Hard wired 21: Emotion and morality

In the previous post I made the claim that emotions drive our behaviour and that morality is in fact much more self-serving than most of us would like to admit. I gave an illustration of this in an earlier post (part 15 of the series) when we discussed loyalty. This human drive which links both to emotionality and to morality is actually one of the basest of our inbuilt behaviours, born as it is out of xenophobia and paranoia. It is useful only in so far as it allows us to feel good about doing bad things.

The fact that loyalty feels moral is precisely the point. It’s the psychological rule of thumb (be loyal) that gives rise to emotions (guilt, anxiety) whenever we consider being disloyal. Those irrational emotions allow us to behave badly to those outside our own group with a clear conscience. We are convinced by the emotions we feel that loyalty is good, even though the behaviours that loyalty prompts are inherently unfair and even cruel.

It would be bad enough if it was only loyalty that so confused our moral sense – our notions of right and wrong. However, as shall see, loyalty is but one example of a much more widespread psychological problem. The reality is that human beings are not only irrational – we are essentially hypocritical, self-serving, cruel and gratuitously vindictive. What’s worse, most of the time we don’t even know it.

That’s another purpose of the unthinking mental short-cut, the heuristic we discussed earlier. It hides our true motives not only from others but from ourselves as well. Indeed – self-deception is a recurring and extremely important part of our evolved survival strategies. If we actually knew what we were doing we’d find it much harder to convince others that our intentions were pure. By deceiving ourselves about our true motives we become much better at deceiving others who, like us, are evolved organisms with a particularly sophisticated system for spotting liars and cheats. So we fool ourselves in order to fool others into trusting us as we lie and cheat our way through life.

Morality signpostThat’s precisely why the main drivers of behaviour are emotions rather than thoughts. Thinking things through makes it harder for us to deceive ourselves and that makes our attempts to deceive others easier to spot. We’re not rational creatures at all. We’re emotional animals with a peculiar knack for fooling ourselves into believing in the illusion of rationality. Such is the subtle deception that natural selection favoured so completely.

The best liars convince themselves. Through self-deception they don’t just act sincere – they ARE sincere. This makes them easy to trust which gives them a reproductive advantage in terms not only of sexual activity but also in status and longevity. Consequently their DNA is more likely to make it through the generations at the expense of genes providing greater insight whose living, biological vehicles (apes and humans alike) just couldn’t compete in the mutually exploitative arenas of primate society and selective sexuality.

Remember that the ‘aim’ of natural selection (so far as unthinking processes can have an aim – and, of course they can’t) is never to raise self-awareness – it’s just to raise genetic/reproductive fitness and replicate genetic material. That’s it. As Dawkins put it in The Greatest Show On Earth: The evidence for evolution’, we really are nothing more than elaborate DNA replicating machines. Everything we do and everything we feel has evolved to increase our prospects of transferring our DNA into the next generation.

Hard-wired 20: Heading into dangerous territory

I haven’t updated the Hard-wired blog series for a long time. That’s partly because I’ve been busy doing other things, partly because I’ve been learning more about the subject of evolutionary psychology and partly because I’m actually a little reluctant to put what I’ve been learning ‘out there’ in an easily accessible blog.

That’s because I know what might happen. I may well find myself under attack from a range of ideological groups (some radical, some not) who may well react defensively to the insights I’ve learned over the last year or so. Ironically I even understand more fully than before why that might happen in evolutionary terms – not that such insight will make the attacks, should they happen, any easier to deal with.

Nevertheless – the series really can’t progress without some understanding of these basic principles of universal human nature and the less than pleasant realities of many of societies most treasured institutions and ideological assumptions. So I’m going to rely upon the relative lack of comments that my blog usually attracts (or indeed doesn’t attract) and press on anyway. Who knows – I might just get away with it!

In any event I’m about to attack many of the underlying principles of morality, social organisation, the judiciary, political systems, religion and the family unit. Don’t expect it to be pretty. It will, however be sincere.

As I’ve said before this series is chiefly about my own education. I have no tutor to help me learn this stuff so I’m blogging about the topic in the hope that others with more knowledge will help me to correct any errors. I don’t have any other means of getting such feedback. So please feel free to comment and put me right.

The universal emotion

emotion arrayMuch of our ‘morality’, our sense of right and wrong is driven by emotions. Emotions are the sticks that natural selection used to drive us to take particular courses of action in particular circumstances. And those behaviours won out in the natural selection ‘race’ because they increase reproductive fitness. That’s it. That’s all natural selection ever responds to. The greater your genes’ chances of reproducing, the greater will be those same genes’ chances of being selected in the ongoing process of evolution. That’s why all humans experience the same set of emotions – they’re universal because they’re hard-wired. Indeed they’re so hard-wired that most people never even consider the possibility that they might have been different.

We’re all familiar with frustration, guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety and the many incremental emotions leading directly to sexual intercourse from simple lust and the urge to possess to more complex feelings of love, protective urges and jealousy. We all know and understand these emotions because we have all experienced them – and we know that other humans experience them too. What we rarely consider is the idea that there might be other emotions that we don’t experience but that others do.

Of course there aren’t any variations here. Human animals experience the same emotions across all races or cultures. Even the occasional aberration (sociopaths for example) remain the same from race to race and culture to culture. For emotions to be different from what they are is unthinkable. That’s because they’re genetically determined – they evolved in our DNA and they have been as they are for a very long time indeed. And they exist not to help society as a whole, nor are our emotions (and the behaviours they prompt) there to ensure the survival of other people or animals, although that may well be their immediate effect. Our emotions evolved purely to help increase out reproductive fitness. That is all.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why you feel empathy or sympathy, for example? Have you ever asked yourself what feelings of guilt are for or why guiltiness increases when the likelihood of discovery also goes up? What is the purpose of sadness or depression and why is it a good thing to be paralysed with fear like the stereotypical ‘lamped rabbit’?

Why do we feel moral indignation and what’s the purpose of gossip? For that matter why on earth would hostility be more common when there’s an audience to witness it? And why do humans get so wound up about ‘the principle of the thing’ when they feel slighted?

