Holding my MP to account on the Recall issue

I don’t tend to get involved in direct democracy very much but I think the issue of recalling MPs is important. In the modern slacktivist style, I picked up and sent a templated 38Degrees letter to my MP, Roger Godsiff. I must confess I know nothing about him and his general political outlook. It may be that we agree on some things, probably not all. I probably agree with him on more than I would typically agree with Zac Goldsmith – but I believe strongly in Zac Goldsmith’s amendments to the recall bill. They strike me as reasonable including sensible safeguards and as being completely democratic which the current proposed bill certainly is not. You can read about Goldsmith’s tabled amendments here – I think you will find them hard to disagree with.

The Rt. Hon. Mr Godsiff MP replied to with a mail  I suspect was every bit as templated as my own. I can’t really blame him for that given I’d not made the effort to author something unique myself. What I can blame him for is the fact that his letter was patronising and deflective. It talked about the complexity of the issue but dealt with none of it. Worst of all, it failed to tackle the key issue at hand – that what this fundamentally comes down to is whether you believe the people are trustworthy enough to decide the circumstances in which their representative should be recalled or whether the circumstances within which this is acceptable should be determined by the MPs themselves. Or, it did tackle it in a way, by suggesting lots of occasions where he felt it might be dangerous to allow people the power of recall – that is, situations where he disagreed with the reasons he ascribed the people to give.

This is important so I felt I would share my arguments. I would also share Mr Godsiff’s note, but it does have a confidentiality clause in the disclaimer at its foot so I won’t share it in the interests of respecting that.

Mr Godsiff,

Thank you for kindly for your reply but I do not find that your response adequately deals with the matter at hand, rather it deals in a series of irrelevant deflections related to the US system.
The fundamental question is whether you believe that, in a democracy, the people should have the power to hold their elected representative to account and remove them from office where the people believe they are no longer fit to hold that office. Mr Goldsmith’s proposed amendments are intended to ensure it is up to the people to decide what being no longer fit for office means, not that the very people supposedly being held to account limit this in such a narrow way as to be meaningless and to return no power at all to the people.
Let me deal with each or your deflections in turn.
  • No other European countries offer similar powers – I see no relevance for this point whatsoever. Just because democracy is deficient in comparable nations and they have a similarly entrenched political elite that does not want to hand power to its people, does not mean that we should follow that lead.
  • Recall in California – the implication here seems to be that you don’t believe the people of California were well enough informed to decide whether or not their Governor was at fault in his managing of the state’s energy prices. That they were too stupid to identify the real issue at hand and took it out on a powerless Governor. Rank elitism. Do you not see that what you think about the specific policy issue here is not the question? The question is not whether or not you feel Mr Gray Davis had erred sufficiently from his duty as to be recalled, the question is whether a sufficient proportion of the Californian electorate felt that he had.
  • Issues of moral/personal standing – just as I do not personally believe that energy companies should ride roughshod over people and those in public office seeking to prevent that should be held to some account, nor do I believe that an affair is sensible reason to recall an MP. But, again, this misses the point – should a reasonable proportion of the electorate (and I believe the proportions in Mr Goldsmith’s amendments are reasonable) be sufficiently offended or morally outraged by the behaviours of their representative as to believe they can no longer properly represent them, then yes, why should they not be recalled?
  • Special interest groups – I’m starting to feel a little like a broken record here, but here goes. I couldn’t have less sympathy for the views of America’s religious right, but again, whether I agree with them or not (or whether you do) is separate to the issue at hand. Campaigning organisations have every right to try to push for recall ballots – but Mr Goldsmith’s amendments actually make it less likely that minority interests such as these would be able to push through a recall because of 20% threshold to trigger a referendum and the requirement for a majority of the electorate to vote for recall in that referendum. Yes, they may be able to trigger the 5% of of the electorate required to create a recall petition in the first place – but to even make the 20% threshold at the next level seems unlikely for most minority groups. If they can achieve the threshold and can then win the subsequent election then, no matter how abhorrent you or I think their views, they are entitled to recall their representative and it’s clearly unfair to call them a minority group. That, surely, is the very essence of a properly functioning democracy.
So, I agree that it is a more complex issue than is typically being portrayed, but I don’t accept that your response deals with that complexity, it seeks to deflect from it. In your next reply, I’d appreciate it if you could deal explicitly with the following areas:
  • Why is it that you apparently believe the people of your constituency are not equipped to decide for themselves whether their representative should be recalled and that it is better for Westminster to decide a narrow set of criteria within which it is acceptable for recall to happen?
  • Do you agree that the criteria set out in the bill are correct? My view is that the only criterion should be the view of the people, that’s democracy. You may not be willing to go that far, but if you at least believe the current criteria laid out are too narrow – what, in your view, should they be?
  • Do you agree that, once these criteria for recall decided by Westminster are met, a by-election should be triggered on the basis of a petition signed by just 10% of the electorate, a figure so low that it is hard to conceive a circumstance where it will not be achieved? If you don’t believe this is an appropriate proportion then what level would you set it at?
  • Do you agree with me that is preferable that any system of recall should insist that a majority of the electorate in that constituency have the final say on whether an MP is recalled or not?
  • Do you agree with me that the checks and balances set out in Mr Goldsmith’s proposed amendments are sufficient that opportunistic, frivolous or vexatious petitions for recall are unlikely to pass even the first stage requiring 5% of the electorate to be petitioned, almost certain to fail at the second stage where 20% is required and would without question fail to win a majority in a recall referendum? If you feel these checks and balances are insufficient and would like to argue for the existing bill or something different, I’d be interested to hear your view.
This is a complex issue – but fundamentally it comes down to one thing –  do you trust the electorate to decide for themselves whether an MP should be recalled or do you believe MPs themselves should dictate the circumstances within which that is seen to be appropriate.
I look forward to your reply.
Andrew Jerina

