So, three health researchers/ advocates are suing Cameron Slater and Carrick Graham. Interesting. I don’t know exactly why this is happening now, two years after the Dirty Politics book came out, but I’m sure all will become clear. It’s pretty obvious why these individuals would be annoyed at the way they have been represented in that blog that that guy who is apparently a journalist runs.

Adam Dudding wrote a good summary of the situation here.

Is suing people for insulting you an attack on freedom of speech? There are arguments either way of course. Some of these arguments seem pretty disingenuous but rightio, we’ll see what the court thinks I guess. Mr Slater claims that this kind of lawsuit could have a “chilling effect” on debate and criticism.

What’s the issue with a chilling effect really? Doesn’t threatening people with reputational damage for basically doing their jobs and following their conscience – and that is what these health researchers seem to be doing – already have a chilling effect? More to the point, isn’t there something more sinister about chilling the self-expression of scientists? (Yes, I am prioritising the voices of people with science degrees and people who work on social health issues above the voices of people who publish insults for a living. I am indeed that kind of intellectual snob. So sue me.)

I have a small amount of personal experience with the psychological effect that nastiness in the blogosphere can have on researchers getting their work into the media. Two years ago I got a paper based on part of my thesis into an international tobacco control journal. The university comms people wanted to put a press release out. It went ok, it got on the radio, I got on the radio.

But before agreeing to do the press, I had to contend with and talk myself out of a brief bout of paranoia. Nicky Hager had just published his book. I was morbidly fascinated by what had apparently been going on with attacks against public health researchers. I felt I had to ask myself: “Am I feeling resilient enough to deal with being called names on some website? Am I going to be able to handle it if family members look up my work and see links to nasty things written about me?”

After doing the interview, I decided for the first time to post a ranty reflection on my (not public) social media. An excerpt:

Over the last week I have been involved in some PR and media because a paper got published from my study on young adults, smoking and the idea of “informed choice” (a phrase popular with tobacco lobbyists).

I was nervous: I hoped that the participants’ words wouldn’t be misinterpreted for the sake of catchy headlines, and that I would be able to explain enough of my key points without coming across like an idiot. These are pretty reasonable concerns for researchers getting their work into the media.

I was also nervous about the idea that the more attention this story got, the more likely it was that some right wing blogger like Whaleoil would have a go at me. Both my supervisors have been attacked on this blog when they said something negative about Big Tobacco.

Now before this post descends into total narcissistic paranoia I should note that I don’t think there have been any blog posts going up about me and, as an obscure researcher publishing one study during election week, I very much doubt that there will be. Should any nasty stuff be posted, I’ll just try not to take it personally.

That’s not the point though. The point is that this possibility did factor into my thoughts about whether I wanted to do PR about the story, and upon reflection this worries me. I have joked about it before but, actually, including “my first online character assassination” among the signs that I’m making progress in public health research isn’t funny.

The more that we expect that publicising policy-related research might result in getting trolled, the more we accept it as part of the deal. It shouldn’t be.


This is just one insight into the mind of one early-career researcher. I was fine really. I am sure most health research publicity does not lead to personal attacks. Plenty of other researchers just suck it up, talk about their findings and ignore the trolling. Others, I suspect, might quite enjoy getting into the odd public fight with their ideological foes.
But the existence of this nasty discourse – even if it mostly just constitutes threats to our “poor little feelings” – is likely to have a cumulative effect on the way researchers publicise their work. It’s likely to result in those who aren’t feeling very resilient or well-supported just staying out of potentially contentious debates. And then the gaps where their voices could be will end up getting filled by *ahem* less informed commentators. And then we will miss out on a whole lot of insights that we don’t even know we’re missing out on. Chilling.

I am a Really Useful Engine

A couple of weekends ago, we were getting ready to go try out the new section of Te Araroa tramping track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. Very nice views, I recommend it though probably not on a really windy day. I went to look for a backpack and my partner said “don’t worry, all our things will fit into this pack that I’ll take”. And I was like… “but, but IF I DON’T CARRY ANYTHING I WON’T BE USEFUL”. And it was mostly a joke, and we continued to make jokes about it (“you can put the poles in the pack if you like”; “NO I WILL CARRY THESE BECAUSE NOW I AM USEFUL”). But it was also a little bit not a joke. How dare I let someone else contribute more than me, when I could just as easily do my share?


