How not to apply for a job in psychology

I’ve been shortlisting for a new post today, as we’ve already received 43 applications for the advert I put up yesterday morning*. For a profession in which there is a narrative that prestigious Assistant Psychologist posts are almost impossible to get, the quality of applications is surprisingly poor. I don’t mean that the applicants themselves are surprisingly poor, as they seem to generally be alright, but the way they have applied for the post is, for far too large a proportion of those applying, pretty disappointing. It isn’t going to affect the outcome of the process, as there are some really good applications so we won’t have any trouble finding enough to interview, but there are far too many people who rule themselves out of the running unnecessarily. Many of these applicants might be quite good, but their applications fall far short of my shortlisting criteria for really obvious and easily avoidable reasons. That means that for people who do follow a few simple tricks** you greatly increase your chance of successful applications – not just in my post, but in any application within the field of psychology, and probably most of the advice will generalise to other job applications too.

Before you think that I’m a control freak with unreasonable expectations of applicants, please remember that the context is that 70+ candidates will apply for my vacancy before I close it, and NHS posts will typically attract 100-200 applicants within a short period of time, leading some to close in just a few hours. The balance of supply and demand here means that it’s a shortlister’s marketplace, and only the best applications from the best applicants will lead to an interview. That means that qualified CPs selecting for AP posts have to set high standards to let them narrow down the number of applicants quickly to a manageable amount that they can then shortlist in more detail. And having spoken to many other people who have been responsible for shortlisting similar posts and seen the posts on the thread on this topic on the clinpsy forum, my expectations and frustration with candidates who fail to do the simplest things to present their application properly are echoed by many of my peers.

Whilst these posts are particularly competitive and the application process has some sector-specific features, like the nature of GBC, and the relative values given to particular kinds of experience, what I am talking about are basic job seeking skills that should be taught by every career service or recruitment website. Not only that, but if you do a search on clinpsy you will see that the expectations held by people shortlisting for AP posts are clear, and there is a lot of advice available on this topic in the public domain. We are not expecting people to crack some secret code or have access to hidden insider information: Most of the things that would make the difference are things that require common sense and a bit of effort. My main grumble is as simple as people not reading the instructions on how to apply that are given in the job advert and firing off applications that aren’t specific to the post or don’t contain the required information, or that are really badly presented.

When it comes to my current post I’m not even asking anything too onerous. I haven’t set a task or asked anything unusual. I just want candidates to send a short CV and a covering letter saying how you fit the requirements of the post, with details of two referees. Surely that’s the minimum expectation when applying for a job, and pretty parallel to the NHSjobs expectation of giving education and employment history and then writing the supporting information and references? Yet a significant proportion have submitted applications with no covering letters, no references, or no information about why they want the job or are suited to it. To me that’s like going fishing but not taking a rod or a net.

In terms of essential criteria I’ve asked for a degree conferring GBC at 2:1 or better (or a degree level qualification in statistics or research), along with a driving license (or a transport plan for candidates with a disability to be able to complete the job). Yet many applicants have told me they will complete their undergraduate degree this summer, or don’t have a driving license. There are international applicants who haven’t shown me they can lawfully live and work in the UK. There are then applicants who haven’t given me information I need in order to see they meet my essential requirements. Perhaps they qualified abroad or with joint honours and they haven’t told me that they have GBC. Several haven’t given me a degree grade. Others might tell me that they had a particular job, but not give the hours or the dates so I can’t see how much experience they gained.

The process has really taught me how NOT to apply for a job in psychology, and I thought that might be expertise worth sharing. If you follow the advice I’ve numbered below, you too can be confident that you will maximise your chance to not secure a post!

