Archive for November, 2015

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The response to the attacks in Paris require military, legal and ideation efforts, writes Anne-Marie Balbi.

In light of the recent horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris the world has stopped in awe to take in and contemplate the terrible atrocities of 13/11. A typical Friday night – wining and dining with your friends at the local restaurant; having an AW drink with your colleagues in a popular bar strip; watching a friendly soccer game live cheering for your team; heading to a much anticipated concert to watch a band play live – that turned into an inferno. All in the midst of the multi-cultural centres of Paris – where the future generations are thriving.

The horrific imagery that has emerged from outside the Bataclan concert hall where people are fleeing for their lives gives a traumatising glimpse of the events that unfolded. Literally like taken from a horror movie. Only it is real. It brings to mind a recent article by The Guardian that discusses why the current younger generation are so attracted to the ‘survival of the best’ movie series the Hunger Games.

“The brutal, bleak series that has captured the hearts of a generation” – referring to Generation K (coined by economist and academic Noreena Hertz) after the hero of the movie Katniss – who can relate to the movie on a personal level as they are navigating a dark and difficult world.

“This is a generation who grew up through 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and Islamic State terrors. They see danger piped down their smartphones and beheadings on their Facebook page,” says Hertz. “My data showed very clearly how anxious they are about everything from getting into debt or not getting a job, to wider issues such as climate change and war – 79 per cent of those who took part in my survey worried about getting a job, 72 per cent worried about debt, and you have to remember these are teenagers.”

For these young people are surrounded by violence everyday – for Generation K violence has become the new normal. We only need to rewind back a few weeks leading up to Friday: the metrojet crash in Sinai, suicide attacks in Beirut, attacks in Baghdad, and then Paris – it all speaks for itself. Only last Friday, Generation K ended up in the movie itself. They became the actual victims in the events that unfolded on Friday night.

Reducing the role of the victims serves nobody

Not only did Generation K become victims, they were also reduced by the audience. Much similar to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, where the victim’s voices were silenced due to the debates about religion and secularism, the same thing happened with the recent attacks.

Cheap political points were made by people, who instead of honoring the pain and grief of the victims and their loved ones going through the aftermath of the atrocities, had to get (facebook, twitter etc) ‘likes’ for making a case for why the same kind of attention was not provided for people in the ‘Arabic world’ or for ‘non-white people’.

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Although a fair point to be raised, the timing couldn’t be worse (disrespectful to say the least) for the victims (of all attacks) and the debate becomes completely misguided.

Let’s not forget that many of the victims in Paris probably were Muslims themselves, originating from Arabic countries. Nor is the Paris attacks a case of failed French assimilation policy or an issue of ‘social inclusion’, as insightfully discussed in this piece. If reports about the attacks being motivated by retaliation for French involvement in Syria prove correct, most parts of the world will qualify as the target for the next attack.

No matter what ISIS’ motivation for the attacks their end goal is division.

Let us instead respect the three days of mourning in France. Reducing the Paris attacks serves no-one. These kind of debates are worthwhile having, however it detracts from the real issue at hand. Instead we need to use this momentum for clearing through the clouded debates and unite against the real cause behind the attacks. In times like these we need clarity – we need to see things for what they are. Not clouded by the misguided debates on social forums.

“Ideas are all well and good, but wars are won in the material world”

So how do we respond to the attacks? The response will most certainly be clouded by the constant discourse of a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ and the claims of the West losing a ‘war of ideas’, however these claims, as professed over and over, are starting to ring quite hallow.

Any successful counter-terrorism approach must apply both soft and hard measures – or a smart power approach. Regardless of the lessons learnt and legacy of the Bush administration, we cannot defeat ISIS by just targeting their narrative and applying alternative counter-narratives.

