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Tag: research

Introducing ScholarWriter

Making ScholarWriter portable and researcher-friendly

During the last few months, I have been packaging ScholarWriter into a portable version that comes on a USB stick.  Simply, take one USB stick holding ScholarWriter, start it up, make sure the Apache and MySQL servers are running, – and you can start work on a private website in your browser.

At the end of the day, log out, shut it all down, and backup using a simple .zip file.

If something goes wrong, take your backup and unzip it.  And, you get straight back to work without any angst.

Why ScholarWriter?

So ScholarWriter is portable, but “what is the aim” as Chris Hambly of Audana  and Cornwall said last night on Twitter (@audio).

Anyone who writes long reports – dissertations, theses and papers in academia and long management consulting reports – will be familiar with something not much talked about – research is physically exhausting.

We get relevant material

  • We look for relevant material in the Libraries of the world
  • We get the source material

We read and take notes

  • We track what we have read and what we haven’t read
  • We take notes and carefully put the full reference on the top and paginate our pages

We file and re-file notes (endlessly)

  • We file those notes somewhere
  • When we need our notes, we rely on memory to remember where they are
  • Then if we need them elsewhere we re-file them

We copy our notes again and again

  • Then we start writing and that means cutting and pasting notes from our notes file to our main writing file and carefully putting in the references

Ha!  Try doing that without losing something and having to go through file after file checking details or looking for something you lost.

Now you have the reason for ScholarWriter.  Keeping meticulous track of who said what is incredibly difficult as you move things around physically and your argument evolves as you learn about the subject.  It is not only difficult, it is exhausting. I think that is what we learn in academia and why most people give up and flee to commerce.

ScholarWriter: Software for academics

The key software for academics at the Library end will remain Endnote, or something similar – we want to find references and import them into Word.

And at the other end, the final draft stage, the key software remains Word – we want to layout out our dissertation or paper ready to send electronically to our supervisor or publisher.

ScholarWriter sits between the two ends.

We get relevant material

  • We can import and export our bibliography as single references or a list in .xml format (don’t worry – Endnote and ScholarWriter sort that out for you)
  • We can load .pdfs into the same system so they get backed up nightly with our notes and moved to other computers as one large package
  • We can keep links to online references bundled with the reference in case we need them

We read and take notes

  • We write our notes into something like a “blog post” that has an extra field – type a phrase from the title of the article and ScholarWriter cross-references to the reference (and moreover keeps a list with the reference of where the notes are!)
  • We can open the relevant .pdf file in another window (we can do that anyway but nothing is stopping us doing that)
  • If we come back to our notes and want to make a comment, we just use the normal comments section of a blog post – there is no need to open the file even

We file notes ONCE not endlessly

One large folder in date order

  • We save everything – references, notes, drafts, scribbles, entries into our calendar – in one running file by date order in one folder.

Searching thousands of files is easy

  • You can save everything in Windows too – you don’t need to make folders but this one central folder gets larger.  This is where Drupal, the CMS underlying ScholarWriter comes in.  Drupal has a powerful internal search function.  It searches the content of all your content, it searches by title, it searches by date, and it searches by tag.

Develop and maintain outlines of your dissertation or paper

But that is not all, as the advertisements say, the outlining feature of Drupal is very powerful.  Instead of physically moving files to a folder, you hyperlink them into the outline of a book.

  1. First you set up the cover page.
  2. Then you add child pages for each major section – Title Page, Introduction, Method, etc.
  3. And lastly, after you have saved some notes or a reference or some scribbles that popped into your head, you drop them into the right place in an outline.

You don’t physically move the file from its position in the giant running file – you simply tell an outline which files are relevant to that section.  And you can see the outline developing on the screen in front of you. It is not buried in Windows Explorer in another file.

Using Outlines to speed up your writing

I am always struck that US universities push outlining. This is how you use outlining in ScholarWriter.

When you want to develop a section, yourrepeat the general process.

  1. You break the section up into sub-sections and then you add a child page for each subsection.
  2. Then with a few clicks for each, you attach files to the sub-sections.
  3. The content never moves – but the outline develops.
  4. The outline develops with a few clicks – not opening and editing a file – simply because an outline is simply a “view” it is not a file that is saved anywhere.

Commit your Outline to writing

So if an Outline is never actually saved, how do we “commit it to writing”?

