How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes

How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes?

Incomes, net worth, choices in life, health and social cohesion all help constitute socio-economic well-being.  How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes in future?

Good socio-economic outcomes are determined by environmental (when and where we are born) and social factors (who our parents are etc.) Economic performance is also shaped by history, resource endowments, institutions, and supporting cultures and civil society.  New Zealand has most of the conditions for better socio-economic performance and can do much better in absolute terms.

However, people are also concerned with their relative as well as real incomes and net worth.  Income inequality relative to others is associated with bad outcomes such as crime and poor health.  Relative income is a proxy for deeper variables, including psychological mechanisms associated with perceptions of status within hierarchies.

People do not so much aspire to equality as to fairness.  Even hard-headed businesses pay over the market wage for fairness, reciprocity and to support group norms.  Perceptions of procedural fairness better predict compliance with organisational norms than do specific rewards and punishments.

The best-performing societies and economies share common features including:

  • Strong government
  • Inclusive and responsive government
  • Rule of law, and rights
  • Effective property rights
  • Macroeconomic stability and microeconomic flexibility
  • Market economy and trade betterment
  • Public goods and infrastructure
  • Strong and open institutions, including those promoting innovation
  • Capability development
  • Civil society and social engagement, and trust in society

Strong government

A strong government must make and enforce laws and regulations.  It needs to guard against internal and external threats through policing, military and security services.

It is fitting that the preamble to the Treaty of Waitangi focuses on creating an authoritative government that can create and maintain order. Private and customary institutions cannot by themselves provide an institutional framework for social order for an effectively functioning economy.

Inclusive and responsive government

High quality of life and socio-economic prosperity depend on inclusive and responsive government.  This must be underpinned by universal suffrage and individual rights.  While physical laws and resources may be immutable, there is unlimited human imagination and individuality.  Individuals have unique perspectives, but people in the same position need to be subject to common rules, rights and policy settings.

People compete to control a society’s rule-making.  Elected and popular governments must moderate competing claims within a society, and must reflect peoples’ democratic will.  However, to protect individual rights from unfair majoritarian rule they should also be restrained by other institutions such as common law, constitutions (including those governing voluntary and community groups), social norms, the rule of law, and rights.

Rule of law and rights

Credible rule of law requires that the law bind the state and that the executive and judiciary are separate.  Complementing and moderating central and local government law and regulation are contract law, common law and supporting institutions.  Rights in law need to be tightly defined and enforceable, and remedies should be linked to underlying rights.

A good society depends on property rights, political rights (the right to appoint and dismiss governments) and civil rights.  However, different groups in society have different interests.  Property rights may be especially important to capital owners, and political rights to the majority who may vote for redistributive policies and better public services.  Civil rights are of special interest to minorities who may lack both wealth and the numbers to make their voice known through the polls.

These three types of rights – property, political and civil – are related.  They should be managed in complementary not conflicting ways.  For example, the apartheid era white minority in South Africa bargained and exchanged away their dominant political rights for property rights and civil rights.  The white minority in Zimbabwe failed to do so and got a worst outcome.

Of all rights, effective property rights are most important because they underpin political and civil rights and make economic growth and wellbeing possible.

Effective property rights

Property rights are legally mandated claims over resources.  They are intertwined with human rights.  They protect individuals, families and minorities against predatory governments and criminals.  They place value on and protect environmental resources.  They create incentives to plan and work for the long-term and they encourage capital formation that lifts labour productivity.  They allow workers to trade their labour inputs in markets that reward them, and allow innovators to capture rewards from their innovation.  They underpin markets and pricing systems and allow trade to occur.

Strong property rights give people a castle from which they can express their personal and cultural freedom.  They allow individual and family self-determination.

Effective property rights require clarity of title and excludability, tradability, ability to be represented in an abstract form, and integration into a quality information system:

Clarity of title and excludability

Property right titles must be clearly defined and linked to specific owners.  The nature of property, the boundaries around it and its title must be explicitly described.  Property rights must be exclusive if they are to be valued and used productively.


Tradability of property is needed to realise value and ensure resources move to their highest valued use.  Without tradability, property managers lack incentives to manage their assets efficiently and are deprived of their full benefits.

Representation of property in an abstract form

In developed countries, assets are integrated into market representational systems that integrate dispersed information.  In less developed countries assets may be extra-legal and their use limited to a small group.

Complex market economies and trade depend on the ability to connect tangible physical property to intangible abstract rights.  This allows property to be leveraged for such purposes as securing utility services, borrowing, accessing risk management services such as insurance, entering into and ensuring enforcement of contracts and conferring rights of succession.

In less developed countries many people own substantial property.  However they cannot leverage that property.  Without this and quality property information systems, utility providers lack confidence to connect electricity and telecommunications to slum dwellings, black markets emerge, taxes are evaded and public services stagnate.

Integrated into a quality information system

Property must connect to an information system that records property and tracks transactions and claims related to it in a public, accurate and verifiable way.  Quality property information systems must be public and generalised not limited and particularised.  They need to be protected from institutional failure.

The 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was associated with financial derivatives, credit default swaps and bundled and leveraged mortgages becoming too disconnected from underlying real property.  Property information systems became unable to relate abstracted rights and claims to specific property.  This meant, for example, that some mortgage foreclosures were unlawful because it was impossible to trace a particular mortgage to an actual property.

The property rights information system had therefore become particularised, opaque and private, not generalised and public.  It is always government’s role to police standards, weights and measures.  If we have a Metre Convention why do we not have a Convention to protect accurate public records of property rights and transactions relating to them?

Macro-economic stability and micro-economic flexibility

Macro-economic stability and microeconomic flexibility are both critical to high performing economies and are mutually reinforcing.  Stability requires such foundations as an independent Reserve Bank, flexible exchange rates, sound money, ways of storing and protecting wealth and a prudently regulated financial sector.

Flexibility is needed to allow resources to shift with demand in ways reflecting human individuality and creativity, dispersed information, and the highly differentiated and dynamic nature of modern economies.  Supporting institutions are needed to minimise market abuses and to allow people to adapt to change and stay connected to and make a positive contribution to society.

Market economy and trade betterment

Rising prosperity depends on trade betterment, including free entry to markets and innovation.

Throughout history, the merchant, professional and business classes engaged in trade betterment have been stigmatized in folklore, literature and popular culture. Stigmatisation turns individuals into abstract, dehumanised stereotypes.  This can become especially toxic when these stereotypes are associated with minority ethnicities or with stigmatised social classes such as kulaks.

History is littered with attempts to do away with private property and trade betterment and create utopian communities populated by “ideal people” behaving in ways anathema to human nature.  Shakespeare spoofed this in The Tempest:


In the commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things; for no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil…

No sovereignty…

All things in common Nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavour…

Nature should bring forth,

Of it own kinds, all foison, all abundance

To feed my innocent people.


Trade betterment, competition and some level of inequality it gives rise to are needed for human advancement.  Free entry to markets is associated with property rights, human rights, freedom of association and with other-centredness.

Customers and customers cannot be forced to buy in a market. Those that want to sell to customers need to see through their eyes, respect their autonomy, and meet their needs.

Economic growth strategies can focus on markets and trade betterment or on political lobbying and state-driven solutions.  Market economies that protect property rights and trade betterment provide the best route for advancement.  Effectively functioning markets require supporting institutions to prevent exploitation of market power.

Capability development related to education, home ownership, compulsory or subsidised savings and financial literacy are also needed to allow people to fully participate in market economies and to minimise inequality.

Politics is vulnerable to manipulation of political, regulatory or social rules to protect privileged interests or to increase prices or returns from existing assets, rather than creating new wealth.  Rent-seeking behaviour can cause net economic loss by reducing allocative efficiency and diverting resources away from production into lobbying, litigation and other such activities.  People with credentials but few marketable skills can have a sense of entitlement and turn to politics to leverage opportunities unavailable in private markets.

Politicians and lobbyists can promote a sense of entitlement or grievance and create a psychology where people feel that “others” or “history” are limiting what they can achieve in the economy or society.  This reduces the incentives for the education, labour market performance, asset creation and business entrepreneurship that creates new wealth, and it instead focuses people on political lobbying.

Public goods and infrastructure

Public goods need to be publicly provided.  Economic agents must be rewarded for their positive externalities, and should bear the cost of their negative ones.  Public goods and wider public interests can require the state to exercise its eminent domain powers, for example to acquire private property for a public purpose such as infrastructure development.  This should follow due process and include adequate financial compensation for takings.

Goods best provided publicly include infrastructure such as roads, railways, telecommunications, electricity and water supplies.  These are fundamental to society and have a human rights dimension.  For example, communications infrastructure is needed for freedom of association.  Infrastructure can also overcome economic geography constraints.

People by and large do better in cities because of better infrastructure, more ideas and richer labour markets.  However, economic geography can also impede economic efficiency and social mobility even in large cities.  For example, there can be a structural mismatch between affordable housing and where in a city jobs are located.

Poorly educated people may stay in parts of a country where there are thin labour markets, low incomes and often high unemployment.  In such communities, the unemployed may impose negative externalities on those around them.  Quality communications infrastructure helps address these problems.

Strong and open institutions

Institutions evolve to deal with such problems as economic distribution, conflict resolution, and protection of rights.  They require time, social mandate, strong government, rule of law, and the civil society and social norms that reinforce them.

High quality institutions are generalised rather than particularised.  Generalised institutions are open to everyone and permit open trade and exchange between parties.  A particularised institution is based on privileged interests or on discrete, non-economic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion or gender.

Open and generalised institutions support growth and human rights, closed and particularised ones don’t.  Likewise, successful social movements and institutions arise from openness to outsiders.  Jesus was a leader of one of many tiny Jewish sects, most of them exclusive.  His sect won out because it was open to Gentiles and women and overcame racist and ethnic barriers to entry to what was an inclusive sect among exclusive rivals.

International market trade has become the most open and transformative of all institutions.  Its symbol, the World Trade Centre is in ruins.  However, its unbroken heart has lifted humanity out of poverty and become the dominant driver of human behaviour and resource allocation.

Institutions also need supporting social capital, practice and norms.  Humanism, an international secular belief system based on liberties, high culture and human unity, is a form of social capital that underpins generalised institutions open to all.  However, social capital can also be used to create particularised identity-based groups that share social capital within but not outside the particularised group.

Institutions that evolve and develop locally tend to be deeply embedded in society and link to local knowledge and practice.  They give rise to and are reinforced by social norms.  The Balinese system of irrigation management is a good example.

It is difficult to import and impose foreign institutions that are not supported by local culture and practice.  The rapid recovery of Germany and Japan after World War Two illustrated the value of working with local institutions.

When US-led forces occupied Germany and Japan after World War Two they destroyed Nazi and Japanese Imperial powers but protected and leveraged off underlying local and democratic institutions and much of the central and local government infrastructure.  Americans drafted the post-war Japanese constitution. However the Japanese modified it and translated it into a document they owned.  Like the Treaty of Waitangi, there are differences between the English and the indigenous language versions.

Institutions, norms and practices can also be supported by political and symbolic narratives that manage change and keep people together.  For example, after the downfall of apartheid Nelson Mandela connected to the white minority culture by wearing a Springbok jersey at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995.  In doing so he showed respect for the minority culture and signalled acceptance of its passions as well as those of its institutions that were open to all.

Capability development

Passive forms of social welfare that subsidise today’s consumption keep people out of absolute poverty but trap them in relative poverty since they have neither the means nor motivation to become more skilled and productive and to get ahead in life.  Capability development rather than income support is required to promote wealth creation and asset formation across lifetimes and through generations.  Support through capability development gives people the capabilities and mind-sets to enable them to earn more, build net worth and to self-determine their lives.

