How to succeed by stating the obvious

Glenda Cooper packaging common sense
Click to follow
The Independent Online
DID you know that anorexics feel that eating is the one part of their life that they can control? Or that new MPs thrust into the spotlight feel more stressed? Or that vitamin supplements don't increase intelligence?

Yes, so did I.

This weekend the British Psychological Society holds its annual conference in Brighton, and among the genuine insights it throws up there are always a large amount of studies (of which the three listed above are examples) which contain the blindingly obvious. In the past we have been told that women still go for handsome rich men; that men like young babes; and that teenage girls on diets get more miserable as time goes on, particularly if they don't seem to be achieving their goal weight.

I always come away from such conferences with a strong desire to throw in journalism and get a fat psychological grant for a study to see if north London twenty-something women experienced more positive feelings and less neuroses in the Caribbean than in Kilburn, a study I am of course willing to participate in myself.

You note that I say positive feelings. If I submitted a proposal saying that I wanted to see if women have a laugh in Barbados I wouldn't be playing the game. For a big part of stating the obvious is wrapping it up in jargon.

Last year Dr Peter Todd, of the Max Planck Institute in Munich, said that we choose our life partners by utilising the 37 per cent rule. What that means in English is that by the time we've gone through 37 per cent of potential partners we know what we're looking for and pick the next person who matches that. Got that? And most people thought we learned from experience and picked someone we liked.

To be fair the BPS are not wholly to blame for this stuff. They just package it exceptionally well, trying to make this area of science respectable, and succeeding by drawing 1,000 delegates and dozens of journalists to their conference.

It is not their fault that many of the psychologists seem to base their finding on asking three men and a dog in Liverpool a question (and even then the dog ticked the "don't know" box). Rather it is our own desire to have our beliefs confirmed - if there's a study and a statistic to prove it. "Lies, damned lies and statistics", said the Duke of Wellington. He wouldn't get a look in these days.

Good old common sense just isn't good enough anymore. How otherwise do you account for the armies of management consultants and business theorists that plague us?

Shelley once said that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind". Nowadays he should look at the sheaf of experts advising on management, whose words are now treated as holy writ. Business theory has spawned a whole host of annoying TLAs (three letter acronyms) such as CPD (continuous professional development, or updating your skills to you and me) and TQM (total quality management, or changing things gradually). So someone has made a lot of money telling people that keeping up to date with what's going on and not going for radical changes overnight could be good for you.

Still that is nothing compared to the vast array of self-help books that assault the eye in every bookshop. I have to declare an interest here. I used to buy self-help books by the shelf until a ex-boyfriend brought a Dale Carnegie book home from America for me. It was called How To Stop Worrying And Start Living. I spent the afternoon in a feverish anxiety unable to stop worrying because he thought I needed this book. That is when I stopped buying them.

Still I wish I thought of Dory Hollander PhD's idea ,which is a book called 101 Lies Men Tell Women and Why Women Believe Them, with examples such as Lie 3: "You're the only one", and Lie 38: "I'm going to leave my wife." The reason why women believe such things (and why men would too in the same situation) is our own desire to be wanted and our fear of failure and rejection. Your mother would tell you that for nothing; but because she's not a published author or a PhD, you're inclined to ask Dory instead.

In the same way the Church of England, with its disapproval of sex before marriage, would be happy to tell us: "Don't rush into sex - just think how much passion will have been built up by the time you actually say yes." But then we would rather hear that from the authors of The Rules who, after all, inform us they both have found the perfect man.

But these books pale into insignificance compared to the publishing sensation of last year - The Little Book of Calm by Paul Wilson (head of an advertising agency in Australia) which contains profound aphorisms, such as: "Smile, even when you don't feel like it." And "Declare today a holiday!" This book had sold 600,000 copies by the end of 1997 just to give us some cod comfort.

The reason why we love the BPS psychologists and the self-help books is that they confirm what we ourselves believe, making us feel more important for agreeing with the professionals. I hate to get up on Mondays, but now I know that Science says I'm not the only one. It's a law. Everyone is happy. We get our prejudices confirmed, and the learned societies, theorists and authors make money.

But this is all too easy. It is a pick'n'mix attitude to life, a way of justifying whatever we want by selecting the right study or the right book. Rather than asking your mother. Who after all will sometimes give you an unpalatable truth. At least, that's what 53 per cent of surveys say.