UKIP is in fact a four letter word, but we need to learn to say it without discomfort. Two recent posts by colleagues; Adam Lent on UKIP’s inconsistent approach to freedom and Anthony Painter on UKIP’s success being a symptom of democratic stress, got me thinking about another way to understand their recent breakthrough, if indeed that’s what it was.
I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they might be tapping into certain kinds of ‘moral’ foundations that are largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties.
Many have argued that the three main parties are too close together in spirit and policy, and that huge swathes of the population do not see themselves adequately reflected in this group. On this account, UKIP is not just for people who believe immigration is insufficiently controlled, or who strongly dislike Europe, but more generally for those who do not identify with Westminster, or who have been ‘left behind by the relentless mark of globalisation and glib liberalism’.
On policy, UKIP’s ideas are nascent and hard to pin down, but perhaps their lack of credible policies is because they are not really a party of ideas at all. Instead, I wonder if their sudden appeal relates to the way they may be tapping into what some social psychologists view as ‘moral foundations’, which appear to be largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties. To be clear, I am not saying they are more or less moral than anybody else, but rather that they are tapping into certain kinds of moral sentiments that a significant number of people feel and seek expression for.
Six Moral Foundations
Moral Foundations Theory has recently been popularised by Jonathan Haidt, who spoke at the RSA last year, and kindly stayed afterwards to speak to Social Brain about his work in more detail. While I hugely recommend Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, I also recommend the more sophisticated critiques which suggest that the gap between science and morality cannot be bridged with quite as much conviction as Haidt seems to suggest.
The book includes a detailed account of the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological case for social intuitionism, which is a particular account of cognition and morality. Crudely, it says that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly, which forms the true basis of our morality. On this account, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited.
For now, a quick overview (unashamedly via Wikipedia) of Haidt’s palette of moral foundations is below.
- Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
- Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
- Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
- Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
- Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
- Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)
The claim is that we all have these moral foundations to a greater or lesser extent, but the degree to which they matter to us varies hugely depending on our political outlook; while our political outlook is shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise.
Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of this argument “What Makes People Vote Republican?” offers evidence to show many vote against their economic self-interest because they are motivated mostly by the extent to which candidates speak to the values above, and those on the right tend to speak to all of the moral foundations, while those on the left usually only offer a very concentrated form of the first and a little of the second and third.
One way of thinking of UKIP’s appeal
***Disclaimer: What I’m about to say should not be read as an endorsement of any position, nor a justification for why it is held***
If you tune in to the tone and language of what UKIP say, rather than analyse the claims rationally, you begin to see the breadth of their appeal- they are touching lots of these moral foundations, in ways that the other parties may not be.
- When they ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
- When they speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into ‘the loyalty foundation’.
- When they opposed gay marriage they were trying to tap into ‘the purity foundation’.
- When they speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
- When they speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into ‘the justice foundation’.
- They actually say very little about ‘the care foundation’, which is why people on the left, who see the world mostly through the care foundation, tend to think of UKIP as barmy, extreme, or callous.
None of the above serves to justify UKIP’s positions, but I hope it serves to indicate why people may well vote for them in spite of their policies, not because of them. Moreover, it may also indicate why it will take much more than a simple shift of policy on immigration or Europe to erode their appeal.
Global wealth inequality matters for all sorts of reasons- economic, social, environmental and political, so it worth taking the scale of this issue fully on board. The video is full of great graphs, striking statistics and vivid visuals. From reliable UN sources, statistics like the following are beautifully illustrated:
- The richest 2% have more wealth than half of the rest of the world.
- The world’s total wealth is about 223 trillion US dollars.
- The richest 1% have 43% of world’s wealth.
- The bottom 80% have just 6% of world’s wealth.
- The richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).
- Enjoy the video!
the richest 300 people on earth have the same wealth as the poorest 3 billion (3,000,000,000).
“Remember our duty to nature before it is too late…That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe.” Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher at the UN in 1990 (Image via www.Grist.org)
Whatever else you think of Margaret Thatcher, remember this. She ‘got it’ on Climate change in a way that few political leaders have before or since. Today’s press will rightly focus on the impact of her economic policy and the memory of her singular political personality. In both cases we will read about how she enforced her will. However, there is one issue on which she didn’t manage to carry the Cabinet, or the country with her: climate change.
