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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. 

One aspect of the financial crisis that hasn’t been examined is the role of complex social networks and relationships of trust. There are some reasons to think that networks beyond a certain size and with certain sorts of internal structure might lead to a breakdown in trust.

As I mentioned in my post, last week I attended a fascinating conference on the social brain and social networks. Two of the talks at the conference dealt with the issue of social network size and composition in terms of the evolved parametrics of the human brain (an organ designed to compute complex social relationships). The basic point was that there are limits beyond which networks become unmanageable and a dramatic drop-off in emotional closeness occurs. The upper limit is thought to be about 150. But there are also limits on the internal structure of the network. As far as I understand it, although ratios vary according to the propensity to communicate and extroversion of an individual (etc.), it appears that the best functioning networks are ones which scale up at a ratio of 3 from a core ‘inner’ network of close friends and/or family.

A common pattern (again, as far as I understand things) is an inner network of, say, 5, connected to a network of about 15, connected to a network of 45 and an outer network of over 100 (the scaling is not perfectly manifested in the network composition). As we travel from inner to outer networks several relationship characteristics reduce in intensity and capacity:

1) emotional closeness, including relationships like trust;

2) ‘theory of mind’ (what we understand about how someone thinks, their beliefs etc., what we think they are likely to do in given situations);

3) time spent with individuals.

For primates, emotional closeness and theory of mind (if that is not a misnomer) require immense amounts of time to be built up through grooming rituals – some primates only need to spend 2% of daylight hours on grooming for hygiene reasons but in fact spend 20%. It is estimated that humans would need to spend 40% of daylight time on grooming to sustain the complexity of the social networks they move within. But humans have language and vastly enhanced memories thus reducing the contact time necessary for emotional closeness and adequate theory of mind to develop and be sustained (think of the emotional closeness a well-chosen word can generate and how long that closeness can last).

The jury is out on what governs the size and scaling ratios of human social networks, but the influencing factors are likely to be a combination of the three relationship characteristics listed above.

My thought is this. Perhaps the technological, global and corporate world of finance allows individuals to hold together networks of such size that little is known about what anyone in the network is likely to do, believe or think. Moreover, perhaps the scaling ratios are skewed, so that emotional closeness is lost (the inner networks are too big perhaps, or the overall network size too large). And perhaps because of all this too little time is spent on developing trusting relationships.

These factors together could contribute to a kind of trust developing which lacks the normal interpersonal knowledge, closeness and time commitment. So perhaps the corporate world should consider the evolved parametrics of the social brain when organising its institutional structures?

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.

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.