Nigel Latta: Money talks

by Michele Hewitson / 17 March, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Television’s resident expert on serious issues now deals with one that affects everybody’s back pocket.

Nigel Latta, the clinical psychologist-turned-telly-maker, has a new show. It is about money and the ways in which people are funny about money. Is he funny about money? Let’s see. How much money does he have? “Ha, ha, ha. Enough money to get a cup of coffee at a cafe.” Is he rich? “No! I often look at people, those presenters like Mike Hosking, and his Ferrari, and think, ‘What the f--- did I do wrong?” Would he like a Ferrari? “No. I’d feel like a dick ­driving around in a Ferrari. I try to practise that thing of wanting less. It’s easy to want more. And stuff is just stuff.”

He can’t see the point of “flash” stuff. His watch is from Michael Hill; it cost about 100 bucks and is broken.

He is sensible, then, about money but not, he says, tight with it. He has a nice house in a nice suburb, but I am not allowed to say which suburb. I assume I can say which suburbs it’s not, so it’s not St Marys Bay or Ponsonby or Remuera. “We could have got an enormous mortgage and lived in a big flash house with a swimming pool.” He used to have an enormous mortgage – he and his wife, Neela, and their two boys moved to Dunedin to escape their enormous mortgage, but had to come back to Auckland when this telly thing took off because Auckland is where the telly business is. They bought a “smaller house which doesn’t have a swimming pool. What we know is that debt f---s your life up.”

He says the one perk of being on television is that he gets posh clothes, free, and a person who knows about these things to tell him what to wear. This is useful because he doesn’t know how to dress himself, he says. He doesn’t care about dressing himself. I say, “I hate shopping.” He says, “So do I.”

So that is the end of our discussion about money, but as he was kind enough to talk to me, here is the plug for the show: Mind Over Money, TVNZ 1, 8.00pm, Mondays.

Kind enough? He has to, obviously, plug his shows, but he is honestly hopeless at plugging not just his shows, but himself. Many people will be surprised to hear this. He is nervous about interviews, and it shows. He is regarded, probably in about equal measure, as either a show-pony psychologist know-it-all or a top chap who dishes out sensible advice about topics such as parenting and nutters.

Nigel Latta down through the years.

Tired of precious people

The non-PC lot love him. He once said he whacked his kids. This was supposed to be a joke and he forgot he’d ever said it and then it came back to, so to speak, whack him on the bum. “Oh, that caused me so much trouble.” I wonder why. “Ha, ha. I made a joke.” He is perhaps not very good at making jokes. “F--- ’em, if they can’t take a joke. I just get tired of the preciousness and people who get offended by stuff.”

His jokes do tend to cause him a bit of bother. If you are, or have been, a clinical psychologist (he hasn’t worked as a psychologist for years now), you are not supposed to make jokes – at least not in public. “That whole politically incorrect parenting stuff … You’re supposed to talk about children in glowing, affectionate, warm, positive and supportive tones.” When everyone knows they are little barbarians who wreck your life. So, I suppose he just says things that people think but seldom say. But he has such a lot to say about so many things – parenting, sugar, blowing stuff up – and now he has things to say about money. He knows people say that he is the guy who has opinions on everything, that he is that show pony who loves the limelight. “No. No. Not at all, because the show-pony aspect is the part I like the least.”

Still, there wouldn’t be any point in having some boring guy fronting the shows. “Well, that’s just communication, right? If your job is to communicate with people … then you have to kind of build a platform to communicate with people from. So you have to be good at talking to people and you have to be kind of interesting to listen to.”

Protecting privacy

The paradox is that he doesn’t think he is a bit interesting and he doesn’t much like talking to people, at least not to strangers. The reason he won’t let me say which suburb he lives in is simply that he doesn’t want people to know. He did tell me but only because I said I’d look it up on the electoral roll. He says, “I’m on the secret electoral roll.” I lied and said I know where that is kept. So he did tell me. Ha! He is supposed to be good at spotting liars!

Anyway, he is an introvert who, like many people with a public profile, lives a sort of double life. “There’s telly guy and then there’s me. I’m the polar opposite of the public profile stuff. I’m a private person. The bit of the house I like the most is that we’ve got a gate to keep the dog in – but it also keeps people out. And I kinda like that.”

