I read in the Times yesterday that the gap between public pessimism and private optimism has reached new limits with regard to the economic outlook for the UK in the coming year or so. Most people when asked about their own prospects are bullish, but regard the prospects for the economy as a whole as dire. This appears to be a form of irrationality or cognitive bias – if a vast majority of individuals are going to do okay, then how will the economy as a whole nose-dive?


Perhaps we just love to moan. But beyond that explanation, the gap is one instance of the common psychological phenomenon of over-estimating our individual prospects, attributes and capabilities.


What I want to briefly suggest is that this phenomenon is connected to a conception of ourselves that goes quite deep (and is for that reason largely unseen and unquestioned). We think of ourselves as almost completely in control of events, as little centres of autonomy, outwards from which flows the coherence and consistency of our individual lives. This is the individualistic paradigm I questioned in my last post on Self-help, individualism and the social brain.


But much recent research puts this idea of an almost wholly autonomous individual in doubt. Apart from the now fairly well-known phenomenon of unconscious or semi-conscious cognition (popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink), our agency is in large part defined  by relations to other people in social networks. As I have commented before, a capability central to autonomous agency such as self-control is in fact dependent on what Avner Offer has called ‘commitment devices’ – relationships with social structures that enable a person to keep herself on track. (Think of the advice of a good friend, parent or sibling. Or perhaps even something as ephemeral as thinking what a character in a book, play or TV show would do in a certain situation.) In fact, the very production of the neurotransmitter that enables self-control (Serotonin) is dependent on empathic relations with others.


A recent study of happiness suggests an epidemiological understanding of its spread and sustenance. A person who is happy is a node within a network of people that she has meaningful and fulfilling relationships with. Happiness then spreads along the network like an epidemic. When someone in the network is sad, this spreads too. These are of course just the networks of concern that structure our emotional lives. But note, the decisions a person makes regarding her happiness – perhaps the biggest decisions she makes – are in large part dependent on the other nodes in the network (her friends and family).


So in the language of Mark Earls’ Herd we are much more pull than push – much more of the most important decisions we make are dependent on thoroughly social relations that to some extent exceed our control (yet we still maintain some control, we are not all pull rather than push). If we internalised this fact – if we really learnt it – perhaps this would go some way to closing the gap between private and public pessimism. We would realise that we are not the all-singing-all-dancing super agents that we take ourselves to be. And perhaps then we would start to see the public realm as less alienating (as more of the realm in which we ourselves as individual agents have our efficacy).


How to bring about this change? We could start with Education. The RSA’s education charter puts learning as part of engaged project work at the centre of its ethos. It also holds that children should learn the skills (including social and emotional skills) needed to enable them to realise their potential. Part of the sea-change we are trying to bring about is getting kids to think of themselves as active social agents rather than islands of autonomy divorced from the public realm.