Education is society’s major investment in capability development.  It buffers people from situational depravation and allows them to escape from it.  For example, someone growing up in a single parent household may be situationally deprived.  However, if a child’s solo parent is highly educated or has high aspirations then that child may be situationally but not culturally deprived.  Outcomes for children in even one parent households are typically good where the parent is well educated.


Returns from education are distant in time, abstract, and may lack salience.  People in poorly educated families lack exemplars and social networks that show what is possible and give guidance on getting there.

Savings, investment and forgoing today’s consumption to build capability development for tomorrow are discouraged where there is high effort-independent variance in economic outcomes.  Institutions and social policy settings can reduce effort-independent variance and encourage future-oriented capability development. Safe, stable environments and nurturing parents help self-control and future focus while high variant, capricious social environments discourage it.


People’s innate cognitive biases such as short-termism lead to under-investment in education and low savings.  Peer group pressure and prevalent family or other norms can encourage self-defeating behaviours such as low educational achievement, gambling, drug and alcohol abuse or criminality.

There are advertising pressures to consume and to take on debt.  Debt offerings, whether in the form of bank credit or fringe lending, are framed in ways exploiting cognitive weaknesses.  Lower socio-economic households tend to be short of energy, attention and time as well as money.  Self-control is a limited resource, uses energy to exercise and can be depleted by use.  Therefore children from lower socio-economic backgrounds focus on the short term at the expense of the self-control needed to support longer term educational and other development.

Connections to workplaces as well as educational institutions are also important because they make real what is otherwise abstract.  Youth exposure to part time work builds social networks, work attitudes and social skills and helps transitions to adulthood and to higher level educational and labour market achievement.

While capability development must have strong origins in family environments, the state must play a role and encourage the right individual and family behaviours.  Singapore in the post-war period went from a poor backwater with negligible resources to a highly developed and wealthy city-state.  Lee Kuan Yee supported a culture in which individuals and families looked after themselves and were self-reliant.  Adam Smith’s fundamental insight was that self-interest was the key driver of success, and when people focused on their self-interest the collective interest was fulfilled.  Meritocracy, self-interest and reward for endeavour are not therefore class-based tropes and ploys but are rather key conditions of social mobility.

From the 1960s Singapore developed rapidly because it invested in capabilities and used this to drive economic growth and equity.  It invested in education, home ownership and financial assets and avoided welfare-based passive dependency.

Singapore recognized that people needed external support and “ties that bind”, such as compulsory savings to complement their own self-regulation.  Strict law and order and paternalistic policies such as bans on gambling and strictures against drugs removed temptations, enhanced self-regulation and helped people get ahead.  Part of the philosophy was that he who might be free must first be bound.  Singapore aimed to ensure everyone was on a development path and that a welfare-dependent underclass was not allowed to emerge.  Singapore’s policies were supported by a culture of high savings, strong families and individual aspiration.

Challenges faced in countries such as New Zealand and Australia have been those of passive dependency.  A capability development approach requires a move from the passive to the active, from the present to the future, and from consumption to investment in capabilities allowing enhanced future output leading to higher consumption over the longer-term.  It also requires a greater focus on net worth and asset ownership.

Holding assets has wider spill-over benefits and can change mind-sets.  It is associated with positive educational attainments for children.  In changing thinking, asset ownership can lead to a virtuous circle with future-looking cognition causing savings and assets causing future-looking cognition.

How could the above capability development be actively applied in the New Zealand context?  If we are ready for transformative ideas, passive consumption-based welfare such as Working for Families and other family support schemes could be converted into children’s individual development accounts to be used only for education, home ownership, business or financial investments to enhance future income-earning power and net worth.  Such capability development can underpin equality of opportunity and social mobility.

Civil society and social engagement

If we develop people’s capability we expect that people engage with society and contribute actively to it.  If one has a talent it should be leveraged and not buried in a field.  Financial assets should be invested productively not speculatively or for arbitrage.  Intellectual capabilities should do some good in the world and not be used for graft or rent-seeking.

Engagement in clubs, community groups and in voluntary organisations builds social networks and cohesion, shares knowledge, and leads to wider socio-economic benefits.  Politeness and self-regard is both an input into such activities and a result of them, leading to regard for others.

Should you wish to explore these ideas further, the bibliography below is a start.



Acemoglu, D. Jackson, M. 2015: History, expectations and leadership in the evolution of social norms. Review of Economic Studies (2015) 0, 1-34.

Acemoglu, D. Robinson, J. 2012: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.  Crown Publishers.

Boettke, P; Coyne, C; Leeson, P. 2008: Institutional stickiness and the new development economics.  The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol 67, No. 2.

Bynner, J. B.; Paxton, W. 2001: The Asset Effect.  London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

De Soto, H. 2000: The Mystery of Capitalism: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. Basic Books.

Mullainathan, S.; Shafir, E. 2013: Scarcity: Why having too little means so much.  New York, Times Books.

Offer, A. 2006: The challenge of affluence.  Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950.  Oxford University Press.

Otsuka, M. 2003: Libertarianism without Inequality.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pipes, Richard.  1999: Property and Freedom.  London, Harvill Press.

Sen, A. 1993: Capability and well-being.  In M. Nussbaum and A Sen, eds: The quality of life, 30-53.  Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Wilkinson, R.; Pickett, K. 2009: Spirit Level.  Why more equal societies almost always do better.  London, Allen Lane.




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“I will not speak with her”: Ophelia, shattered narratives, and fragmented selves

One way into Hamlet is through Ophelia’s madness.  Before Claudius murdered Hamlet senior, Ophelia has a life narrative, cultural confidence, and an integrated self.  She lives in a settled state that has seen off its enemies.  Both the King and Queen are fond of her.  Her father is an esteemed adviser to the King, and she has a protective if somewhat patronizing brother.

Ophelia is confident in her folk culture and Christianity.  Although motherless, her female network includes the Queen. She is young, intelligent and beautiful and has the best years of her life ahead of her.  Her boyfriend is the Prince of Denmark, a noble and preternaturally intelligent man, albeit prone to abstract musings.  He is more a philosopher than a warrior prince, but may inherit the throne. Given Hamlet’s standing, Ophelia is likely to become a princess, perhaps a queen.

Hamlet and Ophelia begin the play with integrated selves and coherent life narratives connected to their cultures, institutions and personal relationships.  Hamlet’s narrative is shattered by his father’s murder, mother’s infidelity, and the treachery of his boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Ophelia starts the play strong enough to challenge her brother’s sanctimonious and hypocritical advice.  She ends up dead.  What kills her are men imposing on her what they want her to be and refusing to allow her to compose her own identity.  Her father Polonius manipulates her and uses her against Hamlet.  He violates Ophelia by intercepting Hamlet’s love letters to her.  She is required to return tokens of Hamlet’s love to him.  Hamlet turns on Ophelia brutally.

As the play progresses, Ophelia sees through Claudius, loses trust in Danish institutions, her brother is abroad, and her former boyfriend has rejected her and killed her father.  As Ophelia’s mental health deteriorates Gertrude, who might have been a motherly figure says: “I will not speak with her”.

Let Shakespeare speak for Shakespeare, through Ophelia in her “madness” scenes:

Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE, HORATIO, and a Gentleman


I will not speak with her.

This scene opens with a closure.  In refusing to speak with Ophelia, Gertrude is complicit in the bullying Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet have subjected her to.   Hamlet gives insights into bullying.  A typical bullying strategy is to isolate the victim from his or her social connections: “I will not speak with her”.


She is importunate, indeed distract: Her mood will needs be pitied.


What would she have?


She speaks much of her father; says she hears There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move The hearers to collection; they aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts; Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought, Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.


‘Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.

Ophelia’s madness is dangerous enough to unsettle ill-breeding minds – never trust the great unwashed!

Let her come in.

Gertrude only agrees to speak with Ophelia to avoid disorder.  Then her mask slips…


To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss: So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

Re-enter HORATIO, with OPHELIA


Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?

Is Ophelia confused, given that Gertrude is standing in front of her?  Or is she challenging Gertrude, by pretending not to see her?


How now, Ophelia!


[Sings] How should I your true love know From another one? By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.


Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?


Say you? nay, pray you, mark.


He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone.


Nay, but, Ophelia,–


Pray you, mark.


White his shroud as the mountain snow,–



Alas, look here, my lord.


[Sings] Larded with sweet flowers Which bewept to the grave did not go With true-love showers.


How do you, pretty lady?

Claudius addresses her.  Ophelia lines him up:


Well, God dild you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!

‘Dild’ in Elizabethan English means to requite, to give people what is coming to them, for better or worse.  Ophelia is struggling for composure, grasping on to her Christian faith to restore her shattered self.  Lacking full succour from this, she falls back on a cultural narrative, a folk tale of the owl and the baker’s daughter.

In this tale, a wandering Jesus asks for bread from a baker.  The baker gives him bread, but his daughter demands payment.  The daughter is turned into an owl.  Ophelia then says to Claudius: “we know what we are but not what we might be”.  She is saying, “be careful what you might be turned into, especially if you get what you deserve”.

Shakespeare may also be ahead of us, foreseeing unbounded human possibility.  We know what we are.  Shakespeare can see what we might be.


Conceit upon her father.


Pray you, let’s have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this:


To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, And dupp’d the chamber-door; Let in the maid, that out a maid Never departed more.


Pretty Ophelia!


Indeed, la, without an oath, I’ll make an end on’t:


By Gis and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed.


How long hath she been thus?


I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i’ the cold ground. My brother shall know of it: and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.

Exit Ophelia

In a later scene, after an angry Laertes has confronted Claudius, Ophelia reappears.  It horrifies Laertes that a young maid’s wits could be as mortal as an old man’s life.

Ophelia gives herbs and flowers to those around her.



There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.



A document in madness – thoughts and remembrance fitted.



There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.

In Shakespeare’s time herbs and flowers were cultural symbols.   Rosemary signified remembrance and fidelity, and was used at weddings and funerals.  Daisies symbolised innocence and forsaken love, such as Ophelia’s for Hamlet.  Fennel stood for flattery and adultery, and columbine for ingratitude and unfaithfulness. Ophelia has no violets, signifying trust and loyalty to give to anyone.  Hamlet has not been faithful to her, nor Gertrude to Hamlet senior, nor Claudius to anyone.  There is no loyalty left in Denmark and the state itself is untrustworthy.

Ophelia keeps some rue for herself and hands some to Gertrude.  Rue was a toxic herb the Elizabethan English thought had abortive and contraceptive properties.  Does this suggest Ophelia is pregnant, given her suggestive song?  Perhaps the rue she gives Gertrude is a contraceptive to stop her becoming pregnant to Claudius. Wear your rue with a difference!

Rue symbolizes repentance and sorrow, and is also a herb of grace. The wearers of rue when entering a church dipped it in holy water to seek God’s grace.  Ophelia may be suggesting Gertrude wear rue to seek repentance, while Ophelia wears hers in grief over her father’s death.  Rue therefore has secular and religious interpretations.  Ophelia is struggling between worlds.

Hamlet is a play in which Catholicism, the Protestant reformation and secular worlds are contending.  Of her father’s death, Ophelia says “they say he made a good end”.  This has a deeper meaning for Catholics, connoting sacrament in preparation for death.  The absence of this grace leads to the ghost’s sufferings in purgatory: readiness is all.

Ophelia sings:


For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.


