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How Mixed Are Your Messages?

One of the better books I read over the summer was Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense, which I will return to in more detail in a later blog or two.  For now, I will just pick up a couple of his ideas, with a focus on what we say and what other people hear.  I have often made the point that communication is a two-way process of send and receive, and I have always struggled to sympathise with those who complain that they do not know what is happening, but who at the same time claim they do not have the time or inclination to read key information that is readily available.

In a working day where much of my time is spent responding to emails, I particularly enjoyed Sutherland’s observation that we welcomed the invention of email because it gave us the power to communicate with the world instantaneously and for free, but we forgot to ask what the consequences might be if everyone else on the planet was similarly free to communicate with us. 

He also makes the point that we are often baffled by people’s behaviour, making comments like: ‘I told him this, and he did that.’  We think other people are being irrational, but the reality is that they didn’t hear what we think we said.  In the same way, he says, you cannot describe someone’s behaviour based on what you see, or what you think they see, because what determines their behaviour is what they think they are seeing.  This distinction applies to almost anything.  What determines the behaviour of physical objects is the thing itself, but what determines the behaviour of living creatures is their perception of the thing itself.   

As we have seen so often in the last few months, what one organisation – let’s, for argument’s sake call them ‘The Government’ – thinks is a clear message to try to influence people’s behaviour turns out to be a recipe for confusion.  I have become a late convert to the Channel 4 Friday night programme Gogglebox, both the one featuring ‘ordinary people’ and the celebrity version that aired a couple of months ago.  In the last series, each week they had a section where the Prime Minister made an announcement and the Gogglebox participants took it in turns to look incredulous and to express their bewilderment at what he was trying to say.  As one of them bemoaned, ‘Why can’t he just give a simple message that people can understand?’ 

As regular readers will know, I have a subscription to Private Eye, because I find it very funny as well as very perceptive.  Yes, it probably does reinforce my existing prejudices, but it also challenges my perceptions and makes me think.  One of the best columns at the moment is the MD section, written by Dr Phil Hammond.  He has been scathing about the way the authorities have approached the pandemic and their ongoing ineptitude, but he has been given more space by the editor, Ian Hislop, to cover some broader themes as well. 

For example, Dr Hammond recently wrote that Covid-19 reminds us that we live with risk every day, and the risks posed by this particular threat are determined by the competence of our political and public health leaders, how generously we fund our health and care services, our individual and collective behaviour, and the evolution of the virus itself.  In trying to defeat one risk, he says, we must not neglect others, making the point that while we modelled the risks of the virus, we neglected the risks of the social isolation, lost education, delayed diagnoses and worsening inequality. 

In a manifesto that Extinction Rebellion might be pleased to have created, he goes on to say that by overcrowding and overconsuming, humans have created the environments that now allow ever-adaptable microbes to kill us.  Deforestation, burning fossil fuels, polluting water, dumping waste, mistreating animals, overusing drugs, tolerating extreme poverty and ignoring large-scale displacement have all created a perfect storm for harmful microbe evolution and uninhabitable weather.  He argues that while we may or may not develop a vaccine to pull us out of the river of Covid-19, it is more important to wander upstream and reduce the risk of further health emergencies.  He makes the plea that the health and wellbeing of people and planet must now be the paramount political concern, and economic growth must not happen at the expense of global health. 

I have made the point before, but I am convinced it is worth making again, that we keep getting the wrong idea about what is really important, usually because we are so poor at understanding risk and its impact on anyone other than ourselves.  As Dr Hammond points out, despite the global death toll approaching the one million mark, the Covid-19 pandemic barely registers in the all-time league table of catastrophic events.  Far more avoidable deaths occur every year, and at far younger age, due to global warming, dirty air and water, endemic diseases such as TB, malaria, HIV and dengue, junk food, alcohol, smoking, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, antibiotic resistance, war, famine, economic displacement, lack of access to healthcare and vaccine refusal.  Unlike Covid-19, these deaths do not suddenly crash larger stock markets, sink wealthy pension plans or tank rich economies, so they are largely ignored.  But they are all interlinked.  He concludes that it will need concerted global collaboration to move towards ‘health for all’, not the retreat into self-protective nationalism that too often seems to be the outcome at the moment. 

You may or may not agree with Dr Hammond, but it is hard not to be moved by the power of many of his arguments.  Only this week, there were articles in the press about the failure of government and other agencies to make any significant progress with the need to reduce obesity in the population.  A picture of Boris taking his dog for a walk or doing a couple of press-ups is not going to make the nation change its eating and drinking habits.  It needs a long-term coherent strategy, the like of which has rarely been in evidence for many years from our political leaders. 

But let me end with something a bit more light-hearted to take us into the weekend, after what has been a challenging week for so many.  This was sent to me by a colleague, written by a chap called Brian Bilston, and following up from the latest mixed message to come our way.   


All gatherings 
of six or more 
shall henceforth be 
against the law 

with no exceptions to these rules 
(apart, that is,  
from work and schools). 

If we don’t act NOW,  
the future’s bleak. 

This takes effect
some time next week.  

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