In this week’s assemblies, I tried to do some public mind reading, but it soon became clear that Derren Brown has nothing to fear. I told the children I was looking for someone with a special personality. I asked them to close their eyes, listen to a description I was going to read out and see if I was talking about them.
‘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 yet 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 about 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 have been extroverted, affable and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic, but security is one of your major goals in life.’
I then asked for a show of hands, which usually ended up at about 20% of the room. Apparently, with adults, 86% of people said they agreed or strongly agreed that this profile was accurate for them, but perhaps young people are not quite so ready to be categorised. My point was that we are all largely the same, with the same fears and worries, the same hopes and expectations. This can be a good thing when we work together, but it can cause problems when it becomes a herd mentality.
One of my favourite books is ‘You Are Not So Smart’ by David McRaney, which seeks to debunk some of our psychological delusions about our own capabilities. As well as the survey highlighted above, the author gives dozens of examples of where we automatically think we will act in one way when in fact we usually do the complete opposite. One example is the so-called ‘Bystander Effect’, whereby you are more likely to be helped by someone in an isolated place than in a busy one. When we are in a group, our natural inclination is to wait for someone else to do something rather than doing it ourselves. Knowing this, we should try to be the first person to break away from the pack and offer help.
This led to another ‘show and tell’ moment of what I keep on the shelves in my office, a framed postcard of the Edmund Burke quotation: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’ I urged the children not to be bystanders, not to behave like a sheep. If they see something that is not right, they need to do something about it. Yes, we may all be similar in many ways, but we can also be different when we need to be, most especially when it comes to stepping up to challenge the things we know to be wrong.