So my first set of tips on how not to apply for a job are:

  1. Apply for jobs where you don’t meet the essential criteria
  2. Do not read the instructions on how to apply
  3. Do not write a covering letter (or supporting information section) at all
  4. Do not specify your degree grade
  5. Do not mention if you have GBC, even if you have an atypical qualification
  6. Apply from abroad but don’t worry to mention that you have the right to live and work in the UK
  7. Don’t tell me whether posts were full time or part time or the dates when you worked there

The next issue is that many (and in fact probably most) applications don’t tell me why you want this particular job, or how you meet our person specification. They fire off information that tells about their experiences and skills, but does nothing to show how they meet our shortlisting criteria, which are spelled out in the person specification. Few have told me why they want this job in particular as opposed to any job with an AP title or a CP supervisor. Some tell me about their aspirations to gain a training place and/or to have a career in clinical psychology, but (whilst I am aware that the post is a good developmental opportunity and I’m happy to support the successful candidate to develop) I’m not recruiting someone to help them achieve their aspirations. I’m recruiting to get a job done within my team, and their aspirations don’t tell me why they will be better at that job than the other 30+ people who have similar aspirations.

A significant proportion of applications consist of just a CV, perhaps with a very brief generic covering note. Many look like a mass mailing that the candidate sends out to every job listing that contains particular keywords. The result is that they feel like someone reading me a script to try and sell me double glazing or PPI claims without knowing anything about me – they have invested minimum effort but hope that if they apply to enough posts one might bite. In fact, many applications feel like they’ve taken less time to send out than they would take for me to read, and the impression given to the short-lister is that the person doesn’t care about the post at all.

Maybe it’s something about the internet age that people expect to be able to apply for a post with just a couple of clicks, like putting an item on an online store into their basket and then clicking to check out. If you had to invest the effort in phoning up for an application form and then filling it in by hand, as you did when I applied for my AP post in 1995, it might seem more obvious that you needed to make that effort count. But even then not every candidate would explain why they wanted the post. However the internet age also makes it easier to cut and paste the right chunks of information or to edit existing text. So it also makes it easier to tailor an application to a specific post.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Don’t read the job advert – the job title, pay and location are all the information you need
  2. Fire off a generic CV with no information about why you want the post or how your skills are suited to it (for bonus marks express interest in a different client group or service)
  3. Don’t even worry to read the person specification, that’s not important
  4. Don’t tailor your application to the job, just send the same application out to every post, regardless of the context or population.

The other big advantage is that the internet lets you check spelling and even grammar, so you really don’t need to submit applications that are peppered with typos and spelling mistakes. If you are dyslexic, get someone else to check it before submitting. If you feel too much time pressure to delay individual applications for proofreading then prepare the content you will need to configure most applications in advance so you can get someone to proofread your main blocks of text in advance. Word processing software also lets you count the number of characters, words and pages before you paste content in to your application, so you can easily follow any specified requirements. Which is why it is so puzzling to get six page CVs when I set a limit of two.

There are then other issues with how people present their applications. I get that pasting a CV into a recruitment site can mess with the formating, but you can normally use a preview feature to get the chance to see how it will appear to a recruiter, so it is worth checking. Simplify layouts and fonts and remove massive gaps that appear so that the CV looks neat and tidy. Keep it as short as possible. If I can write my CV on two pages, having worked in psychology for 24 years, managed teams in the NHS and now running my own business, I’m pretty sure that you don’t need six pages by the age of 23. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but I don’t care what your responsibilities were when you worked in that shop, or pub, or holiday resort in the summer before your degree. If you really want to mention it, I’m fairly sure one line would cover it. Otherwise it looks like you can’t prioritise – which is off-putting because being able to pick out the most salient information is an essential skill when deciding what information needs to go into a report.

So my next set of tips on how not to apply for a post are:

  1. Make lots of typos, and ensure to include as many spelling mistakes, punctuation errors and examples of poor grammar as possible (for bonus points, you could spell the name of the organisation or short-lister wrong, or try some text-style abbreviations)
  2. Lay your CV or application out so it is as unintelligible as possible, and definitely don’t check how it will appear in the application system
  3. Don’t worry about any requirements with regard to length, more is always better
  4. Put in lots of information about irrelevant experiences, such as work in retail and hospitality

I hope this blog doesn’t seem like I’m putting people who are just starting out in their psychology career down, or criticising those who have applied in a hurry for fear of the post closing before they have time to submit anything at all. My goal is entirely more positive – to share how simple it can be to make that impossible aspiration of gaining interviews for AP posts come true. There are certain really simple behavioural changes that can remarkably increase your odds of success.

