Drawing over-hasty conclusions

by | Aug 21, 2010

Here’s a new RSA animation in which Matthew Taylor, former head of the Institute for Public Policy Research and now chief executive of the RSA, sets out what he wants the Royal Society to do. It’s a great animation and lively talk, and he’s clearly very interested in the politics of well-being, and in what moral and political insights we can draw from new research in psychology and neuroscience. But he may be over-hasty in the policy conclusions that he draws. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC7ANGMy0yo[/youtube]

Taylor refers in the talk to “powerful new insights” from neuroscience, anthropology and psychology, particularly the idea, in the work of social and behavioural psychologists like John Bargh and Jonathan Haidt, that we are mainly automatic, irrational creatures, and we need to be aware of the limits of our rationality and free will, in order to become more self-aware and responsible people. (If you read the excellent www.edge.org, you’ll be familiar with a lot of this research.)

Taylor argues that this research provides a scientific ‘evidence base’ that takes us beyond individualism, and towards a more social and communitarian model of politics. In this, he is in the same camp as New Left thinkers like Richard Layard and Oliver James, who have tried to use insights from psychology to criticise neo-liberal individualism and justify a more social-communitarian model of society.

The main problem with this ‘natural communitarianism’ is that Taylor and the RSA are moving too rapidly from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, when in fact the same scientific research can be used to justify quite different policy approaches.

Individualism: less or more?

Taylor says that, because we’re unconscious, automatic creatures responding to social cues in our environment, there’s an ‘evidence base’ to support a critique of individualism. But you could accept that model of human psychology and use it to argue for a more individualist philosophy.

Surely becoming more self-aware, more self-conscious and more responsible (all ethical goals that Taylor promotes) involves becoming more critically detached from our social environment, less blindly driven by social cues, less swung by herd behaviour?

The Socratic project to ‘know yourself’ and to take responsibility for your thoughts and actions – a project which Taylor apparently embraces – is, it seems to me, quite an individualistic project. It involves the individual becoming critically detached from his society’s conventions and asking ‘Do I accept my society’s values? Do they make sense? Do I choose them?’

This was and is a radically individualist idea, which is partly why Socrates was put to death by his own society, for destabilizing social conventions.

There are other ethical conclusions that Taylor draws from scientific research. He tells us in his talk: ‘The evidence is clear: if you want to be happier, don’t read a self-help book, spend more time with happy people.’ In other words, our happiness depends more on the social cues around us, especially the people around us, than on any conscious effort at knowing or changing our selves.

But is the evidence really so clear? For one thing, Taylor and the RSA embrace Positive Psychology, which is very much based on the idea that we can improve our happiness levels through conscious attempts at self-knowledge and self-improvement. There’s evidence that reading the right sort of self-help book actually can reduce depression and anxiety, and make you a lot happier. So do read a self-help book, just make sure it’s a good one.

And even if we accept the finding that the best way to be ‘happy’ is to be surrounded by happy people, should we then uncritically use this to justify an Epicurean existence, in which we only spend time with happy people? If our friends or family become unhappy, should we avoid them like the plague? If our community is depressed, should we leave it and move somewhere happier? Very individualistic life choices, if so.

Nudging the masses towards responsibility

The RSA is also trying to have its cake and eat it. It is trying to embrace Richard Thaler’s idea of ‘nudging’ people towards desirable social outcomes, by understanding and manipulating their automatic decision-making processes, and by ‘steering’ them through communal institutions and frameworks.

But it also says our goal should be to create more conscious, autonomous and responsible citizens.

Well, which is it? We can’t be autonomous, responsible, or moral, if we are being manipulated unconsciously and automatically. Automatons can’t, by definition, be conscious or moral. To be fair, the RSA’s Matt Grist has himself acknowledged this problem.

Social institutions steer us towards being more self-controlled and ethical, Grist says. The Right, he says, has put too much emphasis on self-reliance and will-power, when it fact ‘the latest research’ suggests that a lot of our ethical behaviour emerges unconsciously from social environments.

