How to generate, capture, and collect ideas to realize creative projects.


Online Discussions

Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite.
Excerpt from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long in “Time Enough For Love” by Robert A. Heinlein

Over a decade ago, I was active in discussion forums “debating” atheism against theists. I had a couple of Post-Its on my monitor, reminding me that I did not need to reply immediately, and that I should not post while angry.

It helped me to learn self-control in forums populated by people looking for chinks in your armor. After all, “debates” sometimes are about making the other side lose control and get angry. And by the rules of that forum, getting angry meant that you lost. And you lost publicly.

Thinking back, it might have been a case of “Someone is wrong on the Internet.“, but it also was helpful for me. It made me question my values, especially those I was redefining after leaving a rather conservative home. It helped me find the weak links in my arguments and identify my self-deceptions.

I stopped discussing when I realized that I couldn’t learn anything new about myself, nor improve my skills any further. The discussions were also inconsequential, because, well, it was just talk in an online forum. Today, religion only becomes a nuisance for me when someone tries to influence policy or social norms on religious grounds. I am for personal freedom, which includes freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Everyone is free in his/her belief, but state and religion should be separated. And for policy decisions, even regarding social rules, science is a better guide than faith. So when any religion tries to influence policy … that’s when things stop being inconsequential.

So it’s perhaps no wonder that the current brand of “feminism” bugs me just like religion did all these years ago. I mean the kind of “feminism” that talks about “patriarchy”, “privilege”, and “rape culture”. Whose goal seems to be “equality only where women are seen as disadvantaged”.

Sure, there is talk about “equality” and “feminism cares about men too”. Yet I see no efforts to argue for equality when it would remove advantages that women have. Just take education. Increasing the number of men in colleges/universities in general or in specific disciplines? Nope, the focus is only on getting more women into MINT disciplines. It’s the “Animal Farm” kind of equality: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

And the solutions? I totally agree with equality of opportunity. I am a big fan of the “Veil of Ignorance” (Rawls). But equality of outcome is an abomination. It compromises quality standards, and even worse, it negates personal freedom. It is “separate, but equal” all over again.

Under a pseudo-moral cover it’s just so self-serving for its proponents.

This kind of “feminism” behaves like a religion, relying on dogma instead of evidence. And the arguments are also shoddy and frequently ad hominem. Calling someone “sexist”, or “privileged”, or invoking “patriarchy”? Replace these concepts with “sin”, “sinner”, or “original sin” and you get a religion.

These are ideological/religious concepts, not the basis for a rational discussion.

But what is a basis for a rational discussion?

Funnily, while looking into this issue I stumbled upon “You just got logic’d” (highly interesting site, esp. for tumblr) and via that site upon these two interesting graphics:

“Rational Debating” by JT

The first graphic is a nice flowchart to determine whether a discussion makes sense by JT from An atheist created it. But due to the similarities between religion and “feminism”, it works without modification for discussions with “feminists”.

Really useful to save time.

“Hierarchy of Disagreement” by Paul Graham

Paul Graham wrote a couple of interesting essays, I highly recommend his site. One essay is about what it means to disagree well. Short, to the point, and brilliantly done. He comes up with the following hierarchy of disagreement (illustration from his Wikipedia page, it’s not in his essay):


Hierarchy of Disagreement by Paul Graham from

For a more detailed description of the levels look at his essay.

I think this disagreement hierarchy is useful to determine whether to engage with comments. After all, “Responding to Tone.”, “Ad Hominem.”, and “Name-calling.” do not merit responses. They do not have any value. It’s disagreement above these lower levels that show intelligence and are worthy of engagement. Perhaps one day we’ll all surf with a spam filter removing all that lower-level crap.

Really interesting to save a lot of unnecessary grief.


So, in a sense, that renewed interest in online discussions has provided me with an interesting flow chart and an interesting essay/pyramid. I’ll probably take it as basis if I ever feel the need for an online discussion again. It sure it easily applicable to all those who try to “reason” on moral or emotional grounds.