When you want to see everything you have for a section, you ask for “Print Friendly”.  If you have, say five files in that section, those five files will be collated in the order you have them, into one display in another Window in your browser.  Now you can see not only the headings but everything in the files as well.

To print out everything, simple print.  It is that easy.  Five files, say, printed one after another.  A huge saving in physical work.

How can you write up a section?

When you have all the “facts, figures and quotations” collected for a section, it is time to write.  Usually, you would open all five files and possibly physically print the notes on several articles.

Using Scholarwriter

  1. First you preview what you have using Outline and Print Friendly
  2. Then you sort your notes into order – using a drag ‘n drop system
  3. Then you check again with Outline and Print Friendly
  4. If you are ready to write, you use CTRL A and cut ‘n paste to take everything into Word
  5. And now you are ready to turn your notes into a compact paragraph, largely through deletion, and then be writing one tight, cogent, paragraph with references and page numbers.

 Building the text of your dissertation or paper

Now that you have written a powerful and complete paragraph, instead of saving in Word, you copy ‘n paste back into ScholarWriter, or to be more precise, onto the child page ‘holding’ that section.

You no longer need the links to the original notes, so you de-link them.  Each with four clicks, I believe.  You don’t lose your notes though. They sit snugly where they have always sat, in your giant running file, organized by data and fully searchable without any arduous opening and closing of files.

So at this point you have a paragraph written for your growing magnus ops saved as file and positioned correctly in your Outline. And your notes sitting where they always have been but no longer linked to the Outline because you have written that section up.

One paragraph down!  Next!

ScholarWriter fits the advice – little and often

The best feature of ScholarWriter is that it allow you to concentrate on one task at a time.  And to complete small tasks in the time that you  have.

If you only have 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, you can realistically turn the notes on five articles into one paragraph.  A paragraph a day does not sound like a lot, but it is a lot more than no paragraphs a day and a lot quicker than wasting the time you do have on trying to get over procrastination and get down to work when you have been away from your writing for some time.

Imagining the working day with ScholarWriter

Your working day with ScholarWriter amounts to

  1. Adding a reference
  2. Reading an academic article and making notes which you drop into an outline
  3. Structuring your outline getting down eventually to one child page per paragraph (think of an upside down tree)
  4. Writing a paragraph which you save as a file and keep linked to its position in the outline.

Do any one of those and you have made progress. Do four of those and you have made a lot of progress.

Security and ScholarWriter

We made ScholarWrite portable, partly to lower the IT knowledge needed to use it (slap it in and fire it up) but more so for security. When everything you need – your server, your WYSIWYG, your bibliography, your sources, your notes, your outline and your drafts – are in one folder, it’s dead simple to backup. Zip up the folder and send the .zip someone safe by email (start a special gmail account?).

Eveything is safe and can be recovered by unzipping the folder.   Fire up ScholarWriter and you are back in business within minutes.

Stay oriented with ScholarWriter

Even after three decades in this business, I still find the feeling of disorientation when I shift tasks most uncomfortable.

With everything in one place and Drupal’s powerful views, I have lists refreshing themselves to help me get my bearings.

  • When you add a reference, or a bunch of references, to your bibliography, your What I have yet to read list is automatically updated.
  • When you take notes on an article and cross-reference a reference, the reference drops off your What I have yet to read list and joins your What I have read list.
  • When you procrastinate in the morning – focus by looking at the five things you put in your To Do list the previous night using a simple a click of a flag
  • At the End the day, when you are feeling exhausted yet you are asking – What did I do all day? – Click the Ta Da flag as you go and admire your list grow.
  • Take off items from your To Do list and watch with pleasure as it shortens during the day!
  • And ScholarWriter has a full Calendar. Put in dates up to five years’ out (fits a part-time PhD or the publication of a research paper).  Put in recurring dates such as tutorials and include times and details like room numbers

That is ScholarWriter – portable software for academics and other writers of long documents with many primary sources.  Plug ‘n play, easy to back up, and cutting down on the effort of managing your many documents.  You are still the Scholar and the Writer, but hopefully your work is not so exhausting and hopefully you cut a significant amount of time from completing your meticulously prepared document.




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Leadership and the monkey business illusion

12 by wang_zqhhh via FlickrWhere has all the leadership gone?

Leadership is a funny thing.  We want to break it up into lots of small parts and promised ourselves that if we do more of something, or if someone else does more of something, then we will have more leadership.

