On reflection, Evan Davis is wonderful

April 16, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I was delighted this morning to see the extensive coverage for an RSA report by my colleague, Dr Jonathan Rowson, called ‘Reflexive Coppers’. The report described a small scale but fascinating study of the value police offers felt they received from insights into cognitive processes and exploring ways of thinking more effectively.

The positive findings reinforced the RSA’s more subtle and empowering approach to behaviour change. Instead of ‘nudging’, which seeks to change choice architecture (for example, putting healthier food more easily in reach than unhealthy in canteens), the RSA’s ‘steer’ approach aims to give people the understanding and tools they need to change their own behaviour. This was particularly relevant to police officers as they try to find a way to reconcile their public order and public engagement functions.

We try at the RSA to be honest about the disappointments as well as the successes of research. So Jonathan’s report also describes the problems police officers had applying the lessons they had learnt from their training, and the limited take up when they were offered an opportunity to have further discussions about reflexivity.

I suspect this latter finding reinforces a point I was making last week about the need to embed more thoughtful ways of operating in day to day work practices. Unless methods of refining individual cognition and regularising group reflection are made a core part of work, attempts to think better are likely to be undermined by day to day pressures.

The Society’s ‘social brain’ strand of work (of which the police report is a part) is central to our broader historical focus on enhancing human capability. Whether the issue is improving children’s attainment, tackling social problems or fostering innovation, how to think and decide more effectively is an important question. Indeed, the RSA is seeking to achieve greater depth than other research organisations by underpinning our practical and policy related work with a set of cross-cutting insights not just on cognition and behaviour change but also social networks, design and social enterprise.

Given the RSA’s broad remit, it is important that we connect the specific focus of our work to wider themes. Which brings me to Evan Davis, who, as we all know, has a background, and continuing interest, in business and the economy. As you can hear, it is the esteemed broadcaster who spontaneously links Jonathan’s work to economic productivity and manufacturing specifically.

Indeed, in a knowledge economy dominated by the service sector the question of how we might organise work so that people are better motivated and more likely to develop and apply new ideas is as vital to business profitability as to public sector efficiency.

In ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt reports research showing how the quality of people’s reasoning is improved by being forced to reflect for just two minutes, rather than responding to a question spontaneously. With that in mind, look at this research on how our on-line behaviour indicates a growing intolerance of even the most minor delay in gratification.

It is the ability to reflect which makes humans different and social psychology, behavioural economics and other disciplines are finding more and more ways in which our intuition is unreliable. Imagine a world where everyone every day was given the encouragement and the time for structured reflection (sometimes alone, sometimes with others) it is hard to believe it wouldn’t make the world a better place. As work intensifies and information multiplies it is also hard to see how we can make it happen.

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