Category Archives: work

Nurturing Skepticism and Inquiry: A Psychological Perspective on Encouraging Critical Thinking

Socrates, he liked people to ask questions. Perhaps too many?

If you’re having a friendly chat with a mate at work or the pub, or going down a Twitter reply hole, it’s not that unusual that you find yourself stumbling into a debate about something you were taught in school or a compelling argument you read some time ago. You’re dead sure of your position, and it’s pretty difficult sometimes to honestly question what you’ve been taught. 

In today’s post, I want to explore the pathology behind this response, as summed up by Feynman’s famous quote:

The problem is not people being uneducated. The problem is that people are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught, but not educated enough to question what they have been taught“.

Cognitive Psychology and Education

Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes like thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. This branch of psychology teaches us that our brains are wired with a host of biases that can make us prone to simply accepting information we’ve been taught without a second thought. Let’s take a look at some of the big ones:

Confirmation bias: We’re more likely to search for, remember, and believe information that confirms our existing beliefs. We’re all guilty of it – it’s just how our brains work – but it means we might not be questioning what we’ve been taught if it lines up with what we already think and the balance of information in volume and saliency is all aligned to supporting that original belief.

The availability heuristic: This bias refers to our tendency to judge the likelihood of events based on how easily examples come to mind. So, if we’ve been taught something and it’s fresh in our minds, we’re more likely to think it’s true, even if it’s not. It might mean that the last person you heard speak on a topic in a meeting, for example, is the one that most strongly influences your opinion.

Illusory truth effect: Last but not least, this sneaky bias is when we’re more likely to believe the information we’ve heard repeatedly, regardless of its accuracy. In other words, if we’ve been taught something multiple times, we’re more inclined to believe it without questioning. It’s not difficult to see how this bias combined with the confirmation bias above builds a compelling defence against novel and contradictory information.

So, what can we do about these biases? A clear solution is to develop our critical thinking skills – you know, that thing your teachers always told you was important but never really explained why? Critical thinking helps us evaluate information more objectively and question what we’ve been taught. Sadly, whilst this type of Socratic thinking has been promoted for decades in the British education system, it remains on the sidelines as something to be spotted hopefully alongside student’s skill in particular subjects. The natural consequence of ‘good teaching’ rather than being called out (at least in the state system) as a specific competency that can be evaluated.

Evolutionary Psychology and the Desire to Conform

Evolutionary psychology is the study of how our mental processes have evolved to adapt to our environment. One key aspect of our evolution as social animals is our tendency to conform to group norms – after all, fitting in with the tribe meant a better chance of survival.

However, this need to conform can also make us more likely to accept what we’ve been taught without question. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but sometimes, the Romans might be wrong! So, how can we strike a balance between our evolutionary need to conform and our ability to think critically?

One approach is to create a culture of open-mindedness and healthy debate, where it’s not only accepted but encouraged to question the status quo and challenge commonly held beliefs. By fostering an environment that values curiosity and inquiry, we can better balance our innate desire to conform with the need for critical thinking. It’s not about rejecting our evolutionary instincts, but rather about adapting them to our modern world, where diverse perspectives and rigorous questioning can lead to richer knowledge and understanding.

Social Psychology and the Influence of Authority

Finally, let’s dive into social psychology, which explores how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by the presence of others. It turns out that authority figures can have a massive impact on our belief formation, sometimes leading us to accept information without question (“I was just following orders!”). We’ve all bemoaned the colleague or client that only seems to listen to the loudest voice in the room.

Two classic experiments can shed some light on this phenomenon:

The Milgram experiment: This infamous study by Stanley Milgram revealed that a whopping 65% of participants were willing to administer what they believed were dangerous electric shocks to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. It’s a chilling reminder of the power of authority in shaping our actions.

The Asch conformity experiments: These studies by Solomon Asch demonstrated that people are more likely to conform to the majority opinion, even when it’s wrong, if they perceive that the majority is supported by an authority figure. In other words, if our teachers, a best-selling author, a TV personality or other authority figures tell us something is true, we’re more inclined to believe it without question.

So, what can we do to counter the influence of authority on our beliefs? One strategy is to cultivate a culture of healthy scepticism and encourage the questioning of authority figures when necessary. This doesn’t mean we should disrespect or disregard authority, but rather, that we should learn to evaluate information based on its merits rather than blindly accepting it due to the status of the person presenting it. It was a little baffling to me to see so much criticism being levelled at people through the pandemic who were politely questioning ‘the science’ and authority, as anyone sensible should have been doing, and how terms like ‘peer review’ were being held out as the ultimate defence to close down any debate.

So several factors can make us more likely to believe what we’ve been taught without question. From cognitive biases to our evolutionary need for conformity to the influence of authority figures, it’s clear that our minds are not always as objective and rational as we might like to believe, a story which sounds tediously familiar from human-centred bloggers like me. But it’s certainly not as simple as to take the line that it’s a failure of education, more that it’s a failure of a sufficient focus in education to strengthen the skills to push back against very powerful cognitive and social biases. 

The good news of course is that we can take steps to counter these influences by promoting critical thinking, fostering a culture of open-mindedness and healthy debate, and nurturing a healthy scepticism of authority. By doing so, we can better navigate the challenge that will lead to a more enlightened and well-informed society.

This post was cross-posted and shared on LinkedIn 3rd April 2023

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One of these things is not like the other

Still from the famous Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the other”​ Source: YouTube

False equivalence is a logical fallacy where two opposing arguments are presented as equally valid or comparable despite their differences, and it seems to me to be particularly prolific and, dare I say it, an infantile tactic to (try to) win arguments on Twitter. Partly this post was inspired by the frankly brilliant “Jews Don’t Count” documentary I watched recently on Ch4 (I confess I haven’t yet read the book) which returned to the topic a few times in trying to understand why antisemitism and other forms of racism are often incorrectly compared and contrasted with different standards applied

On the surface of it, false equivalence just seems tiresome and lazy, but I wanted to dust off some of the psychology books and dig into why it’s so often used, and perhaps to see if there’s anything we can do to limit the tendency to turn to it.

The Allure of False Equivalence (FE): 

The prevalence of false equivalence on Twitter could be chalked up to it being a low-effort cognitive strategy used to score a ‘quick win’ against opponents in a debate. Our cognitive biases may lead us to reach for seemingly comparable examples that, upon closer examination, aren’t equivalent at all. This behaviour could be driven by the desire to appear clever, the need to simplify convoluted issues, or the influence of confirmation bias (a tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs). Cognitive psychology identifies various other heuristics and biases that may contribute to the use of false equivalence. For example, the availability heuristic suggests that people rely on readily available information, even if it’s not representative of the broader context. This could lead individuals to draw on superficially similar examples to support their arguments, without considering the nuances that make them different. Moreover, the anchoring bias – the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered – can further contribute to false equivalence as it over-weights the importance of that first bit of information.

Let’s take a look at some typical examples of FE

Comparing the use of Nitrous Oxide to Class A drug use.

It should be perfectly possible to acknowledge that these things are wildly different with different prevention strategies whilst acknowledging that both are evidently harmful to people and society.