J.M. Berger, a prominent ISIS expert, posted an insightful article only two days before the Paris attacks, stating that “[t]he Islamic State isn’t succeeding because of the strength of its narrative. It’s succeeding because it can mobilize a microscopic minority.” In a kind of state of clarity, he highlights how the refrain of a ‘war on ideas’ has echoed throughout most of American history. The ‘war on ideas’ was fought both against the Nazis and the Cold War communism – but was only defeated on the battlefield.

Similarly, Asne Seierstad, the author behind the book based on Anders Behring Breivik and the terrorist attacks in Norway in 2011, has in a response to the Paris attacks likened the Paris perpetrators with Breivik: “[t]he Islamophobes and IS are driven by the same hatred.”

According to her, the common factor for both the Islamic State and the ideologies of Anders Behring Breivik is the pure fascism – they position their people and religion above all others and do not hesitate to kill alleged enemies.

Seierstad also highlights another important aspect and similarity to Breivik. Although the Paris attack witnesses report the shooters claiming the acts were retaliation for French bombings in Syria they did not attack French military facilities or symbols of French power, such as ministries or palaces, nor tourist attractions such as Champs-Elysees nor the quarter neighboorhoods of the elites.

They were also not interested in attacking critics of Islam or right-wing populists. No, just like in the case of Breivik, the key target victims were the young, progressive and tolerant.

“They wanted to target where it would hurt the most – la vie a la francaise – the every day life.” They targeted the area of the 11tharrondissement – the area of the bobos (a term for those both bohemes and bourgeois) and hipster socialists. As Seierstad denotes, the area is known for being progressive: with a female socialist mayor; with a lot of votes for the Greens; where the voices of Le Pen, the nationalists and immigration critics has little ground. Therefore making them the perfect victims.

At the end of the day, terrorists want to create division. “They spread fear so that society will turn backwards, so that it will weaken, polarise, so that it shall topple from its basic foundations and values. The terrorist that knows its victims is the most dangerous.”

Seierstad stresses the French national soccer team and its fans as the ideal target of victims. The French national team is the most successful integration project in France, with most of the players having other ethnic backgrounds.

She concludes how the grey zone is IS’ warzone. That zone, which bridges gaps between people in Europe. That which you find between black and white. Between us and them. Between with or against. For ISIS the end goal is all about making things black and white – for humanity to choose between the camps of Islam or the infidels.

Just like the right-wing extremists hate the ‘colorful’ societies, the IS hates the ‘grey-zone’. The list of common denominators between the extremists is long – the hate against women, the talk about honor, martyrship, the thirst after power.

Resolute action required

It is no wonder that the unwillingness to engage in a military response is a legacy of the Bush administration. However, this fact should not cloud us from seeing things for what they are.

This time around there is no question of Iraq breeding terrorism and the Syrian conflict only plays into the hands of ISIS – which means that the international community, including regional parties, must put its differences aside to work for an endurable solution.

Because at the end of the day – no counter-narratives or ‘war of ideas’ are going to make ISIS go away. No containment – which has been the policy to date – has averted them from successfully carrying out attacks and stopped the spread of the organisation’s growth in the Middle East.

In fact, top European leaders are now saying that what happened in Paris could just as well have been Britain, Denmark or Sweden. Europe and other Western nations are now just preparing for the next attacks to take place.

While France and the US has initiated a coherent military response in light of the Paris attacks these efforts must be backed up by a unified international community – as what ISIS most fears is unity.

The battle against ISIS will only be won by a coherent effort targeting it on three levels: military, legal and ideational.

As a Swedish News Editor recently put it: “The civilised world must together unify against the barbarism while simultaneously defend the ideas of the enlightenment”.

We simply cannot let Generation K – the young, progressive and tolerant, whether in Baghdad, Beirut, Oslo or Paris – live their lives in midst of the Hunger Games.

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Please click here to view the article for the Guardian online.

The brutal, bleak series that has captured the hearts of a generation will come to a brutal, bleak end in November when The Hunger Games:Mockingjay – Part 2 arrives in cinemas. It is the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga, which has immersed the young in a cleverly realised world of trauma, violence, mayhem and death.

For fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight for survival in a country ruled by fear and fuelled by televised gladiatorial combat, this is the moment they have been waiting for.

Since the first book in the trilogy was published in 2008, Collins’s tale has sold more than 65 million copies in the US alone. The films, the first of which was released in 2012, have raked in more than $2bn worldwide at the box office and made a global star of their leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the increasingly traumatised Katniss with a perfect mix of fury and resignation. For the huge appeal of The Hunger Games goes deeper than the fact that it’s an exciting tale well told. The generation who came to Katniss as young teens and have grown up ploughing through the books and queuing for the movies respond to her story in a particularly personal way.

As to why that might be, the economist and academic Noreena Hertz, who coined the term Generation K (after Katniss) for those born between 1995 and 2002, says that this is a generation riddled with anxiety, distrustful of traditional institutions from government to marriage, and, “like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, [imbued with] a strong sense of what is right and fair”.

“I think The Hunger Games resonates with them so much because they are Katniss navigating a dark and difficult world,” says Hertz, who interviewed 2,000 teenagers from the UK and the US about their hopes, fears and beliefs, concluding that today’s teens are shaped by three factors: technology, recession and coming of age in a time of great unease.

“This is a generation who grew up through 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and Islamic State terrors. They see danger piped down their smartphones and beheadings on their Facebook page,” she says. “My data showed very clearly how anxious they are about everything from getting into debt or not getting a job, to wider issues such as climate change and war – 79% of those who took part in my survey worried about getting a job, 72% worried about debt, and you have to remember these are teenagers.

“In previous generations teenagers did not think in this way. Unlike the first-era millennials [who Hertz classes as those aged between 20 and 30] who grew up believing that the world was their oyster and ‘Yes we can’, this new generation knows the world is an unequal and harsh place.”

Writer and activist Laurie Penny, herself a first-era millennial at the age of 29, agrees. “I think what today’s young people have grasped that my generation didn’t get until our early 20s, is that adults don’t know everything,” she says. “They might be trying their best but they don’t always have your best interests at heart. The current generation really understands that – they’re more politically engaged and they have more sense of community because they’re able to find each other easily thanks to their use of technology.”

One of the primary appeals of the Hunger Games trilogy is its refusal to sugarcoat the scenarios Katniss finds herself in. In contrast to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there are no reliable adult figures to dispense helpful advice and no one in authority she can truly trust (notably even the most likeable adult figures in the books tend to be flawed at best and fraudulent at worst). Even her friends may not always have her back, hard as they try – Dumbledore’s Army would probably find themselves taken out before they’d uttered a single counter-curse in the battlegrounds of Panem. At the end of the day, Katniss can only rely on one person, herself.

“Ultimately, the message of the Hunger Games is that everything’s not going to be OK,” says Penny. “One of the reasons Jennifer Lawrence is so good is because she lets you see that while Katniss is heroic, she’s also frightened all of the time. She spends the whole story being forced into situations she doesn’t want to be in. Kids respond because they can imagine what it’s like to be terrified but know that you have to carry on.”

It’s incontestable that we live in difficult times and that younger generations in particular may be more acutely aware that things aren’t improving any time soon, but is it a reach to say that fans of the Hunger Games are responding as much to the world around them as to the books?

“At heart the Hunger Games works because it’s a great story with a kick-ass and complicated female lead,” says Saci Lloyd, author of the young adult novel Momentum, which details life in a cruelly divided London of the near future. “I don’t think that the majority of young readers are connecting to it on a political level, but I do think that it taps into their sense of anxiety. It’s clear that today’s teenagers feel a great deal of anxiety, that they’re under a lot of pressure, both internal and external, and that depression rates are rising among teens. There’s a sense that the hyper-connected world can be overwhelming, that there are no clear boundaries any more and today’s teens always have to be ‘on’ – given all that, a girl with a bow and arrow sorting shit out is a lovely story.”

