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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.)

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.

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.

The self-help movement was a real late twentieth century phenomenon. It was (is) quite different from the self-improvement societies of (say) Victorian Britain, or the (often somewhat cultish) self-improvement societies of the twenties and thirties (the nadir of these societies being Hitler’s National Socialism, which had its roots in cult-of-the-body groups from the twenties). All these movements were fundamentally social. But self-help since the liberal individualism of the sixties has been thoroughly individualistic (think of the Tom Cruise character in Paul Thomas-Anderson’s flawed masterpiece Magnolia as the nadir of this kind of movement).

 

The following quote typifies a common view; that the self-help phenomenon is an achievement of Enlightenment culture (a culture that is optimistic about human potential and committed to social progress):

 

I would say that, over the last twenty-five years, the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment view is that people have grasped the concept of their own happiness as a real goal in life. You can see this in the emergence of the self-help industry. Here is a huge industry that hardly existed a generation ago. People today go to seminars, and take classes, and buy books, for no purpose except to be happier in their personal lives. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. There’s a lot of self-indulgence, irrationality, and subjectivism involved. But the very fact that the self-help movement exists is a triumph for the individualist, Enlightenment outlook. (“The State of the Culture, 1997,Navigator, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11)

 

But this view also equates Enlightenment culture with individualism. But does this equation hold? Here at the RSA one thing we are concerned about is what is often referred to as ‘the retreat to the private sphere’ – the withering of concern for others and collective social responses to problems that is driven by a private individualism and a public sphere that is highly bureaucratic and doesn’t engage citizens (so the way the ‘public’ sphere is organised reinforces private individualism). As an organisation we recognise that this public/private sphere combination is an impediment to social progress. We all moan about the retreat to the private sphere, but we also live highly individualistic lives. The RSA thinks this has to change if we are to live in the more pro-social world we would like, and deal with the problems we face (such as climate change, rampant and entrenched inequality). For these problems require collective action and thus an engaged citizenry.

 

So the self-help phenomenon, for all it might do for individuals, looks like part of the problem not the solution. And if it is the highest achievement of Enlightenment culture recently, then perhaps that culture is in trouble?

 

I don’t think so. It’s true that the Enlightenment from the start was always individualistic. Kant’s dictum ‘think for yourself’ is expressed in the singular after all. But it is also about taking note of scientific research – being committed to a continual non-dogmatic re-appraisal of our beliefs in light of what science discovers about the world, and indeed, for science itself to be an ongoing journey taken with an open mind.

 

If we look at Enlightenment culture that way, then self-help culture need not be its recent zenith. In fact, what science now tells us about the brain seems to refute individualism. I am attending a very exciting conference tomorrow hosted by my project’s namesake Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain’.  The conference title is ‘Social Brains and Social Networks. The basic theme, as far as I understand it, is that our brains have evolved to function within social networks. For example, the adequate production of the neurotransmitter/modulator Serotonin is designed to occur within empathic relationships. Take the relationships away, and problems ensue. Or, another example: feelings transmit information about help we need to others, even if we haven’t realised we need the help ourselves. And Daniel Goleman has popularised the idea that the production of certain mirror neurons makes possible altruistic behaviour beneficial to social cohesion.

 

Self-help culture then, seems out of kilter with what we know about the social brain. If a person wants to be happier she is better off working on her friendships and relationships. If a person wants to increase her self-esteem then she should approach this through her relationships with others too. If a person wants to be more effective in the world, then she should work on her social and emotional intelligence. The self-contained individualism of self-help culture helps with none of this. Perhaps as that culture catches up with the science, it will become less individualistic. Then it might actually be able to contribute to the wider problems we face, such as the retreat to the private sphere. And it can still be an expression of Enlightenment culture, just not individualistically conceived. As Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people’. But Sartre also recognised that a person’s sense of  self is co-constituted by her ‘being-with-others’ – her perception of herself as an entity is mediated by states of mind such as shame which fundamentally related to other people.

 

So Sartre foreshadowed the idea of the social brain. He recognised that everything that’s important to us – happiness, self-esteem, self-efficacy – are socially constructed (everything that self-help culture places ‘inside us’, is actually both there and ‘outside us’ in others as well). But he didn’t like the idea of such dependency. But what’s not to like? For the individualistic self-reliance he was enamoured with has been perhaps the largest impediment to social progress (something he was also enamoured with) in the last thirty yeas or so.

As reported in the Guardian, Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have managed to fool people that they inhabit another physical body. The experiment involved an optical illusion which convinced subjects they were inhabiting the body of a dummy across the room. The illusion was so powerful that subjects flinched when the dummy was threatened with a knife and even felt they were ‘shaking hands with themselves’ (not quite sure what this really means!) when they walked across the room and shook hands with the dummy. The neuroscientists concluded that the proprioceptive sense of self (the sense of inhabiting one’s own body) is generated by the way the brain integrates multisensory perceptual signals (our sense of inhabiting our own bodies is a kind of ‘trick’ the brain plays and be manipulated).

 

Jonah Lehrer reports in his blog that there is a strong correlation between lower IQ and a dietary lack of iodised salt. He also reports that there is a strong correlation between high levels of lead and lower IQ in children (lead is often found in old paint in the USA and lead-painted apartments are often occupied by the poor). These two findings suggest that disadvantage in the poor may be much more grounded in environmenntal factors than previously thought.

 

Jonah also reports on a study that claims that happiness is something not only possessed by individuals but networks of people as well. Apparently happiness clusters around groups of happy people and its waxing and waning is far more reliant on factors external to individuals than previously thought – it spreads like a contagion amongst groups and this probably has an evolutionary basis in securing social bonds.

 

Finally, the Neurophilosophy blog reports on a study which shows that the brain’s response to fear is fine-tuned by culture – that basic responses are hard-wired but that these are calibrated by cultural factors.

 

This apparent ragbag of studies expresses in several key ways how brain science might effect the way we understand ourselves in the twenty-first century:

 

(1)   Our sense of ‘self’ is in part generated and sustained by multiple sub-personal physiological mechanisms, so that it no longer seems possible to think of ourselves as wholly self-directing and autonomous (as Descartes, Kant, Sartre et al thought we should).

(2)   Disadvantage, especially historically entrenched disadvantage, may well in part be grounded in environmental factors beyond the control of individuals (such as where they live, how much they have to eat, what they have available to eat). Is it still possible, in light of this, to expect individuals to drag themselves out of disadvantage by willpower alone? Shouldn’t we at least be focussed on alleviating environmental determinants of disadvantage first?

(3)   The whole ‘self-help’ approach to mental well-being that goes hand in hand with a certain form of individualist capitalism seems to misunderstand how people actually become happy. Happiness seems to be a largely socially embedded and constituted phenomenon, so that learning how to be happy involves learning how to maintain emotional connections to others (so that one’s happiness depends on relations, not intrinsic individual properties).

(4)   Despite what neruobiology might tell us, neuroscience does not fund determinism. There are certain hard(ish) limits on cognitive-emotional processes, but within these bounds, how we behave, perceive ourselves, that’s all up to us. Elisabeth Gould’s studies of neural plasticity also support this view of the brain as not only determining us, but something the functioning of which we can to a certain extent determine ourselves.

 

The overrall conclusion then is that ‘we’ are far more determined by extrinsic factors (both social and natural) than previously thought. So where appropriate we need to learn to work with the hard(ish) constraints our brains place on us. But within these constraints, we have the abilities to calibrate ourselves and our world to reflect the values and ideals we hold dear. And the hard constraints aren’t all bad – that we can only be properly happy by learning how to thrive in emotionally attuned networks is a constraint that’s just fine with me.