I am grateful for James West at Grist for developing this case: Her 1990 speech to the UN laid out a simple Conservative argument for taking environmental action: “It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now,” she said, “than to wait and find we have to pay much more later.” Global warming was, she argued, “real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”
Thatcher’s climate conviction appears to have been based on the mixture of personal dispositions that made her such a distinct leader; scientific understanding – she apparently rebuffed the counter-argument that climactic variation was caused by solar radiation rather than C02 emissions based on her own personal understanding – and domestic housekeeping- planning ahead to minimise future costs and the burden to future generations.
I am grateful to
@adamjlent for mentioning that Thatcher’s speech to The Royal Society in 1988 was one of the main reasons for the massive increase in support for the Green Party in the 1989 European Elections. If you had to guess which political leader said the following three paragraphs, extracted from that speech, it is unlikely Margaret Thatcher would come to mind:
“Engineering and scientific advance have given us transport by land and air, the capacity and need to exploit fossil fuels which had lain unused for millions of years. One result is a vast increase in carbon dioxide. And this has happened just when great tracts of forests which help to absorb it have been cut down.
For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.
Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!”
I grew up in a domestic atmosphere in Aberdeen where Margaret Thatcher was perceived to be the villain, and I vividly remember the intense anger against her during the marches against the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland, so praising her does not come naturally. However, it is important to find the best in people, and on the issue that I care most deeply about at the moment, it feels good to reflect on this little known part of her legacy.
As part of our research for ‘The Power of Curiosity’ report I came upon a particularly arresting turn of phrase that encapsulates one of the major policy issues of our time: ‘the energy trilemma.’
“There’s what we call the energy trilemma; three great forces for change, but pulling in different directions. First of all you’ve got our commitment from the government around climate change, so we must reduce fossil fuel generation but this will need more investment in renewable and possibly nuclear generation. The second one is that we’ve got to keep the lights on which becomes more complex and costly with renewables as it’s less predictable and controllable. The third part of the trilemma is trying to manage the bills that you and I are faced with, in the context of the first two parts of the trilemma, in recent years we’ve seen bills rise higher than the rate of inflation and bills are hurting people.” - Daniel Taylor, Head of Innovation, British Gas
Trilemmas are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, just not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow. In this case, the issue at hand doesn’t just apply to energy companies, so let’s make it a bit clearer:
- We have to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change which means we have to significantly reduce and perhaps gradually eliminate fossil fuels from our energy supply.
- And yet we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply with renewable forms of energy that are often thought to be less reliable (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’)
- At the same time, while considering those trade offs and the costs incurred due to the fact(albeit an increasingly contentious one, and related to government subsidies for fossil fuels) that renewables tend to be more expensive, we have to recognise the existence of cost of living pressures on families throughout the country, especially those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because putting the heating on has become too expensive.
It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of these imperatives, but we can, I think, question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and question some of the assumptions underpinning them.
Personally, I don’t think we need to debate the first point at all, and I find myself motivated to challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. But before doing that it’s important to keep perspectives and biases in mind. If you work for an energy company that relies on the supply of fossil fuels or if your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country(especially hard when people return from work apparently, when there is a huge surge in demand caused by heating and lights going on and meals being prepared); or if you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy bills as an electoral issue you might be more inclined to problematise or interrogate the rather abstract and remote sounding first point, regardless of scientific opinion.
Those attacking the first horn of the trilemma might not question the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but they could question, for instance, the validity of the 2 degree global target, or question whether this country should take any kind of leadership on the issue when other similar or more culpable countries are doing less.
Those attacking the second horn of the trilemma could ask: Surely we can significantly reduce our energy demand? Or ask: How secure and stable do you need the energy supply to be? Isn’t it ok if the power goes off every so often? Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in India do? Or perhaps that argument is too weak, and you accept the need for reliability and predictability, but you don’t accept the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability. In a previous post on ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’, the idea of an energy internet was suggested to deal with precisely this challenge.
Those attacking the third point might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, but that’s a bit facile. The tougher question to pose, surely, is: Aren’t the energy companies simply charging too much? In light of the importance of climate change and the security and stability of the energy supply, could a case be made that profiting out of energy provision is somehow morally wrong? If so, should there be some sort of cap on profits, or make it mandatory that profits are reinvested in renewable energy, or could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy?
You will notice, in each case, that none of the arguments or suggestions sound completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically implausible. That’s why it appears to be a genuine trilemma. Something has to give.
(Baby faces on shop windows, Greens End, London. Image via lbbonline.com)
In a moment, some fun ideas about music, babies, pom poms and the colour pink, but I want you to take them seriously, so first consider this:
Anti-social behaviour is not crime as such, but it can be highly unpleasant, and is linked to criminality in public perception, so tackling anti-social behaviour has value in itself whether or not it directly reduces crime.
