Tuesday, 5 July 2016

INTERVIEW - Reclaiming Conversation: Are Smart-Phones Eroding Authentic Communication? A Q&A with Sherry Turkle

Credit: Wikimedia By Enterely - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
by Jill Suttie, Transformation:

What happens when we become too dependent on our mobile phones? According to MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of the new book Reclaiming Conversation, we lose our ability to have deeper, more spontaneous conversations with others, changing the nature of our social interactions in alarming ways.

Turkle has spent the last 20 years studying the impacts of technology on how we behave alone and in groups. Though initially excited by technology’s potential to transform society for the better, she has become increasingly worried about how new technologies, cell phones in particular, are eroding the social fabric of our communities.

In her previous book, the bestselling Alone Together, she articulated her fears that technology is making us feel more and more isolated, even as it promises to make us more connected. Since that book came out in 2012, technology has become even more ubiquitous and entwined with our modern existence. Reclaiming Conversation is Turkle’s call to take a closer look at the social effects of cell phones and to re-sanctify the role of conversation in our everyday lives in order to preserve our capacity for empathy, introspection, creativity, and intimacy.

I interviewed Turkle by phone to talk about her book and some of the questions it raises. Here is an edited version of our conversation. 

Jill Suttie: Your new book warns that cell phones and other portable communication technology are killing the art of conversation. Why did you want to focus on conversation, specifically?

Sherry Turkle: Because conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born - because of eye contact, because we can hear the tones of another person’s voice, sense their body movements, sense their presence. It’s where we learn about other people. But, without meaning to, without having made a plan, we’ve actually moved away from conversation in a way that my research was showing is hurting us. 

JS: How are cell phones and other technologies hurting us?

ST: Eighty-nine percent of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in. Basically, we’re doing something that we know is hurting our interactions. I’ll point to a study. If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other. So, even something as simple as going to lunch and putting a cell phone on the table decreases the emotional importance of what people are willing to talk about, and it decreases the connection that the two people feel toward one another. If you multiply that by all of the times you have a cell phone on the table when you have coffee with someone or are at breakfast with your child or are talking with your partner about how you’re feeling, we’re doing this to each other 10, 20, 30 times a day. 

JS: So, why are humans so vulnerable to the allure of the cell phone, if it’s actually hurting our interactions?

ST: Cell phones make us promises that are like gifts from a benevolent genie - that we will never have to be alone, that we will never be bored, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, and that we can multitask, which is perhaps the most seductive of all. That ability to put your attention wherever you want it to be has become the thing people want most in their social interactions - that feeling that you don’t have to commit yourself 100 percent and you can avoid the terror that there will be a moment in an interaction when you’ll be bored. Actually allowing yourself a moment of boredom is crucial to human interaction and it’s crucial to your brain as well. When you’re bored, your brain isn’t bored at all - it’s replenishing itself, and it needs that down time. We’re very susceptible to cell phones, and we even get a neurochemical high from the constant stimulation that our phones give us. I’ve spent the last 20 years studying how compelling technology is, but you know what? We can still change. We can use our phones in ways that are better for our kids, our families, our work, and ourselves. It’s the wrong analogy to say we’re addicted to our technology. It’s not heroin. 

JS: One thing that struck me in your book was that many people who you interviewed talked about the benefits of handling conflict or difficult emotional issues online. They said they could be more careful with their responses and help decrease interpersonal tensions. That seems like a good thing. What’s the problem with that idea?

ST: It was a big surprise when I did the research for my book to learn how many people want to dial down fighting or dealing with difficult emotional issues with a partner or with their children by doing it online. But let’s take the child example. If you do that with your child, if you only deal with them in this controlled way, you are basically playing into your child’s worst fear - that their truth, their rage, their unedited feelings, are something that you can’t handle. And that’s exactly what a parent shouldn’t be saying to a child. Your child doesn’t need to hear that you can’t take and accept and honor the intensity of their feelings. People need to share their emotions - I feel very strongly about this. I understand why people avoid conflict, but people who use this method end up with children who think that the things they feel aren’t OK. There’s a variant of this, which is interesting, where parents give their children robots to talk to or want their children to talk to Siri, because somehow that will be a safer place to get out their feelings. Again, that’s exactly what your child doesn’t need. 

