Behavioural science’s wide reach: a boat on the Thames and beyond

April 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

A world-renowned academic, an advertising and communications guru, a boat, booze, and behavioural science. It can only mean one thing: Behavioural Boozenomics is having a birthday party! But behavioural science is about more than just booze and banter, and its reach is extending beyond the niche into the mainstream.

Thames creative commons Joe Dunckley

(we’re gonna need a bigger boat…)
image under creative commons by Joe Dunckley

It seems hard to believe that it was a year ago that I first wrote about Behavioural Boozenomics – the monthly gathering of people interested in behavioural science (including social psychology, judgement and decision making, behavioural economics, evolutionary science, among other fields). To celebrate the meetup’s second anniversary and growing membership (there are now over 500 people registered for this meetup), George Loewenstein and Rory Sutherland, two of the biggest names in the field, are joining forces tonight to have a conversation about behavioural science theory and practical application.*

The increasing interest in behavioural science and its application is reflected not just in the numbers of booze-cruise attendees: the Behavioral Economics LinkedIn Group has over 15,000 members;  beyond the usual academic conferences, events like Nudgestock, the European Commission seminar, and the Behavioural Exchange are popping up; and organisations are studying how we really behave (not just how an economic model assumes we will behave) to apply this knowledge in many ways (beyond simply trying to drive up profit and push out more product, although undoubtedly this is the aim of some).

For example, Which? has a programme of work on “real consumers” and recently hosted a breakfast panel event to discuss their findings about behaviour and decisions in personal financial matters, specifically around changing current accounts. And the Behavioural Insight Team’s latest publication, for which a launch event doubled as a celebration to mark their partnership with Nesta, provides a handy mnemonic EAST to explain that to improve engagement, it is helpful to make a request easy, attractive, social, and/or timely.

Although London seems to be a particularly vibrant “behavioural science scene”, the reach extends far. Here at the RSA we recently published a report on the promising use of behavioural insight in the classroom, especially to help under-performing pupils. We’ve received interest in the approaches provided in the paper both from here in the UK and from other corners of the globe including France, Brazil, Latvia, and Germany.

Of course this increased interest shouldn’t mean that behavioural science approaches are used as substitutes for all traditional measures of behaviour change, such as regulation or financial (dis)incentives. The practical application of behavioural science has both cheerleaders and critics, and George Loewenstein himself has been known to suggest that for all of its usefulness, behavioural science is certainly not the only, or even the best, tool in the toolbox.

Although it is certainly not the silver bullet to solve any behaviour-change challenge, insight into how we really behave – and the factors that systematically influence that behaviour – can help to design policy and practice in such a way so that it doesn’t feel quite so hard to follow. To borrow a slightly-tweaked phrase from Tim Harford’s recent article, “the appeal of a behavioural approach is not that it is [necessarily] more effective but that it is [almost always] less unpopular” and I think this holds true for both the people trying to impose the change and those who are being asked to change.

And if nothing else, behavioural science is prompting action in at least one way: getting a group of academics, practitioners, and general enthusiasts together for a monthly social event!


Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre

*Tonight’s event is already fully booked, but you can join the waiting list here.

Speed Dating with the Circular Economy

April 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Setting: in a little known boutique hidden inside Café de Paris in Piccadilly Circus, singles shuffle furtively as they prop up the bar. Long since unleashed from ideological matrimony, but increasingly weary of social media and existentially adrift, they have come for a subterranean adventure, hoping to meet ideas they can truly believe in, seeking friendship, and perhaps something more.

These ideas, in turn, are out on the prowl, miraculously assuming human form for the duration of the evening; they are secretly hoping they will be understood and accepted for ‘who they really are’, though none of them are quite sure what that means. 

(Image via

The format of all such evenings is a series of eight minute table conversations, where people and ideas meet, check each other out, before deciding if they want to take things to the next level.

On this particular evening, the theme is ‘economies looking for love’ and after a series of exciting but ultimately unsatisfactory encounters, your protagonist finds himself sitting across from ‘the circular economy’, beautifully clad in tastefully sparkly upcycled materials from all over the world, but with intelligent eyes and a serious expression.

J: Hi, how’s it going?

C: Good. But I’m a bit tired of this dating lark.

J: I know how you feel. I’ve just endured the new economy(a bit vague), the post-growth economy (a bit dreamy), the steady state economy(a bit stuck in her ways), the digital economy(a bit into itself), the green growth economy(bit of a split personality) and worst of all, the business-as-usual economy; he was clearly falling apart, and seemed particularly deluded, so I’m glad to finally meet you.

C: Gosh, well it sounds like you might be asking too much, and to be frank, after all those brief encounters I’m beginning to wonder if I know what it means to be a circular economy. I think of myself as a complex socio-technical-ecological-economic construction with many layers and dimensions, but all the others wanted to talk about were my curves – it’s like they couldn’t see past my circumference.

J: Well I’m not like that all. I’ve heard you have some impressive friends in business and government – my own Scottish Government no less, and Unilever, who seem serious about looking after the planet, so I’ve always assumed you were worth getting to know better. In fact, I have some Designer colleagues where I work who have built a major project called ‘The Great Recovery’ partly inspired by you.