We all have different comfort zones with this sort of thing, but some of us genuinely feel uncomfortable taking money for nothing, sitting around while someone else looks after us, or generally not appearing to work as hard as we could. This may be the sort of learned cultural hangup that my brothers blame on Presbyterianism. I blame Thomas the Tank Engine.


I was very keen on Thomas and Friends ever since pre-school age. My innocent memories of the Isle of Sodor and its benign dictator the Fat Controller were rudely questioned in recent years. Some critics have made a pretty valid observation that these stories conveyed unsubtle messages about gaining all your self-esteem via labour in a conservative, imperialist system. No seriously, do not read this article if you want your memories to stay untarnished. Buuut…

Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to “carry the most special special” to divide and conquer the trains

The trains, complicit in maintaining this unjust system, humiliate each other for the small scraps of praise the little tyrant doles out rather than banding together (no unions on Sodor)

once you have engaged in Thomas cultural criticism, there’s no going back. It’s nearly impossible to listen to lines like “being strong was only good if you were also really useful, and he had to be really useful” without hearing something sinister.

(Jessica Roake)

Oh man. Actually I’m pretty sure unions were represented in the stories, but it was only the trucks – who were plain looking and probably had less posh accents – who sometimes went on strike. They were portrayed as trouble-makers with bad attitudes.


I have been thinking a bit recently about what kind of “work” is valued differently, and why. Whole books can be written about the undervaluing of caring work or the persistent assumption that women will undertake “unpaid emotional labour”.


Then there’s the treatment of people who can’t work: if society sees receiving aid as a sign of weakness then they can be further disadvantaged. Sarah Wilson writes about this on her blog Writehanded


It’s this (beneficiary-bashing) rhetoric that makes me, and so many others, feel like ‘less-than’ for needing what we’re entitled to. It’s so ingrained in kiwi culture that, for me, it’s now internalised self-doubt, and sometimes even hate.

(Sarah Wilson)

This blog has drawn attention to just how frustrating and dispiriting it can be to deal with the welfare system while suffering from a chronic disease. Blogging looks like a voluntary activity, but Sarah is also a professional writer and what she is doing here looks very valuable: it may result in much-needed change. I hope she is getting some payment for her efforts.


I recently stumbled upon an advice column that expressed the trouble society seems to have with accepting that people who don’t earn money make valuable contributions, and indeed that people who are not able to do what looks like “work” are still valuable. A brief excerpt:


Sometimes, the thing that people Do, the thing that is their work in the world, is not something our culture (or our country) is willing to pay for.  Emotional labor and artistic work are two big examples of that, advocacy and activism are others. These are real and valid and utterly necessary kinds of work.

That’s true alongside the fact that not all humans have the same capacity for work, for various ability-related reasons, and our idea of what constitutes enough work for someone to avoid being tagged with “lazy” is predicated on this tremendously ableist model.

(S. Bear Bergman, via Bitch Media)


Our work in the world is not always something that we will be paid or widely recognised for. While volunteering recently, I met someone who has restructured her whole work life to concentrate on voluntary social support work. What she is doing seems immensely valuable. It involves helping vulnerable people who  might not otherwise get enough support. She wants to do it and is able to do it because her husband has a well-paying enough job. Due to circumstances (i.e. the need to pay bills), some people who are equally good and capable and motivated simply cannot make the choice to do such a good thing.   


Payment is clearly not the only way we gain value from what we do. As Thomas and his friends apparently thought, the sense of prestige and satisfaction attached to certain types of work means that we choose it without prioritising financial benefit. I recall, when working in an embassy, editing speech notes for a diplomat who was going to talk at a university. He planned to say to the academics that their careers had something in common: they were not a path to high financial reward but brought great opportunities to contribute and engage with exciting ideas. Now, it’s fair to say that neither of these careers are terribly paid, but at the same time he wasn’t wrong to imply that people who are smart enough to get into diplomacy and academia could probably earn more in another sector.