And given the “intellectual” closeness between this kind of “feminism” and hard-core theists, it’s no wonder that this kind of “feminism” has tried to attack and split the atheist community. Rational thought is the enemy of any ideology.

But perhaps “feminism” is not even such a big issue it appears to be. Perhaps it’s just the Internet giving a couple of “feminists” more exposure. These isolated nut jobs form a community and appear bigger than they are. Which then makes it easy for large numbers of … economy class thinkers to retweet or like. And the active and passive filter bubbles just home in on them.

But whatever the case, at least I now know some good criteria for an online discussion.


The traitor on your skin (Android OS for wearables)

“You ask why we give our Ships’
Computers normal Emotions?
Do you really want a Warship
Incapable of Loyalty?
Or of Love?”
The Unshattered Allegiance, High Guard Frigate,
Artificial Intelligence Rights Activist, C.Y. 7309

Recently I read that Android is working on an operating system for wearable technology.

On the one hand, I am really looking forward to it. Whether it’s smartwatches or smart clothes, just having technology available … yeah, I like it. I even use an old iPod nano on a wristband to listen to Podcasts. The huge advantage is that the iPod-nano-watch is quickly accessible. When I met someone in the streets or reach the cashier in a store, I can just double click the on-button and the Podcast stops. Much more convenient than using an iPhone, getting it out of my pocket or fighting with the earphones cable.

But on the other hand, their advertisement for it makes me squeamish. They advertise it by stating that the information is there, right away, without even having to ask for it. This might sound extremely comfortable, but it gets scary when you look at what this entails. To give you the information right away without having to ask you, this operating system has to know you really well. And with a complete log of your movements, your activity on the device, on the net, etc. pp. it will know you extremely well. So it can predict where you are going. It might even one day make terribly astute observations.

It could really assist you, but more likely, it will sell you out.

An operating system that knows you so well to give you the information right away, without having to ask you, also knows you well enough to be of incredible value for companies. It can predict your needs and behaviors perfectly. It can tell them what you interests you and what you want. It can tell them what works on you, e.g., which stimuli catch and hold your interest. And much, much more.

If you think that “recommendations” based on the eMails you write and read in Google Mail are scary, well, then you have seen nothing yet. With wearable technology, technology gets really intimate.

And frankly, I don’t want Google, and the advertisers it caters to, to be that close.

Not unless I can ensure that this piece of software shows an undying loyalty to me, and not to its creators.


I can see and hear you now

“It’s paranoia until it happens to you.”
Some militia guy on 60 Minutes.

You know that camera in your display that is really useful for video chats? Do you notice that it does not have a hardware button, or even a mechanical cover? You activate it via software. Funny thing, you are not the only person who can turn it on. And when someone else turns it on without your knowledge, that nice LED light does not switch on.

The camera looks like it’s off, while the video image is send somewhere else. To someone who might be interested in what you wear in the evening, when you undress for bed. Or how you look after the shower, when you just want to check some messages. Or when your hands are busy, but not with typing.

Got the picture? Oh, yes, that other person too. And the audio. Oh, and everything is recorded as well.

And while we are talking about cameras — did you notice the camera on your smartphone? You might even have two. And that tablet also has one or two. Do you remember the places where you use them? What those cameras can see? What they can hear?

Seriously, I love technology. And I love mobile technology. But the scenarios here are not unrealistic. It’s possible to hack computers and turn the camera on while keeping the camera LED off. Yes, also for Macs. And I am pretty sure that it’s possible for smartphones and tablets as well. After all, they are not phones — they are powerful computers with frequently high speed wireless network access.

The problem here is not (necessarily) the NSA, which you just allowed to spy into your living room, or bedroom, or bathroom. But the script kiddie who finds it funny to spy on you — and post pictures and videos of you, and your partner, and your children, online.

While this kind of hacking is reprehensible and highly illegal, I doubt that there is much you can do against it. And as usual, prevention is the best cure.

