The attraction of small rewards

I went to the Y Not Festival last month. It was a bit of a mixed bag because of the weather, and the terrible app that was supposed to function as a map and timetable was a daft idea on a site with limited mobile in the first place and totally useless in practice as it wasn’t updated when things changed. But we saw some good bands, and ate some good food, and it was only half an hour from home so we also slept in our own beds! But the reason I mention it was because of a trivial but unexpected thing: They had an incentive to recycle the plastic pint glasses that were being used and dropped on the floor. They offered 10p per glass to take them to a recycling point in sets of five. For the most part that wasn’t enough for people drinking to bother keeping and pooling their glasses to cash in. But a small economy developed amongst people who found it worthwhile to go around collecting the dropped cups. There were some sets of kids excitedly supplementing their pocket money by collecting piles of cups during the day, and also a few adults who increased in numbers in the evenings.

At £5 per pint the beer was not cheap, and I joked with my husband that I’d see if I could collect 10 cups to offset the cost each time he drank one. But as soon as we started collecting cups, we realised that there were loads of them, and it was easy to make quite good money from them. In three hour-long collecting binges, and whilst listening to bands I enjoyed, I stacked and recycled well over 500 cups. That was enough to pay for all our food over the weekend, and the couple of drinks my husband had. Of course my legs ached like crazy the next day, after all that walking around punctuated by 500 bodyweight squats. But I felt good about being part of the efforts to clear up the site and recycle the cups.

Of course I’d much rather they used reusable cups as they did at Timber festival, or ones that are biodegradable as they did at Woodside. And it doesn’t really make much sense to pay random people more per hour than they pay their bar staff or rubbish pickers, let alone to pay the people who were simply emptying out the plastic recycling bins, stacking up the plastic cups and taking them to the recycling point like their own little black market scheme. And I wasn’t persuaded that they were actually going to recycle the cups at the end of the weekend. But I was interested in the fact that I somehow found it fun to do a dirty, smelly, physically demanding job earning way less than I can earn from work. Apart from the novelty and fact it filled in the gaps between artists, the reason was as obvious as those demonstrated in Pavlov and Skinner’s seminal experiments: The small but proximal rewards were enough to reinforce the behaviour, and make me want to repeat it over and over again. In fact it became quite addictive. The small payments made it feel like a game in which I was succeeding and earning five to ten pounds per trip to the recycling point made it really tangible that I was being rewarded. I could have spent the entire weekend picking up those crushed and broken plastic cups and straightening them out into stacks to cash in, and my kids were jealous that they’d missed out on the opportunity to earn cash because they had chosen to go to their grandparents rather than the festival.

In another example, I’ve been playing a really rubbish game on my iPad called Hidden City. It is a hidden object game, where you have to find items within a picture of a scene before the time limit runs out. For example, there might be a picture of a greenhouse full of caged birds and exotic plants, and you will then be asked to find a pair of binoculars, a fan, an oil lamp, a walking cane, a string of rosary beads, a bunch of chilli peppers, a pair of shoes, a turtle, and various other objects to click on and collect. Each will be visible within the scene, some in plain sight and others tucked away or masked by being in front of similarly coloured items. In certain quests there are also keys to find in the scene that are smaller and better hidden. Whilst this has some inherent mental challenge and novelty, it really is a very simple premise for a game, and quickly becomes repetitive, so you’d think the game would be very boring – in fact it seems boring to have explained it in writing, so I hope I haven’t sent you off to sleep! You would therefore assume that people would drop out of the game very quickly, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, the makers are so confident that players won’t be bored enough to drop out that they make you search each scene for objects selected from the same list and placed in the same range of places in the scene many times. In fact, to complete some quests you search the same scene over a hundred times. The task becomes more difficult because you are expected to find more objects in a shorter time interval, and the scene becomes more cluttered so it is harder to pick out the specified items, and you have to alternative with searching other scenes to get the tokens required to go back to the main scene. To compound that, there are multiple locations in the game, and each needs to be searched a large number of times, so to complete the whole game you probably have to complete about ten thousand search quests.

It sounds like an enormous and monotonous task, and the game itself is full of bugs, glitches and poor translations, yet it is the most popular hidden object game in the world. More than half a million people have played it, and there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of players active at any one time. They are not only signing up to play in huge numbers, they are choosing to pay for the optional purchases to assist their searching, making this game and the multiple other games by the same company, and the multitude of similar games available, highly profitable.  Estimates suggest that over £3 million of in game payments have been made since the game launched four years ago, and tens of millions of pounds are being spent in in-game micro-payments across all the games by this maker each year. It seems illogical, but many players spend way more than they’d need to pay to purchase a really good game to play this glitchy game that is constantly interrupted by advertising for in-game purchases and other games by the same company.

So why do people keep playing, and why do some of them keep paying? I think it is the same idea of reinforcement through small rewards. As a player you experience a lot of small successes. They make the first few searches really easy. Then each time you search and don’t find all the items you are told to try again. If you find them all you are rewarded by a random selection of small icons, and you can collect these items in sets. Completing the set gets you a rarer icon, with some bonus points or magical powers to boost your energy or increase your ability to find other bonus items. In the bigger quests you might also get tokens to unwrap gift boxes containing more icons. You also get overnight bonuses, daily bonuses and components of a magical piece of jewellery each time you play again after more than 8 hours but less than 24 hours. They compound so an unbroken chain of about a month gets you the finished item, and 12% more items to find for a 10 day period. If you break the chain you either have to use or buy in game currency to restore it, or you lose the components you gained. Something about our psyche likes gaining these pseudo possessions and dislikes missing out or losing them, enough that these games are quite addictive. But they are all just small pictures of random things. Why should I care if I have a magical tuning fork in my collection, or whether I get the apple strudel icon that completes the huntsman set that gives me the Austrian clock? There is no intrinsic value in the drawing of the clock, or the strudel or the tuning fork. They bear little relation to the scenes I search, or to the token plot about the magical city trapping people, or the candy-crush style mini-games. My life is not better in any tangible way if I collect 75 keys and open the golden chest to receive 6 bonus items, or if I play the scene 100 times and get a new avatar of the lady of the manor, or the Samuri, or the gardener. Being at a higher level on the game doesn’t convey any greater skill that would garner respect from other players, let alone in the real world, nor does it teach me anything I can generalise outside the game.

So why is a badly made game with such a simple and repetitive premise so popular? I’d suggest that is intentionally designed to be rewarding to play, and to tap into what we know about reinforcement with the number of small rewards it offers. Our brains are set up to love rewards, no matter how meaningless they are, or what the longer-term cost is. Like scratching an itch, or eating something tasty but unhealthy, using drugs or smoking cigarettes, the immediate rewards are often much more effective as an incentive than the longer-term consequences are as a deterrent. The logical decisions we make about changing our behaviour struggle against these proximal sources of gratification. It doesn’t feel like a big effort or commitment, because we are only playing a three-minute mini-game. We are tempted to take the small action to sample the reward, but this then lures us in to take the next step with another small effort, and the result is that we repeat that for far longer than we planned. Even if this means losing out on sleep, or getting things we objectively rate as more beneficial or necessary done.