Well, not all the latest research. If you look at, for example, the work of Roy Baumeister, one of the leading social psychologists today, it suggests that there is such a thing as ‘will power’, that we have what he calls a ‘moral muscle’ – an ability to resist our automatic programming and make conscious decisions – and that this muscle becomes stronger through training and habit.

And cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – which lies at the centre of the Positive Psychology the RSA endorses – is also built on the idea that, ultimately, becoming more self-aware and autonomous requires people to work really hard, get out of their comfort zone, and go through a lot of discomfort and pain. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, was asked what kind of people CBT worked best with. He replied: “People who are prepared to work their ass off.”

The state can provide the conditions for people to have access to CBT training (the social-paternalistic part of it) but it can’t ensure they will actually do the work or have the will power and guts to get out of their comfort zone and change themselves.

You can’t force people to be free. You can’t design perfect social systems that do away with the need for individual effort – nor with the likelihood that many people will still be unhappy and frustrated beings, despite all your best efforts.

Seeing what we want to see

Behavioural psychologists say that one of the main automatic biases the human brain is disposed to is the self-confirmatory bias: we seize on evidence that supports our core beliefs, while discounting any evidence that conflicts with it.

Too often, policy makers on both the Left and Right are guilty of this bias in their hasty use of the latest findings from psychology, neuroscience and anthropology to support their own core beliefs.

And the RSA’s use of scientific evidence illustrates this bias.

For example, in one of the RSA’s key reports, Matt Grist says there is ‘growing evidence’ that we are hard-wired to be altruistic, cooperative creatures. His evidence is, principally, the many Dictator and Ultimatum games theory experiments carried out by Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and others in the 1990s.

The famous experiment gave $20 to a person, and said they could either split it 50 / 50 with another experiment subject (who they didn’t know), or could keep $18 themselves and give the other person $2. Three quarters of the subjects chose to share the money, and this was eagerly seized on by the Left as evidence that we’re hard-wired to be altruistic beings, rather than the selfish individualists of neo-liberal theory.

But more recent research by John List of the University of Chicago tried out a variation of the game. The subjects were now given the option either to share their money with another subject, who was also allocated money, or to take money from them. Under these conditions, far fewer subjects chose to share their money, and many chose to take money from the other subject.

Yes, some recent scientific research shows that we’re social, altruistic, empathic, and everything the Left could hope us to be. But other research shows we’re also selfish, sexist, racist and vicious.

For example, John Bargh first illustrated the concept of automaticity – a concept at the heart of the RSA’s ‘social brain’ project – by an experiment in which he flashed subliminal images of African-Americans to white Americans. He then put the white Americans into social interactions, and found they were far more likely to be hostile and defensive in these subsequent interactions.

Bargh concluded that the subjects had been cued by the subliminal image of another ethnic race to be hostile and defensive, although they weren’t conscious of being exposed to this cue.

Can we say that, because there is ‘growing evidence’ that we’re hard-wired to be racist, we should embrace apartheid?

Naturalistic ethics: where angels fear to tread

This is the problem with over-hasty attempts to build a naturalistic ethics and a naturalistic politics – in other words, an ethics and politics that justifies itself by saying it ‘fits’ with the latest scientific findings on human nature.

I’m also interested in the possibility of this sort of naturalistic ethics. But as I’ve argued before, we have to be very careful about using scientific research to support too grand and sweeping pronouncements about what a good life or a good society looks like.

Let’s be more circumspect: the latest research from psychology and neuroscience suggests that we are automatic, unconscious, irrational creatures. It also suggests that we have some ability to become aware of our automatic programming, and to re-programme ourselves.

We can teach young people how to be conscious of their beliefs and emotions, how their beliefs lead to their emotions, how to rationally examine their beliefs and see if they make sense. In other words, we can teach them, to some extent, how to ‘steer the elephant’ of their automatic selves.

But, as Taylor himself says, we can never use scientific evidence to tell us, once and for all, where to steer the elephant – towards the free market, towards socialism, towards God, towards wherever.

The RSA’s Matt Grist puts it very well:

Character education should be about enabling people to be more autonomous and responsible, not making them be autonomous and responsible in a particular way. The way people employ the skills they learn will depend on the web of morality and norms they inherit, and their own reaction to that web. Let’s leave that bit to them.


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    Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

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