Last week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission painted a dire picture of the prospects of British teenagers relative to previous generations. Louise O’Neill, whose bleak but brilliant Only Ever Yours has struck a huge chord with the millennial generation, agrees that the popularity of dystopian tales such as the Hunger Games is an echo of the times. “Millennials are the first generation unlikely to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents enjoyed. They’ve been priced out of the housing market, unemployment is almost a given and they’ve been saddled with economic debt which they did nothing to accumulate,” she says. “The anger they have about this, coupled with their genuine concern about social, political, and ecological crises, has created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. That’s why so many of this generation are drawn to dystopian fiction.”

Certainly there’s a sense that the Hunger Games trilogy was very prescient. When the first novel was published in 2008 the global recession was just beginning. Since then we’ve seen economic collapse in Greece, the Arab spring, civil war in Syria, the rise of Isis and the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police in the US leading to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Small wonder that the Hunger Games, with its tributes and brutal deaths, its armed rebellion in District 13 and its pleas by traumatised citizens for the state to stop killing its citizens, seems less like fantasy fiction and more like a dark reflection of our times.

“What works with the Hunger Games is that it’s really good about the way mass media makes a spectacle of brutality,” says novelist Daniel José Older, whose recent book for young adults, Shadowshaper, is an addictive story of magic, music, art and death on the streets of Brooklyn. “Whenever something awful happens and it gets shown repeatedly on TV, it really does make me think of those books. The idea that today’s teenagers respond so strongly because of what’s happening in the world is a simplification, but what’s interesting about the books is the way in which they take violence seriously and tackle the lasting effects of war and trauma. That’s what gives the work its power and makes it so unsettling.”

The Hunger Games continues to shape today’s stories, on both shelf and screen. Bookshop shelves are stuffed full of dark tales of bleak worlds, from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, to Veronica Roth’s Divergent, while the freshest new show of the year, Mr Robot, available in the UK on Amazon Prime instant video, feels like a New York-set reality-based companion piece to the Hunger Games, similarly driven by paranoia, trauma and betrayal. “Sometimes books arrive at the time you need them,” says Penny. “The Hunger Games is the right book for the right time – which is kind of frightening.”

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The generation reaching adulthood in the latter part of this decade has not yet been named. The reason for this may well be superstition. First, we had Generation X, the anhedonic children of the 1980s and 1990s; then there was Generation Y, the anxious, driven millennials who grew up just in time to inherit the financial crisis. What can today’s teenagers call themselves that doesn’t sound apocalyptic? Where else is there for them to go but the end of the alphabet? It’s a little too prophetic for comfort, because if ever there was a cohort born to save the world or die trying, it’s these kids. No wonder they all love The Hunger Games.

Most teenagers I know spend a frightening amount of time reading dystopian fiction, when they are not half killing themselves trying to get into universities that they know are no longer a guarantee of employment. Suzanne Collins’s dark trilogy, which tells the story of a teenage girl forced by a decadent, repressive state into a televised fight to the death with other working-class young people, has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. It has become the defining mythos for this generation in the way that the Harry Potter books were for millennials. In a recent study, the economist Noreena Hertz suggested naming the young people born after 1995 “Generation K”, after the traumatised, tough-as-nails protagonist of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. The logic is sound. The teenagers whom Hertz interviewed were beset by anxieties, distrusted authority and anticipated lives of struggle in a dangerous, uncertain world.

Every exciting, well-told adventure tale is a comfort to lonely children but some stories are much more than that. When I was at school, Harry Potter and his friends were more important than the Greek pantheon. Harry, Ron and Hermione spoke to the values of my millennial cohort, who grew up convinced that if we were talented and worked hard, we would go to the equivalent of wizard school and lead magical lives in which good would ultimately prevail.

We were wrong. Today’s young people have no such faith in the system. Not every­one gets a happy ending in The Hunger Games. The final instalment of the film adaptations of the books, which have smashed box-office records and made a superstar of Jennifer Lawrence, opens on 19 November. There is even a theme park planned, which seems rather redundant, as young people looking for the full Hunger Games experience – fighting to survive by stepping on the backs of other young people in an opulent, degenerate megacity – might as well try to get a graduate job in London.

