Politics with a Big P – The Psychological (& Twitter) Profile of a Politician

David Cameron

On May 8th 2015, David Cameron secured his place in Conservative party hall of fame by leading the first majority Tory government for decades. It was by all accounts, an unprecedented and historic result that left politicians eating their hats, journalists red-faced with wildly inaccurate projections and Labour evicted from Scotland.

Fundamentally though, it all came down to a battle of personalities – David Cameron, the Eton and Oxford educated ‘Toff’ or most Prime Ministerial candidate versus Ed Miliband, the slightly robotic and awkward, everyone-loves-an-underdog candidate (depending on your stance). Not to mention the ‘leader of the purple army’, Nigel Farage – another larger than life personality that moved the dial further along for his party in one year, than the entire decade prior to the election. This battle was no better observed than in the multiple TV debates, where different styles were showcased, and the country not only observed but got involved.

The nature of this involvement was social media. In the first truly digital British election, the major political parties used various platforms from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, as a strategic weapon to be yielded, with apparently evident success. An analysis of the social media numbers are clear – the conservative party had the largest social audience of the main parties (726k), followed by Labour with 604k1. The power of this social media connection, is that is brings the individual closer to the politician and creates a turbo-charged ‘parasocial interaction’2. A regular interaction of this kind occurs when members of the public feel that they have a relationship with characters in the media. The fact that media figures can communicate to us directly via social media amplifies this interaction and makes it much more intimate and personal. The character is the focal point here. Perhaps even more so than the ideology or values he or she represents. I follow my favourite sports personality on Instagram & Twitter – when he posts a picture or tweets, it comes straight to my phone. In the somewhat strange reality which is the social media world, it sometimes feels like I have an actual relationship with him. Or at least, the connection is a little less distant than it has previously ever been.  Against this backdrop, the individuality of a politician is acutely experienced and his or her personality plays a critical role in how successful his or her party becomes – Nicola Sturgeon and SNP ascendance being a great example.

I have been fascinated with the concept of leadership for many years. What is takes to be successful and how individuals can yield so much influence over organisations, countries and global institutions are questions which keep me fairly occupied. In my line of work, we assess and benchmark leaders against a research based, context dependent ‘success’ profile, often for senior level roles within organisations. Two of the dimensions of such a profile include ‘traits’ and ‘competencies’, reinforcing the importance and contribution of personality and key skills in the make up of those in positions of authority. Recent research by Silvester, Wyatt & Randall (2014) found that the typical profile of high potential UK politicians consisted of the following Big 5 traits (percentiles vs. general population):

Extraversion – 54th

Agreeableness – 38th

Conscientiousness – 21st

Neuroticism – 73rd

Openness – 46th

Interestingly, when these traits were correlated with performance ratings on competencies (based on colleague ratings), there was a significant relationship between conscientiousness and resilience and analytic skills, both competencies which were deemed critical for success and a negative relationship between these competencies and Neuroticism. So paradoxically, despite the profile of politicians here showing high Neuroticism and low Conscientiousness, those who were rated as performing successfully, are perhaps adaptable enough to flex their natural tendencies and exhibit behaviours which exude social prowess, assertiveness, a busy-body style, empathy, achievement drive and emotional control. And so, tuning up and tuning down certain behaviours or being interpersonally/ emotionally agile seems to be a very important skill.

However, of course this is the self-perception of politicians and ratings by their peers. What would be even more telling would be to build a success profile of politicians’ personality based on the public’s view of desirable traits. Maybe a strategy that Labour HQ should adopt, given the much discussed un-electability of the current leader of the opposition, Mr Corbyn? As the power of social media continues to drive the potency of the parasocial relationship we have with our politicians, personality and the holistic view of the individual will become an ever increasingly important factor in who wins future elections and with it, the unparalleled responsibility of leading nations.

Thoughts, critiques and questions welcomed as ever.


1 – https://www.integritysearch.co.uk/infographics/social-media-statistics-general-election-2015/

2 – Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229.

3 – Silvester, J. Wyatt, M. & Randall, R. (2014) Politician personality, Machiavellianism, and political skill as predictors of performance ratings in political roles, Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, Vol. 87 Issue 2, p258‐279.

The Psychometrics Forum: Unique Opportunity – Specialist Blog Writer

TPF Logo smallFor the last 35 years The Psychometrics Forum (TPF) has been furthering knowledge and understanding of Psychometrics and upholding best practice standards in test usage. TPF continues to hold world-renowned events, attended by practitioners and academics from across the globe in its Mayfair home as well as offering members discounted training in Psychometric tools. It also provides high quality content in its long-standing newsletter, Psyche and an online blog ‘Fresh Perspectives in Psychometrics and Psychology’ which has gained a truly international readership – facilitating both virtual and full membership growth.