I confess that I am still utterly mystified by the full rationale behind why certain types of work are paid more than others. This 2008 comic about payscales at American colleges recently resurfaced, and prompted some frustrated eye-rolling (spoiler: football coaches paid more than 10x what professors are paid).


My current musings are general but also self-interested. I’m in a not-quite-student, not-quite-worker phase. While preparing for the final examination, I’m writing papers based on my thesis (with some funding, thankfully), and agreeing to contribute to papers with no funding because, well, it would be silly not to get my name attached to work I have already been involved with… Talking at seminars and workshops, which makes me feel like I’m contributing and gives me a little ego boost. Doing some book reviewing, which is fun. Agreeing to review an academic journal article because it seems like a good academic-community thing to be asked to do. 


In the meantime I’ve been searching for non-academic job options. My professional identity is thus switching awkwardly between “experienced research adviser, can pass for a real adult when talking to a bank manager” and “aspiring junior academic, will do anything for kudos/ attention/ book vouchers”. 


Dr Miya Tokumitsu has written about how exhortations to “do what you love” can lead to workers being exploited (think unpaid internships in socially desirable fields) while the majority of the less-educated workforce, who may not have a choice about whether they love their job, are disrespected. Tokumitsu observes that this issue is particularly prevalent in academia:


Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

(Miya Tokumitsu)


I think it’s fine if we do a bit of work for free. Most of us who want careers that involve coming up with new ideas do. If people only created while being paid then independent voices would not be heard, start-ups wouldn’t start, and artists would not create enough to get to a point that people wanted to pay them. Our world would be a much more boring, much less progressive place. But it’s also totally fine if we have to sometimes make a call about spending our energy on the stuff that keeps us fed.


I wonder whether the deeper difficulty we face is with allowing ourselves to concentrate our efforts on things that other people might not see as “really useful” work. I picture a spectrum of social pressure around career work that on one end is all about the conventional, materialistic trappings of high-earning success, and on the other about being inspiring and exciting and the sort of person that others want to quote and create with (often with little money involved – this is more about recognition). But in the middle there must be many people who will not be widely recognised in either financial or reputational ways. They may be contributing massively to the people around them, but most of us will never notice. They may be on the brink of figuring out something amazing, but in the interim their work doesn’t make much sense to anyone else.


It’s nice to be validated as “useful”, but we can spin ourselves into all sorts of angst by attaching our self-esteem to jobs. Thankfully we are not engines. We are so much more complex and more wonderful than that. It helps to recognise that we contribute and produce in many areas of our lives. When we find ourselves being lectured by the narrowly work-obsessed little Fat Controller in our head, we sometimes need to tell him to back the hell off. He doesn’t have the full picture.  


Self-image and risk acceptance

Or, the more you think “it won’t happen to me”, the more you will resist dealing with it when it does.


There are many (optimism bias), many (temporal distance) reasons why we might not take risk information personally if we have the option to ignore it. Those of us with less life experience (I’m not just going to say “younger people”, because plenty of young people have contended with a whole lot of life stuff) find it particularly hard to imagine what it would be like to incur a hypothetical risk, and may not have enough prior experience to recognise the signs of danger.


One of the more unfortunate rationalisations I have noticed is the one where we put our own self-image front and centre in the calculation about whether a decision is a good idea, totally missing the point in the process. Examples include:

  • “I don’t have an addictive personality”, rather than “should I be worried that this is addictive?”
  • “I’m strong-minded so I wouldn’t let myself be mistreated”, rather than “am I really ok in this situation?”
  • “I’m fit and health-conscious”, rather than “should I get this checked?”.


These are all ways of saying “I am not the sort of person that this stuff happens to”. Ok, leaving aside the implicit judgement about the sort of person that you think (abuse/ illness/ addiction) happens to, this thought pattern is really dangerous because it means that when “this stuff” does happen you’ll do everything in your power to minimise it, and to avoid worrying people by admitting that actually it might be happening to you. Then when you finally confront the problem you will have an extra emotional burden to contend with: the blow to your self-image from having to admit you are not as invincible as you had previously claimed. Some of the young adults I interviewed about smoking were feeling this pretty hard: they had been sure a couple of years ago that they had this under control and were not about to get addicted. But now that they were experiencing addiction, they had to contend with contradictions in their self-image and rewrite part of their story about their own choices.


