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In the world of internet technology, the race is on to make every user’s experience of the web as personal as it can be. Search engines - such as Google - are tracking every search and click that we make, and depending on the choice, will use that information to target advertising at us. Information is passed on, within seconds, from one website to another, and ultimately on to third parties so that advertising can be focused more effectively.

So, what’s the harm in that? On one level, not much. Given the amount of information on the web, personalisation might feel like a good thing. However, personalisation also influences the outcome of search results, for example by changing the order in which results are displayed on the page, and overall the number of ‘hits’ you receive in searches. The developers of search engines know that most people do not go beyond the first page when looking through search results and clicking on a link. It’s in their interests, therefore, to put the results that you are most likely to enjoy at the top of the list. They achieve this by tracking your history and using this to tailor results for you.

And here in lies a problem. A very common bias in human beings is ‘confirmatory bias’ ( a form of unconscious bias) which is when we tend to ignore information that does not support our view and focus too much on information that does support our view. Now think what this means for us when a search engine presents us with personalised search results. In practice, through personalising my search results, the search engine will tend to prioritise items that agree with my point of view over those that might contradict my view because historically that is what I have tended to click on. In my daily search for news, therefore, the chances of me hitting upon analysis that contradicts my own view is reduced. Some might argue that this is the same with choosing printed news. Not so. When I choose printed news from the newsstand, I make a conscious decision of which paper I buy and can consciously choose to read papers with differing political affiliations. On the web, the choice is a less conscious one as I will not always be aware of the political affiliations of the news source. Thus Yahoo, Google, Ask and the like could be narrowing our minds.

Kissing grass, patting heads and wearing lucky boots. It’s striking to see the number of superstitious behaviours amongst footballers - and these are just the visible rituals. Of course, it’s all part of the game. The world watches and laughs at these bizarre and irrational behaviours, yet many people laugh while knowing that they too have their own superstitions.

A superstition is a belief that links an action, object or a ritual to an unrelated outcome. It can be a good luck charm from a first date; a lucky number on a winning lottery ticket; or even lucky pants, one of the more common superstitions apparently. It is often based on an entirely random association and known as false correlation. But it doesn’t matter how irrational the link is, as long as there is a link.

As human beings we constantly try to make sense of what happens to us. When it is difficult to see a direct link between an outcome and an event, we seek alternative explanations. ‘Luck’ is one of the most frequent alternative explanations. Those who turn to luck as an explanation will, naturally, try to maximise and replicate their luck. In doing so, they begin to increase their feelings of reassurance and confidence, which in turn reinforces the belief that whatever they did brought them more luck and success. It is a common self-fulfilling cycle.

According to psychological research, higher anxiety tends to increase the likelihood of making superstitious links, as does having an external locus of control (a view that life is something that happens to us, rather than feeling in control). But the fact is that superstitions, as strange and irrational as they may seem, make sense. They provide an explanation of events, which is preferable to having no explanation at all. They provide a greater feeling of control. And they enable some people to feel that they can cope better with uncertainty.

And, believe it or not, they can influence performance. Psychologists1 have observed, in controlled experiments, significantly improved accuracy in the performance of groups using a ‘lucky’ ball, as well as better problem solving results when allowed to have a ‘lucky charm’ present.

Perhaps that’s why a survey last week suggested that over 50% of Americans have superstitious beliefs. In these testing times I’m just surprised it’s not higher.

1Damisch et al (2010) Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstitions Improve Performance. Psychological Science.

There was an interesting debate on the BBC’s Question Time last night about the Government’s decision to make a u-turn on recent budget announcements, and in particular the controversial ‘pasty tax’. Not surprisingly the panel were polarised on the issue, with the Conservative MP saying that this was democracy in action and the Labour MP saying that this was evidence of indecision.

And yet, from a public perspective, what is it that we want from leaders when it comes to making decisions? Do we want to see u-turns? Do we want to be led decisively? There’s a clear tension between the two perspectives, but what is it that followers need and look for in leadership?

One of the core psychological elements of the leader/follower relationship is trust. It is at the heart of our interactions with our leaders and it shapes the degree to which we are willing to engage with, and deliver for, our leaders. Trust is a complex mix of feelings, attitudes, personality traits and behaviours, but many researchers suggest that the essence can be divided into two types of trust: cognitive and affective trust. We build cognitive trust when we see our leader as competent, knowledgeable and experienced. Affective trust is derived from our emotional connection with the leader, which is developed through having shared values, feeling supported and fairly represented by our leader.

