Lockdown Stories: Magic Hooks, Crazy Thinking, Free at Last

How’s your lockdown going? For me it’s beginning to feel normal, but I’ve worked at home for more than fifteen years so the shock wasn’t anywhere near as profound as it was for some.

Life trundles on. Here are some stories from my lockdown world.

Magic hooks

When we moved into our Devon home, the place was littered with mysterious wire objects. Literally hundreds of them dangled from the rafters and sills of crumbling sheds. Hundreds more were strewn around the garage like rusty insect legs.

Three and a half years later, they have proved essential. These are not just hooks. These are magic hooks, created by our home’s marvellously eccentric previous owner, Mr Desmond Kemp, a man who – it turns out – invented a hook of quite awesome usefulness and practicality.

Long versions of Des’ magic hooks hang bird feeders from trees beautifully, making them easy to take down from high or awkward places without a ladder. Shorter, thicker versions suspend tools and garden equipment from the garage roof’s steel struts. Some are used to safely dangle heavy cast iron lamps outside outbuildings. Tiny delicate Des hooks are perfect for suspending jewellery. The slim, super-strong ones are ideal for dangling hanging baskets. They’re wonderful in the wardrobe.

The ex-owners left such a strong, interesting presence behind them. It took at least a couple of years for us to stop talking about them, wondering about them, discussing the work they’d done to the house and garden. Now it feels like they’ve gone, properly gone, but Des’ magic hooks still serve as a friendly reminder of the people who loved this place for so many years before we even knew it existed.

Crazy thinking

In thirty years as a New Scientist reader, I can count the times I’ve called scientists ‘idiots’ on one finger.

This is that time.

The Behavioural Insights Team – BIT – was originally a government body, now it’s a private company. It was set up some years ago to harness the science of ‘nudging’, a powerful yet subtle way to change public behaviour. Over time it has managed to nudge us into various ‘better life choices’.

So far, so sensible? We’ll see. First, listen to this:

“As soon as it became clear the new coronavirus was poised to become a pandemic, behavioural scientists around the world joined their biomedical colleagues in dropping whatever they were working on to find ways to tackle the virus. One of the first groups out of the blocks was the BIT.”

BIT apparently used a randomised control trial to test the effectiveness of hand washing posters from around the world. It recruited 2600 adults in the UK, ran an online trial, and eventually discovered:

  • Practical, utilitarian messages – those BIT expected to work best, “barely worked at all”
  • Morally-charged messages, “especially those emphasising our responsibilities towards families, friends and even strangers” worked a great deal better

At the same time the Behavioural Research people at Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Unit recommended “using behavioural science to help fight the coronavirus”.

So what massive, enormous thing did these two venerable organisations – both stuffed with brilliant scientific minds – miss by an embarrassing mile?

All they had to do was ask a direct response marketer – any direct response marketer – to get the answers they needed in less than a minute, without wasting time, wasting resources, and potentially delaying essential action by re-inventing the wheel.

When you want to communicate effectively with an audience, any audience, just ask a marketer.

Which brings us back to the fine art of nudging. As far as I can see, the magical nudge politicians rely on is actually nothing more than marketing done better than governments usually do it. In fact BIT’s entire remit, from start to finish, could have been achieved a great deal cheaper, faster and better by any halfway-good marketing agency.

Idiots.

Fifteen year learning curve

Honestly. It has taken me fifteen years as a freelance writer plus a global health crisis of epic proportions to finally learn to step away from my screen when there’s no more work to do.

These days I’m thrilled to be able to walk away without feeling the heavy guilt of the work ethic driving me back to fiddle on social media, or fanny around with my website when there’s no need.

While the work has started to flow back after a dire April, and that’s good, I can safely say I am no longer a slave to the nine to five. At long last.

Have you learned anything seriously useful in lockdown?

Stay safe, stay kind, and shout if you want luscious words. Sending love… x

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