speech, and laughter.
Dr. Caspar Addyman is a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and a specialist in baby laughter. He is also the author of Help Yourself, a novel about a failed stand up comedian.
Jamie Wood is an acclaimed performer combining fine art, theatre, clown and dance. He also works as a Clown Doctor with Theodora Children’s Trust, visiting sick children in hospitals throughout the UK.
Nicola Hill is the general manager for the MediCinemas at Guys and St.Thomas’ hospitals in London. MediCinemas offer patients a cinema experience whilst accommodating wheelchairs and hospital beds and providing medical supervision during screenings.
Panel hosted by interviewer, presenter and occasional stand-up comedian Rachael Castell.
Friend Request Pending (12 mins, Dir. Chris Foggin, Wr: Chris Croucher)
A short comedy drama about the mature generation dating in our modern social networking world. It’s a tale of love but more importantly life-long friendship
Croissant (2 mins, Dir. Louis Hudson, Wr. Ian Ravenscroft, Louis Hudson)
Don’t you just hate it when you get food on your face and your entire concept of reality crumbles?
Coalition Fan Girls (3 mins, Wr. & Dir. Charlie Dinkin)
One Direction, Justin Bieber and…David Cameron??? A startling glimpse into the hidden lives of some of Britain’s most dedicated, driven and obsessive teenage fans. This time: it’s political.
Ducks with Engines (1 min, Wr. & Dir. Big Red Button)
Does what it says in the title. Ducks. With engines. Any questions?
Mr Madila (4 mins, Wr. & Dir. Rory Waudby-Tolley)
Mr Madila or The Colour of Nothing documents a series of conversations between the film-maker and a gifted spiritual healer, exploring the inner mind, the fabric of the universe, and the nature of reality itself, through the sacred art of animation. Oooooooh
Let’s Play Nomad X (3 mins, Wr. & Dir. Kristian Andrews)
During a ‘Let’s Play’ review of his favourite ’90’s computer game, a man tells a story of heartbreak .
The Fat and Lean Wrestling Match(2 mins,Wr. & Dir. Georges Méliès)
An extremely lean man and an extremely fat man are engaged in a wrestling match in this 1900 classic by filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès.
Kitty, Kitty Romford (3 mins, Dir. Chris & Ben Blaine, Wr. Cariad Lloyd)
Kitty, Kitty Romford is having a tough day, she’s just an ordinary dame, but her boss won’t get off her back and she’s inner monologuing out loud again…
Milk (10 mins, Dir. Ben Mallaby, Wr. Toby Williams, Paul F Taylor)
Timothy and Raymond have run out of milk.
Presented with support from a Wellcome Trust People Award.
Life after Life was a short film and discussion event presented by Rich Pickings at London Short Film Festival 2016. The event examined the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and how they can affect people’s lives. It featured a programme of short poetic films about life, death and what may or may not lie beyond. These films were a jumping off point for a discussion with two guests with very different approaches to the subject.
Christopher French is Professor of Psychology and Co-coordinator of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. French presented scientific research around NDEs, looking at recurring patterns in people’s accounts and biological explanations for the experiences people report. He particularly focused on the out-of-body elements of the NDE, as this is one of the more measurable and replicable components common to the experience.
Raymond O’Brien experienced a NDE during a cardiac arrest five years ago, an incident that profoundly affected him. Since this time he has experienced huge highs and lows, and the experience has become a core part of his identity and his understanding of the world. O’Brien was generous enough to share his experience and interpretation of it with us, offering a unique insight into the subjective reality of an NDE and life following it.
Watch an edited video of the discussion with Christopher French and Raymond O’Brien:
The programme of short films included animation, documentary and experimental moving image. Real life and fictional accounts of NDEs painted a vivid picture of the fear, regret, acceptance, love and transcendence that a person may experience in the moment of their death. Some of the films which played at the event can be viewed below.
In Crossing Over: The Art of Jeremy Down, an artist takes us on a visceral journey through his brush with death, an unforgettable narrative set against an astonishing landscape.
Annlin Chao’s Phantom on the Cliff is an animated account of a mountaineer struggling to come to terms with the mental and physical scars he is left with following a climbing accident.
In Impact, A Boxer’s Story, a boxer who was almost killed in a car accident describes how his experience and faith gave him the strength to not only recover but to excel as a fighter.
Out of Body, by visual artist Susan Aldsworth, uses recurring themes in recorded accounts of NDEs to paint a vivid picture of what the experience can feel like.
Coda, by Alan Holly, is a captivating, poetic animated tale of a man who confronts death – bargaining and resisting its grip before finally releasing himself into its care.
