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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. 

The Social Brain project tries to wed together three elements:


1) big ‘paradigm ideas’ or philosophical ‘meta-norms’;


2) new knowledge in decision-making theory (largely neuroscience, the behavioural sciences, the study of forms of social organisation);

3) practical application of 1) and 2) to social challenges.

This is to some extent an ambitious remit. But if we don’t include the big paradigm ideas we miss something out. This is because thinkers, practitioners and policymakers can become gripped by a single view of things that is so commonplace it goes unseen. The behavioural economist Shiller predicted the credit crunch on the grounds of a kind of mass groupthink. We might say that those running our western societies (and perhaps some non-western societies too) have been gripped by a form of groupthink for the past thirty years or so. What has held them captive has been a conception of human decision-making processes as articulated by the simplifying assumptions of ‘economic man’. These assumptions were that consumers and traders alike acted on purely rational and self-interested grounds. This made the job of Government the facilitation of markets that did not obstruct the smooth functioning of said rationality. But of course we are now living with the aftermath of policy driven by these simplifying assumptions – the credit crunch and an impending global depression.

So it’s important to consider the big ideas because they become internalised and act as ‘meta-norms’ that govern our thinking without our really being reflectively aware of this fact.

On the other hand, the point of introducing into the debate new knowledge in decision-making theory is twofold: it can be used to put to bed the defunct paradigm in the face of stalwarts who won’t give it up; and it can be used to help construct a successor paradigm that is better at predicting behaviour and facilitating the kind of socio-economic world we want.

And of course it is important to bring in practical application. For there is little point in connecting the big ideas with new knowledge in order to construct a new paradigm if this does not gain traction on social reality. Moreover, there should be bottom-up feedback that informs and fine-tunes the policies that the paradigm yields, lest groupthink set in again.

On Tuesday I went to a conference that was the product of a project that tries to weave together all these three elements (a project after the heart of the Social Brain project and it’s namesake too!).

One of the project’s big ideas is that the brain has evolved into the rational information-processing hub it is because it has evolved to cope with considerable social complexity. A large element in this complexity is representing to oneself other people’s thinking in order to build alliances and coalitions (e.g. friendships of different orders of closeness). This is something we do without thinking (as it were). But in fact, if we reflect on it, this kind of mental representation is incredibly complex. For example, we can understand with relative ease a sentence such as:

(a) ‘Jack thought that Jill was thinking what he was thinking and that both desired what their parents wanted.’

But this sentence stands for an incredibly complex thought. A regular old first-order thought such as ‘the apple is red’ is about an object, an apple. But the thought ‘Jill is thinking about Roger’ is about what Jill is thinking about. This means it represents both Jill and what she thinks – it has two layers of ‘aboutness’ or what philosophers call ‘intentionality’. The sentence (a) quoted above has five layers of intentionality! The social brain theory in evolutionary psychology holds that it is representing this kind of complexity that primarily caused our brains to evolve to the size they did.

This challenges the paradigm idea of individualism – that our brains evolved solely to represent the world truthfully in order that we might be able to better predict its behaviour and thus satisfy our self-interested desires (so that, for example, we be able to obtain food better by understanding the causal relation between a pack of hyenas following a scent and there being a dead animal somewhere in the vicinity). Of course our brains did evolve to be as big and clever as they are to do this. But social brain theory simply challenges the idea that this is solely what they evolved to do.

Individualists with this view of human nature (like Hobbes or Locke) then proposed a theory of social cooperation where humans come together in order to better satisfy their individual desires. But if the social brain theory is right, such theory and its presumed individualism is bunk.

This is a great example of how new knowledge is challenging a paradigm idea and giving us a clue about what to replace it with – a thoroughly social conception of human decision-making. And now that ‘economic man’ has fallen, that is just the kind of conception we need to better predict behaviour and create the kind of world we want. But there’s more. The project I visited yesterday applies knowledge from evolutionary psychology to policy – it also attempts practical application. For example, there seems to be an optimal maximum number (150 – dubbed ‘Dunbar’s number‘) beyond which social organisation becomes difficult (emotional closeness dissipates, the cognitive task of keeping in mind the members of the group’s attitudes and alliances becomes too hard, peer pressure as social sanction for the sake of social cohesion begins to fail). If you organise – say – institutional departments in excess of this number they will begin to function badly, for they are fighting against the evolved parametrics of the brain.

So there you go. A very good example of the kind of integrated three-level approach to understanding human decision-making to which the Social Brain project is committed. We are not alone.

I shall be blogging on other ideas that came up at the ‘Social Brains and Social Networks’ conference over the next few days.