Comparing British imperialism with the rise of Communist imperialism in China and Soviet Russia.

British imperialism was characterised by colonisation, exploitation of resources, and the heavy-handed application of British culture and governance structures in colonised territories. In contrast, Communist imperialism focused on the spread of communism, in the Soviet case through the establishment of satellite states and the widespread use of military force to maintain control. Using historic examples to justify the context of modern imperialism is patently flawed.

Comparing refugees fleeing persecution, war and abuse with undocumented economic migrants seeking to cross a border.

One is a humanitarian catastrophe for which the vast majority of people have a huge amount of compassion and would support efforts to resolve, the other has an entirely different context of pull factors and perhaps public perception. Even if they end up paying the same people trafficker to end up in the same dinghy on the same stretch of water.

Comparing mass shootings to road traffic deaths.

Ignoring the context of how cars are typically used and how road traffic accidents occur to make the argument that ‘banning cars’ is a comparable action to removing guns from society is a classic fallacy seen repeatedly online.

Comparing vaccination to wearing a bike helmet or mandated seatbelt.

Vaccination protects the individual and wider society through herd immunity with varying levels of scientific consensus, a seatbelt protects an individual but is a mandated requirement based on irrefutable scientific evidence of efficacy, and a bike helmet is an unregulated recommendation for an individual based on overwhelming scientific evidence.

What is it about Twitter that exacerbates FE?

Unsurprisingly, deploying FE can lead to misunderstandings and misrepresentations, making it rather challenging to engage in productive conversations and the character limit and fast-paced nature of Twitter exacerbate the issue. User may unintentionally or intentionally oversimplify complex arguments to fit within the physical constraints or pressure to respond at speed, most likely on a mobile device having done little to no research.

In the tumultuous world of Twitter, it’s not uncommon to find users chiming in on topics beyond their realm of expertise. While everyone should have the right to share their opinions, this tendency introduces a conundrum: subject matter experts (SMEs) often have less visibility than influencers who are popular in unrelated domains, resulting in an inversion of perceived value in their opinions.

As we navigate the choppy waters of Twitter debates, it’s essential to recognise that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. Distinguishing between the voices of SMEs and those of influential figures whose expertise lies elsewhere can help to ensure that we’re engaging with informed opinions and fostering a more accurate and insightful discourse.

To avoid drowning in the sea of false equivalence, it’s crucial to 

  • Be mindful of the context and specific details of each argument. 
  • Compare the severity, consequences, and evidence supporting each side.
  • Beware of oversimplifications or distortions. 

All this means is taking a little longer to respond, and a little more time to think and consider.

To constructively challenge false equivalence, it’s best to ask for clarification or provide additional information that highlights the differences between the two arguments. Encourage open and respectful dialogue, focusing on the nuances and complexities of each situation.

In summary

False equivalence is a pervasive problem on Twitter, often leading to misconstrued arguments and unproductive discussions. By understanding the cognitive biases and heuristics that contribute to this fallacy, we can become more aware of our thought processes and foster a healthier discourse on the platform.

Related reading:

False equivalence: how ‘balance’ makes the media dangerously dumb“, Bob Garfield, The Guardian

False Equivalence: The Problem with Unreasonable Comparisons“, Dr. Itamar Shatz, Effectiviology

This post was originally created and shared on LinkedIn 31st March 2023.

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Human-Centred Garden Design: Crafting Outdoor Spaces for Real People and Meaningful Experiences

For too long, garden design has been preoccupied with the designer’s narrative, often neglecting the end user’s experience. In the last decade, this trend, most obviously identified in the RHS Show season, led to a curious neglect in truly considering the people who would inhabit our outdoor spaces. It’s time to shift our perspective and embrace human-centred design principles in garden design, creating more engaging, meaningful experiences. I’ve made no secret to friends and colleagues that I would love to add garden design to my portfolio and bring to it the skills I’ve developed in 25 years of user-centric thinking. So, inspired by examining the work of four of my favourite designers, Annika ZettermanDan Pearson Studio, Pollyanna Wilkinson, and Ulf Nordfjell, perhaps I can show you that we can chart a new course in this direction.

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New Nordic Gardens, Lidingö @annikazetterman

First up, Swedish landscape architect Annika Zetterman who designs modern, functional gardens (above) that blend natural elements with contemporary aesthetics. Her work is a prime example of human-centred design, as she focuses on the needs and desires of those who will use the space, demonstrated by her sophisticated integration of functional elements and materiality with a tightly curated palette of planting. Zetterman’s gardens encourage interaction, exploration, and enjoyment, providing accessible pathways, inviting seating areas, and even edible gardens all of which reflect and understand how the landscape and environment evolves with seasonality.

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Dan Pearson @coyotewillow

Dan Pearson, a British landscape designer, is celebrated for his complex naturalistic schemes. Yet, the essence of his work lies in its focus on the relationship between people and their environment. Pearson’s gardens promote a deep sense of connection and belonging, as they encourage users to engage with nature. His work, which by the way is mind-boggling complex and exacting the details, is a testament to the importance of working with nature and reflecting a human-centred view of the world, without the need for spurious socio-political narratives.

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Pollyanna Wilkson @pollyanna_wilkinson

Pollyanna Wilkinson’s sustainable, wildlife-friendly gardens place the user experience at their heart. Her designs are horticulturally informed, visually stunning while remaining beneficial to the environment and local ecosystems. Wilkinson’s work is in my view to be much admired for its focus on real people’s experiences in domestic settings, sidestepping heavy-handed narratives and catering to and honest, relatable human scale. Her gardens foster intimacy and attentiveness to the people and fauna that interact within the space.

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PRIVATE GARDEN II, Nordfjell Collection

Ulf Nordfjell, another Swedish landscape architect, is renowned for his minimalist, elegant designs. It was Ulf’s work that got me interested in garden design, over and above my previous assumption it was pretty much just ‘picking some plants’. Drawing on Scandinavian traditions, Nordfjell’s work features clean lines, simple geometry, and precisely chosen planting schemes. Despite their often minimalist appearance, his gardens embody human-centred design principles, offering inviting spaces that promote relaxation, contemplation, and connection to the natural world. Nordfjell’s work frequently includes larger structures and perhaps a little more sculpture in them, but in all cases these are complementary rather than incongruous statements.

These four designers, although wildly different in their execution, demonstrate how human-centred design can revitalise contemporary garden design. By shifting the focus from the designer’s story to the end user’s experience, we can create outdoor spaces that are more engaging, functional, and meaningful. As I’ve mentioned in my previous writings on user experience and behavioural psychology, understanding and catering to human motivations and behaviours are crucial in designing spaces that resonate with people.

In the last decade or so, as I see it, too many gardens were designed as showcases for the designer’s ego (ironically Diarmaid has appeared on a podcast talking about HCD so I’ll just about forgive him for the gimmick of his 2016 effort with its solid octagonal folly and a formal terrace of clipped box, that every that every 15 mins rotated and moved around), or as crass art pieces, rather than havens for the people who would actually use them. By embracing the principles of human-centred design, we can shift the paradigm and create gardens that truly enrich the lives of their users. Let’s look to the work of Zetterman, Pearson, Wilkinson, and Nordfjell as inspiration for a new era in garden design, one where the needs and desires of people take centre stage.

