Monday, 25 November 2013

All that Glitters…learn from The Beckhams!

I was at a train station yesterday and overheard a teenager being ribbed by his mates about why he wasn’t going out with the girl he fancied. ‘She’ll come running - once I’ve won the lottery …’ he replied.

How often do you catch yourself thinking ‘if only I had more money, I’d be happy…’ or ‘Once I’ve won the lottery, then I’ll be able to…’? How often do we believe that having ‘more’ or better ‘things’ will mean more happiness?

Image: ConnectionGraphics
I’m horrified, at the run up to Christmas, over how many TV adverts extol over-abundance, verging on gluttony during the festive season. Scenes show the Christmas dining table piled high with sumptuous foods, there are stacks of presents under the tree and bottles of all manner of alcohol are lined up. In fact, most of the advertisers are obsessed with excess – coercing people to go completely over the top at this time of year – and of course, spend loads of money in their store.

The Great Expectation at this time of year, more than any other, is to do everything ‘big’ - be generous, celebrate and splash out, but what about families who can’t afford it? It puts huge pressure on people who don’t have any extra resources to be indulgent. They are too busy keeping warm and feeding their children the basics.

In a recent survey, the top three responses to ‘what does money mean to you?’ were - freedom, security and fun. Yet, we can gain these qualities without having any more money to hand. Instead, we need to be creative and think about how we can achieve these qualities in other ways. Here are a few ideas of how we can find abundance this festive season without it costing the earth:

8 Ways to Find Abundance

 1. Reflect on what has brought you genuine happiness in the last month. Find ways to do more of whatever it was. Perhaps it is watching your son play football for his school, setting aside time for quality family activity or a precious night in for once, having a long bath or catching up with Downton... Take time to acknowledge that these are the 'good' things in life.

2.  Look for the simple things. Find joy in what is already freely available around you. Walking. Nature. Fresh air. Be creative and try ‘home-made’ instead of shop-bought. I always make a wreath each year made from tinsel and holly from the garden. Yes – and a metal coat-hanger a la Blue Peter!

My wreath, refreshed every year from the garden
3.  Re-cycle: revamp your wardrobe by taking clothes you’re bored with to the charity shop and buying replacements there. You can find amazing designer bargains if you pick shops in up-market areas - David and Victoria Beckham have just taken their cast-offs to the British Red Cross shop in Kensington & Chelsea. 
Image: Victoria Beckham - her unwanted shoes...

4.  Remember that a craving for ‘new’ often means ‘different’. Try Swap-parties: get friends together and bring clothes or accessories that you can exchange for ‘new’ items in your wardrobe.

5.  Consider downshifting or downsizing. If you had a smaller car, perhaps you could have that holiday you’ve always hoped for. Instead of spending £3 a day on take-away lunches, make your own and you’ll save £60 a month to spend on something else (that’s £720 a year).

6.  Many of us are experiencing a spiritual vacuum in our lives and are searching for meaningful ways to find a sense of certainty and security. Instead of searching outside yourself for gratification, consider looking inwards to find peace of mind using meditation, reflection while walking or yoga.

7.  Work out what you need to do to kick-start your dreams for real. Do you want a romantic relationship? To change jobs? To write a novel? Is it really money that is holding you back from reaching for your goals or is it something else? For example, it could be fear of failure, too much responsibility, going against the wishes of someone else, feeling your plan is too selfish… Talk to someone you trust about your true reasons for stalling and how to might move forward.

8.  True happiness often comes when we are contributing to something involving others, rather than merely focusing on our own selfish gain. Consider how you might brighten someone else’s day, with a simple gesture that shows you care. It will give you a warm glow inside that money can’t buy!

Ok - I'll get off my soap-box now!

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Monday, 18 November 2013

Why do we lie?

Have you lied yet, today? Why did you do it?