Ophelia sings snatches of old songs she may have heard as a child.  She seeks solace in reassuring childhood memories.  “Bonny sweet Robin is all my joy” is a line from a Robin Hood ballad. Cultural memes, narratives and languages can help individuals feel they belong to something bigger and more enduring than their mortal selves.


Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness.



[Sings] And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead: Go to thy death-bed: He never will come again. His beard was as white as snow, All flaxen was his poll: He is gone, he is gone, And we cast away moan: God ha’ mercy on his soul! And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi’ ye.


Ophelia’s cultural narrative and sense of self disintegrates. She is friendless in the world, while Hamlet stays connected to Horatio till the end.

Ophelia at her end has only enough volition to drown herself.  Even at her funeral the bullying continues, with a priest castigating her for her suicide.  Her brother and Hamlet fight at her graveside over who is most aggrieved by her death, rather than mourn for her.

In Hamlet the self is fluid, malleable, shaped by social interactions and by narratives.  Healthy people have an integrated sense of self and of the narratives aligned with it that give continuity over time and transcend individuality.  The sense of self is shaped by social relations and by ideas and memes passed on through people.  Destroying these can destroy the self.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the play.  The opening exchanges in Hamlet reflect shattered selves, not integrated people.  The first words are “Who’s there…”?  Francisco asks whether it is Bernardo, and the latter identifies himself in the third person: “He”.  After a further exchange Bernardo asks “Say – what, is Horatio there”?  Horatio replies: “a piece of him”.  Later, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, and now our queen” and Hamlet as “my cousin Hamlet, and my son”.  Hamlet replies in an ambiguous aside: “A little more than kin and less than kind”.

Key characters in Hamlet describe themselves in the third person, as shattered people, partial people, pieces of people, or as something they are not.

Hamlet struggles with his sense of self and life narrative.  He puts an antic disposition on and loses his sanity episodically.  However, by play’s end he regains his composure.  As he lies dying with sword in hand he affirms his identity.  He asks Horatio to tell his story, so his narrative will outlive him.

Hardly an echo of Ophelia remains in the play.

It is we who must remember her.

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The upstart crow and why I feel I belong here

Many people drop out of education even where there are no financial or academic reasons for them to do so.  How can we explain this, and do something about it?

People from low socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic and cultural minorities, and women in fields such as physics and engineering can feel they do not belong. In developed countries it is often socio-economic status, rather than for example race and ethnicity, that is most associated with barriers to educational success.

Knowing why people feel they do not belong in an educational institution requires understanding how peoples’ identities interact with identities that institutions support.  Insights can come from someone who left school about age fifteen, who in an age of classical schooling had little Latin and less Greek, and whose knowledge of geography conferred a seacoast on Bohemia.

Shakespeare never went to university, unlike contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.  Greene derided the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” who did not belong in the theatre, or no doubt in a university.

Othello is seen as a play about jealousy. It is at deeper levels a play about how one of an individual’s identities can be stigmatised in the eyes of those around him, and so amplified in external perception, and in their own internal self-reflection, that it leads to self-destruction.

Everyone has multiple identities, whether related to age, gender, race, religion, culture, family status, sporting, political or other affiliations.   A life challenge is to move between identities in ways that match them to context.

Othello is set in Venice at a time this trading city state was in conflict with the Turkish over Cyprus.  Venice in both Othello and the Merchant of Venice epitomises the emergence from hierarchal feudalism of cities based on market trade and meritocracy.  Like Shakespeare’s London, Venice was a city where people could rise from nowhere and become prosperous through their abilities rather than blood-line and inheritance.

Othello has several identities; as a Venetian state servant, an older male, a Christian, a Moor, and someone with an exotic cultural past.  However, the only identity that matters to the Duke of Venice and the senators is that of a revered Venetian general.  Othello has won the heart of a beautiful and young white woman, Desdemona.  Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, can see only a black man and not Othello’s other identities.

Othello has an evil and clever enemy, his ensign Iago, whom Othello has passed over for promotion in favour of another soldier, Cassio.  Rodrigo, a failed suitor for Desdemona, also resents Othello.

Rodrigo’s hatred for Othello is jealousy; Iago’s is dislike of the meritocracy that has seen Cassio promoted over his head.

IAGO: Forsooth, a great arithmetician, one Michael Cassio…the bookish theoric…Mere prattle without practice…’Tis the curse of service, preferment goes by letter and affection, and not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to the first.

Shakespeare himself was more prattle than practice.  He did not hew wood, draw water or wield swords, but combined words in ways rewarded in markets.  (He also transformed language, psychology, and human character in the process, but that is an aside).

Iago’s challenge is to detect and exploit Othello’s insecurities, cause him to falsely suspect people around him, and to manipulate him into self-destruction.  Iago intuits that Othello feels insecure due to his identity as a Moor, especially given he has married a white woman.

A key theme in the play is of people seeing, not seeing, or seeing only one part of someone’s identity so the whole person is not seen.  It is also about people being primed to see things that are not true and do not exist. Shakespeare in Othello is centuries ahead of psychological science in his understanding of framing, priming and choice architecture.

The Venetian authorities see Othello’s military identity as magnified in visibility.  At one stage the Duke greets Othello warmly, and then fails initially to see or acknowledge the Venetian senator Brabantio.

DUKE: Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you…  [To Brabantio]: I did not see you.

Othello is a play that grapples with what people are, compared to how they are perceived or painted by others.  Iago himself says: I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Shakespeare weaves into Othello images of gardening. Iago is a gardener who cultivates the destructive parts of human nature. It is also possible to foster life through “gardening”, to see through people’s outward identities to their uniqueness, and to focus on their strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant.  This is what excellent teachers do.

Othello begins with a conversation between Iago and Rodrigo about a mysterious and typecast figure called “the Moor”.  The Moor has no name.  He is unseen as a person.  He is referred to only as a brutish type with “thick lips”.  This is the prejudice instilled in the audience before Othello even comes on the stage.  Only later when Othello appears does it become clear he is dignified, intelligent, of high character, and revered in wealthy and powerful Venetian society.

The audience therefore has to choose whether to believe the word picture painted by Iago and Rodrigo or to see the real Othello on the stage.  There is no greater debunking of prejudice in all of literature than the way Shakespeare forces the audience to do the work and to judge on the evidence from the stage.

Iago exploits Rodrigo’s jealousy over Desdemona.  He and Rodrigo incite Brabantio against Othello, using crudely racist language in doing so.  Iago tells Brabantio:

…you have lost half your soul…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you…I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs

Brabantio cannot believe his daughter could fall in love with a black man, and accuses Othello of witchcraft or potions that have destroyed Desdemona’s judgement:

She is abused, stolen from me and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; for nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not.

Brabantio also argues that Othello marrying his daughter will undermine the Venetian state.

For if such actions may have passage free, bond slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

These words suggest fears for the state and society, and may be as much about economic class (“bond slaves”) as race.  They are not fears shared by the Duke or the other senators, who see Othello as one of their own.

Othello defends himself in front of the Duke, in a way that highlights Shakespeare’s preternatural genius in conveying meaning through language’s subtlest sounds.

Shakespeare uses tone and cadence to give away barely discernible micro-clues, such as someone losing confidence in himself. Much of Shakespeare’s work is in iambi pentameter, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one, as in as long lives this and this gives life to thee. This creates a soothing dum-de-dum rhythm like a heartbeat.

When Shakespeare departs from this he signals a change in mood, action, or in a character’s innermost thoughts. Othello’s speech to the Venetian Senate begins:

Most potent, grave, and reverend seigniors, my very noble and approved good masters…

These lines are discordant and do not follow a soothing rhythm. The weak endings jar as Othello unconsciously signals to the senators his inner doubt as whether he is their equal, despite being so in formal standing. How common it is for people in educational or other institutions to feel such self-doubt, an equivocation and an ill-ease, an inner voice asking “are you not a fraud? You don’t belong here, do you?”

Othello is a highly respected Venetian state servant.  The Venetian state accepts multiple identities and can reward one identity and ignore other identities that do not detract from it.  However, the state does not fully reflect the society that surrounds it.  Othello shows how vulnerable a person can be if his equality in law and rights is not complemented by a deep social belief in this equality from the people surrounding him.

Othello defends his love before the Duke, the senators and Brabantio.  He recounts his exotic life history that has helped him win Desdemona.

Of being taken by the insolent foe and sold to slavery, of my redemption thence and portance in my travels’ history, wherein of antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven it was my hint to speak – such was the process – and of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi…my story being done, she gave me for my pains, a world of sighs, she swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange…she wished that heaven had made her such a man…she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them.  This only is the witchcraft I have used.

Othello’s exotic story differentiates himself, but also makes him vulnerable because its mystery and remoteness can trigger a fear of the unknown.  However his romantic narrative is validated by Desdemona, the Duke and senators.

Like Cordelia in King Lear, Desdemona defies her father in making clear that she cannot give all her love to her father if she is also to love her husband.  The Duke of Venice and the senators endorse the love between Othello and Desdemona.  In concluding his judgement favouring Othello and Desdemona the Duke urges Brabantio to accept what has happened and move on:

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended/ by seeing the worst, which late in hopes depended/To mourn a mischief that is past and gone/is the next way to draw new mischief on/what cannot be preserved when Fortune takes/patience her injury a mockery makes/The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief/he robs himself that spends a bootless grief.

The Duke of Venice would have made an interesting chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal!

The Duke’s final words to Brabantio signal that Othello’s high standing as a military leader, state servant, and above all as a man override any identity he has as a black man:

…noble signior, if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

These words however still imply that blackness is perceived as negative, if it is not overridden by other positive identities.

There is a testy exchange between Iago and Desdemona where Iago’s “wit” reflects his misogyny as well as his cultural prejudice:

IAGO:…You are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.

DESDEMONA: O, fie upon thee, slanderer!

IAGO: Nay it is true, or else I am a Turk: you rise to play and go to bed to work…If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, the one’s for use, the other useth it.

DESDEMONA: Well praised!  How if she be black and witty?

IAGO: If she be black, and thereto have a wit, she’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

The association between fair skin and beauty and goodness was embedded in English culture in Shakespeare’s time, with Shakespeare challenging it in sonnets 127 and 130.

Shakespeare gave black and Jewish people a presence on the stage at a time when society had not mandated it.  He made culture, racial and political identities subservient to other universal human affinities such as love, friendship and pity.

Shakespeare did not believe in blood-line identity and privilege any more than he believed in the divine right of kings, the right of authority to tongue-tie his art, hubristic honour, the law’s delay, or the proud man’s contumely.

Shakespeare disparaged family blood-line affiliations in Romeo and Juliet.  In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s common humanity is seen despite his uncommon inhumanity.  Morocco, a black, is a credible suitor for Portia (who disparages Neopolitan, Palatine, French, English and German suitors and comes across in places more like a snobbish legal pedant than as a voice of merciful justice). Shylock’s daughter Jessica marries a Christian, defying racial, cultural and religious taboos in doing so.

The Nazi regime banned Othello.  The American strictures against miscegenation  meant that until the mid-twentieth century Othello was played by white actors, or those of indeterminate racial identity.  Paul Robeson felt that playing Othello on the stage as a black man liberated him from racism.

The great Afro-American writer Maya Angelou wrote that reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, as a little black girl who had been abandoned by her parents and abused, saved her life by speaking for her.  It connected her to Shakespeare, and then to great literature, and this saved her self-regard and gave her the intellectual foundation for her stellar literary career.