As I have written previously on this blog, a human-centred approach can lead to creativity and innovation while avoiding homogenous, derivative, or sterile work. By embracing the plurality of human motivations, behaviours, and the endless variety of the environment and content, the human-centred designer can find infinite opportunities for creativity and innovation. In the end, this is as appealing as any Gold Medal from the RHS.

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Confidence in inconsistency – human centred design should embrace thoughtful deviations from patterns and standards.

Consistently inconsistent burger menu designs. Is a burger menu the right solution in all your user’s contexts?

Consistency is a fundamental principle in design, and it is often cited as a key factor in creating a seamless and intuitive user experience – it’s easier to learn an interface that’s the same as those you’ve seen before. However, the blind pursuit of consistency can stifle innovation and lead to a lack of creativity and diversity in design solutions. In this blog post, I’ll explore why designers need to have confidence in inconsistency and break free from the overemphasis on consistency.

The way we think about consistency in design has been influenced by a moralistic, hectoring approach that emphasises consistency as a virtue, rather than a means to an end. This has led to a tendency to view inconsistency as a failure, rather than a potential innovative solution that provides a better match for user knowledge and needs. Instead of focusing solely on consistency, we should approach design critique with more consideration for the user and their unique context, asking questions that prioritise user experience and satisfaction over adherence to pre-existing patterns or rules.

The Problem with Mindless Consistency

Consistency can be a double-edged sword in design. While it can help users learn how to use interfaces easily and make products more usable, too much consistency can limit creativity and stifle innovation. In simple terms, it’s impossible to innovate and be consistent at the same time.

Overemphasis on consistency might lead to a lack of variety and visual interest in digital experiences. Users can quickly become bored or disengaged if all products and interfaces within a product suite look and feel the same. In some cases, this can lead to a decline in user engagement and adoption. In my experience working across financial services websites an obsessive desire for consistency meant that the numerous minor variations across, say, a portfolio of insurance or investment product pages meant that they all blended in to one homogenous impenetrable mess. And, when stepping back, did it even make sense that car insurance pages followed the same template as home insurance, or for that matter life insurance? Anna Arteva articulates a different scenario where the repetitive consistency of modules in their design reduced comprehension.

This is, of course seen most evidently in the band homogeneity shown with many web experiences within industry sectors like fashion, automotive, or SAAS. Leaving designs restricted by cut and paste design systems and left to play around with typefaces, colour, photography and illustrations to desperately cling to some sort of personality and identity.

Furthermore, consistency may not always be appropriate or necessary in certain contexts or for certain user groups. For example, a digital experience aimed at fashion or luxury markets with infrequent purchasing behaviour may benefit from more varied and unique designs, whereas a product aimed at more casual users or perfunctory behaviours may benefit from greater consistency to make it easier to use.

To an extent, consistency is human nature, and in many cases simply born out of a lack of time, funds and effort to do proper human centred design. As Jared Spool points out: “Why do we gravitate to consistency? Because it’s easier to think about. You don’t actually have to know anything about your users to talk about making things consistent. You only have to know about your design, which most designers are quite familiar with.”

Confidence in Inconsistency

While consistency is an important design principle, it is equally essential to know when to break free from it. Designers need to have confidence in inconsistency and recognise that sometimes, breaking from the norm can lead to better design solutions.

I particularly like the definition that consistency is “using the same solution for the same problem.” principally because it provides a strong hint about when you should not be consistent. If there’s already a good solution for a design problem, you should follow the existing pattern and be consistent. However, when you’re facing a new problem, you may well need a new solution, and you shouldn’t feel constrained to be consistent with preexisting patterns that don’t apply.

Designers need to be aware of the constraints of their design problem and recognise when consistency may not be the best approach. As in so much of human centred design, designers need to strike a balance between consistency and innovation, testing and iterating on their designs to ensure they are meeting user needs and expectations.

Analogy corner

An analogy from the world of music can help illustrate the point. While consistency is crucial in musical genres like classical music, where adherence to strict rules and conventions is essential, other genres like jazz rely heavily on improvisation and innovation. Jazz musicians break free from the constraints of a set melody and chord progression, creating new and unique music each time they play. Or perhaps we might look once again to architecture. Within a masterplan and operating within standards and building codes, too much slavish attention to the norms might lead to a monotonous townscape or cookie-cutter housing development. Architects rightly introduce variation based on the needs of the user, the vernacular but can still maintain cohesion in the design language.

To conclude, while consistency is an important principle in design, designers need to have confidence in inconsistency and recognise when breaking consistency can lead to better design solutions. Blindly following consistency can stifle creativity and limit innovation, leading to a lack of variety and visual interest in digital experiences.

From the smörgåsbord

  • Consistency can harm the user experience if used mindlessly or lazily.
  • Coherency is a more useful guide than consistency, where the latter leads to repetition and copy-paste solutions and the former is about seeking harmony.
  • Aim to balance consistency and flexibility based on a more astute understanding of your users’ mental models, visit patterns and sophistication.
  • Are you being consistent because it’s easier for you (e.g. using a burger menu in mobile and desktop) rather than thinking about the context?
  • What do you care about most, a ‘perfect’ design system or a flexibility, adaptable human-centred website? Mark Parnell is instructive here: “For designers there is often a trap we fall into as we start to create components in tools like Figma. We think our goal is to nurture a “perfect” design system. A system where every piece of typography is the same, where every component has the same states with the same colors and the same terminology.”

    Referenced above, but well worth also reading “When design consistency is harmful” and “Can consistency harm your product?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, John Gibbard, in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the author’s employer or any other associated individuals or organisations. The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice.

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The Local Maximum Problem: Why CRO Alone Won’t Take Your UX to the Next Level

When it comes to improving user experience, Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) is often viewed as a go-to solution for many businesses. However, it may not be as effective as we think. In fact, it may even be a poor driver of improved user experience.

To understand this, let’s take an analogy from a department store. Imagine a store manager who is solely focused on increasing sales. They achieve this by placing all their best-selling products in the front of the store. While this may indeed increase sales for a short term, it’s not necessarily the best way to improve the long-term overall experience for the customer. A better approach would be to focus on creating an efficient, persuasive customer journey, with products and services promoted and displayed in a manner that speaks to specific needs of each individual customer.

Similarly, CRO often focuses, by definition on increasing conversions and revenue in isolation, rather than on improving the hollistic user experience. It’s business-centred design. It undeniably frequently results in the commercial dopamine hit of a higher conversion rate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the user has had a better experience, a consequence which perhaps imperceptibly begins to erode the brand and the opportunity.

Furthermore, by relying too heavily on iterative solutions, without deep insight into well-researched human-centred design, businesses find themselves trapped in the Local Maximum Problem. This is where incremental improvements reach a peak and fail to achieve further progress towards a better outcome. In the context of CRO, this means that businesses may become stuck in a cycle of making small tweaks to their website, trying in effect to iterate their way out of a problem, rather than addressing the deeper, underlying issues that may be impacting user experience.