It’s a bit forward of me, I know, but can I put my cards on the table? I’m hoping you might even be the one.

C: (looks slightly embarassed, and more than a little uncomfortable, but not altogether terrified.)

J: I’ve heard, I mean… is it true that you somehow manage, miraculously, to excite leaders of the business community like McKinsey with the prospect of indefinite economic growth, while eliminating the very idea of waste, accelerating the transition to renewable energy, making better use of local resources and optimising well being throughout the world?

C: (Sips Lychee Martini) Well I wouldn’t quite put it like that. There is only so much you can ask from an economic model, but it’s true that some prominent people do speak of me as if I can save the world.

J: And can you?

C: Well I hope I can at least make it last a bit longer. If we had time I would show you a video that gives a good version of my story, but for now…(dips into designer bag, branded ‘refabricate!’ to search for something; fumbles through impressively old phone and keys made from disused pans, while continuing…).

It’s definitely true that we can’t go on like the business-as-usual ‘linear’ economy you just met. He (and I’m pretty sure it’s a he…) is notorious for myopia, extracting finite resources from the earth as if that natural resource will always be there, turning them into stuff people don’t particularly need without pricing the materials or the energy used to make them properly, and then chucking them away as if there was such a thing as ‘away’, and without capturing the full economic value of the materials.

J: (Makes pensive eye contact, struck by the passion and conviction).

C: (Pulls out two A3 sheets with diagram). In case you want to see what I’m all about, this is my birth chart according to my adoptive parents, The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, We start from the need for me, with an image of where we are without me in the picture:


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

You see, our linear economy is basically ‘take-make-dispose’ unguided by any notion of purpose beyond a limited conception of economic ‘growth’, and makes economic decisions only really based on things that already have explicit market value, while carelessly if not criminally wasting resources people can use and make good lives and livings from.

It’s not just that we waste a huge amount of social, cultural, ecological and economic value in the process, but people are becoming estranged from the physical worlds around them and being subtly deskilled as a result. It’s not just that we are running out of stuff, it’s that we are increasingly alienated from it. And we don’t adequately distinguish between technical inputs and biological inputs which means that…

J: Hang on, that’s already a lot. It’s been a long night, but with my philosophical hat on it sounds like implicit in your critique of the current model is a deep rethinking of the idea of ‘value’ as something inherent in resources and materials, rather than merely revealed through current market price. Your very existence challenges our current conception of what an economy is, and overturns some of the ‘laws’ (does pretentious quote mark gesture and immediately regrets it) of economics in the process?

C: (Blushes) Well I had never really thought of myself as that radical, but yes, I suppose it’s true that’s I’m not like all the other economies you met tonight…(shows second image) Not least because unlike most of them I am not really that into ‘buying and selling’ – implicit in the current view is that things have single use and composite value rather than value that is manifest in multiple parts and multiple uses in multiple cycles; my economy features a lot more tearing down, upcycling, remanufacturing, and leasing.

Y’know (sighs) I would be a much saner and more efficient economy than the others, but maybe the world is not ready for me.


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

J: (looks at clock) I have so many questions, but we’re running out of time. Part of me thinks you are the real thing- an idea I can truly commit to, but I’ve been hurt before. I can’t figure out whether you are still changing all the time, or if we could be settled and stable together…

C: Well…

J: And although the post-growth and steady state economies had their faults, I knew exactly where I was with them. They were much clearer about their ultimate ends (wellbeing, flourishing) while you seem to be mostly about means.

For instance they had their theory of absolute decoupling (less ecological impact for economic output over the global economy) sorted out and I believed them when they said their core aim was human wellbeing within planetary limits. You are really engaging, but I wonder if you have reconciled yourself to merely relative decoupling (less ecological impact per unit economic output, but more ecological impact when growth & population is factored in) and I can’t figure out whose side you are ultimately on.

(looks at the clock, then straight in her eye) Is your heart with bottom-line realism, fashioning a circular economy to serve the interests of capital and big corporate power in a world of dwindling resources? Or are you really transformative – a model of economic value that is grounded in human values that are deeper and more meaningful than profit?

C: I’m a circle, Jonathan, you should know I don’t take sides. And whoever gave away all their secrets at a speed dating event?

J: Can I see you again?

C: (Thinks, then smiles, and hands over circular business card from double-recycled material). Sure.

Beyond the Bunnies – Why Easter is for Grown Ups

April 17, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.

I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas.

But these ideas at the heart of Easter are for grown ups. They are deep, dark, and difficult, and they make most sense to those who have been round the block enough to deeply know pain and the recovery from pain, and recognise this recurring pattern in our lives and the lives of others. The meaning of the Christmas story is relatively straightforward by comparison, and an easier one for children to grasp. So a warning: if you are expecting sweetness and light manifest as chocolate eggs or bunny rabbits, look away now.