Shakespeare’s own father, like Dickens’s, fell on hard times.  Shakespeare himself would have felt the disgrace of fathering his first child out of wedlock at age eighteen.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ I all alone beweep my outcast state/ and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/ and look upon myself and curse my fate/ wishing me like to one more rich in hope/featured like him, like him with friends possessed/ desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope/ with what I most enjoy contented least/ yet in these thoughts myself almost despising/ haply I think on thee, and then my state/ like to the lark at break of day arising/ from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate/ for thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/that then I scorn to change my state with kings’.

This poem captures the feelings of those who stand alone and friendless with luck against them and society looking down upon them.  It restores their spirits when they reflect it was written by the only truly universal human genius, who was once on the bottom, with them.

Brabantio accepts Desdemona’s affirmation of her love for Othello, however his parting remarks contribute to Othello’s later suspicion of his wife’s fidelity:

Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see; she has deceived her father, and may thee.

It can take just a few seeds of self-doubt to grow and overwhelm one’s trust in oneself, in others, and in the world.

Desdemona sees past the image of an admired military leader (and of course past colour), and sees the authentic soul of a man she loves as himself.  I saw Othello’s visage in my mind.  As Othello says, she had eyes and chose me.  However, Othello had been primed by a society to suspect himself, denying him the opportunity to truly love himself, and let others love him.  Iago himself says “I never found man that knew how to love himself.”

Brabantio’s words make it easy for Othello to believe Iago’s later insinuations that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Iago’s skill is to get Othello to think things that he does not want to think, and to make conscious subconscious doubts he has about himself and about Desdemona’s fidelity.  Underlying this is Othello’s own doubt about his racial identity and his age compared to Desdemona:

for I am black/and have not those soft parts of conversation/that chamberers have, or that I am declined/into the vale of years

Othello worries about how he is perceived and what others may be doing or saying behind his back, while the moon winks.

Iago’s manipulations mean that Othello loses the ability to see Desdemona’s love.  He fails to see what is there, and “sees” only what is not there.

Iago cloyingly says to Othello that “men should be what they seem…beware, my lord, of jealousy!  It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on”. 

Othello cannot self-determine because he is competent and autonomous on a battlefield but lacks social relationships and networks that traverse different identities and lets him switch between them as the context changes.  He lacks deep friendships outside his military and state servant circle, and has not established trusting family relationships outside his marriage, for example with his father-in-law.  He cannot fall back on cultural and racial peers in Venice.

Iago isolates Othello from his ensign and friend by getting Cassio drunk, knowing he will disgrace himself.   Cassio regrets that man should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal their brains.  Othello has no choice but to sack him.  Iago then manipulates Desdemona into speaking up in Cassio’s defence, thus cultivating Othello’s suspicion that Cassio is having a love affair with her.

The stigma Othello had been subject to was ego-depleting and allowed Iago to seed and fuel his suspicions and therefore corrode Othello’s judgement.  Iago dupes his wife Emelia into stealing a handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona.  This handkerchief is a trifle, but is steeped in Othello’s cultural narrative and connects him to his exotic past lifeAs Iago says:

Trifles as light as air/are to the jealous confirmations strong as holy writ.

Iago is able to link this love token to Cassio and therefore to provide the ocular proof that confirms Othello’s doubts about Desdemona’s fidelity.

When Othello finally snaps, he breaks with his military life and with a core identity:

Farewell the tranquil mind!  Farewell content!!  Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars that make ambition virtue.  O, farewell, farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war… Farewell!  Othello’s occupation’s gone!

Othello farewells his military occupation and identity and can move to no other and live and let live.

As Desdemona sees Othello’s deteriorating psychological state she recalls a family memory:

My mother had a maid called Barbary; she was in love, and he she loved proved mad and did forsake her.  She had a song of “willow”; and she died singing it.  That song tonight will not go from my mind; I have much to do but to go hang my head all at one side and sing it like poor Barbary…

Shakespeare may be suggesting that Desdemona’s mother had a black maid (“Barbary”) who may have paved the way for Desdemona’s ability to love a black man.  Desdemona sings the song she remembers, vaguely reminiscent of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree/sing all of a green willow/ her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee/ sing willow, willow, willow/ The fresh streams ran by her, and murmured her moans/ sing willow, willow, willow/ her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones…sing all a green willow must be my garland/ Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve.

Othello’s thoughts turn to murder:

Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.  Put out the light, and then put out the light.  If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, should I repent me; but once put out the light, thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.  When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again…

The ultimate proof of Desdemona’s fidelity and her love for Othello comes as she lies dying from his violence.

EMELIA: Who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself.  Farewell; commend me to my kind lord.

Desdemona absolves her husband of her murder in her last words, forgiving him.

Emelia exposes Iago’s trickery and culpability and Iago murders her.  After he has killed Desdemona, Othello has destroyed his future and decides to kill himself.   His choice of last words will determine which of his multiple identities he wishes to be remembered for.

Soft you, a word or two before you go.  I have done the state some service, and they know it.  No more of that.  I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gum.  Set you down this; and say besides, than in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turbaned Turk, beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I …smote him, thus.  [Stabs himself]…

Othello’s farewell speech affirms his identity not as a black, an exotic Moor or a Christian but as a Venetian state servant.  It is this identity, not race, ethnicity or cultural background that he wants to be remembered for.  He has affirmed the identity through which he has achieved standing in a society that he was otherwise a stranger to.

After he has stabbed himself, Othello’s last thoughts and words are for his wife whose death has extinguished the last light in his world:

I kissed there ere I killed thee.  No way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

The Venetian senators punish Iago for his treachery and for his wife’s murder.  They validate Othello.  In doing so they accept Othello as one of their own, even though some of his identities differed from theirs.  Their fairness and respect for Othello auger well for the European Enlightenment that came after Shakespeare’s time and which he helped seed.

What practical lessons can we draw from Othello?  Meritocracy should prevail over primogeniture or hierarchal privilege.  People should express their identity which best matches a context.  Othello should not try to succeed as a Moor outside a Moor cultural context, any more than he should be warlike outside his military life.

Educational advancement depends on stretching people and challenging them to move beyond themselves.  If people look inwardly and narrowly within a closed group they limit learning, intellectual stretch, cut themselves off from wider identities and networks and forego future opportunities in life. They also expose themselves to affinity fraud.

However, people are hard-wired to recognize cues of coalitional identity of any sort.  Although cultural and racial differences are only skin deep they are also obvious and can trigger group affiliations.

Cultural or racial group identities may help some people who would otherwise feel isolated, and bolster their defences against stereotypical threat.  These identities can be a hook into educational recruitment and retention and help sustain students to the point where they can develop richer and more diverse identities and then a paramount focus on their academic identity.

Educational institutions must be both identity-congruent and identity-multiplicative.  They must connect with at least one of a student’s identities, and then foster pathways to others.  If a student then has a sense of belonging setbacks will not be attributed to identity and will be overcome.

Culture, race and socio-economic background can still matter in education, even if we would like to assume them away.  Affirmative action may be needed. This is not to exacerbate differences between people, but to help them to see what Shakespeare saw, that the only true light in the darkness comes from universal human affinities, without which it is put out the light and then put out the light, and then regret it.

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Some working propositions on human capital development

Some working propositions on human capital development

This paper suggests some working propositions on human capital development and outcomes associated with it. These propositions are that:

  • investing in the earliest human development stages must be top priority
  • socio-economic status is the major factor associated with human capital development and socio-economic outcomes
  • concerted cultivation gives better outcomes than natural cultivation parenting styles
  • Self-regulation and ability are expandable not fixed resources
  • Identity and narratives matter, people have multiple identities and have to match them to context

Investing in the earliest human development stages must be a top priority

Who has children, and how many, shapes society.   Cognitive ability depends on who your parents are, some genetic variation, and on environmental and sociological influences starting in the first nine months and carrying through into childhood and beyond.

Better educated parents and especially mothers have healthier children with a better start in life (Currie & Moretti, 2002). A mother’s cognitive ability and education is a good predictor of childrens’ outcomes. Maternal IQ can influence child cognitive development genetically and through parenting.

Earliest development stages shape us irreversibly

The earliest human development stages have enormous effects on cognitive and non-cognitive skill development (Gluckman & Hanson 2006; Gluckman, 2009). The first nine months shapes us irreversibly. No innate genetic potential for intelligence will be fully realised if there is poor nutrition or severe damage from a mother’s ingestion of lead, alcohol or other harmful substances (see Chasnoff et al, 1998).

Epigenetics is the science of permanent gene expression in response to environmental influences. Before birth a foetus takes a “biochemical weather forecast” of the world it is likely to be born into (Gluckman, 2009). If the forecast is for favourable weather it will develop anticipating a long and peaceful life that favours long-term investments such as in cognitive development. If however the mother is subject to stress due to factors such as poverty or domestic violence, development may favour the physique and psychology needed to survive an uncertain and potentially dangerous world. In effect, fight or flight responses will be favoured over cognitive development.

A child’s early formative stages have an epigenetic, genetic and socialisation element. For example, a gene variant that predicts male conduct disorder and violence is most strongly expressed when child-rearing environments are adverse.

Any negative epigenetic impacts at foetal stage can be compounded by capricious and high variance childhoods, and a lack of parental stimulation and intimacy. Children exposed to a capricious environment will tend to focus on the short-term and lack the self-regulation needed for staying power. When they become young adults they often take high risks in the hope of short-term payoffs, however they may fear uncertainty.

Touching a baby or child, for example through hugs or combing hair, is a sign of surplus parental energy and time that provides subtle assurance that ongoing care can be relied on. Caregiver touch is therefore nurturing because it signals ongoing capacity to give (Field,1995). This relationship between nurturing (or the lack of it) and outcomes occurs in other species. Experimentally, when young animals are deprived of early stimulation and interaction with mothers their gene expression is altered in ways making them more susceptible to later life diseases.

Earliest childhood shapes lifelong health

Early childhood-related health problems can cast a long shadow through later life and into future generations. They are strongly associated with socio-economic status. Socio-economic status (SES) refers to a range of factors such as income, net worth, education, and the mind-sets and aspirations relating to individual and family advancement.

Cutler et al (2008) note that poor childhood health begets limited means in adulthood which in turn begets poor childhood health for the next generation. Some problems can be nutritionally-related, such as lack of trace elements and micronutrients, iron deficiency, and the effects of energy-rich but nutrient-poor diets.

Low childhood SES is associated with an increased risk of substance dependence and poor adult health over a wide range of dimensions. For example, Moffitt et al (2011) observed that individuals from low SES childhood backgrounds visit dentists less often in adulthood than those from a high SES upbringing.

Melchior et al (2007) conclude that a range of low SES factors studied accounted for 55-67% of poor health outcomes among adults from low SES childhood backgrounds.

Cognitive ability is shaped in earliest childhood

At least 50% of lifetime earnings variability among people is due to attributes determined by age eighteen (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). The ability to change neural circuitry is highest early in life and decreases with time (Knudsen et al, 2006). Core skills such as literacy and numeracy are shaped early and failure causes long-term problems (Wolf, 2002; Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003). Children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills diverge at early stages between families of different parental income (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).

Heckman & Mosso (2014) concluded that IQ can be improved in lasting ways up to age three and perhaps later. Supportive sociological conditions need to be in place. Evidence from adoption and cross-fostering studies involving different SES groups suggests that around half the IQ disparity between children is experiential (Capron & Duyme, 1989).

Cognitive ability is wider than measured IQ

Cognitive ability is wider than IQ. Achievement tests such as the US SAT predict later achievement better than narrower IQ tests (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

High levels of non-cognitive skills promote higher levels of cognitive skills, so skill stocks are synergistic (Cunha & Heckman, 2008). Heckman & Kautz (2012) observe that stable personality traits exist, and they predict and cause outcomes. Soft skills and character can be learned, and prevailing culture and social norms shape them.