Nigel Latta down through the years. Photo/Latta family

Natter with the famous guy

People come up to him at airports when he’s just finished a 14-hour day and has 10 minutes to grab something to eat and so he’s starving and rushing and tired, and they want to have a natter with the famous guy. “And inside I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, for f---’s sake. I just want to have something to eat. But they’re always nice people and they just want to chat and so that’s kind of, aaah … That’s what you do. The whole public stuff of being recognised and people coming up and talking to you. That’s the bit that has taken longest to get my head around.”

Why did he want to be famous and on the telly, then? He says the pay is about the same as for a clinical psychologist, so it’s not about the money, and he doesn’t want the Ferrari or the house with the swimming pool. “No. See, I didn’t. I totally didn’t [want to be famous]. At the beginning, I didn’t think it through … I just thought it could be interesting. And I just kind of said what I thought. Oh, it’s hard to explain. It’s like I give a f--- but I don’t give a f---.”

At those moments where he does give a f--- (one glaring difference between telly guy and him: he uses the F word with gleeful abandon), he does rather wade in. He might be prickly. “Do you think I’m prickly?” I think that he has, at times, come across as prickly, as slightly defensive about that oft-lobbed accusation that he has an opinion about everything under the sun. He knows this. “But so how do you respond to that without being prickly would be my response.” Do you just agree and go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. I am a show pony’? I think probably if I was to look back on stuff I’ve done since I started on this thing, I would have let a lot more stuff go.”

Media commentator Brian Edwards once wrote a blog entitled, “I do not care for Nigel Latta”. Latta did not much care for this blog, and he wrote a – very long – response and followed it up with another, even longer, response. Edwards had written, “Behind the hip psychologist I was sure I could detect the shadow of a closet social conservative.” Latta really didn’t like that, did he? “No.” Was he right? “I’m not hip or a social conservative. I think the problem with humans is we just want to put people in boxes and, I mean, I don’t think I’m conservative.”

Politics kept secret

I usually bow to Edwards’ superior powers of observation but in this case he was entirely wrong. Latta is about as hip as a Wiggle – if there happened to be a very sweary Wiggle, who made bad jokes about smacking children. I don’t know about the conservatism. I did ask how he votes, but of course he never tells, so his politics are kept locked behind that gate, with the dog.

What he does believe in is “real simple things. I think that people have a responsibility to look after the little guy. I think the world should be fairer. I think that fundamentally people are decent. I think that human beings are rational and weird.”

That doesn’t sound very grumpy, but he has, I say, from time to time come across in interviews as being a bit prickly. To be fair, some journalists have regarded him with some suspicion in return – there is an idea that he thinks he is a journalist. This has perhaps not been helped by one of his bit-prickly responses to that idea, which was that he was doing the sort of documentary making that journalists traditionally do because journalists were no longer making that sort of documentary. He says, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been prickly. I think I’m just wary and careful. But I think I’m less prickly than most psychologists!”

Some psychologists don’t much care for Latta. I say, “What do you think other psychologists tend to think of you?” “Ha, ha, ha! There’s a question! Umm. It’s a very conservative profession.” What does that mean? That they don’t think much of him? “There are some psychologists who don’t think much of me at all and there are some who really like what I do.”  The ones who don’t think he is that show pony? “Yeah. I think they think that.”

He says, “You keep giving me these looks!” He’s the psychologist. What do my looks mean? “I don’t know! That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I was never good at looks!” I was trying to figure him out. I say, “Are you not very interesting?” Most people would find that a bit rude, but he isn’t most people. Also, he likes being not very interesting. It’s simpler. He says, “I’m not a hugely complex person.” That might be a tricky psychological ploy from an introvert who doesn’t enjoy people trying to poke about in his psyche, but I don’t think it is. Good luck to anyone trying to psychoanalyse him; you’d have more luck with a Wiggle.

Nigel Latta down through the years. Photo/Latta family

Academic studies

I can’t even figure out quite why he became a psychologist. He began studying philosophy, then decided he’d become a marine biologist (he wanted to go to Antarctica because he watched Jacques Cousteau docos as a kid and he thought, “Awesome”). He studied psychology as part of his degree but then – for equally unknowable reasons – he thought he’d become a policeman. He nearly did,  and says he was two weeks away from doing so when the Aramoana massacre happened and Neela, then his girlfriend, said she and her father had talked about this and agreed he should go back to psychology. “So I thought, ‘Oh well. I’ll just do the psychology thing. So I did.”

