Are You Paying Attention?

12 Apr

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

When you look at a zebra do you see a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes? Similarly, when you look at a map of Europe why do we all see the ‘boot’ of Italy but tend to miss the elephant’s head of the Western Mediterranean?

While you’re thinking about those two questions, count how often the letter f appears in this sentence:

finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.

All three of these questions are about how we focus our attention. In particular, what they show is what we notice and don’t notice. This is a question that has fascinated social scientists for a long time.

In one regard, attention can be thought of as a spotlight. There is so much going on in the world around us (and inside our own heads) that we cannot possibly process all of it. Attention is what focuses our awareness on the subset of things that we identify as being important. But precisely because there are always other things to attend to, focusing on any one things takes real effort. This is why we talk about ‘paying’ attention.

And paying attention has real costs. If you are focused on one thing, it’s much harder to notice others. A good illustration of this is Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ “Invisible Gorilla” experiment. This asked observers to count how often a basketball was passed between players on a team. Except, in the middle of the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks onto the court, stands in front of the camera. The gorilla is in shot for nine seconds but half of the people who took part in the experiment never saw it.

It may be that those who did notice the gorilla just couldn’t focus as long as the others. Psychologists estimate that your mind wanders at least 30% of the time, and that wandering is probably its natural resting state.

Even more interesting is that most people have an attention span of between seven and ten minutes. It’s not that we can’t focus on tasks longer than this but that we need to renegotiate for that attention after this time.

Now just reflect on how long most work meetings last, most classes run, and most conference papers drag on. If you have ever found yourself losing the will to live in any of those be reassured that you are not alone. This is why the Pecha Kucha approach to presentations is so refreshing. Here you are allowed only 20 slides, and 20 seconds per slides. Which sums to about seven minutes of talking.

It’s easy to see ‘mindfulness’ as being the antithesis of the need to ‘paying’ attention. Mindfulness is about living in the moment and it is involves what is known as ‘open’ attention. This means observing your thoughts and feelings but without judging them (or letting them judge you). Think of it as sitting on the bank of a slowly flowing river and watching your thoughts float downstream.

There is a lot to recommend mindfulness but it still involves the deliberate application of attention. Because so much of what we do at Research First deals with consumer behaviour these days, we find the ‘sociology of attention’ approach is often more useful. This looks at how what we pay attention to is a constructed by social settings and structures that we are often not aware of.

In the sentence about ‘finished files’ above the letter f occurs six times. People often count fewer Fs because they miss those in the word ‘of’ (which occurs three times). They do that because the conjunctions in sentences are often irrelevant to its meaning. Given we tend to read for meaning first, our attention ‘skips’ over the conjunctions.

We see the same kind of pattern in all kinds of different ‘attentional communities’. These can be cultures or professions. Think about how something as a simple as a game of rugby looks if you’re a spectator, a coach, a sponsor, or the team doctor. In other words, our culture and our education shape what we pay attention to and what we dismiss as irrelevant.

But seeing attention in this way is not just an interesting sociological observation. There is a strong argument that the root of disagreement is really in a dispute about what we should pay attention to. This goes for disagreements in your relationships, your workplace, and in the world of policy. From this perspective, creating a vision and getting people signed up to it first means creating a shared sense of relevance. Which is why the first question we should all ask when faced with a problem is not ‘what should we do about it?’ but ‘how should we think about it?’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Internal Comms in a Natural Disaster

4 Apr

Written by Annalie Brown, MPRINZ, Massey University and Central Committee member


Speakers (starting from left to right): Fiona Robinson-Morey, Lindsay Davis, Rebecca Kennedy and Rachel Helson.

On the 15th March, PRINZ Central Division were treated to a very honest account of the experience that four Wellington senior internal comms practitioners had in the wake of the Kaikoura Earthquake.

Each of the four panellists brought a very different flavour to the discussion but there was some collective advice that all communications professionals can learn from.