Consider also perhaps CRO’s greatest flaw. The high likelihood that the data it’s based on lacks integrity and that it’s a poor predictor of future behaviour (a topic I have visited before). The former is due to inconsistent implementations of tracking and the fallibility of those implementing it. As for the latter, even when the data is accurate, it’s unlikely ever to be an effective predictor of human behaviour. Psychologists insist that to be predictable, a given behaviour has to occur rather often, but in digital web journeys, the behaviour may be infrequent and intermittent. The prediction is most accurate if based on a short time frame, but in digital web experiences, the time frames vary wildly and unpredictably. The predicted situation must be a close match for the past situation that the observation was made from, yet in digital, these situations vary significantly across devices and contexts. The behaviour must not have been influenced by negative or corrective feedback, which of course can never be identified or eliminated through web metrics. Finally, the person must be generally consistent with their behaviours, which is impossible outside of empirical settings.

Returning to the methodological problem, privacy regulations like GDPR also compromise at least some of the data that CRO is based on. The technical complexities of tracking across multiple devices and with more user autonomy in terms of privacy awareness make it increasingly difficult to gather accurate data and to confidently assert that it is so.

So where does CRO, when applied lead us? Let’s take a look at, a site that uses CRO extensively. Critics have pointed out that the site’s aggressive marketing tactics can lead to a cluttered and confusing user experience. The site bombards users with pop-ups and urgency messages, which may increase conversions but do little to improve the overall user experience. Even anecdotally most of us will have expressed disdain for it’s ‘thirsty’ tactics and a sense of grubbiness that there must be a better way to find a hotel in Chicago in September.’s focus on conversions means that it prioritises short-term gains over long-term customer satisfaction. While this may lead to a higher conversion rate, it can also lead to frustrated and disappointed customers who feel like they’ve been coerced with deceptive patterns or simply made to consider way too much along the journey, resulting in resentment and decision fatigue.

In conclusion, while CRO may seem like a quick-fix solution for improving user experience, it may not be as effective as we think. Can we ever really look away from an approach that focuses on well-researched human-centred design, creating a better customer journey from end to end, one that addresses the underlying issues that may be impacting user experience?

Rather than simply increasing conversions, businesses should aim to create a positive and memorable user experience that leads to long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty, something the most successful and loyal bricks-and-mortar brands have known for some time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, John Gibbard, in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the author’s employer or any other associated individuals or organisations. The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice.

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+40 days later

Forty one days since the fire at Queens Close and I am much closer to being back to normal. I thought it would be of some interest to those that know me or at least had been following what happened there to learn a little more about what one has to do in the aftermath of such events and, with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons can be learned to mollify the effect of this kind of rare event in future.

The first few days
In the days immediately after the fire much of my focus was around reducing the forthcoming costs and cutting off as many unnecessary expenses and distractions as possible. Online orders were cancelled, energy, internet and other bills suspended and notified. I took a few days off work (too few, on reflection) and mentally walked through the flat putting together lists of possessions I might want immediately replaced and the most important items I would like to recover from the flat.

I also had to extract my car.

Both keys were in the flat, BMW wouldn’t issue new ones without documents (which were in the flat) and my car insurer (Aviva) were a little bit useless … they didn’t take any notes during my call to them and made no contact with the loss adjusters or insurers at the property on my behalf. In the end, the builders retrieved my keys and drove the car out. There seems to be no helpful protocol from BMW to issue new keys given, for example, a police statement of my ID and the circumstance. It was V5 and passport or nothing.

The sheer volume of water that had come down through the properties and into the underground carpark meant that it was covered in concrete dust and stagnant water marks. I desperately need to wash it and remove the corrosive material but all my detailing equipment remains in the property.

The property needed to be made safe, roof timbers and an leathal unsupported gable needed to be removed. This took a couple of weeks, and eventually my landlady was allowed in and retrieved hard drives, laptops and other valuables and gave me an update on the condition of the flat.

After a month
During this time I pinged around Surrey and Kent and tried to continue to hold down a job and parenting. I bought a small selection of clothes and secured tenancy at a new flat in August. I received some incredibly generous financial support from collections by friends at both Spark44 and Dare.

To-ing and fro-ing with building management, the on-site builders securing the property for the insurers and residents continued and eventually access was arranged last week (a month after the fire) at a cost of £120+ VAT* to be accompanied in to the building for 1 hour. A single hour, it turns out, to retrieve the entire contents of a 3 bedroom flat. My 70+ parents, brother and Jo turned up to help along with the builder chaperone and between three cars and a stack of storage boxes we extracted 90% of it into a storage unit during a hot and unpleasant afternoon.

* of course I’m livid about this charge which I consider to be onerous but as an uninsured tennant it’s just another price to pay for a poor decision there.

Going back to QC after 5 weeks was emotionally tough. It was a wonderful flat and a good community there. I’d quite quickly fallen in love with the view over Esher Green and the space so different from modern developments with tiny rooms, open plan kitchen diners (eugh) and clip-on balconies and so to see it so-marred by fire and water damage was distressing. My flat wasn’t substantially affected by the fire itself but the water damage was more significant than i had anticipated, exacerbated by the 5 weeks of stagnant damp.

Mould was almost everywhere, with black spores crawling over the walls. A wardrobe where I kept everything but my main clothes was soaked through. I pulled out armfulls of drenched and rancid running kit, Uni rowing kit, shoes covered in spores. I found the pile of books, cards and keepsakes from my son which I was hopeful had avoided flames all soaked and stuck together instead. His infant handwriting now disappeared like invisible ink. Books from my childhood saved to read to him in the coming years all contorted and wretched from the water which had saved so much else.

In the lounge, a solid wood mid-century unit was damp to the touch, pools of water stood on top of it. Thankfully the drawers and shelves inside were dry and a sanctuary for the tech containing my precious photos. Bizarrely, the orchids I had spent weeks trying diligently not to kill had survived perfectly happy in the humid atmosphere, although a rose I’d nursed back to vigorous life during lockdown didn’t make it. In the hall cupboard, another place I’d assumed would be perfectly fine, I found a sentimental (and expensive!) canvas holdall riddled with mildew and all-but unsalvageable alongside brand new running gear with the stench of a long-forgotten gym towel. Earlier in the year I’d edited my collection of running event medals and t-shirts down to the most important, of course these were right there in the same compromised cupboard.

Watching my Dad frantically cascade belongings in to boxes that I’d spent hours organising into need drawers and shelves brought in to focus how much things needed to change and quickly. I’ve resolved to continue my plans to slim down possessions. I can’t rationalise a single argument for having more ‘stuff’. I want fewer things all round, a simpler life.

It’s been a bit of a joke over the years that I have such a small wardrobe of day-to-day clothes, but simply buying three identical t-shirts and a new pair of identical jeans was a genuine bonus. I want to adopt the same approach to the rest of my belongings.