When I put the  analytical process in those terms, it sounds ridiculous.  Leadership isn’t something that is made up of lots of things.  But sometimes it is there and sometimes it isn’t.  And when it isn’t, we not only miss it, we get angry.  Why isn’t there leadership?

The monkey business illusion

Well maybe we are looking for leadership in all the wrong places.  The monkey business illusi0n explains the point.

Oh, yes, I know you’ve seen this.  But not this version, watch it.

We see what we want to see.  When we see no leadership, maybe, just maybe, we didn’t see it.

Maybe we spent our time looking at non-leadership so we screened out leadership?

Why do we feel there is no leadership?

Why do we see non-leadership instead of leadership?

Simply because that’s what we were looking for.

When we start by looking for leadership and honouring it when we see it, then it is there.  When we ignore it, it’s not.  It’s as simple as that.

When we do a test of leadership and we say leadership wasn’t there, we are jumping our logical tracks.  We can say we didn’t see leadership; that’s all.

That’s why democracy is important.  It is not that the voters recognize leaders.  It is what they recognize is leadership.

Leadership exists when we say it does.

Find it. Honor it.


A big research question?

Crowd by Genista via FlickrWhich way will sterling move?

Today I asked a client: shall we pay this bill in USD today?  Or should we wait for the budget?  Do we expect the pound to gain (or to lose) when people hear what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has in store for us?  (What a fab job title!)

So there we were trying to anticipate what the Chancellor would say and what the markets would think?  And so was everyone else.

Anticipating the collective mind

Anticipating collective reactions is an interesting business.  We can take a poll and work out an average but that is relatively dull.

Let’s take the general election as an example.  People wanted to discipline the politicians and were keen on a ‘hung’ parliament.  When we achieved that, some people were furious. “I voted ‘Lib Dem'”, one tweeter said.

Yes, indeed.  We all had our preferences and as we voted tactically, some of us could actually vote for the party we wanted.

The genius of the outcome is that we had to judge what everyone else would do while they were judging what we would do.   The pollsters did work out averages but you and I made a more complicated judgment.

Anticipating the market is a little bit simpler because we aren’t trying to achieve a collective outcome.  Maybe we should be, but most of us are only trying to position ourselves advantageously.

So we watch the graphs of forex prices and we listen to the chatter (or in this case lack of chatter) and make the best call we can.

What models can we use to understand the collective mind?

What research has been done on the collective mind?  Do you know?  Do you know of any models?


Flying pigs: social media is really showing up old media

Image via Wikipedia

Following the flying pigs

I had a follow-up to my post on Managing in Africa.

My curiosity about the fate of warthogs that got in the way of a jet taking-off at Harare International Airport received some dry feedback.  Apparently, there were no pigs.  The plane ‘just’ lost its landing gear.

The pilot should obviously be congratulated for bringing the aircraft to a safe stop with no injuries.  The media should be following up the safety of that make of aircraft!

But pigs at airports that turned out to be flying pigs  . . .

A funny story that teaches us something about judging the accuracy of media reports

I was slow to detect BS.  That got me thinking.

  • I did notice that story was unfinished.  No one told us what happened to the pigs ~ or congratulated the pilot.
  • This is another example of how old media are only too willing to report the accounts of powers-that-be, even when they are in Zimbabwe.
  • This is another example of how old media are only too willing to regurgitate each others “news” without checking for themselves.

And I have lost my instincts for the truth of stories coming out of Zimbabwe.  I have been away too long.

We all judge stories by their narrative form and an essential player in every narrative is ourselves  When we are not part of the story, we will have difficult spotting inaccuracies.

Third parties are not necessarily good observers

Good accounts always have many perspectives.  Perhaps the first checks on any story is

  • Who said it?
  • Who repeated it?
  • Who was left out?

And above all, follow the money!

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For people who don’t get Twitter, Facebook, etc. Nice story ~ other people can read it too

This is a long story and a tame story in many respects, read on . . .

I am a psychologist. Any one who has majored in psychology knows that we are trained at university and college to be distant from our clients. We are even trained to call people “subjects” – or we were in my day.

We are also trained to see ourselves as people who have facts – to see ourselves as right, because we know the truth.

This is how we demonstrate to ourselves and our peers (other people trained like us) that we are right. We predict what will happen, and after what was supposed to have happened happens, we check whether we were right, preferably by counting something. Not all bad, but wait.

