Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Nine dangerous ideas for the new year

Disclosure: I am a fraidy-cat about most things - rollercoasters, spiders, loud noises. Photo / Supplied
Disclosure: I am a fraidy-cat about most things - rollercoasters, spiders, loud noises. Photo / Supplied

We were in a bit of a pickle. A family outing on a boat in the middle of the Hokianga Harbour. The engine overheated and conked out. Our 8-year-old son: "We're all going to die!" Really, I have no idea where my children get their drama-queen tendencies (wafts hand against forehead). Anyway, we got going again and junior, who had screamed in terror the entire time, insouciantly put a foot on the jetty and declared: "Well, I think that proves I'm a bit of risk-taker." Disclosure: I am a fraidy-cat about most things - rollercoasters, spiders, loud noises. I never played bullrush, I won't eat past-expiry yoghurt and find Game of Thrones too violent. I am such a ninny I need nitrous to get my teeth cleaned, but as my son has shown, even a coward occasionally likes to walk on the wild side. Me, I like to flirt with dangerous ideas. Here are a few.

1. There is no normal.

The idea of normality is based on the Bell Curve, but now some statisticians say the traditional "skinny" Bell Curve, with thin ends, is wrong. Most bell curves have thick tails. This is important because rare events are not so rare if the bell curve has a thicker tail than the so-called "normal" bell curve. This does seem to suggest more individuals can be freed from the tyranny of being expected to conform to the group.

2. Beware of "concept creep".

The increasing sensitivity to harm is driving many fuzzy concepts. A child formerly seen as energetic may now be diagnosed with ADD, what was considered lonely may now be seen as depression, and what used to be seen as letting kids be kids, may now be defined as neglectful parenting.

3. Addiction is not a disease.

A new model shows addiction is a psychological mechanism that some people, who may feel things more intensely than others, use to help them manage emotions that feel intolerable. Dr Lance Dodes argues that once people understand how their compulsions developed to protect them they can let go of self-loathing and learn healthier ways to deal with powerful feelings.

4. There is literally no difference between evil-doers and heroes.

Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo says being evil or being heroic are not inner attributes or in your genes. He should know. He carried out the infamous Stanford Prison experiment which had to be abandoned because students cast as guards were torturing other students cast as prisoners. Both evil-doers and heroes are simply ordinary people who will act in different ways depending on the situation, Zimbardo says.

5. We should stop choosing leaders based on "leadership" qualities.

We tend to choose politicians who are decisive and can be ruthless, a character type known as a "systematiser". But Professor Simon Baron-Cohen says since we have had endless examples of systematising politicians who are unable to resolve conflict, we should choose leaders who are empathisers instead; good listeners, who ask questions instead of assuming they know the right course of action.

6. We are getting more ignorant.

If this is the "information age", what exactly are people more well-informed about? PewDiePie? The dab? It does not appear the average teacher, voter or student is more informed about history, literature or philosophy than previous generations.

7. A world of great change?

But what if it's the opposite? There is less social mobility. The elites have an increasing fear of falling from the fragile higher tiers of society, which means social barriers have become higher. In the past kids who went to state schools might rise to powerful positions with a basic degree, but now to get the same role you need a post-grad degree from a name university.

8. Universities are becoming intellectual dinosaurs.

MIT physicist Neil Gershenfeld says today with about US$20,000 ($28,750) in equipment it is possible to get the same facilities as MIT. Access to the means of invention have been democratised. He also says his closest collaborators are not at MIT but distributed all over the world.

9. Free will is going away.

It may be time to redesign society to take that into account. Tech guru Clay Shirky says up till now we have declared a person is either capable of free will, or falls into an exceptional category - because we could not identify, measure, or manipulate the various components that go into modulating our behaviour. Now everyone from advertisers to political consultants understands how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will. Doesn't that sound dangerous?

- NZ Herald

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