Perhaps more significantly, why is it that extremist ‘street movements’ like the far right ‘English defence League’ and ‘Britain First’ draw so much of their support from single young men who seem to have such limited ‘reproductive potential’? Why are some young women attracted to promiscuity and polygamy whilst others hold out for lifelong commitment with a single man instead?

For that matter why is that lifelong commitment so hard to maintain? What’s the real cause of the ‘7 year itch’ and why can’t we believe even our own protestations of undying love? To put it another way – have human beings more in common with Gibbons or with Bonoboes?

If you’re interested in the answers to these and other questions then read on – but prepare to be offended. This is far from a politically correct blog series but it will be a sincere (and I hope scientifically sound) one.

Cold reading 6: Building upon generalisations

All of the generalisations mentioned previously are used by cynical charlatans to convey the idea that the reader really does have hidden powers and esoteric knowledge. They use these techniques to dupe gullible ‘believers’ and to prey on the desperate and bereft. However that’s only the beginning.

As the person being read becomes more and more convinced that the reader is genuine they will allow their guard to drop. By asking for confirmation regularly (“Is that right?”) the reader engages the subject in the reading and gets them used to providing information.
By asking open ended questions (“What does that mean to you?” “How does that relate to your life?”) you can encourage the subject to provide all sorts of information that you can then feed back to them as though the cards had revealed it.

It’s also useful to used ‘paired’ information (see the post on ‘shotgunning’ for a few examples). For example if the subject says that they have few friends it’s a safe guess that they’re often lonely and bored. So when the cards tell you this and you pass that information on they’ll be even more convinced.

Cold readers don’t worry about the odd miss – people tend to remember the hits. And if they throw in plenty of future predictions (vague but statistically probable) that cannot immediately be verified they’ll be on to a winner. Charlatan ‘psychics’ can also make predictions based upon their victim’s own actions using simple cause and effect principles, For example

If you work hard at it you will succeed in time – but don’t give up.
You need to get out of the house to find your true love.
Spend enough time planning your future and you’ll do much better.

If these predictions don’t come true the subject will think they just didn’t do what they had to do well enough.

Notice also the way the subject appears:

Are they dressed for comfort or style (especially notice ladies’ shoes)?
Are their clothes good quality and new or shabby and cheap?
Do they look the world in the eye or look down nervously?
Are they with a partner (same sex or heterosexual)?
Do they appear to be embarrassed by anything?
Are they well mannered or more lassiez faire?
Do others appear to defer to them or are they lower down the pecking order in this particular group?
Are they the butt of others’ jokes or do they ridicule/protect others?
Do their clothes fit well (IE have they lost weight recently)?
Does their pallor, demeanour, level of energy, perspiration (or lack of it), respiration suggest health or illness?
Do others value their opinions or are they constantly interrupted?
Do they talk too much or make concise but pithy comments?
Are they a listener or a brash interrupter?

All of these things and other, similar observations can also provide some very real cues about the subject’s personality and status within society. They’re obvious when you look for them but most people don’t (and they won’t realise how much they reveal to charlatans either). All the ‘psychic’ con artist need to do is practice.

Voila – you’re a psychic charlatan!
You can download the entire series as an A5 PDF and other free downloads from here

Cold reading 5: Perspectives

One of the problems unpracticed cold-readers often face is how to put their generalisations into words that will appeal to the person being conned. Many memorize short descriptions from the point of view of different people that tend to describe just a few personality traits in ways that are acceptable to a wide range of victims.

As part of my project to expose the scam of cold-reading I’ve developed some of these myself. You can read them below. Bear in mind that these are not meant to be particularly accurate descriptions of the individual from any particular standpoint – rather they are intended simply to flatter the person by mirroring their own probable self-justifications. There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of this – in fact it’s really just an exercise in patronising people. Unfortunately – that very patronisation is effective which is why so many cold readers use just this sort of stock phrase to reel in their gullible marks.


You’re concerned with what’s going on around you and especially the idea that those you care most about May be getting a raw deal. I also sense some frustration that not everyone shares your concerns. You’re also worried that sometimes people misunderstand your motives, even seeing you as the problem when really all you want is to be part of the solution.

You put great store by friendship, trust and loyalty but the other side of that is that once lost, you take a long time to trust again – even if you don’t show it. Once bitten, twice shy – or at least twice wary


You’re concerned with what’s going on around you and especially the idea that those you care most about May be getting a raw deal. I also sense some frustration that not everyone shares your concerns. You’re also worried that sometimes people misunderstand your motives, even seeing you as the problem when really all you want is to be part of the solution.


You have your opinions and they really matter to you. But sometimes you get frustrated when other people try to ridicule your beliefs, as though they know all there is to know. You understand that not everything can be explained in simple terms.


You’re a bit of a free spirit in some ways. You don’t like being told what to think, even if you’re not sure of all the answers to life, the universe and everything, you don’t need others to give you their ready-made (& often fairly silly) solutions.


You live life spontaneously. You like to seize the moment rather than worry about too much endless navel gazing. You know what you need to and you don’t suffer fools gladly but you really don’t have the time to spend hours worrying about things that don’t actually matter in the real world.


You’ve been around long enough to know that there is no Santa Claus and that we all have to work for what we want. It’s not that you like to see inequality in the world, it’s just that you understand that opportunity tends to come through diligent hard work and that not everybody is prepared to do that work themselves.


You value fairness and you sometimes get frustrated at the world’s injustices. Above all you believe that we should all have a fair crack of the whip and you have a hard time understanding why others can justify unfairness.

Far right

You don’t suffer fools gladly and you have little patience for wishy washy people who live life as though everything is lovely in the world. You’ve lived enough to know that it isn’t all rosy in the garden.


You’re no fool. But you’ve learned that it’s sometimes a good idea to keep your mouth shut and leave others to it – even when you know they’re wrong. After all not everyone is prepared to hear hard truths. Sometimes you wish that was different but you also know that wishful thinking doesn’t cut much ice in the real world.


You value your creature comforts and you don’t really like being bossed around. You have a lot of unused potential and you know that you have a lot to offer but sometimes you procrastinate and put things off. Sometimes others get on your case about that but most of the time you don’t worry too much about it.