Keeping your computer free from spyware is one thing, but that can fail. I am not even sure that my computers are free of backdoors which would allow someone else to control my hardware. But at least for the video image, there is a failsafe solution: duct tape.

camera cover

Piece of duct tape, one side folded in to allow for easy removal. Another piece put on the adhesive area with the blank side up to protect the camera.

Yup. I use black duct tape, folded on one side to allow easy temporary removal for video conferences. There is a piece of duct tape taped to it in the middle where the camera is. This protects the glass above the camera from the adhesive of the duct tape. Without it, I would have to make sure there are no traces of adhesive that might degrade the video image.

As far as I know, there is not much you can do regarding the audio. There is no hardware switch for the microphone either. Putting a cable without microphone in the audio jack does not work either. At least if there is one one input/output jack. Software controls how it is used and it could be switched to audio output again.


How it looks on the device. Hardly visible and much more durable than a Post-It note.

But at least you can block the camera image — and I highly recommend it. I use the same solution for my iPad and my iPhones. It takes only a second to pull to the side when I make a photo, but it prevents it being used to record … potentially compromising situations.

P.S.: Given that some people have difficulties with what is meant seriously and what not: I don’t engage in this type of hacking. I am just making the posting more personal.


Recommendation: How to Survive a Plague

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead


DVD Cover of “How to Survive a Plague”

How to Survive a Plague” finally arrived on DVD. It’s a 2012 documentary covering the AIDS epidemic and ACT UPs / TAGs efforts to deal with it.

Definitely not a fun movie to watch.

And at times I would have wished for more background information on the people involved, or on the movement itself. Especially some further reflection where exactly the movement did make mistakes, so that further movements can avoid these mistakes. But despite inevitable mistakes that happen when you fight for something, ACT UP / TAG were incredibly successful.

And with this said — it’s a really good movie. Heartfelt and hopeful. Not only because they covered the people in the movement but went beyond it. They included video footage of people who objected to the development of treatments on so-called “moral” grounds, something which is completely alien to me. And they even looked at their own movement critically.

A really good movie to show what is possible when people fight — literally — for their lives. And some of the protests … I mean, walking up to the White House and emptying the ashes of your partner on the grass to protest government inaction — prrrrmmmhhh.

Like written … a sometimes incredibly sad yet also incredibly hopeful movie.

Highly recommended.

Update: Ah, YouTube (VISO trailers) has a trailer available (*sigh*, so not the best cover image).


Science without Art is Bleak, Art without Science is Terrifying

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein supposedly once said the quote above. I think something similar holds true for science and art.

Science without Art is Bleak,
Art without Science is Terrifying.

Science without Art is Bleak

Science surrounds us, but yet, few scientific findings make an impact. It’s just too complex, too number-heavy, too boring. But there are exceptions. Just think about Astronomy. Why would anyone care? Well, they did when someone put Astronomy in relation to their lives. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is certainly not a scientific text, but it is artistic and puts things into perspective. Or take the images that are distributed: They are incredibly beautiful. Some you could put up as artwork and people do.
Thing is — without art science is bleak and uninteresting. Images, illustrations, well-written easily understandable texts makes science come alive.

Art without Science is Terrifying

If you look online, there are a lot of interesting artworks. Some spread as memes. Given their artistic power they might even change minds. But this does not mean that they are true — and many are not. Yet they elicit the imagination and trust of masses. There’s a word for this: propaganda. Unfortunately, many people are very good artists, but terrible when it comes to critical or skeptical thinking.
I strongly argue that creativity needs organization, and likewise, art needs science. Art can be too powerful to sway minds, it should move them in the right direction.

And yes, “right direction” is a dangerous term. After all, there is no “right” in science — just a less wrong. Science is a continuous, socially driven and controlled endeavor. And science can be wrong, spectacularly in some cases. And “thinking the issue through from different points of view” is not really conductive to art.

But I think at least a little bit of both is needed — art and science — to make a positive impact.