The same is true of our online behaviour. We chain from one news article to another, or one social media post to another, or one youtube video to another until whole evenings disappear into a black hole. Even when we are going about our daily lives, we constantly check for the small rewards of messages, likes or responses on social media. For many people this becomes something done obsessively, to the detriment of other activities in our lives. As well as hitting our reinforcement pathways, these small social connections also fire up our desire to feel belonging and acceptance in a group, and to gain the approval and/or attention of others. I’ve blogged before about the toxic aspects of social media. Studies have shown that stopping using social media, whether for a couple of hours per day, a day per week, a longer block of time, or permanently, makes people happier (journal articleanecdotes, article citing studies, more anecdotes, even more). Yet for most of us, we are enticed by the sense of connection (albeit often a much more distant and less authentic connection than we make in real life) and the promise of these small rewards.

It makes me think how despite all the progress of technology, we really are quite primitive creatures in some ways, tied to the way our biology has evolved to reward behaviours that had some adaptive function that had evolutionary benefits. So can we make a conscious choice to use these inherent reward systems for more positive purpose? Possibly. For example, we can benefit by building chains of positive behaviours that we don’t want to break – like a colleague who told me he hasn’t drunk alcohol for 92 days after realising he was drinking almost every night. That challenge of having a dry month, or to do without meat, or caffeine, or cigarettes for a set time period seems an effective way to change behavioural habits. It is less final and impossible sounding to have a break from something than to give it up permanently, but it can give you a chance to see what life is like without it, find alternatives that fill that gap and build up some of these rewards for going without. It then becomes easier to continue that pattern, and there can be a reluctance to break the chain, particularly if there have been social or financial or health rewards for the change.

Likewise we can gamify exercise. When I used to weight lift I would share my achievements with a group of other weightlifters online. This gives a sense of a peer group who can reinforce your behaviour and some social pressure to sustain the pattern (though I was never one to post every gym visit on facebook the way that many runners/cyclists use their apps to, or to post lots of philosophy and photos the way that yoga fans seem to – I just posted to a weightlifters group when I made gains, and could compare my progress to others in the group). But even without this online support I had a sense of achievement each time I went to the gym, or completed my routine, or increased the weight I could lift in a specific exercise. I liked to record my weights in a journal and to feel that I was making measurable small gains. I also liked confounding expectations by being an overweight middle-aged woman who had hidden physical strength. I’ve mentioned my joy in having “ninja muscles” before. I’d like to get back to it, and I’m sure my core strength would return. I’ve still got surprisingly muscular legs, though I wouldn’t risk picking up an 18 stone barbell these days!

So I guess the knack is working out how to make our innate reward systems work for us in a modern world. I’m certainly far from achieving that. Change is hard. But maybe I can at least recognise the patterns better now I’ve thought about it more. Maybe I’ll come back to that theme in a future blog.

 

 

Runway: A blog about whether being self-employed or starting a business is a viable option financially

If an aircraft runs out of runway before becoming airborne then it will have to stop or it will potentially crash horribly. For this reason, runway is used as a metaphor for the relationship between the money available in a business and its running costs. If the business does not generate enough income to keep the cashflow up to cover costs, then it will either come to a stop or come to a horrible end. But unlike an airport, where sufficient runway already exists for the purposes of launching planes, with a new business you have to find or create the money that will hopefully let the business become self-sustaining. And unlike an airport, at which planes get up into the air uneventfully every few minutes every day for many years, most businesses fail within the first three years, often because of not being able to generate enough income to sustain the business in the longer term.

I think a lot of people in employment have fantasies about being self-employed or starting their own business. For clinicians, the fantasy is often about offering therapy in private practise to insured or well-heeled clients with milder problems. Whilst the hourly rates for private practise might seem attractive compared to a salary divided down into an hourly rate, the figures represent something really different. Salary is paid on leave days, bank holidays and when you are sick. It covers maternity/paternity leave and redundancy if you are no longer needed. You get supervision, CPD, equipment to use and premises to work in. You also have a team of other professionals supporting you in the background from admin to HR, finance, operational management, procurement and maintenance. You don’t have to think beyond providing the clinical and associated psychological services. Salary packages, particularly from the NHS, also contribute to very favourable life insurance and pension schemes. When you are self-employed you need to think about premises, insurance, supervision, CPD costs, DBS checks, accountancy, advertising, tax and how you will generate income if you don’t or can’t work. You may also need equipment from computers and stationary to psychometric tests (which are enormously expensive both to purchase and for record forms).

Remember that the bills need to be paid immediately, but clients may not pay you as promptly – and some may not pay at all. This is particularly true for me when doing expert witness work where the timelines from accepting the work to receiving payment for it are amazingly extended. If I accepted an instruction in principle on 1st January, I would typically receive instructions for it 1-3 weeks later. My appointments would take place 4-8 weeks after that, and my report would be submitted a fortnight later, perhaps in late March. There might then be further instructions or clarifying questions, before the case is heard at the end of May. Any invoices will only be processed when the case closes in June, and then sent to the Legal Aid Authority for scrutiny in July. If there are no queries the LAA then send payment to the solicitors, who eventually send it on to the expert in the August or September, though some will drag their heels for several more months. So I have to wait six to twelve more months to receive payment. And about 8% of the work is never paid, because the solicitors closes after the Legal Aid claim is made, or because the LAA determined that some of the work wasn’t “reasonable” or because there was a problem somewhere in the line of communication and one of the parties doesn’t claim a share of your invoice. Meanwhile the work is taxable in the financial year in which it is completed, and the VAT is payable at the point the invoice is issued. I also have to pay any staff who contributed at the end of the month in which we did the work.

Even as a sole trader working from home in a service industry with relatively low set-up costs, most of us need to earn some money to cover our living expenses, and can’t go for months or years unpaid. That means that unless you have a massive inheritance or lottery win to draw on, it might not be possible to give up salaried work to take the gamble of trying something independent. My rule of thumb is to have a minimum of three months living expenses saved before you consider leaving salaried employment. You might get this from a redundancy or mutually agreed resignation scheme, or by putting money aside whilst you are planning. You should also compare your current and projected earnings. My way of calculating this to calculate your annual salary plus 25% (the approximate value of the pension and protections) divided by 210 (the actual number of days an average NHS employee turns up to work). You can then compare this to what you think you could earn in a day if you had private clients, a contract with a large company to deliver training or services, a calendar full of supervision or consultancy, or whatever you imagine doing. You really need a multiple of three between the first number and the second to make being self-employed pay equivalently after costs, though if you really hate your job or are prepared to take a reduction in income (at least in the short-term) you might consider a multiple of two. I don’t believe it is viable to go below this because in my experience people never properly account for the amount of expenses involved, or the for the amount of non-income generating time required. As well as the fact that not all of your available slots will be filled until you are well established, it is worth bearing in mind that most full-time clinicians spend about 15-18 hours per week on direct clinical work, and the rest on work tasks that would be non-income generating in the private sector, such as screening referrals, setting up appointments, phone calls, email, supervision, meetings/indirect work, writing letters/reports, other admin and CPD.

