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Here we are in the final run-up to the US election. And what a marathon it's been. We've had the primaries, the conventions, How To Vote guides on YouTube, high profile advertising in racing video games and an infomercial; now it's all down to the voting next week.

Barack Obama's strong lead in the polls over the Republican candidate John McCain continues to grow. This healthy lead remains despite press speculation that American voters will falter at the polling booths and decide that a first black president is just a step too far. The Republican leader John McCain, however, thinks this is unlikely. As he said in a recent Larry King interview, "Look, there is racism in America. We all know that...but I am totally convinced that 99 and forty-four-one-hundredths percent of Americans are going to make the decision based on who is best to lead this country". Let's hope they don't have to do the math on that one....

Regardless of the outcome of next week's election, it's fair to say that in the US, much as in the UK, overt, traditional forms of racism are becoming increasingly taboo, to the point that we are now looking at a popular black Senator. It's taken time though - 1870 saw the first black congressman to be seated in the House of Representatives. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that the UK was more than 20 years behind the US in electing its first ethnic minority MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, in 1892. Even today, with only 15 of our 605 MPs being from a minority background, we still find ourselves playing catch-up. Perhaps some may argue that this is simply due to numbers - the US after all has a higher proportion of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. But given that over here in the UK we still struggle to vote for black dancers in Strictly Come Dancing and black singers in I'd Do Anything, I'm not going to hold my breath. Perhaps the 2008 US elections will be another opportunity for the US to lead the UK in breaking new ground.

"Perhaps in future it would be better if all involved accepted the age old adage that private parties are just that." So wrote Nathaniel Rothschild in his now infamous letter to the Times newspaper about George Osborne, the shadow chancellor. Rothschild's letter was short, sharp, punishment, meted out because Osborne broke one of high society's unwritten rules.

Unwritten rules surround us, some we are aware of and others we are not, because they are unconscious. In both cases there are consequences for breaking these rules. For example, stereotypes are powerful sources of unwritten rules. When you think of a leader what sort of person springs to mind? For most of us the answer will be a man, especially a tall man. Take the workplace. Recent research by the Cranfield School of Management showed that women held just 12 per cent of board seats at FTSE 100 companies. Meanwhile, Psychologists have found that tall men earn more than their shorter counterparts - a man who is 6 feet tall earns, on average, nearly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than a man who is 5 feet 5 inches.

This is because women, and short men, break our unwritten rules. We expect our leaders to show signs of 'strength' such as a large stature and a deep voice. However, these examples show that unwritten rules can be neither fair nor helpful. Importantly, we can also fall foul of our own rules. Take Warren Harding who was president of the United States from 1921-1923. In his book 'Blink', Malcolm Gladwell draws on evidence describing Harding as "Looking like a President"; his biographer wrote that his "lusty black eyebrows contrasted with his steel-grey hair to give the effect of force, his massive shoulders and bronzed complexion gave the effect of health." In essence, this was a man who appealed directly to out unwritten rules about what a leader should look like.Unfortunately for the American electorate, Harding has also been described as "one of the worst presidents in American history". His limited intellect and unclear direction meant that he was, in many respects, an ineffectual leader. The voters' unwritten rules blinded them to the rather disappointing reality.

This poses a real problem for organisations that can't (or won't) challenge and change these types of unwritten rules. The result is talent management, promotions, and hiring processes which play to stereotypes, hunches, and 'intuition', favouring those who meet the rules but not the real needs. The result, like Harding, can be someone who looks like they can do a job which, in reality, is beyond them, whilst those who are capable are either frustrated bystanders or are busy succeeding elsewhere. In the current climate who can afford that?

There are so many comparisons of the current recession with those of the past century. “This is going to be much worse than the 1929 depression” was the most recent idiotic sentiment being trotted out by yet another commentator on mainstream news.

For all the comparisons that we can make between different periods of recession, one thing is for sure. In 1929 we didn’t have 24 hour news channels, desperate to boost their viewer ratings with the latest shock headline. In 1974 we didn’t have the internet, peddling false alarm stories or stirring up fearful rumours for the average household saver. Even in 1991, breakfast news was still an emerging phenomenon and most of us received our daily dose of depression at six or ten in the evening. Now, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere without media intrusion.

So am I blaming the media for the recession? Of course not. That would be as foolish and as ill-informed as most of the opinion on the front of our daily national newspapers.

But I would suggest that they have played a strong role in shaping reactions to the current situation. And here’s why… Language – words, phrases, sentences – may not determine thought, but they do shape thought. They shape our interpretation of what is happening to us and they shape our emotions in response. To illustrate the point, look at the work of the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky. They put two scenarios to medical doctors (typically well educated and rational professionals we would assume) requesting funding for a health programme. The first was outlined with cautious language such as ‘saving the lives of 200 people out of 600 people who are vulnerable’, while the second was outlined with riskier language such as ‘resulting in the death of 400 people out of 600’. The vast majority of the health professionals opted for the cautious programme, even though there were no discernable differences in the actual risk.