It is not easy to have a convincing effect on crime or anti-social behaviour because both are a function of whether and how people report their experiences, and how those reports are then categorised and measured by police.
Finding ways to be tough on crime and the causes of crime (perhaps Tony Blair’s most famous policy encapsulation) remains a fundamental policy challenge that needs to be taken seriously (e.g. poverty, policing) but there is a place for lighter touch and more creative interventions if those measures help to inform rather than replace more significant efforts to tackle the problems.
In each of the following cases, the researcher or prospective funder is entitled to ask: How do you know it’s working? Sometimes there will be such evidence, but often the answer appears to be: Well we don’t know for sure, but it’s grounded in a credible idea, we believe in it, and most people seem to like it. Sometimes, especially when funds are tight, that may have to suffice?
So with those qualifications in mind, here are a few ideas on how we might be playful (but nonetheless serious) on changing the atmosphere in which anti-social behaviour happens.
1) Playing classical music on the Underground, either through loudspeakers of buskers is not new, but it appears to have a calming effect on commuters in a context that is otherwise stress and conflict inducing. Of course the evidence for the effect is not unequivocal and it depends on the music, the volume, whether it is played by a person or not etc, but the idea is basically sound (pun gleefully intended).
2) Getting graffiti artists to paint baby faces on shop doors is based on the idea that we have evolved to respond compassionately to baby faces (big cheeks, big eyes) so when we see them we automatically shift towards caring tenderly for our beloved fellow humans and away from that raging desire to smash open a generic door to get at the loot.
(Pom Poms in Leicester. Image via www.bbc.co.uk)
3) More recently, Matthew Taylor sent me a link to a BBC article on a particular kind of Guerilla knitting that seems particularly speculative but nonetheless intriguing. The claim seems simply to be that people smile and feel more at ease when they see pom poms dangling from trees, and that this therefore encourages them to take routes and use areas that they otherwise wouldn’t. It appears (although I believe just anecdotally) that it may have helped to reduce fear of crime in an area of Leicester.
I really don’t know what to make of these ideas, but I generally like such interventions for two main reasons. First, they are a human, sensual and entertaining way of dealing with issues that tend to be otherwise gritty and difficult. Secondly, they problematise the idea that you always need hard evidence to make a difference. For a life-saving drug that might also kill you, it helps to know that it has been rigorously tested, but in the social world where the core issues relate to people’s hearts and minds, there is a place for this kind of playful speculation.
Although I would prefer not to be quoted and remembered as somebody who believed that pom poms were the solution to crime, I genuinely think we should respond to such seriously playful interventions as thoughtfully and supportively as possible.
Addendum: A colleague informs me that researchers have also tried painting furniture pink in particularly troubled areas on the grounds that “it’s hard to look tough sitting on a pink bench.” Again, it’s hard to measure the effect without knowing how tough somebody thinks they look on a blue bench, green bench etc!
“If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.” (G Monbiot, Heat, 2007, xvii)
I recently gave a 15 minute presentation on the Social Brain Centre‘s emerging ideas relating to behaviour change in the context of Climate Change. The title was: “What kind of behaviour change do we need?” The details will soon be unpacked in a report, grounded in evidence from a national survey, but the idea in outline is as follows:
- Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don’t manage to (‘climate ignorers‘)
- Focus on practices that have strategic value (changing behaviour in a way that promotes attitudes or values that reinforce rather than undermine related behaviours)
- Help people change certain social practices (often called ‘habits’) that are formative of their relationship to climate change.
- Design this change in a a way that promotes social diffusion to shift social norms and shape political will at a local level.
- Through a shift in civil society, local government and businesses, change political will at national and international levels.
On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours.
Now I know that pattern of change sounds a bit too good, platonic and partial to be true, but it’s a relatively coherent roadmap, and it helps to frame the role, relevance of nature of the behaviour change interventions that we want to work on. I’m really excited about this work programme, which feels very promising, and I am therefore very grateful to our funders for giving us a chance to give some practical definition to this theory of change.
And yet, when I gave the talk, I didn’t feel quite right afterwards, and sensed that I hadn’t connected with the audience as well as I might usually hope to. What was going on?
I gradually realised that the room was full of people who are working actively to reduce emissions in the UK. Everyone present had some form of connection with The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration and many, perhaps most, have some practical experience of attempts to implement The Green Deal.
On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours. I suspect most people in the room were focussed on the latter issue, while I spoke mostly to the former.