So what can I do to improve my chances of gaining an interview?

First, apply to non-NHS job vacancies. It takes a little more effort to find them, and the quality can be more variable. However, they are a great foot in the door, and much easier to secure than their NHS equivalents as they tend to have lower numbers of applicants and to stay open a bit longer. If an NHS AP post means you have a 1 in 50 chance of an interview, a post outside the NHS might increase your odds to 1 in 15 for a fairly popular post, or even 1 in 3 if the post is only advertised on a company’s website and social media and not on a major recruitment platform. Yup, that one simple trick** can increase your chances by a factor of five!

Second, follow the instructions. Read the advert carefully and do what they tell you to do. If they ask for a two page CV make sure that you send one the right length. A 600 word essay? Well worth the effort, as sending it will double your chance of success compared to applying to a post without this requirement, as fewer other applicants will make the effort, whilst sending an application without it is posting your application straight into the no pile.

Third, tailor every application.  to show how you meet the person specification for that particular job, and to show you understand and are enthused about what the job will involve. Ideally you need to respond to every point of the person spec in a way that is clear and obvious to the shortlister, and probably in a similar order to that used in the specification. If they want a 2:1 or higher that confers GBC then you need to give your degree grade and specify it confers GBC, rather than assuming that the shortlister will know or be willing to check on Google whether this is the case. If you are applying from abroad or have international qualifications then it is worth stating whether you have the right to live and work in the UK, and explaining the scoring system and/or the UK equivalent of your degree grade.

Fourth, pick your battles. It is better to write fewer applications but to give each one more time so that it is of really good quality and tailored to the particular job than it is to send out hundreds of generic applications. Choose posts that you are enthusiastic about rather than applying to every AP post you see. Think about whether the location can work for you and whether you have relevant experience and/or transferable skills to bring. Make sure every application is up to the highest standards, even if this means they will sometimes close before you submit them***. In such a competitive field it is probably only worth applying for posts where you meet all the essential criteria.

Finally, check your working. Make sure you have spelt names and organisations correctly, and not made any silly typos or cutting and pasting errors. If you can, get someone else to read your text so you can get feedback on how to improve it. Even if that isn’t in time for the application you wrote it for, it will mean you don’t make the same mistakes next time. Preview the application to check the formatting if this is possible.

Then fire it off and cross your fingers!

 

*I’ll be reading more over the coming days too as we normally keep the advert open for a week or 75 applications, whichever comes first.

**cliche internet phrase

***In this circumstance it is worth sending an email to the appointing officer or point of contact given in the advert explaining what happened and attaching your application. They may consider it anyway, and even if they don’t you risk little by trying.

Holding the buck: Some thoughts about accountability in the modern marketplace

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk to the Institute for Recovery from Childhood Trauma at the House of Lords. I decided it would be too stressful to travel down that morning, so about three weeks in advance I booked an apartment through booking.com. I’ve stayed in apartments and rooms through online sites quite a few times before without incident. Normally they send a code for the door by text or email, or instructions to open a key safe. However, this booking was confirmed with instructions to collect the key from a nearby address by 9pm (I was told if I arrived later there would be a £20 late collection fee). So I caught an earlier train and got a taxi to the pick-up address, which transpired to be an office building, locked up for the night. The security guard on site who came out to see why I was loitering had never heard of this being a collection point for apartment keys. So I spent 45 minutes waiting at the pick-up address and checking the apartment address just down the road, with no ability to check my email or find the phone number of the owner due to the o2 outage. I then found a restaurant which let me use its wifi to contact the apartment owner. He answers the phone as Booking.com and says the pickup address sent to me by email was never given (despite me having it in writing on my screen as I spoke to him) and that I had not confirmed the time. He says he will send a man to meet me with a key. But he isn’t willing to send the man to the restaurant in which I am sitting, I have to go wait across the road outside Patisserie Valerie (which is also closed) for a man in a red jacket.