In the US, the GED achievement test is given to school dropouts to let them demonstrate a high school graduate’s general knowledge. Those dropouts who achieve the GED at the same level as high school graduates still have worse outcomes, essentially because they lack other difficult to measure skills. After adjusting for cognitive ability, GED recipients are indistinguishable from dropouts, whereas high school graduates have higher incomes. Controlling for family background does not change this (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

Quality early childhood education is a good investment


Early childhood is so important that the human, social and personal predictors of unemployment reach back to early childhood and begin to shape labour-market outcomes years before youth enter the work force (Caspi et al,1998).

Quality early childhood education (ECE) and remedial interventions have high returns over the lifecycle. Identifying and addressing learning disorders as early as possible and using early childhood interventions that “scaffold” children and supplement parenting have strongly positive longer-term effects.

Early intervention is more effective than targeting disadvantaged adolescents (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). Evidence in Doyle et al (2009) shows excellent returns from good ECE. Adult education programmes attempting to remediate educational neglect produces poor results for most individuals (Knudsen et al, 2006). These programmes may enhance social cohesion and help people fully participate in society, however they are not as good an investment as ECE.

Cunha & Heckman (2009) point out there is no equity-efficiency trade-off for investment in the capabilities of disadvantaged children. However there is a trade-off for investment in cognitive skills of disadvantaged adolescents and adults, though the trade-off is less dramatic for investment in non-cognitive skills.

For severely disadvantaged adults with low capabilities, subsidising work and welfare may be better in alleviating poverty than skills investment (see Heckman & Masterov, 2007; Cunha & Heckman, 2009).

Youth transitions are critical

Adolescent development and youth transitions to adulthood are critical. The early teen and adolescent years see young people adapt to physical and sexual development. This races ahead of their intellectual and emotional maturity, rationality, and ability to manage risk. They are developing their individual identity and crave group identity and peer recognition.

Important in late teens are secondary-tertiary transitions. Participating in the workforce while still at school is valuable. It is at the late teenage stage where the best adolescent interventions feature mentoring and scaffolding. Integrating work experience with traditional education can be valuable (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).

Differential susceptibility (or “orchid-dandelion” theory) argues that young people can be like dandelions surviving over a wide environmental range, or be like orchids struggling in most environments but flourishing in the right hothouse conditions. This emerging field may deepen our future understanding of late teen and early adulthood interventions.

The social capital built up in childhood shapes how teenagers address challenges and opportunities. This social capital will include aspirations, self-respect, how life choices and risk profiles associated with them are perceived, and the balance between today’s temptations and future human capital and other investment.

Low self-esteem during adolescence predicts negative real-world consequences during adulthood (Trzesnieski et al, 2006). Young people with little social or health capital may be more likely to take up hazardous consumption and shun investments in human capital. This raises their likelihood of a “rags to rags” sequence.

Youth from deprived backgrounds may have lower expectations of future success, independent of choices they make. Clarke et al (2006) found that fifteen year olds’ expectations of success predict the subsequent onset of smoking, lack of exercise, and failure to complete high school. While some of the influence of expectations can be explained by low social and health capital, IQ and other factors, expectations retain a direct effect on smoking and exercise once these other factors are controlled for.

Expectations are a better predictor of grades for socio-economically advantaged than for disadvantaged children. Small social-psychological interventions that target students’ expectations about school can lead to enduring gains in student achievement (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Social-psychological interventions do not teach content. They set in play recursive social, psychological and intellectual processes. These interventions are especially important at key academic junctures. They are best delivered indirectly or even “stealthily”, that is without the knowledge of those whose behaviour is being changed. As such they do not feel controlling and they minimise resistance to the message. Interventions delivered stealthily do not stigmatize students as if they need help because of inherent failures, perceptions of which can reduce achievement.

Socio-economic status is the major factor associated with human capital development and socio-economic outcomes

In developed countries socio-economic status, rather than for example race and ethnicity, is the major factor associated with education and socio-economic outcomes. Lynch & Oakford (2014) report that black and Hispanic children in wealthier states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey outperformed their white counterparts in poorer states such as Alabama and West Virginia in the eighth grade maths component in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Socio-economic status shapes the family environment and therefore the parental and wider social environment children are subject to. Family environment in early years and parenting are critical determinants in shaping the lifetime skill base. Through dynamic complementarities they enhance the productivity of downstream investments. Family characteristics are often more predictive of student results than the characteristics of the schools themselves.   The greatest sources of differences in school achievement come from what children bring to school from their home and social environment.

Family income is only loosely correlated with the resources available to a child, for it is parenting rather than income that most matters. This is reflected in the high educational and wider achievement of immigrant minority groups who may start out poor in a new country but rapidly become socially mobile.

However, money does matter and relative poverty can be associated with higher fertility. This means resources of time, parental attention and money may be spread thinly. Teenage pregnancy is indirectly caused by poverty. It can be a rational choice for poorly-educated females for whom motherhood confers identity and gives access to resources. Birth order can also matter, especially for resource-constrained families. First-born children can receive relatively more early child investment than later ones (Hotz & Pantano, 2013).

Relative poverty and rank status inequality is stressful. Lynch & Oakford (2014) summarise a mass of US evidence that children from poorer households are relatively backward in other cognitive capabilities, and that poor early child development is associated with parental stress and with a lack of emotional support and cognitive stimulation for children.

High levels of childhood stress can have negative effects on cognitive development. This impacts particularly on the parts of the brain that support working memory, long-term memory, spatial processing and pattern recognition (Hackman & Farah, 2009).

Stress generates hormones which affect the brain (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007). Mothers subject to chronic stress while pregnant have babies with lower mental development at twelve months (Davis & Sandman, 2010). The longer a child lives under stressful conditions the higher the basal levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Evans & Kim, 2007).

People under stress can become overwhelmed, and this can lead to using the wrong brain structure for a task. Stress can see the basal ganglia (which controls instinct and automatic behaviour) overcome the hippocampus (we forget things) and the pre-frontal cortex (we forget things or act irrationally). For example, someone under stress who should be thinking rationally can revert to automaticity controlled by the basal ganglia, leading for example to temporary child neglect.

Stress can have second order or indirect consequences. For example, women’s earnings can be lower because they have more distractions at home and they go into occupations allowing them to address home-life problems.

The conditions low SES children are subject to can harm development of language, working memory, task planning and impulse control. Low executive function can be especially harmful for self-regulation. Executive function is influenced by parent-child interactions in infancy. Low SES children suffer underdevelopment of the left perisylvian/language system and the pre-frontal executive system (Nobel et al 2007; Farah et al, 2006).

The executive system and function is from the prefrontal cortex brain structure. It enables flexible responding to non-routine situations where new information must be understood and responded to. Early executive function is a robust predictor of later academic achievement (Blair & Diamond, 2008).

Lawson et al (2013) show that childhood SES predicts executive function performance and measures of pre-frontal cortical functions, and that parental education significantly predicts cortical thickness.

Having nurturing parents at age four is related to the volume of the hippocampus (a crucial memory structure) at age fourteen. For children aged 22-44 months, simple sentence structure does not differ among SES groups but complex structure does. Low SES explains around 30% of variance in language ability (Noble et al, 2007). Language and vocabulary are critical because language is the medium through which most knowledge and skills are taught. High vocabulary correlates with real work ability (Hirsch, 2013).

Concerted cultivation delivers greater benefits than natural cultivation parenting styles

Two simplistic and contrasting models can be used to make tractable complex relationships between parenting and SES status: “concerted cultivation” versus “natural cultivation” (Lareau, 2011).

Higher SES parents tend to have a concerted cultivation parenting style involving intensive and structured parental input and organised children’s activities. They stimulate their children with lots of toys, trips, cultural experiences, sport and music. They engage their children more and increase the formative value of sport and cultural activities (Lareau, 2011).

High SES parents reason with and verbally joust with their children, giving them choices, and encouraging them to think for themselves and to challenge parents and teachers. They ask open-ended questions to encourage speech growth and adaptability. Their children are exposed to more words and develop richer vocabularies.

Lower SES parents adopt a more natural cultivation style where children are given more freedom and have to entertain themselves or be “entertained” passively with digital games or television. They have fewer active and engaged educational and cultural experiences and less exposure to reading and language. Hancox et al ( 2005) argue that excessive television viewing in childhood may have long-lasting adverse effects on educational achievement and well-being. It is unclear what the future effects of excessive electronic device and social media use may be.

Lower SES parents typically work in jobs with low autonomy. They therefore adopt more authoritarian parenting styles emulating their low working life autonomy. Their children are more subservient to adults, less creatively contrarian and less able to wing it among strangers. They are accustomed to black and white decisions or yes or no answers and this inhibits child response and speech development.

Concerted cultivation tends to create a greater sense of entitlement and a higher sense of available possibilities. Natural cultivation can see children feel constraint and limitations on what they can achieve.

Wider social connectedness is associated with good outcomes

A higher SES upbringing develops the non-kin relationships needed in modern economies and in the professional jobs they create. Social connectedness is an important pathway from adolescence to adult wellbeing (Olsson et al, 2012). Participation in clubs and other groups widens young peoples’ social interactions and exposes them to more ideas and more people outside kinship groups (see McGee et al, 2006). This latter is important as the wider one’s social networks the more opportunities become available and the more people get used to social variety, diversity and change. This hones the social skills needed in complex and changing workplaces where autonomous decision-making and self-management are required.

Human psychology has its origins in selfish gene, inclusive fitness logic, in kin-based relationships and in reciprocal, face-to-face trade. However, as societies become more complex, trade, cooperation and supporting institutions become impersonal. Institutions develop to create abstractions or symbolic representations of physical wealth. This allows capital to be leveraged for purposes of accumulation, borrowing, applying time value to money and allowing impersonal trade (de Soto, 2000).

In hunter-gatherer times there were no banks or superannuation schemes and so our ancient ancestors saved through reciprocal altruism. They survived by sharing a surplus today and banking up a sense of obligation that this favour will be returned when fortunes are reversed. Survival depended on consumption and there was no conception of capital or capital productivity. That is why people innately understand jobs and labour productivity but not capital productivity. It is why economic growth is associated with job growth rather than trade betterment or capital formation and why misguided theories such as the labour theory of value emerge.

In evolutionary times, resources were subject to effort-independent random variance as a result of seasonal, climatic and other factors. Sharing in situations of resource variance produces average net gains to participants because it shifts resources to those with higher marginal returns (Petersen et al, 2012).

However, high effort-independent variance in economic activities at the individual through to the macroeconomic level makes it impossible to achieve economic growth. It discourages savings, asset development, accumulation and future-oriented education and skill development. It triggers an ethic of widespread sharing for today rather than accumulation and human capital creation for tomorrow.

Not surprisingly, cultures that have more traditional and kinship-based relationships can have a live for today ethos based on tangible physical resources. Other cultures leverage abstract property rights from physical assets in ways underpinning future-oriented investment, and capital accumulation and sophisticated trade.

A psychology of future-oriented capability development and asset formation builds awareness of long-term ends rather than short-term consumption opportunities. Holding assets is associated with better socio-economic outcomes (Bryner & Paxton, 2001) and with childrens’ educational attainment (Zhan & Sherraden, 2003). It focuses children on future-oriented capability development rather than a hand to mouth consumption or living for today ethos.