Here were the top tips shared by our panellists on how to make sure things go smoothly:

  • Having a position on the Incident/Crisis Management Team is critical. Not just to be the order taker, but to influence decisions. Comms is often the only discipline that brings the voice and concerns of the staff to the table. Also able to hold people accountable – do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.
  • Establish a one point sign off process for all comms. The last thing you need is a laborious sign off chain, so establish who has responsibility for comms on the IMT/CMT and they are it. Doesn’t need to be the incident controller but needs to be someone senior.
  • Face-to-face meetings are vital to gaining the trust of employees, and make sure you get experts in to give the full picture. It gives employees the chance to ask questions and it also makes your leaders more human. Make sure you show compassion and a willingness to listen to your staff.
  • Early communication should be sent to ALL staff, not just those directly impacted. Many staff will be concerned for their colleagues so they will want to know as well. As the sense of urgency diminishes, start to refine your audiences to impacted staff and people leaders across the organisation.
  • Develop your people leaders as communicators NOW! They are an essential channel for staff when things go wrong and they will often be the first port of call. Make sure they know what’s expected of them as a communicator in different situations. Some will naturally be better than others so make sure information is still accessible to all on a chosen channel.
  • Social media – public or private – are a quick solution to update staff when your own IT systems are unavailable but you have to trust that staff are following you. It can’t be relied on as the only channel. So think about how you get your staff following your social channels ahead of any incidents. Often you’ll have IT issues preventing access to the intranet or even email, while social media is accessible from anywhere.
  • The timeliness, tone and content of your comms is more important than how it looks. People will forgive you some small mistakes or misjudgements if they feel informed and that you’re being transparent.
  • If staff have been out of the office for any period of time, consider the comms needs when they start to return to work – e.g. Welcome back message from the CEO, what’s open in the vicinity, what are they likely to see around the office that wasn’t there before, FAQs like reminders of how to reset passwords. And make the Leadership Team walk the floors – make them visible.
  • Teams may set up their own unofficial comms channels, such as Viber, Whatsapp and Facebook groups. Don’t inhibit this as it will become an additional channel that people will use/trust.

Social Science Saves Your Life

8 Mar

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

Do you remember back in 2013 when Nigella Lawson was assaulted by her (then) husband, Charles Saatchi? One of the reasons the story shocked people around the world is because no-one stepped in to assist. Given the assault happened in the middle of the day, outside a busy restaurant in Mayfair, any number of people could have stepped in. So why didn’t they?

If you’re wondering that, then you probably also believe that you would have behaved differently. When we read of events like the assault on Nigella, it’s always tempting to think that we would have been the ones to intervene. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

The tendency not to act is known as ‘bystander apathy’ and cases like Nigella’s are all too common.

Bystander apathy happens because, when people get together in groups, it is common to think that someone else will be the first to act (what psychologists call ‘diffusion of responsibility’). We are also reluctant to act because situations are often ambiguous, and most of us do not want to appear foolish (by acting inappropriately) in front of others.

Both of these effects are magnified with the size of the crowd, which means we are less likely to act when there are more people around. This is because groups of people behave differently from the individuals within them. A major reason for this is in what social scientists call ‘deindividuation’. This describes the reduction in a sense of individual identity within groups and crowds. It isn’t always negative (as anyone dancing with abandon at a concert knows) but it is most frequently used to explain why people behave worse in crowds than they would on their own.

Deindividuation leads to ‘bystander apathy’ because people in crowds tend to think that someone else will act (that is, the responsibility to act diffuses through the crowd). And the larger the crowd, the less likely to act we all become. There also seems to be no difference in this kind of apathy by gender, age, or ethnicity. We’re all as likely as each other to stand by and do nothing.

The good news is that, while deindividuation (in all its guises) is common, it is remarkably easy to overcome. To do that, we simply need to re-engage with people in the crowd as individuals.  If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a situation like Nigella, the way to get help is to focus on someone particular in the crowd and ask them, specifically, for help. Try something like ‘you in the green jacket, please help me’. Be specific and direct. This will cut through the diffusion of responsibility and any lingering sense among bystanders about the ambiguity of the situation.

Make sure to share this tip with your family and friends. One day it could make all the difference in the world.


Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Trumping fake news

3 Mar

Written by Leanne Rate, MPRINZ, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and Central Committee member


‘Fake News and How to Trump it’ was the topic up for discussion for panel members Dr Catherine Strong (Senior Lecturer at Massey University), Patrick Crewdson (Editor of and Raphael Hilbron (General Manager at SenateSHJ Wellington) at a recent PRINZ Central Division event.
Catherine says the fake news industry is new, and is not simply about wrong information being shared, but that the waters have been muddied by the Trump camp defining any news they don’t like as ‘fake’. During the US elections Donald Trump enjoyed support from 62 million voters – with many clicking on the fake news websites that said what they wanted to believe i.e. pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories.
The large population behind Trump meant big money for the purveyors of fake news, more clicks = cash. Interestingly, fake news is a big industry in the financially depressed nation of Macedonia, where out-of-work teenagers found that they could make good money by sharing fake news about the US elections.
Fake news is causing a confidence issue for Americans says Catherine, as they become unsure about what news is real vs. fake, with the dilemma meaning an increase in traffic for reliable news sites like the New York Times and Washington post.
For PR professionals concerned about fake news affecting their organisation, she offers the 5 P’s:
• Prevent – make sure you are not contributing to the spread of fake news – don’t re-tweet or re-post stories if you haven’t researched their origins and veracity – be vigilant.

• Pick-up – keep on top of what’s been said about you in your social media monitoring, and then get on to it quickly if its fake.

• Percolate – if there is a fake news story about your organisation, Catherine says “Don’t be quiet. Put out your own correction and drive it through social media as hard as possible. Put ‘fake’ in the headline or in the first part of the tweet.” This will help social media aggregators identify fake news and remove it. It also means your own stories will rank in Google alongside the fake ones, giving readers a chance to be more informed. She also recommends posting comments under fake news stories, alerting readers to the fact it’s not true.

• Place –get your media release used by the most trusted mainstream media sites. Concentrate on that rather than a scatter gun approach sending your media releases wide and far.

• Polish – Headlines are important, it’s a catchy headline that gets shared most on social media, says Catherine. “Make sure your headline gets the gist of the message in it. It is no longer a teaser into the story – it is the story.”
For Patrick Crewdson, it’s a particular type of fake news that worries him the most. He’s less concerned about the parody of fake news generated by Macedonian teenagers becoming a problem in NZ with our small population, and is more worried about how the label of fake news has morphed. He says Trump is now using the term to describe any news story he doesn’t agree with, aiming to shut down coverage by major news organisations like CNN who he labels as hostile.
It’s a theme Patrick says he is starting to see at Stuff, with readers sending complaints to the editor on stories they don’t like, calling them ‘fake’. Bizarrely he’s starting to see these types of complaints even about weather and entertainment stories. “It’s increasingly a problem if people dismiss real stories as fake news because they don’t like the content,” he says. He argues that journalists and media outlets will need to work harder to maintain their credibility.

He believes the best way to increase credibility for media outlets is to:

  • Ensure reporting is beyond reproach
    Be as transparent as possible
    Publically advocate for themselves as media, including doing their own PR and explaining themselves
  • Get better at representing diversity and a range of voices. People are less likely to deem something as fake news if they can see themselves in it.

Raphael Hilbron represented the PR voice at the panel event, pointing out that “fake news is a problem for society, media and PR.” He said fake news is benefiting from the distrust the average citizen has of the media and other institutions, in part aided by the blurring of opinion and editorial.
He pointed to the gap in reporting that would have alerted the public earlier that Trump was winning the US election, instead the wide range of biased reporting meant we were blindsided, wondering what we had missed when he won. Highlighting the distrust of the media, Raphael cited a recent Gallop poll which said that in the USA only 32% of respondents said they trusted the media – the lowest result since the poll started.
He argues we are now seeing the rise of the ‘echo chamber’ where people are getting their news from very narrow spheres of influence, and are simply starting to believe what they want to believe, which leaves them “susceptible to the suspect agenda of others.”
He also referenced an opinion piece by Karl du Fresne which lamented the death of objective journalism in the Sydney Morning Herald, where journalists mixed comment with fact to offer their biased detrimental view on Trump. “Traditional media should uphold independence, accuracy, accountability and transparency. They have to prove that facts do matter, they need to convince readers there is a value in investigative journalism.” To be able to fund investigative journalism, media outlets will have to figure out how to convince online readers the news is worth paying for says Raphael.
He ended his time by reminding PRINZ members that our ethics are paramount, no-one in our profession should endorse lying or fake news, and that our own interests, and that of our clients, is best served by keeping to our code of ethics.


