Too many 'ologists make you boring

Experts are everywhere, revealing the already obvious, fitting us into little boxes. But they miss what really makes us tick
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The Independent Online
Never mind the manifestos, bring on anyone with half an "ology" to tell us what to think. Who cares what the damn things say when you can get a graphologist or two to analyse the handwriting? What does Mr Blair's hand reveal about "Britain's would-be prime minister"?

He would do well in the banking profession, he has above average motivational drive, he does not need team approval, he has a streak of ruthlessness, says one Diane Simpson. To Andrea Lyttleton, a member of the British Academy of Graphology, his letter suggests "that it was written at great speed by a man who was better on the big picture than the detail". Let me give you another graphological insight to blow you away: the bits he has underlined - such as education being his party's number one priority - are the bits he wants to stress as particularly important. Wow!

Where would we, the punters, be without such expert advice? Perhaps we should not be allowed to vote at all unless we can prove that we have consulted the various experts, unless we have studied a thousand opinion polls in order to find out what our opinion is exactly, unless we have sat through hours of experts expertly bickering on Newsnight.

Elections are obviously boom time for experts of all descriptions, but modern life is crawling with the buggers already. We, the media, live in a symbiotic relationship with experts of all species. We use them to pad out or confirm our prejudices. We use them to fill up space. We use them as a substitute for common sense.

It is no longer enough to know or believe or even feel certain things to be true, for now we have a fanatical reverence for the quasi-science of statistics. Experts provide evidence, even if that evidence amounts to little more than 60 people and a dog filling out a questionnaire in Bradford.

Basil Fawlty used to yell at Sybil that, if she ever went on Mastermind, her specialist subject would be "the bleedin' obvious" yet the bleedin' obvious is now big business. Gurus, management consultants, human resource agencies, psychologists, image makers, PR people now operate as a whole substratum of public life. They impart information which we are supposed to take as seriously as they take themselves.

The British Psychological Society, which meets this week in Edinburgh, regularly offers up insights which make you seriously wonder about the psychological health of its members. Amongst this week's astonishing findings are: "Adolescent girls on diets get increasingly miserable as the weeks pass. This is especially true if they see their weight loss goal as hard to reach". This is the stunning result of research by the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Our own Birkbeck College tells us: "Second generation British Asian adolescents are suffering more stress than their white counterparts. They also think there is more conflict in their families than their counterparts in India experience." Their increased stress levels come from possible cultural conflict. Can you believe it?

People whose teenage obsessions with film or pop stars continue well into adult life may be at risk psychologically. We know this because some psychologists from Northampton have investigated the effects of teen idols on 163 men and women.

Oh, and just in case you wondered whether there are better ways of controlling children than smacking them: children benefit from rules that are "consistent, understandable and predictable".

If this wasn't enough we have been further entranced this week by research that suggests that mice given more space, more toys, more food develop better than mice kept in "poor" homes. Middle-class mice tend to do better than deprived ones.

What is all this information for? Does anyone actually act on it? We are told not to smoke, eat badly or exceed our alcohol units but we take little notice. The bombardment of expert advice contributes to an increasingly regulatory culture in which those in power impart information to individuals who then ignore it.

This abdication of responsibility has a euphemism - "increased consumer choice". Having just returned from the holy land of consumerism, America, I was struck, as always, by what is, despite the mythology, an essentially prohibitive culture. You cannot move for signs and symbols telling you not to do things. You can't cross the road when you want to, have a drink in a bar till you are 21 or visit a urinal without encountering dozens of messages telling you to just say no to drugs.

All of this is doubtless the work of experts who however expert appear to have almost zero insight into human motivation. The one subliminal message that is being conveyed by all these signs is: "Do as you are told". Thank God then that we do not do as we are told and that we do not tell experts the truth. This is why opinion polls get things wrong, why psychologists can't see the wood for the trees and why, at a time of supposed excitement, everything feels a bit flat.

What all these experts studiously ignore, deny the existence of, or maybe feel is far too vague to take into consideration, is the unconscious. Yes, we know we should not smack our children, eat too much, worship David Cassidy, loathe Tony Blair, feel so bloody apathetic, but we are not entirely in control of ourselves.

Experts live in a universe where control is possible, where knowledge can be handed down from on high and we are supposed to be grateful. They are the only people in the world who believe absolutely what other folks tell them. All the mad kow-towing to focus groups tells you little about what is really going on apart from the fact that if you sit a lot of people in a room together they will tend to agree with each other, that some kind of bland consensus will emerge. Is that the way to run a country?

Opinion polls, focus groups, psychologists, graphologists, experts on voting patterns are all bearing down heavily upon us. Their understanding of how people work bears little relation to my experience of how we make up our minds, change our minds, lose our minds or are perfectly able to think two opposing things at once. They would like our behaviour to be as predictable as their banal conclusions. I pray to God we are more exciting than the experts give us credit for. Otherwise we will be stuck forever with the bleedin' obvious.

I guess it's up to us. As the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb reminds us, it only takes one. But the light bulb has gotta really, really want to change.

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