The anti-social animal

May 19, 2011 by
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 


We had a great lunchtime event with David Brooks today. The brilliant New York Times columnist was talking about his new book, The Social Animal which is an elegant quasi-novelistic exploration of the largely subconscious forces that drive our behaviour and mould our character. I was able to catch a bit of time with David before the event, a conversation which began with me thanking him for giving the RSA a name check last night on Newsnight.

As Madeleine Bunting was chairing David’s lecture, I used my time with him to ask the four questions I would have posed had I been on stage:

1. Will our new understanding of the foundations – including the neurological foundations – of human behaviour change anything?  David replied that what he had learnt over the years leading up to writing the book had certainly changed the way he thought about himself and other people. Also it had helped him to understand major policy failures like the credit crunch and the US’ inability to achieve a peaceful transition after the Iraq war.

2. There are two critiques of the application of new thinking about behaviour and its social, emotional, evolutionary foundations by policy makers. The first that it is irrelevant and that, for all its flaws, rational utility maximising man (homo economicus) is still the best predictor of behaviour, the second that it is dangerous to suggest that Government could achieve its goals to manipulating our subconscious rather than engaging us in political debate.

On the first, David said his view and those of thoughtful policy makers had gone from believing homo economicus was a sufficient model of behaviour about 70% of the time to thinking it was sufficient about 40% of the time. On the second, he said the sheer complexity of human behaviour would belie any attempt by a democratic government to even attempt, let alone achieve, widespread manipulation.   

3. Does thinking about the foundations of human behaviour and the possibility of a more holistic understanding of our natures provide the basis for a new global dialogue? David’s first answer was sceptical. He writes a lot in his book about profound cultural differences between countries and social groups within populations. He cited the example of Russia where those – including him – who argued on a rationalist basis for a market economy had failed to understand the low levels of social trust in the country and thus not seen how Russian capitalism would be so vulnerable to exploitation and corruption.

My response was to say that although ethnocentric thinking comes from failing to understand that other cultures have different, and usually in their own terms equally valid, value systems, that doesn’t change the fact that all human beings are strongly influenced by emotions, values and norms. In fact, understanding cultural difference is actually aided by recognising human similarity; for example appreciating that we all have our own scared beliefs even if they are based in scripture for some people and the UN declaration on human rights for others.

4. This question was about the scope for new behavioural insights in combination with new challenges to lead to a step change in human development. I think David said that this wasn’t a view with which he had really engaged. But, to be honest, by this time I was making ever longer statements about my own views which I may or may not have remembered to end with a token question. As we were leaving to go to the Great Room I realised that as the conversation had gone on so had I, demonstrating a lack of the empathic listening skills which – ironically – are amongst those which I believe 21st century citizens need.

David’s speech was clever and also in also in parts very funny. Early on, in reference to the fact that he had a later appointment at Number Ten, he remarked that in his extensive experience as a political journalist most politicians suffered from a chronic disease: quite simply, they had talked so much they had driven themselves mad.

I may have been wrong but I fear that, at just that moment, the great man gave me a knowing look.

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One Comment on The anti-social animal

  1. Tom Brookes on Sat, 21st May 2011 3:52 pm
  2. Matthew,

    The social animal looks wonderful, I wondered if you’d notice the name drop on news night – enjoyable interview too, very insightful.

    After reading today’s post I was encouraged to comment as I’ve been thinking along similar lines recently; I’ve a vague obsession with spreading the ideas the RSA promotes, I’m forever debating with friends and family, but the problem I run into time and again is people saying: “I’m tired, can we not talk about something inane and easy for a bit?”. Social reform and enlightenment values, it seems, can’t compete with the demands of modern working life and are more complex than x-factor, hence it’s higher viewing figures despite it’s childish content.

    As well as busyness I think people feel a false contentment they don’t wish to see challenged when it comes to their life and worldview – the easier the better if you’re working, raising kids, paying bills… this is a problem with the broad uptake of ideas – somehow something has to shift in western, and global culture so we aren’t forever concerned with money & have time to discuss the state of society. As David Harvey so eloquently puts it: “debt encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike”, well it seems they don’t have time for much else outside their soap bubbles either.

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