Why correcting student papers is a bad idea

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.
English professor, Ohio University

I took part in another workshop on teaching last week. The focus was on managing students’ term papers and correcting them efficiently. So far, I’ve usually used written examinations in the last session of the course. But in one course, I asked the students to write essays as term papers. Many students were glad to get detailed feedback on their writing. But correcting a 15-pages essay took me about 4 hours. Much too long. So I was curious about correcting them more efficiently. And the workshop did deliver.

You should not correct a paper, you should evaluate it

There is a large difference — esp. in time spend — when it comes to correcting a paper vs. evaluating it. In correcting, you are essentially making the student paper ready to be published. It’s something Academics are used to do. But this is not needed for a student paper. It won’t get published. The student will not revise it. It’s done. It gets the student a grade and that’s it. Even learning from the corrections is difficult if the corrections are detailed. The student cannot identify the patterns.

Instead, the instructor should evaluate the paper. This means highlighting instances of typical mistakes — but only as examples. This means pointing to areas of improvement, e.g., have a look at the rules of citation, but not correcting them for the student. A list of recommendations might do more for the students’ future works than a detailed correction. Except for the content, it’s even okay to skip looking for, e.g., spelling or grammar errors if the paper is already below a certain level.

Prerequisite: Make the standards transparent

Evaluating the paper requires a comparison standard. The evaluation criteria should be broken down into sub-criteria, and the best performance and the minimum standard should be made explicit. You can then measure the deviation of the work of the student to these criteria. Giving student a checklist might also help them in improving the paper before submitting it.

I am not sure whether I can manage to evaluate a paper and not drift into correcting it, but I see the value of this mindset. In any case, the workshop was pretty useful. I’m glad I took part in it, even if it is not required at my university. Even worse, it is usually not seen as important either. But I think we are shortchanging the students if we don’t improve our teaching. Shortchanging students, who are, after all, the next generation of scientists and citizens.


Both Purging and Keeping Your Study or Thesis Paper Notes

I save about twenty drafts — that’s ten meg of disc space — and the last one contains all the final alterations. Once it has been printed out and received by the publishers, there’s a cry here of ‘Tough shit, literary researchers of the future, try getting a proper job!’ and the rest are wiped.
Terry Pratchett


Page from my notes on organizational psychology.

During the end of your studies — whether it’s going for a diploma, M.A. or the like, or for a PhD — you probably have a wealth of paper. Despite the prevalence of digital media, many people still like to learn by making paper notes. Likewise, many people develop their best ideas on paper. Not to mention correction of written chapters — also on paper.

But when you have finished your work, got the certificate, done the articles — what do you do with all that paper?

Given that I finished my studies at the university about 8 years ago, and my PhD about 4 years ago, I’ve seen both work out well and badly.

People who purged their notes being happy about it (not having it take up space = opportunity costs; not having to carry it when moving; “It’s outdated anyway!”) as well as missing the material (“I had notes about it and I threw them away!”). Likewise there were people who kept them and were happy about it (“I’ll have something about it, I’ll look it up.”) and those who were unhappy about it (“I kept it for years, never once did I need it.”).

Purge it or keep it? Both.

Personally, I kept my notes, but like the rest of my books I digitized them (Creating a Virtual Library, 109 scanned books later …). A good document scanner works wonders. I use the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M for Mac, although given its age, there are probably newer and better ones available.


Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M

Paper notes are even easier to digitize because the pages usually do not need to be separated. Using Acrobat’s “reduce file size” brought the file size down to manageable values. Even 888 color pages take up “only” 240 MB, and that’s my longest script (see page from it above/right).

The only disadvantage is that you cannot use OCR. However, I never tried Evernote — supposedly, it might be able to recognize handwriting. If you want to assist in finding specific places in the PDF you can use bookmarks.

Just make sure to create multiple backups and store them in different places. Use external hard-disk drives and DVDs. Never trust a single medium.

This way you can purge your material, get rid of all the stuff you might (or might not) desperately need (not) again.



“… because woman.” Seriously?