Positive psychology often continues this tradition. Positive or appreciative management goes further. The critical idea is one of generativity – that we engage with other people without defining our objective. So we cannot say what will happen, and because we cannot say what will happen, we cannot check whether we are right. That has psychologists of my generation heading for the hills! And that is a pity, because positive psychology has something to say.

Anyway, that is the back story – psychologists had to learn a way of thinking at college. We learnt it, and learnt it well. Now we encounter a new way of thinking, we find it hard – disorienting actually. Giddy making. It is difficult to follow what is good about appreciative management when it clashes so fundamentally with the way we learned to think early in our careers.

How 2.0 helped me

My task. I undertook to make a presentation on the new psychology to psychologists. Using the principle of going from the familiar to the unfamiliar, I wanted to keep in the step of checking results and I needed a reference or idea to fill the hole.

How did I do it? Fairly predictably, going to Google and Google Scholar didn’t help. What I did was check through my bookmarks and see what who had similar interests to me. And I found my paper on the evaluation of generative methodologies! Bookmarked by one other person! Amazing. In half-and-hour to an hour, using what I saved on for earlier projects, I found exactly the rare article I needed!

How was this different from the way I did things before? Wasn’t that what we have always done? Searched around libraries until we found something? Ah, I didn’t search around the Library. I searched around people I didn’t know and who don’t go to the same conferences and meetings as me. Not only did someone I not know help me, they helped me in good faith, that I would help the next person and the next person, etc. This is the O’Reilly principle that web 2.0 systems get better the more we use them.

So what did I need to do that I didn’t need to do before?

  1. I must join in with a view to finding like-minded people rather than experts.
  2. I must put a trail of my activity out there. The end of the rainbow is where my trail intersects with the trail of someone else – not lots of people – one person. At the intersection is the person who interests me – and it is very likely that I interest them.

Could I have been more 2.0?

Yes. I could have engaged and reciprocated! I could have written to the author, thanked him and allowed him to benefit from my project.

Sorry! I was still in 1.0!

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Scientists ARE using social media

Parallel Session II: Making science public: data-sharing, dissemination and public engagement with science


Ben Goldacre, Open blog

Cameron Neylon, Bad Science blog & Oxford University

Maxine Clarke, Nature

Chair: Felix Reed-Tsochas, Oxford University

Journals and peer-reviewed publications are still the most widely used channels through which research is disseminated within the scientific community and to a broader audience. However, social media are increasingly challenging the supremacy of editors, reviewers and science communicators. Blogging about science has become a new way of engaging ‘the public’ directly with researchers whilst researchers are increasingly using blogs within their own academic communities for peer-review purposes. Panellists will give their perspective on how social media have changed the nature of the scientific debate among scientists, and how they have impacted on engagement with the public understanding of science.

1. (Observation last night.) Two of the panelists list their blog as well as their academic affiliation. But are they academics too? Or borrowed for the occasion?

2. Missed opening remarks as struggled with weak internet connections here.

3. Now Cameron Neylon. Scientist – using social media as his lab notebook. No peer review. Ppl could steal data. But could [crowd-source] review. Then discovered other scientists using social media to “do science”. Maxine Clarke of Nature said few scientists use social media but it is a rapidly growing community.

Exp – publicize details – ask people to take mmts.

Describing typical 7 year cycle of a research project.

Who funded the prizes (journal subs) for students. Completed project in 6 mo with invited paper and publication. Much more efficient.


FRT: How much has interaction changed?

Ben Goldacre. Journos often get issues wrong and dumb down issues. Does journo science news inform people with science degrees who work in a variety of roles? Blogs can be niche (mindhacks on neuroscience and psychology). Imagine 2000 science blogs with 500 readers each talking to 1m people.

Royal Society Prizes for science books recently – 20K in prizes an more in admin – books selling 3000 copies only. Science Minister [google the spat] – committees have no new media experience.

Blogs encourage us to be clearer and sounder about what we write. Link culture. Journos don’t want you to know they’ve copied and pasted from a press release. Cited an example of not checking primary sources. We link to primary sources.

FTR: [Will blogs kill science journalism?]

BG: Old science journalism is dumbed down for us. We need a patchwork with better stuff for people who are informed.

FTR: Danger of sloppy journalism. But issue of quality and trust.

