Category Archives: Social psychology

Merry FOMO

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping on your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Ya, either that or you’re sitting in a cold place, with no fireplace and no choir, never mind people running around in silly costumes….

It’s that time of year again when even those of us who rarely suffer FOMO can get hit with a suprise attack. If you haven’t been invited to many (or any) Christmas cocktail parties or are looking forward to a somewhat lonely holiday season, it’s entirely possible FOMO has reared its ugly head to laugh at your misfortune. Or it could be the case that you’ve been partying non-stop but still feel FOMO breathing down your neck. We are not rational beings.

FOMO is the Fear of Missing Out.

It’s a monster born of envy and insecurity and the desire to be “where it’s at”.

Actually, it’s less about being there as it is about NOT being there. Not being where the action is means you’ve been rejected … or worse, simply overlooked and forgotten! Either way, you’re excluded.

The older we get, the greater the chances that we’ve “settled down” and, allegedly, part of settling down is is that FOMO retreats … regular attacks should wane. But Christmas is special. Christmas is when many otherwise contented people wonder why their lives are not like the ones we see on TV.

It’s that time of year when it’s not actually insane to shed a tear over a commercial for a discount supermarket.

The first time I really became aware of the power of FOMO was during my 20’s when I lived in Dublin.

There’s a movie in my mind — or more precisely, a scene with a soundtrack — which captures my own sense of life is elsewhere. The scene is the drive from Dublin city centre all the way to Howth, at night, along the coast road.

For those of you who don’t know the drive, most of it involves a very long flat road that follows the curve of a bay. On the drive out of town the water is on the right and on the left run terraced houses until you get closer to Howth when the houses begin to detach into larger, private affairs.

At night, sitting in the back of a taxi, the lamp-posts are like a very long string of faery lights that trace a path all the way out to that large rocky hill of a peninsula called Howth — which rises up like a mass of twinkling ornaments at the end of the line.

For a half-hour’s drive I’d stare at those lights as they trailed all the way to the promise of people out late and parties just waiting for my arrival.

When I was invited, that is. Sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t.

The music that accompanies this image in my head of the night drive to Howth is Bryan Ferry.

Roxy Music captures the quiet, almost abstract painfulness of FOMO — of a better life going on elsewhere. Without me. Roxy Music knew how to do insatiable.

And so even if I have left behind the angst of my 20’s in Dublin, certain moments catch me off guard. Especially at Christmastime. Just last weekend, after weeks of travelling, with more weeks upcoming and many consecutive nights of being out on the town (in London or New York and in 12 hours time, Dublin), I’d kept last Saturday and Sunday simple. I had almost no social plans. I  shopped and caught up with my sleep and my laundry. But I also walked down my street in the dark of evening and couldn’t help but peer into other people’s houses with a pang of “Why am I not at a party? Is it OK to be by myself when EVERYONE else is having fun and toasting the festivities?” Until finally, “Is my life just a sham?!”

The only consolation is that almost everyone feels this way at some point or another (or so I’ve been told).

And I suspect if I didn’t feel this way from time to time I wouldn’t be normal.

So to everyone out there who thinks everyone else is having a great time without them, Happy FOMO. I highly recommend you wallow in your grass-less-green with a toast to yourself and a little bit of Roxy music to mark the occasion.


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Filed under Events, Random idea, Social psychology

The problem with our parents

It’s hard for me to take one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever come across and present it in a blog. Quickly. After my shower, but before I need to get going today on the laundry, the shopping, the packing of my suitcase, and before I go out tonight, and get back to work tomorrow and fly to Boston tomorrow night to visit my mom.

So I won’t try too hard. I only have about 40 minutes.

Instead I will tell you about the person behind the theory which involves a story even more interesting to me. Here goes …

Back in 1998 Judith Harris wrote a book called The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. Here’s some of the praise on the back of the book

  • ‘Harris’s assault on the assumption that screwed-up-adults should blame their families is a refreshing corrective.’ The Observer
  • ‘[This book] is brilliant – it has the unusual combination of being completely original, high interesting, and almost certainly correct.” Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

But the most interesting thing about the book is how Harris came up with her theory that other children, not adults, have much more to do with how we turn out.

Before she wrote the book, Harris published an article  in the distinguished academic journal Psychological Review. Which triggered a good deal of questions — where was her university affiliation? where were her credentials — Harris was Judith, not Professor Harris, not Dr. Harris. She received an outpouring of replies from the academics who read this journal. Her favourite came from a Professor at Cornell:

Your article constitutes a major contribution to personality and developmental psychology — which only makes me even more curious about you. Are you an academic? A clinician? An unemployed steel worker who has an interesting hobby of writing seminal scientific articles?