Danny Agama’s Mother and Void is a compelling artist film in which trees shot from a train window come to resemble blood capillaries as the filmmaker reflects on a childhood near death experience and on the nature of life and death.
Moving The Giants, by The Story Group, is an uplifting documentary following a man who, following a near-fatal illness, finds a strong purpose in his life – to save and replant the mighty Redwoods of California.
A screening of ’70s masterpiece The Parallax View and discussion with experts in conspiracy theory psychology and cinema.
The Parallax View (Dir. Alan J Pakula, 1h38m, Cert 15)
Newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) begins investigating the assassination of a presidential candidate from several years ago, and is drawn into a dangerous world of conspiracy and cover-up. Going undercover and assuming a new identity, he finds himself at the centre of a new and terrifying plot.
The screening of this ’70s paranoia classic will include a panel discussion on some of the themes in the film and its social, political and creative context.
Speakers include Prof. Karen Douglas, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories and the social consequences of conspiracism as well as Dr David Archibald, Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Film and Television Studies at University of Glasgow.
Rich Pickings is pleased to announce Inside Out – a new series of science and film events set to take place throughout 2016. Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award, these events will bring filmmakers together with scientific researchers in evenings of film and discussion exploring elements of the human experience.
Partnering with innovative film festivals across the UK, Rich Pickings will showcase new, classic and archive short and feature film. Each event will tackle one compelling theme relating to the human experience and explore it in discussion with academic experts, artists and filmmakers. Events will be documented and shared through the Electric Sheep film website. Event themes include near death experiences, compassion and the science of laughter.
Events include collaborations with London Short Film Festival, LOCO London Comedy Film Festival and Glasgow Film Festival among others. Filmmakers will have the opportunity to submit short films and moving image artwork for inclusion in events. Full event details and calls for entry will be announced on this site.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early August, Rich Pickings presented the British feature film War Book at a special event at London’s Picturehouse Central. The event included a panel discussion exploring the personal and political themes in the film – themes of persuasion, judgment and decision-making in groups.
The film, which was written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper, takes place over three days as nine civil servants gather to participate in a policy-shaping role-play scenario. They are there to imagine Britain’s reaction to an international nuclear attack. At first the participants are casual, playing out the scenario against a backdrop of their own petty squabbles and personal ambitions, but as the scenario escalates the group begins to address the breakdown of civil order and witness the repercussions of their theoretical decisions. When personal politics crash irrevocably into the room, each is forced to look closely at what they really believe, and how much their decisions are actually worth.
After the screening we were joined by three panelists, each with a different area of expertise and a different perspective on the film and wider themes.
Professor Peter Ayton
Prof Ayton is Associate Dean Research & Deputy Dean Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology at City University, London. He studies behavioural decision theory. Specifically, his research investigates how people make judgments and decisions under conditions of risk, uncertainty and ambiguity.
Sue Einhorn is a Group Analyst who became a psychotherapist after many years as a youth worker, community development activist and lecturer. She is particularly interested in how the social context lives in our unconscious and how each person then shapes the social world around them.
Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and economist. She is Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and is an occasional contributor to The Economist, Guardian, FT and Foreign Policy.
The panelists discussed the film, focusing on the structure of the environment portrayed and the dynamics of the group of civil servants. They also talked in more depth about judgment, war games and different methods for creating an environment suited to rational decision-making in groups. Outlined here is some of the ground covered in the discussion.
Q: As a psychologist you specialize in theory of decision-making. Can you explain a bit more about what we are doing when we make decisions?
My favorite definition of a decision is ‘an irrevocable commitment of resources’. Most people use the phrase ‘decision-making’ in a colloquial way and think they know what it means. You commonly hear people say: “let’s not decide that now” or “let’s wait and see”. That of course is in itself a decision. You might feel like you’ve kept options open, but we live in a dynamic world – things are constantly changing. When you make a decision you are not picking a discreet option from a well-designed set of arrays – you can be very creative about coming up with new options.
Q: In the film characters were required to make decisions in an environment that was steeped in personal politics and grudges. What were your thoughts on what we saw?
Some of the themes that we’re being primed by the film to contemplate include the bullying culture of politics, the flippancy with which decisions are treated and the emotions which impact conversations. It’s tempting to think that if the meeting we see in the film had been organized and regulated better, the decisions would have been more rational – but I don’t think that is necessarily true.
One thing that psychologists in my field tend to agree on is that the ‘rational man’ image set out by economists is a non-starter. There are at least two views that follow from that. The first is that we are not perfectly rational, but we get by very well and the methods we have to cope with our imperfect brains are pretty effective. The second view is that we are cognitive cripples who are essentially doomed. This view tends towards a belief that there is not much hope for humanity because of the way we conduct our affairs and, ultimately, the way our brains work.