The days ahead
While my nomadic life and the generosity of family continues, by the start of August I should be in a new place in Esher. I might even be back commuting to the office by mid-month. Between now and then I am slowly going through possessions in storage, washing clothes (again, and again … mildew and mould are incredibly odorous and persistent). I’m replacing the wrecked stuff and consolidating the rest.

I’ll also try and track down the post that’s not been delivered for 5 weeks. Royal Mail (common to almost every other service provider) have no information on their site about what to do in the event of a catastrophe at your address. Also, try proving your ID and address without a current address and with all your ID out of your possession for weeks…

I’ll be doing several things differently and i would recommend to anyone, subsequent to my experience.

Contents insurance. A no-brainer. It wasn’t for financial reasons that I didn’t have contents insurance, I’d ‘saved’ just £16 a month by not having it for two years, but my reasoning in no-way made up for what would have been so much more helpful if i’d have just handed the entire mess and the problem over to a claims team.

Fire resistant boxes and storage. There are a number of very good value fire resistant storage boxes available and I will be using several of these in future to store the sentimental and essential paper and tech items you’d be distraught to lose. You can buy fire resistant document wallets too. They’re not infallible (800 C for 30 minutes) but they’d have given me much more comfort and certainly would have protected the pieces from my son and various backup drives and documents. Keeping originals in these with copies in day-to-day filing makes sense.

Cloud storage. Having devices that backup to devices is great when you want to reinstall with everything around you. It’s good when you lose one device, but in a fire or flood and the circumstance where you lose multiple devices in one go, that’s not viable. I’ll be backing up all my photos to the cloud in future and having physical back-ups as a fallback against Cloud failures and for short-term restores.

Grab bag. I left the flat with just the clothes i was wearing, a coat, phone and (lol) my flat keys. I’m going to buy a small dry bag and prepare a grab bag to contain, as a minimum, a spare set of car keys, charger and cable, a day’s clothes, toiletries, spare cash card (and card reader!), glasses, ID and … running gear. Leaving this in an obvious place to take under similar circumstances would have made those first hours and days much easier. More extensive lists of contents are recommended but my experience suggests a more lean selection.

Passwords. without giving too much away, I wasn’t able to use many of my accounts without the devices I usually used. I only had a work phone on me with no saved passwords in the keychain and with many accounts using 2-factor security which texted codes to a phone I didn’t have. I was locked out of plenty of essential accounts I needed in the days after the fire. If you use password and security management, think ahead to what would happen if the device you carry most often doesn’t contain all you need to log back in to the essential services.

Perhaps this helps someone down the line. I can’t say I have much helpful advice for removing mildew or smoke damage, there are better places online for that sort of thing. But as an update for those interested, perhaps this suffices.

To everyone that has been in touch, thank you so much. The practical support and gifts mean an awful lot but the words did too.


You never think it’ll happen to you.

The first thing I remember, and probably now always will, was the sound of commotion outside. Lockdown’s been a strange old time during which I spend long periods of time getting very familiar with the views outside my window. The people in the park, the general public strolling about and, of course, the delivery drivers buzzing in to the residential block like bees alighting for moments on a flower.

At first I thought it was a delivery driver or something like that so, mid conference call with my boss and colleague, I glanced out the window to see a police car and, rather obviously smoke. Instincts took over, I explained I had to go, it looked like fire and just went to the door. Opened it, heard more commotion and saw my neigbours scuttling about and returned to grab my coat and my phone. Experience from drills at work reminded me you get cold quickly. And that was it, once I saw the policeman bawling at the foot of the stairs for us all to leave I figured it wasn’t going to be an ‘out and in’.

I won’t retrace the whole afternoon. It’s clear in my mind and will forever be so, but I can only describe it as being like watching a loading bar progress across the screen as I watched fire track left to right across the building in front of me. The accompanying soundtrack of clattering tiles, in place for 90 years cascading from the roof and the wails of residents around me watching their lives consumed in front of them with flames positively roaring upwards is so visceral and painful to recall. Selfishly I can remember inwardly imploring the seemingly sclerotic crews to protect ‘my bit’, douse it with the gallons required to prevent my life going the way of the inferno.

After a while, I just couldn’t watch. Residents of Wolsley Road and surrounding streets offered teas and umbrellas, police took details down and I was advised to take shelter in a church hall. So much of this year has reminded us of the quaint traditions and mechanics of local government response, volunteers and the kindly communit, I hadn’t expected to find myself reliant on the goodwill of a Methodist church kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon.

For the third time I gave details to Surrey police, to Elmbridge council officers and sat red-eyed with the people I’d pass on my way to the bins, make small talk within the stairwells or nod at as I steered my car out of the garage. Before long the unbearable lack of sight ot the progress of the fire meant I had to get out and go and stand on the green and watch as more ladders and platforms went up, the rain petered out and the wind seemed to be doing its damnedest to expedite fire. I became resigned to a ‘total loss’, and turned to head away to fortunately get a pick-up from my brother and a bag of clothes.

A week later and I have somewhere to stay, somewhere that still means a huge amount to me. I have my family support and I have made slow, pathetic steps to get some clothes and belongings together. I did lots of ‘easy’ stuff. Cancelled my internet and utilities, sorted my rent payments, ordered new cards. It took several pestering calls to get Surrey Police to update me, and when they did it lacked empathy or any real value. I tried to get a salvage company to take on my case and manage the retrieval from the building, but they didn’t want to know. Even Zen internet, who get top marks for customer service on any review you care to mention, felt the need to charge me a cancellation fee and Bulb energy (another 5 star performer apparently) cooly messaged me back to question whether I could help them get their gas and electric meters back. Royal Mail took 1hr to answer my call and confessed to having no protocol or information online about what happens to your post when their postie finds the letterbox charred. And if you want it redirected, yep, you’ll pay for that too, not even a 2 month ‘freebie’ to sort you out after a fire or flood. I’ve been very very surprised at how little script or process exists to handle people who have suddenly, dramatically lost absolutely everything.

I didn’t have contents insurance. There are reasons for this, they’re not great, but I had reasoned with myself that I could ‘afford’ a total loss, and perhaps I can, but dear god it would have been so much better to have had someone to hand the colossal mess over to and have them manage it. As it stands, every single purchase hurts and reminds me how bloody unnecessary it is: “I already have a perfectly decent razor!” “I didn’t need another pair of those jeans” “I’d only just bought a new pack of xyz”. Mind you, even having car insurance hasn’t been helpful for retrieving a car that’s currently buried in an underground carpark with keys irretrievable from a structurally unsound location and with all identification documentation presumably perished.

Has C19 made it worse? Yes, it probably has. I can’t just repair to a cottage by the sea or up on the fells for a few weeks to pick up the pieces. I can’t happily scoot about on trains to take up the hospitality of friends. I can’t sit in a café and disappear with a magazine or a book. But it’s also helped in the small ways, such as the fact that I could get a new machine fully restored from work within days and online deliveries are remarkably easy when you’re at home full time.

