The Social Brain blog is now to be found at: http://socialbrain.rsablogs.org.uk/

I posted last week on Lord Layard’s Good Childhood Inquiry – specifically, on the link between values and happiness. Lord Layard argued (and I agree) that there is a link between high levels of unhappiness and contemporary measures of a successful life; that a culture that measures success relative to material wealth is more unhappy than a culture that measures success in terms of more ‘intrinsic’ values. The ‘intrinsic’ values Lord Layard mentioned were:

 

1)     concern for others and helping behaviour towards them;

2)     private pursuits with intrinsic worth (Lord Layard didn’t give examples but here are some: educating oneself, growing vegetables, learning a musical instrument).

 

Now, the second of these might seem contentious. Surely, it is up for grabs what activities have intrinsic worth? Someone might find growing vegetables about as exciting as an Alistair Darling interview on the Today programme. But that’s to miss the point. The intrinsic worth does not lie in growing vegetables being something everyone would find happiness inducing. Rather, it is one of a kind of activity distinguished by the fact that if someone finds it satisfying, she does not do so, in the general run of things, in relation to someone else’s success at it. And moreover, her satisfaction is not particularly connected to material wealth – it’s just the growing and eating of the vegetables that counts.

 

The first kind of value – the one that comes from concern for the well-being of other people  – satisfies a need in us, as social beings, to feel appreciated and valued by others. The happiness that comes from this is more deeply satisfying than relatively measured success or material wealth. Empathy, kindness, justice and fairness – these have intrinsic worth for humans. In fact, there is growing evidence that we are hardwired to care about one another in these ways.

 

So Lord Layard’s conclusion was that a society that was oriented more towards manifesting these two kinds of non-relative values would be happier. That’s almost definitely true. But there is also a lot of evidence that we are hardwired to view our self-esteem (which is a massive determinant of happiness), in terms of how we ‘anchor’ ourselves in relation to the social status of those around us. A very obvious signal of status is the wealth of a person – expressed in the way they dress, the car they drive and so on. In other words, it is all very well saying don’t relate what you value to the material success of those around you, but there is a massive unconscious and cultural pull to do so.

 

So on the one hand Lord Layard wants to push us to change our behaviour by engaging in activities with more intrinsic worth. And on the other hand, our brains and our culture are driving us to value ourselves and each other in terms of relative material success. What’s to be done?

 

My suggestion is that we harness the way we anchor our values for the sake of promoting the two kinds of activities with intrinsic worth listed above.

 

For what has happened recently is that a rampant individualism and materialism in banking and housing markets has gone horribly awry. So we anchor what we value now in relation to this mess.

 

This means there is a massive opportunity to tap into the value that has recently accrued to the opposites of individualism and materialism – other-regarding concern and non-relatively valued activities such as gardening, learning an instrument or educating oneself. That is, these can be promoted without fighting against our tendency to anchor value relative to what’s around us.

 

I shall write more posts on how to embed such a shift in values in social norms to ensure enduring change, as well as understanding the psychology that might effect such change. I shall even make some concrete policy suggestions.

I’ve just listened to Lord Layard talk about children and happiness – the results of his report published recently.

I’ll focus on one aspect of the report – which as a whole seems ranging and unfocussed, a general gripe about modern life. But there are serious issues, and here are some of them.

Lord Layard said there was a problem with too much individualism – by which he seemed to mean the excessive individual pursuit of happiness through material success relative to others’ material success.

This is a ‘zero sum game’ because there is only so much relative material success to go around. What we need is a ‘positive  sum game’ based on gaining happiness through the following:

1) success measured in part in terms of being of use to others;

2) private pursuits that have ‘intrinsic’ (rather than relative) worth.

Lord Layard didn’t explain the link between happiness and these value-laden activities, but here are three linkages:

1) success in being of use to others counters inidividualism; it increases trust and empathy and satisfies us more fully as the social beings we are (and of course, trust and empathy are social goods in themselves);

2) the intrinsic worth of virtuous behaviour satisfies a person in a way that lasts – the satisfaction of buying a new pair of shoes will fade and is reliant on wealth, whereas ‘doing well’ through virtuous activity is less reliant on wealth, and the satisfaction it yields can stay with one for a lifetime (as Aristotle insisted two and a half thousand years ago);

3) values facilitate personal and social efficacy – they are easier to teach and once internalised within individuals and embedded in social norms can be taught and are thus enduring (as opposed to instrumental norms which do not internalise or embed in the same way and are harder to teach).

