People like politicians to give straight answers, so why don’t they?

If you have followed the recent election or the current Labour party election for a new leader, you will have noticed that politicians of all parties often do not answer questions from journalists. This video shows the contrast between a politician who does and those who do not brilliantly:


As far as I can tell, the politicians who do not answer questions do this for a reason and quite consciously. But it is very unnatural behaviour. In “real life”, it is hard to get away with it. And interestingly, voters seem to be turned off by it. So why do politicians keep evading questions?

The reason is that they are actually in a difficult personal position. Of course they know the answers, but they are worried that if they give a straight answer, they will be criticised by party members and colleagues, or they think it might limit their flexibility in future decision making. So, they have many things to think of when giving an answer, and their calculation typically is that not giving an answer will give the best return.

The cognitive process going on when evading answers is not straightforward. It takes training and mental control to answer this way. People who are very impulsive would probably not be able to do it well. Again, interestingly, part of the problems of the UK Independence Party with many new grass-roots politicians was that they often were somewhat more impulsively responding to questions. This meant that the party did not look like one with a united set of ideas, and it let to a number of scandals, and ultimately, a number of these people had to be fired from their positions.

There is a lot of selection going on in parties. Only the people who are really good in saying what they think the party wants them to say and saying things that they think the public might want to hear will be able to stay in the political game. Not everybody is capable of this. There are special psychological traits and mental abilities that are important for being a politician.

But, there is a big but! To really get at the top, to be the absolute leader, it is not enough to be good at evading answers and being able to sticking to the party line. For those positions, the ultimate winner might be someone who is giving straight answers. Straight answers that are not only straight answers, but also answers that reflect a vision that people want from a politician.

Now back to impulsivity. Are you impulsive? There are various simple psychological tests for this on my PsyToolkit website. You can try this one:


Dewsbury ‘in shock over UK’s youngest suicide bomber’

This is the headline on the BBC today:


One wonders, what does it take psychologically to become a suicide bomber. It is obvious that if someone strongly believes that there is a wonderful heaven waiting for them after a suicide bombing, it is far more likely that this willl happen than when someone is a critically thinking non-believer! You do not need to be a psychologist to come to that conclusion.

The problem is that there is so much support, encouragement, and reward for people who go around making claims that heaven is a place with rivers of milk, honey, and wine. Too many children in the UK grow up without being challenged about their core beliefs, without being challenged about the beliefs that their family and ancestors held or hold.

If we want to prevent more such tragedies, we need to equip young people with strong critical thinking abilities, the sort of abilities the people that I wrote about in my last blog clearly seem to lack (yet, they get a lot of encouragement).

It is wrong to suggest that the problem starts with hate preachers taking advantage of Talha Asmal. The problem starts with a society that does not strengthen children’s minds such that they are not believing things without evidence. That is the real problem.

Why the UK’s anti-radicalisation policies are failing

Programmes to counter radicalisation among young followers of Islam are often in the news. In this blog post, I write about the possible psychological reasons why anti-radicalisation programmes fail.

The failure of these anti-radicalisation programmes has been in the news recently. A news story in The Telegraph reports that the Prevent programme is viewed negatively by Muslims, and that despite the large amounts of money spent on it, there is an ever increasing number of British Muslims going on Jihad. This is confirmed by the UK Intelligence organisation MI5, which states that more Britons are trained as terrorists as ever before, as you can read here.

Psychologists assume that attitudes and beliefs drive behaviour. Anti-radicalisation researchers and policy makers need to analyze the attitudes and beliefs of Muslims in order to prevent some of them participating in violent Jihad. These programmes also need to analyze why Muslims hold negative views against the programmes themselves.

Tasmin Nazeer speaking on The Big Questions about rivers of wine, milk, and honey.

One of the reasons for the negative attitude about Prevent is that people feel the authorities are spying on them. This is understandable, nobody likes to feel specifically targeted or being spied on. Even more so if you actually feel that you are doing something good by sticking to deeply held convictions. These negative attitudes are also common among Muslim students. A number of Islamic societies at UK universities do no longer engage with Prevent and protested against anti-radicalisation legislation. I think that the students raise reasonable concerns about free speech on campus, although it should be noted that Islamic student groups have been criticized themselves for limiting free speech, as explained in this article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian.