Many of you know I run and running should be my crutch but sadly I turned my ankle last month (theraband presumably lost to the fire…) and rehab was slow already. A lack of shoes and kit (brand new unworn Saysky kit lost to the fire…) doesn’t help either. But what does is the memory of the long distances I’ve completed and the fortitude required. I spoke to my MD last week and other running friends and drew the comparisons of the dark moments when even one more step feels impossible, pointless and futile given the distance ahead. But you take that step, maybe slower but you do. Each step builds and you make forward momentum. In this unwanted interregnum it feels much like grief, waves of it come and go and the funeral is yet to come. I have moments of acceptance, moments of dismissive optimism and then spells of profound sadness and anxiety.

It will be several weeks before the building is made safe and we can even contemplate returning for salvage. In any event I shall likely never return to the place as a resident, that chapter has closed and I so loved the building and the setting. I’m sure I’ll return to the topic in the weeks to come – it makes a change for the blog eh? But in the meantime, I entreat and implore you: Get contents insurance.

EDIT: What happened next? 40+ Days Later

A National Arboretum for the Victims of Covid19

An image of a  mature woodland with the sun breaking through pine tress

The loss of life attributable to Covid19 is astonishing, taken even in the United Kingdom as of May 22nd 2020 the death toll in hospitals alone exceeds 36,000 [source:]. It is unwise to talk about the exactness of these figures, the level of ‘excess mortality’ and so on, at this stage this is an indication that since the first death was recorded in the UK, there are a tens of thousands of families who have lost a loved one, friends and colleagues who are mourning. 

Comparisons with seasonal infections are facile and unhelpful, this is by any measure an extraordinary sombre international crisis. In the midst of the pandemic with only glimmers of hope, it is easy to assume this would never be forgotten, it will always be a keenly-felt loss. The immediacy of the event will pass, of course, and with increasing distance from the daily press briefings, the front-page photographs, ascending graphs and the echoing claps, the salience of the losses will fade. In some ways this is longed-for. We all want to be through the finish line (as if such a thing will exist) the pandemic consigned to a historical account of 2020. 

Naturally, this does not erase its permanent effect on many of us and most emphatically on those that have or will experience the death of a loved one. To this end, I have proposed that we remember them in a time-honoured and sustainable way. I propose the creation or extension of a national living memorial, through the establishment of an arboretum (def: a collection of trees) or National Forest. 

Each victim, howsoever defined, would be marked with a native species tree, their plot identified precisely with GPS and registered. These plots could be augmented with a digital map where, with agreement from relatives, they could be enriched with a photograph and their name

The practicalities
The National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire have preemptively issued a statement concerning their position, based on their existing criterion for the memorial to be related to “those [that] have suffered or made sacrifices for others”, and as such:

[the criterion] would mean we could not accept a memorial for those who have lost their lives to this terrible disease, it is our belief that the service and sacrifice of our NHS and our key workers could be recognised with a memorial within our grounds. We would therefore welcome an application from an association/ charitable body or government department with funds to create and maintain (in perpetuity) a memorial for this special cohort of people at the Arboretum.

Though this perhaps rules out the use of the existing site, it seems feasible nevertheless to consider a unique and new forest is planted. Based on the density of planting around 2000 trees per hectare, this would equate to an area of about 0.2 sq/km for 40,000 trees. A full square km of land would accommodate significantly more trees (assuming one plants several for each victim to account for possible loss/thinning) and the associated paths, landscaping and site infrastructure. All these figures are napkin calculations but serve to demonstrate that the proposal need not demand a vast parcel of land. Although getting well ahead of myself, it strikes me that a site somewhere in the geographical centre of the UK would feel appropriately accessible. For an example of how brilliantly this can be executed, one need only look at Glenn Howells Architects’ work to support the existing National Arboretum and in that spirit, an open competition from landscape architects and designers seems entirely appropriate.

Photo Credit: Rob Parrish

Whilst this may have readers nodding along in agreement, I hope it does, I am at a loss as to how to move the idea beyond my own musings.


My original petition was rejected by the Government portal due to similarity with existing petitions (which didn’t exist at the time I submitted it!) so although we can sign these..

  • Commission a Memorial Plaque to honour and remember UK victims of the Covid-19 [ Petition ]
  • A memorial for NHS, care, allied professionals, who die as a result of COVID:19 [ Petition ]

.. the specifics of the living memorial are not specified and one is specific to key workers.

I and others remain unconvinced about the efficacy of other non-government petition platforms which can so-easily be dismissed (evidence, slightly more positive evidence) and therefore I’m unsure of the next move. It strikes me that support from the public, organisations, press, media and public figures should be gathered and if this gains momentum then gathering this through or similar.

Any advice, support or direction is gratefully appreciated, like, share, retweet and re-post with energy, please.

UPDATE: Dec 2020. London’s rather underwhelming proposal is a re-plant of areas on the Olympic park with 32 trees.

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The crystal ball of behaviour prediction is looking in the wrong direction.


This morning I read another breathless piece from a consultancy. An agency with clever people who were confidently asserting that post-COVID we’re all going to be behaving differently, permanently, that the world from our recent past is gone and we need to embrace new behaviours.

It’s madness. So I made this*.

The red line represents how long we’ve lived with COVID (and it’s about 4 times thicker just so it’s visible). For simplicity, I’ve plotted four generations, the most immediate influence on our lives and a significant shared accumulation of behaviours and experience; but preceding that there are about 200,000 years of human existence that converge on today. We know a huge amount about how that evolutionary experience defines the way we live, that is which should inform how we behave in the near future, not a reflexive pivot around a thin red line.

So let’s tone down the hyperbole, we’ll be behaving in the same predictable ways and evolving at just the same pace this time next year. Those insight/agency crystal balls would do much better to look to the past than prophesying.

* Note, not actual birth/death dates 🙂

How can we sustain the lockdown? Perspectives from psychology, sport and communications.

I suspect I am not alone in experiencing some cognitive dissonance about personal sensations of peace, solitude and even enjoyment during the pandemic. Running outside at twilight brings an eerie sense of quiet as my local town reverts to the village it was 100 years ago; cats and foxes amble along tranquil traffic-free roads, the stacked Heathrow landing slots are quiet and the groups of social drinkers and restaurant clientele are nowhere to be seen. The initial sense of eerieness I felt in the early days of lockdown has progressed into a melancholy that this pastoral scene will eventually fade in coming weeks, reverting to all those things about modern life I don’t miss today: noise, crowds, traffic, pollution.

Here, in leafy Surrey under warm spring skies or sat at my ‘WFH’ desk, the morbid reality of ice-rink morgues, bruised and fatigued nurses, patients clinging on to gasps of breath and businesses facing utter devastation comes and goes in waves through screens and radio broadcasts.

My previous posts have looked at the behavioural science that has initiated the change in our way of life, in this post I want to explore how this change can be sustained, inspired in-part from that sense of mindfulness that amplified the salience of the sharply positive emotions I felt being out and about in a time of lockdown.

I made contact with several friends, former colleagues and acquaintances who spend a great deal of their time thinking about human behaviour, albeit from different perspectives and contexts. I wanted to know what, in their opinion, would help us sustain and adhere to the onerous conditions of lockdown: sclerotic food delivery, family and educational obligations, financial worries and the ever-present anxiety of living through a pandemic? I reproduce their thoughts here with genuine thanks.