In an effort to continue the expansion of the blog, a unique opportunity for an aspiring writer, with a background in applied Psychology has become available. TPF is taking applications in the form of a 300 word blog piece (plus CV) on a subject related to applied psychology or psychometrics (or anything relevant and interesting) which demonstrates what you can do!

Successful candidates will be given substantial discounts to our quarterly events and access to discounted psychometrics training, with brilliant exposure to leading figures within the field and opportunities to build professional networks.  The deadline for applications is 30th September 2015. Please send applications and/ or questions to rajesh.chopra24@gmail.com and share if you know of anyone who might be interested. Many thanks.

Blog Website – http://www.psychometricsforum.org/fresh-perspectives-on-psychometrics/ 

Pleasure now, pain later – the lure of the metaphorical marshmallow

Perhaps feeling guilty for not posting for some time, I went away to do some research into self-control. Whilst writing a regular blog is an incredible way to top up your knowledge of an eclectic range of areas within a specialism you love, the devil is in the discipline.

Interestingly enough, the stars seemed to align as they say, around the topic of delayed gratification. Having recently worked with a financial advance organisation, heard Daniel Kahneman give a talk in London, worked closely with a Social Neuroscientist and lastly, had my attention drawn to Walter Mischel’s groundbreaking studies in this area – it suddenly struck me. Obvious really, I’m sure you’re thinking as you read this; human decision making is paradoxical and we are terrible with ‘inter-temporal choice’ or choosing between outcomes that will be delivered at different points in time (Ainslie, G. & Haslam, N., 1992).

What compels someone to make the decision to forgo a more prosperous future, for an instant reward? Pleasure now, and in many cases pain later. What drives an individual to abstain, resist or control themselves today in order to work towards a desired goal? Pain now, pleasure later. Perhaps it’s as simple as ascribing someone as impulsive and a thrill-seeker versus a shrewd and disciplined operator. Personality factors in, which we can also relate back to a biological/ neuroscientific level as well as the environment in which development took place. As many school headmasters and army generals will attest, discipline is something which is taught but are some of us more naturally likely to delay gratification?

For many of us Psychology nerds, it’s always interesting to hear stories about prominent Psychologists. So when Prof Bob Hogan, last year at The Psychometrics Forum spoke candidly about Walter Mischel and how he stumbled across his now very famous findings through one of his grad students – serendipity came to mind. So too did the interesting implications of the conclusions of the longitudinal (over a period of years) study.

Now infamous, Mischel (1989) asked preschool children to sit in a room with a marshmallow treat whilst the researcher left. The child was simply told that the researcher would leave for a few minutes, and if they waited to eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned, they could have two marshmallows. However, if the child felt that they couldn’t wait to eat the treat, they should ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately, but they would only be allowed the single marshmallow. The test was one of simple self-control; children with good self-control would sacrifice the immediate pleasure of a tempting marshmallow in order to enjoy two marshmallows in the future.

These children were followed up in their adolescent years and the findings were striking. Those who delayed gratification were more likely to score higher on the SATs, and their parents were more likely to rate them as having a greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond to reason, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations and concentrate without becoming distracted.

40 years passed, and these preschoolers were now adults. The results were sustained. Those who delayed gratification were more likely to perform better at various self-control tasks compared to those who avoided that single marshmallow, over four decades prior to this!

What then, determines self control? Mischel suggests that metacognition or thinking about the way we think is critical to this ability. In particular, if we’re able to distract ourselves from the temptation, we’re more likely to avoid falling into the trap of succumbing to its appeal.  So, it seems to boil down to the strategic allocation of our attention or will power – bad news for procrastinators, in the era of Whatsapp, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, etc. As Mischel puts it – “once you realise that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

This has real implications for everyday life e.g. the management of money, and how we can as individuals control our personal debt and as a society, change the incumbent culture of credit dependence. Perhaps advances in social neuroscience will give us answers or at least explanations. The mindfulness movement aims to do exactly this. One of the benefits of this practice includes improving concentration and ability to allocate attention, by strengthening the top-down control of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) region of the brain over the Insula and then at the lowest level, the Amygdala. In effect, the more sophisticated cognitive centres of the brain are able to ‘turn down’ the more primitive signals coming from the limbic regions of the brain (e.g. Amygdala).

As I read further into this area, it struck me that for decades, Psychologists have probably been talking about the same thing but defined at different levels, influenced by their school of thought. Neuroscience’s sophisticated executive control centres, Mischel’s cold system, Kahneman’s slow system and Freud’s Superego versus Neuroscience’s primitive limbic centres, Mischel’s hot system, Kahneman’s fast system and Freud’s Id all speak to the same struggle; control over impulse.  The question is; with all of these developments, are we any better placed to help individuals develop this control, compared to 100 years ago?