This phenomenon is probably related to cultural messages that emphasise individualism. As I alluded to in the previous post, there are different schools of thought about whether health and social problems are due to individuals making decisions or to environmental and structural influences. Most of us probably figure that the truth is “a bit of both”, though we might disagree about the weighting. When we emphasise the individual factors too much, we claim both credit and blame for life circumstances that weren’t entirely under our control. That’s a lot to take on, and it leads us to judging ourselves and others really harshly.


The more we see of life, the more we realise that actually, bad shit can and does happen to anyone. That there are complex forces that keep people in certain situations and behaviour patterns long after they become aware that the status quo may be harmful. That when someone admits that they are vulnerable and need help, they are showing strength not weakness.


I am the sort of person that “this stuff” happens to. We all are.

Talking past each other: Ideological silos and politicised research topics

Last week I went to two evening launch events that had a bit of subject matter in common.

The New Zealand Initiative hosted a panel debate relating to their new report The Health of the State, which sets out to examine the evidence for “lifestyle regulations”. The panel featured report author Jenesa Jeram, Treasury Chief Economist Dr Girol Karacaoglu, Maori Party Co-leader Marama Fox, and former ACT party leader Jamie Whyte.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for an industry-sponsored think-tank with a libertarian bent, the New Zealand Initiative’s report comes to the conclusion that taxes and restrictions on products that cause health problems (sugar being an example) are a bad idea or not justified by a strong enough evidence base.


The following evening, Unity Books hosted a launch for Dr Robyn Toomath’s new book, Fat Science.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for an endocrinologist, diabetes specialist and longtime advocate for action to stem New Zealand’s increasing obesity rate, Dr Toomath comes to the conclusion that a lot of the factors leading to obesity are genetic. The modifiable factor, in her view, is that the current environment promotes obesity so it is very hard now for those predisposed to it to avoid weight gain and related problems, and therefore there should be changes to the physical and market environment.


I’m not going to go into too much detail about the findings (or about the implicit assumption that being fat = a problem. I totally agree that shaming people for being overweight is awful and counterproductive – but I don’t think that was happening in either of these cases). The thing I am interested in is the framing: both sets of authors and publishers talk about choice and personal responsibility, but go off in completely opposite directions. They both talk about economic theories about choice and market regulations, but come to different conclusions.


Robyn Toomath says that “making weight an issue of personal responsibility is not only ineffective but harmful to overweight people and has allowed industry to get off the hook”. The New Zealand Initiative are of the view that any “paternalistic” regulations or “policies to protect people from themselves” should be questioned as threats to liberty. The foreword states: “until recently the assumption still remained that in principle, at least, consumers should be free to choose for themselves. This general principle now seems under threat by increasing attempts to regulate lifestyle choices”.


The threat, according to the New Zealand Initiative, is the government intervening too much (spurred on by pesky “interventionist” public health lobbyists using dubious science to justify their claims?). The threat, according to Robyn Toomath, is the rampant marketing of unhealthy products which the government is doing far too little about (held back by their ties to business-funded lobby groups?). These two are never going to agree. I know whose analysis I have more faith in. But I think it is worth considering both points of view.


I haven’t seen a huge amount of reaction to Robyn Toomath’s book yet, apart from some Radio NZ interviews and an opinion piece by National Party pollster David Farrar disagreeing and saying that personal choice was the point. But the reaction to the New Zealand Initiative report was quite predictable. They got support from people like alleged Dirty Politics proponent Carrick Graham and pro-smoking/ anti-regulation writer Christopher Snowdon. Meanwhile Radio NZ presented the report’s claims within an article showing both sides of the debate, and attracted a bunch of comments along the lines of “of course they’d say that, they are a corporate lobby group, why are you even giving them airtime”. This was the general vibe among left more left-wing politicians such as Green Party health spokesperson Kevin Hague too. Some commentators did address the report’s assertions as well as the organisation’s assumed inherent bias: Geoff Simmons from the Morgan Foundation promptly provided a succinct rebuttal of the main claims


