Difficult conversations in the SpeakEasy

Annie Brookman-Byrne and Jon Sutton report from psychology-themed events at Latitude Festival in Henham Park, Suffolk.

This year's Latitude Festival – three days of music, comedy, theatre, spoken word and much more across a sprawling site in the Suffolk countryside – featured a fair bit of psychology. The Psychologist has had a presence there since 2015, and this year it was 'Screentime Debunked' with Professor Andrew Przybylski. We are hoping to release that as an episode of our Research Digest podcast PsychCrunch, but at the moment we're experiencing a technical glitch with the sound desk recording! If that continues, we will at least post a transcript. Watch this space…

There was also a session with our suggested speaker Dr Elaine Kasket, following her review and exclusive extract from her new book All the Ghosts in the Machine; plus other sessions with psychological content. 

Death and grief in the digital age

Death has changed. According to Dr Paul Perkins, speaking in a session called ‘We need to talk about dying’, we don’t talk about death as much as we used to because dying is so hidden. Dr Elaine Kasket agreed that death is further away from us but argued that it is simultaneously closer to us through digital identities that continue after death, such as Facebook memorial pages.

Olivia Potts described the discombobulating experience of grieving today – while there used to be rules around grieving, including when to leave the house or what to wear, there is now ‘no textbook from which to grieve’. Potts also expressed concern that we may be lonelier in grief since it is more likely that we’ve moved away from our home towns where support networks may be based. Choosing to express grief online may elicit a response from the ‘grief police’ who believe grief should only be expressed in certain ways, said Kasket. We are expected to adhere to the five stages of grief, and yet these are not empirically supported. Everyone experiences grief differently.

All speakers agreed that we need to talk about death more. To make these conversations easier, the charity Sue Ryder has created a free guide to having a better death, including tools and tips to help us to speak to our relatives. This isn’t morbid, it’s kind, said Potts, for loved ones who have to do their best in a traumatic time. Perkins suggested writing an advanced directive or statement of wishes to make sure relatives and doctors know what you want.

Kasket warned that even if you’ve had these conversations, they may not hold any legal sway in terms of digital possessions and identities. An iTunes library can’t be bequeathed, for example, and once a Facebook page is memorialised nothing can be deleted, even if a password has been shared. There is also the possibility that online material will be deleted by the tech companies who are in control of the data, so Kasket advised curating physical material if you want others to access information about you after your death.

Death in the digital age isn’t all bad. Kasket has met people who feel they can talk to a lost loved one through Facebook. The internet also grants access to a community of supporters who can share their experiences of grief. A live recording of Griefcast in The Listening Post at Latitude was a fitting example of how the digital age can promote these conversations and be a source of comfort. Cariad Lloyd presents this podcast which typically focuses on individual human experiences of grief, through conversations with comedians. In this more light-hearted live recording, Lloyd spoke with three other comedians about their wishes around death and how they would like to be remembered.

The 90 episodes of Griefcast that have been released so far exemplify that everybody grieves differently. For those who don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving, Perkins reassured the audience that people often just want acknowledgement. When Potts was grieving, she found that the best thing people could do was let her do things her way. ‘Let them work it out for themselves and be there when they need you.’

Communicating about climate change

Our response to climate change over the years has clearly been inadequate. Professor Geoff Beattie, in a British Academy discussion on climate change and communication, gave several reasons for this poor response. There is general scepticism about science, coupled with optimism bias, leading many of us to think the science isn’t convincing and that everything will work out okay in the end. The terminology used does not always help communicate the scientific reality, with ‘global warming’ a pretty appealing prospect to many Brits. While we like to think of ourselves as rational, automatic implicit decision-making processes drive what we do.

Even when we are concerned about climate change, we don’t take actions to modify our lifestyle, said Professor Philip Hammond. While Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate may have led to a feeling that change is happening, Hammond warned that a similar feeling arose in 2006-2007, leading to ‘a moment of tremendous disillusionment’. The issue had successfully reached the mainstream and yet minimal action was taken. One change that Hammond did identify between then and now is that the tone of the conversation is a lot darker than before – fighting climate change appeared easier previously, through small actions like changing a lightbulb.

Beattie argued that there needs to be a change in how climate change is ‘advertised’. There is too much reliance on fear, which leads people to reject, repress, and query the message, and similarly guilt is not a strong motivating factor. The message needs to be presented more positively, with specific actions that people can take. Both speakers were cynical about the role of children, such as Greta Thunberg in climate change messages. For Beattie, the use of children in advertising presents the problem as an issue for future generations, allowing our selfish tendencies to limit the action we take. Hammond said that there’s a long history of children being used as a symbol, but that politic engagement is avoided by focusing on individuals.

Messages that rely on ‘deadlinism’ – the sense that we need to act now otherwise there’s no future – are ineffective. According to Hammond this approach closes down debate, when what is needed is a conversation about what kind of society we want. False deadlines are likely to set others up for another round of disillusionment. Instead, said Beattie, we need profound changes to education, to ensure public understanding of science. If people were convinced by the science, they would be more likely to act. Individual action is not enough through, and Hammond argued that individual countries taking action is also not enough. The absolute challenge, according to Beattie, is making good behaviour the new norm. This is a global challenge, requiring alignment and connection across social groups. For Hammond, the only way to see real change is through a reformulation of the relation between science and politics.

Beattie’s psychological background led him to focus on individual engagement with this issue, while Hammond was more interested in wider political actions. However, both argued that how climate change is spoken about is a critical piece of the puzzle in ensuring that action is taken.

Never work with children, animals or comedians…

Also appearing in the SpeakEasy were Emily Dean and Kate Spicer, beautifully encapsulating the transformative power of dogs; comedian Robin Ince, with a hillarious breakneck tour of themes from his recent book I'm A Joke And So Are You (sprinkled with anecdotes involving psychologists such as Sophie Scott and Charles Fernyhough); and a Salon London session with best-selling author and psychotherapist Philippa Perry, 'The book you wish your parents had read', discussed her new book 'How to Family'. Perry reframed many everyday incidents of childhood behaviour: parenting can feel very different if you can truly appreciate that 'What we all want more than anything is moments of connection with each other'. Your child's attempts to grab these moments must be recognised as such. 'Don't listen to the content' of what your child says, Perry advised: 'Listen to the mood'. Also, try to 'define yourself and not the child… none of us like being defined by another person'. So, if you want to leave the park because you're bored, tired and cold, tell your child that: see if it goes down better than 'You've had enough now'. 

The science at Latitude was a small but important part of an incredible weekend… long may it continue. 

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