At first blush the story makes no sense. The ‘son of God’(who?) dies in excruciatingly sadistic and vinegary pain while nailed to a wooden cross by the terrestrial baddies du jour to ‘save us from our sins’ (how?) and this singularly important(why?) celestial person(what?) is entombed in a stone cave. Just then, when this apparently appalling thing that remains confounding on a number of levels has happened, he miraculously comes back to life, removes the stone that kept him entombed, and is back amongst us; his resurrection proof that he really is the son of God (yes, that again…) and that, therefore, somehow, all is well.

Like most of the people reading this post, I am culturally Christian. I’ve heard versions of this story hundreds of times before and have never really developed a position on whether it ‘actually happened’ or felt that I needed to. Some Christians might say that’s a cop out, because if it did happen, it was this particular historical event, and not ‘the enlightenment’ that was, as Professor Tom Wright puts it ‘The greatest turning point in history’.

For now though, to be consistent with most of our other work on spirituality, I’m going to try to ‘keep the tension’ (as chess players put it) on the fundamental but also fundamentally contested questions of literal, historical truth, and focus on core themes from the story that have broader human application:

Pain and suffering

Some misunderstand Buddhism as a religion that is ‘all about suffering’, which is not true, but some misunderstand Christianity as a religion that is all about being nice and good, and that’s not true either. The heart of the Christian story is overflowing with stark realism and is very dark indeed. It’s about a moment where people are bereft of hope.

Nietzsche one wrote: “There was only one Christian, and they killed him.” That’s another story, another argument, but it captures the darkness and bleakness of the moment Jesus is killed very well. This touchstone of light is not only effectively tortured and humiliated, but through his death it appears that all light and all hope is well and truly snuffed out.

Easter therefore says: a life fully lived will feature suffering, not just a little bit, and it won’t always make sense at the time. There will be moments where you feel utterly forsaken, and that is not imaginary. But it is not the whole story either.

Love and Justice Reconciled

Whether or not you ‘believe’ in God (or know what it means not to) you will know that the Christian conception of God is one who is both loving and just, and that’s not an easy trick for anybody (yes, even God) to pull off. The Easter story is arguably about the possibility of squaring this circle. God didn’t just allow the baddies to ‘get away with it’; he allowed it to happen because he saw further and deeper.


Some say the heart of the story is about our terrifying capacity to turn away from what we need to look at. We would rather crucify the truth than recognise it as the truth. Our work on ‘stealth denial’ on climate change was not inspired by Jesus(!) but it was an attempt to capture this sentiment – the truth is often deeply uncomfortable and we will go to great lengths to get away from it. If there was a way we could ‘kill’ climate change, rather than deal with it, we probably would.


Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ as an antonym for catastrophe, because he wanted to highlight the reality of those moments where all seems lost, but suddenly and miraculously, the ring of power finds its way into the fires of mount doom; the seemingly dead come back to life; the incurable cancer inexplicably disappears.


Easter is about holding on to the paradox that, as Mark Vernon put it to me: ”When all seems lost – really, truly, bleakly – all is found…”

Incarnation and Embodiement

The quietly brilliant Chris Oldfield put it to me that Easter, like Christmas, is a celebration of embodiment over elegant abstraction and virtual reality. It’s about “The scandal of Incarnation overcoming excarnation (as Charles Taylor might put it).” This point, has interesting resonances with Guy Claxton’s lecture at the RSA in our spirituality series. There is no spirituality, however you define it, without the body.


A curious detail of the story, again indicated by Chris, is that it is female disciples who are the witnesses to the empty tomb. The male disciples basically don’t believe them “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24). There is apparently a lot of Biblical scholarship on this issue, connecting the male response to this important but discomforting news to modern day unhelpful stereotypes about ‘hysterical women’.

The Self

You can see Easter as being about emptying yourself to be filled with something more than ego; to die to your false self to connect with your truer deeper self. For those who can’t follow the story back to Christian belief and practice, this idea alone is an important one. Psychologically and existentially, we often need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Second Chances

A relatively conventional but important interpretation, is that the Christian God is fundamentally about second chances. New life can come even to the completely lost or bereft, and sometimes more than once.

Taking a Stand

For all that I said about not debating the literal truth, it is worth ending with a powerful quote (HT Chris Oldfield) that says, actually, whether we are culturally or religiously Christian, we do need to decide what we feel about ‘the truth’ of the resurrection:

From Tom Wright on: ‘Grave matters’; why the resurrection is not a ‘take it or leave it thing’:

“Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world which looks to Marx, Freud & Nietzsche for its prophets, with the Easter news that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

I’m not sure what I think about that, but I mean it when I say:

Happy Easter!



Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.


(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ’soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.


The power to create.. what?

The RSA is, almost fundamentally, a place of debate.  We debate at lectures with speakers; we debate online with the media; but most of all, we debate amongst ourselves.  We debate the morning’s news over breakfast; we debate project and report details at lunch; we debate existentialist dilemmas and the meaning of life over late-night drinks; and the cycle begins anew.