Ainslie, George, and Nick Haslam.(1992). “Self-control.” Choice over time. 177, 209.

Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Monica I. Rodriguez. (1989). “Delay of gratification in children.” Science 244.4907: 933-938.

Inside the Psyche of a Negotiator – Seeing the Forest for the Trees  


What is the Psychology of an effective negotiator? How does our cognition impact the success of negotiation? And crucially, if negotiation magnifies human interaction, how does the nature of both parties’ internal state impact this dynamic?

Negotiation situations are and always have been a fundamental part of our society. From Pzeizer’s attempt to take over AstraZeneca, to an attempt at peaceful conflict resolution in the Ukraine, to you or I asking for a pay rise at the next performance review – negotiations have implications for individuals, institutions and our global society.

Negotiations are rarely clear-cut and straightforward. Instead, negotiators have the difficult task of making sense out of a ‘fuzzy’ and ambiguous situation. This is often caused by a lack of information about the real interests of the opponent (De Dreu et al, 2007).

In an ideal world, two opposing parties would work towards ‘integrative agreements’. This may entail a collaborative and innovative solution which is more valuable to both parties than a simple 50-50 split (De Dreu et al, 2007). Due to a number of elements, frequently due to human factors, negotiations tend towards avoidant and contentious strategies – creating an adversarial environment.  This piece takes an explorative Psychological and Neuroscience perspective, giving a brief snapshot of some of these factors.

Limited Bandwidth – according to the Limited Resource Theory (Baumeister, Muraven & Tice, 2000), effortful processing leads to an ‘ego depletion’ state. In this state, we are unable to commit sufficient processing power to be able to take the perspectives of others and engage in collaborative behaviours (Fennis, 2011). Some would therefore argue that having a definitive outcome which we rigidly pursue during negotiation can lead to unhelpful behaviours via ego depletion. Instead, adopting a more open, non-attachment mindset could allow one party to attentively listen to what the other is trying to say about their position and underlying motivation.

Ego Threat – When our status is challenged, research has found that we experience decreased IQ, increased responses in the amygdala (associated with emotionality) and decreased responses in the Pre-Frontal Cortex (crucial for cognitive control). Crucially, a reduction in status can generate a strong threat response, as research shows that the same area of the brain responsible for physical pain is activated when this occurs (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). So, when we feel that someone is challenging an idea or stance we identify with, we will take up an ego-defensive position in order to protect our status. This typically leads to competitive behaviour, negative views of the opponent and extreme attitudes (De Dreu and Van Knippenberg, 2005).

Empathetic Awareness – The key to reaching ‘integrative agreements’ is looking beyond the other parties’ position/ stance and understanding their interests and motivations. Where we are limited is our faulty assumption that others see the world exactly as we do. And therefore want the same things as us. This assumption manifests via the ‘fixed-pie’ assumption (Thompson & Hastie, 1990), which leads us to assume that there are limited resources. We therefore engage in a zero-sum mindset – placing us in a directly opposed position to those we are negotiating with, instead of adopting a win-win mindset.

Unconscious Heuristics – In order to efficiently process our world, humans have developed an incredible ability to make decisions very quickly based on our past experiences. However, frequently, this can lead us to misinformed decisions, as we base these decisions on ‘heuristics’ or general rules of thumb (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). Kahneman & Tversky outlined a number of these heuristics but the two below are particularly crucial in negotiations:

–          ‘Anchoring’; the tendency to rely on an arbitrarily chosen point of reference. Negotiators often anchor onto their counterpart’s opening offer and allow counter-offers to be dictated by this.

–           ‘Availability Heuristic’; the tendency to rely on information which is most easily accessible to us through our memory. Here, we must possess the motivation to go beyond the immediately available information, to make more informed decisions.

Discovering Fairness – we are hardwired to seek fairness. However, the way in which we judge fairness differs between parties as what others value, drives their positions and stances. This has crucial implications for settling agreements, as fairness can detract from the creation of value by focussing attention on the equal sharing of resources (De Dreu, et al, 2007). So, a well intentioned negotiator may actually be proposing a completely unfair offer, if they don’t fully understand their opponent. This has been shown to lead to a strong threat response, activating areas in the brain which are involved in emotions such as disgust (Tabibnia & Lieberman, 2007).

So what has this journey through the negotiator’s Psyche told us?