One important thing to note about these different types of trust is how fragile they can be. Cognitive trust is often built quickly, as we listen for experience and knowledge, we work out how credible somebody sounds, and our trust grows or diminishes. Affective trust, however, can often take much longer to develop, as we look for mutual but subtle bonds and similarities, and we take increasing ‘risks’ to test the leader’s likely reaction.

On this basis, making a u-turn on a decision can increase our trust in leadership, but only if it is an occasional and understandable reversal. If a leader never retracts a decision, even in the face of extreme disapproval from followers, then disappointment and anger will increase, and affective trust will fall. Equally, if a leader continuously makes reversals of decisions, we will quickly lose cognitive trust with the individual, questioning their competence, knowledge and capacity to make reasoned, planful decisions.

So, from a leadership perspective, u-turns on decisions should be seen as a valuable, but rarely selected, option. When the current leader of the country announced the first policy u-turn, many of us would have felt more connected and involved with the decision and reassured by the reversal. Several u-turns later, however, and many of us are likely to be feeling concerned by an apparent lack of clarity, experience and forward-thinking in decision making.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, has been widely accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that she pays no income tax, only weeks after accusing the Greeks of avoiding payment of their own tax bills. Lagarde is not the first, and nor will she be the last, to say one thing and act in another. Yet there can be few things that will break trust faster or cause more anger than a clear sense of hypocrisy. And one of the most interesting things about hypocrisy, from a psychological perspective, is that it increases as people become more powerful.

Dutch researchers1 looked into the relationship between increasing power and hypocrisy by creating a simulation in which different groups were assigned to having ‘low’ or ‘high’ powered roles - essentially taking the role of a prime minister or civil servant. Through observing the difference in judgements and decisions on a range of civil and moral dilemmas, the researchers found that the ‘high’ power groups were much more likely to condemn others’ behaviours, but equally likely to commit the same moral failures themselves.

In another experiment, researchers2 asked subjects to spin a coin in order to decide whether they would be given a boring, demanding task or a simple, fun task. They were told that the next participant would be given the task that wasn’t chosen. They were then left alone to toss the coin. Not surprisingly, around 90% of participants did not flip the coin, but allocated the task as they preferred. But here’s the important thing. When those participants were asked to observe another (fake) participant do exactly the same thing and choose the easy task without tossing the coin, they were very quick to condemn the behaviour of the fake participant.

I want to point out, as hard as it is to admit it, that I’m not immune to hypocrisy. But nor are you, no matter who you are. We constantly make judgements of others based on our own generalised beliefs and moral codes (what we see as being right and wrong) even though we do not live these beliefs out to the full. So, we know what the right thing is to do, yet often choose - or are forced - to behave in a different way.

The important thing here, though, may be to help leaders to become more aware that power is strongly related to hypocrisy. Most of the leaders we work with in coaching situations would pride themselves on their integrity, the quality of their decision making and would say that they are the first to ‘roll up their sleeves’ to help out when needed. So this is rarely about deliberate or malicious hypocrisy, but perhaps it’s about gaining a wider insight into how contradictory and fragile our judgements can be, even when we are put in positions of great authority.

1. Lammers, J., Stapel, D.A. and Galinsky, A.D. (2010) Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralising in Reasoning, Immorality in Behaviour. Psychological Science.

2. DeSteno, D. and Valdesolo, P. (2011) Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. Published by Crown Archetype.

Much of last week's news was dominated by the impending tanker driver strike and the threat, according to the Government at least, of a fuel shortage. In response, many people leapt into their cars and headed off to their nearest forecourt to top up cars and jerry cans. And so I found myself raging at the radio. But I wasn't raging at the news of queues on the forecourts. I was raging at the observations of some fairly renowned psychologists - yes, psychologists - about our behaviour and reactions in the midst of the fuel shortage.

Of all the comments, the worst was that our panic reaction was just a case of "herd mentality". The expert continued "'s what we do isn't it? We see a queue and we join it".

I guess we're British after all, so we all respond in the same way when we're scared. Actually, I'm not sure that we do.

First of all, I don't fully know what "herd mentality" means. I'm not sure that many people do. It is, at best, a generic description of social influences that are often subtle and complex. Nietzsche originally coined the term (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) to explain the subservience of mankind in following common values, such as religion, but I suspect it was never meant to describe all aspects of group influence and behaviour. It seems to have become a tabloid short-hand for 'they all act the same' and it's becoming too easily used by psychologists.