The murder of a 16 year old girl

The murder of a 16 year old girl, apparently unprovoked, should be equally affecting regardless of the circumstance. The truth is, that’s not the case. Today was a stark reminder to me of how locally our lives are lived. Regardless of how worldly you believe your outlook to be, how well travelled you believe you are – events near home, in places you have lived your own life, shake you in a way that any number of horrors elsewhere in the world do not. This isn’t to say horrors further afield are not upsetting, tragic or infuriating, they very often are, but they are necessarily more abstract than events occuring in your immediate frame of experience. Emotionally distant as much as geographically.

Today, Christina Edkins was stabbed to death on a number 9 bus on the Hagley Road near the centre of Birmingham. I did not know her, but I feel strangely like I did.

I grew up in Halesowen. The number 9 was my bus route. Into Halesowen from our house on the Abbeyfields or up Manor Lane to friends houses at first. As I got older into and out of Birmingham for work and for play. I must have ridden this bus route hundreds of times and I would have ridden it most frequently when I was Christine’s age. We all know there are bus routes best avoided (if you are fortunate enough to have the choice), whilst it has its share of unusual characters as all routes do, the 9 is not one of them. Sadness for those close to Christina was mixed with no little shock.

Later the news emerged that Christina was on her way to school at Leasowes High School. Leasowes was my school. I am now too far removed  from the school and the community around it to know her, her friends or her family. But 15 years ago I would have done. 15 years ago she would have been my classmate. We may not have been friends, but we would have been classmates. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to see a young life of your acquaintance snatched away so viciously when you too are so very young. I think back to my classmates, I imagine how each would have reacted to a death of one of us, how each would have coped. Some would pretend they weren’t but I can’t think of anyone who would not have been affected. Many would have been affected so deeply that their whole life’s course may change.

The school made statements of condolence to the family and talked of support offered to the pupils. Eloquently leading the school response was the Head Teacher, Neil Shaw. Mr Shaw was my English teacher. If you are a regular reader of this blog you presumably believe there is at least some small merit in my writing. That is due, in no small measure, to Mr Shaw’s teaching. He was my favourite and best teacher. No Head Teacher should have to deal with this but few could be better equipped to do so. It is a strange and moving thing to see a man who so inspired you in the words of Heaney and Shakespeare delivering, with calm solemnity, such simple but difficult words of condolence.