That said, money isn’t everything. I know some amazing selfless people who have earned less than minimum wage for many years, but followed their heart because they cared passionately about what they were doing, and the impact it could make in the world. I’m not quite that altruistic, perhaps because I am the main earner for our family unit and feel an obligation to sustain our quality of life, but I’ve had to learn to live on a much less regular income. I pay myself minimum wage then supplement this with lump sums when the business is profitable. To make this even more unpredictable, I have often had to loan money into the business in order to pay salaries when others have been slow to pay us for work we’ve done. Overall I’d say my income is lower than when I worked in the NHS and did some court expert witness work on top, but nowadays on balance it probably matches my consultant grade salary. The amount I earn feels sufficient for our needs – and probably stretches a little further as some expenses have been absorbed (eg my mobile phone bill is paid by the company, as is the cost of any CPD I want, the costs of my accountant, and some little things like a sandwich and soft drink when I’m away from the office on business).

There are also some things that money can’t buy. I’ve loved the freedom and flexibility of being self-employed, even though there have been times that have been quite tough financially. Whilst it initially increased my workaholic tendencies to quite alarming proportions (peaking at working 9.30am to 6.30pm in the office and then 10pm until 2am at home most weekdays, and fitting in 5-10 hours of work per weekend), more recently I’ve been able to achieve more of a work-life balance. I’ve stopped doing as much consultancy and training that involved staying away over night, and reduced the court work that created so many high-pressure deadlines. I’ve started to cluster meetings in London once a month, arranging other meetings over videoconferencing where possible. I’ve withdrawn from the committee and policy work that was taking up a big chunk of my time. I’ve also recognised the wise advice of a past supervisor that said I needed to fill up life outside work with commitments that would compete with work, rather than expecting to ever be the kind of person who can ring-fence free time. So I’ve started putting social appointments in my calendar, made a commitment to swimming regularly, I’m doing more adventurous things with the children, and I’ve even been able to sneak out for the afternoon with my husband from time to time. Running my own business has also given me a chance to relocate to an area that I love, where my qualify of life and working environment is much nicer.

When weighing up the options, bear in mind that working as a sole trader can be quite isolating. In the NHS or other organisations we usually work within teams, often with the benefit of colleagues to bounce ideas off, or who can contribute to formulations from other perspectives. Working with others also allows you to collaborate or to delegate work to people with complementary skills or interests. It shares the risk of complex cases, and means you don’t feel solely responsible for the waiting list or the stuck cases. It can allow you to prioritise work and manage your workload. When you are the only one doing the work this becomes much more difficult, and the pressures and sense of responsibility for clients can increase substantially. Even though the waiting list might be shorter, you might feel more guilty if there is a delay in starting work with a new referral, or more responsible for ensuring a good outcome for everyone. When your income literally depends on how much work you do it can be hard not to end up over-working to the detriment of everything else in your life. However, on the flip side you can feel pride in positive outcomes, and a waiting list becomes a marker of success (that people are willing to wait for you) rather than a mark of failure like it is construed in the NHS (where there is pressure to meet targets, and services don’t have enough resources to keep pace with need, and are the only available option for most people).

You also need to realistically appraise your business plan. Most people go into business in the belief that they have found a niche in which they can earn a profit, and hope that demand for their services or product will arrive as soon as potential customers know it is available. However, that can lead people to be overly optimistic about how fast they can gain traction in the market, or the level of profit they can make. Unless the plan is to seek external investment, most small business owners need for the business to become profitable fairly quickly, and few would be willing to pour their life savings into a new business in the hope of a return further down the line. When trying to start up a company or expand a sole trader enterprise into a business that employs others it can often feel like a Catch 22 situation, that you can’t afford the things you need to generate the income that will fund the things you need. But unlike on Dragon’s Den or in Silicon Valley, few people have access to capital investment and most professionals (in the health and social care field at least) are wary about taking on loans before the business has the means to repay them, even if they can access lending.

My point is that even if you have a great business idea and an established reputation getting enough money to start and sustain a business is tough. Cashflow is a make or break issue. Generating sufficient working capital is one of several elements that challenge new start-ups. In fact, of small businesses that fail (based on figures from the USA), 82% attribute this to cashflow issues and 29% say that they ran out of cash, whilst 42% said that the issue was a lack of market need for their products or services, 23% don’t have the right team to deliver the business, and 19% can’t match a competitor.

I guess that makes me a survivor. I launched my small business seven years ago this month, and it is gratifying that we’ve managed to weather the politics of adversity to still be trading. However, making money is still something I find quite challenging. I’ve come out of a career in the NHS in which the financial transactions involved were far removed from my daily life, and the idea of making a profit was quite aversive. But I’ve had to learn to make my business financially viable. Whilst there have been times that have tested me almost to my limits, the business is still functioning and financially we are still on the runway. I view that as a success. However, I feel like we have never quite reached the position of being airborne, where the business is self-sustaining without me personally doing income generating work as a substantial proportion of my time – and that would be an enormous issue if I ever needed time off sick.

My penultimate piece of advice is to speak to people who understand business and finance before you embark upon your journey, and regularly as you go along. I’ve had the benefit of great guidance as I’ve travelled outside of the NHS and into the world of business. As well as my fantastic ongoing mentoring from Impact Hub, which has included some work on the financial elements of the business plan, I recently won a place on a scheme sponsored by Barclays bank to help social purpose businesses to scale up. I’ve been attending Judge Business School at Cambridge University with several other small businesses, where we have had a series of days to explore our options and make a growth plan for the business. Having identified gaps, I’ve then taken actions to rectify them. For example, we’ve built a website for BERRI so that prospective subscribers can see what our tools have to offer, and that has brought in a flurry of new subscribers. I’ve also explored the options to help me scale up more rapidly and increase the impact of what we can deliver. Thankfully we have a strong business case, and I’ve been increasingly able to articulate that as a result of the work I’ve been doing. Over the last month I have spoken to two potential sources of investment. That would give me more runway to play with, but I need to work out whether we are fully aligned in terms of the destination and route to get there before I can be sure that is the right move to make compared to continued slow organic growth.

My final advice is to recognise your own limitations, and to find ways to delegate the tasks you are not good at or not enthused about, and spend time with people who share your passions or the skills you want to grow. For me that means having an administrator who makes up and chases up my invoices, accountants who can deal with payroll, tax, NI, pensions etc and advisors who guide me to apply for the right grants, tax rebates and training schemes. I also meet up regularly with other social entrepreneurs to share our progress and plan collaborative projects. I just appointed an experienced Business Development Lead for the company, who I hope will help me to weigh up the options for investment, and help us to grow quickly but in a way that feels right and prioritises making an positive impact on the lives of vulnerable children over maximising profit. I’m hoping we’ll reach sustainability by the end of the year, but there are still hurdles to overcome, and even when we get into the air I can’t imagine it will be a journey without occasional turbulence.

Communicating the value of evidence

I presented at a couple of conferences over the last few weeks about my BERRI system. And I was struck, once again, by how little weight is given to evidence when it comes to services that are commissioned in the social care sector. Various glossy marketing claims and slick consultants were successfully persuading commissioners and service managers that it was equivalent to use their systems and “metrics” (in which people gave entirely subjective ratings on various arbitrarily chosen variables) to using validated outcome measures. By validated outcome measures, I mean questionnaires or metrics that have been developed through a methodical process and validated with scientific rigour that explores whether they are measuring the right things, whether they are measuring them reliably, whether those measures are sensitive to change, and whether the results are meaningful. A pathway that then leads to an established scientific process of critical appraisal when those studies are presented at conferences, published and made subject to peer review.

