May you live in interesting times

(English expression, with potential Chinese origins, that is often a positive or negative pending the context!)

Virtue signalling is “the action or practises of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue”[1]. The practice of virtue signalling has a strong evolutionary base. It is not new but goes back millions of years, and has been a way for us to establish groups, win favour with the opposite sex, and most importantly, to create group cohesion and a shared, albeit evolving, morality. Virtue signalling has likely played a vital role in ending many of life’s atrocities, including the end of slavery, animal cruelty, and torture of prisoners in most countries [2].

While evolutionary psychology has its critics, and may sometimes see every problem as a nail for which it is the hammer, what evolutionary psychology brings to the table is often a deeper lens by which to examine human behaviour. Another such lens is critical psychology, which draws on critical theory and centralises the role of power in both psychological theory and human behaviour. While Critical Theory is very post-modern, and I’m anything but a post-modernist [3], I do believe that there is much wisdom in following the money when trying to understand why and how some individuals and corporations act in the way that they do [4].

No more is the interplay of virtue signalling by powerful companies more evident that in a critical review of how companies will shift their marketing campaigns to meet the needs of popular discourse. Oil companies are now the purveyors of green technology while alcohol companies are bastions of sensible drinking. Many a top company wants to be known as the most progressive in the way they approach hiring (increasing diversity) and to promote the inclusiveness of their culture in a public forum. The irony, of course, is that marketing is required because, in most of these cases, reality tells a very different story.

I am hired as an I/O psychologist to solve organisational problems. Work, and access to work, is not, however, an organisational problem, it is a societal problem.

Not everything psychologists do is based solely on cognition, and not every psychological intervention is for the individual. We have known for a long time that behavioural activation is a powerful psychotherapeutic. People can recover from depression by being active, and the impact of the activation, independent of pharmaceutical intervention, can have large effects [5].

One of the most impactful books in recent times is Nudge [6], which outlines the impact of psychological interventions for large scale behavioural change. Nudges are in part responsible for Governments employing behavioural insight units [7] across the globe and the techniques used to tackle issues from health outcomes to applications for the back-to-work schemes [8].

Regarding employment, the absence of meaningful work leads to a range of adverse health, psychological and family outcomes, issues that I am confident the reader can surmise for themselves. For this reason, when I undertook my PhD back in 1997, like many aspiring psychologists, it was with the hope that my work would solve big problems; such as mental health during periods without work [9]. I have always believed that I/O psychology has the potential to play a larger role contributing to societal conversations, as work is central to shaping our lives and human experience.

The push for greater diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in the workplace is one such problem and increasing D&I will require more than virtue signalling. Discussions about D&I are the catalyst for big questions to be asked that are difficult to answer. Just a sprinkling of the problematic items up for constructive discourse includes:

  1. Given our understanding of intersectionality (the combination of a person’s social and political identities), should privileges be made for those who are most disadvantaged?
  2. How do genetic advantages factor into the diversity and inclusion debate? In what areas do we see that as legitimate?
  3. Do we envisage a time when issues of group identity reduce, and individual identity becomes paramount?
  4. Does affirmative action have a role to play in increasing diversity in organisations? If so, how do we decide who should have preferential treatment?
  5. How do we account for merit while still encouraging diversity and inclusion?
  6. How do we define merit, given the role of luck, and the potentially limited role of free will, in shaping a human’s existence?
  7. How does pay for jobs factor into the debate on diversity and inclusion? Why are some job preferences so highly paid and others not?

Any one of these questions is a thesis in and of itself. We are indeed living in interesting times as the Homo sapiens that get to explore such questions. But do not be fooled into thinking that the answers are going to be simple. The D&I discussion will have organisations and societies asking more profound questions at each turn, as together, we try and make a fairer and more just society for everyone.

What we need to advance the D&I discussion is, among other changes, more open dialogue. The problem with virtue signalling is that it can quash open dialogue due to the fear of sending the wrong signal and potential ramifications. Fear is powerful in a time of cancel culture [10].

Being part of a company like OPRA, I have more leeway than many as to how I approach such issues. I’m licensed a degree of freedom, which means that when I run workshops on such topics, I can engage in the deeper aspects of diversity and Inclusion when working with HR professionals and teams of people to come to grips with how to translate D&I into workplace practices.

An added luxury that I have is the chance to organise public discourse on the topic, such as the event that is happening this week, where spokespeople from different interest groups will form a panel to discuss the issue of D&I from their perspective. As you can infer from this piece, I will encourage the panel to tackle difficult questions for the group that they represent and society.

A focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace has the potential to revolutionise society, through its impact on the workplace, access to work, and pay for labour. The discussion has been long in the making and is now gaining momentum. For better or worse, virtue signalling has played a considerable role in swinging opening a door that was ajar, and hopefully, will never again be closed. How we work through these issues will be one of the critical turning points of our generation.

These are indeed interesting times. Embrace these times with openness and realise you are living in a time in history that generations to come will remember and judge.



[2] For those with an interest in the topic, I strongly recommend Miller G. (2019). Virtue signalling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech. PrimalPoly Media.

[3] For the record, and why I hate labels as much as the next person I’m more easily categorised as an open-minded Libertarian, Humanist, Objectivist!

[4] A shout out to Prof John McClure who in my honours year introduced me to the Frankfurt School. Even though we did not agree on all things psychological, your teaching on personality and individual differences and how to look critically at psychology left a large impression on me for which I’m extremely grateful.

[5] Ekers, D., Webster, L., Van Straten, A., Cuijpers, P., Richards, D., & Gilbody, S. (2014). Behavioural activation for depression; an update of meta-analysis of effectiveness and subgroup analysis. PloS one, 9(6), e100100.

[6] Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.


[8] Englert, P., Sommerville, S., & Guenole, N. (2009). application of the social marketing model to unemployment counselling: a theoretical perspective. Journal of Employment Counseling, 46(3), 107-114.

[9] Englert, P., & Plimmer, G. (2019). Moving from classical test theory to the evaluation of usefulness: a theoretical and practical examination of alternative approaches to the development of career tools for job seekers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 56(1), 20-32.

[10] Wikipedia, Cancel Culture