There are two main difficulties with anti-radicalisation programmes:

Difficulty 1: The programmes try to change faith-inspired attitudes and beliefs that have no basis in an empirical reality. Such beliefs are hard to counter, because evidence or logic are not relevant to faith-based beliefs. Faith-based beliefs are typically the result of a gradual learning process that starts in early childhood and which is supported or enforced by friends and family. Some groups are known to enforce continued membership through psychological blackmail as you can see in this recent video on the BBC.

Difficulty 2: Faith-based beliefs get the highest level of respect in our society. Below is a good example of this which really got my attention. On the 7th of June 2015, award winning UK university educated author Tasmin Nazeer was answering questions by Nicky Campbell on the BBC show “The Big Questions. She published “Allah’s Gifts”, which is on the Internet advertised as Publisher Greenbird Book‘s first children’s picture book containing no facial images, and other similar work. She carries the prestigious title UN Peace Ambassador and apparently appears regularly on the media in the UK and abroad. In short, she is a highly respected person who gets great encouragement for her belief system.

In the transscript from the TV show, I have “you know” and “errr” removed. It might contain minor transcribing mistakes because some words were difficult to understand.

TV host Nicki Campbell (NC): Are there non-Muslims in heaven?

Tasmin Nazeer (TN): Well, we believe that really it is up to God, up to Allah, to decide who goes to heaven, ultimately the decision lies with him, and we work productively in this life to acquire good deeds in order for our final destination, which will be either heaven or hell; but we always pray and supplicate to god that the loved ones that we have lost in our lives, for example, if we could meet them one day in heaven, that would be our ultimate goal.

NC: What if you are in heaven and they are in hell, that is no good, isn’t it?

TZ: Well, no, the thing is, you see, when someone dies in this life we make, we supplicate to God and we ask them, please God in heaven, it is like with anybody, all children who die according to Islam, they go straight to heaven, and it is like with anyone who say we wish them that they get heaven, so Quran explicitly mentions the bounties of heaven and the various benefits.

NC: For children who die, when is that cut-off point? 16 and 17 year olds? [Laughs out loud].

TZ: It is really once they reach a level of maturity, young children who have died.

NC: So, what is heaven like?

TZ: Heaven in the Quran, there is a verse, there is a prayer called Sulafad in the Quran that states that there is gardens of perpetual bliss beneath which rivers flow and the saints of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, mention that there is rivers of milk, rivers of pure honey, there is even rivers of wine, but ones that are not intoxicating [laughs out loud].

NC: Do you think that is what you will literally see? Because for some people that sounds just like something that is understood by 8th century desert tribes, something to give those people hope and images that they can understand. Do you believe literally that there be rivers of honey?

TZ: Yes, I do, with conviction, because this is detailed within the Quran, so we, we …

NC: Metaphor? Metaphor?

TZ: Yes, of course, not definitively, it will be what we have never seen before, it will be beyond our comprehension.

NC: Can I ask you one more thing, there is something about silk in heaven, what is the relevance of silk cloths?

TZ: Oh yes, there is a variety of marketplaces in heaven.

NC: Is there money?

TZ: I am not sure about money. Silk, gold, various different luxurious things we may not find very accessible that many people cannot afford certain things, but in heaven there will be no kind of work, it is all leisure and relaxation there, so…

NC: Fascinating.

University professor Naomi Chambers sitting next to Tasmin: Yes, absolutely, I love all of that description. It takes us to a different place. I also want to speak for those of us who have a more secular bend…

There are two notable things in this conversation:

First of all, Tasmin Nazeer has a university degree from a UK university. This shows that a high level of education itself does not in any sense prevent people from holding beliefs without an apparent inclination to questioning their beliefs.

When watching that interview, I could just not help to think how these ideas clash with what she must have learned in school (for example, in biology and geography) about what rivers are (water falls in the form of cloud-produced rain due to gravity and ultimately streams towards the sea, and river water has various life-supporting functions for plants and animals).

