It’s early on a wet but mild December evening and I’m standing in a pub just outside Stoke town centre waiting for a psychologist to walk into the bar.
This sounds like the set-up for a joke, actually it was the prelude to a surprising evening.
The pub in question is The Glebe, which a friend recently described as having a distinctly ‘London’ vibe. Never having supped in the smoke I can’t comment, but being close to the campus of Staffordshire University gives it a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than most other pubs in town.
When he arrives the psychologist turns out to be an affable man called Dave Spence wearing a beard and a Christmas Jumper.
The talk, part of the ongoing Psychology in the pub series is on the ‘Psychology of Belief’, or more accurately the point where it turns into superstition. Something that we the audience, as smart broadsheet reading metropolitans could never be prone to; perish the thought.
Only, as Spence points out the more irrational elements of belief have a habit of catching us off guard. Otherwise reasonable people refuse to walk under ladders or wear their lucky socks to the most important meeting of their career.
Along the way he poked a little gentle fun at conflicting biblical accounts of the nativity, Christmas traditions that are less ancient than they seem and internet UFO photographs.
There was even time for a game of pass the parcel, something that brought back memories from my suburban childhood of squirming with embarrassment in case the music stopped while I was holding the parcel.
Thankfully it didn’t and so I was able to appreciate the whole thing as a metaphor for how belief is often several layers of wrapping around a confection, in this case a chocolate Santa.
The tone was light hearted with plenty of banter between Spence and his audience. Anyone willing to look a little closer would easily see a more serious message behind the jokes.
Beliefs are what help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Fair enough so far as it goes, apart from the fact they tend to be based on unconscious biases, making us worryingly easy to manipulate.
That is all well and good if it’s just a soft drink company fooling us into thinking it invented Santa Claus. Less so though when the manipulation is done by people with more sinister agendas.
Like getting a boorish reality TV star into the White House for example but something like that couldn’t happen, could it?