I don’t visit Halesowen much these days. My parents have moved away. But by coincidence I was going there today to visit a friend, a former classmate, who was recently run off his bike not all that far from the school. I drove there in the pounding rain listening to the latest news. The suspected killer had been arrested. To get to my friends house I had to drive up Kent Road past the school. The rain still poured as I drove past the huddle of young figures  stood in the dark outside the firmly-closed school gates, hoods up to protect from the rain and shield from the world’s harshness. Leaving flowers,  messages, reading what others had written, comforting each other. 15 years ago, we could have been stood there.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this really. I’m certainly not trying to make this about me. I think what I’m trying to say is that every young person who is stabbed, assaulted, shot, glassed, bottled, raped – whatever, is on somebody’s childhood bus route. Somebody’s English teacher is now the Head and has to try and comfort the family and the kids. And of course, most important of all, they are somebody’s daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter. They will never have the chance to be someone’s mother or grandmother.

Whilst it might not be possible to feel as deeply about deaths such as this when they are further from home, we should at the very least try and remember that every single one is close to home for somebody. Indeed, for many.

My thoughts tonight are with all those who knew Christine and will miss her.

The Andrex Puppy wants to know how you wipe your arse

So, there’s this. An ad about how people wipe their arses in which you are asked to submit a vote to a cuddly advertising icon stating how you, the viewer, prefer to wipe your own arse. My initial reaction to this was the same combination of shock and despair that you are probably feeling now if it’s the first time you have seen it – this excellent take down in The Vice about sums most of that up. But, for me, this ad was also revelatory. I hadn’t the slightest conception that anyone would ever do anything other than fold. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, his toilet is the Keep, where none shall surely pass except in the very gravest of circumstances. Our reservedness ensures that we keep life’s great pleasures such as having a lovely poo tightly locked away from any conversation. For the most part, that’s probably for the best but it has meant that I have spent my 31 years and some months entirely in the dark about “scrunching”. Scrunchies are 90s female hair accessories, not bum-wiping material.

I am a scruffy man. I do not iron my clothes, my house is fairly untidy – but I cannot imagine for a moment wiping my arse with a randomly scrunched up ball of toilet paper. The uneven surface, the variable thickness and the lack of a uniform size and shape seem to carry with them all kinds of risks that I prefer not to even countenance, let alone bring into play.

In the uncomfortable afterglow of this revelatory experience I thought I would open The Keep to my colleagues and explore further (I don’t mean I actually invited them into my bog, I just decided to discuss it with them.) The findings were really quite interesting (and of course entirely unscientific.) There does not seem to be a gender bias – at first it seemed girls were (unexpectedly? I don’t know) more likely to scrunch, but the more we asked it seemed to be about 50/50. More of my male colleagues were folders, but not to a degree sufficient to deduce a genuine skew given the sample size involved. Personality and outward physical appearance also seemed to be poor indicators. You might expect the scruffy buggers such as I (there are plenty of us in the Global team, we don’t get let out in public much so we can let ourselves go) to over-index on scrunching but they were as likely to be neat, tidy folders in the privacy of the smallest room in the house as anyone. Those with pristine, matching houses who iron their bed linen could very well be untidy (disgusting and risky in my view) scrunchers. There were some mad bastards who would do either, apparently willy-nilly with no clear criteria as to when they would change tack.

I was greatly relieved to discover that my wonderful girlfriend is also a folder, hopefully guaranteeing that our future children will also fold. But is there any guarantee? There seems to be no gender or personality pattern to all this. Who’s to say whether there’s anything genetic? But I can only hope that the combination of nature and nurture will see my unborn children right.