One of psychology’s key ideas in decision theory is that of ‘heuristic thinking’ – decisions made by rule of thumb. We saw a lot of heuristic and simplistic thinking in the film. The characters had very simple rules for why they were proposing or defending certain points of view. They also used coercive arguments presented in imperatives: “this is necessary”, “this is essential”. The extreme courses of action that were being decided on were being done so without thought of alternatives.
Signaling complexity can be seen as weakness in politics. Barak Obama has come into a lot of criticism for seemingly taking a very long time to decide what to do about things. People like a ‘decisive politician’. But it’s also important to have someone who thinks things through. What was shown in the film was preaching, coercion and provocation – not good decision-making.
Q: The film portrayed a role-play exercise in which participants reacted to a fictional situation. In a real crisis situation the levels of pressure and stress would presumably be even higher. How much do we know about the ways in which stress affects decision-making?
You can test how stress affects people’s decision-making performance by setting up tasks (such as computer games) and offering incentives (such as winning or losing a lot of money). Experiments like this have revealed measurable effects of time pressure and stress. It’s been shown that pressure has an impact not only on the efficacy of decision-making but also on the strategies of it. And time-limitation creates a situation that lends itself to coercion and very simple heuristics being applied.
Two psychologists – Elder Shafir from Princeton University and Amos Tversky from Stanford University – conducted an experiment in which a group of students who have just finished their exams after a grueling semester are offered a great deal on a holiday – they can book for a group of people at a massive discount. The catch is that they must book and pay a deposit immediately, without time for reflection or consulting with friends. They found that students who have been told they have passed their exams took up the offer and paid the deposit. A second group of students are given exactly the same scenario, but are told they have failed their exams. They also decide to take up the offer and pay the deposit. The reasoning is that the ones that passed need to celebrate, while the ones that failed need to cheer themselves up. A final group are given exactly the same scenario but have been told that they won’t find out the results of their exams until the following day – and they need to pay the deposit for the holiday today. This group chose not to take up the holiday offer. So: if you’ve passed your exam you go on holiday, if you’ve failed you go on holiday, but if you don’t know if you have passed or failed you don’t go. This experiment reveals that we can generate reasons for actions based on real factors, but if there are unknowns we prefer to ‘wait and see’… even if either outcome would lead to the same action. This is an example of irrational human thinking. According to economics, that shouldn’t happen – but it does.
Q: If you could design a different system for a meeting such as the one we saw in the film, what would it be?
There are methods that social psychologists have devised for improving group process, some of which could be applied to a war game role-play situation. You could have a ‘Delphi’ group, where participants don’t reveal their identities, so they’re not in the same room and they communicate via anonymous narratives. That immediately strips away all the hierarchical, spurious aspects of the dynamic. When you have a room of people, there will always be things going on which have nothing to do with the quality of the arguments being made. And in some cases people will sabotage the greater good to bring their ego to the fore or push personal agendas. If it is anonymous you just focus on the quality of the argument. That isn’t to strip away the humans behind the arguments – values and emotions are essential parts of reasonable decision-making. There have been studies of people who have brain damage which has left them cognitively intact but emotionally dysfunctional. They often can’t make simple decisions, because decisions are typically critically dependent on emotions. But anonymizing a process could help to control the spurious elements – for instance the difficulties in countermanding someone with status either in or out of the room. The best system is one that allows the reasoned arguments to come through in the clearest way.
Q: In the film we see a group of civil servants playing out a high-level war game, in a policy-shaping exercise. How common are games like this in reality?
A lot of political analysis, like economics, imagines the state as some kind of rational actor that engages in something called ‘the pursuit of national interest’. But quite often we don’t look enough at the fact that it is made up of human beings who are making a guess of their interpretation of what the national interest is. We also don’t always account for the complexity and uncertainty of situations involving other players whose actions and motivations are unknown. So the nature of even just defending a selfish interest becomes very obscure. Part of the rationale of doing war games is to introduce that uncertainty and the human decision-making-under-pressure component. So these kind of role-plays do happen, and militaries particularly like engaging in them.
Often people look at political decision-making and see conspiracies. Those who have worked in and close to governments are less prone to seeing conspiracies and more prone to seeing cock-ups, because they see governments making errors time and time again. So seeing how people behave in groups and make decisions under pressure is probably quite a good guide to reality. That said, pretty much all the ways we have of imagining the future tend to be flawed. So this is one tool in a box of crystal ball gazing tools, all of which are inaccurate.
Q: Is there a standard structure for how games like this are organized?
