What local government can learn from ‘The Social Animal’

We’ve been reserving comment on the political treatise of the day, The Social Animal by David Brooks, reported to be required reading in the higher echelons of government. It’s a pretty mammoth book bringing together a host of recent insights from neuroscience and social psychology and placing them in a narrative framework. In essence, Brooks’ argument is that our conscious decision making mind (or what we take to be our conscious mind) is relatively unimportant compared with all the other stuff that is going on in our brain. Most of our ‘thinking’ actually takes place at an unconscious level, determined by emotion, intuition, genetic predisposition and any number of unconscious neural processes.

The Social Animal is the latest building block in what’s rapidly looking like one of the key intellectual movements of our day.

From Robert Cialdini to David Thaler a long line  of geneticists, social and evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists and behavioural economists have traipsed through the doors of Downing Street and into the comment pages of the broadsheet press with occasional side outings to literary festivals. What unites them is a critique of the enlightenment notion of the autonomous, rational self: the decision making being who consciously responds to the world and who bears moral rights and responsibilities  Instead we are given a re-embodiment of the mind both in the physical processes of the brain and in the social networks within which individuals operate. As Brooks puts it

“We are not primarily the products of our conscious mind. We are primarily the product of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.

The unconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions. They are not dark caverns of repressed  sexual urges. Instead the unconscious pars of the mind are most of the mind – where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place.”

It’s easy to see why this sort of thinking is so appealing to politicians and policy makers. It promises to unlock the messy surface of human behaviour and reveal a set of scientifically knowable, predictable phenomena underpinning it. If we understand why people really act as they do then we can design public policy that effectively shapes that behaviour. We can use our knowledge of the unconscious parts of the mind to get people to save more for their pensions, eat better diets, work harder or whatever the political aims of the day may be. There is nothing especially new or sinister in wanting to do this, at one level all public policy is about shaping behaviour to desired ends. What is new about what Brooks refers to as a revolution in consciousness is that it gives this process a new footing in science and that it removes from the sphere of rational argument.

On one level this is eminently sensible and desirable. Clearly it is a good thing to base our policy making on an evidentiary basis and to make it as far as possible about how people actually behave rather than how some theoretical model says they should behave. Equally we should try and understand the limitations of rational, autonomous decision making. There seems  little point in pretending to ourselves that we are more in control of things than we really are. Understanding why people behave and make decisions as they do should enable us to make more effective interventions. Finding out about the mechanisms that make things work very often leads to unforeseen improvements. Think for example of the way in which growing understanding of bacteria and the human body drove improvements in public health in the nineteenth century and imagine what might be the neurological equivalent of this in thinking about education for example? If we know how people work we can work with them more effectively. If we can understand how people make decisions we can improve the decisions they make.

At the same time it is becoming possible to detect a burgeoning backlash against this new brain based policy. Rafael Behr in The Observer, Ray Tallis in The Times and Jules Evans on the Politics of Well Being blog have recently written about respectively how this movement risks becoming a new orthodoxy, how it oversteps the findings of the science and how it obscures fundamental questions about how to live.

I don’t think that these critiques mean that we should abandon a scientific account of behaviour but I do think we should temper our enthusiasm for it with the following cautionary observations.

Firstly, we must be careful not to overstate what the science tells us. It is notable that the most enthusiastic advocates of these positions tend not  to be scientists who are themselves  more circumspect about the implications of their work. It’s worth remarking that most of our politicians and policy makers have backgrounds in the humanities or social sciences and as such can over estimate the definitiveness of scientific ‘truth’ which scientists would tend to view as much more provisional.

Secondly, one appeal of this way of thinking is that it seems apolitical. It is about ends rather than means. Hence the sight of both Labour and the Tories trying to claim ‘nudging’ a couple of years ago. But this is a illusion. Behaviour change always aims at particular ends and these are necessarily based upon value based decisions about what a good life should be. Focusing all our attention on how we make decisions risks obscuring a far more fundamental discussion about what decisions we should make.

Thirdly, as Ray Tallis has previously observed there is a philosophical oddity, given how self evident our consciousness of our self is, about questioning its existence simply because we can’t find it in the brain. After all, if I cannot find my keys where I think they should be my normal reaction is to conclude that they must be somewhere else, not that they do not exist. Similarly, there is something odd about using the conscious decision making parts of our mind to conduct enquires that throw doubt upon the abilities of that part of our mind. It’s not clear why we should take any part of that equation as more ‘real’ than the other.

On a fourth related point, we need to distinguish between an ontological and epistemological understanding of the issue or, in other words, something may be true without being useful and useful without being true. Whilst new brain science throws some doubt upon the capacity of our rational minds we should not forget that the enlightenment idea of a self has, as a bearer of moral agency, proved hugely useful over a couple of centuries. We must be careful not to throw out the moral baby with the rationalist bathwater.

So what has all this to do with local government? It may seem an abstract debate far removed from the realities of service delivery in a difficult climate. But in fact these are exactly the sort of issues that local government will need to take views on in the coming years. We know that a combination of tight budgets, forthcoming legislation and long term pressure on services mean that it will become increasingly important for citizens and communities to become involved both in the co-production and delivery of services and in the mitigation of service demand. In seeking to engage citizens in this process, local authorities will have to decide whether to appeal to rational selves or social animals, whether, or in what degree and combination to operate through dialogue and persuasion or through behavioural nudges. In this as in so much, there is no definitive answer, no technocratic solution, instead it is at root a political, values based decision. The way in which the authority of the future seeks to interact with its population will, in the final analysis, depend upon how it thinks about what it is to be human.