To be a value creating negotiator, one has to be able to pierce through the rhetoric of an opponent’s position, to understand their underlying interests and motivation. This requires an ability to ’see the forest for the wood’ or take a step back and detach from your personal position, be empathetic, keep your ego in check, do your research and understand what ‘fair’ looks like for both parties. Sounds like a walk in the park doesn’t it (!) or better yet walk in the forest…

Written by Raj Chopra, Committee Member of TPF @Raj_Chopra24

Follow The Psychometrics Forum on Twitter @TPF_UK


Baumeister, R. F., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Egodepletion: A resource model of volition, self-regulation, and controlled processing. Social Cognition, 18, 130–150.

De Dreu, Carsten K. W.; Beersma, Bianca; Steinel, Wolfgang; Van Kleef, Gerben A. Kruglanski, Arie W. (Ed); Higgins, E. Tory (Ed), (2007). The psychology of negotiation: Principles and basic processes. Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (2nd ed.)., (pp. 608-629). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press, xiii, 1010 pp.

De Dreu, C. K. W & Van Knippenberg, D. (2005). The possessive self as a barrier to constructive conflict management: Effects of mere ownership, process accountability, and self-concept clarity on competeitve cognitions and behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 345-357.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Fennis, B. M. (2011). Can’t get over me: Ego depletion attenuates prosocial effects of perspective taking. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (5), 580–585.

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973). On the Psychology of Prediction. Psychological Review, 80, 237-251.

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.

Tabibnia, G., Satpute, A. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). ‘The sunny side of fairness: Preference for fairness activates reward circuitry (and disregarding unfairness activates self control circuitry). Psychological Science, 19 (4), 339–347.

Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

Thompson, L. L, & Hastie, R. (1990). Social perception in negation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 47, 98-123.

Venturing beyond bounded rationality – what can intuition give us and should it be cultivated?

Head vs heart

Whether we we like it or not, intuition plays a role in our personal and business decisions.  While early theories of decision making focused on rationality as the main driving force, we understand now that this is not really the case. It is for this reason that intuition has been gaining attention from both Psychologists and managers/leaders within organisations.

An official definition: Intuition, or “gut feeling” is a feeling of knowing something or wanting to take a particular course of action, without knowing why (Hensman & Sadler-Smith, 2011).  It is thought to result from unconscious processing that involves making connections between information.  Also, it is thought to develop with experience because the more knowledge and experience a person has within a certain situation, the more he or she is able to link that information together and make associations.  In fact, intuition is just a name for something that happens naturally in most people.  But it is distinct from the following:

Instinct “Fast, reflexive responses that enable organisms to react to a threat and enhance its possibilities of survival” (Hodgkinson, Langan-Fox & Sadler-Smith, 2008).  Instinctive responses are not based on prior learning and expertise.
Insight A sudden moment of realisation.  Unlike intuition, this realisation often occurs after a period of conscious processing. (Hodgkinson et al., 2008)
Creativity The creation of novel and unusual ideas and outcomes.  Whilst the early, pre-conscious stages of creative thinking may involve intuition, intuition is distinct from creativity as it is made up of ideas drawn from experience rather than necessarily novel ones (Hodgkinson et al., 2008)
MBTI Intuition “Personality preference for taking in information through a “sixth sense” and noticing what might be” (www.opp.com)

When people think of intuition, they often see it as unreliable, irrational and subject to biases, a contrast to rational and reasoned thinking.  For example, Professor Daniel Kahneman’s popular book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, contrasts two interlinked systems.  The “slow” system refers to, rational and conscious thinking that takes effort whereas the “fast” system refers to unconscious but fast thinking.  The message is that “fast” thinking is useful for making efficient decisions and is often the default way of thinking, but it is more subject to thinking errors and biases.  This fast system incorporates aspects of intuitive thinking, such as making connections between information.  Other researchers, similarly, speak of bounded rationality and our limited capacity to think rationally (Simon, 1987).

However, have we really stopped to think about the benefits of intuition, especially its relevance to businesses today?  In particular, intuitive decision making has been shown to be important for decisions that:

–          Need to be made quickly

–          Have no right or wrong answer

–          Require taking into account lots of different information

–          Must be made with incomplete information                       (Agor, 1986, Woiceshyn, 2009)

These are decisions that executives make every day: strategic decisions, evolving decisions and, importantly, decisions made in VUCA situations (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).  With changes in technology, social attitudes, social media, marketing and the economy, business decisions are often and increasingly made under these conditions.  Intuition is therefore likely to add value for individuals making these types of decisions – value that we should be tapping into.