The problem is that Lord Layard didn’t say anything about how we inculcate such values. He did make an observation: we shoud encourage more psychology graduates to go into teaching. But he didn’t say why. Here’s a suggestion.

The problem with teaching values is twofold:

1) how do we disentangle them from class-based, racial and gender-specific assumptions (the problem of universalism);

2) how do we teach them effectively to diverse communities (the problem of particularism).

Here’s how the behavioural and neurosciences could help:

1) There is a nascent post-individualist picture of human nature emerging from the behavioural and neurosciences: that both in behavioural and evolutionary terms we are dispensed fundamentally towards fairness, justice, empathy and kindess. These are your universal ‘values’ not derived from class, race, or gender.

2) The behavioural and neurosciences show us how important (largely imitative) social cognition is. They can help teachers think about how to make the universal values accessible through localised social models that speak to kids’ contemporary experiences. (Although slightly different, think of the ‘Jade Goody effect’, and how this has facilitated effective behaviour change.)

Three items from today’s news that point to the importance of knowledge of psychology for policymakers:

 

1) Stella Rimington said of the UK Government’s anti-terrorism legislation:

 

“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”

 

2) Vince Cable said:

 

“It is becoming clear that for the foreseeable future there is a higher risk of deflation [in the UK economy] than inflation, which is why it is inevitable and sensible that the Bank of England should be moving towards expansion of credit and the money supply directly… “

 

3) The Guardian reported that:

 

“Cervical cancer specialists are putting a rise in demand for screening down to a “Jade Goody effect” after the reality television star revealed at the weekend that she was terminally ill with the disease.”

 

What I’m interested in are the psychological assumptions that underlie these examples and how they are being used by policymakers.

 

1*) Stella Rimington is worried about how the UK Government is scaring people into accepting intrusive laws. This is an example of policymakers playing on our irrational fears – we are far more likely to be the victims of road accidents than terrorism. But it also tells how the Government thinks of us – in this case, feeble and wanting protection at all costs. As well, it tells us how the Government thinks about ensuring our safety – not through engaging our diligence (our reporting suspicious activities etc.), or trusting communities to sort out their own problems.

 

2*) Vince Cable is worried about deflation. He thinks the Government should print more money so as to enable credit flows to thicken. When the money in circulation is cheap enough to borrow and there is enough of it, he believes we will surely start borrowing and spending again. This is economic policy based on the assumption we are all completely rational – that information about the price and plenitude of money will be enough to get us borrowing, lending and spending again.

 

3*) Jade Goody’s tragic illness has motivated many more women to go for cervical cancer check-ups (and from sections of society previously unaware of the dangers and the screening system).

 

What can we learn from all this?

 

1**) That in the case of terror legislation the Government treats us in an infantile way, scaring us into submission and not utilising our abilities to help keep our society safe. They overplay the risk to get what they want and they disenable our capacities to police our own affairs.

 

2**) In the case of impending deflation, Vince Cable’s suggested monetary intervention treats us as informed quasi-experts. But we are not. Most people don’t understand economic policy and where they do (in the case of some financial workers), they are not necessarily acting rationally – they are scared and fearful, rather than being made to feel scared and fearful. Policy ought to reflect this, and whilst pumping money into the economy might be one neccesary step towoards it, restoring a (rather nebulous) sense of public confidence should be the focus.

 

3**) With regard to the ‘Jade Goody effect’: here we see that on issues of health, emotional engagement through known public figures and accessible media is far more effective than giving people reams of information and expecting that to motivate them to change their behaviour.

 

What all this says is that in some cases the Government treats us as resilient rational types, to be ‘pushed’ through our own intrinsic motivation; in others, as irrational subjects to be ‘pulled’ through extrinsic factors that play on our emotional-instinctual attributes.

 

Nothing wrong with this ‘context specific’ approach to the psychology of policymaking. But it is clear that the Government very often gets it wrong in which cases to push and in which to pull.

 

 

So the moral of the story is that effective policymaking requires a better knowledge of psychology.

 

It’s Valentine’s day. Here’s a Valentine’s Social Brain post.

It’s often thought that neuroscience will engender a bleak view of humanity, one where there is no place for the wonders of existence such as romantic love. Well, I want to briefly say that that’s rubbish. Neuroscientists actually study how emotions and reason constantly interact. And unlike philosophers (Aristotle perhaps being the great exception), do not relegate emotions to an incidental role in cognition.

What would a neuroscientific explanation of romantic love look like?

Something like this.