Why we Disagree about Climate Change:
The climate change challenge is compounded by the fact that people think about it in very different ways. Many see it fundamentally as a technical problem. On this view, Climate Scientists tell us about the extent of the risk to the stability and predictability of natural systems in probabilistic language, the political class, advised mostly by economists, make a collective judgement about how serious the problem is, and then they decide on what a credible and achievable solution looks like. In theory, businesses, civil servants, consumers and citizens then rally to that judgement.
On this framing of ’climate change’ it’s a clear problem lending itself to a solution. The corollary is that behaviour change is principally about working to make efficient energy use easier and more rewarding, and then measuring the impact of those interventions against national targets. If you can get people to retrofit their homes in the right way, switch to green energy providers, and improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and their driving behaviours, then you are taking huge strides towards solving ‘the problem’.
Climate Change: Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?
But many don’t see it as that kind of ‘problem’ and are sceptical that such ‘solutions’ could ever really work. At the risk of sounding (Bill) Clintonesque, there is a difference between Climate Change as a natural phenomenon and ‘Climate change’ as a social and political issue, and even when you accept the reality of the former, there is huge scope for dispute about the latter. Indeed, in a previous post I suggested there are at least 30 wedge issues on climate change.
Perhaps the most important wedge in these wedge issues is one we make in Transforming Behaviour Change (see part two, p17), namely the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. In this respect it is noteworthy that Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz suggests that most failures of leadership stem from the tendency to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Could this be happening to Climate Change?
While you can and should deal with some energy-related inefficiencies as technical problems, climate change as a whole is a more complex adaptive challenge requiring a wider set of responses. I will develop this point in our forthcoming report, but for now consider the following simple example that shows the huge difference between measuring impact through emissions(national, in aggregate) verses measuring it through carbon footprints(personal, international).
Although not generally consonant with our approach, a review article in The Economist gave a good example of a technical solution that fails to grapple with the underlying challenge. Simply stated, Government emissions targets do not reflect the carbon cost of imports, and this (in my view!) is at least partly because factoring in the carbon costs of imports calls into question the whole nature and purpose of the global economy.
Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions.
“By concentrating on their own carbon production, and how to reduce it, Europeans have ignored the impact of their continued demand for goods made using carbon- intensive processes. Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions. The regulatory approach, argues Mr Helm, has got the worst of all worlds. It is expensive, it has not cut emissions and its treaties are unworkable. No wonder the public is growing sceptical.”
As always with climate change, there is a lot going on in that paragraph, but the key point is that the ‘demand for goods made using carbon intensive processes’ is an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.
Dealing with that challenge requires forms of behaviour change that go way beyond our immediate relationship to energy in our homes. Indeed, viewing climate change as an adaptive challenge means engaging with attitudes and values relating to consumption more broadly, and even our perceived need for economic growth.
In other words, coming back to George Monbiot’s quote, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change, the form of behaviour change we work on has to go beyond improving energy efficiency, and at least raise the question of how we might successfully change our lifestyles.
I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views. What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin
While seeking advice on whom to invite to a workshop examining the potential practical relevance of the ideas in Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary, Matthew Taylor recommended writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Kenan Malik. In addition to significant media profile as a broadcaster and award winning writer, Kenan has informed opinions on a wide range of social and cultural issues, and a relevant background in Neurobiology, and in the History and Philosophy of Science.
(Image via scoopweb.com)
So it’s a pity he couldn’t make it! But thankfully Kenan expressed an interest in receiving our recently released report Divided Brain, Divided World and over the last few days he has generously given his time and web platform to discuss some of the questions arising from it. I am very grateful for this contribution, and read Kenan’s initial posting in the spirit in which I think it was intended, namely critical inquiry; being interested in the substance of the work, but sceptical about the conclusions reached.
Iain McGilchrist swiftly responded with an extended comment(4000+ words, plus a reference to another 4000+ word piece – the final feedback piece from John Wakefield, on pages 71-76 of our report) that he asked Kenan to promote to a full posting. Kenan kindly did so, and added his response to Iain’s comment in a fresh post Split Brains, Split Views: Debating Iain McGilchrist which led to a further comment from Iain and a further response from Kenan….which all sounds good.
the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions.
However, as somebody who gets on well with Iain and broadly believes in both the soundness and importance of his ideas, I was surprised by the combative tone he took in his responses to Kenan’s points, which felt much too strong, and which Kenan nonetheless generously accommodated and responded to in detail.