However, how would this work in practice?  Unfortunately, it seems that improving decision making is not as simple as just using more or less intuition.  Research is seriously lacking around whether cultivating intuition actually improves decisions.  Psychologists have begun to explore the role of context and this is where the complexities lie.  Using intuition is seen to be beneficial in some situations and not in others.  For example, senior managers have reported that using intuition is linked to positive organisational performance in unstable environments but actually relates to negative performance in stable environments (Khatri & Ng, 2000).  This indicates that intuition should be used cautiously in stable environments in which more reliable information is available to analyse and make a reasoned decision.  In contrast, other researchers conclude the opposite; relying on intuition and heuristics may be useful for routine tasks, in order to speed up decisions, but these are unlikely to be useful in new and uncertain situations (Woiceshyn, 2009).  Rob Briner, too, suggests that intuition should be used for every day, routine decisions but never for large decisions that are new and have lots at stake (www.cebma.org/presentations).  Other aspects that affect the reliability of intuitions include personality, mood, importance of a decision and attitudes of others.  The whole picture is rather complicated and, as of yet, incomplete.

As part of my own Master’s degree research I investigated these complexities and interviewed 10 HR Directors (HRDs) on the subject.  I was drawn to HR, because typically HR and people decisions are amongst the most likely to involve intuition.

The first-hand accounts gave a fresh perspective on the topic.  Overall, characteristics of the individual, organisation and the decision itself all impacted on how intuition was used and the consequences of this.  All 10 HRDs used gut feel in some form, mostly relying on both intuitive feelings and other sources of evidence, such as talking to others.

Especially interesting were HRDs insights into the value of intuition in their context.  For example:

  • Intuition was a useful way of linking individual goals to the organisation’s, in order to make a good decision.  For example, when turning round a business on the brink of collapse, one individual used his gut feel to make immediate changes to the workplace and workforce based on his understanding of individuals’ skill sets as well as his understanding of how the business needed to develop at that time.  He put people into teams based on the products they were contributing rather than their function.
  • Social factors influenced intuition.  Stakeholders and colleagues influenced decision making as HRDs have to provide a clear rationale for the decisions they make, so they needed to have evidence, not just gut feel.
  • Intuition gave HRDs confidence in their own decisions.  For example, even though an individual looked for reasoning and evidence for a decision, they needed to feel that the decision was right too.  Confidence also helped HRDs to convince others of their decision, as they were convinced themselves.

In practice, relying on a combination of gut feel and other sources of information seemed to be a way of acknowledging limitations whilst maximising the potential that intuition had.  Like most practitioners, HRDs agreed that intuition must be used with caution, alongside other sources of evidence, and only in certain situations.

It is important to point out that these results only apply to this group of HRDs.  Still, it gives us food for thought and opens us up to benefits of intuition that I hadn’t considered before.  For example, intuitive feelings can give a person, and others around him, confidence in a decision, and this in itself is valuable.

There is much more to do before wholeheartedly encouraging the use of intuition, such as investigating the contexts in which it improves decision making and organisational outcomes.  However, I think it is time to look further than the reduction of thinking errors (as emphasised by Kahneman) and start to explore more widely, how we might maximise the potential of our own gut feelings.


Agor, W. H. (1986). The logic of intuition: How top executives make important decisions. Organizational Dynamics,14(3), 5-18.

Dane, E., & Pratt, M. G. (2007). Exploring intuition and its role in managerial decision making. Academy of Management Review, 32(1), 33-54.

Hensman, A., & Sadler-Smith, E. (2011). Intuitive decision making in banking and finance. European Management Journal, 29(1), 51-66.

Hodgkinson, G. P., Langan‐Fox, J., & Sadler‐Smith, E. (2008). Intuition: A fundamental bridging construct in the behavioural sciences. British Journal of Psychology, 99(1), 1-27.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Khatri, N., & Ng, H. A. (2000). The role of intuition in strategic decision making. Human Relations, 53(1), 57-86.

Simon, H. A. (1987). Making management decisions: The role of intuition and emotion. The Academy of Management Executive, 1(1), 57-64.

Woiceshyn, J. (2009). Lessons from “good minds”: How CEOs use intuition, analysis and guiding principles to make strategic decisions. Long Range Planning, 42(3), 298-319.



Nikhita Dost bio

Nikhita is a Psychologist and Coach.  She currently works at Human Systems (Business Psychologists) Ltd, a global consultancy specialising in executive coaching, training and development.  She is also a strategy coach with Genius Within Ltd.  Nikhita is an Oxford graduate and gained a distinction in her Organisational Psychology MSc research on intuition and executive decision making.

Defining, Diagnosing and Predicting Safety Culture

Health and safety

Chernobyl. Piper Alpha. BP Oil Disaster. These names may spark memories of news images relating to horrendous scenes of destruction, loss of life and vast environmental damage. Along with the shared element of carnage, the common thread throughout the post incident investigations was the focus on the contribution that Safety Culture (or lack thereof) played.