When I look into my lover’s eyes and feel overwhelmed by my love for her, that’s because of hormones swashing through my brain such as dopamine and serotonin. I feel in love because of these chemicals. But what triggers them? Partly animal attraction such as smell and so on. Partly my genes trying to snare me a partner with whom I can reproduce, build a stable and mutually beneficial relationship (so this doesn’t preclude homosexual love). And partly my conscious self talking to and being with her and understanding that she is right for me.

The brain is an information-processing hub and all this information leads to the production of the romantic-love-inducing hormones.

In short, these chemicals are sending me head over heels in love because the information being processed (whether at the unconscious or conscious level) all points to her being right for me.

What’s lost from the traditional view of romantic love on this picture? I can’t help falling for her because my brain is compelling me to do so with hormones. But then, that’s just what romantic love is, isn’t it? Being compelled beyond any rational control to want someone at all costs? And it’s not just animalistic because some of the information being processed, some of the information that leads to the hormonal compulsion, is at the level of self-conscious cognition.

But none of this explains the great mystery: what is the precise formula for chemistry and attraction in any particular case? Neuroscience can only explain the core processes that we all share. It can’t explain in full why I fall in love with a particular person. But then, a little mystery in life is no bad thing!

There has been a bit of a stir recently about ‘Red-Toryism’ or ‘progressive conservatism’. Phillip Blond laid out the political philosophy behind the names recently in Prospect. Roughly, it consists in a return to the civic capitalism of one-nation conservatism. The thesis is that the individualism of Thatcherism was a blip in conservative thinking which is in actual fact naturally communitarian in bent – concerned with fostering and preserving social well-being through connected and empowered communities.

Blond’s big idea is that in the current climate this offers the most radical alternative to a globalised economics of capital and credit flows. The latter has led to monopolies and gross inequalities. Blond suggests a political economy embedded within local communities. He even has a practical way of achieving this: turn the Post Office into a people’s bank, creating local-level finance that is to a large extent insulated from the vagaries of globalised markets.

I have been discussing over the last few days the difficulties we face in balancing a desire for simplicity in understanding a very complex world, and a need not to oversimplify and reduce the richness of that world. I suggested Gordon Brown’s Government sways between technocratic complexity (for example endless expert committees churning out long-winded reports) and reductive simplifications (such as applying Bankers’ ‘expertise’ to all policy problems). I also suggested we need to encourage individuals skilled in judgement – people with the ability to see when to simplify and when not; people who can see the salient differences and similarities across diverse and complex phenomena.

The attraction of ‘Red Toryism’ is that it offers something radical that draws on a social reality that is already in place – one with which people feel a sense of belonging and ownership. Communities already exist, as do post offices and local networks. This ‘spare capacity’ simply needs to be enhanced to (perhaps) cause a major shift in how we run our economy, whilst at the same time re-empowering citizens. (These two issues are connected: globalised capital and credit flows alienate citizens by separating their everyday lives from the functioning of the economy, and ultimately, their own future prosperity).

But here’s the sticking point. Conservatives usually appeal to certain kinds of communities and certain kinds of networks when pushing communitarianism – small-town Britain, the church, the WI, local businesses and so on. Some of this is fine. But we can’t just return to the 1950s. That is hopeless nostalgia. The problem then, is to create a kind of communitarianism that is not tied to a narrow tradition or so-called ‘silent-majority’ (which is actually a very vocal minority).


Here’s where the point about judgement comes in. Take cultural diversity. Is this an impediment to communitarianism? Not necessarily. Muslims (say) might want to invest their money in Islamic banks; Muslim-run businesses might want to borrow from such an institution. An Islamic bank in (say) Bradford is quite like a (say) banking network run by the local branch of the CBI. It is quite like it, but also different. There is plenty that the two networks have in common, and there are some differences. But there is no reason why a new communitarianism cannot span these two kinds of local networks.

What is needed is a political language for communicating the similarities and differences between the various kinds of local networks in a way that would facilitate an empowered citizenry. And that requires just the kind of skilled judgement I have been talking about.

My leg is somewhat like the chair I sit in: they are both constituted by atomic particles; they both occupy space-time; they are both to the East of Ireland. How interesting are these similarities? Not very.

Yesterday I wrote about the generalisation of the model of human decision-making operative in neo-classical economics to too many other areas of life, so that the vast majority of human behaviour is understood in terms of self-interested rational agency. We have lived, as Adam Curtis has pointed out, with the yoke of this generalised individualistic model for about thirty years now.

But I also made the point that because we can’t cope with too much complexity, we are wont to indulge in such generalising for the sake of preserving a sense of effective agency – a sense of being able to get a handle on things and change them, rather than being baffled and alienated by their labyrinthine intricacies.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was fascinated by the webs of interrelated language-games that are similar in interesting ways, yet subtly different. For example, ascribing pain to myself is like ascribing pain to somebody else, but it is not identical – when I ascribe pain to myself I can’t really be mistaken, wheras I can about ascribing a pain to you.