In Iain’s defence, Kenan’s first post could be viewed as provocative, not so much for the substance, but for the sources he chose to quote in support of his position. It makes sense that he drew upon the thoughts of Neuro-Nemesis Ray Tallis, whom I was very glad to include in the RSA workshop and report, and who wrote an extended critique of Iain’s work for our report (pages 51-53) but I suspect what Iain reacted to most vehemently was quoting (with tacit approval) Owen Flanagan’s review for the New Scientist magazine which I think Iain rightly refers to as ‘shameful’ (in this first reply to Kenan). This review featured a very strong negative judgement about a significant work of scholarship in a high profile magazine, and yet it appears to have been written very casually, without any significant attempt to engage with the book’s content. However, attacking Kenan for drawing upon that source does feel a bit like shooting the messenger.
Iain’s response might look odd to those not familiar with the ideas, so it’s worth remembering what is at stake is the coherence and relevance of a grand theory that might (or might not!) help to inform how we understand and tackle some of the major issues of our time. In our report we focus mostly on climate change, mental health and education, but from the 14 response pieces we published, you can see it also has potential relevance to, inter-alia, Behavioural Economics, Art, The Patent System and NGO campaigning.
I trust the minor contretemps will be swiftly forgotten, and I am glad the ideas generated by it have been useful.
Four Questions to help people agree on where they differ:
On substance, I imagine there is limited appetite for further qualifications on the thousands of words already written about the matter in Iain’s book, in our report, and now on Kenan’s site. However, as I say in the introduction to the report, the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions. In this respect, I see four useful questions emerging from the discussions on Kenan’s site. These are all relatively philosophical in nature, but feel to me like the key sources of disagreement.
Iain must be tired of saying he is not a reductionist. As I mention in the report, the value of his approach for those working on social innovation is that the link between brains and behaviour is not direct, reductive and causal, but rather mediated by phenomenology and values. Viewing the hemispheres of the brain as if it they had the qualities of experienced personhood, in which they pay particular kinds of attention gives you a very different reference point to the more conventional model, in which we view the brain as a kind of biological machine with rules governing inputs and outputs.
However, if you place the brain centre stage in any explanatory theory (as I think even Iain would have to concede he does!) people are going to assume it serves as a kind of touchstone. So the question is valid: If you are not reducing your explanation to the brain, in what way is what you are saying about the brain important?
Iain might say you need to understand how the functional and structural asymmetries in the hemispheres constrain attention, that our patterns of attention circumscribe what and how we value, which predisposes (rather than determines) us to act in certain ways. But such an explanation is likely to disappoint the questioner who is looking for the brain to build them some explanatory foundations!
Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist.
The charge against Iain is therefore that his argument relies for its rhetorical force on the epistemic esteem of neuroscience, but that esteem is grounded in a reductionism that he strongly repudiates. That curious equation is hardly Iain’s fault, but it does create some explanatory discomfort! Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist.
2) Is the equivocation over brains ‘causing’ social phenomena resolvable?
Similarly, Iain appears to most to be a bit equivocal about whether the brain is driving social and political changes. He would probably say he has shown the optimal amount of equivocation! Consider part of his answer to Kenan:
“There is a constant dialogue between brain and environment, which is traceable, if one wishes to do so, at the level of the synapse, but is also traceable at the phenomenological level. Each helps to mould the other. And so the answer to the left hemisphere question ‘which causes which?’ is – right hemisphere fashion, ‘both and neither’. But out of that relationship everything that we know, or can know, ultimately comes.”
Still sounds pretty equivocal, right? But it also sounds about right to me. So is there a better way to express the relationship between our hemispheric division, in particular the growing the left hemispheric ‘dominance’ in a way that makes it socially and culturally relevant but not strictly causal?
Before taking that plunge, compare the question: Does climate change cause irregular weather patterns? The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by ’cause’…and good luck with that.
3) Is it appropriate to sharply differentiate the science from the metaphor?
It is widely accepted that it is almost impossible to speak about scientific ideas without resorting to metaphors and the role of metaphors in science is therefore somewhat unclear. For some, developing a good metaphor reflects a depth of understanding of what something is like, and how it works, that cannot be attained in any other way. It is not merely a superficial analogy, and yet it’s not the ‘thing in itself’ either.
Iain seems to want to pitch his argument somewhere between literal and metaphorical truth, but many want to force a binary between science and metaphor, which feels like an uncomfortable choice in this context. The answer to the question: Is your thesis science or metaphor? Appears to be ‘both’. Is that a satisfying answer?
4) How much does the ambiguity over agency matter?
Given a certain definition of ‘persons’ (again, good luck with that) are the hemipheres like persons or is it truer to say they are persons? The latter option feels absurd, but we need further clarity on what kind of agency a whole person has that a single hemisphere doesn’t. In other words, is there an emergent property of additional agency that arises from the cooperation/conflict between the hemispheres in ordinary consciousness? Is is 1+1=2(working as one) or is it more like X+Y=Z?