Harris was the steel worker. Here’s how she replied to the professor

I said I was an unemployed writer of college textbooks. I explained that I had no Ph.D — I’d been kicked out of Harvard’s Department of Psychology with only a master’s degree. I had been stuck at home for many years due to chronic health problems; I had no mentors, no students. I became a writer of textbooks because that is something one can do at home. I was an unemployed writer of textbooks because I’d quit that job.

She never heard from the professor again.

In one of life’s classic twists of fate she received the George A. Miller prize for her article. Miller was the former president of the American Psychological Society. And by chance Miller was the professor who had kicked Judith Harris out of the Ph.D program at Harvard 37 years earlier.

She’d done nothing wrong, her grades were fine, but it was his conclusion that she didn’t have it in her to come up with anything worthy enough of the Harvard badge. He’d written something to this effect in a letter to her that explained they didn’t want her to pursue her Ph.D.

In the intervening years Harris went on to be a mother. And a textbook writer. And she noticed that the theories and experiments she had to fashion into interesting textbook language didn’t add up. They didn’t explain to her why her two daughters were so different. She struggled with the idea that beyond genetic explanations (which she believes, but only account for half of who we are), her parental style would account for the rest. This was an idea with tremendous explanatory popularity throughout the 1980’s ad 1990’s when therapy took off like a tsunami. We might forget that now because genetics is back in vogue (after decades of their study being too taboo, too politically sensitive after all the effort of the civil rights movement to create a standard of equality that said all people, from all sorts of genetic variations, are just as smart and capable and worthy of the same treatment as the next person.)

Anyway, what Harris noticed is that this classic debate neglects a huge influence in our lives on what’s been called the “nuture side” but would be better known as environmental factors. She examines everything from why some children are more aggressive than others to how it is that immigrant children learn the language of their peers and not their parents and points to group socialization as the overlooked alternative explanation.

She argues against birth order theories, and twin studies and says “children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.”

I didn’t come across Harris until 2005 but her arguments backed up my own belief that school forms us for life. So of course I liked it.

But like all major theories hoping to explain humans, it’s not that Judith Harris has nailed it — it’s that, as an outsider, she saw what insiders could not see. And she stood up and said something about it. What she said was the exact sort of thing that gets you fired from teaching Ph.D programs never mind wanting to complete one. It’s that she devoted years of her life building the case to convince the people that research our lives, that shape government and healthcare and educational policy and that medicate and “treat” us with therapy or bookshelves of self-help — that there’s more they should understand about what influences our personality and life-chances than our parents (the genes they give us and the way they treat us).

What she actually said is that parents don’t matter. But she was just trying to get published. What she goes on to explain is that this over-emphasis on parenting is a huge waste of time when what really makes all the difference is going on in the playground or at after-school sports.

Parents matter, but a whole lot less than Philip Larkin and our culture insists.

[Not that this means that I personally ever forget all that you’ve done and still do for us, if you’re reading this Mom] See, I told you that 40 minutes was a very tall order to sum up Harris’ life work and get in all the nuances, never mind give my own personal thoughts on the matter … but really I have to go.

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Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Therapy

The roles people play

I’m not sure when I first developed my pet theory that the roles we played at school can last a lifetime, but it was before I studied psychology or came across social theories that might back me up.

What I thought was this: school is where we have to learn to be ourselves in a group within many groups; it’s our first major test where we find out what our “role of least resistance” might be. That is, the performance that comes most naturally to us when faced with lots of peers — when faced with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to be rejected.

And school, just like the work place many of us are headed to afterwards, is where we spend a disproportionately huge chunk of our time on the planet.

I suspect my theory developed around 1995.

At the time I worked for Dell Computers. Each day I went to work in what I thought of as the George Jetson of offices. George was the father character from The Jetsons — a cartoon or “animated sitcom” from the early 60’s. And while I was not alive in the 60’s, The Jetsons made a brief come-back in the 80’s. In a nutshell, they were the sci-fi version of The Flintstones .  Given that I suffer from an intensely vague memory, it’s unusual that any TV programme, never mind The Jetsons, became so memorable to me. I guess it was because I loved the technology of their everyday lives. To this day I think of Jane Jetson in the morning as I ask myself Do I really have to take a shower, blow dry my hair, find something to wear, put on make-up? Why can’t life be like Jane’s where I could just walk over to the car-wash-like conveyor belt and come out the other side moments later all perfectly groomed by friendly robots, ready to go?