I just wonder how you can possibly think that a river can contain wine instead of water? Where would the wine come from? What would happen to the plants around it? Is it red or white wine, or maybe sparkling wine? And what about the rivers of milk? Where are the cows or goats producing the milk? Does the milk go sour, given that I assume the rivers are not refrigerated and given that I assume it is pleasantly warm in heaven? And for rivers of honey, I just wonder how many bees and beekeepers it must take to make all that honey? I would be tempted to ask all sorts of critical questions, but then, you can argue that heaven is a magical world in which anything is possible by definition, and she says that it is “beyond our comphrehension”. But if it is beyond our comphrehension, how does she know what it is? She believes it because it is “just so”, because it is in a holy book.

Tasmin is apparently not bothered by the fact that there are other holy books with completely different stories, and she does apparently have no doubt that the one holy book she was brought up with is the only correct one. And she is not bothered by the coincidence that most believers trust the holy book they grew up with. In any case, literally believing in such a magical worlds is at odds with what we learn in schools and institutions of higher education, and especially with the critical thinking skills universities are supposed to teach (maybe not in UK-based faith schools, according to Richard Dawkins, though).

The second notable thing is that Nicky Campbell and the professor sitting next to her, with a “secular bend”, were “fascinated” by these beliefs in a an apparently very positive way. Nicky Campbell at least asks if these beliefs might be metaphorically meant, but Tasmin seems to take it all literally, although it is also all beyond her comphrehension. I wonder under what conditions a professor would say: “How shocking that you believe such things. Rivers of wine, milk, and honey, you cannot really be serious”. Apart from Richard Dawkins, almost all other academics would indeed go into self-censor mode and say nothing, or even praise her, like in the show.

Professor Naomi Chambers likes Tasmin’s description of heaven, which takes her to a different place. She does not question the fact that university educated adults hold such literal beliefs in the afterlife.

And the fact that Tasmin holds prestigious roles and is award winning, shows that holding such beliefs pays off. Society basically says: It is good to hold such beliefs, we reward you for it and hold you in high esteem. This brings me back to the problem of countering radicalisation. On the one hand, our society encourages faith-based beliefs like the ones Tasmin holds and publishes about in books, which are even “safe” for children whose parents are worried that they might read a book with pictures of faces. For example, on the Amazon reviews of her book, one reviewer writes: “I really enjoyed reading this with my children and liked the fact that it had no facial images as I was looking for a colourful Islamic book which did not contain facial imagery and this just fit the bill! Lovely illustrations and meaningful storyline for kids.”

University educated Tasmin Nazeer literally believes in a heaven with rivers of honey. I guess, she does not believe that the honey comes from honey pots with faces, because faces are apparently strictly “verboten” in her sacred world. But then, she also believes it is beyond her comphrehension, so it can be anything?

And Islamic societies in universities are thriving, universities typically have prayer rooms and provide prayer-preparing washing facilities, religiously required female-only sport sessions, and so on, whereas atheist societies are typically relatively small – it shows that there is far more support and demand for faith-based beliefs and world views than for the opposite. Again, it is clear that there is a lot of societal benefit for holding faith-based beliefs.

On the other hand, we have a society that puts loads of money via the Prevent programme into preventing people taking faith the wrong way. But once you have people that can be made to belief even the strangest of things (such as rivers of wine, milk, and honey, or that children should not be exposed to books with pictures of human faces), you cannot really be surprised that some people believe strange and not-so-nice things as well. For example that blasphemy deserves severe punishment.

In summary, the anti-radicalisation policies are failing because our society does not do enough to train children and young people to think critically. In fact, it praises people who do the opposite. From the things you hear and from the stories you read in the news about universities, one gets the feeling that there is more encouragement for faith-based student societies than for student societies that focus on critical thinking.

One could argue that a far more effective way than adult de-radicalisation is ensuring that children are raised with strong critical thinking abilities to prevent them holding non-evidence-based beliefs. But if you are religious, don’t worry, that is not going to happen any time soon in the UK;  there seems to be strong support for faith-based attitudes and beliefs in society.

Fascinating or frustrating? Use the comments below to say what you think!

Killer nurses

The news story of Victorino Chua that holds the UK in its grip is that of the nurse who killed many patients by poisoning the water drip attached to their arm.