Image: PsyBlog
According to research, we lie 3 times within 10 minutes of meeting someone new, usually to exaggerate our competence or to appear likeable. Apparently, this is an instinctive response that occurs across cultures, because we are all making judgements about two issues: 
  • Are they Friend or foe? Is this person going to hurt me or help me?
  • Are they Capable of hurting or helping? Can this person help me if they’re friendly or hurt me if they’re not?
Whilst we’re checking out the person we’ve met with these criteria in mind, we’re also giving out the same information to them.

Categories of Lies

The kind of lies we find most detestable are those with malicious intent of some kind: lies designed to swindle or con us, lies that will cause us hardship or pain further down the road. Yet many lies are motivated by the exact opposite, they are designed to keep everyone happy.

White Lies

‘White’ lies are fibs that are meant to be harmless. They come in many categories: courtesy lies, falsely agreeing, self-esteem lies and false excuses, for example. They are designed to make us seem more agreeable and capable than we are. Take a courtesy lie, for example. Say someone keeps us waiting – it could be a bank clerk or a friend. They apologise and in response, we say ‘It’s okay,’ with a smile, when really we’re thinking, ‘Actually, it’s really annoying that you’ve kept me standing here for ten minutes…’ But, we do it to appear easy-going and to avoid confrontation.

Falsely agreeing is similar. A friend asks 'What do you think?' when they emerge from the changing room in a new dress. 'It really suits you,' you say -  even though it looks hideous, in order to make them feel better. Someone asks, ‘How are you?’ and you reply, ‘Fine’ when actually you feel terrible. Technically they are all lies. But there is also a social convention at work here: social nicety – the person asking or responding wants to look like they care about you – even though it’s ‘fake’, you lie to fit in and somehow it breaks the ice.

We use lies as excuses to avoid looking heartless, such as claiming we have a dentist appointment or our child is ill, when asked to do something we don’t want to do. We lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. We also blame others to make ourselves look less incompetent; when we  don’t get to a meeting on time, we blame the traffic or the queue at the bus-stop. In the same way, we tell ‘denial’ lies – ‘Did you post my letter, today?’ ‘Yes, of course’ - which covers up for the fact that it’s still in our bag and we must remember to do it tomorrow.

But how many big lies have you told, recently? There are ‘escalating’ lies where once you’ve told one untruth, you have to tell another to keep the false story going. Extra-marital affairs are like this or lies about the big things in life such as money or debt. Complex webs are created when a person tries to cover up being fired from work, or when they ‘forgot’ to take the Pill because they want a baby.
Like most human behaviours – it’s the motive behind the lie that is most interesting.
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A J Waines is a crime fiction author of The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Is Someone you know a Psychopath?

Hannibal Lecter - Image: Daily Mail

When we hear the term ‘Psychopath’, most of us tend to think of a character such as Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs or Jack Torrance from the film The Shining.  A ‘maniac’ who is both callous and charming; someone with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Although people tend to think of psychopaths as killers, most individuals with psychopathic tendencies are not killers, or even criminals. They are, however, often bullies.

According to the standard classification of all mental disorders, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Psychopathology comes under Antisocial Personality Disorder: "The essential feature of antisocial personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others..." 

Characteristics of a Psychopath 

The key characteristics of a psychopath mean they are usually: cold-hearted, ruthless, manipulative, fearless, charming, cool under pressure and egocentric. Hang on a minute – I hear you say – don’t I see these exact same traits in the people around me at home, or at work?! 

The truth is, many of these traits are beneficial in order for us to carry out our jobs – surgeons, for example, need to be emotionally distant to a certain extent to operate on their patients, or they wouldn’t be able to pick up the knife. Likewise, a lawyer defending a murderer or a Chief Executive having to lay off staff to save the company, need to make use of these traits. The same might also be said for politicians, sales-people, journalists and police officers. The traits in themselves don’t make a serial killer, but the danger comes when the qualities are extreme, creating individuals who are dysfunctional.

A New take on Empathy

One key difference between ordinary individuals and psychopaths is that normal people spontaneously feel empathy; the crucial ability in society to put oneself in another person’s shoes in order to understand how they might feel. Normal people feel sorrow, pain or embarrassment on behalf of other people automatically, without having to think about it. The assumption until recently has been that psychopaths are unable to show empathy. Recent Neurology research in the Netherlands, however, has shown that when specifically ‘asked’ to empathise, a psychopath’s empathy reaction in the brain fires up in just the same way as ordinary people. In other words – psychopaths can feel the same emotions that others feel, but they seem to be able to switch this mechanism off.