Anyway, I worked for Dell at their office outside Dublin which felt very much like a large hangar which made me think that just like George Jetson’s briefcase, the company could decide to fold up the whole building with the flip of a switch and move it to a different country. Who knew I was so forward-thinking and this is exactly what more and more companies would start to do.

But back to the point — inside this George Jetson briefcase of a building, I sat at my computer alongside two hundred other 20 something’s. So I’m pretty sure that’s when my “school theory” formed.

As for the role I played at school, over the years people have told me that I was some sort of outsider who managed to be cool, aloof and for some of the time … above being freaky. The other half of the time — or that is, to another group of people, I was just your average weirdo.

Which is odd, because I wasn’t particularly weird. I was just separate. And a bit of a loner, but a loner with “leadership energy” which drew other weirdos towards me — which I wasn’t always happy about because some of these kids were different for the sake of being different. And I’ve always thought that was stupid.*

So I was superior too.

Not that this role matched the me on the inside much at all (and this is another theory that I shall explore in a later post — that people with only a little gap between who they are on the inside compared with their outside role, suffer a lot less than those of us with a very large gap between who we really are and how we are perceived.)

I’m sensitive to the fact that we should be able to take a look at The Breakfast Club to find the character that I was. But we can’t. I was absolutely not what’s-her-face the posh snobby one (except possibly for one year of my life when I moved from a rich town where we poor to a poor town where we were, if not rich, then definitely wearing the wrong clothes). And if anyone says I was Ally Sheedy I won’t talk to them again. But it seems as if some version of who I was is probably captured in that movie. It was certainly the basic milieu of my teenage life. And it had the right soundtrack. But I guess I’m over thinking this because it was a movie about a cast of high school stereotypes from the American 80’s, so it’s no mystery I related to it … and if I’m not sure which stereotype I was — well, isn’t that the entire point of the identity crisis that’s otherwise known as being a teenager.

And so it was only when I got to Dell — a company on the outskirts of Dublin with cliques of its own and noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to an All-American, Catholic, Ice-hockey champion high school on the outskirts of Boston — that I realized that if you don’t belong in one place, then running off to try new places will backfire if you fail to notice that it is in your nature to be a non-belonger? And that non-belonging is born at school.

More on peer groups and social identity to follow soon …

*If you are a friend of mine from high school who was also a weirdo, I am not referring to you. You are a “keeper” and I did not regard you as weird for the sake of weird. I promise. I lost track of those people as soon I left America.


Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Work

To meme or not to meme

That would be the question if I only I could be as certain as others seem to be about what a meme is. I never use the word — not because I don’t know one when I see one. I do. But because I have no idea what sort of things are NOT memes. Isn’t everything a meme?

Unless that something is extinct — then yes, it appears so.

For starters, a disclaimer on today’s title: a meme is a noun, not a verb — though by the end of this post I’d like to suggest we start using it as a verb too. As in, “that’s so cool, I’m meme-ing that” or “brilliant idea – go forth and meme” or “hey wait a second, that’s my idea, don’t meme me!”

While I’ve been hearing about memes for a good few years now, the first person I remember talking about them was my friend Remy who reads the New Scientist like an addict — ever-mindful that there’s a new weekly edition waiting for his consumption as he furtively stows last week’s rolled up copy inside in his trenchcoat.

It’s just like a New Scientist reader to walk around talking about memes — the word was given to us by none other than Richard Dawkins as far back as 1976 with his book The Selfish Gene.  According to Richard,

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

 So far, so good. I get what they are, but not what they aren’t.

While the word comes from the Greek ‘mimeme’ (to imitate), Richard was making a point about how they evolve and pass along and mutate by having the word rythme with “gene”. Susan Blackmore, who studies memes, helps clarify my question by reminding us that the exact defintion is “that which is imitated”.

Which means EVERYTHING that sticks is a meme.

  • Things like manbags and reality TV shows
  • Ideas like crackberry and consumerist society
  • Practices like joggers running with their prams (I sincerely hope this meme dies off) or dressing our pets in costumes (also good to go) or inserting emoticons in our emails (ditto) or walking into meetings carrying a Venti skinny extra shot latte (am OK with)
  • And symbols … like 😉

And if you hadn’t noticed, blogging is definitely a meme.

My list could have read very differently. I might have mentioned things like indoor toilets, ideas like marrying for love, practices like throwing people in prison and symbols like the peace sign. But because we’ve become used to these, there are not what most people mean when they use the word meme — what they really mean is NEW human behaviour, new trends, new quirks that are catching on. 