It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.


It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.

Considers self a failure

You’ve had your share of ups and downs and sometimes those downs hit you hard. Sometimes you find it hard to pick yourself up again but please remember that it’s never really over until you stop trying.

Polyamorous man

You enjoy company – especially female company but – correct me please if this is wrong – you tend to have fairly short relationships. It’s not that you don’t like to be intimate but you really haven’t found the woman to curb your wanderings yet. So you keep looking and you don’t see any reason to limit your explorations as you go.

Polyamorous woman

You enjoy company – especially male company but – correct me please if this is wrong – you tend to have fairly short relationships. It’s not that you don’t like to be intimate but you really haven’t found the man to curb your wanderings yet. It may be that one man will never be enough. So you keep looking.

Needy woman

I sense a fear in you. It’s not so much a specific thing you’re scared about but rather a general sense that – I don’t know. It’s as though you’re worried that you might have to face the world alone and that scares you. You prefer to be around others and to have safety in numbers, whether that number is many or just two. It’s not that you’re especially ‘needy’ (although others might interpret you that way) – you just know what it’s like to be lonely and you really don’t like that feeling.

Needy man

I sense a fear in you. It’s not so much a specific thing you’re scared about but rather a general sense that – I don’t know. It’s as though you’re worried that you might have to face the world alone and that scares you. You prefer to be around others and to have safety in numbers, whether that number is many or just two. It’s not that you’re especially ‘needy’ (although others might interpret you that way) – you just know what it’s like to be lonely and you really don’t like that feeling.

Marginalised sexuality or LGBT

You’ve had your ups and downs and it took you a while to feel comfortable in your own skin – to be OK with yourself but that’s getting/got easier over time. Sometimes you like just to get away and be yourself.

Hard man

It’s a hard world and you tend to face it head on. You put great store by friendship, trust and loyalty but the other side of that is that once lost, you take a long time to trust again – even if you don’t show it. Once bitten, twice shy – or at least twice wary.

You are well respected and that means a lot to you. It was hard won.


You don’t always show it but you’re not always as confident as you would like to be. You tend to like to know what’s going to happen next and you can be unsettled if plans change unexpectedly. You are a thoughtful person but sometimes you overthink things and that can cause you problems. You don’t have many close friends but those close friends you do have are important to you. You’re a bit of a ‘people watcher’ & you often know if someone else has a problem long before other people notice. It takes you a long time to trust other people but once you do you are able to trust them quite deeply for as long as they remain worthy of that trust.

Chip on their shoulder

You’re quite frustrated for much of the time. You dislike injustice and you’re very aware that the world is full of unfairness. You don’t like being boxed in or being bossed around and you can be extremely passionate about the things you believe in. You can be just as passionate with people once you trust them but they have to share your ideals or they won’t really get that close to you.

You have far more to offer than most people will ever realise. You can be a good friend but you have no time for superficial people or those who betray their own ideals just because it’s easier.


You like order. You know who you are and you know where you come from. You can be a very moral person and you have very real standards that you set yourself. You wish others would live up to the same standards and, although you’re not always surprised when they don’t, you are sometimes disappointed.

Burned out

You used to be much more passionate than you are now – a man/woman on a mission. But now you worry that you’ve lost something – some part of yourself and you miss it. Of course you’re older and wiser now than you were then but that’s not all of it. It’s as though you’ve been in a war – a quiet, personal struggle and you’ve grown weary somewhere along the way.

Middle manager

When I look at you I feel like the pig in the middle. It’s as though whatever you do someone will find a reason to blame you. That may not be everyone and it doesn’t happen all the time but it’s common enough to get in the way.

Sometimes you find yourself forced into a corner. You take the flak for someone else’s stupidity. You tell yourself that THAt’s just part of life but still you can get resentful of it.

Non managerial worker

When I look at you I see untapped resources. You have much more to offer than others realise – perhaps more than you yet realise yourself. And yet you know that nothing happens just because you would like it to. If you are to realise your potential you need to pay the price, in time and in effort. I know that the potential is there to achieve remarkable things. What I don’t know is whether or not it’s worth the sacrifice to you.

Young and ambitious

You’re going places. You’re aware of that already though, aren’t you? You have a lot of work ahead of you though – but so long as you keep at it you’ll go far.

Always remember though that the more you kid yourself the harder your journey will be. It’s important that you discipline yourself very diligently to see the world as it really is – not as you would like it to be.

Trust to evidence and keep your emotions in check. And never close the door on any honest ally. You’ll find they crop up in the unlikeliest places.

Middle aged and ambitious

You’ve had your share of hard knocks, haven’t you? A lesser man would’ve given up and, in fact I see that there have been moments when you’ve felt like throwing in the towel. You remind me of the horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Do you know it? The horse faced every setback with a determination to work harder – I think there’s a lot of that in you.

But commendable as that is it’s also a warning. You need to work smarter too. Does that make sense to you?

No ambition

You’re undervalued and you know it. Is that right?
You may not want to rule the world but that’s OK. A little appreciation would go a long way.
Sometimes you get a bit resentful, a bit irritated or frustrated at the way others seem to treat you like a doormat. I understand that. But you know, whatever others might think you deserve respect and you deserve to be happy.
Does that mean something to you?

Low intelligence

Wow. You put up with a lot of stick – and you deal with stuff that others wouldn’t be able to cope with at all.

You’re in touch with your feelings and you have a lot of love to give. You may not be the best educated person you know but you have a form of emotional intelligence – you’re in touch with your feelings and you know what it means to be alive. And you could teach others a thing or two about being honest with your heart. Not that many people would listen.


You’re a deep soul. You have an imagination to die for and you know how to express yourself. But you need to stop criticising yourself – especially when you’re alone. Whether you show it or not you do sometimes judge yourself far too harshly. Does that make sense to you?

Creative problem solver

You’re a problem solver. You’re the one that knows how to plan, to strategize and you’re much more valuable than people realise. The problem you haven’t quite solved yet is how to get proper credit for all you do. Does that make sense to you? Turn your attention to solving that and you’ll reap dividends.