But outside of the academic/scientific community it is very hard to prove that having a proper process is worth the time and investment it takes. It means that you are running a much longer race than those who work without evidence. At one event last week, I asked a question of a consultancy firm making hundreds of thousands of pounds out of “improving children’s social care outcomes”, about their basis for what they chose to measure, how they measure it, and how they had validated their claims. The answer was that they were confident that they were measuring the right things, and that having any kind of scientific process or validation would slow down their ability to make impact (aka profit). My answer was that without it there was no evidence they were making any impact.

They couldn’t see that their process of skipping to the doing bit was equivalent to thinking that architects, structural drawings, planning permission and buildings regulation control slow down building houses, and selling houses they’d built without all that burdensome process. Thinking anyone can build a house (or a psychometric measure to track outcomes) feels like an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the idea that those with the least knowledge overestimate their knowledge the most. But the worst thing was that those commissioning couldn’t see the difference either. They find the language of evidence to be in the domain of academics and clinicians, and don’t understand it, or its importance. We are in an age where expertise is dismissed in favour of messages that resonate with a populist agenda, and it seems that this even applies when commissioning services that affect the outcomes of vulnerable population groups. I don’t know how we change this, but we need to.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on BERRI for 12 years now, on and off, with the goal of being able to map the needs of complex children and young people, such as those living in public care, in a way that is meaningful, sensitive to change and helps those caring for them to meet those needs better. For as long as I’ve worked with Looked After children, there has been a recognition of the fact that this population does worse in life along a wide range of metrics, and a desire to improve outcomes for them for both altruistic and financial reasons. Since Every Child Matters in 2003, there have been attempts to improve outcomes, defined with aspirations in five areas of functioning:

  • stay safe
  • be healthy
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being

A lot of services, the one that I led included, tried to rate children on each of these areas, and make care plans that aimed to help them increase their chances in each area. Each was supposed to be associated with a detailed framework of how various agencies can work together to achieve it. However, whilst the goals are worthy, they are also vague, and it is hard to give any objective score of how much progress a young person is making along each target area. And in my specific area of mental health and psychological wellbeing they had nothing specific to say.

As with so much legislation, Every Child Matters was not followed up by the following government, and with the move of children’s social care into the Department for Education, the focus shifted towards educational attainments as a metric of success. But looking primarily at educational attendance and attainments has several problems. Firstly it assumes that children in Care are in all other ways equivalent to the general population with which they are compared (when in fact in many ways they are not, having both disproportionate socioeconomic adversity and disproportionate exposure to trauma and risk factors, as well as much higher incidence of neurodevelopmental disorder and learning disability). Secondly it limits the scope of consideration to the ages in which education is happening (primarily 5-18, but in exceptional circumstances 3-21) rather than the whole life course. Thirdly it doesn’t look at the quality of care that is being received – which has important implications for how we recruit, select and support the workforce of foster carers and residential care staff, and what expectations we have of placement providers (something I think critical, given we are spending a billion pounds a year on residential care placements, and more on secure provision, fostering agencies and therapy services that at the moment don’t have to do very much at all to show they are effective, beyond providing food, accommodation, and ensuring educational attendance). Finally, it masks how important attachment relationships, and support to improve mental health are in this population. I can see that strategically it makes sense for politicians and commissioners not to measure this need – they don’t want to identify mental health needs that services are not resourced to meet – but that is significantly failing the children and young people involved.

In my role as a clinician lead for a LAC service within CAMHS, I kept finding that children were being referred with behaviour problems, but underlying that were significant difficulties with attachment, and complex trauma histories. I was acutely aware that my service was unable to meet demand, leading us to need some system to prioritise referrals, and that there was a lot of ambiguity about what was in the remit of CAMHS and what was in the remit of social care. I wasn’t alone in that dilemma. There were a lot of defensive boundaries going on in CAMHS around the country, rejecting referrals that did not indicate a treatable mental health condition, even if the child had significant behavioural or emotional difficulties. The justification was that many children were making a normal response to abnormal experiences, and that CAMHS clinicians didn’t want to pathologise this or locate it like an organic condition inside the child, so it should best be dealt with as a social care issue.

On the other hand, I was mindful of the fact that this population have enormous mental health needs, having disproportionately experienced the Adverse Childhood Experiences that are known to lead to adverse mental and physical health outcomes. Research done by many of my peers has shown that two thirds to three quarters of Looked After children and young people score over 17 on the SDQ (the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire – the government mandated and CORC recommended measure for screening mental health need in children) meaning they should be eligible for a CAMH service, and various research studies have shown that 45% of LAC have a diagnosable mental health condition, but the resources are not available to meet that need. As The Mental Health Foundation’s 2002 review entitled “Mental Health of Looked After Children” put it:

Research shows that looked-after children generally have greater mental health needs than other young people, including a significant proportion who have more than one condition and/or a serious psychiatric disorder (McCann et al, 1996). But their mental health problems are frequently unnoticed or ignored. There is a need for a system of early mental health assessment and intervention for looked-after children and young people, including those who go on to be adopted.

My initial goal was to develop a new questionnaire to cover the mental health and psychological wellbeing issues that this population were experiencing, as well as considering attachment/trauma history and the child’s ability to trust others and form healthy relationships, and the behaviours that these often expressed through. I was also interested in what issues determined the type of placement given to a child, and the risk of placement breakdown, as well as what opened doors to specialist services such as therapy, and whether those services and interventions really made any difference. I therefore ran two focus groups to explore what concerns carers and professionals had about Looked After children and young people, and asked them about what they saw that might indicate a mental health problem, or any related concerns that led people to want my input, or that caused placements to wobble or break down. One group contained foster carers and the professional networks around them (link workers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers) and one contained residential care workers and the professional networks around them (home managers, children’s social workers, the nurse who did the LAC medicals, service managers). I wrote their responses down on flip-charts, and then I sorted them into themes.

I had initially thought that it might cluster as behavioural and emotional, or internalising and externalising, but my items seemed more complex than that. In the end there were five themes that emerged:

  • Behaviour
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Risk (to self and others)
  • Relationships/attachments
  • Indicators (of psychiatric or neurodevelopmental conditions)

The first letters gave me the name for the scale: BERRI. I then piloted the scale with various carers, and then with a group of clinical psychologists involved with CPLAAC (the national network within the British Psychological Society that contained about 300 Clinical Psychologists working with Looked After and Adopted Children that I was chair of for about six years). I then added a life events checklist to set the issues we were identifying in context.

The working group I chaired in 2007 on the state of outcome measurement for Looked After and adopted children (on the invitation of CORC) came to the conclusion that no suitable metrics were available or widely used. We therefore agreed to further develop and validate the various tools that members of the group had home brewed, including my BERRI. There was acknowledgement that it takes a lot of work to develop a new psychometric instrument in a valid way, but a consensus that this needed to be done. So I resolved to find a way to follow that proper process to validate and norm BERRI, despite the lack of any funding, ring-fenced time or logistical support to do so. The first challenge was to collect enough data to allow me to analyse the items on the measure, and the five themes I had sorted them into. But I didn’t have the resources to run a research trial and then enter all the data into a database.