Although it is rare, this is not a new phenomenon, and I am not even including nurses who kill one person they know well personally (such as this one or this one with paranoid psychosis). Just search for “killer nurse” or “nurses who kill patients” on the web. It lists several:

2006: Oxfordshire. Benjamin Green, who killed for kicks


2007: Crewe. Barbara Salisbury


2009: Leeds. Colin Norris


And this happens in other countries as well, for example in Germany recently (Niels H.), the United States (Charles Cullen), and Italy (Daniela Poggiali). Once you start looking for this on the internet you find more and more. In some cases, nurses seem to have been falsely accused and have become victim of the difficulty distinguishing between murder and illness-related deaths (see the case of Dutch Lucia de Berk).

The motivations behind patient killings might be different. For example, while some might be driven by sick pleasure, some others might be driven by a form of compassion for patients in the last stages of terminal disease (although this does not apply to the ones listed here).

The psychopath

Detectives in the Victorino Chua case described him as a narcissistic psychopath. I am not sure what exactly they base this on, though, although I am sure there will have been a psychological and psychiatric report about Chua (I could not find anything in the news about this, though). It is important to point out that narcissism and psychopathy are two different things. I have described tests for both these states you can try yourself:

Description and test of narcissism

Description and test of psychopathy

One of the similarities between narcissism and psychopathy is a lack or low level of empathy – for which there is a separate test too! But there is more than a lack of empathy here. Several of the above listed cases indeed got a kick out of it. The term psychopath seems more appropriate than narcissist.

Can this be prevented?

Every time when these cases are discovered, we read on how this will bring on a change in the system and so on. The fact that it keeps happening shows to me that this is not preventable. No matter how tragic and horrible these cases are, at least they are still very rare, especially if you think how much medical staff there is. It is just a fact of life that there are some people who will show these terrible traits, and they might even choose to get into the medical profession to have control and cause suffering, just like some paedophiles are attracted to professions where they can have unchecked contact with children (in schools or churches).

Last year, there was a study which proposed a red flag system to help the identification of killer nurses (check here on the BBC). According to this study, the most common red flags are:

  • Makes colleagues anxious
  • Being in possession of drugs at home/in locker
  • Appears to have a personality disorder, depression, history of mental instability
  • Higher incidences of death on his/her shift.

There are difficulties with this too, though. One of the interesting things about psychopaths is there ability to combine charm with scrupulous lying and manipulating! For example, Chua seems to have been faking his documents. If someone is a charming manipulator, they will be very hard to detect, even when working in small groups. This means the red flags might be harder to detect.

And even when it is detected, it will already be too late. In other words, even when it would be more easily detectable, it is not preventable. This is even more so the case with international mobility, where people might be able to leave one place and start at another with a fresh record. In that context, it is surprising how bad the UK is in ensuring enough local nurses are being trained. Something seems really wrong in a country if it has to “import” nurses decade after decade!

In conclusion. Society has an obligation to work hard to prevent this, but unfortunately, it seems that it will happen again, no matter what measures a society puts in place.

Why teenagers want to join the Islamic State

Recently, there have been many discussions about the reasons why some Western teenagers want to join the Islamic State (IS). As a psychologist, I have followed the news about this with great interest, after all, psychology is the study of human thought and behaviour. In order to prevent these children going, we need to understand what drives them.


The explanations you hear in the news focus mostly on social factors, such as alienation, the influence of hate preachers, and the influence of the Internet. Psychological theory offers more useful explanations than the ones I have heard on the news. I believe that the motivation for joining the Islamic State is the result of a very specific combination of three factors, namely a high level of sensation seeking, a search for identity, and a strong unchallenged set of religious beliefs. Social factors can strengthen these factors. I will explain these three factors first.

1) Sensation seeking is the search for intense and novel experiences. There is a lot of psychological research about this psychological trait. People scoring high on sensation seeking typically take greater risks. They might be sky divers, street racers, or explore many sexual adventures. We know that especially young people score high on sensation seeking scales. It is easy to see why going to the Islamic State offers lots of opportunities for sensation seekers.

2) Teenagers explore their identity. It is a well-studied psychological process in which they find out who they are or want to be. In the process, they can go through stages of forming cliques, following specific dress code, and so on. It is a stage we have all gone through. There are different groups one might identify with, such as being a fan of a specific band, football team, political movement, etc. For young Muslims, this might be identifying with their family’s religion, and being teenagers, they do this in a more extreme way (for example, they might be in search for an Islamic Utopia). Also, Islam offers a very strict set of rules and dress code, which might all be elements that help the identity exploration.