Thanks go to Central Division PRINZ committee member Annalie Brown (MPRINZ) for organising such a great panel and topic for Wellington’s first event for the year.

2017: Through the Looking Glass

8 Feb

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

vector web visibility concept illustration

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice… why, sometimes, I’ve
believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,

There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here:, and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here:

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here:

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.


Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

Internships: time consuming but worth it

19 Dec


The PRINZ Student Ambassador Programme allows students studying relevant qualifications to become involved and engaged in the communication and public relations industry. The programme gives students a head-start in the industry, encouraging them to participate in the PRINZ community. This blog post is written by Alex Lyall, PRINZ Student Ambassador at University of Canterbury.

Though internships aren’t exactly how they are in the movies – I have not once followed my boss around as they eccentrically dictate to me their exotic coffee orders – they’re still jobs which eat up an enormous amount of time in your day.  And as all students know, no day is filled with empty hours as it is. We all have about a billion other commitments, on top of socialising and sleeping.

It’s probably worth asking why I, or anybody, would take on an internship with a schedule as crammed as that. Why add more work when you’re up to your neck already? Well, I realised I needed to work harder after attending the PRINZ Young Professionals event with a panel fitted with young public-relations professionals with 1-5 years experience. They were inspiring (and I don’t use that word lightly) not just in their successes but through their words too. Their bluntness alone made attending the panel worth it. The key quote of the night was this:

“Even though you have a degree, so does everyone else.”

Basically, once you begin looking for jobs you can’t rely on your degree alone to land you that dream job. Or any job, for that matter.

I honestly hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made sense. It bugged me for the rest of the night as gaining a degree was all I had been aiming for. As if from a cheesy movie, the next day an invitation arrived in my university inbox looking for internship applications. I put myself forward with the panellist’s words in mind.

My conclusion from three months of interning is that internships are worth it. Even though time has often seemed restrictive, their importance has revealed itself in several ways.

First of all, internships can lead onto better things.

My internship originally asked for me to perform for three months, that has since extended and I am now able to be with my organisation for as long as I like. Internships provide opportunity: the chance for you to really go and prove yourself. It is not uncommon at all for employers to be so wooed by your work that they end up offering you permanent employment.

Even if employment doesn’t eventuate, internships are fantastic opportunities to learn on the job. Some internships provide this in a setting that is calm, encouraging and fun – mine very much falling into this category. Calmness especially has been important for mine. Once when writing a weekly review, I came across some news on the internet about a certain rapper facing criticism. It seemed too juicy to leave out however the subject matter seemed a little ill-fitting for my organisation’s aim. I grappled with its inclusion, ultimately deciding to put it in. Wrong move. I got an email a few days later asking for its removal. Hindsight is 20/20 but you live and learn. It was one lesson I still refer to when making decisions – trust your instinct. In this case, I knew it was wrong to include in my article but that other, more troublemaking, side got to me. Often, those words of advice from your supervisor can be an invaluable reward. You will realise for yourself that it’s affordable to make those mistakes now while you’re young and learning and not after you’ve started your first proper job.

Secondly, internships by design exist in order to give you a wee taste. This taste can influence you, before it’s too late, as to whether or not you feel that working in this line of work is right for you. For me, three months was enough for me to realise that I enjoyed music journalism a lot and that it was definitely something I would want to pursue further. Then on a side note, while some don’t offer payment they make up for it in freebies. In the music journalism world, albums, downloads and press passes are frequent. It’s the kind of currency that gets you involved in the first place.

For me, interning has been like riding my bike with the training wheels still on. It’s this stage where I’m doing something really exciting, and the support is there if I happen to fall. You mustn’t neglect the other busy parts of your life, but give it a go and see how far you can ride.

Image credit: @Istock


How Did the Polls get the US Elections so Badly Wrong?