You have a strong sense of self and you’re certainly not afraid. To be different – at least not all the time. But then there are times when you’re less confident, whether you show it or not. The opinions and approval of others matters to you more than many other people might realise.

Attention seeker (sublimated)

You’re no stranger to being the centre of attention and you have been known to put yourself in situations where you’ll be noticed. But then there are times when you prefer to take a back seat and watch. You can appear confident even when you don’t feel it.

Attention seeker (unsophisticated)

You might appear confident and in control to others but you have a strong need for approval and you often find yourself the centre of attention. You like to be liked. The thing you dislike most is to be forgotten or for others to think of you as insignificant.

Con artist

It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.

You live by your wits a lot of the time and usually that works for you although sometimes you find yourself alone and that can be difficult to deal with. You’re no stranger to conflict and you’ve precious little time for those people who keep pretending that life is easy. You know a different world.


It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK. You know how to get what you need and you understand that there’s no point in needless sentimentality.

Control freak

You like order. You know who you are and you know where you come from. You can be a very moral person and you have very real standards that you set yourself. You wish others would live up to the same standards and, although you’re not always surprised when they don’t, you are sometimes disappointed.

You try to get others to stay safe by doing the right things but that doesn’t always work. Even when it does they sometimes resent you and misunderstand what you’re trying to do. You can get cross easily and sometimes you worry that you might be a bit of a control freak. Deep down all you really want is for things to go smoothly.


Deep down you get scared sometimes. It’s a tough world and you really don’t like the thought of facing it alone. You’re fundamentally a nice person although not everyone sees that or treats you with respect.


You’re a provider and you know exactly what that means don’t you. You know how hard it can be and you sometimes get frustrated when others seem to take all your efforts for granted. Sometimes you wonder what things might be like if they were different – if your situation was different but mainly you just get on with it. There’s not much of an option. Is that right?


Life isn’t always as you’d like it to be. You do know at some level that you’re capable of so much more but there’s something preventing you from taking action. I can’t yet see whether that’s mainly circumstance or something within yourself that gets in the way but you definitely have more to offer. Does that make sense? So what’s the block? What’s standing in your way?

True believer

You have something. The cards show it and I can sense it. But I also sense a blockage. You really haven’t used your full potential yet, have you? Actually I’m not convinced you even know what that potential is.
Sometimes you sense things that other people don’t. You make connections and you have a keen INTUITION – develop that. Trust that INTUITION – but learn to recognise the real intuition and ignore the part that’s merely wishful thinking. That makes you gullible.

Are you psychic? Do you find yourself thinking about someone and then the ‘phone rings? Nurture that. You have a gift – whether you know it or not.

Critical thinker

You’re a sceptic and that’s fine by me. To be honest, so am I. In fact I wouldn’t believe me either if I didn’t know better because it’s me.

I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. On the contrary – Karl Popper’s ideas about the difference between science and nonsense suggest that true inquiry is all about looking for contradictions rather than just accepting blindly. That’s what the null hypothesis is there for. It’s all about falsifiability. We know what’s true only if repeated attempts to falsify it fail. If we succeed in falsifying it we refine the theory and try to falsify the new theory or hypothesis.
So that’s my invitation to you. Look for the contradictions. Falsify, if you can. But please be fair in the spirit of true inquiry too – acknowledge the consistencies. My belief is that you’ll see plenty of those if you’re honest with yourself.

Ultimately though – make up your own mind.

Recently hurt

You’re hurting. In many ways you’re hurting more than you show. In fact in some ways, in your darkest moments, you’re worried that this upset – this pain might never go away. Know that it will. You may never forget entirely but you will be able to get past this in time. But you will need to let healing happen. You will need to let go of the pain, if not the memory. You will need to see beyond the pain and keep on moving forward. Don’t give in. Ask yourself this… how much suffering is enough? Only when you can answer that question will you find the strength to grow beyond the pain you feel.


I sense that you have something of a problem getting motivated. It’s not that you don’t know what you need to do – you just can’t seem to get yourself going sometimes. It’s as though you don’t have enough energy and things seem much harder to achieve than they used to. Is that right?


Safety is important to you. The world is a dangerous place and you really value those places and people that help you to feel safe.

Psychotic (hallucinations & delusions)

I’m sorry. I’m not getting anything. (DON’T get into this with people with psychosis. It’s too easy to buy into their delusions or to cause confirmatory harm).


I’m sorry – I’m not getting anything.


You spend a lot of your time thinking about or doing things that you don’t actually believe in. But it’s easier to do this stuff than to not do it. Deep down you’d like it to be different but it feels really difficult to change things.

It’s ironic that other people seem to think you need to be taught about their point of view but that’s not right. You understand their point of view perfectly well – it’s just that things are different for you.

Wary of me/Testing me/Hostile to me

You’re a sceptic and that’s fine by me. To be honest, so am I. In fact I wouldn’t believe me either if I didn’t know better because it’s me.

I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. On the contrary – Karl Popper’s ideas about the difference between science and nonsense suggest that true inquiry is all about looking for contradictions rather than just accepting blindly. That’s what the null hypothesis is there for. It’s all about falsifiability. We know what’s true only if repeated attempts to falsify it fail. If we succeed in falsifying it we refine the theory and try to falsify the new theory or hypothesis.

So that’s my invitation to you. Look for the contradictions. Falsify, if you can. But please be fair in the spirit of true inquiry too – acknowledge the consistencies. My belief is that you’ll see plenty of those if you’re honest with yourself.

Ultimately though – make up your own mind.

Into current affairs and politics

You’re no fool and you do like to be kept informed and up to date. You recognise and understand the importance of current knowledge and opinion. That’s how you know what you think and it’s why you’re able to talk about a fair few of the things that really matter with quite some authority.

You can download this entire series as an A5 PDF along with various other free downloads here.

Cold reading 4: Rainbow statements and shotgunning

Rainbow statements (a skeptic’s guide)

Rainbow statements are key weapons in the charlatan psychic’s arsenal. They’re designed to take in the whole spectrum of possibilities. Rainbow statements include all possible variations along a continuum of characteristics so that everyone can find themselves within the statement.