Susan Blackmore shares a funny example with us in her TED Talk on the subject*

What makes memes special is that apparently only humans pass things along culturally. I find this hard to believe, I can just imagine one cat teaching another cat how to break into a micro-chipped cat flap and then more cats cottoning on … but maybe that’s just me ….

All living organisms have genes but only us humans also got memes.

The most obvious meme to me is the use of the word itself.

I mean memes have been around forever and have been labelled as such and talked about since 1976 — soon that’ll be almost 50 years ago! so how come the word finally went viral and is close now to becoming mainstream? I don’t know … I suppose it might have something to do with Richard writing more books and getting more press, something to do with the internet and Facebook and Twitter and the rise of socially contagious media (all forms of which are memes in and of themselves).

But that’s the subject of this weekend’s blog – things I don’t know about. In particular words and phrases that come up all the time that make me stop and think and then realize I’m a bit confused. Well, not anymore – because I’ll be digging into some of these semi-mysteries to see if I can’t figure out what’s going on.  Stay tuned!

*Blackmore’s TED talk is like most TED talks — worth watching, even though she is a little bit annoying.


Filed under Social psychology, Words

How to be in a city

If the Wednesday I experienced this past week had been recorded and edited to play in fast-forward, the theme would be rat treadmill or maybe ant ant-farm or possibly headless chicken before death.

It made me feel the way Michael Douglas’ character feels in Falling Down.

The volume of the day was pummeling: the volume of people on my commutes to and from the office that day; the volume of screaming urgent email waiting at the office; the shrill of the man standing an inch behind me actually YELLING a story to his friend as we stood in line that snaked out door of Caffè Nero just when I’d been thinking afternoon coffee would sort me out.

It was one of those days where other human beings stopped being other human beings.

They became pedestrian obstructions, email pests, noise factories, space hoarders, concentration stealers  — they became inconsiderate creatures crawling all over my  sanity.

I know you know what I’m talking about. I know that even if you live in a hut on a field in a nature preservation, you’ve been there – you’ve served time in the urban jungle. Even if it was only at one of the world’s larger train stations or airports. You know.

The thing that happens inside of us when we feel outnumbered is that we start to feel threatened and we solve for that by de-humanizing the people around us. They become a mass of inconvenience at best, and far worse if we feel hard done by — if we perceive these masses as walking all over us, somehow better than us.

This process of disconnecting from the people (especially the strangers) around us, happens to most city dwellers all day long – we dip in and out of a state of not seeing people but just noticing (in our peripheral vision) the annoyingness of them all.

If it just washes over us whenever we have to squish ourselves onto a tube or wait in LA-style traffic, then it’s not a big deal – just a part of life that we handle better on some days than others. But when this feeling of disconnection sinks deeper into our psyche and becomes our routine lens for looking at the world, we’ve entered the same space that has made it possible for some of us to do unspeakable things to other human beings. This disconnection is in all of us. It’s a form of evil to which any of us can succumb. We’ve known this ever since, in the wake of the Holocaust, psychologists examined what sort of circumstances triggered perfectly normal people to do very bad things. The famous Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience test come to mind.

But back to me.

Wednesday was unusual. My days don’t normally run so much interference from the masses. I make sure of that. I know that the toxicity will be immediate and that my work and happiness suffers if I’ve been exposed to too much crushing people-ness around me.

During peak London rush hour I work from home. When I commute to and from the office I don’t go to the station right next to my house which will involve a journey where I have to switch several times through some of London’s busiest platforms, no — I walk a mile or so until I reach a station that zips me to work in one swoop. And I take the scenic route through the leafy streets that remind me how much I like my neighbourhood, how much I enjoy this city.

So Wednesday was my fault. I designed my day badly.

Most people have loads less control over the format of their working days than I do (they’ve little choice regarding what time they need to be where and are forced to commute at the same time as everyone else.)

Most days I get it right and enjoy all the perks of city living (the bookshops, the coffee shops — but also the people … hence the tapas encounter in yesterday’s post) without all the tension that drove Falling Down to it’s inevitable conclusion. But the moral of the story is that it’s hugely important that as many of us as possible do whatever we can do (and yes, sometimes that”ll involve headphones transporting us to a different set of noises) to make our interactions with the masses more neutral.

It leaves everyone with a lot more energy left over to notice the person who needs a seat or who seems lost on the platform and more generous towards people like that nut-job in Caffè Nero on Wednesday who was obviously just in a damn fine mood.


Filed under London, Social psychology