JS: Some studies seem to show that increased social media use actually increases social interaction offline. I wonder how this squares with your thesis?

ST: How I interpret that data is that if you’re a social person, a socially active person, your use of social media becomes part of your social profile. And I think that’s great. My book is not anti-technology; it’s pro-conversation. So, if you find that your use of social media increases your number of face-to-face conversations, then I’m 100 percent for it. Another person who might be helped by social media is someone who uses it for taking baby steps toward meeting people for face-to-face conversations. If you’re that kind of person, I’m totally supportive. I’m more concerned about people for whom social media becomes a kind of substitute, who literally post something on Facebook and just sit there and watch whether they get 100 likes on their picture, whose self-worth and focus becomes dictated by how they are accepted, wanted, and desired by social media. And I’m concerned about the many other situations in which you and I are talking at a dinner party with six other people, and everyone is texting at the meal and applying the “three-person rule” - that three people have to have their heads up before anyone feels it’s safe to put their head down to text. In this situation, where everyone is both paying attention and not paying attention, you end up with nobody talking about what’s really on their minds in any serious, significant way, and we end up with trivial conversations, not feeling connected to one another. 

JS: You also write about how conversation affects the workplace environment. Aren’t conversations just distractions to getting work done? Why support conversation at work?

ST: In the workplace, you need to create sacred spaces for conversation because, number one, conversation actually increases the bottom line. All the studies show that when people are allowed to talk to each other, they do better - they’re more collaborative, they’re more creative, they get more done. It’s very important for companies to make space for conversation in the workplace. But if a manager doesn’t model to employees that it’s OK to be off of their email in order to have conversation, nothing is going to get accomplished. I went to one workplace that had cappuccino machines every 10 feet and tables the right size for conversation, where everything was built for conversation. But people were feeling that the most important way to show devotion to the company was answering their email immediately. You can’t have conversation if you have to be constantly on your email. Some of the people I interviewed were terrified to be away from their phones. That translates into bringing your cell phone to breakfast and not having breakfast with your kids. 

JS: If technology is so ubiquitous yet problematic, what recommendations do you make for keeping it at a manageable level without getting so hooked?

ST: The path ahead is not a path where we do without technology, but of living in greater harmony with it. Among the first steps I see is to create sacred spaces - the kitchen, the dining room, the car - that are device-free and set aside for conversation. When you have lunch with a friend or colleague or family member, don’t put a phone on the table between you. Make meals a time when you are there to listen and be heard. When we move in and out of conversations with our friends in the room and all the people we can reach on our phones, we miss out on the kinds of conversations where empathy is born and intimacy thrives. I met a wise college junior who spoke about the “seven-minute rule”: It takes seven minutes to know if a conversation is going to be interesting. And she admitted that she rarely was willing to put in her seven minutes. At the first “lull,” she went to her phone. But it’s when we stumble, hesitate, and have those “lulls” that we reveal ourselves most to each other.

So allow for those human moments, accept that life is not a steady “feed,” and learn to savor the pace of conversation - for empathy, for community, for creativity.

This article was first published by Greater Good.

Monday, 4 July 2016

How People Learn to Become Resilient

Perception is key to resilience: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as a chance to learn and grow?
Credit Illustration by Gizem Vural
by , The New Yorker:  http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience 

Perception is key to resilience: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as a chance to learn and grow? 

Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University of Minnesota, met thousands of children in his four decades of research.

But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

The boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He belonged to a cohort of kids - the first of many - whom Garmezy would go on to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult circumstances. These were the children who exhibited a trait Garmezy would later identify as “resilience.” (He is widely credited with being the first to study the concept in an experimental setting).