Rainbow statements are easy to construct. Simply think of a personality trait and its direct opposite and then include both in a sentence about the person being read. These statements are used to imply that the reader has greater specific understanding than they actually have. They have the added advantage that they relax the person, making them more likely to give the charlatan information that they can repeat back later as though they’d just seen it in the cards.

Rainbow statements include….

You can be very generous but there are times when you need to keep your resources to yourself.
You enjoy company but you also value quiet times and the space to just be yourself.
You know what you believe but you are also given to self-doubt on occasion.
You have a lot of love to give in the right circumstances but when the situation isn’t right you can withdraw into yourself.
You believe in fairness and justice but there are times when you can be stubborn, especially when challenged aggressively or unfairly.

Like Forer statements, rainbow statements tend to apply to just about everyone but they’re not perceived that way. Instead people tend to believe that the ‘reader’ has specific insight into their unique personalities.
Most people don’t realise just how similar we all are underneath.

Shotgunning is a simple technique used before large groups of people such as a TV audience. Just as a shotgun cartridge scatters pellets across a wide area, some of which ‘hit’ and some ‘miss’ their target, so the charlatan ‘psychic’ employs the same strategy with his gullible victims.

Shotgun statements might include what appear to be very specific references to individuals such as
“I see a man in uniform”
but statistically there will be several people in the audience for whom ‘a man in uniform’ has significance.

When one of the audience exclaims
“It’s uncle Arthur”
it’s a safe bet that ‘Uncle Arthur’ is dead and it’s an equally safe bet that his death involves some sort of problem in his chest or abdomen (most deaths do).

So the psychic says

“Arthur – yes – I’m getting a strange sensation in my chest and abdomen. Is that right?”

Without realising that most deaths involve some problem in the chest or abdomen (the site of the vital organs and most cancers) the ‘mark’ exclaims

“Why yes – Arthur had a chest infection that killed him”.

This information means that we can assume several things with a fair likelihood of accuracy…

Arthur was quite old when he died (chest infections tend not to kill people in UK unless they’re frail, very old or very young). We can further assume, given his age that the uniform related to an occupation and there’s a reasonable chance that it was military (either during wartime or national service).
In any event we know that uniforms tend to be worn by people with a particular group identity and that they have rules to follow. So the charlatan says..

“Ah yes – it’s getting clearer now – A long life and quite a meticulous life – Arthur lived by a code or a book of rules.

This will apply to all sorts of things so if the military guess is wrong it will still work in terms of morality, religion, professional life and a whole array of other possibilities that the mark will almost certainly supply to rapturous applause from the audience.

Then the shotgunner can focus in on whatever the new situation is and talk in equally vague terms to ‘prove’ their link to the dead before finally offering reassuring platitudes such as…

“Arthur wants you to know that he’s at peace now – all the distress has gone and he’s enjoying his eternity.”

The ‘distress’ may relate to a painful life or the laboured breathing of someone dying from a chest infection/heart attack/physical complications from dementia or a host of other very common causes of death. Of course the gullible victim doesn’t realise that – they just assume that these facts apply specifically to Uncle Arthur and their credible confirmation of the accuracy of the charlatan serves as evidence for the rest of the audience. Job done!

You can download this entire series as an A5 PDF from here.

Cold reading 3: Some basic tricks

Exposing the scam of cold-reading

Very generalized but instantly noticeable demographics


Interested in fulfilling social relationships
Like to talk
Happy to deal in emotions
Value intelligence and kindness


Interested in status
Like to solve problems and fix stuff
Prefer to deal in process
Value looks and sexuality

Almost All people

Believe they could do more/have more to offer
Feel misunderstood from time to time
Like to protect what they already have
Have the potential to hurt others (physically or emotionally) and sometimes need to control it
Dislike being hemmed in or pushed around

Intelligent or specialist people

Sometimes feel frustrated that others don’t understand
Feel pressure at times to hide their insights
Sometimes reveal things they think are obvious but that others didn’t (& don’t want to) know.


Feel hemmed in by lack of opportunity
Feel guilty at times when they do or buy stuff for themselves rather than their kids
Worry that their parenting may not be the best
Sometimes keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of public disapproval


Black and white thinking. Rebellion is their ‘job’ at this developmental stage.
They will have strong need to conform to an identity that they may consider (ironically) to be non-conformist. In reality it’s just different from the older generation’s conformity.
May well feel personal responsibility for world problems. Easily flattered with talk of compassion and determination – passionate support for a cause etc.


These statements were developed as part of a psychological experiment in the 1940s. Almost all people when given these statements as though they are individual assessments of their personality rate them as very highly accurate. You can find various versions of them (along with a number of ‘rainbow statements’ in daily horoscopes and other published ‘fortune-telling’ scams.

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”

You can download this and many other series and Ebooks in PDF format here.

Safeguarding 8: Psychological/Emotional abuse

“for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

With this simple line Shakespeare’s Hamlet summed up the basic notion behind psychological and emotional abuse. Eleanor Roosevelt said it rather differently three and a half centuries later when she pointed out that an insult only hurts if we agree with it. What both of these different expressions of the same principle have in common is this:

If I want to change the way you feel I must first change the way you think, either about yourself or about your situation.

thumbnailCA3H80ASAnything that causes distress or confusion or that misleads the other person causes psychological and or emotional harm. If the behaviour that causes that harm cannot be justified then it is also abusive.

The distinction between ‘harm’ and ‘abuse’ is as important here as anywhere. After all you can’t please all of the people all of the time and people do sometimes become upset for their own reasons even though no-one has done anything wrong. If a person becomes upset because you’re carrying out your legitimate duties then that’s not your fault.

For example the relative who chooses to become angry or distressed because the carer refuses to do what they demand is not being abused. They have no right to demand that they obey them – your duty is to the service-user, not the carer and so you are not being abusive by doing what you think is right, whatever the carer’s opinion might be.