“The bunny did not get the job because the bunny is cute. The bunny got the job because the bunny knows WordPerfect.”
New Yorker Cartoon

One of the most depressing things that bug me on Twitter are Tweets following this basic formula:

Something negative happens + the person it happens to is female = It happens to her because she is a woman.

Whether it’s flak due to postings or tweets, experiences of violence, job offers retracted when the person tried to negotiate, or whatever else the negative event was — there is the quick gut-reaction to attribute it to the gender of the person. Women have it harder than men, women are discriminated against, women are victims. Meh.

Don’t get me wrong, sexism does exist. And sexism, defined as prejudice based on gender, goes both ways. (Don’t get me started on definitions of sexism that fix one gender as perpetrators and the other as victims. Definitions should establish clarity in what people talk about, not exclude a group of victims for ideological reasons.)

But before one goes for sexism, perhaps it’s prudent to look for other explanations first. Gender is a very visible, much hyped variable. But personally, I don’t care much about it. Sure, it’s relevant when I’m looking for a partner. But in almost all other cases, I just don’t care. And I think the majority of other people feel the same.

And yup, I see the advantages of this sexism-explanation. If you feel you are negatively discriminated against due to an attribute you cannot change (easily), you can feel righteously angry about it. It is a simple explanation providing you with a clear enemy. It removes all responsibility from you. You can even feel superior to all those who negatively discriminate against you. No matter your ability or effort, you at least have the higher moral ground.

Unless it’s not about gender. Then you’re just looking like an idiot.

And I am frequently wondering: So, that happened to you and you are a woman. Those are the facts, no arguing about that. But do you really think this only happens to women? Or even that it happens more frequently to women? That would be the requirement for it to be sexism. But perhaps it happens to men as well. But then these men are not successful and thus usually invisible. And perhaps men have learned not to complain about it, because society strongly discourages men complaining. And yup, that’s sexism, but it makes sense. If more men were complaining when it happens it would make the “because woman” explanation untenable. No wonder that open criticism of this explanation triggers even more gut-reactions.

Seriously, I’m currently unsure about my activity on Twitter. On the one hand, it’s incredibly stimulating and I got a lot of very interesting and useful information and links from the Tweets. But on the other, the prevalent bad reasoning is taxing. Not only because I think it’s the wrong attribution in most cases — and because it’s incredibly sexist and self-involved to reduce a general problem to something that “only affects women”. It’s also absolutely self-defeating and depressing. Usually, I think these problems are general problems. Violence is a general problem — yes, men are victims too, including of domestic violence. The bad situation is Academia is a general problem, with the exception of high-performing golden boys/girls, many Academics suffer under the current abysmal working conditions.

So, why not ditch the crappy ideology and address the actual problems. It’s harder and not as self-serving. And the more complex explanation is more difficult to deal with.

But at least it’s the only way to actually improve the situation.


Update 2014-03-16

This posting actually sparked a short interaction on Twitter. While this “discussion” contained what I consider as allegations (e.g., that I want to shut people up) and a tweet telling me to “shut up now” (no, the irony is not lost on me ;-)), it was also interesting in between(*). For a couple of reasons, actually:

  • It reinforced my view that this is a topic that needs discussion. It’s not a fun topic and many people quickly react emotionally, but it screws up things too much to ignore it. I hate bad reasoning and bad theories, as I think they do serious damage. To be creative you need to have (more or less) accurate information — and ideology biases the data.
  • The style of the discussion actually reminded me strongly of the discussions with deists about faith. At that time, I thought it was because few religious people actually make up their own mind about their own religious beliefs. To use Marcia’s theory, the worst discussions I had were with those who had a “Foreclosure” identity status. Not sure whether this is the case here as well, or whether there is something else at work here. Something to look into.
  • Twitter is definitely the wrong medium for such a discussion. Not because you cannot discuss in 140 characters. You probably could. But giving its public nature and public commitment to positions, it’s unlikely to change minds. Yet at the same time, it lacks the public exposure to change those listening in. It’s not conductive to listening into conversations. Even worse, I think Tweets are easy to quote-mine. It’s easy to take tweets out of context, by retweeting them or favoriting them. Redirecting people to the comment section of the blog would probably be more conductive.
  • I think it’s hard to discuss a serious issue without a basic level of humor. The ability to laugh about oneself and others — in a good way. Not to use humor to avoid accountability for personal attacks (to quote Victor Zen), but to keep a healthy distance to the issue and avoid becoming a fanatic. And boy, was that hard to keep in mind. After all, reducing a general problem to a gender specific one does real harm. But I think it’s necessary, otherwise this topic just drags you down.
  • And yup, the amount of attacks and name calling and allegations you get when you ask for evidence is stunning. Not sure why, after all, I did point out an observation I have made and asked for proof. Okay, it’s naive to assume there are circumstances where this is uncontroversial when ideology is involved. But still, while questioning me about an observation is usually helpful, attacks are not.

And the last point leads me to the open question:

When to discuss and when not to discuss? I think good discussions can be really helpful, but they are also extremely hard to do. You have to clarify what is at stake and define the terms. You have not only to agree to disagree but also to agree to agree. And you both need to have epistemological beliefs that are amendable via critical thinking. Not sure yet when investing this effort is a good idea.

I think reducing general problems to gender-specific issues is a problem and a relevant topic with huge consequences. But the ideology and entrenchment … brrrrr. I don’t know, if it weren’t for the negative consequences, I’d take this approach. But given the consequences, I’ll have to come up with a better solution.


(*) At least the discussion was interesting for me, I’m not sure whether I still have Twitter followers tomorrow. I guess I’ll have to split my account with one for site announcements and retweets specifically related to organizing creativity, and another one for more personal comments and discussions.




Some Thoughts On The Long-Term Fallout Of Mobbing

He thought: the worst thing about Vorbis isn’t that he’s evil, but that he makes good people do evil. He turns people into things like himself. You can’t help it. You catch it off him.
“Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett

I’m currently working on the Science@OrganizingCreativity Website. This led me to revisit a few topics. Today, I had a look at my notes about interpersonal conflicts and mobbing.

It’s a touchy subject for me. I did encounter mobbing during my time at school and during my PhD.

School was really ugly for several years. So bad that it took me a while to get over that “experience”. And I think I got over it. After all, schools are like prisons and students act out — unfortunately. Some students have to bear the brunt of that aggression. These “punching bags” leave school with psychological scars — and most of society seems to be okay with it. It makes me wonder whether homeschooling isn’t the way to go, esp. when reading blog postings where homeschooling (apparently) did work well.

But the mobbing I have encountered during my PhD by a “fellow” PhD student was something else.

On the one hand, it was much easier to deal with. Thanks to cameras in modern cellphones it was easy to document at least part of the incidents. It was also easy to find out when I had enough evidence to make a case against that mobbing “colleague”. When this person ordered stuff on the Internet in my name without my knowledge and had it delivered to my office address … yup, then it was time to use that evidence.

I mean, you know when a kid calls another one gay? It was something like that. Only it was an adult who ordered information material for gays and lesbians from an support organization. An adult who a few weeks later got his PhD. So much for intelligence and character in Academia. Nope, men do nothing for me sexually, I guess that’s why he did order this material. In his pea-brained kindergarten mind this probably counted as a “good” attack. Meh, what am I? Five?

Anyway, it was possible to identify from which computer the order was made. The webmaster of that site and the local IT department were helpful in this regard. And not surprisingly, the digital traces lead to the computer of the colleague in question. His supervisor wasn’t amused, but he did not want to renew the contract of that PhD student anyway. So that was that.

But that was the easy part. You get mobbed, you document and collect the evidence. Then you talk with this person’s superior. If that would not have worked, I would have gone one level higher. Or used the legal option. Sure, it sucks if you want to work on your PhD, but still, pretty easy.