Image: Microsoft
According to Christian Keysers from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and senior author of the study, "They don't lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off."

The notion that psychopaths have no empathy at all is a bleak prospect, making it very hard for them to ever have normal moral development. This new research might mean a fresh approach for psychotherapists and psychiatrists in treating criminals with psychopathic tendencies. It’s hard to judge at this stage, however, whether having the same neurons firing up in the brain means that psychopaths feel the same as ordinary people. But, if psychopaths are capable of empathy - even if only in certain conditions - therapists have something to work with.

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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ten facts you might not know - Inside Intel on the UK Police

CSI Portsmouth: The 'Crime Scene'
I attended CSI Portsmouth on Sat, 2nd November, an annual event organised by Crime Author, Pauline Rowson, to bring together crime fiction and crime fact. On the day, experts representing local police answered questions and gave their views on various aspects of policing. 

Here are ten interesting facts you might not know:

1.    There are around 2,000 different computer systems in operation by different police forces in England. Very few are compatible, so that Dorset Police, for example, cannot simply cross-reference files from Hampshire Police, without going through time-consuming official channels.
CSI Portsmouth, L-R: crime writers NJ Cooper, SJ Watson, Sgt Tony Birr, Brian Chappell MBE
2.       Spiking of drinks is much lower than people think, according to Michael Ellis, Hampshire Police. ‘Most of the time – it’s Snakebites,’ he said (mixing cider with beer). 

3.       Convictions for rape are low, often due to CCTV footage, explained Mr Ellis.  He told us that if a woman claiming rape is caught falling over drunk, laughing and enjoying herself on camera, it undermines her case and the prosecution often have a problem getting a conviction. Amnesia is a common symptom of alcohol abuse and a victim will often black out and not know whether she consented to sex or not.

4.     Hair analysis is used for the detection of many therapeutic and recreational drugs, including cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines and amphetamines. An inch of hair-growth takes around a month and toxicologists can discover a drug-taker’s history through this method.

5.        ‘Smart’ drugs are known as ‘legal highs’ and are available in places like tattoo parlours and booths selling rave tickets. They carry names such as ‘sparkle’ and ‘magic’ and many are killers, but as the name suggests they are not illegal and started out as research substances for medical purposes, often abroad, but were subsequently aborted.      

6.       Apart from tests for ‘magic mushrooms’ there are no standard post mortem toxicology tests for fungi. Following a suspicious death, alcohol is tested for first, then drugs of abuse, legitimate medication and then more obscure substances. Results can take up to two weeks (far slower than we see on TV CSI!).

7.    If you’re a writer wanting the answer to a police procedural question straight from the horse’s mouth instead of Wikipedia, contact ‘Corporate Communications’ at your local police force. Most forces are very helpful.

8.       According to Brian Chappell MBE, who worked with the Met for 30 years, there are 330 different languages spoken in London. He explained that this has far-reaching implications for policing, as each community has its own social structure and attitudes to the police force. 

9.       Hampshire police is apparently 60 detectives short due to funding cuts, but a new post is being introduced, that of ‘Civilian Investigator’. Tony Birr explained that the role of 'detective' is a dying profession and that with the wide range of cyber-related crimes, it makes sense to have people who are experts on hand. He suggested, for example, that bank fraud might be better investigated by a former bank manager, than a generic detective. (It’s also cheaper for the government). 

10.   Question: ‘Which TV crime series represents the police most accurately?’ Michael answered: ‘Life on Mars’ - but was that tongue in cheek?

Thanks to  Michael Ellis (Hampshire Police, Drugs expert witness), Dr Alex Allan (forensic toxicologist), Sergeant Tony Birr, (Hampshire Constabulary Marine Unit) and Brian Chappell MBE (Senior lecturer, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth).

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