However sometimes our dismissal of others opinions, wants and needs really is abusive. The service-user who becomes distressed when the carer insults or ridicules them is a victim of emotional and psychological abuse. We may not be able to please all of the people all of the time but that doesn’t excuse meanness.

Deliberately misleading, isolating or demeaning another person is likely to be psychological abuse as are intimidation, over use of criticism and hostility. If these things are done from a position of authority they may well also meet the European criteria for torture precisely because of the distressing impact they have on the victim. Repeatedly focussing upon distressing situations for no good reason such as constantly surprising dementia sufferers with the news of their parents’ death for example is a form of psychological/emotional abuse too.

Earlier we made the point that abuse is a violation of an individual’s rights. Rights are not only about the things we shouldn’t have to put up with – they’re also about our entitlements. For example service-users have the right to experience a stimulating environment (so long as they can cope with it). Endless hours of daytime television is not really appropriate psychological stimulation which is one reason why so many people in residential care or long term hospital placements become clinically depressed. What would happen to your mood if all you had to occupy your mind were chat shows relating to a world you no longer felt part of? Physical and environmental circumstances have psychological and emotional impact, for better or for worse.

Over-stimulation due to noise, overly bright lights or even simply too much frenetic activity can cause psychological harm. Critical, demeaning staff or dehumanising routines create difficulties too, particularly in relation to self-esteem. Consider the psychological impact of having someone else make your basic decisions such as what you wear or eat, what time you get up, when you bathe and even when you go to the toilet. Imagine someone else feeding you.

Of course it is undeniable that many people in our care need a great deal of support and assistance with all these things and more. However – when they are able to exercise choice about when and with whom for example they are much more likely to maintain a sense of independence and control than when they are simply factored into a routine that is decided ‘in the office’.

To the busy care worker these things are functional – they’re just routine and can become no more than ‘tasks’ to be performed in the minds of the staff. To the incapacitated patient or resident they may be the last aspect of independence supporting their self-esteem. Even routine can be a form of psychological abuse. We’ll explore this concept a little more when we cover Institutional abuse shortly.

As with so many aspects of abuse it’s always worth wondering how you would feel if you were in that situation. If you’d become distressed, depressed, angry or humiliated then there’s a good chance that the same will be true for your service-users.

The fact that they may not complain is no guarantee that they are satisfied. It is usually the most depressed and/or dehumanised people who complain the least because they have simply given up. That’s one reason why health and social care inspectors monitor complaints about a service. The service that has no complaints is often the service chosen for an inspection visit simply because it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time and so if nobody is complaining the inspectors often want to know why not.

About the Safeguarding series

This blog series first appeared on Stuart’s personal blog early in 2010. It has been reposted here as part of a process of ‘rationalisation’ in which work from several blogs has been removed and reposted on only two.

Hard wired 19: What’s culture got to do with it?

This series began with an overview of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Then we moved on to discuss the evolutionary roots of human psychology. Most people might expect that such an endeavour would provide insights when dealing with individuals but why introduce culture? The short answer is that in relation to Homo sapiens there is no real difference. Here’s why….

Group size


As we know, Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessors in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) existed in small groups, probably of up to a maximum of around 150 individuals. In reality, of course group size would vary greatly but the 150 maximum seems reasonable in the light of research among modern humans.

This ‘village’ or ‘small tribe’ model meant that complicated intrigues and political brinkmanship, although they may have existed, seem likely to have been very different from those of today. In a society where everyone knows everyone else and where altruism and co-operation is rewarded the stereotypical ‘two-faced’ politician could not thrive. So our species evolved to make judgements based upon what we see.


In an earlier post we introduced the concept of evolved heuristics. These are the mental ‘shortcuts’ that allow us to act without spending a lot of time thinking. These heuristics presumably served us well in the EEA when life, although undoubtedly hard was also simpler and so easier to understand.

One such heuristic is the idea that ‘what you see is what you get’.

Seeing is believing‘ in other words.

As we shall see this evolved heuristic, although undoubtedly useful and adaptive in the EEA often just gets in the way today. It’s just too convincing.


As Homo sapiens evolved we acquired a big brain and increasingly sophisticated language, and with them the ability to handle more and more abstract thoughts. Language helps us not only to see with our own eyes but also to hear about events and to discuss their meaning. We can interpret what we see.

Pattern recognition

Before we can begin to relate these psychological adaptations to modern human culture we need to revisit the idea of ‘pattern recognition‘. As culture is based upon consistent values and behaviours these too have evolved in relation to predictable, observable patterns and the interpretations we create to explain them. For example, the predictable midday heat in certain equatorial countries gave rise to the ‘siesta’ culture whereas life in North European boglands gave rise to a culture of water spirits and marsh Gods.

Cognition and memes

These factors combine to create explanations that are communicated throughout the society as memes. These shared memes prompt group norms, customs, values and beliefs. In other words, as the memes accumulate they create cultures.

Over time these memes develop more sophisticated explanations in step with increasing knowledge and understanding throughout the society. That’s the cognition part. It’s interesting that these new explanations often lose the original meaning and yet continue to be used as justification. Such evolved memes, beliefs and norms are known as ‘traditions‘.

However the really interesting thing is that even when these culture-building memes are shown over time to be false they retain their authority. That’s the power of evolved psychology.

Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical examples. I should stress that (in the absence of a time machine) there is no way to know how accurate these speculations might be but they will serve as examples of the process, if not the specific facts in question.

Moon memes – and a cultural overlay

Basic drive -


Early humans needed to make sense of the world and yet they had almost no understanding of the science and knowledge we take for granted today. They had no awareness of germs for example and yet they saw people become ill and die when exposed to disease. They also had no clue about astronomy but they saw the different phases of the moon and realised that whatever was going on was beyond their control.


They developed the mental shortcuts that diseased people should be avoided and that the moon is stronger than humans. They also had the pre-existing heuristic that ‘seeing is believing’.

Pattern recognition

Imagine life without artificial lighting. How dark would the nights be? How many wild animals might lurk unseen just beyond the campfire’s glow?

Then consider a moonlit night. How many more of these would be predators might you see. Remember that seeing is believing. If you see more predators on moonlit nights there must be more predators. You’ve found a pattern.