What made this experience “something else” and still touchy years later wasn’t that failure of a human being.

It was seeing how two other colleagues reacted. People of whom I had a neutral or even high opinion. You might think that someone who is exposed of having mobbed a colleague gets ostracized. Especially if his mobbing reveals a certain homophobia. Nope. One colleague stressed that “He is nice to me.” and that’s all that counts for her. Woppa. But okay, her choice.

What was really bad was seeing another colleague react. One whom I previously held in high regard. At first she said that she ceased contact with him. But it turned out that she continued seeing him while avoiding the topic if it came up or when asked. Sure, it’s everyone’s own business with whom to spend time. And she did not own me anything. But honesty would have been nice. It’s not a case of antipathy, it’s dealing with a person who tried to deliberately sabotage my life. I think it would have been fair to expect that at least. But no, dissembling it was. And I think dissembling is even worse than publicly stating “He is nice to me.” As self-serving as “He is nice to me” might be, at least it’s honest.

And that is the ugliest side of mobbing in my opinion: Sometimes, it brings out the worst in bystanders. People whom you respected and held in high regard make you want to puke each time you see them. Sure, it might have revealed a character flaw that prevents larger problems in the future. But it’s still a gut-wrenching feeling, even more than 5 years later.

Pity, but I guess that happens when you have high expectations.

For me, there are only two positive consequences of that incident.

The first positive consequence was an increased confidence in my skill in dealing with mobbing. The hard part was noticing when someone starts to actively work against you in what should be a cooperative environment. If done slowly and in a subtle manner, it takes a while to notice. You might notice a drop in motivation and performance, but might not be able to find out why. But once you do notice it, however, it becomes a straightforward case of document and expose.

The second positive consequence was seeing the reactions of all other colleagues who have the same dim view on mobbing as I have. After all, most people did show personal integrity. They did not excuse mobbing with personal benefits or dissembled.

And that — at least — still gives me at least some hope for the future.


The most important information first aid courses usually neglect to convey

I filled out an application that said, ‘In Case Of Emergency Notify’.
I wrote ‘Doctor’ … What’s my mother going to do?
Stephen Wright

tl;dr: Emergencies are rare and hard to deal with. People look at the behavior of others to determine how to react. But if all people look at each other for advice on how to act, no one acts. So if you are in an emergency, realize that it is normal that everyone looks around for advice on how to act and thus nobody does anything. Ignore them and do the right thing. Help. If you do, others will follow your example.

Suppose a person you love suddenly collapses. What do you do? If you have participated in a first aid course, you likely have some idea. But what if you encounter someone who collapses on the street? What do you do then?

If there are other people present, likely you will walk past. Just take a look at this video:

Why do so many people walk past? Just imagine the person you love was the one who collapsed in that video. Given the importance of immediate first aid, this person might have died. That can make you righteously angry. And I’ve taken part in first aid courses, where the instructor did get angry. Citing examples where people did die because no one helped, the instructors got angry, claiming: “People don’t care. We live in an individualistic every person for him-/herself society. We don’t consider others as human beings.”

I can understand the emotional outbreak. But what makes me super-angry and depressed is that in almost all cases, this is the wrong explanation. The question why someone does not help but looks on or walks past is one of the human behaviors that is extremely well researched. And it kills me that people assume it has anything to do with character or the like. In fact, in most cases it is not the fault of the bystander that s/he does not help. They fall prey to common psychological effects.

According to Latané und Darley (1970, cited from Baron, Byrne und Branscombe, 2006) there are five steps that determine whether a person helps. Only if the person passes each step successfully does the person help.

Disclaimer: These are “natural” psychological processes. It happens, because human beings are limited. It does not excuse not helping if you notice the emergency. But it explains why many people do not help and it shows ways to make helping more likely.


Figure 10.2 from Baron, R. A., Byrne, D. & Branscombe, N. R. (2006). Social Psychology (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. Just imagine someone collapsing — the schema works as well.