High SES children do better in education

Low SES children suffer poorer parenting and compromised early environments over several dimensions (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). This affects educational performance. Higher SES parents connect better to the education system since they have themselves navigated the system and because educators are often peers. Lower SES parents may hand their children to educational institutions rather than be actively engaged with those institutions. These children can also be vulnerable to low teacher expectations as well as negative parental attitudes and peer influences.

Higher SES children are therefore able to disproportionately benefit from access to higher education because they have the necessary skill bases to benefit from it. Lower SES children are less able to benefit from university even where assisted by financial subsidies as wider skill bases as well as financial resources matter.

This has educational funding implications. Public investments in education lead to different outcomes independent of resource inputs. Increased public funding of education may not necessarily reduce educational inequality. More skilled parents increase the productivity of public investments. Public investments may or may not “close the gaps”, depending on patterns of substitutability with parental skills and private investments.

Bowen et al (2009) estimate that reductions in tuition costs can increase completion rates for students from the poorest backgrounds. There is also evidence that class size influences achievement and that reducing class sizes benefits lower SES children (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003).

However, untargeted increased spending on education can increase inequality and lower net national income by creating “Mathew effects” (“to he who has shall be given even more”). It can increase “Red Queen races” where people have to run harder just to stay in the same place, and amplify credential inflation which increases total education costs and therefore places exceptionally high burdens on low income people.   This suggests that targeted rather than universal public investment in education may be more effective for social mobility.

Lower SES children have some advantages

Lower SES parents and children may have some advantages. They often spend more time together as a family and have closer links to kin. They may enter into more cooperative arrangements to share childcare and this can build stronger links, especially with kin.

High SES childrens’ organised activities can often replace rather than provide family interactions. Lower SES siblings may fight less and be more supportive of each other. They may listen more closely to others and be more differential to authority figures, which may be helpful in some environments. Kraus & Keltner (2008) find that high SES children can be less engaged in conversations with others because they are more self-reliant.

Higher SES children can whine more, be bored more easily and be less compliant with parental demands. They may initially appear older than low SES ones, however this can reverse in early adulthood. They may be more dependent on their parents even as adults.

Parents who protect their children from failure can make it more difficult for them later in life. While concerted cultivation helps children adapt well to today’s institutions, will this be true in future if these institutions struggle to adapt to technological, social or environmental change?

Self-regulation and ability are expandable not fixed resources

Self-regulation and will power are important traits needed in sticking at tasks and in foregoing immediate gratification in favour of longer term study, saving and investment. Conscientiousness predicts educational attainment, health and labour market outcomes as strongly as measures of academic ability (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

Self-regulation, patience and staying power are fundamental determinants of educational performance and working life achievement. Higher cognitive ability is closely associated with higher patience, and is especially important with complex tasks (Heckman & Mosso, 2012).

Self-regulation is shaped from the first nine months and into childhood and later life stages and is influenced by external environmental influences.   Childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes.

Effects of children’s self-control can be disentangled from their intelligence and social standing. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce many societal costs. Moffitt et al (2011), in a study of sibling cohorts found that siblings with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background.

Self-regulation is a competency that can be developed and helps lead to choices in life and self-determination. The Ryan & Deci self-determination model holds that competence and autonomy give rise to self-determination and therefore control over one’s life (Ryan & Deci 2000). Self-determination depends on competency, relatedness to others, and an autonomous sense of personal responsibility. Where these traits are present they give rise to self-determination.

Self-regulation, as opposed to externally-imposed regulation depends on high intrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations for self-control thrive in an environment of external support, security, predictability and relatedness to others (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Relatedness to others is an important influence on self-regulation and self-determination. Self-regulation may improve when demands on self-control are especially strong, however, there needs to be a balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and an understanding of how they interact.

External threats and rewards can diminish intrinsic motivation. This is because they conduce towards an externally-perceived locus of causality. Excessive, coercive regulation means people disown responsibility. Extrinsic influence must therefore be autonomy-supportive. Teachers who are autonomy-supportive catalyse in their students greater intrinsic motivation and the self-regulation associated with it.

Some religious beliefs can reinforce self-regulation by economising on cognitive energy and inducing something akin to a placebo effect. However such religious belief can also stifle expressivity and autonomy and channel energies in unproductive ways.

There are competing views on whether self-regulation is a limited resource that can be depleted by use (the “ego depletion” theory) or is expandable. Duckworth & Seligman (2005) argue that self-control is a limited resource. People may make short-term and irrational decisions because they have limited cognitive energy and attention. This scarce resource is focused on short-term problem solving driven by poverty and low human capital. In contrast, better paid people can pay attention in learning and at work because they have more “comfort goods” and fewer other things to distract them (see Banerjee & Mullthainathan 2008; Mullthainathan & Shafir 2013).

Job et al (2013a) argue that self-regulation and willpower are not limited resources and that people do better when they think of them as unlimited. They find that students who believe in an unlimited theory of self-regulation had better time management and less procrastination than those believing self-regulation is limited.

People also do better when they think that abilities can be expanded rather than being a fixed resource. Dweck (2006) argues some people have a fixed mindset and believe their abilities are immutable. Others have a growth mindset believing they will do as well as they are prepared to work. The former fear failure while the latter learn from it to improve performance.

How parents and educators frame and communicate abilities to support either a fixed or growth mindset has profound implications. Some students believe when they sit an exam they are starting with 100% and every mistake they make will cost them marks. Others consider they are starting with nothing and the harder they work the higher their marks.

Children’s motivation and persistence is encouraged by emphasising effort rather than intelligence (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). Praise for intelligence can undermine motivation and performance because it implies a fixed endowment that is a ceiling rather than a floor. It is better to say “you did well because you worked hard”, not “you did well because you are smart”. Teaching students that intelligence is malleable will buffer students from some negative stereotypes in school (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

While the effectiveness of the growth mind-set in boosting achievement is clear, mechanisms underlying this are less well understood. The brain can grow connections and become smarter as it works on more challenging tasks. There may also be something akin to a placebo effect at work, and this may interact with other variables.

For abilities to be malleable, people have to believe them to be so. Persuading students that cognitive ability can be grown can lead to higher achievement levels (Yeager & Walton, 2011).   School achievement is predicted by self-perceived abilities even after IQ is accounted for. Some evidence suggests that self-perceived abilities have some genetic rather than just environmental elements (Greven et al, 2009).

Identity and narrative matters, people have multiple identities and have to be matched to context

Consciousness researchers argue there is no “ghost in the machine” and that consciousness “makes up” a sense of individual identity to construct meaning from the world. This identity or sense of “I” seeks patterns in group identity and a coherent explanatory narrative. People seek connections to something wider than themselves that overcomes their sense of isolation. Abandoned children will cling on to one photo or other memento of the parents who deserted them.

The brain, faced with environmental stimuli, must decide on what is relevant and exclude irrelevancies. The brain creates missing information to fill in gaps and confirm a pattern it imagines should be there. Pattern, narrative and accumulated prejudices can build on valid assumptions and economise on cognitive energy that would otherwise be expended making things up afresh.

People lacking a coherent narrative and with little sense of transcendental identity or continuity over time seek immediate sensation as well as blocking out of self-reflection. Terror management theory contends that cultures, symbolic systems and narratives that make individuals feel part of something transcendental (such as an intergenerational group that survives individual mortality) imbue life with meaning and help overcome fear.

Learning builds on past foundations. Learning is cumulative and so curricula have to be designed to build knowledge cumulatively and coherently. Higher SES groups can engage in more academic rather than applied or vocational learning at secondary school. This often engages them in cultural heritage whether it be Shakespeare, classics, and languages (including “non-utilitarian” ones such as Latin).

This helps build up a sense of long-term cultural heritage, identity and narrative which connects people to their antecedents and to what will come after. This gives people perspective. This is most powerful when it constitutes a whakapapa of the mind rather than a more narrowly channelled kinship-based whakapapa. It also helps when it is outwards rather than inwards-looking.

Identity can shape outcomes (Akerlof & Kranton 2002; 2010). By young adulthood most people have well-developed group identities or a compelling need for them. Humans evolved in groups for such purposes as optimising sustainable food harvesting over discrete areas, while defending themselves from out-groups. Group identity evolved both a double standard of morality between in and out groups and the cultural markers to reinforce this.

Identity as part of a group provides access to resources and confers protection to an individual. Feeling part of a group economises on scarce cognitive energy, for example by giving a set of culturally heuristic rules of thumb that avoid the cognitive burden of making things up from first principles. Pride helps motivation (Williams & Destono, 2008) and pride in group identity can enhance performance.

Identities shape how individuals perceive and respond to opportunities. When individuals are insecure they can identify with groups who they perceive provide protection from out-group threats. People can attribute exaggerated influence to others or to enemies to compensate for reduced control over their own environment. Group leaders’ status reflects how people within a group perceive their ability to protect the in-group. Not surprisingly, group leaders can have incentives to amplify or even create external group threats.

Group identity will often be cultural. Cultural factors impinge on educational outcomes, however underlying economic circumstances give rise to culture more than the other way round.

With greater social complexity, identities become more multivariate. People have multiple identities relating to gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, sporting affiliation, community position, job, profession and a host of other identities. The identity most to the fore at any time must be matched to the right context. For example, a surgeon’s identity at an operating table must be that of a surgeon, not of a rugby player, libertarian, wine taster, Catholic, gay, sailing coach, trustee, sister, or any other identity that person may have in another context.

Identity’s multiple nature is fundamental to educational performance. People behave in ways that are identity-congruent rather than identity-incongruent. Schools should offer diversity in the identities associated with the school that children can connect to. This means more children can find a way to connect to the school and be connected to ways others see the world.

Learning is enhanced when group activities are more associated with cognitive development. For example, is a child’s most salient identity after school that associated with a rugby league team or a chess club?

However schools that seek to mould student identities to reflect religious, cultural or ethnic identities that exclude other identities will limit student prospects. If people look inwardly and narrowly they limit learning and intellectual stretch and as a result their cognitive development and memorisation abilities become constrained.

People learn not through rote and repetition but by being encouraged to think widely about what they are supposed to memorise. Fundamental to learning is memory and memory results from thinking about content. Memory is to a substantial extent the result of and residue from thought. Memories are recovered by cues, hence the value of mnemonic associations and of acrostic, music, rhyme and key word devices as cues to recall from the unconscious what is in the memory. The wider the learning and its interdisciplinary spread the more there will be in the memory and the more cues are available to recall what is memorised.

Group identities can see individuals with multiple identities typecast as belonging to one identity only. This can lead to stereotypying that threatens prospects in education, the employment market and life. Group identity can also risk affinity fraud by other members of the same group. Stigma associated with one of a person’s multiple identities can give rise to belonging uncertainty as people are sensitive to information diagnostic of the quality of their social connections.

Understanding which of someone’s multiple identities should be salient for the individual within a specific context is fundamental to people positively identifying with learning, and to avoiding stereotypical threats to people associated with one particular identity group which faces barriers.

Stereotypical threat occurs when a particular group identity an individual is associated with is treated negatively by others. This shapes how others perceive the individual, how the individual perceives herself, and this can constrain or enhance long-term achievement.

Stereotypical threats may emerge to ethnic minorities, women, and to people of certain ages or religious groups. Stereotypical threats might include a view that women are not suited to engineering or that Afro-Americans are better at basketball than maths. Stereotypical threat systematically reduces its victims’ achievement (Walton & Spencer, 2009).