There was not a lot of overlap in terms of the attendees at both events, which I thought was a bit of a shame. The sad thing, I think, is that people on each side of these kinds of debates are so ideologically opposed to each other that they can’t respect each other as people let alone as intellectuals. Maybe that’s why I believe that the person whose ideals I relate to did a better job of presenting the relevant evidence? My tribal bias kicking in? I hope not, but I’m sure my experience at each launch event influenced my willingness to engage with the writing. The New Zealand Initiative event certainly achieved the stated aim of provoking debate. I was appalled by pretty much everything Jamie Whyte said (possibly more appalled by the smug, “Richard Dawkins minus the science”, way he said it). I found the debate interesting but trending towards a debating club-style “let’s make clever arguments” vibe rather than addressing the actual health issues. Some hostile undercurrents seemed to come through whenever a libertarian-aligned audience member addressed Marama Fox and her efforts to use personal reflection from her community to explain her position on health policies. Robyn Toomath’s impassioned concern and Andrew Dickson’s personal and professional endorsement of her work the following evening came across as more genuine – but then, I was more relaxed at that event, standing in my favourite book shop surrounded by friends and colleagues.


The New Zealand Initiative ran their report by a number of academics and industry people before finalising it, but none that I could see were public health specialists – and certainly none of the 70 professors who recently called for a sugary drinks tax  were consulted. But I wonder whether those professors would even have agreed to be involved if they were asked? The New Zealand Initiative do state that they are keen to talk to anyone who wants to discuss their findings, and to develop more networks in new (for them) topic areas such as health. I applaud this aim, but I wonder whether they will be able to overcome the suspicion of their motives that many experts and commentators outside their network hold.


I don’t think that anyone who produces research for a business-aligned organisation goes to work rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of sacrificing the proletariat’s well-being on the altar of big business. Neither do I believe that the “interventionists” among the public health workforce live for opportunities to impose their puritan morals onto the populace by curtailing their choices. It’s a shame when we reduce each other to caricatures. Those of us on the public health side risk falling into self parody if we keep blaming everything on “neoliberalism and corporate cronyism!!” just as those on the other side may fall into self parody by overusing complaints about “nanny state” and “political correctness gone mad!!”. We do usually have a bit of common ground, but we’re not going to find it by standing on opposite sides of an ideological divide throwing buzzwords at each other.

Commitment is overrated: The sunk costs fallacy

I have never been very good at quitting. When I was younger, I stayed in classes and jobs that I wasn’t enjoying because I couldn’t bring myself to just say “I’m over this, I’m out” without a more compelling reason. Even in adulthood I’ve sometimes envied friends who are comfortable bailing on things like contracts and leases, knowing that they will disappoint or inconvenience others, because following their heart is more important than fulfilling their promises. Really? Like, you can actually do that? Yeah, turns out you can, and turns out that in the end everyone will get over it.


PhD study is notoriously taxing on mental health. I know I’ve suffered my fair share of impostor syndrome and general anxiety about whether I’m doing well enough to justify the resources (i.e. scholarships) that are helping me to do this. But it’s been immensely helpful that I began this project holding a bunch of first and second-hand knowledge of the various ways that life plans can be turned upside down. It helps, when anxious, to think “what’s the worst that could happen” and realise that I could deal with those scenarios. I could quit the PhD and disappoint a bunch of people. I haven’t quit, and was fairly determined not to. I could yet fail, which I don’t deny I’d be gutted about, but in the end? I’ll still have learned a lot. I’ll still be a researcher. The actual worst case scenario might be the one that involves perseverance beyond the point of reason: take many years longer than planned to finish the PhD, be unhappy about the final product, eventually pass but with health, self-esteem, finances and relationships in tatters, and with little idea about how to function in “the real world”.


I know people who have quit PhDs, and it’s probably been for the best. They’re doing fine. It’s not for everyone. I have recently compared quitting a PhD to getting a divorce: yes, it’s difficult and you may feel shame or disappointment or guilt, and you may feel that you’re failing at living the life you thought you wanted. But in the end, if you gave it your best shot then got partway in and realised it really wasn’t right for you, you can walk away feeling secure in your decision. It sucks but you’ll learn a lot, you may be surprised by how understanding your loved ones will be, you’ll move on.