My way around this barrier was to get my peers to use the measure and give me their data. To do this I took advantage of some of the technically skilled people in my personal network and developed a website into which people could type anonymous BERRI scores and receive back a report with the scores and some generic advice about how to manage each domain. I tested this out and found my peers were quite enthused about it. We then had a formal pilot phase, where 750 BERRIs were completed by Clinical Psychologists about children and young people they were working with. I then talked about it with some young people and care leavers to check that they felt the areas we were covering were relevant and helpful to know about*. Then I started to use the system in a large pilot with residential care providers and developed tools to focus in on particular concerns as goals to work on, and track them day by day or week by week, as well as creating tools to give managers an overview of the progress of the children in their care. We’ve had a lot of feedback about how useful and game-changing the system is, and how it has the potential to revolutionise various aspects of commissioning and decision-making in children’s social care.

But I really wanted the process to be one in which we were truly scientific and based our claims on evidence. I’ve never marketed the BERRI or made claims about what it can do until very recently, when I finally reached a point where we had evidence to substantiate some modest claims**. But to me the process is critical and there is still a long way to go in making the data as useful as it can be. So from day one a process of iterative research was built in to the way we developed BERRI. As soon as it was being used by large numbers of services and we had collected a large data set we were able to look closely at how the items were used, the factor structure, internal consistency and which variables changed over time. We ran a series of validity and reliability analyses including correlations with the SDQ, Conners, and the child’s story – including ACEs, placement information and various vulnerability factors in the child’s current situation. But even then I worried about the bias, so a doctoral student is now running an independent study of inter-rater reliability and convergent/divergent validity across 42 children’s homes.

BERRI will always be developed hand in hand with research, so that there is an ongoing process of refining our outputs in light of the data. For example, it seems that it might be meaningful to look at two aspects of “Relationships” being distinct from each other. If the evidence continues to show this, we will change the way we generate the reports from the data to talk about social skills deficits and attachment difficulties separately in our reports. We might also tweak which items fall into which of the five factors. We also want to check that the five factor model is not based on the a priori sorting of the items into the five headings, so we are planning a study in which the item order is randomised on each use to repeat our factor analysis. We also want to explore whether there are threshold scores in any factor or critical items within factors that indicate which types of placements are required or predict placement breakdown. We might also be able to model CSE risk.

The results to date have been really exciting. I have begun to present them at conferences and we are currently preparing them to submit for publication. For example, I am currently writing up a paper about the ADHD-like presentation so many traumatised children have, and how we have learnt from our BERRI research that this reflects early life ACEs priming readiness for fight-or-flight rather than proximal events or a randomly distributed organic condition. But the findings depend on all the groundwork of how BERRI was developed, our rigorous validation process and the data we have collected. It is the data that gives us the ability to interpret what is going on, and to give advice at the individual and organisational level.

So you’ll forgive me if I’m somewhat cynical about systems that request a subjective likert rating of five domains from Every Child Matters, or an equally subjective score out of 100 for twelve domains pulled from the personal experience of the consultant when working in children’s social care services, that then claim to be able to map needs and progress without any validation of their methodology, areas to rate, sensitivity to change or the meaning of their scores. Having gone through the process the long way might put me at a commercial disadvantage, rather than going straight to marketing, but I like my houses built on the foundations of good evidence. I can feel confident that the load bearing beams will keep the structure sound for a lifetime when they are placed with precision and underpinned by the calculations and expertise of architects, structural engineers, surveyors and buildings control, rather than cobbled together as quickly as possible, marketed with amorphous claims and sold on rapidly to anyone who will pay for them. After all, I’m not in it to make a quick buck. I know my work is a slow and cumulative thing, and BERRI still has a long way to go before it can create the greatest impact. But my goals are big: I want to improve outcomes for children and young people who have experienced adversity, and I want that impact to influence the whole culture of children’s social care provision in the UK and to continue to be felt through the generations. And to do that, I need to build the thing properly.

*I’m still intending to act on the advice to also have a strengths scale to recognise resilience and positive factors, so that it doesn’t feel like we see the children purely as a list of problems. However, I didn’t want to duplicate the work of others, so I am following up a potentially exciting lead in terms of a collaboration with the Mulberry Bush School, who have explored the positive factors they have seen as markers of progress in their environment.
** that carers, therapists and managers find it useful and easy to use, that using the BERRI pathway demonstrated an improvement of 14% over 6 months for the first 125 children placed on the system, and that BERRI has the basic statistical qualities that suggest sufficient validity for use. We also have some testimonials, including a commissioner who used BERRI to map the needs of 15 high tariff children and found four suitable to move to foster or family placements with support, saving nearly half a million pounds per year from his budget – a finding we would like to replicate with a much larger study, given the opportunity.

 

 

Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

The Emperor’s new clothes

I used to believe that the more you read, the more you would know, and the the greater the insights that would open to you. That was before I stumbled into the world of online influencers, and their self-improvement and entrepreneurship blogs. The first few seem interesting enough, with their generic advice to do what you love, to take risks, to work hard, to seek feedback and to do something with meaning. By the time you have read ten you start to see the same themes being regurgitated again and again, and to notice the gaping holes in the evidence or ideas presented. Read a hundred and you realise how many entries are a thin veneer of received wisdom over recycled content and self-promotion. A lot of people seem to be posturing about their finery, but not to have much substance underneath, and I really don’t want to be one of them, or to support that culture. So I have been reflecting about why they have rubbed me the wrong way.

Many blogs and “channels” of thematically promoted content tell you that to become successful (read popular or wealthy) you need to emulate the tried and trusted pattern of becoming a social media self-improvement guru, and to learn to do that best you’ll need to subscribe to the premium products or insights from the person writing, and those that they have attached themselves to (and probably get affiliate fees from). It suddenly feels like a pyramid scheme without any substance. Others tell the story of the remarkable success of mould-breaking ventures, and then at the bottom of the piece acknowledge that the author is involved in these examples financially or benefits from their success, and has therefore shaped the narrative in a way that promotes their interests rather than maximises learning by admitting the real stumbling blocks along the way.

Most post from a position of privilege, and entirely fail to recognise that their success would not have been possible without their wealth, social networks, safety nets, confidence, marketable appearance or demographics. I’ve read several that think that the ability to take financial risks is a personality trait that leads to success, rather than recognising that starting at a point successful enough for that to be possible is a precursor to that ability. It is much easier to work for a year without pay or gamble your savings if you have means to still pay the rent and bills, and no dependents. To pick one example that typifies the genre, “Only do work that is incentive-based… be part of the results economy” implies you have a choice of work available to you, and that it is in a format other than a minimum wage or zero-hours contract. The same with challenges to step out of transactional relationships and into transformational ones. To say “If you’re afraid of losing what you’ve currently got, you probably won’t risk it. You’ll probably do everything you can to AVOID losing it. And therefore, you’ll have given up your WHY. You’ll have stunted your progression” blames people who are stuck in the poverty trap for not being able to take the risks of the author’s middle class educated peers with much wider opportunities open to them, and a safety net to catch them if they fall. “Increase your motivation” implies that you aren’t highly motivated to avoid the adverse effects of not being able to pay the rent or bills, or to feed your dependents. So whilst he says “one decision separates the wealthy from the non-wealthy” I think he has the causality reversed. Being wealthy and privileged allows you to position yourself where further success is more likely, and makes taking risks easier.