‘Safety Culture’ (or climate as it is commonly referred to, but let’s ignore the Culture vs Climate debate for now) has seen many definitions however the one I personally like is “(the) shared perceptions of work environment characteristics as they pertain to safety matters that affect a group of individuals” (1). Safety culture has received a lot of attention from different organisations, professionals and communities alike, which is justified due to the attributed influence of the aforementioned disasters.

Upon completing my Masters degree, I was employed to help manage, develop and evaluate an existing initiative aiming to influence and evolve the safety culture of a large coal fired power station. Since then I have been hired by a Mechanical Engineering contracting company to develop a similar initiative working on sites which range from steelworks and cement factories to power stations. Part of the work within this project has seen me use Safety Culture surveys to help evaluate sites and companies safety culture.

Many models of Safety Culture tend to follow either the HSE’s (Health and Safety Executive) Safety Culture Maturity model (2), DuPonts Bradley Curve (3) or heavily research based models such as Parker, Lawrie and Hudson’s (4) five-factor model of Safety Culture. All of these models see safety culture as a progressive maturation in a company, placing a company definitively at a certain level. For example, a company couldn’t partly be in the Proactive or Generative (the Holy Grail of Safety Culture) stage and partly in the lower level Reactive culture.

In reality I have found these models somewhat limiting in terms of diagnosing Safety Culture because in some areas I find a site may be proactive and in others reactive, limiting how I can accurately feedback what the actual state of a site’s culture might be. Nevertheless, they have been great for use in training or action groups to start discussions, find differences in views, and formulate ideas on how to improve.

Alongside the models there are certain trait-like theories examing which areas create more mature cultures. These theories break down Safety Culture into numerous areas which can vary between five and twelve areas with common elements centring on trust, communication, management commitment and using proactive indicators. A popular theory purported by Dr Tim Marsh (5), a leader in behavioural safety and linking Psychology and safety, states that proactive safety cultures are effective in managing six key areas, namely: communication, workforce involvement, modelling, challenging, analysis and use of lead (proactive) indicators.

I have found these better for guiding my individual actions compared with the maturity models. They do require greater care in explanation within training or communication setting and I have had to invest more time in considering the most appropriate language to use for different groups.

For all the interest in this area, there would seem to be little agreement any one theory of Safety Culture. For example what the Big Five (whether you agree or disagree with its claims) has done for personality, Safety Culture research lacks (though attempts have been made)6 and Guldenmung (7) warned we were not ready yet for such a theory. However over a decade later, Zohar (8) suggests that we may be ready now to go back and look at the theoretical underpinning of Safety Culture, given the vast amount of research done over the past thirty years.

Whilst I hope for a development in Safety Culture theory (‘there is nothing as practical as a good theory’) I still believe safety professionals need to better understand how safety culture actually influences work practice, how to effectively conduct a Safety Culture diagnosis, and what this information should be used for.

Currently, there seems to be mixed evidence that safety culture categorically predicts safety outcomes. Often, it is difficult to pin point the exact factors at play, as in reality achieving a safe culture is often dependant on many other factors such as safety motivation, safety knowledge, transformational leadership, the work context and production pressures (9). I would argue that these other areas are better predictors of performance and safety culture helps us to emphasise their importance.

Furthermore, different methods for defining Safety Culture could have a large impact on the way culture is defined. Antonson (10) looked at survey methods verses more qualitative methods of defining safety culture and how they produced vastly different views of culture. Within this was also a suggestion that the different methods may actually be picking up on different concepts within culture. This is an interesting observation and one that doesn’t instil me with confidence in predicting safety outcomes from safety culture surveys alone.

Along with this I suspect that the effective use of safety culture surveys could be improved upon. A report by the Keil Institute (11) showing that of 142 companies that took part in the review and used the HSE Safety Climate survey tool, only 13% used the benchmarking data to inform the results. From personal experience when I’ve enquired how certain sites or HSE departments have conducted their surveys, many have not used benchmarking nor have they repeated them over multiple periods of time. Both of these problems have lead to a restricted view of safety culture thus lacking reference points for effective interpretation.

These three issues together – predicting safety outcomes, methods of diagnosing safety culture and effective interpretation of survey data –makes me question how the energy and manufacturing industries I’ve worked in, use information relating to safety culture. Many safety professionals (including myself) I suspect, are tempted to use such information as ‘predictive measures’ of safety performance; however I question whether, because of the outlined state of Safety Culture knowledge and practice, this is appropriate.

I truly believe though that the concept and diagnosis of Safety Culture is a useful tool in the safety professional’s toolbox. It can help guide improvement plans, highlight areas of concern before issues arise and can safely start discussions surrounding controversial or sensitive subjects.

