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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The century of the brain?

November 15, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Yesterday I posted on my favourite subject – the social aspiration gap. The question being how do we enable people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want? One consequence of this citizen-centric way of thinking is that policy makers need to think more deeply about human nature; what is it that makes us behave as we do?

Another prompt for this debate has been the decline – hastened by the 2008 economic crisis – of homo economicus; the idea that human behaviour can be sufficiently explained on the basis of utility maximising individuals operating with perfect information in a free market. Instead a combination of disciplines including social psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience and anthropology have offered a more complex, subtle, reflexive model of human nature. Human beings are deeply social, innately capable of collaboration and altruism, predictably irrational (to use Dan Ariely’s phrase) and occasionally deluded. We are the only species than can think about thinking but we have prehistorically evolved brains trying to cope with a world that has arguably changed more in the last hundred years than the previous 200,000.

A great insight about the modern condition, offered by among others Anthony Giddens, is that we are increasingly reflexive. By this is meant that we tell ourselves a story about ourselves and that, rather than deferring to our fixed place in a religious or monarchical world view, we want to be the author of that story. I have suggested that in the 21st century we will add a new dimension of thinking: neurological reflexivity. The idea here is that in thinking about thinking we are aware of, and adapt to, our cognitive frailties. One concrete example of this is stickK.com which is helping thousands of people deal with innate human short-termism by encouraging them to pledge a sum of money (it works best if it is to a cause they don’t like) to be paid at the moment they break a self-improving pledge.

When I deliver speeches I often ask audience members whether they would like to be better people. I then advise them not on any account to buy self-help books – which are directed at their conscious will power (despite their ubiquity there is no evidence such books work). Instead, I urge, choose better friends and their virtuousness will soon rub off on you (which is, by the way, why surveys show religious people tend to be happier and more altruistic than poor atheists like me).

I am partly sharing all this with you because this seems to be a week for recapping on some core ideas but also as a plug for the first of my three part radio 4 series on brain and society ‘Brain Culture’ which goes out this afternoon at 16.00.         

By the way if you want to get more deeply into the topical and sometimes heated debate about brains and behaviour I can recommend this appropriately thoughtful pamphlet by my colleague Dr Jonathon Rowson.

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The anti-social animal

May 19, 2011 by · 1 Comment
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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The anti-freedom fashion

September 8, 2010 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Writing in yesterday’s London Evening Standard, Philip Delves Broughton gives his readers a preview of ‘Freedom’, the new work by Jonathan Franzen, the widely admired American novelist:

‘…This is the key theme of the book, and the reason for the title. We pampered creatures of the 21st century are ruined by our own freedom. Instead of bringing us happiness, it brings us only uncertainty. Having eschewed the certainties and disciplines of earlier generations, we find ourselves lost and adrift, propelled by the lingering emotions of childhood into futile searches for meaning.’

Questioning freedom is now all the rage. The RSA has been exploring the problems with the idea of human autonomy for some time, for example in our Social Brain project or the 21st century enlightenment speech. A critique of a shallow, individualistic, notion of freedom is also central to an essay on the sixties I have written for broadcast on Radio Four on 15 September.

I guess we should be pleased that we have caught the zeitgeist. The danger is that it looks like the RSA is now following fashion rather than leading it.

I have been reading the proofs of a new short book by the moral philosopher Mary Midgley (we are honoured to be hosting her here at the RSA on 20 September). The book is a critique of the idea of human beings as being wholly driven by self interest and is full of wonderful insights and arguments. I had heard many of these points before but Midgley’s powerful and persuasive style makes you think of them afresh. For example, if self interest is natural in humans while altruism is a cultural construct, why is it, Midgley asks, that we are often driven by our natural impulses to behave in ways which are demonstrably against our self interest?

She gives the example of someone who ruins their chances of promotion by having a furious row with their boss. As I have often discussed in this blog, much of the recent economic crisis can be put down to us following our animal impulses rather than cool calculation. It is not just social constraint that stops us being selfish but our animal passions; desire, loyalty, fear, a sense of fairness (which we now know children exhibit before even being able to speak): the crude neo Darwinian idea that selfishness is natural and altruism not is simply untenable.  It is in our nature that we have somehow to manage the individual and collective dilemmas which result from being animals driven by a combination of self interested, social and blindly emotional forces (or as Freudians might put it, ego, superego and id).   

Mary Midgley’s book is likely to be seen as another powerful assault on the ideology of individualism. But just when I was in danger of succumbing to feeling aggrieved that so many other – more esteemed – people are getting credit for making an argument we have been pursuing for several years, I had lunch with my own personal guru, Geoff Mulgan. He reminded me that the idea that freedom was both modernity’s  greatest virtue but also its greatest problem was the very first point in his 1998 book, Connexity.

There is no such thing as a new idea, especially one as big as this. Rather than trying to claim credit for an intellectual fashion, the task for the RSA is to delve more deeply and widely into the debate, to make it interesting and accessible to as many people as possible and to explore new practical applications of a more sophisticated, social, idea of autonomy.

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Steer way to heaven

June 15, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Today the RSA publishes a new report: ‘Steer, mastering our behaviour through instinct, environment and reason’. It is a product of our Social Brain project and was authored by Matt Grist, who has just this week left to start a new job with Demos.

There are four things I like about the report:

1. It draws on evidence about what drives our behaviour but is measured and balanced, and avoids the temptation to reduce human behaviour to neurological processes. There is a study which shows researchers have only to use the word neuroscience for people to be more likely to believe in any results they are told. Pop neuroscience is everywhere, including a piece in today’s Times saying that Robert Green’s mishap was down to the fact that our brains perceive our hands to be nearly twice the size they really are. Steer avoids the ‘voodoo correlations’ of some applied neuroscience.  

2. The core thesis is intellectually convincing and politically progressive. Instead of the benign paternalism of ‘Nudge’, it advocates giving people simple guides which make them better able to shape their behaviour. It recognises that much behaviour is automatic, not conscious, but it gives us the tools to consciously change our circumstances.

3. Although it is a small study, the research involved testing its ideas with a group of subjects. Finding out which ‘rules’ they found most useful immediately, and when asked a few weeks later, shows there is real potential in this approach (which we will be exploring in the next stage of the project).

4. It is short and well-written (always a relief when it comes to think tank reports).

Sadly, there is little sign of the work being picked up by the media – which given all the hype surrounding ‘Nudge’ is a pity. But who knows – maybe it’s a slow burner and I hope my wonderful (and, judging by yesterday’s discussion, deeply intellectual) blog readers will have a look and share it around.

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