Bigger brothers done it…

Posted by on Mar 26, 2007 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


As Russ and others have noted,BBC Radio 4 and particularly Woman’s hour are a delight. Mostly.

Interesting feature today about sibling relationships and how they shape our lives. Listen to it again here

The great Dorothy Rowe (left) was one of the talking heads and as ever she was insightful and measured, wise and yet very, very human. Like a Bullmore of the emotions. We become who we are, not just because we are “born that way” but because of our interaction with other people (our parents, siblings and so on). We learn certain rules of interaction through these interactions which shape our later behaviour and subsequently come to shape our view of the world and our place within it. And interestingly, there is – it seems – no simple birth order-effect in this and how it works itself out. In itself this is another outcome of the mechanisms which lie behind what I call Herd Behaviour (complex mass behaviour based on person-person interaction).

However, I was struck by the frequent use of the psycho-jargon “Trauma” by some of the other voices to describe the experiences of families and childhood. See here or here for some examples. The term seems to be derived as a metaphorical counterpart of physical trauma (or damage).

This is where I feel really uneasy. It implies not only that each of us is extremely vulnerable to hurt and emotional damage in growing up (victimhood and all of that) but also that others around us are potential “traumatisers”.

Now, I’m not denying that some people are severely misshapen by their early experiences in the world (there’s bound to be a distribution of outcomes here). Nor, indeed that the pain that those folk feel is imagined or real to them. Nor indeed that some people are cruel and damaging to their siblings and offsrping.

What I do worry about is the well-meaning assumption – is it an attempt to empathise with individuals’ pain and distress? – that “Trauma” is either that common or that severe for most of us. Living our supersocial lives, being the creatures that we are, leads many of us to “bump” into each other. To “bruise” each other.
All too often, as with mass behaviour we look for traumatic events (like Duncan Watts’ matches for forest fires), when nothing of the sort exists.

And it also encourages us to distrust the most important relationships we have in our lives: those with our families. As Richard Reeves pointed out last Friday morning, family relationships are the most important lever for happiness we humans have.

The lessons for us thinking about mass – HERD – behaviour?

1. beware of ideas that seem to make sense but don’t really (you need to dig deeper)
2. mind your language (e.g. “Relationships” “Management” etc etc). It shapes how you think.
3. don’t be misled by the marginal cases….the same mechanism will lead to many different things. That’s the nature of complex systems.
4. keep going back to interactions and the rules that shape and govern these (often unconsciously). This is what we need to focus on.
5. let’s not be too serious: real life stuff is always going to be more important than marketing or branding stuff. Anyone who pretends otherwise is misleading themselves…and you


  1. Johnnie Moore
    March 26, 2007

    Rowe’s stuff is fascinating, and the peer pressure aspect particularly.
    Applying your excellent rule 2, I would push back gently on your description of the label psychological trauma as “psycho-jargon”. I understand your point that such claims may in some cases be overstated, but I think it’s perfectly fair to allow that pyschological harm has the potential to be as devastating (or more so) as physical.

  2. Mark Earls
    March 26, 2007

    I’m being a bit naughty here, Johnny.
    I’m not denying the reality of psychological harm or the scale of its effect on an individual. What I’m getting at is overdramatisation…
    I suspect that the overuse of the “Trauma” word makes all kinds of discomfort and indeed emotional pain that are actually normal parts of being a human being seem of a different nature than they actually are…real trauma (emotional or otherwise) is exceptional and truly awful for the victim
    Good challenge, though, Mr M.