Whether it took the disasters mentioned to make high risk industries focus their interest in safety culture matters little now. Psychologists should be happy that safety culture research and diagnosis is another area where their skill-set can be put to effective and beneficial use.


1 – Christian, M, S., Bradley, J, C., Wallace, J, C., Burke, M (2009). Workplace Safety: A Meta-Analysis of the Roles of Person and Situational Factors. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94,5, 1103-1127.

2 – Keil Institute Report (2000) Safety Culture Maturity Model. HSE Report 2000/049

3 – DuPont Website accessed Jan 2014. DuPont Bradley Curve. – http://www.dupont.com/products-and-services/consulting-services-process-technologies/operation-risk-management-consulting/uses-and-applications/bradley-curve.html

4 – Parker, D., Lawrie, M., Hudson, P (2006). A Framework for Understanding the Development of Organisational Safety Culture. Safety Science. 44,6, 551-562.

5 – Marsh, D (2009) ASM: Affective Safety Management. IIRSM.

6 – Flin, R., Mearns, K., O’Connor, P., & Bryden, R. (2000). Measuring Safety Climate: Identifying the Common Features. Safety Science, 34, 177–193.

7 – Guldenmund, F. (2000). The Nature of Safety Culture: a Review of Theory and Research. Safety Science, 34, 215– 257

8 – Zohar, D (2010) Thirty Years of Safety Climate Research: Reflections and Future Directions. Accident Analysis & Prevention. 42, 1517-1522.

9 – Cooper, M, D., Phillips, R, A (2004) Exploratory Analysis of the Safety Climate and Safety Behaviour Relationship. Journal of Safety Research. 35, 497-512.

10 – Antonsen, S (2009). Safety Culture Assessment: Mission Impossible? Journal of Crisis Management. 17,4, 242-254.

11 – Keil Institute Report (2002). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Health and Safety Executive’s Health and Safety Climate Survey Tool. HSE Report 2002/042

Aaron Percival Bio

With an MSc in Occupational Psychology from Nottingham University, Aaron joined Power Industrial Group Ltd, an independent Mechanical Engineering Contractor. He has been responsible for developing a companywide behavioural safety initiative with additional work relating to apprentice wellbeing and advising on human factors. Main interests include Safety culture, decision making, human factors and accident causation.

Moral Intelligence – Does it Belong in the Boardroom?

Moral compassEmbracing the stubborn idealist within me, I’ve always disagreed with people when they’ve told me that the good guys always come last. However, this sentiment has frequently been met with murmurs of naivety, contending against lasting personal experiences of ‘snakes in suits’ and countless examples of ruthless power figures. The case for the good guys was and still is at times, hard to make. However, following economic/political landscape shifting events such as the 2008 financial crash, the issue of morals and integrity have very much been catapulted into the mainstream.  However, moral development and Moral Intelligence are not necessarily new concepts. With morality in general dating back to ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, it holds a key position as one of the central human virtues. Fast forward to the contemporary era and we have seen huge strides in the understanding of the development of this phenomenon; from Psychological theory (Kohlberg, 1958) to an integrated neuroscientific-evolutionary-developmental perspective of Moral Intelligence to the development of moral reasoning ability tests.

There seems to be a general consensus that Moral Intelligence, defined as ‘the capacity to understand right from wrong…to have strong ethical convictions and to act on them so that one behaves in the right and honourable way’ (Borba, 2002) is a developmental type of reasoning. This suggests that Moral Intelligence is developed and refined through experience. This is exactly what Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (1958) would suggest, but the second integrated perspective (to be discussed later) places huge importance on childhood experience on the eventual development of Moral Intelligence in adulthood.

Kohlberg’s model of moral development

Firstly, let’s explore the former model, which in many ways takes a ‘deepdive’ into moral development, building on Piaget’s more general work on cognitive development. Kohlberg’s model, based on seminal research around the moral dilemma of a man named Heinz*, found there to be a 3 level developmental model of morality. Each level is made up of two components and broadly speaking, consists of the following moral reasoning:

Level 1

Pre-conventional morality: authority is outside the individual and reasoning is based on the physical consequences of actions i.e. being punished.

Level 2

Conventional morality

Authority is internalised but not questioned and reasoning is based on the norms of the group to which the person belongs.

Level 3

Post-conventional morality (Kohlberg suggested that most people don’t reach this level)

Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice – the defence of these principles would be of paramount importance even if this means going against the rest of society in the process and having to pay the consequences of disapproval and or imprisonment.