Stereotypical threat undermines performance by taking up executive resources, through distraction, and probably through other mechanisms. Sexist or racist attitudes may also create tangible rather than purely psychological barriers to people reaching their full potential.   Some American evidence suggests that Afro-Americans and Hispanics may drop out of school partly because they accurately perceive the local labour market will not pay a premium for their education.

Reductions in stereotypical threat boost academic performance. However stereotypical threat cannot be countered effectively by exacerbating in-group intolerance to potential external “threats”, perceived or actual. Special religious or ethnic schools can risk signalling that students are problem children rather than requiring schools to support diversity. There is little evidence that same ethnicity teaching helps, though some limited evidence culture can matter in teaching (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003).

Stereotypical threats can be countered through focusing on academic achievement-related identities rather than, for example, ethnic or cultural ones. Alternatively, when minorities see their academic future selves as consistent with their ethnic identity, students’ motivation will increase (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Affirming important values, for example through writing short essays about what a person values about herself, can help people exposed to stereotypical threat do better academically.

Social belonging helps protect against stereotypical threat. Socio-belonging interventions have improved grades and school-related attitudes among Afro-American students and female engineering students in the US. If a person has a sense of belonging then setbacks may be negative but not diagnostic. For example, leading students to attribute worries about identity to difficulties of transition to a university, rather than being due to students’ identity, can bolster a sense of belonging (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Concluding comments

The above propositions can focus future work on human capital development to enhance socio-economic outcomes in enduring ways.


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Essays on Management: Self-management

“Dreams come true if you want them to, and if you want them to it is up to you.”

The lightning tree

Self-management can underpin a high degree of self-realisation and self-determination in a job. It requires the ability to manage oneself in relation to others and the wider organisational context, and when this is mastered one has high autonomy. The combination of autonomy, competence and relatedness delivers a high degree of self-determination. This in turn enables you to move from survival to higher forms of self-realisation. Income and its net worth concomitant is therefore a priority threshold which, once achieved, allows you to focus on working for daily meaning not just daily bread.
Self-management in a job involves skills and behaviours contributing to both individual and organisational objectives. Self-management is not asocial autonomy and a license to do what you like. Rather it involves autonomy grounded in competence, in contribution to others, and in professionalism.

Professionalism involves relatedness to others. It is behaviour that cannot be captured in formal rules but which contributes to organisational purposes. It is unprofessional for example to make someone look foolish in front of an external audience, even though there may be no formal rules against it. Professionalism depends on the tacit mandates people give each other.
The most important self-management ability is good manners, and more broadly the ability to work with others. Work is an inherently social phenomenon. Almost no-one works alone effectively. If you can’t collaborate and work with people and get the best from them then you will fail – and no amount of mathematical qualifications, rote learning or computer skills will help you.

You will meet lots of rude and obnoxious people in your life – always treat them better than they treat you. Always recognise you are part of a team and this should be reflected in “we” language not “I” Ianguage. It is possible to play a team game in ways psychologically equivalent to working for yourself.
Important elements in self-management are self-analysis, and deciding what you want to do in your life. Self-analysis is hard to do but repays the effort. It involves systematic questions that answered create value through behavioural change. What are my strengths? What are my values? What am I interested in? What am I good at? Am I an orchid who thrives best in a specialised hothouse environment, or a dandelion that survives in many different environments? What is my contribution, and what part of it is unique or at least unusual?

Self-awareness means knowing when you are stressed or exposed to health risks, knowing when to bend rather than break. It can also mean turning stress to your advantage. Moments of depression can force you to reflect on things, and to change. Sometimes it helps to write down all the good things you have done and all the things you do well.
You might also ask yourself what your weaknesses are. There are some minimum threshold competencies needed in the workplace, such as literacy, numeracy and foundational computer skills. If you lack these, you must develop them.

However you should not try to be good at everything or spend too much time addressing your minor weaknesses. Instead you should primarily focus on your strengths and abilities and therefore nullify your weaknesses.

Ability is a duty as well as a property right. It is developed rather than gifted. If you are making your talents and abilities productive you are doing your duty to society and yourself, and a side effect of this is you will be successful in your chosen field, including creating property rights in it.
You should decide what kind of life you want and then choose a job that will support this. What life you want to lead is more important than what job you want to do, for the latter is a subset of the former.

You should cast around for a job as if all you’d done previously was prepare for that job. Go for what you want to do rather than keep lots of options open. It is best to be a master of one trade than a jack of all, however you need to have the cross-cutting skills to adapt to change. You need to decide what kind of work environment will best develop you. The mysteries of the trade you have chosen are in the air so you need to breathe the right air.

Having decided on the work environment in which you are likely to flourish, for any specific job it is important to ask, is it socially useful, will I be interested, and can I succeed in this job?

It is important to check out who your manager will be before accepting a job. That person needs to be on the interviewing panel, and it is risky to take a job without having pinned down who you will report to. Organisations should provide to candidates detailed resumes of managers when recruiting new staff so people can know who they are reporting to. This would avoid unpleasant surprises when people end up badly matched. You should report to only one manager as multiple reporting lines often lead to ambiguity, conflict, and your work being misinterpreted or undervalued.

Once you are in a new job, how should you approach it? You must firstly direct your efforts to the organisational purpose. Ask what the job requires, don’t just keep doing what got you the job in the first place. You must then focus on this and not be distracted. Any worthwhile job requires your utmost attention. A mental discipline is to focus entirely on your current job as if it is the only one you will ever do. Treating a job as a stepping stone elsewhere means concentration will waver and much learning will be ephemeral rather than deeply embedded.

Self-regulation is central to work performance and it requires sustained focus. Focus means concentrating on some things and dropping others. It can mean delegation. John D. Rockerfeller’s delegation philosophy was “…nobody does anything if he can get anybody else to do it.”

You must be self-aware in your new job and continuously learning. It is important to search for the enduring learning from an event or a job. In a new job you must share your learning selflessly, rather than treat it as a competitive advantage.

If you know you can succeed in a job you will be filled with well-grounded self-confidence. A combination of fear, self-awareness and seeing things from a fresh perspective can underpin self-belief and confidence. You should welcome moments of fear or inadequacy because this can be motivating and helps you focus. When you then start to perform well in the job you can forget about fear because it has done its job in focusing your mind and making you productive.

In the early stages of a job it is important to define the desired external results and the outputs to deliver, and also to recognise that management focus may depart from that. It can mean keeping two narratives in your head at the same time. One is the ideal of what you think you are working for and should try to achieve. The other is the one you may need to follow to survive. In the short term the two should influence each other, in the medium term they should be brought into harmony, and over the longer haul the first should prevail.

Working in any job requires conformance to what others expect. If you own your own business you must still conform to what your customers want. This does not mean you cannot be yourself, however it does means you have to fit within the rules and build up credibility to earn the right to suggest how rules might change. Over time, and as you carve out a unique contribution within an organisation, it is possible to play the team game in ways as satisfying as working for yourself.

Once established in a job you can start to observe whether it is a good place to work in the longer term. This can involve a series of questions you can ask yourself. Are you respected as a person? Are you given the tools to do the job? Do people notice what you are achieving? Is the organisation interested in the wider skills and knowledge you may have? Have you been asked what you have done in the past, what hobbies you have, what languages you speak, and has the organisation attempted to harness these in the job where it can?

An important part of self-management is management upwards. This is challenging when managers, politicians, board members and top academics lack self-awareness or any sense of humility. “Great man syndrome” occurs when someone achieves pre-eminently in one field and then decides he is an expert in other (and sometimes in all) fields. Knut Hamsun won a Nobel prize in literature before deciding he was a great philosopher and political scientist, leading to him writing an obituary for Adolf Hitler described him as a “warrior for mankind”.

People of true excellence in any field seldom find a need to talk about it. When faced with self-puffery in others an important skill is to feign subservience or awe (while still enjoying a private laugh to yourself).

Managing your manager is critical to his or her own as well as your performance. The key priority must be to make the boss effective. This means ensuring managers look good in the eyes of their own manager. It is important to establish how managers learn and what troubles them.

Never underrate your manager and never tell her what she may want to hear. It is important to tell the truth, even though it may be uncomfortable. Be prepared to ask lots of questions, be a sounding board, challenge any complacent thinking, and once a decision is made it needs to be supported.

You will very likely have differences with your manager, however never bad mouth your manager, team or organisation. Your manager will feel as vulnerable as you and will sometimes get things wrong. Always support your organisation and the purposes it is working for. If you feel your organisation is dysfunctional or working for the wrong purposes, try and reform it within. If that’s not possible, leave rather than get bitter and cynical. This calls for a balancing act where you should both give yourself to your job and also be prepared to leave, in the sense of having the capabilities to move elsewhere if need be.

It is important to remain visible. Sometimes the least effective people have high busyness and visibility yet their contribution to external results may be negligible. Some key workers perceived as plodders may be most effective, however their invisibility is risky for them. No matter how important your work is, what is invisible will not be valued. You are only as good as your last game, and this must have be seen.

Once you have made some progress in a new job it is important to seek feedback on performance. In the old Mafioso expression, “keep your friends close to you and your enemies even closer.” If you need to nominate people for 360 degree feed-back choose those you consider actual or potential enemies. This means you discover where your vulnerabilities might be, as perceived by others. You will commonly find your “enemies” may not be so hostile after all, and may teach you some positive things about yourself. You might even describe them as “friendenemies” – friends and enemies.

Once you are well established in a job you must think carefully about how it relates to your identity. Never conflate your work and your personal identity. People have multiple identities and shift between them, adopting the identity that is most relevant to a specific context. People’s multiple identities mean they have overlapping interests with others, who in turn have different identities in other dimensions. Specific salient identities may be irrelevant in markets. Hindus and Muslims have a different world view, yet they still buy the same smartphones. It is important to choose which identity should dominate your self-management and others’ perception of you in different contexts.

In the workplace it is your work identity that must be salient and other identities need to be in the background. Don’t treat your job as an extension of your family or your social life. You should not try and be the life of the party when at work, nor should you be work-obsessed when partying or on holiday.

A private organisation may often be a product of the conflation of an individual or family’s identity with the organisation. Angus Tait created Tait Communications as an act of existential purpose and it outlives him. If you are an entrepreneur or run your own business you may choose to conflate your identity or self-esteem with a job. Your performance commitment might be enhanced by this. However your ability to deliver on those commitments may be reduced since you will not be able to see from outside your business, nor will you have much ability to radically change how you perceive and therefore manage your business.

Some who conflate their job or business with their identity can stifle new people and they often dread retirement or redundancy because their world would be empty. People need meaningful outside interests and outside self-identity. Your worth should depend on who you are in the wider sense, rather than what you do. Many Maori understand this full well. It is possible to be an iwi leader and also work in a humble job that is routinised and does not permit much discretion, let alone leadership.

It is damaging to society when individuals win positional authority confuse their jobs with their self-identity. In modern times, most people from the Prime Minister down have to accept that at some stage they will be sacked or removed from a job by voters, employers or customers. Even if they survive these events, father time will catch up because ageing is the one thing no one can escape. When a chief executive acts as if he is bigger than his organisation it is time for him to leave. If a chief executive is “not replaceable” it means he has done critical damage to “his” organisation’s future sustainability. When anyone conflates identity fully with the job his life can be gone when that job disappears for reasons beyond his control.

For any employee, especially more vulnerable ones, a parallel or alternative career, or multiple identities in which they have standing is critical for psychic buffering. If things go wrong you still have standing outside work, and perhaps even an alternative career. It is possible to create the option of turning a hobby into a career.