Steve Pinker makes the point – in his book Stuff of Thought – that nobody is forced to construe situations in the way that a speaker presents them, but, when we have no prior knowledge of the situation, we are far more likely to be persuaded by the way that he or she presents them. In most instances, hard facts and figures reassure us that we are correct in the way that we are thinking about a problem.

But with the current financial situation, there are few real facts and figures. The numbers trotted out everyday are beyond comprehension. Few people have prior knowledge or expertise. Even the bank traders seem to struggle to describe some of the financial deals and techniques that have given rise to such inflated debts.

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis, a remarkable psychologist most widely known for his work in cognitive-behavioural therapy, made the point that if human beings focus on a problem, then not surprisingly the problem will seem to grow. He further illustrated his thinking when he defined a list of irrational thoughts that we all, to some degree or another, experience. These included ‘polarized thinking’ (where things are either fantastic or disastrous), ‘catastrophising’ (where what-ifs quickly turn into certain doom) and over-generalisations (where one-off events lead us into drawing generalised conclusions about the future). Do these sound familiar?

So where does that leave the recession in the media? In a frenzy, it seems. The television and newspaper media now resort to managing their own uncertainty about what is happen by over-speculating. In the process, they use words and statements that shape our thoughts in a very negative and emotional way. Words such as ‘crisis’, ‘depression’ and ‘edge of a precipice’ typically lead us into making emotional over-generalisations and catastrophising about the future. It leaves investors wanting to withdraw their money from the banks and adopt the very irrational tactic of stuffing in their mattresses.

News chiefs beware. Irrational language drives irrational thought, which inevitably drives irrational action.

Shame is a powerful human emotion which occurs when our self-esteem, social status or social attractiveness is diminished in some significant way.

The feeling of shame draws our attention to those things which threaten our power and standing. In that sense it can be seen as something which helps us to learn and adapt.

The Max Mosley privacy action against the News of the World is a fascinating public example of shame and the response to it.

In publishing the story about his sadomasochistic predilections the News of the World quite clearly wanted to shame the Formula One boss. The typical responses to shame are related to submissiveness, for example avoiding eye contact, hiding. The newspaper must have anticipated a response like this to its lurid headlines.

Instead, Mosley went against the grain. His anger and sense of injustice were so great that instead of withdrawing he did exactly the opposite. He met with all the key people in his organisation to ensure that he retained their confidence. Furthermore, he accepted that what he had done had caused great personal distress to himself and to his family. What he also succeeded in doing though was to make it clear that the acts themselves, whilst unusual, were not necessarily anything to be ashamed of. He therefore appears to be separating the cause of the shame from his self concept. The court case itself may have served as away of demonstrating his feelings about what occurred.

Unsurprisingly, shame is related to a range of mental health problems including depression. Mosley's response, however, displays a high degree of resilience which should mean he will recover from this experience quicker than most people would.

Selection of staff is an imperfect and pressurised practice. You get a few hours at best to assess your candidates before having to make a decision. How much better if we could evaluate each person over several months, having them perform tasks that we have set them, observed by our most trusted aides. At the end of such a thorough and intensive selection process I think we'd all be confident about getting the right person wouldn't we? Not if you're Sir Alan Sugar you wouldn't. I have been following the latest series of the Apprentice eagerly. Last week saw the last five candidates being interviewed by Sir Alan's cronies. The conclusion of the programme saw the great man not being able to identify the two best people for the final, opting to choose four instead.

To say I was disappointed would be putting it mildly. How can you have that amount of information on each person and still be unable to make a decision?

Over and above that exactly what is he looking for? It seems clear that he wants someone who can buy and sell, is entrepreneurial, can lead a team and be led. He also wants someone he can mould. He seems to focus on those characteristics to such an extent that he seems extremely unconcerned about lying, cheating, bullying, bribing, scapegoating, scheming, conning and sheer uselessness. He prevaricates whilst the rest of the country is shouting at their TV screens "Fire them!"

One of the main reasons why I watch the series is because of Sir Alan himself. He has shown himself to be tough, astute, witty. Now though, whilst still tough and witty, his judgement should seriously be called into question.

Regardless of whoever wins the final I think the producers ought to say "With regret, Sir Alan, you're fired!"

In my neck of the woods it has felt like a pretty poor spring to date. The weather has been overcast, dreary and very wet, which is all highly reminiscent of the last year when summer was effectively rained off.

In our use of language 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 better or higher 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. Furthermore, aggression also increases as temperatures increase, but again declines if it goes too high.