So, on reflection, maybe Kimberley Clark are on to something here. Maybe they will breakthrough our reticence to talk about wiping turd from our anuses and get us all debating the relative merits of the two leading approaches. Maybe people will vote in their droves. Maybe folders will ally with folders and seek to bring down the despicable practice of scrunching? Maybe all these years of toilet roll being a dull, low-interest category are over. I think there is more to talk about – optimum number of sheets, softness, quilted versus smooth, that tracing paper stuff from primary school. LET’S ALL ENGAGE AT INTERACT ON THE SUBJECT OF BOG ROLL.

Or, you know, maybe not.

On the tenacity of norms and innovation

Tom’s most recent post over on Blackbeard reminded me of a story I was told by an erstwhile client during my spell in India.

In his younger years, said client had been a lowly agency side man like many of us. He had gone on a field visit for a tracking study to meet with a field head whom he described quite directly as “a real crook”. I assume this was meant in a research context only and he wasn’t an arsonist or a murderer or anything. Anyway, on this field visit it was discovered that the crook was living up to his reputation and allowing his team to flout even the most basic of field controls – no right hand rule, no adherence to the assigned starting points, ignoring instructions on routing and rotating – your basic PAPI chaos. When my client intimated that this was completely unacceptable and that he needed to whip his team into shape forthwith he was met with a knowing smile. “Do you really want me to fix things?” the crook asked, “we’ve always worked this way, aside from the time and effort required to put things right which will be costly, you will also need to explain the radical step changes in your data to your client”. This was where the story ended so I don’t know for certain what call my client took but being a fine and upstanding research man, I naturally assume he did the right thing.

What’s clear from this story is that Tom has something of a point. There’s no doubt that historical trends, databases and norms are, at times, invoked as a defence against change even where the established order is spectacularly wrong. The order being established is all the validity it needs. And of course this is a very extreme example, the simple weight of inertia can easily discourage those of us with far greater scruples than our protagonist above from making changes that untether us from the warm comfort of norms.

But I’m not convinced it’s as bad as all that. In my view, norms have the potential to raise the bar for innovation and change. You cannot make change for change’s sake. You do not flit around on the short-lived breeze of fad and fashion. If you are going to make a change to a research architecture built around norms then you have to demonstrate clearly that what you are moving to provides a genuine, substantive improvement over what currently exists. More than that – better looking architecture is easy to find, checking the structural engineering is up to the job requires the real stress testing that norms help provide. What norms predicate against is incremental tweaks around the edges (the research equivalent of feature creep) and the roll-out of ill thought out, half baked ideas. Houses built on the sand.

Saying norms are ‘tenacious’ is certainly right, but that tenacity need not be allied with enmity. Norms can perform the role of Devil’s advocate always probing with the questions ‘why is that better than what we have?’ and ‘can you prove that it is?’. If you have constantly asked those questions then not only will you always have a powerful rationale for any change but you will also have reinforce the validity of what you were doing previously.

Don’t call it a comeback

Hello. I can’t help but think this won’t be the most talked about comeback announced today (see picture above).

Those of you who follow me on twitter will already be aware that I’ve been back in good old Blighty for several weeks now. You may also be aware that I’m back in the office and, therefore, back to being a Research Geek. Five and a half months worth of travelling was pretty wonderful and I’m still thinking and writing about that (currently with pen and Moleskine, but it will eventually find its way to the Viceroy, I’m sure) so I might not be too prolific on here to begin with. But as I’m back thinking about research, ads and brands there will no doubt be certain thoughts I feel like sharing.

Work-wise, I’m still with Millward Brown. My neuroscience role was specific to the region so having moved from dusty Delhi to leafy Leamington Spa I’m not doing that any more. Instead I’ve joined the Global Innovations team where I’ll be getting all kaizen on our existing tools and also working on some shiny new stuff. Should be interesting.

Indefinite Hiatus

Hello. I think it’s unlikely I’ll be posting much here on the Research Geek until I’m firmly ensconced back in merry old England in October.  With only around 9 weeks left of my working stint in India, there’s probably a lot of stuff I should be reflecting on and writing up, but I’m afraid I don’t feel in the frame of mind to do it.  There are a couple of posts I’ve done the thinking for and started to write up, only to lose my thread half way through.