These questions arose from the following query by Kenan:
“What I am suggesting is that part of the conceptual problem in your argument is the constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person, an elision that allows you to attribute agency to a hemisphere while denying that you are doing so. If what you mean (…) is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood. Your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon this ambiguity in the understanding of agency.”
I think Kenan is right to raise this question but it is not yet clear to me how much hangs on it. Any thoughts?
All of these questions were explored in our report, but they have all been given fresh impetus from the discussion with Kenan Malik and those who commented on the blogs, to whom I am grateful. And finally, I just saw that Iain posted an apology for overreacting to Kenan’s comments, so this important discussion is back on track in both substance and style…
It is always a great feeling when a piece of work that has been long in the making finally goes public. This particular report was a real labour of love. It emerged from your scribe being deeply impressed by a set of ideas about how the brain relates to the world(and vice versa) and wanting to do whatever I could to help others to share in that understanding.
Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard explores the practical significance of the fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, articulate, instrumental world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, holistic but relatively tentative world view of the right hemisphere.
The report features a dialogue between myself, Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, and Psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, about the practical and policy relevance of his critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. This discussion informed a workshop with policy-makers, journalists and academics and led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique and clarification of the argument, and illustrations of its relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.
For the purposes of promoting the report, I have frequently been asked to encapsulate the argument in as few words as possible, but this is not at all easy and feels like crafting the last of many Russian dolls. Iain’s argument is most fully expressed in a huge book that is about 350,000 words long, our report (including appendices) is about 45,000 words, a previous blog post gave an overview of the argument in 1400 words, and the RSAnimate (over a million hits) lasts about 12 minutes. So you can whittle it down, and the RSA has done what it can, but a simple elevator pitch is dangerous because there is so much nonsense out there about left and right brain thinking that anything too brief runs the risk of being misinformation.
Thankfully, in the report we have much broader capacity to develop the ideas, and in the afterword I reflected as follows:
The book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it.
“During the course of reading Iain’s work, the process of preparing and conducting the dialogue, organising the workshop, and compiling and writing this document, I have often felt somewhat overwhelmed by the effort, but never underwhelmed by the goal. The theory is big, difficult and audacious and most people don’t quite know what to do with it. So, there have been times where it has felt like the drive to extract importance out of the interest has been in vain, but when I reflect on the initial motivation, and the potential prize, it feels more like we just have to try differently, or better.”
You see, the book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it. You can think of it as a grand theory for our times. The argument is pitched at too general a level to ever reflect a single direct cause of a single phenomenon, but once the narrative as a whole seeps into you, it feels like it is relevant to everything around us, and you want everybody else to be able to see the world through that lens.
One of the respondents, Independent Researcher Simon Christmas FRSA captured the value of this kind of contribution well (p67):
“It has given me a better way of grasping many things I had already thought or felt. By doing so, it has made those thoughts and feelings clearer and more meaningful. Iain himself notes that there is little in the book that one might not arrive at by some other route. I think that is key to its impact: it speaks to an audience who have already fumbled
their way to an intellectual discontent for which Iain’s argument provides a shape, a story, a narrative.”
We tried our best to make sense of the ‘so what?’ question and made some headway that I hope others might build on. In the report, John Wakefield’s (former political journalist) extended feedback piece(p71) gives a particularly careful account of the extent to which we should expect practical implications from such a nuanced and high-level thesis, but for the press release we were naturally a little more direct:
“This issue has deep significance for anybody working to affect social change. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate world view of the right hemisphere. This cultural trend can be illustrated in a range of current policy issues, for instance:
- An obsession with exam results in school education
- The creation of absurd forms of bibliometry and citation counting in higher education research assessment exercises.
- Funding cuts for arts and humanities courses that struggle to justify themselves in instrumental terms.
- Pervasive ignoring or denial of the scale of our climate change problem.
- Political failure to think through the implications of the fact that beyond a minimal threshold higher income does not equate with higher wellbeing.
- Political failure to question the imperative for economic growth.
We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can. Iain McGilchrist
Some might think the report has a negative quality, in that it’s basically a critique of the modern world and the direction we are heading, but at its heart it is hopeful, constructive and even optimistic: Iain closes the dialogue as follows:
“I call myself a hopeful pessimist. In respect of where we are currently headed, yes, I am a pessimist. In respect of our potential to adapt and change quickly, I am hopeful. I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West… In response to my book, people of all walks of life all over the world have written to me. They are looking for a change in direction, and I think all I have done is to give them courage to believe in what they already really know at some level – something which has not been articulated in quite the same terms before. In many ways my message is a very positive one. We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can.”