A new meme develops. The powerful moon influences earthly events when it’s biggest (remember it’s not actually bigger, just differently lit but it looks bigger and seeing is believing.

Developing explanation Missing the original point

As society develops science and begins to understand gravitational forces a new explanation develops to make sense of the moon’s apparent power. It’s the idea that a bigger moon exerts a stronger gravitational pull affecting humans and causing lunacy. This, of course, has nothing to do with the original issue of wildlife but that’s OK. Ideas evolve.

Explanation disproved

The ‘increased gravity’ explanation is still popular today even though we all know that the moon is no larger when it’s ‘full’ so can’t exert any gravitational increase. Yet the cultural meme continues (incidentally all astrological memes are equally easy to dismiss) because its original appeal, the need to make sense of the world remains.

This next one probably comes from an even earlier, pre-human stage in our species’ development….

Early primate groups competing for territory

Basic drive

Just like modern chimpanzees our early primate ancestors almost certainly had to compete for territory. Indeed, throughout recorded history humans have fought each other for living space in just the same way.

It seems likely that the drive for group survival and kin loyalty is very ancient indeed.


The mental shortcut supporting this drives are very simple:

‘In group: good – out group: bad’
‘Seeing is believing’.

Pattern recognition

It wouldn’t take long to realise that those who look or behave differently are usually outsiders (and therefore bad). This gives rise to some unfortunate cultural memes….


People with different skin colours are bad;
People with different customs are bad.

Developing explanation missing the original point
The developed explanation (we might even say excuse) for this group based discrimination is the notion that ‘Johnny foreigner’ (as defined by colour, religion or cultural background) is inferior intellectually and morally. This was the assumption that led to a range of psuedoscientific ‘hierarchies’ over the centuries as well as the travesty of social Darwinism and the eugenics movement.

Explanation disproved

DNA, anthropological studies, academic and physiological comparisons all disprove this psuedoscientific nonsense but the meme persists because its real basis is pre-human territorial conflict in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation. It’s primal, it’s unthinking and it’s utterly inappropriate for the modern world.


In this post I’ve tried to pull together some of the threads already introduced throughout the series. As always I welcome constructive criticism. I’m writing this series so that I can learn about evolutionary psychology so feel free to put me straight if you know better.

Hard wired 18: Empathy and altruism

The animal within


What does it mean to call someone an ‘animal’? What does it mean to be ‘inhuman’? To put it another way….. what are the characteristics of humanity that that set us apart from other great apes?

Naturalistic theory (gene based)

According to Dutch psychologist Frans De Waal, the question of what makes us different is misleading in itself. That’s not to suggest that there are no differences between humans and other animals. Rather, De Waal suggests that all our human characteristics evolved from (& can be glimpsed in) other animals. These characteristics may not be so well developed in other animals but they’re there, none the less.



Our tendency toward patriotism and nationalism is mirrored in the group living and inter group violence of other primates;
Our inherent sense of justice has parrallels not only in primate behaviour but also the reciprocal behaviours (and outrage at cheats) of a range of mammals from the great apes to wolves and even bats;
Our species’ tendency to experiment with varying methods of heterosexual and homosexual sex is shared throughout the natural world (especially among our close cousins, the bonobos);
‘Human’ charity and selfless altruism exist not only among many mammals but indeed our rather weak-willed version of kindness is far surpassed by many, not least by the social insects.

In short De Waal argues that there is very little about humanity that cannot also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Even our cultural developments such as fidelity, fealty and honesty have their roots deep in our evolutionary past.

Veneer theory (culturally led)

Veneer theory is also interested in human culture but it differs from naturalistic theory in that Veneer theorists see human culture as an almost artificial overlay, a ‘veneer’ laid on top of human society but lacking in other animals.

As we know already from our earlier discussion of evolutionary theory in part 3 progress is gradual and each new development builds upon what has gone before. So it seems more than a little odd suddenly to change the rules just because we’re talking about humans. In fact from my perspective it seems almost as though Veneer theorists are trying to retain a sense of ‘special status’ for humans.

Of course there’s nothing new in this. Darwin’s bulldog himself, Thomas Huxley, advocated much the same idea in the late 19th century. The term ‘veneer theory itself is much more modern, being coined by De Waal himself as a label for the theory he was so keen to criticise in his book ‘Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved’

It is unfortunate that the whole of ‘veneer theory’ rests upon the idea that human morality appeared ‘by chance’ without, so far as I have been able to ascertain any evidence supporting that assertion. Veneer theory truly does seem to me to be a mere act of faith. As such I will devote no more time to it – at least not in its purest sense.

Naturalistic veneer theory (culture as an expression of the genetic imperative)


Robert Wright, in his book ‘The moral animal’ attempts to bridge the gap. His argument is sometimes expressed as the ‘Russian doll theory’ in which every evolved individual contains within him an infinite regression of evolutionary predecessors.

Russian doll theory sees morality (and by extension ‘culture’) as the inevitable result of evolved animal expediency. Whereas chimps are territorial and aggressive toward newcomers for practical reasons, we humans rationalise our evolved (naturalistic) brutality and develop a cultural ‘veneer’ called loyalty. In this way we can pretend that our patriotic (I might say jingoistic) viciousness is somehow ‘moral’ and yet the primate drive remains. Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus and Homo habilis lie just beneath the veneer of the outermost ‘Russian doll’ or Homo sapien.

Russian dolls and empathy

Let’s take an example.


Empathy, that perennial favourite of anti evolutionist creationists involves two distinct traits. Humans generally possess both of these:

1. Emotional contagion: Experiencing what others feel (the emotional equivalent of a contagious yawn);
2. Empathy: The ability to understand another individual’s feelings intellectually (without having to feel it yourself).

Interestingly all the non-human great apes together with elephants and dolphins demonstrate emotional contagion although only humans and bonobos have been shown to possess empathy. In other words the human trait of empathy is just as evolved as our bipedal gait and our opposable thumbs.

As I made clear from the beginning of this series I’m writing it to aid my own studies and I value comments that help me learn. As it stands currently I find myself convinced of naturalistic veneer theory but I may well be wrong. If you know better please let me know but past experience does lead me also to advise that….