Over many years, Garmezy would visit schools across the country, focussing on those in economically depressed areas, and follow a standard protocol. He would set up meetings with the principal, along with a school social worker or nurse, and pose the same question: Were there any children whose backgrounds had initially raised red flags - kids who seemed likely to become problem kids - who had instead become, surprisingly, a source of pride? 

“What I was saying was, ‘Can you identify stressed children who are making it here in your school?’" Garmezy said, in a 1999 interview. “There would be a long pause after my inquiry before the answer came. If I had said, ‘Do you have kids in this school who seem to be troubled?,’ there wouldn’t have been a moment’s delay. But to be asked about children who were adaptive and good citizens in the school and making it even though they had come out of very disturbed backgrounds - that was a new sort of inquiry. That’s the way we began.”

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?

Environmental threats can come in various guises. Some are the result of low socioeconomic status and challenging home conditions (those are the threats studied in Garmezy’s work). Often, such threats - parents with psychological or other problems; exposure to violence or poor treatment; being a child of problematic divorce - are chronic. Other threats are acute: experiencing or witnessing a traumatic violent encounter, for example, or being in an accident. 

What matters is the intensity and the duration of the stressor. In the case of acute stressors, the intensity is usually high. The stress resulting from chronic adversity, Garmezy wrote, might be lower - but it “exerts repeated and cumulative impact on resources and adaptation and persists for many months and typically considerably longer.”

Prior to Garmezy’s work on resilience, most research on trauma and negative life events had a reverse focus. Instead of looking at areas of strength, it looked at areas of vulnerability, investigating the experiences that make people susceptible to poor life outcomes (or that lead kids to be “troubled,” as Garmezy put it). Garmezy’s work opened the door to the study of protective factors: the elements of an individual’s background or personality that could enable success despite the challenges they faced.

Garmezy retired from research before reaching any definitive conclusions - his career was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s - but his students and followers were able to identify elements that fell into two groups: individual, psychological factors and external, environmental factors, or disposition on the one hand and luck on the other.

In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.”

Like Garmezy, she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success - and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.

What was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that several elements predicted resilience. 

Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. 

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.

Werner also discovered that resilience could change over time. Some resilient children were especially unlucky: they experienced multiple strong stressors at vulnerable points and their resilience evaporated. Resilience, she explained, is like a constant calculation: Which side of the equation weighs more, the resilience or the stressors? The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. Most people, in short, have a breaking point. 

On the flip side, some people who weren’t resilient when they were little somehow learned the skills of resilience. They were able to overcome adversity later in life and went on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way through. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be learned.

George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that variation might come from.

Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently or effectively than others?

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. 

The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focuses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly). 

Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning - perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community - then it may not be seen as a trauma (indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t). 

The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal. It’s for this reason, Bonanno told me, that “stressful” or “traumatic” events in and of themselves don’t have much predictive power when it comes to life outcomes. “The prospective epidemiological data shows that exposure to potentially traumatic events does not predict later functioning,” he said. “It’s only predictive if there’s a negative response.” In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing.

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways - to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot” - changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

Similar work has been done with explanatory styles - the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology: Seligman found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression. 

The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

In December the New York Times Magazine published an essay called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience.’ “It pointed out that the word is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning and link it to vague concepts like 'character'. But resilience doesn’t have to be an empty or vague concept. In fact, decades of research have revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. In recent years, we’ve taken to using the term sloppily - but our sloppy usage doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest the time and energy to understand what “resilience” really means.

About the Author

Maria Konnikova is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, where she writes regularly on psychology and science.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Five Cities, 55 Projects: Mapping ‘Good’ Local Economics in the UK

Image result for Newcastle uk
Central Newcastle (metro.co.uk)
by Clare Goff, Editor of New Start magazine, NewStart: http://newstartmag.co.uk/your-blogs/five-cities-55-projects-mapping-good-local-economics-in-the-uk/

New Start, CLES and the New Economics Foundation, with funding from the Friends Provident Foundation, are travelling the UK during 2015 and 2016, visiting its eleven core cities to map what a ‘good’ approach to local economics looks like.