“Stickability”, or willingness to commit, is often seen as a positive trait. It often is positive, and persevering to make a situation better is often worth it. But overvaluing commitment can lead us to the “sunk costs” fallacy.  In economic terms, this means continuing with a bad investment because once you give it up, everything already invested will be lost. It’s true – that investment has been lost – but continuing on with it is not the best way to remedy the situation. There’s also an emotional cost to giving up on an investment that hopes are attached to.


This fallacy happens in other areas of life. Some of my favourite advice columns (Captain Awkward is a good example) contain numerous variations of “my partner/boss/household member does (a bunch of terrible things) and makes me feel (a bunch of terrible things), and refuses to listen when I ask for change, but we have been together for X years and share Y, so what should I do?”. Because often people find it really hard to believe “you can leave” when they’re busy contemplating the costs that they have already sunk into the relationship. (I am NOT saying leaving/quitting is easy – in many cases it is difficult and complicated, and in the worst cases it is dangerous. But we shouldn’t let our fixation on the sunk costs blind us to the possibility that leaving is an option.)


In another life I’ve done research about gambling problems. As anyone in this sector knows, electronic gaming machines (pokies/ slot machines) are the form of gambling that currently causes the most harm. These machines have literally been designed with help from psychologists to make people behave compulsively. They also seem to me to trigger the sunk cost fallacy thought pattern: some people become convinced that because they’ve been at a certain machine for a certain amount of time, they are owed a win. When they don’t win, they keep trying. They’ve seen it happen before, they think they have a trick that they can use, they’re sure it is about to pay out. This is a horrible cycle to get into. It’s not entirely unlike those bad relationship logic spirals: “I’ve put in so much already, if I just put in a bit more then it might all turn out to be worth it”.


It is very, very hard to admit that we’ve chosen a course that is leading us nowhere good. At this point we are likely to spin a whole bunch of rationalisations to avoid making the really hard calls. But staying committed to something that’s going to mess us up is worse. In these cases the wisest response is to face up to our losses, learn our lessons, and let ourselves walk away.

It couldn’t happen to me: denial and the “ban begging” debate

Both the Wellington and Auckland mayoral campaigns have recently featured some debates about banning begging in town. This has been led in both cases by right-wing mayoral candidates who have made this idea part of their platform. Well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen and most city councillors have taken a line that is much more sympathetic/ politically correct depending on your viewpoint. As several have pointed out: it’s already illegal to actively harass people in public. Someone who is just sitting in a public place with a sign does not need to be classed in the same category as people who are actually committing assault.


However, the discourse around this issue has been quite interesting. It has captured more media attention than many other aspects of the mayoral races, possibly because it’s a naturally emotive and confusing topic. Even those of us who try to acknowledge the issues that must be behind certain “anti-social” behaviour may also admit that we feel uncomfortable being intercepted by people asking us for money. Even those of us who see begging as an individual’s choice must also wonder whether the services that help people with addiction or homelessness are doing enough.


One of my “things to do after handing in my thesis” was to get back into community volunteering. I have recently done a bit of volunteering with the Wellington Free Store, a really cool initiative in which people collect unsold items from cafes at the end of the day then distribute them to whoever turns up, no questions asked. The store attracts a lot of regular customers and volunteers, so it has a sweet community feel. It’s very easy to volunteer. All I’ve done is go online to book in a few evenings where I have time to help serve tea and coffee to the people who are waiting for the store to open. I was reflecting that part of the reason these interactions feel so nice is that everyone – customers and volunteers – has chosen to be in that place at that time for an agreed purpose. Nobody is sheltering somewhere they may be turned away from; nobody is being surprised by requests for aid that they don’t have time, money or energy to respond to. I’m not quite sure how this relates to the wider debate about begging and homelessness, but I guess when people in different circumstances have a chance to hang out for a shared purpose, it goes a long way to fostering understanding and acknowledgement of those different circumstances.