If we try to understand ascribing a pain first-personally on the model of third-person ascription, we get strange phrases like ‘I know I’m in pain’, which implies that I could ‘not know I’m in pain’, and that is obviously a little absurd. Similarly, if we try to think of ascribing pain to somebody else on the model of ascribing it to ourselves, we come to the conclusion that we can never know if anybody else is in pain, because we can never feel someone else’s pain. And that is patently absurd also.

Wittgenstein thought that if we carefully unpicked similarities that had been taken by philosophers to be identities, or similarities that weren’t pertinent or interesting, we could get out of the mental cramps that philosohpy seems to engender: statements like ‘I can never know if another person is in pain’ would be exposed as the absurdities we take them to be. And then we could all get on with other, more interesting, stuff.

Wittgenstein never drew up a normative model of how we should live as he hated the idea of prescriptive philosophy. But if we can draw a lesson from his attack on crude conflations of similarities, and subtle unpackings of differences, it would be something along the lines of encouraging polymathism – something I suggested in yesterday’s post was a good thing. Except given modernity, I don’t think polymathism is the right word – the world is too complex for knowledge of everything. Rather, we need to encourage something like the practice of judgement – poly-skilledness, to coin an ugly phrase.

So much of our lives are bound up with imitating and seeing similarities between things (think of learning all the different uses of the word ‘game’ for example), that there is always a danger of conflation and reduction. But by the same token, seeing similarities between things (discerning and imitating common patterns) is absolutely central to human learning and behaviour.

The point about ‘poly-skilledness’ is this: if we want to avoid the rock of too much complexity and the hard place of conflation and reduction, we somehow need to make a bigger space in our culture for the careful practice of judgement. We need to encourage individuals who can see the similarities between things and draw out general principles, in order to stave off the debilitating effect of too much complexity. But we also need those individuals to be able to see the subtle differences between things, to hesitate over conflating similarites as identities. And the way to encourage individuals like that, in this modern complex world, is to train them in core transferrable competencies, and in how to apply those competencies to different subject areas. And that is pretty much what the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum seeks to do.

If there’s one thing I’m learning from running the Social Brain project here at the RSA it’s that human decision-making is not susceptible to a simple one-size-fits-all analysis. This means that any attempt to influence or organise decision-making processes must be fine-grained enough to take into account the specificity of the domain in question.

 

Chris Dillow comments on how Gordon Brown was enamoured by bankers such as James Crosby whom he took to be dynamic and capable individuals. ‘Brown’s bankers’ were considered to possess a set of skills transferrable to any area of human activity. Got a problem with the NHS? Call in the bankers! Got a problem with ID cards or welfare reform? Call in the bankers!

 

There is a genuine case to be made for applying techniques and knowledge from one domain of activity to another in order to open fresh perspectives and innovate new practices. There is also a genuine case to be made for utilising the skills of polymaths – people with that rare ability to see the salient similarities between things, but also the subtle differences.

 

But I think Brown and New Labour – and to be honest, most of the political class, including the Conservatives – have, until very recently, been enamoured by bankers that are neither polymaths nor bringing apt new techniques and knowledge into different areas of government. Yet their skills have been seen as the panacea for all ills.

 

Brown’s bankers worked to a model of human behaviour – the ‘rational man’ model of neo-classical economics – that does not do justice to the varied and complex nature of decision-making processes. So applying bankers’ insights to every problem means thinking that every problem is constituted by rational self-interested agents that can be brought into some kind of equilibrium. But every problem is not constituted like that. Running a hospital is a very different proposition to running a bank. And the bankers couldn’t even run banks.

 

But what interests me is not the bankrupt model of ‘rational man.’ It is rather a more general point. If we really want institutional and organisational structures to reflect and be responsive to human capacities, we have to be on guard against a reductionist tendency to generalise models of understanding and practice beyond their appropriate domains. It is this tendency that is the real villain of the piece.

 

But I wonder if we can ever resist this temptation? Another side of Brown’s Government involves endless committees of experts and technocrats telling us that nothing is as simple as we might have thought. And this also rankles – makes us think everything is too complex to bother with, and that we want our politicians to just get on with leading.

 

So do we get the reductionist tendency we deserve? Are we incapable of dealing with the complex variety of human decision-making processes?