A Note on Reading the Report:
I really hope as many people as possible can read the full report. However, if you just press ‘print’, you’ll get about 48 pages double-sided, so it is worth thinking of what you most want to read by going to the contents page in the PDF first. The dialogue with me and Iain is split into three parts: 1) The argument(p8) 2) Challenges to the argument(p23) 3)Practical Implications(p31). The Reflections section (p51) includes 14 feedback pieces including Ray Tallis, Mark Vernon, Tom Crompton, Rita Carter, Theresa Marteau and others. The Appendices (p80) feature details of a three-hour workshop discussion where Guy Claxton, Mark Williamson, Matthew Taylor and many others spoke, and has been included to capture some of the best ideas generated collectively, but will probably only be of interest to those who are truly committed!
If you are interested in Social Psychology (and who isn’t?) you’ll be well aware of some of the wonderful experiments on priming i.e. situations where participants are exposed to a certain kind of stimulus that influences their response to a future stimulus. The evidence on priming appears to suggest, for instance, that:
If you prime people with images relating to money they will be less cooperative.
If you prime people with words relating to old age, they will walk more slowly.
If you prime people with a warm mug they will be friendlier.
And so forth.
But does the evidence for priming really stack up?
I, like many others I know, had taken such ideas as established facts, as firm as any others in psychology, not least because they were propounded by academic heavyweights like John Bargh, Ap Dijksterhuis, and even Daniel Kahneman. However, in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all.
in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all
There is a wonderful article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle Review that details the range and extent of these doubts. One particularly punchy paragraph highlights the heated nature of the debate in the field:
In one of those e-mails, Pashler issued a challenge masquerading as a gentle query: “Would you be able to suggest one or two goal priming effects that you think are especially strong and robust, even if they are not particularly well-known?” In other words, put up or shut up. Point me to the stuff you’re certain of and I’ll try to replicate it. This was intended to counter the charge that he and others were cherry-picking the weakest work and then doing a victory dance after demolishing it. He didn’t get the straightforward answer he wanted. “Some suggestions emerged but none were pointing to a concrete example,” he says.
Now the stakes are pretty high here. I don’t yet have any settled view, but it does matter that people working in applied psychology, broadly conceived, figure out where they are on this matter, if only because so many people build their practice around the assumption that priming works. For instance, there was a really powerful study done by Common Cause about priming people who are extrinsically motivated with intrinsic motivators and watching the effects:
much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.
“Although all the participants in the study had been selected because they held extrinsic values to be more important, we found marked differences between, on the one hand, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon extrinsic values spoke about bigger-than-self problems, and, on the other, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon intrinsic values spoke about these problems. Compared to those primed with extrinsic values, participants primed with intrinsic values spoke about social and environmental challenges in ways that conveyed a stronger sense of moral duty, and a greater obligation to act to help meet these challenges.”
In this particular study, extrinsic values were primed with reference to wealth, preserving public image and popularity, while intrinsic values were primed with reference to affiliation, acceptance and being broad-minded. While the study’s authors are duly cautious about over-extrapolating, they do indicate that their findings show that even those who express no dispositional inclination towards thinking or caring about ‘bigger-than-self’ problems, can begin to do so over time through the priming of intrinsic values.
Come to think of it, much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.
My impression is that priming fits with our best understanding of the unconscious, automatic, situational and social features of human nature, and probably does ‘work’, in the broadest sense, even when individual studies can’t be replicated. But, then again, on reflection, perhaps I just think that because I have taken too many studies at face value. Perhaps (cue voodoo music) I have been primed to believe in primes…
I first met Jules Evans at a Franco-British council’s conference on the measurement of well-being. That’s him with the microphone, and yours truly listening intently.
Shortly after the event, Jules produced a wonderful 10 minute video and a few weeks later I enjoyed his excellent question to Lord Layard at an RSA event called “Happiness, New Lessons” . With one question, Jules showed clearly that Lord Layard is basically a Benthamite, who chooses not to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures, and takes happiness to be little more than a personal feeling.
For weeks thereafter, I enjoyed his ‘Politics of Well-being’ blog, which is a lively, stimulating, and frequently hilarious read. I looked forward to it not merely for information relating to well-being, and our capacity (or not) to measure it, but because Jules consistently applied insights from both philosophy and psychology- the work was broad and deep and grounded, but not blinkered by a single perspective.