Or consider the claim that “extreme frugality enabled her to retire at 32” that has led this wealthy white American woman to have a Guardian article, long-standing blog and a book deal about being frugal and less attached to wealth and material possessions as a marker of success. It sounds great. Until you learn of the fact she and her husband own a million dollar plus property that is let out, as well as their 66 acre detached “homestead in the woods”, and that he works earning $200k+ per year as a non-profit executive, whilst she earns a substantial income from her writing and media work. So really they are people who have chosen to work from home more, but who are still in the top 1% for income and assets. Reducing their spend on artisanal cheese, eating out and make-up, and wearing hand-me-down and second-hand clothing does not make these people role models for frugality, because as Jarvis Cocker said so well, you can play at being poor:

But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad* he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
*banker also works here

And that is one of the key things missing from many of these blogs. The idea that being able to save up, or use your spare time, or take risks implies that you already have those resources of money, time or energy to spare. That you aren’t living from hand to mouth, and don’t need to keep an emergency fund for if the car breaks down, or your benefits are sanctioned, or you need time off work because you are sick and get no pay because you are on a zero-hours contract or working in the gig economy. Socioeconomic status affects our perception of the world, with lower earners seeing the world as more challenging, and higher earners being more solipsistic and having a sense of being able to change the world. Autonomy is more attractive and comfortable to wealthier people, whilst those who are in lower socioeconomic groups value greater interdependence. Research shows that richer people have less empathy and less awareness of the external factors that affect success. Having an easier life means many people are more confident they will become successful, and expecting a yes based on past experience can help that confidence become socially persuasive to others (in an extreme example, it can get a business to a $9 billion valuation with $700 million of investment, without the claimed technology).

The idea that we can all “make our fortune” places systemic inequality in the background and personal attributes and effort into the foreground. The same thinking shows up with the perception that people can snap out of depression or mental health problems if they choose to do so, or put in more effort. It rests on the belief that these personality traits are under our control and can be created with the right mindset. I suspect that comes from only looking backwards from success, rather than forward from an equal starting point. It fits with the egocentric perspectives of those who have the status to give advice to others, rather than the evidence or the experience of those who have struggled with their mental health. It leads to superficially plausible ideas that we can change our mindset and then sort out all the difficulties in our lives if we choose to. Sure, there is fairly solid evidence that lifestyle changes such as increased exercise or social connection can impact upon mood, and the success of CBT shows us that challenging our thinking can also make positive impacts to quality of life. However, it ignores the external constraints. The idea that you can address your own low mood by going to the gym more, or getting out into nature or socialising suggests the funds for gym memberships, or travel, or eating/drinking out, and the time to do it in, as well as the lack of current stressors to deal with. It also suggests a frame of mind that has the capacity to plan ahead, rather than constantly fire-fighting in the present.

In the entrepreneurial world, bloggers often add in the assumption that a good idea and hard work is enough. That presupposes that you are an educated white (or possibly Asian) male, who will be taken seriously by investors or industry peers, and that you have the knowledge, resources and networks to build your minimum viable product or service, and bring it to market. That’s a lot of assumptions, particularly for women and BME entrepreneurs who find many more systemic barriers to success, and often struggle to even get a seat at the table. Take it from me, as a highly educated and relatively privileged white woman, that having the knowledge skills and networks to be an entrepreneur is really hard. Finding the right support takes time, energy, social networking, and means/willingness to travel, as well as practical support like childcare. It would be very hard to wrap around a day job, let alone shift work, unpredictable hours, multiple jobs or being a single parent or carer. So if you can make it despite these things you are an amazing exception, and running a whole different race to most of these bloggers. In fact, you’ve probably run a metaphorical marathon before reaching their starting line.

That same mentality fools people into thinking that success (and therefore wealth) is somehow a meritocracy. That the people whose ideas make it into a mass market or getting bought out by a big name player are somehow the best of the bunch. I suspect the reality is that equally good ideas and products fail all the time, because of the lack of access to the resources required to get through the early stages of development and in front of the right people. Because there is a publication bias, we hear about the success stories disproportionately, whilst the companies that fail only get mentioned if their instigator goes on to do something bigger and better that becomes a success. Then they can be spun into a narrative of persistence and resilience in retrospect, rather than the crushing and all-consuming catastrophes they feel at the time. That leads to a false belief that success is earned, and therefore open to anyone. Whilst people do acknowledge barriers to attainment, the perception is that your background is a relatively minor variable in your success, whilst hard work and ambition are the true determinants of social outcome – that is, most people believe wealth is a meritocracy. The reality is that the UK has relatively low levels of social mobility, and both here and in the USA, the meritocracy myth has been used to justify policies that increase inequality.

At the same time, we have developed a culture that increasingly exploits the more vulnerable demographics in the population in other ways, from marketing cheap unhealthy food options to them with aisle end promotions, brand tie-ins and toys, to the four times higher incidence of smoking in lower socioeconomic groups, or the ridiculous cost of credit for those who cannot access bank loans, which has become one of the primary elements of the “poverty premium” in which poorer people have to spend more to access the same services. Because decisions are made by people who have success and power, they often share the illusions that they earned their status, and thus that anyone who hasn’t gained success has somehow failed to earn it.  To quote an article I’ve linked above:

In David Cameron’s “aspiration nation”, you were either a striver or a skiver; the very act of hoping to reach upwards became a moral obligation. Those who could not draw on existing reservoirs of privilege were told to worker harder to catch up.

That’s a toxic narrative that increases inequality and blames those born into deprivation or adversity for its impact. True equality is to change things so that no matter what context someone comes from they can run the same race.
I think that is my take away from reflecting on this topic – that it is hard to recognise the impact of experiences that differ from our own, and easy to assume that our own attainments come from effort rather than privilege. I’m sure I’ve done that before, in both my personal and professional life. As a blogger I can only share from my own experience and reflections, I can’t be certain my own learnings will generalise to others. So it is another reminder to “check my privilege” and to ask a lot and listen a lot to those who really know about an issue before forming opinions. As a therapist and someone people come to for advice it is all to easy to feel like you have strategies to hand out like sweets to recipients, and to end up replaying advice that worked for someone else without considering the specific situation and history of the individual you are dealing with. In the desire to be helpful we can end up missing a core facet of what is going on for that person, or giving vacuous advice that doesn’t apply to someone from different circumstances. So it is really important not to fill in the blanks with assumptions or from your own experience, but to really listen to the experiences, ideas and beliefs of the person you are working with. That is the start of an authentic and respectful relationship, and in my view the feeling of being understood, accepted and valued is the core attribute in helping empower people to make positive changes in their lives.

Solve for happiness: Some thoughts on big data/AI and mental health

We are hearing a lot about the use of big data at the moment, mostly that it has been an underhand way to manipulate people politically, that has been used by those with no ethical compunctions to get people to vote against their own best interests*, and in favour of Brexit and Trump. Cambridge Analytica and AIQ seem to have commercially exploited academic research and breached data protection rules to try to nudge political behaviour with targeted messaging. Whether or not that was successful is up for debate, but to the public the narrative is about big data being bad – something technocrats are exploiting for nefarious reasons. I can understand that, because of the associations between gathering data on people and totalitarian political regimes, and because of concerns about privacy, data protection and consent. There is increasing awareness of what had previously been an unspoken deal – that websites harvest your data and show you targeted advertising, rather than charge you directly for services, and the new GDPR means that we will be asked to explicitly consent to these types of data collection and usage.