But lately we’ve been debating even more than usual, because the topic of discussion has not been about this or that, but about us and what we stand for.  A consensus on a new agenda is (slowly) building around the idea of ‘the power to create’: the belief that “all should have the freedom and capacity to turn their ideas into reality”.  This emerging worldview was first articulated by Adam Lent, Director of RSA’s Action and Research Centre.

It’s a concept that embodies two of our core principles:

  1. Creativity: that individual and collective ingenuity will be key to successfully addressing the complex web of social, economic and ecological challenges we now face as a society
  2. Inclusivity: that the best solutions to these challenges will emerge from the bottom-up, rather than be imposed from the top-down

Where debate has broken out, it has typically concerned the lack of stipulation of which ideas we want to help people turn into reality.  Jonathan Rowson posted a full discussion of this issue, but for brevity I quote Paul Swann‘s comment, which put it thus:

“Calling for an ‘unprecedented explosion of creative endeavour’ is all well and good, but to what ends? Perpetual growth, short-term profits and increasing greenhouse gas emissions..?”

Paul’s question highlights that ‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility.  In other words, are we advocating a kind of capitalist creativity which rewards any innovation that is profitable, regardless of externalities?  Or are we, with tonight’s speaker, David Harvey, promoting a revolutionary creativity to oppose capital’s exploitation of people and planet?  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I find the question interesting as an exercise in questioning my own ideals.

‘the power to create’ is silent on what is surely a third pillar of our principles: the issue of social responsibility

“Ultimately”, it was said in our latest round of debate, “what will give any prospective agenda meaning is not the words we use, but the work we do.”  And perhaps the work I am doing is illustrative of the kind of creativity I want to see in the world.  Following on from a productive round table discussion with manufacturing representatives, policy makers, academics and NGOs, I am exploring the potential for a new project to accelerate the transition towards sustainable manufacturing.  The creative, inclusive and responsible vision here is one of a circular economy, in which production is localised rather than centralised, mass customisation replaces mass production, and pollution and waste become inputs rather than outputs of manufacturing.

Continuing the theme of working with business rather than against it, I am working on the RSA’s new Premium, which addresses the fact that we are chronically under-investing in our workforce, leaving people unproductive and unfulfilled.  Grounded in the belief that great ideas can come from anywhere, Valuing Your Talent is a crowdsourcing challenge open to all, generating practical innovations to help businesses (particularly SMEs) recognise and make the case for greater investment in their people – get involved today!

What these two projects have in common is that they seek radical, transformative change in the way businesses work, but they do so through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach.  So if our work says more than our words about who we are, then to the question, ‘what kind of creativity do I want to see in the world?’ I say:

This kind of creativity!’


Conor Quinn works in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre.  Follow him @conorquinn85

Top down, bottom up, side to side, inside out: 4 types of social change and why we need them all.

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

The next time somebody tells you that we need to move beyond ‘top down’ solutions and do things ‘bottom up’, ask them which way is North on their compass – where are they exactly, and where are they trying to go?

Image via

The point is not so much to disorient them but to get beyond cliches, and think harder both about what really matters and the stubborn persistence of lazy distinctions.

For starters, there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘top-down’. There’s a time and place for authority, hierarchy and regulation, usually to resolve intractable debates or create impact at scale, but it needs to be democratised and contained with suitable checks and balances.

And there is nothing inherently right about ‘bottom-up’, because while there is also a time and place for context, specificity, granularity, and the passion that comes from particular people fighting for particular purposes in particular places, there is a limit to what you can achieve without the major levers or economic and political power.

The deeper problem is that this geometric juxtaposition feels cliche-ridden because it is two dimensional, ‘flatland’ view of the world and the power that lies within it. If the RSA’s emerging ‘Power to Create’  worldview is going to walk its own talk, we do need to clarify our position with respect to top down and bottom up approaches, while also framing the scope for social change more imaginatively. Different kinds of problems need different social change strategies, and most problems need all of them.

As indicated in a previous post, I think ‘The Power to Create’ pivots around a range of interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

So let’s assume for now this is an emerging vision of the world you can adhere to and see yourself in – what follows for how to act constructively within this emerging world?

As Cultural theorists have highlighted before, forms of social change are manifold, and often in tension, so while the power to create apparently leans towards ‘bottom-up’ approaches, I find the following four-part structure useful, not least because it highlights the importance of the deeper forms of behaviour change that have defined Social Brain’s work over the last few years.

We need to use all available tools; that means we need the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive as the whole thing unfolds.

1. Top-Down (Political change for challenges relating to social and economic structure)

Key features: Impact at scale, usually involuntary, often relies on policy influence followed by regulatory change. 

Regulation gets a hard time, but it is sometimes necessary to create change at scale. The major changes needed to break down some of the barriers that currently constrain the power to create might include:

  • Challenging the legal status of corporations as persons, which arguably gives big business far greater legal protections than they deserve.
  • Working with the Law Society to shift fiduciary duties, so that companies can fulfill their legal obligations to shareholders while also factoring in the long term viability of the business, which would make it much easier to be genuinely sustainable.
  • Introducing a basic income for everybody in the population to strengthen the core economy based on care and trust, and mitigate the risks that prevent many from starting their own business. In case this sounds loony left, it might surprise you to know that Hayek supported this idea.
  • Campaigning on land reform. Coming from Scotland, the law of trespass in English law is a pain and the freeholder/leaseholder divide on many properties in England strikes me as utterly bizarre; such constraints get in the way of various forms of community action and people using their properties in creative ways, for instance to create or store their own energy.