Stefano Augello is a strategist at Business Integration Partners and began by exploring whether our perceptions of the post-lockdown experience are the principal driver:

“Many say that “life will never be the same” and that we’ll emerge changed. From their perspective, seeing this as an opportunity to rethink our world makes the lockdown, not just worthwhile, but also a convenient period to start imagining and taking steps towards that new world.” … before countering that this approach is questionable, a short-lived idealistic vision and that longer-term we won’t see fundamental change “I believe that, at least in the UK, while there may be significant changes in specific areas, overall we’ll revert to our usual life…. as we like to deal with traumatic events by pretending that they never happened in the first place”. To some extent, it’s convenient for us to compartmentalise this event as a Black Swan, though as Cennyd points out in his piece, this event was both predictable and predicted. Mark Ritson in Marketing Week took a similar view to Stefano, drawing on theological and philosophy and I found myself agreeing that “Consumers are miserable explainers of their … behaviour and even more hopeless at predicting what they will do in the future.”

What this means, Stefano insists is that “I don’t think we should invite people to endure the lockdown with an eye to the promised land that awaits us on the other side.” and he gives us four suggestions instead:

1 – Make the danger real: The invisibility of the virus needs to be made more visible and the low-probability of serious illness to the individual needs to be converted to a high probability of society being deeply affected but pulling people out of egocentric mindsets. Stefano praises the efforts of those who have made strangers’ deaths visible and personal. They are all of us.

2 – The majority are shown to be complying: Another case of ‘visibility’ and something I addressed previously, by reiterating the majority’s compliance we normalise it. Stefano suggests going so far as to suppress stories of disobedience, something our tabloid media would find particularly challenging.

3 – Good news, every day: We crave progress and despite the immediate future predicted to be bleak, we have the opportunity to use other countries to peek beyond the horizon, not to use them as a competitive comparison. Seek out the progress being made and present it as a clear prediction of where we’re headed.

4 – An end in sight: Much certainty is currently absent, building on (3) although we cannot place a finish line on our route, we can begin to identify what we need to do to reach that finish line. Providing the public with clarity on the process will help to soften the fixation on the outcome.

To pick up on the theme of uncertainty I wanted to share April Vellacott’s thoughts.


April Vellacott, Behavioural Consulting Lead, Cowry Consulting and co-author of ‘Ripple: The big effects of small behaviour changes in business‘.

Social distancing is a catch-all term that refers to standing apart when out and about as well as the broader requirement to spend the majority of time at home. April observes: “What’s interesting about … staying at home – is that it’s almost the absence of doing something. So, in essence, it’s a bit like waiting, and the psychology of waiting gives us some suggestions for how we can make lockdown behaviour sustainable.” Adding to the calls for more certainty, April continues “If we know how long we’ll be waiting for, we’re happier to wait for longer. If we’re told that we’ll have a 2-hour wait to see the doctor, this feels better than being told ‘you’ll be seen soon’. Whilst nobody can yet predict how long the lockdown will be needed for .. the Government might be better to give a longer-term expected period, rather than continually topping up every 3 weeks.”

Drawing parallels with other waiting scenarios, it’s apparent that a shared wait is more bearable, “If we’re waiting with other people, we’re happier to wait than if we were on our own. If we’re going to be on lockdown for a long time, it will help if we make the experience social – ‘we’re all in it together’ rather than ‘you’re alone in your flat for months’. This also makes it feel fairer – and a fair wait feels less long than an unfair wait.” Defining that ‘fairness’ is something we’ll return to later as others address the moral imperative of the situation.

Ultimately, April believes the government’s role here is clear: “If we know why we’re waiting, we’re happier to wait. Having a reason for the waiting makes the wait feel shorter than when it’s not been explained. This means that regular updates – as the Government is doing with its daily press briefings – should give clear reasons for the duration of the lockdown.”
Mark Bell, Partner at Globant

Taking us back to our evolutionary past, Mark explored the programming hard-wired into us as a survivalist species: “something we as many animals are programmed to do is to quickly adapt to our changing environment to ensure survival. Whether that is changing seasons, working abroad or finding yourself in isolation.” … “I do hypothesise that if we reach out to a wider audience whether you are living alone or in a jam-packed squashed family environment that you have learnt to be social, roam and have freedom in your way.” Mark also believes that many of us will look back on the crises with a kind of nostalgia “[we will return to our old lives] with a … nostalgia of coping with the horrendous Coronavirus of spring 2019 and how we all pulled through together.”

These broad perspectives on the in-built survivalism we have got me thinking and I wanted to dig into the techniques we might be deploying a bit further. I’d personally drawn repeatedly on the analogies of running ultra distances. As endurance runners we’re often recommended to switch between association and disassociation strategies: thinking in detail about every step you’re taking, focusing in on your breathing vs. thinking about people you love, places you’d like to be or the food and drink you’d love. When I ran Race to the Stones in the summer of 2019 I couldn’t think about the 100k distance, I focussed instead on each 10k checkpoint. I contacted Dr Josephine Perry for her take.


Dr Josephine Perry, Chartered Sport Psychologist and author of Performance in Mind.

“To personally sustain difficult challenges in sport, we often focus on two areas: increasing motivation and reducing [the] perception of effort. [I] see the challenges COVID19 brings us in a similar way.”

“We need to increase our motivation to get through and rise to the challenge. One of my favourite theories of motivation (yes, I know, I need a life) is called Self-Determination Theory. It says to be truly motivated to do something we need three pillars in place; To feel a sense of belonging to the community in which we want to excel, to feel competent at what we are trying to do and to have [the] autonomy to choose our current and future activities.”

“We have new communities springing up where people are reaching out to others online and building volunteering which should enhance motivation. But we may also be feeling that we lack the autonomy to make our own choices when we are restricted by the government as to what we can do outside. Then, depending on our situation, we will feel either competent to step up to the challenge (good mental health, able to work from home in a secure job, feeling fit and well so able to shop for essentials) or not (if we have lost income, are self-isolating or already suffered with depression or anxiety). To increase our motivation for the challenge we need to look in each of the three pillars, see where we are weak and work on strengthening the elements within them.”

Dr Perry adds that motivation will take us some way but the effort to achieve and sustain these conditions needs to be made easier: “The more something feels hard work and like lots of effort the harder it is to push ourselves through it. In sport we reduce [the] perception of effort through activities like training hard, using caffeine or playing mind games with ourselves. In real life, we can use something called ACE (Achieve, Connect, Enjoy).”

Achieve: Make sure each day we achieve something. Doesn’t matter how big or small but achieving something helps release our reward chemical in our brain giving us a feel-good feeling.

Connect: We need to connect with others. So connecting in some way with someone outside of your household (chatting on a WhatsApp group, FaceTiming someone, joining a Zoom class) to feel like you are staying in touch with the world.

Enjoy: We need to do something each day we enjoy. Can be a little thing or something huge but it needs to be there in our lives to help us relax and to feel some purpose.”

This cognitive behavioural therapy approach struck a chord, it seemed – like so much good psychology – tangible common sense.