Whilst I’m not in a ‘thinking about research’ frame of mind, I’m very much in a thinking about India frame of mind. I am keen to get my writing on India more or less up to date before I head off an have 6 months of further experiences to add to the mix – so expect more activity over on The Viceroy over the next few weeks and please do have a read, if that’s your sort of thing.

So, thanks for reading whatever you have over the past year. Hopefully you’ll be around for my glorious return towards the end of the year.

Top Posts: 2010


Hello everyone, Happy New Year!  I haven’t posted for a long time due to a nice long trip back to the UK.  I was more or less snowed in for a week so I did have ample opportunity to write a couple of posts, I just wasn’t really in that frame of mind.  Anyway, I’ll be back with a proper shiny new post shortly, for now, here are the top 5 posts of my debut year based on popularity.  Thanks very much for reading in 2010 and I hope you continue to suffer through in 2011.

1. Neurofocus and the New Scientist: Don’t Believe the Hype – A relatively rare sojourn into the realms of the day job proved a popular choice.  One rather fruity comment from a disciple of said hype spiced things up a little.

2. Social Media and the Simulacrum of the Self – Dusting off some cultural theory from my undergraduate degree and having a bash at applying it to social media.  I wasn’t sure I was clever enough to write this one, but I think just about got away with it.

3. Hiiiiiiii Dr Nick! – A short overview of the talk Nick Hall from Stanford gave at a symposium on Behavioural Research where we both spoke at XLRI here in India.  I think ‘Dr’ Nick promoted this one a fair amount himself so I probably have him to thank for it making the top 5!

4. All the Young Dudes – My first ever post on why we don’t hear many/enough young (under 30) voices in market research.

5. Apple: a threat to diversity and innovation. – Finally, a post on Apple’s continuing attempts to sew up the entire music industry value chain and the threat this poses to diversity and innovation in that industry.

Whilst we’re at it, my least popular post of the year was this one – I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition.  Apparently, nobody else agreed.

Thanks again for reading.


It's not the tool, it's what you do with it that counts.

In my last post I wrote about the ethics of using neuroscience techniques for market research.  I’d like to broaden that out to make a wider point about the nature of tools.  Any type of tool, research tools included,  is value-neutral – they are neither moral nor immoral.  Morality only comes in to play at the point at which we, as humans, make use of the tool.  The manner in which we use it determines the morality of the action rather than the nature or utility of the tool itself.  Morals are, after all, rules that judge the acceptability of human conduct.

Of course, moral absolutism is  a dangerous thing, even if the absolute proposed is that an object is without moral valence.   Some would argue the tools of warfare are a clear exception to the rule – if a tool is specifically designed to cause death and destruction in the most efficient way possible then it’s harder to argue the value neutrality of all tools.  However, the tools of war can also be used to defend yourself against crazed invading ideologues trying to impose a morally corrupt way of life on a population (like Hitler in Europe or the US in South East Asia).  There are also those who argue that the military industrial complex acts as a deterrent and, ergo, the tools of warfare actually prevent death and destruction.  I don’t necessarily agree with all that, but as there’s some debate around it, it seems that even for a tool actually designed for a fundamentally immoral purpose is only really immoral if we use it to that end.

Think of an axe.  An axe can be used to chop firewood and sustain your life.  An axe can also be used to hack someone you don’t like very much to bits, or even hack someone you do like to bits for kicks.  Now forget the axe, it’s the 21st century.  Think of a chainsaw.  You can use a chainsaw to do both the wood chopping and the person hacking with significantly greater efficiency.

There are two things I’d like to draw from this and, hopefully, you’ll see the parallels to what I was talking about in my last post.  Further, we should also be reflecting on what this means for advertising and brands as tools (this value-neutral business is actually something I trot out more often to people who argue brands are evil that it’s something I say to research haters).