2. Bottom-up (Social change for challenges relating to tangible and specific issues of a civil, civic or ecological nature)

Key features: Specific and contextual, usually voluntary but often need-driven and stemming from individuals or small groups and often tied to particular places or domains. 

Such top-down changes don’t prevent bottom-up changes; if anything their purpose should be to facilitate and encourage them. Local context is not a noise obscuring an underlying Platonic political form, but the very lifeblood of what matters to most people. Recycling, for instance, is about global resource constraints; but for many it’s about orange council bags under the sink or blue boxes out in the street.

We need to use all available tools; the vitality of personal agency, the systemic impact of of smart regulation, the elegance of socio-technical innovation and the humanity to keep ourselves present, open, aware, connected, vulnerable and inquisitive in this process.

If the power to create is partly about a reconceptualisation of agency, that means motivating people to act, which means seeing how the macro is manifest at a micro level in our lived experience, and starting from there. Paul Hawken’s classic book ‘Blessed Unrest’ about the rise of social movements gives an excellent overview of this kind of power.

3. Side-to-side(Change stemming from socio-technical disruption, characterised by systemic innovation)

Key features: Change that stems from loose associations of values and interests across domains, usually disruptive or entrepreneurial in spirit, grounded in virtual networks, now pervasive and international due to social media. 

What the conventional idea of ‘bottom-up’ change doesn’t capture is the significance of what Jeremy Rifkind calls lateral power and the growth in ‘disintermediation’ – people can get things done by themselves or with other like minded individuals without intermediaries in ways that were unimaginable until recently.

The very idea of top and bottom feels partial in this context. In addition to the hierarchies of vertical power(top down, bottom-up) there are heterarchies of lateral power; networks of varying size, shape and influence that often lie dormant but can suddenly be hugely influential in response to particular events, and cut across regions and countries.

Such shifts have altered the very idea of social change as necessarily place-based or even country-based, as indicated by Avaaz among others. This kind of horizontal influencing power, fuelled by ongoing technological disruption, lies at the heart of the rationale for our focus on ‘the power to create’.

4. Inside-out (change stemming from contemplative practices, seeking transformative changes to our ends as well as our means)

Key features: the psychological, spiritual and cultural underpinnings of all the other forms of social change; often contemplative or reflective in spirit, targeted mostly at major hidden assumptions, immunity to change, and adaptive challenges.

As argued here previously, what interests me most personally is the inner power to create; the relatively neglected fourth form of social change that is about integration, and the connection between the work we do on ourselves and the work we do out in the world. To grow in confidence and individual agency, to believe we can turn our ideas into reality in a meaningful and not merely tokenistic way, we need to work hard on on the consonance between what we think, say and do on a regular basis. And we need a much more robust idea of what to aim for in life, for ourselves and society as a whole. Only from that kind of enriched foundation, which we often need to work on ourselves to attain, can we act with conviction in the world.

The inertia within established forms of economic and political power is so very strong, that we have to keep on reminding ourselves what really matters to us in order to steer ourselves away from financial instability, social recession, and ecological collapse. And where to exactly? With finite personal time on a physically finite planet, we need the existential to inform the economic. Our collective task is to help each other build a sense of power and purpose, and use that power to create the conditions that will allow us all to live fulfilling lives.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

Is good mental health ultimately about looking after your soul?

April 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides (Eugene Gendlin). Perhaps the soul is what we mean when we reflect on that ‘much else besides’. – Iain McGilchrist



Monday night’s event in the RSA Great Room, “What Happened to the Soul?” by Iain McGilchrist, can be viewed above in all its unedited grit and glory.

This was the third event of six in the spirituality series, following from events one and two. Some more considered analysis on this third event will follow when we can quote from the full transcript currently being prepared, but for now, here goes:

It is always hard to judge the success of public events, especially when you’re part of them, but there have been many positive responses (‘tremendous’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’) from people whose judgment I respect, and the people watching had plenty to say on Twitter, though I suppose that might just represent moral support or twitchy fingers.

My impression is that the questions and answer session (from c35 mins in) was particularly spirited, and may be worth cutting to directly to get animated and engaged by the ideas, before returning to the more intricate substance of the talk, which of course contained lots of wonderful material to think about too.

Mental Health

I think the biggest issue, and one I hope to come back to, concerns the scope to think about some mental health problems (perhaps mild to moderate forms of depression in particular) as a form of ‘soul sickness’. This reframing is informed by Iain’s account of the role of suffering in ‘growing a soul’(though he was emphatic that nobody should suffer acute mental ill health for a moment longer than necessary) and what might follow for the appropriate use of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

Perhaps we might say that a little bit of suffering that we can recover from is necessary for the growth of the soul, but too much suffering threatens to extinguish it entirely.