BG: Journos say internet is undistributed mush. Need to learn to use internet. Easy to tell when something is [rubbish]. Lots of dodgy stuff everywhere. Want more and let the street [filter].

Maxine Clarke: As editor, don’t equate blog in that way. But likes blogs and interaction. Nerdish quality – correct – find niche. Look for Open Lab.

BG: Disintermediation – 70% of science words on BBC Radio 4 are spoken by scientists themselves. Shepherded and coached to be clear – but speaking. Look at Radio 4 for examples.

Cameron Neylon. Abandon term public – don’t distinguish between public and scientists. Engage people with the scientists. Let people contribute to science – even be authors.

BG: Interdisciplinary communication. Semi-professional communication promotes . . . Need a place between newspapers and journals.

FTR: Will social media allow us to differentiate public?

Cameron Neylon: Arrogant and lazy toward non-scientists. Need not to be [snobbish]. Get support for funding.”public


Dussledorf: What keeps scientists from using Web2.0?

BG: Younger people use Web2.0? Get RAE to reward unmediated engagement with “public”. And pay or allow people to split jobs.

Maxine Clarke: Generational issues for journals like Nature. Friendfeed heated discussions about science.

Camero Neylon: Only just starting to explore social media for public and for science (see Friendfeed). New things are high risk strategies and they keep high risk behaviour for science. Won’t be taken seriously if you are out on a limb. People who are using Web2.0 are trying to get a tenured position. Some senior ppl involved. But 10 years in – more cautious.

BG. Use blogs as [scribble-pad] in lost cost threshold.


❓ Time to read academic reports. Likes Nature for summary. Few Twitters using service. How are inst. like Nature making money out of it.

Maxine Clarke. Highlights from Nature very popular. Making money isn’t a serious concern for making money online – still experimental. Lack of time – Nature Network – some blogs to work out problems but also just about lab life. Social not about scientific work itself. Scientists are cerebral – therefore enjoy blogs.

OII: Fighting against moral panics? Rapidity of moral panics in journo. How does peer review play into process? Blogging about something published is out of step with production of work – time gap huge.

Cameron Neylon: 6.5bn spent on science. 80% of cost is peer review – count peer review ideas by 95%. Small proportion of important ideas – use traditional methods. Straight out of instrument and blogged if need for instrument.

Ben Goldcre. Peer review is best of bad lot. What is a scientific publication. Document of record. Methods and results to be published. Different types of publications. Need to recognise two types.

Maxine Clarke. Peer review increases quality. 95% of biological papers are rejected and some passed on to other journals. Cited a journal that publishes online with peer reports – need tagging system.

FTR – audience separating production and differentiation. [lost question]

Maxine Clarke. More journals publishing peer reviews and opening up articles for comment. People tagged by subject. People don’t comment. Scientists conservative – assessed by publications. Power issues inhibit comment.

FTR- can social media change scientific debates.

Maxine Clarke. Widgets in newspapers to follow conversations – find hard to follow. Nature also makes txt accessible in “accessble” format. Conversation too fragmented.

Cameron Neylon. Publicatation is too high risk to be the place to innovate. . . online material not indexed by medline. Conversations in different part of research cycle.

BG: Structural issues. Draw strands together about topic – can it be open. Wiki-professionals – micro-credits for helping on something.

Maxine Clarke: Micro-attribution is growing topic. Av no authors is 6. Some consortia iare 100 or so.

Can contributions be attributed to you – technical issue.

FTR: open source modes of science. Triggers of open source science.

CN: Science is the great open source endeavour. What can we do that is useful? If cannot be replicated and cannot check details, not science.

Bill Dutton: Peer review publications – wrong place to look. Other phases of research process – lot going on. Less collaboration less at publication, high status, older people.

Maxine Clarke. [Internet playing up]

Question: Radio 4. Book only sold 3000 copies. Wonderful to have well written science blogs. Few ppl capable to of writing good science blogs. Problem is not quality but problem of selling stuff to consumers.

Ben Goldacre. That’s why good

Lost a bit here – Said Business School’s internet connection is scribbled.

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Ignorance is bliss but please don’t charge me for your services!

It’s a good thing they don’t know

Today I had glass of warm water and a few drops of lemon juice for breakfast to allow the medics to do a fasting blood test.  A fasting blood test helps them get ‘reliable’ readings for something for other.  Happy in my ignorance.