First, both axe and chainsaw are morally neutral.  You can use them both for good or evil and any number of layers in between.  In essence a chainsaw is a more efficient axe.  This means that it can be more effective for doing good or for doing evil but it doesn’t make the chainsaw itself any more of one or the other.

Second, there is another interesting effect of the chainsaw being more efficient.  I am of course using the wood chopping to represent the  ‘good’ extreme on my moral axis – but once you mechanise and industrialise wood chopping and you’re not just chopping the firewood you need to sustain yourself, the moral waters become much more muddy (or at least, they get filled with logs, making them equally hard to navigate).  It’s still the human action that’s at question, but a more effective tool facilitates excess and thereby brings questions of morality to the fore even when considering actions where previously there were none.

So in short, what I was trying to say in my last post is that if you think advertising and brands are evil then of course the research tools that help facilitate them will make you equally uncomfortable.  They’re not evil, but the way we use them is where we should stop and think about ethics.

If you have a new research tool that is more effective in exposing people’s desires, then the chances of a chainsaw massacre of consumption increase exponentially.  If neuroscience is giving us more effective (indeed, more  mechanised) access to thoughts, feelings and emotions, even if we don’t think the every day wood chopping of building brands is morally questionable, the questions around how we implement neuroscience techniques ethically are still valid as mass deforestation won’t be good for any of us.

Black Magic

When I wrote about the barriers to neuroscience adoption a while ago there was one issue I skirted which probably could have been fleshed out a bit more – ethics.  When I did the talk at XLRI I basically lumped it in with ‘Scpeticism’ but I got asked about it again in a meeting yesterday so thought I’d note a couple of thoughts.

The reason that neuroscience/biometric methods are appealing to researchers and marketers is also the thing that makes people unsure as to whether it’s ethical to use them.  It’s well known that people don’t know why they behave the way they do and find it hard to talk about the way they feel about things – so cutting out the middle man and going direct to source for that info is pretty valuable.  But those worried about this stuff would say that the middle man we’re cutting out is sort of the bit where our  humanity resides.  People may, justifiably, want to keep some things under wraps for any number of reasons (although most often we’re learning things that people can’t tell us rather than things they won’t).  As a result, those who doubt the ethics of biometric measurement would argue that we are taking knowledge that people have not volunteered and, like black magic, using it to control them.

Those are potentially valid concerns.  My argument, however, is that they are not concerns specific to neuroscience/biometric research but to all research and, by extension, any advertising that draws learning from that research.  If you have an ethical problem with research and advertising generally (which some do) then fine – but people raising these concerns with me in meetings are usually people spending a lot of money on advertising and research, so I assume they don’t.

Let me illustrate my point.  As Tom Ewing has ably pointed out, what those critics of research who roll out the ‘all research is wrong‘ line fail to understand is that we already know that it is (in an absolute sense).  As such, we have all kinds of ways of finding stuff out about people’s thoughts, feelings and desires without asking them directly.  Take one of Millward Brown’s many hundreds of tracking studies, I don’t ask people to rank the associations they have with brands by how important they are because I know they’re not very good at it (and often, they just don’t know whether sexy or easy to use is more important to them).  Instead, given that I also ask them about their preference for brands, I am able to run myself a lovely regression model from which I can infer which of these associations are the stronger drivers of preference either within the category as a whole or for specific brands.  They haven’t told me why they like Persil better than Surf, but sneaky researcher that I am, I’ve found out – and maybe Persil will use that information to better target them and people like them.

(Before you say so, I know that’s not perfect, I know my model is only telling me about the relative strengths of relationships between claimed brand preference and a set of associations that I chose to put to the sort of people I chose at the specific point in time, by now already in the past, that I deigned to ask them. But I’d ask you to focus on the matter in hand, this isn’t a question of which [if either] of these approaches is most valid it’s about whether or not they are ethical).