Self-management requires time management. Time devoted to one task cannot be devoted to another and so focus is needed to get the best out of time. While it is possible to ramp up energy levels to meet a challenge, time cannot be created out of nothing. It cannot be stored up like gold coins or reciprocated favours. It cannot be replaced with other resources. The arrow of time moves only in one direction and once lost it can never be regained. Time therefore must be managed and time management is a discipline that can be imposed externally but is best self-generated.

Killers of productive time include frivolous email, internet or social media use, unnecessary or lengthy meetings, and discursive, unfocused discussions. Multi-tasking works for foxes but not for hedgehogs. If you prefer to do one thing at a time, when you finish writing something at the end of the day leave a sentence half-finished so you can get back into it next day without wasting time in “cognitive switching”.

By far the worse destroyer of time and of value is poor project inception, weak task assignment and unsystematic project execution, leading to poorly directed work, waste and rework.

For some people, working from home is effective, and thinking at home or outside work is often valuable. However working from home is a poor substitute for effective time management during the working day. Managing time means setting bounds around it in ways recognising its scarcity and its inelasticity.

Time management requires integration of otherwise fragmented time, and effective structure around it. It requires external disciplines whether factory whistles, deadlines, and challenging oneself to get as much done as possible within constraints. If you are sitting an exam, don’t think you started with 100% and will lose marks with every mistake. Think of yourself starting with nothing and earning marks with everything you do.

Once disciplines are in place, time management can involve an easy pace, structure, system and method, and work can be steady not feverish. Being frugal with time can mean micro-improvements allowing tiny time-saving to accumulate into valuable chunks of time. An example is through better writing that communicates crisply and succinctly, saving people small amounts of time that cumulatively matter.

Work will involve conflict. Whenever it occurs de-escalate as quickly as possible. You should also reflect on whether your position is the right one. If you are pointing the finger at someone else you may be pointing at yourself. People’s behaviour should be separated from their individual identity. You must always protect the inviolable dignity of the other person, and if you have to defeat them you must give them “a golden bridge home”. This does not mean actively helping those behaving badly, or saving the bacon of those whose bacon ought not be saved. Withdrawal of your support from those undeserving is a meaningful sanction without maliciousness. It is like Ajax in the underworld turning his back on Odysseus who cheated him out of his armour.

It is important to be realistic about your job without being cynical. People who give too much to a job are often hiding problems in their lives and are not especially productive. The most difficult people at work often have unhappy home lives. You have nothing to prove at work if you are happy at home.

Work is social but not a shallow form of socialising. Homo sapiens are a highly invasive, weedy species, however they are also a social species. When brilliant people fail to fulfil their potential it is typically because of poor manners or low emotional or social intelligence, and sometimes all these. However, social intelligence can be used for malicious purposes. Hitler, Stalin and any number of paedophiles and conmen had extraordinary social intelligence, while many “nerds” are quite gentle creatures who would be kind to others, were they to notice their existence.

Metaphorically, work is flatting together and cooperating for five days a week – it is not a marriage. It is also a relationship that will end in dissolution at some stage, and is not till death us do part.

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Essays on Management: Top level remuneration

Remuneration should in theory reflect people’s marginal productivity and their reservation wage – the price that needs to be paid for them to enter the labour market. Top managerial people may be more productive, however the marginal value of an extra dollar to them is lower than for low income people. Top chief executives and managers are paid not for their productivity but because of their bargaining power, and often because of luck and circumstance.

Productivity in a team environment is difficult to attribute to individuals and so rewards become disconnected from individual contributions. In fact, most highly paid people “earn” much more than their marginal productivity or reservation wage, while the greatest contributors to society in science, culture and education earn less. Any society’s Einsteins and Shakespeares are paid a pittance compared to reality TV stars.

How should top level remuneration be determined? The financial cost of “excessive” remuneration may be modest compared to total business turnover and may have miniscule impact on consumer interests. Were the costs of excessive remuneration internalised within a business with no wider impacts excessive remuneration may be acceptable. However excessive remuneration is associated with inequality and can be a form of negative externality damaging to the wider society in which businesses operate.

Excessive remuneration for privileged in-groups demotivates others who may be contributing more to society. It is also used as a benchmark for setting high level public sector, including political remuneration. This in turn means top public servants and politicians have incentives to support excessive remuneration. This morally corrupting self-interest is difficult to challenge because the only people influential enough to do so are part of the same elitist class.

Voters and shareholders struggle to contain excess remuneration because of information asymmetries and because they are too fragmented to exercise the concentrated interest needed to hold politicians, public servants, boards and senior managers to account.
Corporate remuneration is not done in an open competitive market but in a tightly knit and exclusive in-group. People in this in-group sit on boards and are also chief executives. They have every incentive to inflate the remuneration of chief executives they appoint because this sets the remuneration for people within the elitist club they themselves belong to. They have effectively created a narrow labour market sealed off from the wider labour market with entry barriers which reduce competition and inflate social elites’ earnings.

At a time of deep concern about income and asset inequalities, excessive remuneration can be demoralizing for organisations and society. This is especially so when chief executives who lead businesses or organisations are stewards not creators or owners of organisations. There is more comfort with entrepreneurs capturing rewards from the new wealth they have created and the businesses they have built.

Excessive remuneration involves insider reciprocal payoffs within an elitist in-group. In effect, boards and other such remuneration setting agencies turn into self-serving kleptocracies that reward those in overlapping board networks. When people in these networks vote for inflated remuneration they are also indirectly voting themselves an increase. This “reciprocal altruism” then morphs into a kind of potlatch where companies compete to out-reward their competitors in a social elitist hierarchy.

For business leaders and politicians there should be a fixed term renewable appointment, a cap on remuneration and a modest retirement or redundancy package. Four to five year renewable terms are most appropriate for top business managers or politicians and terms should be longer for fields such as science. The chief executive should earn not much more than the next level down – making the point there is a team.

There are counter-arguments supporting high remuneration levels. In tournament theory people strive to be winners and this competition lifts people’s productivity as they compete to do better. However this tournament wastes resources since large numbers of people compete in a competition where only one will succeed. In a race to the top tournament a few winners take all, even though they are only marginally better than the “also-rans”.

Why oppose high rewards for chief executives and not for entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurs risk their own money and bear the consequences of failure. They create new economic space for others and often receive little or no reward for this. Entrepreneurs generate information, technology, new ideas and learning that create opportunities and benefits for others. Most of them fail, or at least are poorly rewarded compared to the benefits they generate. Entrepreneurs are often pioneers who go where “there be dragons”, walk in paths untrodden, clear the land in back-breaking toil and are unrewarded and forgotten. Settlers who come after them colonise the new-found land and reap the benefits, and it is often society’s settlers not entrepreneurs who capture excessive remuneration going beyond their marginal contributions to society.

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Essays on Management: Who should be appointed to top management roles?

Proverbs that survive do so because they are forever truthful. “Fish go rotten from the head”, “the bottleneck is at the head of the bottle”, and “trees die from the top” tell us that throughout history top management determines an organisation’s culture and performance, and bad management is toxic to an organisation and the people within it. Conversely, good managers are what get the best out of organisations and make them flourish. Who then should be appointed as top managers, and in particular as chief executives?

Top managers must have “threshold competencies” needed for performance. These include the intelligence, literacy, numeracy, and the specific technical and other skills needed for particular roles. However threshold competencies are necessary but not sufficient conditions. The paramount requirements for managers are personal integrity and character, and a clear understanding of in whose interests they are acting.
Sometimes public organisations host presentations where chief executives and others in top roles talk about themselves and how they got to the top and give tips to young aspirants on how to progress their careers. They often do not talk about what they contributed to society, what their values were, or how they managed difficult challenges such as balancing external needs against fairness to staff, yet these are key to good management.
Character is a person’s inherent and positive moral quality, and the values this gives rise to. Integrity is the complete, undivided and consistent expression of these values in behaviour. Even the ruthless lawyer Jagger in Great Expectations softened in the presence of the “aged parent” when on furlough from his bloodless legal duties. However most of the worst people managers in the New Zealand do not at the end of the day return to harmonious family lives or close relationships.

No work place bully should be appointed to a management position, nor anyone with a messy personal life involving infidelity or neglect of responsibilities to others. People who cheat in their private and personal lives will do so in the work place and must be banned from managerial positions involving power over others.

Much management ability is taught in the university of life. Youthful risk taking is important in entrepreneurship because young people often see the future more clearly and take risks older people would not take. When they fail, entrepreneurs with tenacity will learn from that failure. Top managers need to see how others cut up the world and a love of humanities helps this. The best managers usually have strong external interests unrelated to work, whether family, community or culturally centred.

However, top managers also need to focus on the job and not have too many other work-related professional affiliations or commitments that can distract them or lead to the wrong behaviours. Top executives with other major work or professional commitments related to past, alternative or fall back careers may not be suited for appointment. Firstly such commitments are distracting, and secondly they can suggest a lack of commitment to current roles or treating them as a step to a future role or a retreat to a former one.

Top managers need personal steel and strong performance self-expectations. They need good manners. They need to set the pace for the rest in their team. They need good memories. They need intelligence, though intelligence alone is not enough. Being bright does not substitute for judgement and integrity. People who are exceptionally smart in a narrowly cognitive sense often lack other abilities and traits and feel they can be independent from others, until of course their lives fall apart and they learn they depend on others.

All senior jobs should be openly and fairly contested. This is costly to do because advertising jobs openly means many peoples’ time is wasted applying for jobs they will not get. However organisations often appoint people they know without realising there is always more talent outside than inside one’s own networks. Family firms often fail because appointments are made on genetic relatedness rather than merit-based lines. Some Japanese family-owned companies avoid this through adult adoptions of talented people into a family and therefore into the business. If you cast your recruitment net wide enough you can discover people with abilities and aptitudes you could not imagine existed, and these may be outstanding appointments.

There are several specific questions you should ask when you consider appointing a manager. Is the person able to stand up to strong and powerful people on matters of principle? In the public sector in particular, what are claimed to be “political skills” are often simply signs of weak character. Does the person focus on people’s strengths or on their weaknesses, and on what is right not who is right?

There is also a “gut feeling” question you should ask yourself. Would you like your son or daughter to report to this person? People management has a significant pastoral care dimension, requires the setting of boundaries, fostering of intrinsic motivations and support for staff personal development. Anyone incapable of these should not be a manager.

If you are confident with the answers to the above questions, and the threshold abilities, skills and drive for external results are there in a candidate, you are on good grounds to appoint a manager.

Near the peak of an organisation sits a chief executive and on top is the Board that appoints him or her. Some chief executives see themselves sitting inside an organisation while others will only see the organisation from the outside as if they were external to and not part of it. They must decide whether they see themselves as agents of a board demanding performance from their organisations, as leaders of the organisation reporting to the board, or something in between. They may act for the organisation, advocating its stance to the board. The worst of them may report only to themselves.

All chief executives need vision and must know what needs to be done. Ideally they should see the whole, and enough of the detail to be grounded in it. They should be able to take the rough edges off in their external dealings.
They must set the tone and culture of an organisation. However they must avoid conflating themselves with their organisation, for their powers and influence come from their positional rather than personal authority and powers. Some chief executives and top politicians forget this and believe they are bigger than their organisation. It is a sad sight when executives and politicians argue with the decisions of their boards or electorates not to extend their contract, or fail to accept the arrow of time and the need to move on and create space for others.

Chief executives must understand who and what they are working for, that is the external and often higher purpose or benefit stream they must contribute to. They must have and set clear goals, directions and work programmes. They must understand their staff members’ abilities and values. They must be fair minded to all and not play favourites. They must be consistent and predictable in behaviour, emotion and dealings with people.

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