In each place we are seeking out examples of a different approach to local economics and holding an event with local business, government and community leaders to discuss the state of their local economy and how it could work better.

Since May this year we have travelled to Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Newcastle, bringing together local leaders in each place. Here are ten things we’ve learned:
  1. Trickle-down is not working: UK cities may have a good story to tell in terms of economic growth and attracting inward investment but that growth is not reaching far. ‘Doughnuts of deprivation’ persist around many cities, in areas where the economic story has not changed for 30 years. South Wales, for example, has been a Tier 1 Assisted Area since 1934. If local economic policy continues to prioritise economic growth through policies such as inward investment, then poverty and inequality will continue to grow.
  1. Economic decision-making is not representative. In the cities we have visited so far, local economic decisions are being made by a small set of people, usually from big business and the public sector. There are few mechanisms to include the views of small business and local communities. Local collaboration has worsened since the closure of Regional Development Agencies and the breakdown of local strategic partnerships. Greater effort is needed to ensure that the needs of all local populations are considered in local economic strategy.
  1. There is a mismatch between the needs of local communities and the dominant economic model. During our Cardiff event this mismatch came through clearly. Delegates struggled to align the needs of their communities - sustainable jobs, a greater distribution of wealth, more control over economic decisions - with the economic model they are being asked to fit in with, namely the pursuit of regional growth (GVA).
  1. There is no common narrative about what a ‘good’ local economy looks like and how to create one. Local practitioners are frustrated by competing aims that hold back progress. When the focus of economic strategy is on maximising regional growth at all costs, it is difficult to fight for a broader approach, one that benefits the common good. As one delegate in Birmingham said: ‘We have to switch perception from maximizing GVA to thinking about who benefits.’ RESO in Montreal is an example of a collaborative local partnership that brings together the public, private and social sectors around a vision of ‘good local economic development’.
  1. Social and economic aims are rarely aligned. Local economic policies are often not directly connected into efforts to reduce poverty or inequality. Plans to boost economic growth - be it through a new shopping centre or Enterprise Zone - are rarely joined up with plans to tackle local unemployment or used to create training opportunities. A ‘double dividend’ approach could ensure that all economic policies are linked to social outcomes.
  1. ‘Alternative’ approaches to local economics can lead to gentrification and further marginalisation. Bristol is rightly proud of its strong ‘alternative’ sectors - large green and social economies - but is seeing inequality rise as the middle class jobs those sectors create leads to gentrification. A true ‘alternative’ to mainstream local economics focuses efforts on poverty reduction, tackling inequality and bottom-up job creation.
  1. Small, locally-led businesses create stronger, healthier economies. Locally-led businesses help circulate money within a place and unlock greater economic power than big business, according to research from Localise West Midlands, which is working to make the case for greater levels of community economic development. Despite this, local economic policy tends to favour and support big business.
  1. 'Grassroots economics' provides an alternative to mainstream job creation. In each city we have travelled to we have found examples of organisations that are focused on understanding local needs, unlocking the resources of people and places and building upwards. In Manchester, asset-based community development is mapping and connecting the assets of local communities; Black Country Make in Wolverhampton and Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol are providing training in digital manufacturing and using local assets to set up micro-businesses.
  1. Anchor institutions such as hospitals, housing organisations, councils and colleges are becoming economic actors, by localising their spend and supply chains. The Midlands Metropolitan Hospital in Sandwell plans to root itself in its local community in a similar way to that of Cadbury’s in Bourneville, and in Manchester the council has analysed the impact of its spend on its local economy and is using progressive procurement policies to make that spend work harder.
  1. There is an alternative. In many localities in the UK the economic picture has not shifted for many years and in some places it is going backwards. We can carry on doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results. Or we can try a different approach. The last forty years have shown us what a policy focused on economic growth does to cities; now it’s time to see where a different approach might lead. Our work so far has uncovered an appetite for an alternative and glimpses of what that looks like on the ground. Cities now need pioneers to take that vision forward.