Creationists need not apply.


Hard wired 17: Bias

In this post we’ll consider three of the most widespread (and misleading) of our evolved mental modules. We’ll look at ‘selective abstraction‘, ‘arbitrary inference’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Each of these is related in its own way to pattern recognition as described in part 16.

What’s most interesting from an evolutionary perspective is that these three aspects of human psychology, although universal, may not be advantageous in themselves. They may, in fact, be no more than evolutionary by products of pattern recognition.

There are many examples of by products, both physical and psychological. Certain genes seem to confer a variety of traits as though some evolutionary advantages cannot exist without other less positive or neutral correlates. The trade off between sickle cell anemia and protection from malaria discussed in part 9 is an excellent example. Evolution isn’t perfect and so neither is the human body – or the human mind.


Ornately carved spandrels

Sometimes these extra ‘add on’ characteristics can fool us. They look like the evolved characteristic that was favoured by natural selection but they’re not – they’re just the baggage that comes along with it. They’re what Stephen Jay Gould described as evolutionary ‘spandrels’.

‘Spandrels’ are the triangular blank spaces we see at the top of arches. They serve no structural purpose but in an arched building, a cathedral for example, they are inevitable by products of construction. However some spandrels, structurally useless by products or not, are so finely decorated that it’s easy to convince ourselves that they were the builders’ main focus and not the arch. So it is with evolutionary spandrels. They’re purely coincidental but they have the appearance of selected traits.

The tendency to see patterns and to concentrate only upon what is relevant has real advantages. Work on expertise and efficiency shows us the need to weed out irrelevancies from attention but along with that undeniably helpful tendency we find a few ‘spandrels’. As we consider these three ‘less than helpful’ psychological traits it will be helpful to remember that ‘evolved’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘inevitable’. It does seem to be possible to resist these traits, however hard-wired they may be. As ever, knowledge is power.

Selective abstraction


Which pattern is most relevant?

As we know, experts and other, efficient problem-solvers develop a consistent ability to see relevant patterns without being distracted by irrelevancies. For most of us though there seems to be an equally consistent problem, at least until we gain experience in understanding just what is and is not relevant. We tend to focus as much upon irrelevancies as we do upon the relevant.

Experts rely upon experience to recognise which aspects of the current situation are relevant. They use memory of previous events to find meaningful patterns in the present. They notice similarities and take action accordingly. As do we all.

The problem comes when non-experts (that means all of us most of the time) try to identify meaningful patterns. We tend to notice what fits our existing assumptions and worldview. We also tend to ignore or under-emphasise any information that doesn’t fit. In short we selectively abstract the evidence that we already agree with and filter out everything else.


Abu Qatada

This means that whatever we first believe tends to stick (even if it’s wrong). That’s why no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade the racist, the religious extremist or the political zealot from their chosen opinion. They literally discount all the information that doesn’t support their preconceptions. It’s also why humans are so easy to manipulate. All the manipulator has to do is set up a worldview and we do the rest.

Psychological priming is a common sales and persuasion trick. Prime the prospect to think of a certain price range so that whatever is offered is seen through that particular lens.

In politics priming is just as easy. For example the current UK government has successfully primed much of the population to believe that disabled people are ‘scroungers’ and that unemployed people are lazy. Neither of these assertions are objectively true but that doesn’t matter. Selective abstraction means that these ideas are difficult to shake.


David Cameron's government brands disabled people scroungers

The same is true of labelling. For example, tell someone how generous or how clever they are often enough and there’s a good chance that they’ll look for opportunities to prove it (providing, of course, that they like the label you give them). Even our self-concept is open to manipulation by those who know how to use selective abstraction to full effect.

Selective abstraction is a psychological spandrel that really does have serious consequences.

Confirmation bias is very much related to selective abstraction. Indeed, if confirmation bias is the ‘intention’, selective abstraction is the ‘mechanism’ by which we lead ourselves astray. It’s possible that confirmation bias and the perceived need to be right (or to be seen to be right) is also related to the drive for status and dominance but it’s no less dangerous for that.


We touched upon the process of confirmation bias in part 2 when we discussed what Karl Popper described as the demarcation problem: the difference between science, psuedoscience and nonsense. Science works because it only accepts what it cannot disprove and the scientific method is all about sincerely attempting to disconfirm hypotheses. In so doing scientists are careful to consider all the available evidence. Psuedoscience and nonsense focus only upon confirmatory evidence via selective abstraction and so fail to make meaningful new discoveries.

Confirmation bias serves to blind us to reality and exacerbates our mistakes.

Arbitrary inference


The ability to plan ahead, to imagine the future is a rare trait within the animal kingdom. It’s been a real advantage to humans. It’s also based upon the ability to recognise patterns and to predict what they will look like over time. And just like other pattern recognition modules it’s open to error.

When we predict the future we’re making an inference. We take what we already know and imagine how things we already understand will play out over time. Sometimes our inferences are based upon sound evidence but not always. Sometimes they’re based upon beliefs and ideologies that are not remotely evidence-based. These inferences are arbitrary.

The trouble with Arbitrary inference is that a single error can have dramatic consequences as each new assumption compounds the problem. Consider the following example…

John and Mary are engaged. They have been together for 5 years (living together for three years) and plan to wed in a few months. One night Mary tells John that she’s going out with some old friends. John makes several arbitrary inferences….

Mary’s going out with her old friends
That crowd used to go out ‘on the pull’
Mary’s going out to get laid
Mary can’t be trusted
Mary doesn’t love me
Mary wants to break it off
Mary will leave me soon
If Mary dumps me I’ll be humiliated
I should dump Mary first

Clearly this is a fairly dramatic example but these things do happen. The problem isn’t with our tendency to recognise patterns though, it’s with our tendency to accept patterns uncritically. The thing all these psychological spandrels have in common is their lack of critical thinking.

If we are to overcome our evolved tendencies to mislead ourselves and those around us we must begin by developing the habit of true deliberation and by accepting the fact that our initial assumptions may be wrong.


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