You could not accuse him of over-­analysing things. I ask if he psychoanalysed his wife and he says, “Don’t be mad!”, which made me laugh my head off.

He has worked with sex offenders and murderers and you’d think, or I would, that those people might get inside your head and muck it up a bit, but these are not the people he is most puzzled by. He once had to give up on a client who hadn’t done anything terrible, he was just having family problems. But he couldn’t treat him because he just didn’t like him. “Ultimately that’s my failure. That’s my inability to get past whatever just … made me angry. I thought, ‘You’re just a prick’, and I couldn’t get past my ­feeling that you’re just a prick.”

“Freakin lucky”

If there is one case that haunts him it is that of “this little nine-year-old; his mum was useless and he’d been in care, and on a Sunday, once a month, they’d have these access visits and he’d make these little sandwiches for his mum and she just wouldn’t come. And it’s like f--- me, you know. And I look back on my childhood and we didn’t have any money and Dad was out of work and I was freakin lucky.” He grew up in Oamaru, where his dad was a builder at a time there was no building work and ended up going on the dole. But he loved his parents and they loved him and so, yes, he was freakin lucky and it is rather sweet that he knows it and acknowledges it and it might explain why he has such a fear of debt.

What he really likes to talk about is his obsession with the zombie apocalypse. He loves the idea. “I hope that it’s coming.” That does sound mad. “Have you watched The Walking Dead ? It’d be awesome. That’s the world that I want to live in. It’s that post-apocalyptic world. It’s just a kind of cool idea. No taxes. No obligations. No work. You don’t have to mow the lawn, just run around and shoot zombies. The problem would be if you’ve got fast or slow zombies. Slow zombies is what I’d be hoping for. Fast zombies would be a f---ing nightmare.”

That is what you get for attempting to delve into the mind of a psychologist. He says, “I honestly don’t know why people are interested in me.” Perhaps he could psychoanalyse himself and try to find out. He might have more luck than I did. “No. I know me.” Nothing in there? “No. Just vast empty space and zombies.”

Daniel Kahneman. Photo/Getty Images

Daniel Kahneman. Photo/Getty Images

The biases that drive us

There are distinct patterns, says Daniel Kahneman, above, in the errors people make based on the ­predictable biases in human thinking. “When the ­handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, for example, you can ­anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favourably than he deserves. The availability of a diagnostic label for this bias – the halo effect – makes it easier to anticipate, ­recognise and understand.” Here are some of the most common biases:

The halo effect: We put too much weight on first impressions.

The anchoring effect: We adjust our estimates to accommodate arbitrary numbers. For example, a study of experienced German judges showed that sentencing could be influenced by first rolling a pair of dice. When the judges rolled a three, they sentenced a (hypothetical) shoplifter to an average of five months in prison. If they rolled a nine, the average sentence was eight months.

The availability heuristic: We base our judgments on readily available memories. For example, Americans judge death by accident to be 300 times as likely as death by diabetes; the true figure is about 1.7. This misjudgment, Kahneman argues, reflects our taste for “novelty and poignancy”, compounded by our ­exposure to grisly instances in the media.

The affect heuristic: We put too much weight on judgments that are emotionally laden.

Base-rate neglect: We accept what is causally possible over what is statistically probable.

Competition neglect: We expect outcomes to be determined by our efforts alone, not the influence of competitors.

Hindsight bias: We ­overestimate the accuracy of our past ­predictions, believing that we knew it all along.

The illusion of skill: We attribute success to talent rather than luck.

The illusion of validity: We hold on to our beliefs in the face of ­contradictory evidence.

The planning fallacy: We plan around best-case scenarios rather than what is statistically likely.

Loss aversion: We are more averse to losses than we are attracted to equivalent gains.

Narrative fallacy: We create ­coherent causal stories to make sense of haphazard events.

Representativeness bias: We lean heavily on stereotypes to compensate for partial information.

The sunk-cost fallacy: We continue investing in an established project rather than focus on its future outcomes.

Framing effects: We vary our judgments depending on how identical information is presented or framed.

Priming effects: We overemphasise a concept if we are “primed” with a related concept.

This article was first published in the February 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 


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