So research has, for many years, generated insights into human behaviour without people necessarily volunteering them directly.  People are no more aware of my regression models and how brands are using them to sell them more soap powder, than they are of the brainwave outputs they voluntarily hand over and how clever boffins run those through an algorithm to give me something I can use to understand advertising better.  Is either of those things deceitful and insidious?  Maybe, but if so, I say they are equally so.

Further, some perspective is required.  We may be increasingly tapping into people’s deep, unspoken desires – but we’re not homing in on a magic bullet that lets advertisers push a button that has a definitive and predictable consumer response at the other end.  We are gaining a better understanding of why an ad has worked when we do get it right of course and therefore narrowing the odds of us being able to repeat it – but we’re a long way off complete mind control.  People still have agency.  That’s not going anywhere.

As long as the usual rules apply – we’re doing this at an aggregated level, we’re not using it to target the specific people involved through direct use of their personal details or data, they have given us their express, informed permission to collect whatever data we’re collecting through whatever method and so on – I really don’t see how neuroscience and biometric research is any different from ‘traditional’ methods.  If you object to one, you object to it all.

The Criminal Mind


Another of the keynote speakers at the XLRI conference was Dr S. L. Vaya.  Dr Vaya works at the Directorate of Forensic Sciences (DFS – though I’m not sure if they have a permanent sale).  At DFS they use biometric measurement on suspects in criminal investigations to try and demonstrate whether or not these suspects have been involved in the crime of which they have been accused.  Clearly issues of guilt and innocence are, in stark contrast to making advertisers better able to sell brands, fairly essential issues for a civilised society to get right.  The standard of proof is also, of course, far higher when you’re interested in whether or not someone was involved in the Ahmedabad bombings (a case DFS had inputs into) than it is when you’re simply interested in whether an ad is making a general population feel warm and fuzzy in all the right places.  They’re not convicting people on this basis alone, but they’re using it as a part of the investigation in the same way that polygraph tests have been used for years.

There are ethical considerations here – there’s a long standing legal truth that people should not be required to reveal their own guilt (if they are guilty, it should be up to us to prove it so).  Given that you can’t control your brain activity you could easily implicate yourself without realising you had done so.  For this reason, there are pretty stringent controls on when and how these techniques are to be used in a criminal investigation.

  1. There must be a High Court order in place to allow it.
  2. The suspect must give their express, informed consent.
  3. Results will not be seen as conclusive in themselves, but can be used as supporting evidence for a case.
  4. It must not be used against the suspect.

This last point Dr Vaya mentioned and didn’t elaborate on and I forgot to ask her to clarify it when we were speaking later in the evening.  As it stands it doesn’t make much sense to me as if, even as secondary evidence, it is being used as part of the case against the suspect I can’t understand exactly how any test could qualify under point 4.  Perhaps someone in the know will read this and clarify – but anyway, the point that this is being used in a considered and sensible way is hopefully made.

So how does it work?  Basically a series of questions are designed and posed to the suspect whilst they are wired up to a full EEG headset.  Dr Vaya mentioned that the design of the questionnaire is absolutely crucial in the process if you are to get meaningful results, which sounds pretty familiar.  The questions are about the details of the case.  The nature of the brain response to these questions informs us about both the knowledge of the events asked about but also, crucially, about the intent of the person if they were involved.  By way of an example Dr Vaya showed us the brainwave response for a suspect (later convicted) in an investigation and one of the investigating officers.  The investigating office knew the details of the of the case very well, but his (or her, Dr Vaya didn’t specify, but let’s be honest, almost certainly his) response was distinctly different, even to the untrained eye, to that of our later-proven-to-be-guilty suspect.

I have a B in A-Level law, so I’m sure you’ll agree I’m something of an authority in this area.  Many of the world’s legal systems have two elements to crimes – actus reus (did the perp actually do it) and mens rea (did the scoundrel do it on purpose).  The latter is generally much harder to prove than the former.  A glimpse inside the criminal mind can help with that.

The same is true with brands – people’s behaviours are fairly easy to observe.  Finding out why people are behaving the way they do is much more difficult.