Generational politics can obscure as much as they reveal. All of us, however, are marked by the collective political and cultural realities of the time when we grew up. The generation born after the mid-1990s is about to reach adulthood in a dark and threatening world, a world of surveillance and police repression, of financial uncertainty and environmental crisis, of exploitation at work and abuse on the internet. It will have to navigate this bleak future without the soothing coverlet of late-capitalist naivety that carried millennials through school and university until it was cruelly snatched away by the financial crisis in 2008. That was the year The Hunger Games was first published. Sometimes, the right story arrives at the right time.

The “young adult” section of every bookshop is now flooded with dystopian titles, from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series to Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which envisions a future in which women are trained from birth to be perfect wives and handmaidens, rather like a horror-movie remix of Teen Vogue. The publishing industry prefers to follow trends rather than set them but the inexhaustible hunger of Generation K for dystopian stories is partly a search for answers to questions that aren’t being addressed at home or at school, such as: “How will I survive when the world I know collapses?” and “How will I protect my family?”

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Potter universe and today’s dystopian stories lies in how the young protagonists relate to authority. Harry Potter and his friends are surrounded by sympathetic grown-ups, some of them wise, some of them kindly and some of them able to transform into furry animals. Sometimes authority goes wrong – such as when the hateful Dolores Umbridge takes over Hogwarts – but the problem is never with the system.

In The Hunger Games, the few adults who can be trusted have a tendency to be murdered by the state. Katniss cannot rely on any grown-up for help: not her drunken, shambolic mentor, not her traumatised mother and certainly not the agents of the Capitol, who are out to exploit her for their own ends. That mistrust tallies with the attitudes of today’s teenage readers, according to Hertz. They do not trust authority or institutions and why should they? Adults have made an Orwellian nightmare of half of the world and set fire to the rest. They might mean well but ultimately they do not have your best interests at heart, so it is up to you and your friends to keep fighting. This isn’t Hogwarts. You’ve got responsibilities and you’ll have to grow up fast.

If the moral of Harry Potter is that good will ultimately triumph, the message of The Hunger Games is that we are all doomed, adults can’t be trusted and all you can do is screw up your courage, gather your weapons and fight to survive, even if “the odds are never in our favour”. Today’s teenagers are braver, better connected and less naive than any generation in living memory and it is up to the rest of us to stand behind them. Spoiler alert: there could yet be a happy ending, as long as adults remember, like Katniss, that the young are “more than just a piece in their Games”.

We need to become smarter hunter-gatherers

November 5th, 2015 by admin

Please click here to view the interview for ING online.

When a monkey throwing a dart can predict the future as well as an ‘expert’, maybe it’s time to have the courage to rely less on the experts and to rather make up our own minds. And according to Noreena Hertz, strategist, commentator and author, we can. We just need to learn how to make smarter decisions. So we asked her how.

Q.You’re known for not being afraid to raise controversial topics. Do you deliberately set out to challenge conventional thinking?

A.“I pick subjects that interest me and that I want to dig into more deeply. In my first book I wrote about markets and companies and concluded that absent regulations pose a threat to government and democracy. In my second I talked about the looming debt crisis at a time when people were not really thinking about debt at all, and definitely not seeing this approaching global crisis that I was seeing. But I don’t set out with a mission to be controversial. The thing is, I’m not afraid to say what I think, even if that differs from the consensus. For me it’s about trying to get to the truth while knowing that truth can be a moving target and can evolve over time.”

“I’m not afraid to come out with what I think, even if that differs from the consensus”

Q.You say you’re not afraid to say what you think, but do you maybe sometimes feel like keeping your head down instead?