There’s a lot of different formats you can set up for role-play. Often you will have a referee or gamesmaster. Originally war games were quite formalized, but since the ‘50s there’s been a desire to have games that are less formal to allow people to be more innovative and imaginative. The risk with this is that this could lead to daft decisions, so you allocate someone the role of the omniscient judge. That could be a political scientist or somebody who knows a lot about the countries involved and can say with some authority: “these people would never do that”.
One of the issues with these role-play is that when you have people in government together trying to imagine what will happen in the future, there is an element of Groupthink. Often people, especially junior people in the group, won’t want to say something that goes against the grain, or you have an enforced consensus – which isn’t good for original thinking and often comes up with the conclusion that what we should do is exactly what our existing policy already is. Another fundamental problem with war games is that they’re often designed to be quite fun because that stimulates people to think differently. But the enjoyment aspect divorces people from the reality, and if it is analysts playing the games they may not have any idea what it would feel like to be in that situation for real. Crisis simulations are usually done by people who wouldn’t be the decision-makers in reality – the real decision-makers are too busy.
Another issue is that war games often look at the different reactions of the different international players, and the people who are simulating a country’s response don’t really know what that country would do. Sometimes people are brought in to represent their own country – for instance an academic from Egypt to represent what the Egyptian Government would do. But that can be overstated. We’re from Britain, but that doesn’t mean we’d know how the British Government would react in a crisis. So there can be stereotyping built into these processes.
Q: In the film we see the decisions ultimately being made to reflect and justify policy decisions which have been made in the past. How could this be prevented?
One of the ways that crisis simulators try to get around that problem is bringing in outsiders who have not been involved in building up policy. But often the ‘outsiders’ are brought in from a small pool of trusted individuals. So you may think you’re bringing in outsiders to challenge your way of thinking but actually you’re picking outsiders who will re-enforce it… and you then come away with the conclusion that everything you’re doing already is correct.
Anonymized role-play systems are sometimes used. I know of an annual three-day gaming scenario for a European military, which is done remotely on computers. A central person then looks at the moves and decisions that come in on a screen and says whether they are plausible or whether the ‘player’ needs to come up with a more realistic decision.
I once went to a political meeting of young people in Kuwait who were opposition activists of various persuasions. They were debating the merits of gradual political change against very rapid political change, such as a revolutionary movement. They were using software during the meeting which displayed a graphical representation of how long each person was speaking for, so that no person was allowed to dominate the discussion and anyone who hadn’t spoken was encouraged to contribute. But of course as humans we have ways to bypass that. The film demonstrated very well the way that when one character is speaking others are looking around for someone’s eye to catch… other things are happening in the room as well as speaking and listening. So it’s very difficult to try to equalize discussion.
The reality is that political and military decisions are often made by a small number of people in a room and in that environment somebody being persuasive and charismatic can have great impact.
There’s a political philosophy book called ‘The Theory of Justice’ by John Rawles, a British liberal academic, which asks ‘how could we come up with the ideal political system’. He imagines a situation where everybody is cut off from their lives and context and personality and turned into pure anonymous rationality. They imagine what the ideal political system would be… and they imagine a British liberal model. The book has been criticized for that same issue, that by trying to anonymize people you are cutting out important things, such as their values and backgrounds, things that affect their views.
Q: We’ve talked of the problematic sides of structuring roles plays. Can you think of any positive examples of their benefits?
Recently we have seen the five permanent members of the Security Council come together to ensure that they keep the ‘nuclear club’ relatively exclusive, and this has been done through diplomacy with Iran. One of the most popular war games that has been played in recent years is the possibility of the US or Israel unilaterally attacking Iran’s nuclear facility and what that would unleash in terms of retaliation across the Middle East. So far this has not happened, and maybe looking at those scenarios and the enormity of them is part of what has persuaded governments to try to avoid it and come up with a more diplomatic approach.
Q: The film portrays decision-making in a pretty dysfunctional dynamic. As a group psychotherapist, what was your response to what we saw?
My job as a group psychotherapist is to encourage an environment where people can think and reflect. The situation we saw in the film was the opposite of that. There was no element of safety. The person chairing was not the person with power, the atmosphere was one of great hostility and the whole method of voting (aye or nay by hands up, majority to
win) belies thinking. There was nothing that allowed reflection and no way of not conforming. I found it an extremely frightening film, not just for the nature of their decisions but the bullying and bigoted nature of their culture. The film showed a group of older people, unable to let empire go, coercing younger people into thinking in their old ways. If you think in binary, black-or-white terms it is impossible to have reflective thinking.