Dr Martin Yelling, endurance sports consultant, coach and architect of children’s movement and mental health project, Stormbreak.

Like several people I’ve spoken to, Martin is unconvinced by the immediate high-volume low-effort interventions: “What frustrates me is the influx of short-termism solutions. Quickly thought out ’solutions’ to help people towards temporary change that will be forgotten about when they return to normality. An opportunity here is to try and see through the cloudiness of the current ‘have a go at everything’ and something might stick.” For someone that naturally wrinkles their nose at the 1st January resolutions pile on, I concur as he continues: “It .. feels like the worlds worst attempt at motivating people for a ‘New year new you’ I think there is a place for immediacy and quick fix but … we should also consider the broader implications of this. Sustainable behaviour change is realised when people feel empowered by the change, have a sense of ownership of the change, when it’s meaningful, purposeful and fulfilling”.

The clarity of the lens through which we’re having to view the full range of our personal life, our work and our hobbies provide us with a unique opportunity, Martin says: “people have been forced to look at some areas of their life they currently operate in (e.g. running) and see how they respond when they cannot do that in the way they are accustomed to / expect to. … how [do] these people respond? Can they rise to the challenge of difference … do they resist and try and keep doing what they were always doing?” I think we’ve all observed something similar like this happening and, as others have already identified above, the behaviours we are suggesting are changing might not be changing that dramatically, in Martin’s words “.. maybe no long-lasting change has taken place. It’s just a sticking plaster short term solution.”

Reflecting on Martin and Josie’s words I was reminded of how I have stuck to a routine. My alarm continues to go off at 05:30 as it did as a commuter. I have the same morning and evening rituals as before. Routine and normality have helped buffer against the highly abnormal elements of my life, it’s a protective personal responsibility I have taken naturally.

Individual responsibilities for rising to these challenges are one thing, we can think carefully about how we might respond, but we’re not the only actors. Other respondents took on the role authorities might need to play and how they can use applied behavioural science accordingly.


John Owen, Behavioural Scientist and founder of The Decision Practice.

Following my question, John took up the challenge and comprehensively covered the topic in his blog post. His observations focus on the effect of ‘spillovers’, actions we take after the adoption of new or target behaviours. These spillovers can have positive, reinforcing effects or negative contradictory ones. He reminds us of a typical ‘permitting’ spillover response: “I might start going to the gym again, and then feel so pleased with my efforts that I treat myself to a flat white and a slice of cake” and contrasts this with the ‘promoting’ response “I might instead feel such a surge of healthy goodness from my gym session that I want to maintain that feeling, by ordering a whey protein breakfast blast and a pot of green tea.” John suggests, (from Thogerson, 1999) that a principal determinant of which spillovers take place is “the degree to which I am committed, at a moral level, to the consequences of my target behaviour.”

In the COVID19 pandemic, we can take social distancing as the target behaviour. The consequences are known: viral spread, healthcare systems overwhelmed, lives saved or lost. As Stefano mentioned above, the distance from personal action to these (very real) consequences is part of the problem for most people. John describes the observation of social distancing as something some people are doing “grudgingly, out of obligation, but without truly feeling the need, or comprehending the terrible impact they could have on others if they broke the rules.” in these circumstances, the likelihood of ‘permitting spillovers’ increases, particularly as time goes by and they feel they’ve put enough ‘good behaviour’ credit in the bank. Might we draw an inverse relationship of a sense of virtuousness with a decline in willpower?

Well, all is not lost, the moral purpose has a profoundly positive effect too with ‘promoting spillovers’. John observes the 750k people signing up to the NHS volunteer scheme amongst others that shows “[moral purpose from our COVID19 actions] make it more likely that they will subsequently feel the urge to do more to mitigate the crisis.” So how might governments fuel the promoters while dousing the permitters? It’s no surprise that as former ‘ad people’ John and I see communication as a vital response, and it’s something we’ve already seen in action. Appealing to ‘hearts and minds’, as John says “emphasise the moral argument at every opportunity” and the theme here continues “this needs to be sustained over the long term. The communication challenge will be to strike the right balance between the repetition of key phrases and messages on the one hand and, on the other, refreshing the core argument with new and engaging angles”.

Whilst Stefano advocated the suppression of the finger-wagging at disobedient behaviour, John takes a different perspective to preserve the foundations of this critical moral argument: “Moral arguments cannot be successfully made if the messenger is shown to be hypocritical.” and in this case, calling out the behaviour of Catherine Calderwood, Scottish Chief Medical Officer (CMO) when she repeatedly flouted her own office’s advice is essential. In her actions travelling to her holiday home, the CMO highlighted a significant issue: the high-risk ‘pemitters’ seem able to side-step the moral argument. The defence here is to continue to amplify the much higher percentage of adherent behaviour amongst the herd. wonderfully a society-initiated response is having exactly this effect according to John: “a nationwide ritual such as the applause for NHS workers every Thursday evening is so powerful. This isn’t an argument being made by those in power, which I can avoid or find reasons to dismiss, but an action being taken by my neighbours, who will notice and quite possibly judge me if I don’t join in, and whose noise I certainly can’t ignore. Even if I don’t agree with them, I can’t help but register that their moral position is the norm.”

This is something I can entirely relate to, on an essential journey last week I found myself on the road at 8 pm as the clap sounded out. I enthusiastically beeped my car horn and felt a profound and moving sense of satisfaction and togetherness as for 2 minutes through residential streets in the twilight we were all applauding the same positive sentiment. Physiologically this released dopamine, the pleasure centre of the brain was getting a fix and of course, I’ll want more of the same. Can we get addicted to being this virtuous? Not such a bad thing for a while is it? Even if, as John suggests, clapping itself might not be enough over time and so we’ll be looking to communities to encourage variety: carer claps, essential workers, one-week claps, the next pots and pans.

I think we’d all rather see these ‘descriptive norms’ emphasising the positive behaviours than the low-effort shaming of ‘injunctive norms’ (after Cialdini, 2003) that are so typical of the material that a vigilante social media and tabloid press incorrectly assume has a disciplining effect.


I was delighted with the enthusiasm with which everyone I spoke to had considered the significant challenges of sustained behaviour change in this circumstance. It was apparent that the responsibility of this is a shared one, firstly with individual motivation pushing up against the pragmatic realism of feeding ourselves, keeping money coming in and staying physically and mentally well. Then secondly the governmental responsibility of maintaining the higher purpose, communicating effectively, keeping us safe and unburdening us of some of those practical complexities.

I’d close by adding that I feel we mustn’t lose sight of the significant positives that the crisis has brought to many (sadly not all) of our lives: the children’s bathtimes we no longer miss thanks to rail or road delays, the meals we’re now sharing, talents we’re discovering, hobbies, passions and people we’d forgotten about. The footpaths, and neighbourhoods we’re seeing in new lights, the delight at technophobic relatives appearing in video calls. People are generally good, predominantly egocentric but acting as conditional co-operators in the best interest of society. I think you’ll have seen from my contributors that we’d all agree these are the stories we need to tell.

My sincere thanks to John, April, Martin, Josie, Stefano and Mark for their contributions.