Step 1: Attending to the Situation: Emergencies are rare, they are unexpected and hard to predict. Given that our attention is limited we do not actively process everything around us. Was there a person lying on the street? Thus, we can overlook emergencies, esp. if we are under time pressure. If someone walks past an emergency, it might be that this person did not notice the emergency.

Step 2: Interpreting the Situation: Emergencies are not always obvious — we only see part of a situation. If you have ever heard children or teenagers playing, they sometimes scream for no reason. Or they might just have broken through the frozen layer of a lake. It can be hard to get it right and the fear of making a fool out of oneself might predispose some people to assume no emergency. The problem is that other bystanders might look at the behavior of other people in the situation and if others do not consider it as an emergency, it reinforces this explanation. It’s a case of “pluralistic ignorance”. Thus, more people usually means a lower likelihood that someone helps. It’s counter-intuitive, but true. Thus, if other people do not react to something that might be an emergency, it does not mean that it really is no emergency. They might just have done what you did — look at others for guidance and thus do nothing. If in doubt ask. You feel better and it just might save a life.

Step 3: Assuming Responsibility: Even if people notice the emergency, someone has to feel responsible to do something about it. In some situations, the issue of responsibility is clear, e.g., if the police or the fire department is present. But in an everyday situation, someone has to feel responsible. Again, it’s more likely that someone helps if — beside the victim — there is only one person present. There is no one else there who could help. But if many people are present, the issue becomes “problematic”. People might look at each other, each waiting for the other “probably better qualified” person to help. Thus, no one does anything. This diffusion of responsibility usually means that no-one helps. Thus, if there is an emergency, realize that it is “normal” (but deadly) that no one makes the first step. They are all looking at each other waiting for someone to do the first step. On the bright side, others usually join in the second someone does take the first step. So ignore the rest and do your best. They will join you if you do.

Step 4: Assessing the Ability to Take Action: Even if you feel responsible to help, it is not enough. You need to come to the conclusion that you have the ability to help. Helping a drowning person might be hard if you cannot swim. But I don’t think that a lack of ability is any excuse today. First aid courses are offered by many institutions and you can and should do them every few years or so, just to feel comfortable to have the ability to help. But even if you do not know what to do, doing something is usually better than doing nothing. There are two things you should keep in mind: First, self-protection always comes first. Nobody wins if there are two people dying instead one just one. Second, you likely have the ultimate tool for first aid in your pocket: Your cellphone. Even if you do not dare to enter the water, or stop at the highway, you can call the police or fire department and inform them. We live in a technological society, why not use it to save lives. Thus, if you are unsure whether you have the ability to help, doing something is usually better than doing nothing. If anything, do call for help.

Step 5: Deciding Whether to Act: Helping others is risky. There are costs and risks associated with helping others. If you stop by a highway, you might become a victim of crime. If you try to save someone from drowning, you might drown yourself. However, with cellphones there usually is no reason not to at least call for help (see previous step). Thus, do something where the potential gains are greater than the costs. If you can, help directly. If not, call for help yourself.

Other factors and Conclusion

Of course, there are a lot of moderating and mediating factors that make helping more or less likely. But without going into the details, just remember that it becomes less likely that people help the more people are present in the situation. If you notice something on a crowded street, that’s the moment when you have to take a critical look and assess the situation for yourself. Most likely, no one else will. Unfortunately, it is “normal” (but not excusable) that no-one helps, because people miss the situation, do not see it as emergency, do not feel responsible, feel like they lack the ability, or the perceived costs outweigh the benefits of helping. It’s not fair, but if something happens, you need to help first to make others help as well.

And if you need help yourself and many people are present, pick someone who looks confident and specifically ask that person for help.



Baron, R. A., Byrne, D. & Branscombe, N. R. (2006). Social Psychology (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Note: I’ve written a similar posting on a German blog.

Note 2: Yup, it’s off-topic. But it’s also something I wish everyone would know, because I believe it might convince more people to help in an emergency. And as someone who likes to see at least a few people alive, I care about that.