But what about the potential for big data to do good? I know that DeepMind are doing some data crunching to look at whether AI algorithms can help identify indicators that determine outcomes in certain health conditions and point doctors towards more effective treatments. Their work to identify warning signs of acute kidney injury was criticised because of breaches to data protection when they were given access to 1.6 million medical records without individual patient consent, but whilst the data issues do need to be sorted out, the potential for projects like this to improve health and save lives is undeniable. Computers can look through huge amounts of detailed data much more quickly and cost-effectively than humans. They can also do so consistently, without fatigue or bias, and without a priori assumptions that skew their observations.

Research often highlights findings that seem counterintuitive to clinicians or human researchers, and that means that using the data to generate the patterns can find things that we overlook. One example I read about today was the fact that admitting offending behaviour does not reduce the risk of recidivism in sexual or violent offenders (in fact those who show most denial offend less, whilst those who demonstrate more disclosures and shame are more likely to reoffend). But this is also true about telling people they are being given a placebo (which will still produce positive placebo effects), using positive mantras to enhance self-esteem (which seem to trigger more negative thoughts and have a net negative impact on mood and self-esteem) or about expressing anger (rather than this being cathartic and leading to a reduction in anger, it actually increases it). Various fascinating examples are listed here. There is also the well-known Dunning Kruger effect, whereby ignorance also includes a lack of insight into our own ignorance. As a population, we consistently overestimate our own ability, with people in the bottom percentiles often ranking themselves well above average.

I often refer to the importance of knowing the boundaries of your own competence, and identifying your own “growing edges” when it comes to personal and professional development. We talk about the stages of insight and knowledge developing from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence where we can use the skill without conscious focus. Confucius said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” And it may well be that when it comes to solving some of the big problems we are limited by our own frame of reference, what we think of as relevant data, our preconceptions and our ability to build complex models. Using giant data sets and setting technology to sift through and make sense of them using various paradigms of AI might help open up new possibilities to researchers, or find patterns that are outside of human observation. For example, certain medications, foods or lifestyle traits might have significant impact on certain specific health conditions. I am reminded of a recent article about how a third of antidepressants are prescribed for things other than their primary function (for example, one can seemingly help with inflammatory bowel disease that has very limited treatment options). A computer sifting through all the data can pick up both these unintended positive effects and also rare or complex harmful side-effects or interactions that we may not be aware of.

What difference could this make in mental health? Well, I think quite a lot. Of course many predictors of mental health are sociopolitical and outside of the control of the individual, but we also know that some small lifestyle changes can have very positive impacts on mental health – exercising more, for example, or having a healthy diet, or getting more sleep, or using mindfulness, even just getting outdoors more, learning something new, doing something for others, or spending more time with other people (and less time on social media) can have a positive impact. There are also many therapy and therapist variables that may make an impact on mental health, for people who engage in some form of talking therapy, although variance in outcomes seems to actually boil down to feeling heard and believed by a therapist who respects the individuality and cultural context of the client. And of course there are many medical treatments available.

So is there a way of using big data to look at what really works to help people feel happier in their lives? I think the potential for apps to collect mass data and test out what makes impact is enormous, and there are a proliferation of apps in the happiness niche and more that claim to help wellbeing in a broader way. They seem to have found a market niche, and to offer something positive to help people make incremental life changes that are associated with happiness. What I’m not sure of is whether they reach the people that need them most, or if they are evaluating their impact, but presumably this is only a matter of time, as real life services get stripped back and technology tries to fill that gap.

I think there is huge need to look at what can make positive change to people’s wellbeing at a population scale, and I think we need to be tackling that at multiple levels. First and foremost, we need to make the sociopolitical changes that will stop harming the most vulnerable in society, and encourage greater social interconnectedness to prevent loneliness and isolation. We need to increase population knowledge and tweak the financial incentives for healthy lifestyle choices (eg with much wider use of free or subsidised gym memberships, and tax on unhealthy food options). And we need to invest in preventative and early intervention services, as well as much more support during pregnancy and parenting, and in mental health and social care. But I can also see a role for technology. Imagine an app that asked lots of questions and then gave tailored lifestyle recommendations, and monitored changes if the person tried them. Imagine an app that helped people identify appropriate local sources of support to tackle issues with their health and wellbeing, and monitored their impact when people used them. As well as having a positive immediate impact for users, I’m sure we’d learn a lot from that data that could be applied at the population level.

*I think the evidence is strong enough that the demographics who voted for these people/policies in the greatest numbers are the very people who have come out the worst from them, so I am just going to state it as a fact and not divert into my personal politics in this blog, given I have covered them in previous topics about Brexitmy politics, “alternative facts”, Trump, why and what next, the women’s march, and Grenfell and the Manchester bomb.

Why did I think that?

On Sunday morning I moaned to my husband about the fact I always seem to wear the same familiar items of clothing over and over in rotation. He pointed out that this might be because I had less than half of my clothes in circulation, as the rest hadn’t been unpacked since we had moved – two years ago! How had I not noticed this? It suddenly made sense of my nagging sense of absence in my wardrobe. Looking back I could identify that over the last couple of years I had felt short of smarter clothes to wear to work, and aware that I was wearing more of the casual comfortable clothes I had previously worn at home even when doing work activities. It wasn’t a huge problem because I have been doing less court work, and doing more work from home. But I had sometimes felt self-conscious about whether I would appear too informal*. However, instead of having recognised that these feelings reflected a genuine shortfall, I had just acted on the vague sense of deficit by buying replacement items. When I retrieved the missing clothing from the packing cases and sorted through my total wardrobe I had bought more than ten pairs of work trousers since we moved here, and as many new work tops – meaning that when combined with my rediscovered store of clothing I suddenly had an excess of them. Doh!

I also struggle to part with old clothes that I love, even when they are quite worn out, or get damaged. I have particular favourite tops that have gained punctures or pulled threads over time, but these are not visible unless you look closely so it feels wasteful to throw them away. Our washing machine also seems to create small punctures in items from time to time – particularly just above the knee of thin cotton trousers. It isn’t that we can’t afford new clothes, I just don’t like the environmental and sociopolitical ramifications of buying cheap and disposing of things frequently. However, with my children I have a strict rule that if an item is damaged we fix it or bin it** (perhaps fuelled by having observed so much neglect, and a bit of parental indulgence) and we sort through their clothes twice a year to give away those that they have grown out of. It is a notable contrast that I find that process of review and quality control harder to implement for myself. As I said, I have a general preference for buying good quality things that last compared to buying often to follow fashions, and a strong dislike of wastefulness. Plus my body shape and size has been fairly consistent over time***. This combination means a lot of my clothes have been around for a long time – I still sometimes wear a T-shirt to the gym that I bought the week I got my A-level results, I sometimes wear hand-me-downs from my high school best friend that I haven’t spoken to in twenty years, and I only recently retired a long sleeve T-shirt I’ve slept in more nights than not since my teens (I’m in my early forties). That means that I have gradually accumulated clothes to the point they fill a two-metre hanging rail and two drawers, plus three smaller drawers for underwear and socks. I’m not convinced I need so many. Even when I had all of my clothing available to me, I didn’t wear it all and some items would get worn less than once a year, whilst favourites would get worn again each time they returned from being washed. So why do I buy them?

