On the face of it last week contained two really good bits of news. First, there was unemployment apparently peaking at nearly half a million fewer people than most analysts, including the Government’s, were predicting this time last year. Second, the crime stats showed an 8% headline fall, again defying the widespread prediction that there would be more offences committed during the recession.
I am sure the Government wishes more attention was being paid to the good news, and hoping an effect might show up in the opinion polls. If so, ministers will have been disappointed to open Sunday newspapers, brimming not with glad tidings but endless analysis of the child assaults in Edlington, plus pages of speculation about how the current and previous Prime Minister will perform in the Iraq inquiry. But it’s not so much the politics that interest me.
Both the employment and crime news are genuinely interesting. There are various explanations for the former and tucked away on the BBC website is a very good overview from Stephanie Flanders. So the news was reported and there are analyses available, but why don’t people seem particularly interested? Compare this with the endless agonising – on the news, in the papers, but also in bus queues and pubs – about whether this would be the worst recession since (or even including) the Great Depression.
It’s a cliche that the news focuses on bad things. Over the years various people, from newsreaders to website founders, have tried to get people interested in a more balanced offering. But our lack of interest in how we have come through the downturn better than we expected, and our willingness to put so much more emphasis on the terrible crimes of two disturbed boys than the benign social trend revealed in the crime stats, underlines the depth of our social pessimism.
Last week, in an RSA Thursday event discussing optimism, a telling point was made. One of our advocates for pessimism, the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, said that a great thing about thinking the worst is that pessimists are surprised and delighted when things go well. But, as Laurence Shorter, author of The Optimist replied, what actually happens when inveterate pessimists are presented with good news that they ignore it, discount it or start looking for its drawbacks.
So wedded are we now to social pessimism that we are unwilling even to acknowledge that as a country we appear to have become both more economically resilient and socially responsible. If we don’t take in the good news we will be even less able to deal intelligently with the bad.
I have been swimming in a sea of social pessimism. Last night it was the focus for my talk to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation event on new social evils. This morning I went along (in a personal capacity) to a Progress seminar about the ‘broken society’ thesis. The seminar featured the predictable split between those who urge ministers and progressive commentators to refute the broken society thesis and expose the motives behind it, and those who warn that unless Government shows it is responding to public concerns (however misplaced or anecdotal) it will look complacent and out of touch.
These options having been stated early on, there were then attempts to suggest a middle way: empathise with social pessimism but maintain that something is being done about it; or encourage optimism but with a ‘pro social’ emphasis on the responsibility of citizens to contribute to further progress.
Inevitably one of the speakers this morning was Ben Page from IPSOS MORI. Ben, you will recall, provided entertaining and authoritative overviews of the public mood to each of the RSA’s three party conference meetings. It was on a different issue that I cornered him as I left the seminar.
Ben spoke here at the RSA last week. But his findings highlighting public inconsistency and pessimism was called into question by Professor Paul Dolan from Imperial College. Dolan argues that survey data on questions such as the state of the country was of very little value for three powerful and overlapping reasons. First, people rarely think about such grand issues, so the response they give is bound to be off the top of the head rather than considered. Second, the framing of the questions is highly suggestive of particular responses; just asking ‘do you think the country is going in the right direction’ seems designed to produce the response ‘well, if you’re asking, I guess the answer must be ‘no’’. Third, there is a great deal of evidence that our answers to such questions are heavily influenced by ephemeral recent events. People will give more positive answers on sunny days and much more positive answers if something good has just happened to them.
This struck a chord with me as in recent talks and conversations I have been extolling the virtues of cultural theory (yes, that again). With public sector types one finds oneself underlining the importance of engaging with the individualist perspective; the view that nature is resilient and that the world goes on just fine if we all do what comes naturally to us. The problem is that the tool councils use to find out what people want tends to be polling (usually done by colleagues of Ben Page). But, as I now tend to argue, in view of the limitations of polling, they should be spending much less time asking people what they think and much more finding out what people do.
A classic example of this relates to green public spaces. If during the design process for a park which may be, let’s say, rectangular, members of the public are asked whether they will stick to the paths round the edge of the lawned space they are likely to say ‘yes’. But, in fact, we know that if there a quicker diagonal route between entry and exit points to the space the public will quickly create an unofficial path or ‘desire line’ cutting the park in half.
I said all this to Ben expecting him to respond with a spirited defence of opinion polling. But, no, as usually he was unflappable. ‘Very interesting’ he said ‘and probably why we have started employing our own in-house ethnographers at IPSOS MORI’.
PS: Five minutes after finishing this blog, I came across the front page of Society Guardian about Irena Bauman. She, it turns out, is doing exactly what I advocate above and has been doing it for some time, and brilliantly.
The RSA has been assisting the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with its fascinating project to identify ‘new social evils’. We held a launch event here in July and our Fellows were invited to contribute to JRF’s online consultation.