If you could design a different system for a meeting such as the one we saw in the film, what would it be?
I would make sure everybody knew their position and someone was present holding the balance to ensure the meeting was ethical, courteous and respectful. I would want to ensure that everyone’s opinion was felt to be equally important. The problem with the situation in the film – and I imagine in many political situations – was that there was a secret in the room, and those who knew it were more powerful than those who did not.
For me, one of the most important things for human beings is that we let new generations come in with their own ideas, and start influencing things. Otherwise all you do is replay history. So you need an environment where everyone is listened to and given time to think. The film showed a scenario where history is repeated: people of a certain power and a certain generation managed to squash people of difference, people with any other ideas.
In group relations, understanding power dynamics and interaction is central. Understanding who has the formal power and who has the informal power. Seeing how people establish their credentials. I wouldn’t like an environment where people were anonymized, because I think you do need to think about what it’s like to be, for instance, an ethnic or gender minority in the room and how that impacts relations.
I think it is impossible to strip all the social dynamics out of meetings and group decision-making, so we shouldn’t try. Instead we should learn to manage and understand the different, complex things that are going on. When you can observe all these complexities and take them into account you can also start to see how to work with them.
Rose McDermott and Jacek Kugler, (2001). Comparing Rational Choice and Prospect Theory Analyses: The US Decision to Launch Operation ‘Desert Storm’, Journal of Strategic Studies Volume 24, pages 49-85: http://goo.gl/rsrgr0
Kerr, N.L. & Tindale, R.S. (2004). Group performance and decision making Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 55, Pages 623-655:
Sunstein, C.R. & Hastie, R. (2015). Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Harvard Business School Press.
You can see Cass Sunstein discussing the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ-F26BPQrA On the psychology of Foreign Policy Decision Making:
Alex Mintz and Karl DeRouen, Jr. (2010). Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mark Schafer and Scott Crichlow (2010). Groupthink Versus High-Quality Decision Making in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.
A review of these books is: Deborah Welch Larson (2012). Review of Alex Mintz, and Karl DeRouen ‘Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making’ Perspectives on Politics, 10, pp 227-228.
It can be downloaded here: https://goo.gl/ePKdGj
On Group Analysis:
Gerhard Wilke (2015). The Art of Group Analysis in Organisations: The Use of Intuitive and Experiential Knowledge; Karnac Books
Morris Nitsun (1996). The Anti-Group: Destructive Forces in the Group and their Creative Potential; Routledge
War Book is viewable on iTunes from September 7th 2015
This event was presented with the support of a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science Grant.
Sunday, August 9th, | Picturehouse Central, London W1D 7DH
Exploring the process of decision making from scientific, social and political perspectives. A preview screening of acclaimed feature film WAR BOOK followed by discussion with experts in psychology and politics, looking at how decisions are made and the impact that group and social dynamics bring to bear.
WAR BOOK | Dir: Tom Harper. UK. 2014. 95mins
A chilling war game between a group of government officials exposes the fragility of our everyday life and those who govern it. Written by Jack Thorne, directed by Tom Harper and starring Adeel Akhtar, Nicholas Burns, Ben Chaplin, Shaun Evans, Kerry Fox, Phoebe Fox, Sophie Okonedo, Antony Sher and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, WAR BOOK takes place over three days as nine civil servants gather to take part in a policy shaping scenario. They are there to take decisions on Britain’s reaction to an international nuclear attack. Only two participants know the truth – that the country is secretly facing a real nuclear threat, and that their theoretical responses may become reality sooner than they can know.
At first the participants are casual, playing out the scenario against a backdrop of their own petty squabbles and personal ambitions, but as the scenario escalates and the group begins to address the breakdown of civil order, the reality that they are deciding our futures dawns. When personal politics crash irrevocably into the room, each is forced to look closely at what they really believe, and how much their decisions are actually worth.
Professor Peter Ayton is Associate Dean Research & Deputy Dean Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology at City University, London. Prof Ayton studies behavioural decision theory. Specifically, his research investigates how people make judgments and decisions under conditions of risk, uncertainty and ambiguity. He uses a variety of empirical methods including laboratory experiments, surveys and field studies. He is a member of the European Association for Decision Making and the Society for Judgment & Decision Making and currently serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making; Current Psychology Letters: Behaviour, Brain & Cognition and Theory and Psychology.
Sue Einhorn is a Group Analyst who became a psychotherapist after many years as a youth worker, community development activist and lecturer. She is particularly interested in how the social context lives in our unconscious and how each person then shapes the social world around them.
Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and economist. She is Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and is an occasional contributor to The Economist, Guardian, FT and Foreign Policy.
Presented with the support of a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science Grant