This is a big and complex issue, and a large part of the potential practical value of reconceiving spirituality, as indicated by our three research workshops(the content of which will be shared in our final project report, due in October.). Iain is clearly by no means the only person working in the broad mental health domain to think something resembling ‘spirituality’ may be important it not essential for mental health.

As a Psychiatrist, Iain would not be so facile as to say such a reframing is always appropriate or that it always helps significantly. However, if thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.


A fuller account of that argument will follow, but for now, if you find time to watch the video, look out for:

  • “Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul…” (A perennial quotation of uncertain provenance!)
  • The need for ‘the soul’ as a concept – why the substitutes don’t cut it as a way of capturing certain qualities of experience.
  • The joke about the poor man repeatedly praying to win the lottery, whom God finally speaks to by saying: “Meet me half way, buy a ticket.”
  • Iain’s intensely metaphorical (almost – but not quite!- to a comical extent) answer to the very direct question from our Head of Business Development Esther McCarthy about whether the soul (if we have a soul!) survives bodily death.
  • The value of ‘deliberate ambiguity’ – is the vagueness of terms like the soul part of their value? Is there something about trying to define them too precisely that misses this point? Does that feel right and appropriate, or still somehow evasive?
  • What can we learn from ‘soul splitting’ in Harry Potter?
  • Body and soul: “duality does not entail dualism.”
  • When we remember a person, are we really remembering their soul? A question from John Field FRSA that wasn’t answered; is this a good way to grasp what the soul is?

If thinking in terms of the soul helps to make the experience of meaning a more fundamental aspect of human life and health, then it may be one the best reasons to talk about ‘the soul’ in public life.

Lessons Learned

  • Iain has earned a deserved reputation as a thoughtful polymath with a sound grasp of sciences and humanities, but occasionally I feel he over-reacts to the fear of being thought to be a reductionist. His resolute ‘no’ in response to my question of whether science could ever help us make sense of the nature of the soul struck me as an overstatement.
  • We didn’t quite establish the connection between belief in/acceptance of the soul and belief in/acceptance of ‘God’, and it would have been good to probe that important if obvious question a little further. Clearly Iain’s account of the soul is no ghost in the machine, but is there any sense in which a more dispositional perspective on the individual soul is isomorphic with respect to a universal soul?
  • In response to the classical musical clip from the 16th century, one guest later told me that while it was assumed we were all touched, move and inspired, he personally didn’t feel it moved his ‘soul’ particularly, and wondered whether there was a presumption of cultural identification with meaning that was misplaced for those who don’t share the cultural tradition (he’s a highly intelligent Australian).
  • Iain’s education and disposition makes his thought hyper-nuanced, but it can feel like the boundary between nuance and obscurity requires a third-party arbiter at times! Personally, I am never quite sure when it feels appropriate to press for further clarity. Perhaps this desire is what Iain would call ‘left hemisphere overreach’ – asking for too much precision- but there is something Protean about Iain’s thought that I, as one of his biggest fans, sometimes find frustrating.
  • With hindsight, I should have tried harder to focus on the issue of ‘What happened to the soul?’ rather than what became the focus: ‘what is the soul?’ The questions are closely connected, but the result was that we heard from Iain the philosopher and I could perhaps have done more to draw out the Scientist; it felt to me, perhaps wrongly, like having the two together would give the fullest picture of the soul.
  • Relatedly, I am very familiar with Iain’s bestseller ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which connects an analysis of neural anatomy and function to a theory of cultural history, but I should perhaps have taken more care to share some of the main ideas with the audience, which we examined closely for an RSA report last year: Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard. These ideas were implicit in much of the discussion, but a little unpacking of them might have helped to sharpen the key issues at stake.

In any case, I am pleased we have managed to draw attention to the cultural neglect of ‘the soul’, and I left feeling very glad we had hosted the event. Iain and the audience significantly moved along our thinking and opened up areas for further inquiry, not least on mental health.

On the other hand, and this is a positive point, there is something about these spirituality events that always leave me wanting more, as if the life changing revelation you naively hoped for is forever postponed until next time.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, and tweets @Jonathan_Rowson.

We are currently considering ideas and speakers for our 4th and 5th (of 6) public events in this series, so do get in touch if you have any suggestions on questions or speakers.





Generic calls for ‘action’ on climate change keep us exactly where we are

March 31, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

You may have heard the news that today the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again highlighted that the potential impacts of climate change on humans are likely to be significantly worse than a slap in the face with a wet fish. The cartoon below* tells you everything you need to know about today’s announcement:

Embedded image permalink

The BBC led with a suitably troubling headline saying that Climate Change impacts are likely to be overwhelming. To be clear, these overwhelming impacts are not about a few cheeky if somewhat devastating storms, droughts and floods that we can handle with some good emergency services and a stiff upper lip. The relatively neglected point that today’s report serves to detail is the concomitant impact on our food, water and energy supplies, and likely consequences relating to disease, poverty, inequality, immigration and war.