Secondly, I personally don't see a queue and join it. Again, it's a well-worn cliché; an over-generalisation. In fact, come to think of it, I actively avoid queuing wherever possible. And I really don't consider myself to be that different to most other people I know, work with, meet or walk past in the street. We don't see queues and join them. It's an outmoded 1930's stereotype, much like saying we only talk about the weather.

In reality, the perceived scarcity of a product causes some interesting and profound reactions in all of us, whether it causes us to want something far more intensely than we would ordinarily, or to believe that our freedom may be compromised without the product. Either way, the most natural and understandable response is to head to a petrol station to fill up and to look after our own interests. It isn't 'herd' behaviour simply because many of us respond. It's a sensible, self-protecting strategy.

Another Easter weekend will soon be upon us and the shops are filled with chocolate goodies in a range of shapes and increasingly innovative flavours. It’s hard to resist but we are often told that all that sugar can’t possibly be good for us.

However, there is a very surprising positive side effect to consuming sugar (and by extension Easter Eggs): it could reduce our biases and help us to make better decisions.

Research suggests that blood sugar levels are linked to self-control and self-regulation – both of these things are useful in stopping us engaging in common biases such as stereotyping. Everyone has biases; it’s the way our brains have evolved to process information. However, it is possible to regulate these biases so that we have enough time to determine whether there is actually any evidence for them in a given situation and whether we are making the right decision. People who keep their blood sugar levels high, e.g. by eating chocolate or other sugary substances, have more energy to self-regulate which results in using fewer stereotypes and making fewer prejudicial statements.

This self-regulation is particularly relevant when making important decisions, for instance selection, promotion, appraisal and project allocation decisions.

Furthermore, keeping sugar levels high can be useful in uncertain situations, e.g. when employees are unclear about how to complete a task. Uncertainty uses up valuable physical energy which enables us to self-regulate. However, this ability to self-regulate in ambiguous situations can quickly be restored by eating or drinking something sugary.

So a top tip this Easter is – go ahead and eat those eggs!

As 25th March approaches we may be looking forward to longer days, lighter evenings and getting home from work in the daylight. Roll on daylight saving time (DST) and the clocks finally going forward! DST brings many positives; it means we can enjoy a jog in the light after work or take the dogs out for a longer walk. However the time change can also negatively affect our productivity at work.

On Monday 26th March when you’re at work ask yourself whether you’re really being productive? Or are you instead browsing the internet to find anything to distract yourself from that massive to-do list? Well the research suggests that’s exactly what a lot of people will be doing! If you find yourself looking online to avoid anything more strenuous or complicated, then you are one of the many of us who will be cyberloafing.

Cyberloafing- or surfing the web when we could otherwise be hard at work- has been found to occur more when we’re tired and want to avoid work. Changing to DST makes people initially feel tired and strong evidence for cyberloafing following the shift to DST has been found in an experiment by psychologists from Universities in Singapore and the USA. Using six years of Google online usage data it was found that searches on entertainment-related subjects rose sharply on the Monday following the shift to DST. More specifically, an additional 3 minutes of cyberloafing was found to occur for each hour of lost sleep, or 8.4 minutes more cyberloafing for every hour of interrupted sleep.

With strong experimental support for an increase in cyberloafing following the shift to DST, it begs the question ‘what can be done about it?’. One option is to restrict access to certain websites, such as YouTube. However this will not go down well with all employees and is also much hassle! Instead, with line management support and trust being key to employee well-being and performance, why not seek to treat your staff like adults. Rules are necessary but surely results are more important. Give your staff autonomy and freedom to meet the company’s expectations in a way that suits them- and if it means allowing a little cyberloafing once in a while, so be it.

It feels better already, having that extra hour of daylight at the end of the day. It’s a good demonstration of how our feelings are affected by the seasons.

In our use of language too there is a connection made between weather and mood. Gloomy, depressed, cold, sunny, bright, warm are adjectives that are applied to personalities as well as the weather.

Most of us experience feelings of gloominess and lethargy during the winter months, but for some it is more than just feeling a little tired and grumpy. An estimated half a million people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every winter. Symptoms include sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, depression, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes. The main treatment for SAD is exposure to a very high intensity light bulb, although the onset of spring and the longer days usually make symptoms disappear.