We spend most of our waking hours in ignorance of what we are doing or why – happy to let someone else decide.

So, for those of us who have taken it upon ourselves to teach, we find ourselves in a daft situation.  We can be annoyed when the knowledge of our profession is not taken seriously.  We are seriously annoyed when the professionals in our field don’t know the basics.

And none of us really know

To talk glibly of “evidence-based practice” is really rather irritating.  We boil water for our glass of warm water, in many countries in the world to kill bugs.  But let’s face it.  Many bugs survive boiling water.  Some thrive in concentrated sulfuric acid.  What we mean is that of the things we know how to do and can do in our kitchen, boiling water is pretty useful at killing some bugs that kill us.  A very northern hemisphere idea, btw.  It’s just as good to put your water in a clear bottle and leave it in the sun.  But of course, there is not to much sun in the UK.  It works fine in hotter climes.  Do you get my drift?

We need to communicate in terms that can be understood

All our knowledge is based on custom and folk-lore and we are not exempt.   To pass on knowledge to people who are not experts in our field in language and practice they can relate to is not a disgrace.  It is a professional necessity.  They don’t want to know the ins and the outs.  They want to know what to do.  They are leaving uswith the responsibility for the result.

It is a disgrace not to know the basics

But what a disgrace it is to not know the basics.  When we start to believe that boiling water kills bugs rather than some bugs do not survive boiling water, then we perhaps should have our license take away.

Knowing the basics leads to creativity

It is knowing the basics that helps us think of new solutions.

Imagine if I were on the proverbial desert island, wouldn’t it be better to have the idea in my head that I must get rid of bugs in the water that might kill me.  I am abundant in my ignorance.  There are so many bugs that can kill me and fair handful that scientists don’t even know about yet.   Therefore, the question is not what is the solution but what are the many ways I can ‘purify’ [another misleading idea] the water.  And the right action is to do what I can and begin as General Colin Powell says, when I have a 40-60% chance of being right.

Research-based practice or more snake-oil?

So don’t talk glibly of research-based practice.   You are trying to wave a spell in the air.  Actually, you are trying to get me to pay you more money.

Show me your protocols.  And make sure

a. They are intelligible to me

b. I don’t know more than you

Otherwise, we might just chase you out of town.  We won’t call you a witch, because that is still illegal in UK, but we won’t allow you near our food.  Get your own.

Show me your protocols – in language and experiences I can understand and where I can see the goal and the basic idea.

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Psychologists, 2009 AD, recessions, life

Ned’s challenge

Ned has solved my dilemma about what to write about this weekend.  Commenting on my post on Hope, he asks:

How do positive psychologists quantify this information if you are no longer studying behavior? In other words, how do you maintain empiricism?

Learning to be systematic

As I said in my post on Hope that during my training as a psychologist, Hope and such moral virtues, were out-of-bounds.  Like most psychology departments at the time, we were behaviourists and positivists.  We studied what we could see, and we looked for the underlying ‘laws’ of behaviour.

Learning to watch carefully

I am still in favour of psychologists being taught in this way.  A lot of psychologists arrive from the ‘Arts’ and the ‘laboratory method’ is a good counter-balance to their prior training.  The first step in developing empathy is to recognize the ‘other’.  And even psychologists (particularly psychologists) struggle with this.  If I have to describe you, and you alone, and if I am given the challenge of describing you in exactly the same way as the next person sees you, I begin the journey of separating what I want, from what you want. And as a result, I will be a lot more effective in everything I undertake.

Practically too, quantitative questionnaire-based studies are heaps easier to do for your dissertation!

Learning to tell a story

The analytical tradition is not, though, the whole story.  When we work as psychologists, we have to learn to synthesize information about a  person.  We have to bring together all the measurements we have gathered, and understand the person as a whole.  Regrettably, even at the post-graduate level where people are training to go into practice (as doctors do in the clinical part of their training) psychologists are given little help in this formative task. They are taught, after all, by people whose university careers depend upon being analytical.

At this juncture in a psychologist’s training, people who came from the ‘Arts’ have a better time.  Our measurements need to be woven together into a coherent narrative and people who studied Literature and History at school are now at an advantage.

The new age is the age of synthesis and morality

Practising psychology has been a journey, for me, towards learning to synthesize information.  I was pleased to see that Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi, who you probably know for his concept of Flow, has predicted that synthesis is the new science.  And more so, synthesis with a moral edge.