One should take care not to sound alarmist (even if it’s bl**dy alarming!) but it is worth considering that such impacts are not projected to take place at some point in the distant future in a far away land, but coming soon, one way or the other, to you, your family and friends, in a city near you.

I am not sure how best to respond today, not least because I’m preparing for tonight’s event, but I did want to take this chance to say a few things off the cuff:

  • Please don’t say: “The time to act is now!” Generic calls for ‘Action’ are utterly futile. Please, if you think we should act, have the courage to stick your neck out and say how you think we should act, keeping in mind our competing commitments to energy security and prices, and economic growth.
  • Please don’t blame the politicians. That is a weak willed form of projection. Advise, encourage, threaten, cajole, heckle if you have to, but don’t blame them as if they had nothing to do with you, or as if they knew what to do, but are too feckless or lazy to follow through. It’s not like that at all; most politicians don’t even properly understand that the core issue is about global fossil fuel production, not reducing national emissions. If climate change is a pivotal political issue for you, let them know, but also help them see a constructive way to act that is not merely tokenistic.
  • Please don’t blame the climate sceptics or deniers. At least they are consistent, and many give this issue far more of their intellectual and emotional energy than their opponents. You could blame the media for giving them too much air time, but I believe it’s the people calling for ‘action’ who have no idea what that means that really keep us where we are. Our report on ‘stealth denial’ begs a lot of methodological questions, but we are confident that the majority of the population can be described as broadly accepting the reality of the problem, but denying (technically, disavowing) the related emotions, agency and responsibility that we collectively need to acknowledge and build on. In other words, the deeper and subtler forms of denial are the real problem.
  • Please don’t over-simplify. Climate change is complicated, but not impossibly so. I believe seeing it as a problem with seven dimensions (science, law, technology, money, democracy, culture & behaviour)  is a useful map on which people can see themselves, and their scope to act more clearly.
  • Please read our recent report: A New Agenda on Climate Change. It may have flaws, but it does try hard to get beyond all the generic calls to action that you’ll hear today.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @jonathan_rowson

*(I haven’t able to track the original source for this image, but will gladly do so if somebody else can.)


Event on Monday: What happened to ‘the soul’?

March 26, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Hang on, didn’t we used to have souls?

I grew up thinking there were clear dividing lines between mind, body and soul, and I was happy to have all three of them. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like, imperceptibly over the eighties, nineties and naughties, the soul was secularised away.

Around this time I sensed that even the mind started giving away to the brain, which in turn collapses into a broader notion of our material body and nervous system, which then gives way to genes…and it doesn’t even end there…Perhaps the reason I came to be in my current role is that I acquired such a strong felt sense that our common sense notion of what makes us human beings is completely at odds with the scientific account, and my interest in spirituality may be because the front line of this battle for the integrity of our understanding and experience is our idea of the soul.

(Image from RSAnimate of Ian McGilchrist’s first RSA lecture)

Personally, I feel like I haven’t heard about ‘the soul’ in public life for years. It’s as if this fundamental part of us was gradually theorised out of existence, and we collectively and unwittingly ‘forgot’ about something that used to be fundamental to our understanding of what it is to be human.

‘The death of the soul’ is part of the process of secularisation (a complex notion though that is) and the conventional wisdom among most scientists and analytic philosophers is that the soul is a mostly religious and pre-modern folksy notion that makes no sense with respect to modern understandings of our evolved bodies and brains. If you don’t move in those kinds of intellectual orbits though, this news – the death of the soul- might come as a bit of a shock!

Moreover, for many, including our prior speaker in this series, Guy Claxton, soul-like phenomena relating to meaning and transcendence can be explained without ‘the soul’. Indeed, Guy would probably say the loss of ‘the soul’ did no real harm to our souls. Others would go further, and say moving beyond quaint metaphysical notions of the soul liberates us, and allows us to be more authentically soulful.

Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

But is that right? Even if we don’t adhere to a religious or even philosophical (technically ‘ontological’) account of individual souls, surely it’s not so easy just to discard the notion, and everything caught up with the soul without some loss of perspective. Sometimes words capture elements of experience that we lose forever when those words disappear.

And perhaps the soul is still very much alive. It remains meaningful to speak of ‘Schools with Soul’ for instance, to love soul music, and most of us know people or places that feel ‘soulful’. Moreover some, including many psychotherapists, would go further and say that many mental health challenges relate to the neglect of ‘the soul’ at a societal level.

Personally, that makes sense to me. As I recently argued, I think our obsession with our ‘place’ in the world leads us to neglect our more fundamental ‘ground’, and that this neglect may prevent us from living our lives at their generous best.

It is therefore exciting to report that on Monday the celebrated author of the brilliant and extraordinary book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, polymath, psychiatrist and RSA fellow Iain McGilchrist will speak directly to these fundamental matters in his talk What Happened to the Soul? as part our series of events exploring the nature and value of spirituality in light of modern understandings of human nature.

Iain seems the perfect person to interrogate this question, in light of his background in sciences and humanities. He understands why ‘the soul’ cannot be what we used to think it was, but also why we may need it nonetheless.