I have been reading about the cognitive biases that make it hard for us to apply risk information to ourselves. One noted tendency that we have when confronted with distressing proof of other people’s hardship is to distance that person from ourselves, creating a narrative in which they are to blame for their problems. By “othering” the suffering person, we reassure ourselves that we can avoid such problems. Tanene Allison calls this an example of “the myth of choice” when applied to homelessness. She’s talking about the USA but it seems increasingly relevant in New Zealand too:

The presence of homelessness in our society does not easily fit with society’s belief in the American Dream. It is incomprehensible, as we go about our daily lives, to drive casually by or step over individuals without food or shelter. It is impossible to believe that our communities create and allow for such disparity. And yet these incomprehensibilities are a part of the daily experience of millions of Americans. The Myth of Choice soothes society’s cognitive dissonance.



That’s it: Nicola Young says that begging on the street in Wellington is “a terrible look”, but terrible for whom? For those who don’t want to be reminded that life isn’t easy? Who don’t want to admit that the cost of living has exceeded rises in wages or benefits, and vulnerable people are suffering as a result? As I noted earlier, we feel cognitive dissonance when something doesn’t sit right, and the least useful response is to deny the problem or sweep it away to avoid dealing with it. Banning begging is just that kind of useless response to cognitive dissonance. Does public begging make you uncomfortable? Good. It should. So what are you going to do about it?



Sarah Laing has rather brilliantly drawn a lot of my own feelings on this issue


Radio NZ’s mediawatch programme just examined the media angles in more detail


And Six at Public Address has a much more informed perspective than most


Cognitive dissonance

When we hold contradictory beliefs or values at the same time, we can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we try to modify some of those ideas or avoid certain information so that we don’t have to contend with the contradictions clashing around in our minds. This discomfort is called cognitive dissonance, and the mental acrobatics we perform to avoid the dissonance are rationalisations. Some of them are quite reasonable (rational, even) and some are not so much. Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to performing these rationalisations that we don’t always realise we are doing it at the time.


Not long after I learned about this theoryI went to see Bill Bailey perform in Wellington. He started talking about cognitive dissonance, and asked the audience whether anyone could define this term. Somebody shouted “I didn’t want those grapes anyway!”, which Bailey appeared highly bemused about. He stopped a number of times for little interjections making fun of the person with the grape fixation. It was all very entertaining if a little random-seeming, until I chatted to someone in the break who was in “google everything” mode. The grape reference was from Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes, which is a way of explaining cognitive dissonance.


The fox is hungry and sees some grapes that he’d like to eat. But they’re too high up, and he can’t reach them no matter how hard he tries. So the fox slouches off, still hungry and annoyed at his wasted efforts, saying “those grapes looked sour”. He’s trying to make up for his cognitive dissonance (tried really hard to get grapes; failed but doesn’t want to admit it) by convincing himself that he didn’t want them anyway.  The fox in this story is kind of being a dick, but in a relatable way. This story also appears to be where the phrase “sour grapes” comes from. You’re not bitter – why would you be bitter – that thing you don’t even want is probably bitter!


Some of the rationalisations we perform to avoid cognitive dissonance are lighthearted things that we know are bullshit (“if it’s birthday cake, then the calories don’t count!”). Some are super unhelpful responses to troubling information that we don’t want to deal with (“he’s always been nice to me, so that thing he did can’t have been THAT bad”).


The young adults who talked to me about smoking recalled rationalisations that kicked in almost immediately (“I know this is risky for my health, but I’m sure the people who get really sick from it have smoked much more than me, so…”). I can count a few instances in my own life where I stayed in an uncomfortable situation for longer than I should have because I’d convinced myself that it would be easier to minimise doubts rather than addressing them.  


Dissonance is uncomfortable but, like physical pain, it alerts us that something isn’t right. We need to learn to sit with the dissonance. To acknowledge it, identify why it is happening and decide whether there is anything we can do to bring our experience better in line with our values. Sometimes acknowledging the dissonance just means accepting that it’s ok to have mixed, even contradictory, feelings about something. We use so much information that it’s normal to hear the odd screech as we try to reconcile accounts from diverse sources. But when the screeching becomes constant, we really need to ask ourselves why.


Rationalising is like a temporary way of taking control by toning down and avoiding the dissonance, but it’s ultimately self-defeating. It stops us from making difficult changes that will benefit us, and it stops us from asking for help or expressing our true needs. The more loudly we insist that we didn’t like the look of those grapes, the less likely anyone around us is to let us know “hey, there’s a step ladder over there that you can use”.