  • It does mattter that we can walk in other people’s shoes.
  • It does matter that we can judge the effects of our actions on others.
  • It does matter that we can understand how our actions hurt others, and how an action that seems essential to us might be repulsive, disgusting and quite repellant to other people.
  • It matters too, that we have the capacity to imagine a narrative, or story line, in which we are not at each others’ throats.  Development and world peace depends on our imagination.

We are part of the contests and conflicts of life

The difficulty with the analytical tradition is that it pretends that we are above the fray.  We are part of the story of this planet.  Thankfully.  And I intend to play my part in making the tough decisions of life.  To raise issues. To look for ways forward.  To press my case and the case of those dear to me  To negotiate. To look for common ground.  To apologize when I have it wrong.  And to go to war when necessary.  But understanding that to do so might put me in a position where I get a heap lot wrong.  I’ll try the diplomatic route first.

But above the fray, No!  Always right?  Good lord.  The only way to be always right is to be in a laboratory.   To lock oneself up and throw away the key.

Rethinking psychology

The world is not like this.  We are giving-and-taking all the time. That is life.  That’s the part I like!  Can psychology cope with it?  We need to learn an expression common in management theory.  A business is path-dependent.  It is completely unique in other words.  From studying other businesses, I can develop a sense of the possible.  I can learn to look at my situation methodically from a variety of perspectives.  But they way things turn out is not predicitable.  The way things turn out is the result of all our actions – yours, mine and people we don’t even know.  All these taken together are far too complicated to predict with any specificity.

Occupational hazards

The unknowability of life may be depressing if you are wedded to the idea that the world is predictable.  But who said that it is?  The analytical tradition asks, only, what can we predict?  Unfortunately, if you spend to much time in a psychology laboratory, being rewarded for finding phenomena that are amenable to analysis, you start to think that everything must be analysed and if it can’t be subjected to experimentation that it is not important.  An occupational hazard of being a research psychologist is that you gradually lose your capacity for synthesis under real life conditions.

Are we up for the fullness of life?

David Whyte, British corporate poet, has a wonderful poem that he calls a Self-Portrait.  It begins:

“It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods”

and ends

“I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.  I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even gods speak of God.”

So while I endorse analytical training for people embarking on a career as a psychologist, training in synthesizing information is also a necessary part of our ‘clinical’ training.  At the same time, we learn to understand that it is not about our clients getting it right, or avoiding the downside of life.  It is about our clients entering the fray.  Of putting their passions at the disposal of the collective.  Of living with glory, and with defeat.  And doing so knowing that a full life for the collective and themselves depends upon they doing their job ,with their special talents, even though sometimes it feels like a ‘cross to bear’, and a ‘cross to bear’ with no certainty that we are even doing the right thing.

One age at a time

That is life.  For most twenty-somethings, this is very hard to understand.  I am happy they take the first step in understanding their personality is different from others, and that to have winners, by definition we must have losers.  Those concepts are hard enough.  They will learn more later, just as our stumbling one years olds delighted us by running like gazelles in their teenage years.

What’s next?

2009 promises to be a hard year.  The financial crisis is even worse than most people understand.  My analytical training helps me here and I am collecting visual explanations on the page Financial Crisis Visually.

This month has also been a horrible month with out-and-out conflict breaking out in Gaza (hence some of the fiercer imagery, perhaps).

But it is our year.  It is our time. And our life, in 2010, depends entirely on what we do together, now.

Come with me,

life is contested, but it is ours.

P.S.  Ned has persuaded me to re-orient this blog more to non-psychologists.  Please let me know if I am on the right path and what you think I should be doing!

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Happiness and research: looking for a research buddy

Breakthrough work on happiness

Happy networks

The blogosphere this week has been awash with comments on the article on happiness published by the British Medical Journal on happiness in social networks.  What does it mean that happiness is collective?   Are we also affected by our friends’ happiness online in networks like Facebook?

Expansive, successful business teams

Getting a lot less press, over at Pos-Psych, Marcial Losada has published two reports about increasing the emotional space in business teams and improving business performance.   Losada aims to develop teams whose positive to negative talk falls between 3:1 to 11:1.