I don’t want to steal Iain’s thunder, but from a brief call with him earlier today it sounds like the content of the talk will be very rich indeed. We might learn what it means to think of the soul not as ‘a thing’ but as a process or disposition; why it makes sense to say we can grow or extinguish souls, how individual souls relate to collective souls, and personally I was pleased to hear that Carl Jung might even get a mention or two.

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have paid close attention to Iain’s work before, but for those who want a quicker hit, here is a video of an RSAnimate of Iain’s last talk at the RSA, which is rapidly approaching a million and a half views.

The event is sold out, but will be live streamed. If you want to know more about your soul(!) you can tune in live and ask questions via #RSASpirituality.

The Inner Power to Create

March 24, 2014 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

- Mahatma Gandhi

I started writing this post a few moments after returning from a ‘Satsang’ at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Putney. These free gatherings take place five minutes from my home and follow a familiar routine of four roughly half hour chunks; meditating (mostly concentration), chanting (mostly Kirtan), listening to a lecture(mostly free-flowing responses to an idea in one of the texts by the movement’s two founders) and sharing a meal(always vegetarian, usually lentils).

I go there for a spiritual ‘hit’, a change of scene, and a sense of community that is not mediated by social status. The setting is not without religious (mostly Hindu/Vedantic) signifiers, but they feel mythological and ritualistic rather than propositional, in that they are about the experience of symbolic meaning rather than the textual description of reality. The whole process leaves me feeling energised and renewed, but without that gnawing sense of intellectual compromise that haunts me in churches.

Tonight I was struck by something the Swami (teacher) said in her talk that got me thinking about the RSA’s emerging worldview, currently called ‘The Power to Create’. The Swami didn’t use the Gandhi quote above I was familiar with. Instead she spoke about the importance of retaining coherence between what we think, say and do, not so much for happiness, but for confidence, which may be a prerequisite for it.

If we think things are one way, but say otherwise; or if we say things should be so, but don’t act accordingly, it’s not just corrosive to wellbeing, it undermines our sense of agency.

When I strongly disagree but say I mostly agree, or when I say I want to lose weight but reach for the third piece of chocolate cake, my sense of self-efficacy is eroded. When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

When we sense this recurring gap between thought and word, and word and deed, we lose faith in ourselves to shape our lives, and gradually assume it’s literally beyond our power to turn our ideas into reality.

This was a timely thought. I have been trying to figure out what it is about the RSA’s emerging world view that leaves me feeling a little uneasy. I knew it was something about its value neutrality and lack of emphasis on our inner lives, but I couldn’t quite place it, and now I have a clearer idea.

The Power to Create has a kaleidoscopic core, but on my current understanding it tends to pivot around the following five interrelated ideas:

  • An analysis of ongoing socio-technical disruption: The reality of new technologies undermining old forms of cultural, political and economic power.
  • A grasp of the urgency of innovation: The need for new ideas and institutional forms to tackle major systemic problems.
  • A belief in the value of of mass creativity: A vision of social transformation grounded in meaningful creativity for the many, not the few.
  • A reappraisal of ‘small is beautiful’: The belief that a legion of small initiatives can and should challenge or usurp big businesses and governments in areas where their activity is relatively ineffectual.
  • A philosophy of freedom: A commitment to a vision of the good life grounded in self-actualisation and the joy of turning our ideas into reality.

It sounds a lot better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as they say, but at present what’s missing is a theory of how changes in our inner lives correspond with the changes in the external world.

The heart of the power to create vision, it seems to me, is a reconceptualisation of agency that is currently described in the third person (‘it’ language) but it will need to find form in first (‘I’ language) and second (‘You’ or ‘we’) person expression. It’s not enough for ‘people’ to turn their ideas into reality, but particular ‘I’s, ‘we’s, and ‘you’s need to consistently live in ways that retain coherence between thought, word and deed.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more than people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually work for visions of their better selves, and for the greater good of others too. 

That may be possible, and worth striving for, but is it likely? I think it comes down to how optimistic you are about human beings. I generally take the Gramscian view that pessimism of the intellect is reasonable, but optimism of the will is essential, so it’s just not enough to believe willpower or positive thinking will get us through.

If the power to create really is a vision of a world renewed and not just about more people starting their own businesses, it needs a better account of how people develop that internal coherence to actually strive for visions of their better more integrated selves, and for the greater good of others too. We can’t just take that kind of personal growth for granted as an article of faith.

What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them and lives for that very purpose? 

I think the ‘power to create’ vision would become much more powerful if it could answer the following question: What does it take, internally, psychologically, existentially, spiritually, to shift one’s perspective from being primarily a passive consumer and citizen by default, making ends meet and waiting for better times, towards being the kind of person who looks at the problems in the world with an appetite to get busy changing them, and lives for that very purpose?

We know that kind of shift takes deep and resilient self confidence but we also know such confidence is fragile. As I have argued before as part of our work on the social relevance of spirituality, any theory of social transformation needs a commensurately robust account of personal transformation to go with it.

We need to give more thought to our inner power to create.


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and tweets here.

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