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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.