I also have a tendency to buy too many shoes. Part of the problem is that I am strongly attracted to shoes that I can imagine myself wearing in some kind of fantasy world where I don’t actually have to walk very far or stand up for very long or drive the car, but that I don’t choose to wear when faced with the reality of my plans for the day ahead. So I have about twenty pairs of shoes with wedge heels and/or platform soles in the bottom of my wardrobe upstairs, whilst I mainly wear sensible comfortable shoes/boots that I keep in the shoe rack by the front door. I also have quite a few sets of what I think of as silly shoes, as I have often been enticed by designs that are a contrast to traditional expectations in some way – perhaps as a small act of rebellion – that are sometimes practical enough to wear, but sometimes languish unworn in the cupboard. I’m not a big spender, as I mainly buy fairly modest brands and usually in the sales, so it isn’t that I’m wasting lots of money. But it feels quite contradictory to my wider values to be hooked into any form of consumerism. In particular, it seems to conform to stereotypes about women, and our willingness as a gender to suffer discomfort in order to appear more attractive that I don’t consciously endorse.****

So I have spent the day diligently trying on every item of clothing I own and sorting out those that are damaged to dispose of, and those I won’t wear to give to the charity shop. I’ve also sorted out ten pairs of shoes I have never worn that I intend to sell online in the hope of recouping some of the money I have wasted.

But, being a psychologist and being curious about this stuff, I’ve also been wondering about the thinking patterns that have put me into this situation. Why was it that my brain kept telling me to buy more work clothes without identifying that some of my existing ones were missing? Why is it that I set higher standards for the appearance of my children than I do for myself? Why is it that I repeatedly buy shoes that I don’t wear? I think it must reflect a discrepancy between my sense of self, and the reality. My inner sense of myself is younger, slimmer and more unconventional than the overweight middle-aged mum you see from the outside, and has almost infinite time and energy, so I have some positive delusions about myself. But, like many (most?) people, I’m also more self-critical, both about the things I don’t get done (both at work, at home and creatively), my disorganisation (kindly reframed by several people I trust as “taking on more than it is possible for one person to keep in order”), and of my face or body when captured in unflattering photographs (which seems to be pretty normal, given the prevalence of filters now in use, the selectiveness with which photos to share are selected from massive numbers taken, and the use of photoshop on celebrity images). The standards I set myself are high, and at some level I compare myself to an unrealistic ideal. That Miriam can dance about in fancy shoes without looking ungainly or falling over, and can fit in twice as many things as I do in a week, whilst appearing glamorous in photos, and coming across as organised and well-presented at all times. That Miriam can be the perfect wife and mother as well as running a business and having a load of creative side-projects. She can have a social life, be involved in the community and support the causes she is passionate about. And compared to her I will always fall short.

Yet if it was someone else, I’d be the first to appreciate them as they are, and tell them that their cup is quite full enough to not waste mental energy on comparing themselves to unrealistic ideals. When I see photos of friends and family I see the person that I love and their relationships, activities and emotional expressions, not the awkward posture, double chin, or spot on their nose that they see first. There are times I feel frustrated with others, but if they are apologising about being late or messing up a plan, the chances are I’m probably viewing that as trivial in the context of what they mean to me, and all the times they’ve been there when I needed them. So on balance I think I judge myself harshly, and my friends and loved ones generously, but I have a strong sense of them as an individual.

With people I meet through work, I don’t know them as an individual before we meet, and there is often a negative narrative that is being told about them, but I find empathy as I hear their story and see their challenges in the context of their (usually traumatic) history. That is true of the parents I meet through court proceedings or social services, as well as with the children and young people themselves. Even if the person has done some bad things, I can usually find something to like about them, or feel sympathetic about their experiences. Yet with a stranger or when thinking about a population demographic (eg “rough sleepers” or “brexiteers”), we don’t have these relationships or individual narratives to inform us, so we often fall back onto stereotypes, no matter how much we try to resist them – perhaps because we don’t have the additional information required to flesh out that initial impression.

That would tie in to lots of psychology research about how poor our judgements are about ourselves, and the fundamental attribution error. It also ties into our inherent prejudices about ourselves and about others. For example, it is fairly prevalent at the moment to associate being overweight with laziness, gluttony and lack of self-control, as I mentioned in my first blog, when in reality it seems to reflect socioeconomic factors, trauma history and low mood more than personality deficits. I’ve previously talked about my own excess weight as a security blanket after feeling at risk of rape in my late teens but I might not have mentioned that as a vegetarian fruit and veg junkie I actually eat very well, swim regularly and was quite serious about weight lifting before my minor RTA. I don’t care too much about conforming to social expectations of appearance, but I do like to feel like my body is healthy and has the ability to do stuff (and I get a lot of secret joy from having “ninja muscles” – a term I use because, like ninjas, unless I want to reveal them nobody else would know they are there) – yet this is the reverse of what might be perceived of me by others, who might associate my body shape with a bad diet or sedentary lifestyle. Weight lifting wasn’t something I had thought of before a friend trained as a personal trainer, but when I tried it I liked. The measurable gains were rewarding***** and it felt like it might become a way to shed the security blanket whilst still feeling safe, so it is something I am trying to return to. Building some hidden muscles made me feel strong and healthy, but also tickles the part of me that likes to buck expectations – as nobody expects a middle aged mum to be deadlifting a 19 stone barbell!

Having reflected on the way I see myself and others for a while, I think the challenge is to be more self-aware, and to find a way to be authentic. The process of keeping a reflective journal that we discussed on the clinpsy forum is one means to achieve that. Personal therapy can also serve a similar purpose. Or just having a regular time in which to reflect, perhaps as part of a mindfulness practise. It is worth being aware of the common cognitive distortions, so that you can spot them in yourself too. Having rediscovered some lost bits of my aspirational self, I think I’m going to try to be a little bit more playful, and a bit less self-critical. And maybe I’ll express that by being more mindful about the clothes I choose to purchase and to wear in future. I also want to express more of the positive parts of that inner self into the world – so who knows, the next time you see me maybe I’ll be wearing those silly shoes.

Footnote (added 25/5/18): I wore some of those fancy shoes I’ve been hoarding to visit the House of Lords the week before last. They seemed really comfortable when I set out that morning, but by 6pm I had quite severe blisters. I ended up walking back to the hotel barefoot before buying some flip-flops the following morning.

*For those who care about these things, I’m not referring to wearing jeans or T-shirts with pictures or slogans on them, or anything that is distressed or damaged. I tend to favour soft T-shirt like fabrics or those with a slight stretch built in, rather than very smart clothing that is stiff and fitted. I generally like to wear trousers and tops in warm dark colours that are either plain or bold prints. I sometimes wear print dresses or skirts – and I do own four trouser suits for court work – but my staple is trousers and a top. Thursday would be fairly typical of how I dress – I wore aubergine trousers with a jeans-like cut and slight velvet texture, coupled with a three-quarter sleeved plum coloured top and a longer open dark purple top over it like a twinset.
**Or more accurately recycle or use it as rags, as we try to be a low-waste household
***I currently weigh two pounds less than the day I first tried on my wedding dress in 1996, which would be impressive if I wasn’t already obese by then
****It is strange that as a gender we seem to have a shared perception that propping ourselves up on high heels makes us look taller and slimmer, and forces us into a posture more flattering to the legs and bum – and that we are willing to sacrifice not only comfort, but our ability to move through the environment at speed or on uneven ground to do so.
*****Something I think is also true when using outcome measurement to demonstrate the impact of therapy or interventions