In about 15 minutes that man arrives. He greets me by name, but does not offer me any apologies or identification. I can’t tell if he is the man I spoke to on the phone or not. He does not provide a key to the apartment, but tells me to follow him and walks off in the opposite direction to the apartment. I ask him where we are going, he says “to the apartment”. I say that it isn’t the right way, and I don’t feel comfortable following a strange man to an unknown address. He is short with me and tells me that he is taking me to an alternative apartment, because a cleaner snapped the key in the apartment door 20 minutes previously. I find this suspicious as a) I’ve been waiting at the apartment and just up the road for 90 minutes and nobody has come or gone from it in this time, and b) why would a cleaner be in an apartment at 10pm that is supposed to have check-in from 3pm to 9pm, and c) why did the man on the phone not notify me of a change of address or email me with a change of booking through the site on which I had booked?

He leads me down less busy streets and alleys across Soho. I start to get anxious that I’m in a part of London that is unfamiliar to me, and have no idea where I am going. I will not be at the address I have booked and nobody will know where I am, its past 11pm and dark, and I’m being led by a total stranger who has shown me no ID. So I call my husband, explain the situation and start reading out street names so he knows where I am. He says that I sound nervous, and that if my gut doesn’t feel like this is safe I should trust it and go somewhere that does.

My mind goes into overdrive. I start worrying I’m being taken to an unknown address, where I might be robbed or attacked or anything. I’m thinking perhaps they gave the fake address as a means to be harder to trace, or perhaps they use the photos of one apartment in a good location to put people in cheaper accommodation in less favourable locations. Perhaps he is nothing to do with Booking.com and is just a confidence trickster. Did he definitely use my name? Was he the man on the phone? I have no way of knowing. I can’t just follow a stranger to an unknown address in the middle of the night with no explanation. I find an open wine bar to run into and hide.

Suddenly, all those feelings are right at the surface and I’m sobbing with fear and hiding behind the counter of the wine bar until the man has gone. Then the man who claims to be from Booking.com (I still can’t tell if he is also the man in the red jacket, or someone different) calls me and asks where I am, and I say “I don’t feel safe dealing with you and being taken to an unknown address, I’m going to find somewhere that feels safe to sleep”. It seems like something I should be able to take for granted, that now seems out of reach.

The staff at the bar are super-nice and patch me up, give me some water and use of their wifi. They offer me wine and fancy olives. I take the latter (and they are the best olives ever, as well as thoroughly nice people, so do check out Antidote if you are ever in Soho). When I calm down a bit, I start searching all the usual websites to find a hotel room. I then find out there is nowhere else to stay. And I mean that literally. Even when I increase my parameters to travel up to an hour from my location, nothing is coming up on any hotel booking site that isn’t fully booked. So I’m sat there in a random wine bar in Soho, 200 miles from home, and there are no longer trains to get back there even if I didn’t have to be in London by 9am the next morning to speak at the House of Lords.

At nearly 11pm I find one, very expensive, hotel with a single room available through LastMinute.com. I book it, pay and then pay £20 to get a taxi there only to find it is overbooked and they’ve already turned away 4 other customers. It is a converted Georgian townhouse with a small number of rooms, so I’m sat in the only chair in a tiny lobby. I’m repeatedly calling LastMinute, and it has gone past midnight so there is no longer even a means to find another hotel (as you can’t search for availability for the previous night), and they tell me they don’t have a room. It takes me four calls and 47 minutes on the line to speak to Last Minute’s customer services, who conclude they can’t find an alternative room for me, and don’t see that as their responsibility. At 1.25am they suggest a room is available at the Taj St James Court hotel and they have reserved it for me. I call them, they have no rooms and have never heard of me. It is now 1.30am, and I am making plans to sleep in the bucket chair I am sitting in, in the hotel lobby, as I have nowhere else to go* and it is raining heavily. Eventually at 2am the hotel say that one guest has not checked in yet, and agree to take the gamble and let me use the room. I get less than four hours sleep for twice-the-price-I’d-normally-set-as-my-upper-limit-for-a-room, before having to head out to speak at the House of Lords.