3) Strong unchallenged beliefs. All people have a set of beliefs of how the world works. Religious beliefs differ from other beliefs in the sense that they are typically strongly reinforced from a very young age through religious education and family ties, and by a fear of punishment and a fear of not going to paradise after death. In education and society in general, religious beliefs are treated according to a different standard than other ideas. This simply because these ideas stem from faith and so manage to escape empirical testing and logical scrutiny. When people live in communities where most other people hold the same beliefs, it is unlikely people will critically evaluate them.

What is important for explaining why these teenagers decide to go to Syria is that it really takes these three factors to coincide. Obviously, strong religious beliefs and a strong identification with the Muslim community will be part of it, but it is certainly not enough. Only if such a person is also a sensation seeker, there starts to be a real risk of them leaving.

It will be quite difficult to change the likelihood of these factors coinciding for the following reasons, although not impossible.

1) A high level of sensation seeking is something you have or you don’t have. A warning message from the Metropolitan police in London, such as “Syria is a dangerous place, and we don’t want you to go there” unlikely deters high sensation seeking teenagers, just like you will not deter base jumpers by telling them that they might break a leg.

Because of the religious identity and conviction, common sensation-seeking activities might be less attractive to these youngsters. For example, wild parties with alcohol and soft-drug consumption, or sexual experimenting are unlikely alternatives for devout Muslims. Instead of warning against the dangers, it makes far more sense to find alternative activities that have a thrill and a novelty event.

2) Feelings of identity builds up gradually, and it is no big surprise that children growing up in an Islamic family and neighbourhood choose this specific identity. The less ethnics and religious variety there is within communities, the fewer alternatives there are for the identity exploration. In the UK, there has arguably been growing divisions between groups, and certainly the community the three girls that recently went to Syria are from is known for this. In the long run, it would be good if there is more mixing of people, but this would take decades to accomplish, and only if there is a strong sustained political will to do so (i.e., this is unlikely to happen).

3) Beliefs. Religious beliefs are typically taken over from the family and school. The increasing number of faith schools and a stronger grouping of people by religion and ethnicity in non-faith schools will limit opportunities for critical thinking about deeply held convictions. The lack of interaction with people from other religions leads to a less critical engagement with their own beliefs and convictions. Apart from that, questioning religious beliefs is discouraged in our society for all sorts of reasons as part of our social etiquette. For example, it is seen as simply impolite to question sincerely and deeply held beliefs. The fact that religious convictions cannot be easily debated or even criticized, especially not religious convictions of minorities might lead to a side effect: Youngsters might find it attractive and empowering that people do not dare to criticize them.

Altogether, if my assessment of the motivation of those teenagers joining the Islamic State is right, we are in a difficult situation. Whether you like it or not, just for statistical reasons there will be teenagers with high levels of sensation seeking, who view Islam as something that one can identify with, and who have never thought critically about the convictions they hold, especially because nobody really challenged them.

What can politicly makers do? Interestingly, European education ministers are meeting to discuss these latter issues. The Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics, states: “Now more than ever, we need to build cohesive communities, and find ways to live together as a society. Education helps us to understand and accept our differences, overcome alienation, and create belonging and inclusion. I hope to see all education ministers in Paris so that we can show solidarity and start a debate on the role education can play – and how Europe can make a difference.

This sounds nice, but I do not think that it does deal with the three factors listed above. Instead, we need to work on those factors where we can most likely make a change in a relatively short time. I think that we should focus on the factors sensation seeking and unchallenged beliefs.

Although it is impossible to prevent that some teenagers will be sensation seekers, we can develop alternative outlets for their sensation-seeking. This is thus a very different approach than trying to warn teenagers of the dangers of Syria. Teenagers with high levels of sensation seeking need to have an opportunity to find the thrill and novelty. Creating such opportunities can be done in a relatively short time frame.

Further, we need to approach religious ideas differently, in particular in education and the media. Religious ideas should not be treated any different from non-religious ideas. Children will need to learn to answer and engage with challenging questions about their own religious beliefs, and they will need to learn how to apply the same standards of critical thinking, logic, and evidence to religious ideas as they do with ideas and problems in other school subjects.