New stats and new ways to think about psychological phenomena

The BMJ article relies on network theory and analysis.  Losada’s work relies on recursive differential equations.  Lost you? Exactly.  Few psychologists, and that includes me,  studied this type of statistical modelling  in their undergraduate years.

Moreover, these aren’t just new statistical techniques that we can plug into SPSS and go.  Both techniques offer epistemological and ontological revolutions in the way we think.

A zeitgeist

The ontological revolution is also happening in the qualitative areas of our field.  Take this phrase used by The Economist yesterday to describe India’s democracy: a political system that can cope with disgruntlement without suffering existential doubts.

That is a brilliant definition of happiness, though we might want a little more for flourishing!


I started a wiki laying out the methodologies used by Losada in some detail and I would love a collaborator.  If you are interested, please drop me a comment and I will send you its name and password.

We are entering an interesting time in psychology and I can see all the textbooks being rewritten!


5 important features of happiness

Happy people live longer

Image by M@rg via Flickr

Critical thinking must be rigorous. Otherwise it is just negative

I set up a comprehensive Google alert for happiness and I saw two reports today saying that thinking about happiness makes us miserable.

I don’t think these reports meant to be ironical.  I think they meant to be critical, in a rigorous way.  But frankly unless you are rigorous, then being critical is just proving the point – being negative for the sake of being negative.

5 points about happiness

I think it is helpful to repeat five points about happiness.

Emotion is highly contagious

Yes, emotion is highly contagious.  It spreads from one person to another like wildfire.  We carry it with us from one situation to another.

Negative emotions are more virulent than positive emotions.  When something goes wrong, as it will from moment to moment, we do have to make a special effort not to project our dismay to the next situation, which, after all, might not have bothered us had the last five minutes been fun!

Some people are highly emotional intelligent

Some people are more ’emotionally intelligent’ than others.  Of course they are.  Why wouldn’t we vary in our capacity to read emotions?  Why wouldn’t we vary in our ability to distinguish between what we were feeling about the problem five minutes ago, from what we are feeling about the situation we are confronted with now?  Why wouldn’t we vary in our confidence and experience of emotional situations?

Emotional literacy is learned

Emotional literacy can be learned.  Of course it can.   We have trained our children from time immemorial to understand and display emotion.  It is called good manners, character, backbone and all sorts of other things as well.

I was taught emotional literacy in school as well as at home.  After all from 5 to 17. we spend a good part of our time in school.  In sixth form, the time previously allowed for denominational instruction was given over exclusively to psychology classes.

Psychology is no longer about sick people only

What is new is that psychologists (a relatively new profession after all) no longer study negative events exclusively.

Positive psychology regards happiness and virtues, such as gratitude and hope, as normal,  and we study them as positive emotional and mental experiences in their own right.

This is the exact opposite of the therapeutic culture which assumes we are finding living a little overwhelming.  It is also the exact opposite of a view that we should be “hard”, “uncouth”, “non PC” or any of these varieties!  As these two views think they are opposites, let’s move on!

The models we use to study these phenomenon allow us to think differently

Psychologists are using new models to explore phenomena such as happiness, zest, justice, etc.  Psychologists are using ratios and recursive models.  For people who still remember their “Methods & Stats” classes, I bet you hardly every used a ratio and I bet you never ever used a recursive model.  That’s if you studied psychology.  It you studied economics or geography this doesn’t apply to you.   I also exclude from this bet people trained at graduate school in the States in the last five years.

We are happy when life is more positive than negative.  Ideally, we want to hit a ratio around 5:1.  At 11:1, or around there, we are delirious or “over the moon”.  At 3:1,  we are beginning to struggle.  We are going to start to find life threatening.  Life gets tough and hard and we develop tunnel vision.  We focus on our problems and loose the capacity for joy, warmth, celebration, etc.

We are happy when our behavior shows requisite diversity – when we smile at what is charming, when we laugh at what is funny, when we grieve for what is lost, when we celebrate what is won.

Good manners isn’t suppressing these emotions.  Good manners is expressing these emotions in a way that includes people around us.  I don’t cry at a funeral to make others sad.  I cry with others to share our grief.

Happiness isn’t silly optimism in the face of difficulties. Nor is it collapsing in a quivering heap.  Happiness is responding to challenge and threat meaningfully.  It is living – joyously when joy is warranted – courageously when courage is called for.

Hope this is of some use to somebody!

PS Happy people live longer – a lot longer.  And they are nice to be around!

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