A.“No, never. I don’t mind if people I respect have critiques or interpretations of my ideas – I welcome that. I always want to refine my own thinking. But if it’s politicised critiques, or criticism from lazy reviewers who haven’t even read my books, then it’s water off a duck’s back. It really doesn’t bother me at all. I didn’t know that about myself before I started writing these books, but I quickly discovered that I really wasn’t fazed by criticism from parties I didn’t respect, and that I welcome it from parties I do.”

Q.Your first book warned of the ugly side of capitalism, your second of a looming financial crisis. Your last book was very different, exploring how we make decisions and how to do it better. What made you choose that as a subject?

A.“My first two books were political, in a macro sense, but my last book came from a personal place. Eyes Wide Open is also political, but it’s about empowering you to make smart decisions in your own life. The impetus was that I was very sick – I’m 100 percent well now – and had to figure out what to do, which doctor to trust and which expert and treatment to follow. As I went through that process I realised how little we think about how we make big decisions that affect our health, our wealth and our jobs – about the process of decision-making.”

Q.Were you surprised by what you learned about how we make decisions?

A.“Yes! There was a lot that I discovered as I researched this subject that surprised me. I hadn’t realised, for example, the extent to which our emotions and our physical state affect our decisions. It was fascinating to discover research into judges, in Israel, which found that the main determinant in whether or not someone was given parole was not the type of crime or the gender or the ethnicity of the applicant; it was whether the judge had recently eaten. Sleep, it turns out, also drastically affects our decisions. We all instinctively know that if you go a few nights without proper sleep you’ll feel pretty rough. But actually, if you go for a week sleeping for just three or four hours a night, it’s as if you’re making decisions while drunk.”

Q.Hungry judges, lack of sleep – what else should we be aware of when making decisions?

A.“A big one is our emotions. If you’re feeling anxious, that makes you generally more risk adverse when taking decisions. If you’re feeling happy, you are more willing to take risks. That’s why you see stock markets spike after a national team wins a football match. It’s not because anything has happened to the stocks or the companies, it’s just that the market is in a better mood. Colours, too, can affect us. For instance, waitresses are tipped more if they wear a red T-shirt. A referee is more likely to give a player a penalty if they are wearing a black strip. And research has found that even sophisticated investors are more likely to buy a stock if information about it is presented on green paper rather than red paper.”

“This isn’t about never trusting experts; it’s about not blindly trusting them”

Q.Given we’re so easily influenced, what can we do to start making better decisions?

A.“We need to start empowering ourselves to be smarter hunter-gatherers. This isn’t about never trusting experts; it’s about not blindly trusting them. It’s not about not going to a doctor if you’re sick; it’s about going armed with questions and being willing to interrogate and, ideally, having a dialogue. Experts, and I say this as an expert, are fallible and get things wrong. If you think of some of the biggest geo-political events of the last 25 years, whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of ISIS, the global financial crisis … all these events were not predicted by the bulk of experts. There was a study of 64,000 expert predictions done over a 16-year period, and it turned out that the experts did no better than a monkey randomly throwing a dart at a board.”

Q.Of course, that’s the hard part. Knowing what questions to ask, ascertaining if someone can be trusted or knows what they are talking about…

A.“Yes. The internet and social media have opened up a way for us to get information that we just didn’t have before. But, at the same time, we’ve also got to make sure we know the provenance of our information. We have to make sure we do follow the money and check if there are interests that may be distorting the information we are being given. And we have to remember that people’s direct experiences are only going to be anecdotal and that their experiences may not be directly relevant to us.”

Q.Do you think we’re worse at making decisions than we used to be?

A.“I think we have more challenges while making decisions than we had in the past. The volume of information we are confronted with has increased exponentially – there is just so much more information out there. Working out what to focus on, what to trust takes effort. The other big challenge is the amount of distraction that we are trying to cope with – emails and so on. This constant bombardment of interruption and disruption makes it increasingly hard to think. There’s research that I point to in my book which suggests that every time we are disturbed by an email it takes us 23 minutes to return to the same level of focus we were at before.”