But it's not just SAD sufferers who benefit from the longer days; the majority of us tend to be more positive and have a stronger sense of well-being as spring and summer approach.

Our mood is improved when:

- Humidity is low

- Sunlight is high

- Barometric pressure is high

The effect of temperature on mood is more variable. Our mood is typically better as the temperature goes up but if it gets too hot our mood declines. Aggression also increases as temperatures increase, but again declines if it goes too high. It’s no coincidence that riots tend to occur when the weather is good.

A good spring with sunny weather and higher temperatures boosts our mood more than it would in the summer when these conditions are less of a novelty. A poor spring then means we don't get that surge of positive energy and increased sense of optimism.

Overall the message is a simple one: at this time of year in particular make the most of any good weather you get. We spend over 90% of our time indoors so getting out, if only for half an hour, can have a positive impact especially in springtime.

The Peter Principle states that an employee will eventually rise to a position that is above their level of competence. Typically, a successful employee is rewarded with a series of promotions until the point at which they are no longer successful. So they leave, get fired or, worse still, stay.

But now we may have a new leadership principle. Let’s call it the Richard Rule, after Richard Brasher who, until yesterday, was the UK CEO for Tesco Plc. He quit or (according to several sources) was fired from his post, leaving the Group CEO to officially absorb the role.

Brasher had been in the post for exactly twelve months. In that time he has been blamed for the failure to lift falling sales and for Tesco’s first profit warning in over twenty years. He is also being blamed for the company’s share of the UK grocery market being at its lowest level since 2005. So, it seems reasonable to fire him, given these facts.

But let’s look at the same situation from another angle. By all accounts, Brasher is an extremely capable, driven, analytical and bright person with unusually broad national and international retailing experience. He was nominated for the UK post by successor Sir Terry Leahy, taking over the £42bn business in March 2011. He had been on the Main Board for seven years, during which Tesco plc had out-performed pretty much all other retailers.

Brasher was also known to be at odds on a number of strategic goals with the Group CEO. While he was publicly supported when moving into the role - and promised space to work in the way that he felt would be best for the UK business - it was widely rumoured that he was locked in disagreements on strategy. And so, within a year - twelve months of the most uncertain and turbulent economic conditions that most of us can remember – a highly talented employee is out of a job.

On the surface, it may seem that he was just another example of the Peter Principle. It seems just as likely, however, that he was the victim of the Richard Rule: promoted into an unwinnable situation, facing challenges that were outside his sphere of control, and then taking the flak that could or should just as easily have been aimed across the Boardroom.

It was International Women’s Day last week but I was astonished to learn that this is in fact one of over 200 international observance days in the calendar.  There’s even World Star Wars day (May the 4th if you are interested, as in May the 4th be with you).  Stripping away the more esoteric events you are left with a list of 78 Observance Days that are recognised by the UN.  On these days we are expected to commemorate, celebrate or reflect on a worthy cause

Another of these is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the 21st of March.  (My first thought on hearing about it was that it sounds like a good idea but ambitious for a day’s work). If this day has passed you by then you are not alone but it has in fact been held on the same day for the past 46 years.

It was established by the UN six years after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.  On March 21st 1960, 69 people taking part in a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration were shot dead by police.  Since then the 21st March has been a UN day of observance, which aims to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences.  It also encourages people to remember their obligation and determination to combat racial discrimination.

1960s South Africa is a far cry from the present day UK but the pervasive force of racism is still present. In the past year we have seen the rise in the English Defence League, a glut of racism in football, Croydon ‘Tram Woman’ and her racist rant, John Galliano sharing his far-right political ideals and the trivialisation of Gypsies (See ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’), to name but a few.

So on the 21st March what can we do to help to eliminate racial discrimination in our society?  And by the way, I am recommending slightly tougher action than that endorsed by FIFA’s Head, Sepp Blatter (he thought that racist comments during play could be settled with a handshake when the match was over).  The first thing we can all do is not tolerate racial or any other form of discrimination.  This applies to every day of the year, not just the 21st March.  Sometimes it is easier to pretend that we didn’t hear something than confront it but the psychological research in this area is absolutely clear, if you challenge someone’s racism they will be less likely to do the same again.  Be bold.

The other thing we can all do is look internally and examine our unconscious biases.  If you haven’t done an Implicit Association Test yet you can do one here.

Do these two things and suddenly this is not just another International Day of …Whatever.

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