14 Dec

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

USA Map Vote and Elections USA Patriotic Icon Pattern

The day after Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election, The Dominion Post ran a headline saying ‘WTF’. It left off the question mark so not to cause offence (and asked us to believe that they really meant ‘Why Trump Flourished’). But the question lingers regardless.

For those of us in the research business, WTF? was quickly followed by ‘how did the polls get it so wrong?’.

It’s a good question. And coming hot on the heels of the polls’ failure to predict Brexit, an important one.

People have attempted to answer this question in a number of ways, and each of them tells us something a little different about the nature of polling, the research industry, and voters in general.

The first response might be called the ‘divide and conquer’ argument. This is the one that says not all the polls got the election result wrong. The USC/LA Times poll, for instance, tracked a wave of support for Trump building and predicted Trump’s victory a week out. Similarly, the team at Columbia University and Microsoft Research also predicted Trump’s victory. But this seems to me to be a disingenuous argument because most polls clearly got the result wrong. And with enough polls running, some of them have to give the contrary view. Another way to think about this is that even a broken watch is right twice a day.

There is a variation on this argument that we might call ‘divide and conquer 2.0’. This is the argument that says people outside of the industry misunderstood what the polls actually meant. The best example here might be Nate Silver’s Before the election 538 gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning. To most people, that sounds like statistical short hand for ‘no chance’. But to statisticians, it means that if we ran the election ten times, Trump would win three of them. In other words, Silver was saying all along that Trump could win. Just it was more likely that Hilary would. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb might put it, the problem here is that non-specialists were ‘fooled by randomness’. There is merit in this argument but it seems too much of ‘a bob each way’ position (and note how it shifts the fault from the pollsters to the pundits).

The next argument might be called ‘duck and run’. This is the argument that says the fault lies with the voters themselves because they probably misrepresented their intentions. Pollsters typically first ask people if they intend to vote, and only then who they’re going to vote for. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the answer to either is accurate. This seems to be the explanation that David Farrar (who is one of New Zealand’s most thoughtful and conscientious pollsters) reached for when approached by Stuff. Given how many Americans didn’t vote in the election, expect to hear this argument often. But surely all this really means is that the pollsters asked the wrong questions, or asked them of the wrong people?

A variation on this ‘duck and run’ argument is that polls are at their least effective where a tight race is being run. On election night nearly 120 million votes were cast but the difference between the two candidates was only about 200,000 (or less than one third of one percent). It could be that no polling method is sufficiently precise to work under these conditions. If you want to try this line of argument in the office, award yourself a bonus point for referring to the ‘bias-variance dilemma’.

But I think all of these arguments are a kind of special pleading. Worse than that, much of what the industry is now saying looks like classic hindsight bias to me. This is also known as the ‘I-Knew-It-All-Along Effect’, which describes the tendency, after something has happened, to see the event as having been inevitable (despite not actually predicting it). While it’s easy to be wise after the fact, the point of polling is to provide foresight, not hindsight.

And no matter how well intentioned any of these arguments might be, it’s hard not to think we’ve seen them all before. Philip Tetlock’s masterful Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? reports a 20 year research project tracking predictions made by a collection of experts. These predictions were spectacularly wrong but even more dazzling was the experts’ ability to explain away their failures. They did this by some combination of arguing that their predictions, while wrong, were such a ‘near miss’ they shouldn’t count as failure; that they made ‘the right mistake’; or that something ‘exceptional’ happened to spoil their lovely models (think ‘black swans’ or ‘unknown unknowns’). In other words, the same arguments that we’re now seeing the polling industry rolling out to explain what happened with this election.

For me, all of these arguments miss the point and distract us from the real answer. The pollsters (mostly) got the election wrong because the future – despite all our clever models and data analytics – is fundamentally uncertain. Our society loves polls because we crave certainty. It’s the same reason we fall for the Cardinal Bias, the tendency to place more weight on what can be counted than on what can’t be. But certainty will always remain out of reach. What Trump’s victory really teaches us is that all of us should spend less time reading polls and more time reading Pliny the Elder. It was Pliny, after all, who told us ‘the only certainty is that nothing is certain’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

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