A Neuroscientific-Evolutionary-Developmental perspective of Moral Intelligence

A more recent theory of Moral Intelligence takes an integrated approach, utilising developments in Neuroscience and relating them to Developmental and Evolutionary Psychology. The Triune Ethics theory (TET; Narvaez, 2008; 2009) refers to the development of moral functioning. In this case it is defined as the capacity to respond appropriately (noticing, feeling for, imagining, solving and acting on the needs of others) to events which affect the welfare of these others (near or far). This theory is based on evolutionarily mechanisms, shaped by our early social experience and subsequent emotional development. Again, there are three ‘ethics’ which represent stages of moral development, as follows:

Security ethic – “bunker morality”

Attributed to the ‘older brain’ regions, such as the extrapyramidal action nervous system (Panksepp, 1998) and activated when a person feels threatened, which suggests that the self-preservation networks of the brain i.e. fight-flight are involved. However, this ethic leads to less compassion. If applied to a business context, self-preservation would be pursued by the gain of money and security, perhaps at the expense of others. This can be seen as akin to the pre-conventional level of morality from Kolberg’s model because of the tendency to exhibit behaviour to self-preserve (i.e. avoid punishment).

Engagement Ethic – “harmony morality”

This ethic is suggested to involve the emotional systems (the visceral-emotional nervous system on the hypothalamic-limbic axis; Panksepp, 1998) that allow for intimacy, compassionate response and self-sacrifice for others. The Ethic of Engagement emphasises face-to-face emotional affiliation with others, particularly through caring relationships and social bonds.  It is suggested that children with more ‘responsive’ mothers are more likely to exhibit conscience development, agreeable personalities, and prosocial behavior (Kochanska, 2002).

Imagination Ethic – “mindful or heartless morality”

This ethic is attributed to more recently evolved and higher level functioning brain capacities (i.e., prefrontal cortex), shown to be fundamental for complex social and moral functioning. This ethic uses cognitive reasoning to adapt to ongoing social relationships and to envision alternatives to what exists and make plans to guide action for change. This ethic can be accessed through the ‘Security Ethic’ where outsiders are seen as intruders to protect the self/group against, hence heartless morality. Alternatively, the Imagination Ethic can be accessed through the development of the ‘Engagement Ethic’ where outsiders are approached with collaboration and compassion hence ‘mindful morality’.

These latter two ethics map less closely to the stages 2 and 3 of Kohlberg’s model – hence there is a divergence between approaches here.

This may well seem fairly far removed from the business world, but the question which comes to mind when I think about this developmental model is, does Moral Intelligence have a critical window for development? If so, is it fair to say that if someone has ‘under-developed’ Moral Intelligence, come adulthood when individuals become managers and leaders of organisations, is there anything we can do? In other words, once an immature moral egg, always an immature moral egg? Again, the stubborn idealist in me would object, but given the compelling biological and theoretical case made above, perhaps in this case it is naivety?

Moral reasoning tests

Nevertheless, integrity, authenticity and morality are qualities that organisations do recognise as being crucial for good business, and not only as desirable qualities of their people. This is demonstrated by the Corporate Executive Board (2011) finding that ‘high integrity’ companies experienced a 8.8% shareholder return over 10 years versus ‘low integrity’ companies experiencing  minus 7.7% shareholder return over 10 years. This was the area explored by Louisa Tate of Cubiks at this month’s Psychometric Forum event – New Frontiers of Psychometrics. Louisa shared with us the Cubiks moral reasoning tool, currently in development. It’s an ability test, which measures one’s level of moral development, based on the three levels of Kohlberg’s model.  It is the first of its kind, as an ability test which controls for social desirability bias. Set up like a Situational Judgement Test, test takers are presented with videos of moral dilemmas and they must provide justification for the actions they would take in each moral conundrum – based on a likert scoring scale. As it is in development, validation research is still being conducted, but I’m keen to see how this tool is eventually applied out in the business world.

In answer the question posed in the title, I would say a resounding yes (and I know that most of the attendees at the TPF event this month would also agree) that morality absolutely does have a place in business. The mark of a developed society, I would argue, is how pervasive morality is within it – from organisational practices, to political accountability, to educational access and beyond. I’d like to finish this piece with a quote which demonstrates this point from one of the most influential, highly respected and as most would agree moral individuals of the 20th century.

“Seven Deadly Sins

Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Science without humanity
Knowledge without character
Politics without principle
Commerce without morality
Worship without sacrifice.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Written by Raj Chopra, committee member of TPF – @Raj_Chopra24

Follow The Psychometrics Forum on Twitter: @TPF_UK

* Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. The chemist refused saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.


Borba, M. (2002) Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. Jossey-Bass; England.

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191–195.

Kohlberg, L. (1958). The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Chicago.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities.  New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119.

Narvaez, D. (2009). Triune Ethics Theory and moral personality. In D. Narvaez & D.K. Lapsley (Eds.), Moral Personality, Identity and Character: An Interdisciplinary future (pp. 136-158). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.