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.
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.