Philosophy and Psychology
In this respect I share Jules’s view that the academic divide between philosophy and psychology is an unfortunate loss for both disciplines, which really need each other to make sense of human experience. In fact in my own Phd thesis on Wisdom I write about this, because you feel the insanity of this division intensely when trying to fathom what it might mean to be wise:
“Philosophy and psychology share an intellectual heritage that tried to make sense of the workings of the mind, the reliability of knowledge, the basis of morality, and our understanding of the world. Such questions were central to the rationalist and empiricist traditions, but gradually, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, the concerns of the two disciplines diverged, with philosophy becoming increasingly concerned to become a foundational discipline, an under-labourer for science, concerned with epistemic warrant in logic and language; while psychology sought to become a natural science, focusing on predicting and measuring human behaviour… In this process of separation, I believe both disciplines lost something vital, and when they came together again under the auspices of cognitive science, they both looked like paler devalued versions of themselves, perpetuating an impoverished view of the mind and our capacity to understand it.”
Philosophy for Life, and other dangerous situations
This ‘bi-lingualism’ is one of the things that make Jules’s writing so readable, and I therefore slightly regret the fact that in recent months he seems to have rebranded himself as a philosopher first and foremost. His new blog ‘Philosophy for Life’ is just as good as the politics of well-being, and indeed is very similar in spirit to the old one, but it has been reframed now as a platform for his book: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
The book has a Video trailer here and I finally got round to finishing it a couple of days ago.
In the book, Jules shares his admiration for some remarkable figures (I particularly liked Jean Vanier, the ‘kindly polar bear’ on p227) and is adept at weaving in his personal experience (including a near-death spiritual experience following a skiing accident) and shows impressive philosophical and psychological acumen throughout, as well as considerable wit. So when Jules is allowed to let rip, as he does in his weekly blogs, the text is wonderful to read.
However, to honour these considerable authorial qualities, I should say that I felt they were undermined, not supported, by the tone and structure of the book as a whole. My impression is that the publishers felt Jules’s voice by itself wasn’t enough to get people to buy the book, so they added a superstructure that made the book appear more like a ‘how-to’ guide and made it more explicitly about philosophy as such- to frame the ‘offer’ more clearly to prospective buyers.
That’s life, I guess, and publishing is a ‘dangerous situation’ of sorts. However, I would have been happier just to hear Jules share his insights and experiences, and pose his pertinent questions. Instead in several places I had to deal with an overarching narrative that felt exogenous, and enjoyed neither pretending the book was read over the course of the day, nor straining to imagine what ancient philosophers might eat for lunch.
That said, I hope you can see from the thoughts above and quotations below that the book is worth reading, and I would strongly encourage you to sign up to his blog to learn more about what he is thinking about on a regular basis.
This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents
On his own mental health at university: “What help could literature and philosophy possibly be to me? My brain was a neurochemical machine, I had broken it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Somehow, after university, I had to plug this broken apparatus into the great steel machinery of the market, and survive. I graduated in 1999 with a good degree and, to celebrate, had a nervous breakdown.” (p3)
On the longing for social acceptance: “We internalise the gaze of others, and this internal spectator becomes all-powerful over us…This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents.”(p161)
On the alleged cult of SES, The School of Economic Science: ”To be fair to the school, if Plato set up his Academy today, or Epicurus set up his Garden, they would probably be accused of being cults.” (p191)
On the path to societal wellbeing: “My hope is that we can find a better balance between the ancient idea of the good life, and a modern pluralist and liberal politics. It would recognise that well-being is not a simple concept that can be objectively defined, pinned down and measured by empirical science, and the world would be a much more boring place if it was. We should explore the plurality of philosophical approaches to well-being. We should treat citizens as rational adults who deserve to be brought into the conversation as equals. Empiricism balanced with practical reasoning. Instrumental techniques balanced with a consideration of values and ends. Science balanced with the humanities. Not one version of the good life, but several. Not a mass enforced march to an official well-being target, but groups of friends helping each other in their search for the good. That’s what I would like to see.” (p230)
The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.
On the classic Dionysian/Socratic conflict: “They would say that the last people you should turn to for advice on life are philosophers. Look at them: weak, pale, stammering creatures, visibly unhealthy, palpably out of touch with their bodies and their societies. Nature has cursed them with weakness and timidity, so they wreak their revenge on nature by constructing their own artificial and self-conscious version of happiness. ‘Only Virtue is happiness’, the philosophers insist, and cough. But we Dionysiacs know they are lying, we know the genuine joy that comes from the body, from hunting and dancing and love. The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.” (p257)