Having given the talk** I decided to complain to both Booking.com and LastMinute.com. The response from the former was “You got a refund for the apartment, so it’s all settled” and the latter offered “€20 as a goodwill gesture due to the 2 hour delay checking in”. No recognition of the fact the experience was traumatic, wasted 5 hours of my evening, cost me 3 extra taxis, and left me 200 miles from home without somewhere safe to sleep. I am faced with the realisation that trauma is subjective, and to many men hearing the tale I might have taken fright for no reason and brought the events that followed upon myself. I am forced to say “imagine if your Mum were in this situation” when explaining it to try to trigger sympathy. But nobody really cares. The apartment owner feels he has done his bit by refunding (and the website has conveniently blocked me from leaving a review). The men in the call centres were in another country, abstracted away from the problem. The customer service teams are seeing the facts in retrospect, not the feelings the experience generated, and are motivated to protect their brand rather than genuinely caring about me as a customer. The night manager of the hotel cared, because he met me in person, and saw I was upset. As a result he tried his best, but he wasn’t in a position that could resolve the problem.

And that’s where I finally reach the point. In a system where you book with a middleman who doesn’t actually provide the product you are paying for, nobody really feels accountable for the service you receive. And, to bring this round to being relevant to a wider point for health and social care, this model is being increasingly replicated in public services, where the NHS or local authority commission the service from another provider, who is assumed to be responsible. That split between online broker and real life provider, or the public sector split between purchaser and provider seems like a good model for each of those parties, as the purchaser delegates responsibility whilst fulfilling their obligations (or making a profit, in the case of online brokerage sites) with much reduced staffing and without having to invest in any tangible assets. The provider gains access to a wider market, rather than becoming obsolete. But somehow inevitably, as in my experience, the recipient of the service misses out in the middle, and finds out there is minimal quality control and an absence of clear lines of accountability when things go wrong or aren’t delivered as planned.

For example, there is a level of risk aversion that has made local authorities anxious about providing residential care placements, because of the prevalence of historic institutional abuse and the increasing awareness of child sexual exploitation and involvement in county lines (and the accompanying risk of compensation lawsuits). The result is a marketplace where private providers (many of them owned by international venture capital groups who pay minimal UK taxes) use unqualified, low-paid staff to care for some of the most complex and vulnerable young people in the UK, and it is hard for recipients or commissioners to distinguish them from provision that has different financial or delivery models. Likewise in health (and public transport) private providers cherry pick off the profitable services, whilst the public purse is left holding the can when they don’t deliver. There is a move to entrench this even further with the push towards Integrated Care Providers, where private organisations can manage the entire health and social care services for a particular region of the UK, in a way that is potentially unaccountable for its decisions and not subject to the rules for public sector organisations (like Freedom of Information requests, public consultation, or being subject to Judicial Enquiries if things go wrong, or even their statutory obligations). I think that might be a recipe for disaster, but then, I’m not a fan of corporations and the super-rich profiting from the suffering of the rest of us.

Update: Booking.com have agreed to reimburse my costs in relation to the apartment (but have not yet done so), whilst LastMinute.com have not yet replied, telling me they take 28 working days to respond to customer complaints that don’t accept the initial boilerplate response. I suspect that just like in health and social care, the (explicit or implicit) policy is to respond to those who kick up a fuss and have the potential to create negative publicity if things are not resolved, meaning that those who are devalued most by society have the least redress when things go wrong.

*call me a wuss, but I declined the option of having one bed in a bunk room in a hostel shared with 8-12 strangers
** which I will give again and video as soon as I shake the cold that’s currently making me croak

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.

 

 

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