Q.Turning to financial decisions, is there anything unique about making financial decisions that people should consider before they make them?

A.“Pretty much everything I cover in my book is applicable to financial decisions. We are not the rational beings of economic theory who objectively weigh information and make our choices. We are deeply affected by our emotions, by our moods, by the way information is communicated to us, by the quality of information we receive.”

“We are not the objective, rational beings of economic theory who weigh information and make our choices”

Q.So we should try to be emotionless?

A.“It’s not that we can’t be emotional. That’s not the message to take away. It’s about noting our emotions; about being able to say to yourself, ‘Okay, now I’m feeling anxious’, or, ‘I’m in a really good mood’, because just that act seems to regulate our decision-making. One piece of research found that Buddhist monks made the best financial decisions. That’s probably because they are very, very good at noting their emotional state. It’s just second nature to them.”

Q.Is there an ideal state to be in?

A.“Mindfulness; being aware of your state of mind. If you’re feeling really down and depressed, that probably isn’t the time to make a big financial decision, but ditto if you are feeling incredibly exuberant, because you are much more prone then to be reckless. So you need to note your emotional state.”

Q.Are there other things we can do to help us make smarter financial decisions?

A.“One of the key things is to bring a questioning mind to your relationship with your financial advisor. You want to be able to say to your financial adviser, ‘Oh, I was reading about this, what do you think about it?’ or ‘I’m not sure this is right for me’, or, ‘I heard about this’. Ideally, you want the relationship to be reciprocal as well, so that your adviser is also challenging you and questioning some of the assumptions you may have. You want an advisor you can have a dialogue with. You don’t want advisors who are 100 percent confident about what they are saying and sees things as very black and white, because, with matters of finance, as with matters of health, there are a lot of grey areas. The right advisor will improve your life, but part of the responsibility is on you to ask the right questions.”

Q.You talk in your book about the need to find a diverse range of people to advise us. Any tips on how to do that?

A.“One way is to actively seek out diverse perspectives amongst your network. This can be as simple as asking someone of a different gender or age what they think. There’s a lot of academic research on the power of difference and the value of different views that people of different ages, gender and ethnicity bring to a situation. So one thing is to look for people who don’t look like you and solicit their views. In a work environment, it’s about looking for the person who doesn’t just nod their head the whole time in agreement, and actively encouraging them to voice their views. Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, says that in meetings he will actively look for that person and get them to say what is on their mind. It’s something that is really important to do, especially if you are managing a group.”

Q.Are there things the financial sector could be doing to help consumers make smarter decisions?

A.“Clearly, there is a role that banks and financial institutions can play in helping empower consumers. More transparency would be a start. If you are a financial institution and you genuinely want to help your consumers make better decisions, you also have to accept that by empowering them there is a chance they won’t end up with you.”

Q.What about relying more on data to make our decisions?

A.“There are some really exciting advancements in data and Big Data. I’ve been doing some research in this area and, in terms of predictive capabilities, even looking at Google Trends can give you a heads up on a market before official data arrives. But as ever you need your eyes wide open and your brain switched on. For example, the UK government tracks Google search term data on some keywords. In October 2011, there was a massive overnight spike in searches for jobs. There was panic as they wondered what they had missed, and it took some time to realise that it was because Steve Jobs had died. So, there are amazing opportunities with data, but, again, we need to think about it and be careful about what we are using.”

Q.And before you can think carefully about data, you first need to be able to interpret it and understand it. However, a lot of people are mathematically illiterate…

A.“That’s something where I think education can really help. I have a chapter in my book about maths anxiety and it’s the one that has got the biggest reaction. It’s all about how to read graphs and charts, and all the things that can be done to manipulate the way numbers are presented. A lot of people, even very successful ones, haven’t done maths since high school, and they really found it very informative.”

Q.Final question. What would you do if you were a banker for a day?

A.“Wow. One wish. I would ask for all the payroll data of all the employees in my bank and I would make sure my female staff were being paid the same as my male staff.”