 

My own view is that we need more polymaths. For we need the simplicity of applying a general model or philosophy to different domains. But we also need a philosophy that is sufficiently subtle - so not too reductionist – as well as persons sufficiently subtle in their applying of it. 

It’s already been noted that Barack Obama’s election seems to have had a positive affect on the educational achievements of African-American students. This affect stems in part from what social psychologists call self-image or self-expectation theory. The idea is that a lot of what we do is motivated by the kind of person we want to be, the kind of social groups we take ourselves to belong to, and the kind of person others think we are.

 

People will often not do something if it doesn’t chime with their values, or if they feel they will be judged to have behaved badly by people they respect, admire or simply identify with. They will try to make their actions cohere with a self-image and social identity that they project ahead of them.

 

Or conversely, if people find themselves doing something regularly, they will adjust their values to their behaviour in order to maintain coherence: if I find myself regularly reading trashy magazines, I may well adjust my prior attitude that reading them is a waste of my time. But when I make this adjustment it must fit with the overall coherence of my values and attitudes: I tell myself reading trashy magazines is an acceptable form of relaxation for a busy person like me, as long as it doesn’t take up too much time.

 

So we will often mimic others we take to share our values and attitudes. But we will also mimic those we take to be adept at adjusting their attitudes and values to their actual behaviour – we will trust them more because there is no dissonance between what they say and do. In short, we find a combination of a shared orientation on the world and personal integrity highly inspiring.

 

What is inspiring about Barack Obama so far is his presentation of himself as an intelligent, empathic, balanced, determined, elegant, patient, calm, virtuous person. But he has also shown himself to be skilled at adjusting his values and attitudes to the behaviour these uncertain times have forced upon him. He has tempered his ‘can-do’ self-confidence with the humility that austerity brings. But he hasn’t simply jettisoned the former – rather, just seen when and where it is appropriate. And he has found the words to express this adjustment in a way that the public can identify with.

 

I think it is important for leaders to possess this ability. For then we, the public, will identify with the image they project, and adopt it as our own. They can provide a lead on maintaining certain values and attitudes in uncharted waters, and, conversely, on what adjustments in those values and attitudes are required by the times. If they are successful, we internalise the image they project which helps us to motivate ourselves to change our behaviour for the better. In present times that means, for example, feeling good about saving more money, being more energy efficient, being more concerned for others around us. And one should never underestimate the power of such motivation.

 

But if Obama’s words become too dissonant with his behaviour, or vice versa, we will lose trust in him. So we are as much influencing him as he us.

 

Gordon Brown showed himself to capture the spirit of the times for a brief moment. But he seems to be a one-trick pony. Thus politics in the media age is not as anti-democratic as we might think: his apparent inability to adjust his behaviour to maintain his values and attitudes in uncertain times, as well as his apparent inability to adjust his values and attitudes to match behaviour that was forced upon him; all this causes a cognitive dissonance it seems many find uninspiring.

Matthew Taylor raises an interesting question on his blog: Do we ever learn from crises in history? Or do we just lurch from too much of one socio-economic attitude to too much of another (from excessive individualism to excessive egalitarianism, say)? He then connects this to the idea of a good society: If the recession is an opportunity to change things for the better, is this change just a lurch from the previous ‘anchoring orientation’ we want to replace, to its opposite (which will turn out to be just as one-sided and problematic down the line)? Or are we learning from the onesidedness of the past?

 

In the current recession various corrections are taking place: blanket free-market approaches are being rejected, as are blanket individualistic and materialistic attitudes. And there are other less palatable corrections: protectionism and xenophobia are replacing free trade and tolerance in certain quarters.

 

The big question is whether our ability to bring about social change is purely relative to what’s just gone before, in which case we simply lurch between one-sided orientations? Or whether there is some ‘absolute point’ that acts as measure of the good society and which we use to guide us to the equilibrium we want?

 

I would say it’s a blend of the two. We know that a good society will be one without rampant inequality, but also one where individual freedom and creativity are not stifled. But how we change things and what we change is relative to the recent past. At the moment that may mean moving away from too much individualism to a more egalitarian orientation.  But we should be wary of jumping on the band-wagon. Individualism is not all bad, only an excess of it. And this is a truth that is constant, not merely relative to recent events.

 

As Matthew points out, neuroscience and behavioural economics can help us understand our cognitive biases. For example, the ‘bandwagon-effect’, coupled with the way the brain anchors comparisons on a scale relative to recent feelings/thoughts/memories, could lead to overreactions such as too much anti-individualism and too much hierarchical regulation. And then we never get the equilibrium we want. So awareness of our cognitive limitations can help us learn from history rather than be slaves to it.

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