This week, I attended a day long discussion exploring the outcomes of that consultation and implications for the next stage of the project. A stage which we hope will involve further JRF/RSA events at John Adam Street.
I won’t steal JRF’s thunder by revealing the list of social evils that emerged from the over 3,000 online submissions and more in-depth focus groups.
Maybe it’s the wisdom of crowds, or maybe a failure of popular insight, but the list reveals a pretty strong consensus around the kinds of ‘evils’ discussed at the lecture here, with materialism, poverty, and the breakdown of family and community featuring highly.
The extended seminar this week was an opportunity to look behind the list and explore connections and deeper underlying trends. There was much of interest here, but, for me, three related points stood out:
- It is not useful to try to explain the widespread pessimism about the state and direction of society by saying lives are getting worse. Indeed many things, for example social tolerance, affluence, educational attainment are getting better. Our unease may instead reflect the sense that we are not equipped to deal with the kinds of new challenges presented to us by the modern world.
- In physiological terms human evolution is a slow process (although rising life spans and evidence of substantial increases in average IQs suggest it is possible to get much better use out of the equipment we inherit). Thus far, human history comprises a very long period of very limited change, followed by a much shorter period of much more profound change. Is the tragic paradox of modernity that we are able to unleash powerful, unstoppable, processes – most obviously scientific and technological change, and modern globalisation – but we do not have the tools (as individuals, communities or nations) to direct those processes to the achievement of a better human condition.
- Returning to the RSA theme of the social aspiration gap (between the future we say we want and the future we are likely to create with current modes of thought and behaviour), should we understand this gap less as a failure of will or leadership, but instead as a sign that we need to develop a new collective consciousness? It is only this new consciousness (what our trustee Sean Blair refers to as ‘post-enlightenment thinking’) that will enable us to thrive in the world we have created, or, as it increasingly feels, the world that is creating us.
In case this all feels a bit abstract let me offer one observation which connects a major social phenomena with the ways our minds work.
We know from the research of Richard Layard and others that economic progress and rising affluence have not been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. This insight has given rise to the development of new policy priorities designed to increase happiness levels.
The impact of Layard’s work was seen most recently when the Government announced substantial extra funding for cognitive and behavioural therapy. Studies of individual behaviour and brain processes suggests one reason for the social phenomenon of progress without happiness may lie in our individual mental processes (for a brilliant exposition of this and other research I can strongly recommend ‘Stumbling on Happiness‘ by Dan Gilbert).
It seems that we are all very bad at predicting the impact of events on our levels of contentment (systematically exaggerating the bad impact of what we fear and the good impact of what we desire). So, how are we to create a more contented society when we are so bad at predicting what make us contented individuals?
As is the style of my blogs, I am skimming the surface of a deep and complex set of subjects. The idea of a new collective consciousness requires us to bring together insights from areas as diverse as anthropology, philosophy, social psychology and brain science. Unless debate is grounded in robust research and engages with concrete issues there is a danger of falling into a kind of new age mysticism.
But this feels to me like it could be a central project for the RSA, shaping both our thought and organisation for years to come.
Any other views?
This week the Trustees approved a set of interesting new research projects on: learning in prisons; attitudes and behaviours among small investors; social care innovation; and pro-social behaviour.
I’ll ask Jonathan Carr-West to summarise these on the programme pages of the RSA site.
Thanks to Christine Richard and Liz Sewell for interesting responses to last week’s blog.
I am just preparing to write the final summary chapter for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation social evils project (see earlier blogs for further discussions). So, having read the thoughts of figures as diverse as Ferdinand Mount, A C Grayling, and Zygmunt Bauman, with such an array of perspectives, I was surprised to see that one theme runs powerfully through them all: what has become of society?
Those on the left tend to the bemoan the decline of social solidarity, rising inequality and the stigmatisation of the poor; while those on the right bemoan the decline in social norms reflected in rising crime and disorder, and a lack of civility. Many on the left and right worry about the weakening of social cohesion reflected in tensions around diversity and identity.
There is something about all of which echoes the universal condemnation of the greed and irresponsibility that have precipitated the credit. All our leaders – with the benefit of hindsight of course – criticise the erosion of supervision and responsibility. The big question is why, if so many of our opinion formers and decision makers can see the problems and the risks facing us, they were unable to provide effective leadership. The looming economic recession is a consequence of the failure of leadership to alert us to the perils ahead and we face a deepening social recession unless we are able to warn our Fellow citizens of the consequences of loosening the ties that bind us without replacing them with new ways of holding society together.
I’m writing this on my blackberry on my way to speak to the great and good of Wiltshire. I wonder what they will make of my connecting of economic and social ills – perhaps I’ll blog in again on the way back and tell you how I get on.