A good spring with sunny weather and higher temperatures boosts our mood more that it would in the summer when these conditions are less of a novelty. A poor spring then means we don' 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.

Last year my colleague, Emma Trenier, and I had our heads buried in political biographies of the then Prime Minister Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown. We analysed the descriptions of the two of them and then drew up psychological profiles for them.

I was pleasantly surprised to find, one year on, that our analysis predicted Gordon Brown's plight pretty accurately. The conclusion of our detailed profile said:

"Brown's strengths are considerable, in particular, his analytical skills, his thoroughness, his diligence and conscientiousness. These should not be underestimated. There is a sense in which, given Tony Blair’s personality, these are precisely the qualities that number 10 and the Prime Minister has been lacking.

His biggest challenge, however will be to recreate a sense of unity within the cabinet. The best way Brown has of convincing the British public that he is a man to be trusted will not be through spin or trying to smile more often in public, it will be through the government delivering on its promises and achieving a degree of consistency and not engaging in exciting but politically misdirected adventures. He needs to create a cabinet where the others feel involved and valued. This is easy to say and difficult to do, especially for someone with the profile suggested here.

If he is to change he will need to be persuaded that there is something in it for him, he will need others to give him constructive and positive feedback on his behaviour. However, the change itself will be difficult. From a personality profile point of view it may be very difficult to achieve. If he does not, however, he may quickly lose support amongst those from whom he will need it most i.e. the Cabinet. This difficulty in establishing collaborative relationships with a broad range of people could be his undoing. If he can change, however, this could be his route to becoming and being seen as a truly effective premier."

Brown is not only under pressure and beleaguered he also appears to me to be confused. The Prime Minister's style, deficient as it may be in quite a number of ways, has got him to the top of the political pile. He may not have seen the need to change as a result. What is clear though is that what got him to the top may not be enough to keep him there.

(If you would like a copy of the detailed profile please feel free to email me.)

Will the verdict of unlawful killing by the jurors in the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed end the conspiracy theories and if not, why not?

In 2006, the BBC carried out a poll that showed that nearly 60% of people didn't believe her death was due to an accident. The reason for this is due to what is known as the "major event - major cause" heuristic. In other words, the tendency to assume that when a high profile political or establishment figure dies suddenly it will be due to assassination.

A study carried out by Dr Patrick Lehman of Royal Holloway University of London presented participants with a number of scenarios about the president of a fictional country. In one scenario the president was shot and killed, in another the president was shot and injured, in the third the shot missed completely and in the fourth the president died of an unrelated cause. The participants were more likely to believe in a conspiracy when the president was shot and killed. When there is a major event we seek a major cause. The lone gunman is not a major enough cause for such a significant event and does not provide sufficient explanation for what happened. The same applies to the death of Diana and Dodi. A drunken driver, a speeding car and a tragic accident are not major enough explanations for the death of such high profile figures.

The research also found that some people are more prone than others to believe such conspiracy theories and we can assume the verdict recorded by the inquest will never satisfy them.

BBC's new talent show, 'I'd do anything' has attracted criticism for being an extended advertisement for the new production of the musical 'Oliver' but could it also be revealing prejudices in the voting public?

The show has a number of musical actresses who are all competing for the opportunity to be the new Nancy; there are ten actresses in total and each week they perform a song which is firstly critiqued by a panel and then by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. The viewing public then vote for the woman they would like to see remain in the show. The bottom two sing once more and Lord Webber decides who will remain.

There were two black performers in the show. In week two both were voted in the bottom two and had to sing off against each other. Lord Webber said that this was not a fair result based on the performances, but one had to go.

Week three saw the remaining black woman Keisha in the bottom two again despite the panel and Lord Webber deeming her to be better than some others. Last week she was in the bottom three.

Does this reveal the racial bias in the viewers? Well on the surface you might argue yes, but it might not be as straightforward as that.

Do we really think of any of the main characters being anything other than white?

The images that come to my mind of Oliver Twist are based on old photographs and classic black and white movies. I didn't associate any of the above with black people. The same will be true of Nancy.

The celebrity panel and Lord Webber very admirably stick to their task of picking out talent. Lord Webber attempted, at the start of week three's programme, to remind viewers to judge the performances in the same vein. He referred to not judging people on whether they are from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland, but on the way they perform. This instruction, worthy as it was, did not work in week two and hasn't been repeated since

Colour is one of the most identifiable features we have and our brains register someone's ethnicity almost before anything else. The association we make between Nancy and a white woman is so strong that we can't cast it off. The Lord needs to keep reminding us though on what we should be judging the women on but Keisha unfortunately will continue to have a rough ride unless she puts in some truly exceptional performances. This is probably the experience of many ethnic minorities struggling for recognition of their talent in a lot of organisations.

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