Daniel Kahneman on religion, wellbeing, and thinking fast and slow

March 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What a treat to see Daniel Kahneman here in London on Tuesday night at the beautiful Methodist Central Hall, just next door to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.


image from How to: Acadmey

Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a charismatic speaker who explains complex ideas in a very accessible way making them relevant to a wide audience. Regular readers of the Social Brain blog will probably already be aware of the key concepts in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, including that we can be thought as having two “systems” of thinking.

For those not familiar with his work, there are many summaries and reviews of the book available online; this recent article out earlier this week gives a quick overview of the main idea of TFaS. And a very over-simplified explanation of these systems follows:  Our System 1 is fast and automatic, these are gut reactions. Our System 2 is slower, requires effort, and is more deliberate. System 1 does a wonderful (or at least good-enough) job most of the time. System 2 often ‘endorses’ or goes along with System 1’s judgement or decision, although sometimes System 2 overrides our initial reaction. Kahneman’s decades of research has illustrated that while for the most part this job-sharing works quite well for us, problems can crop us when System 1 makes mistakes in its haste and then when System 2 fails to recognise and override them.

The book also describes other areas of closely-related research, including Prospect Theory and the difference between our Experiencing Self and Remembering Self. Prospect Theory offered economists a fresh way to understand utility, and one of its key ideas is that we are loss averse – losses sting more than gains feel good – a concept on which we based our headline and somewhat provocative recommendation in our recent publication Everyone Starts with an A, published last week.

The event on Tuesday was not the typical economics talk. The chair, comedian and TV personality David Baddiel, asked more philosophical questions than typically asked about the book (at least in the talks I have attended!), and the conversation turned towards such topics as dementia, atheism/religion, and wellbeing.

For example, using the ‘two selves’ distinction explained in the book, the effects of dementia could be thought of as a shift in balance from our remembering self to our experiencing self.  Regarding religion, Kahneman and Baddiel discussed how our yearning to create stories or narrative, along with the confirmation bias, might play a role in adherence to religions (including atheism). Kahneman continued by explaining that we have two ways of perceiving causality: physical and intentional. The conviction that intentions can have physical effects may provide an interesting way of looking at religion.

The discussion on wellbeing was particularly timely as this week was also the second annual International Day of Happiness (March 20). Kahneman explained that over the years he has reviewed his definition of wellbeing.  He used to think that wellbeing was the sum of the quality of someone’s lived experiences. Now this has shifted to take both the experiencing and remembering selves into consideration: our subjective reflection on our everyday experiences and major life events matter too. People want to have good stories about themselves, which depends both on how you experience something in the moment and also how you remember experiencing it.

The 2000-seat hall was completely packed and the event was sold out. I think I spotted Lord Richard Layard, economist and founder of Action for Happiness, in the audience, and there is an unconfirmed rumour that Richard Dawkins was in attendance as well. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a video recording of the event, but if you can find one it would be well worth a watch. In Kahneman terms, my experiencing self enjoyed the evening, and my remembering self enjoyed and continues to enjoy it.


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

Are we failing to fully understand failure?

March 18, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Wow.  What fortnight it has been!

The press coverage from our most recent publication about using behavioural insight in the classroom, Everyone Starts with an A, has been exciting, interesting, and somewhat exhausting.

We have been featured in the Telegraph, the Times, the TES, the Daily Mail, GovToday, and others.  Jonathan appeared on BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, and Louise and Nathalie did various radio interviews over the past few days, including Drive Time, Radio 5 Live, and Voice of Russia.  And Jonathan has been engaging in lively twitter conversations on the topic.  This is all in addition to the very welcome reception we got in Germany early last week, with articles in Die Welt, Die Sueddeutscher Allgemeine, and on the front page of Der Spiegel (with over 3,600 Facebook likes).

We have received many supportive comments from people who see the merit in trying out the approaches suggested in the report.  It’s also fair to say, though, that not all of the comments have been positive and in fact many of them are from critics who seem to think that use of these approaches only serve to molly-coddle our pupils and fail to set them up for the harsh realities of the adult world.

But to think that these recommendations molly-coddle our youth is to misunderstand them or the science behind them. It seems that the people commenting like this are commenting on what they know from the newspaper articles, not from our report itself.  So, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, let’s review the two most contentious recommendations from the report: everyone starts with an A, and give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’. 


Everyone starts with an A.

Yes, yes, I know, we chose this as our title, so of course people will ask about it! But “Everyone starts with an A” is a lot catchier than the full explanation of “try giving your students an A at the beginning of the year, so that instead of working up to it they have to work hard to avoid losing it, because a well-known insight from behavioural science is that we tend to be ‘loss averse’ and thus are more motivated to avoid giving something up than we are to try to gain it”. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. When months have been invested into a project such as this, it is not surprising that we want our ideas to broadcast and shared widely.  So we did pick one of the most provocative recommendations from the paper in our title, in the hopes of generating interest in the report.  And generate interest it did. But the flip side of picking a provocative title is that understandably all of the nuances and background behind it get lost throughout the chain. With each additional press release or article, the message gets somewhat warped, and “everyone starts with an A” can turn into “give students something they don’t have to work for” (for the record, that is NOT what we are suggesting!).

One misconception from critics is that this makes the A meaningless.  Perhaps the first thing to say here is that, in our approach, just because you start out with an A doesn’t mean that you keep it. So at the end of the term (project, year, etc) it will not be the case that the entire class has achieved an A (but wouldn’t that be great?); some students will get an A and others won’t.  The criteria for maintaining the A and how readily it is lost will be up to the teacher.  So the A is no less meaningless or meaningful than it is in a traditional method of assessment. The key here is simply reframing the starting point so that instead of starting from the bottom, the pupils are starting from the top.

This reframing serves two purposes.

First, it is likely to improve effort levels.  We know from behavioural science that people feel the pain of a loss more so than the pleasure of a similar gain. Decades of research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who is speaking in London tonight) and many others in the field support this. And this concept has been tested in the classroom by Levitt et al, who offered students a reward if they improved on a test. For some students, they were told: take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll get the reward.  For others, they were told: here’s the reward (given upfront), take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll keep the reward but if you haven’t improved then we’ll take it back. It’s worth repeating that both groups had the same  basic set-up of “be rewarded for showing improvement” and the only difference was whether the reward was given after the fact or before (with the threat of losing it). The researchers found that the second group performed better on the test, illustrating that this type of reframing may influence pupils effort levels.

Second, when a pupil starts out with an A, this plants a seed in their mind that they too are capable of achieving this grade.  It is not reserved for the “brainy” or other select few; with the right effort, persistence, and support they too have the potential to keep this grade.  Shifting pupils’ expectations can influence their own performance in meaningful ways.

Critics have also claimed that if you start with an A, the only way is down.  This is responded to in more detail in this previous blog post, but the quick reply to this is that throughout the year a pupil’s grade might rise and fall in either approach – whether you start from the bottom or the top – and the point of our method is to change the starting point.  (An even quicker reply is in this blog post, possibly the shortest ever on the RSA website).


Give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’.

This is NOT, as some people have interpreted it, about “banning negative words”.  This approach is about communicating the setback in such a way as to focus on the process of learning rather than on personal traits. As explained by Jonathan in this previous post,  “Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.”

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the way we think about intelligence, ability, and performance sits along a spectrum between two very different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is a relatively unchangeable trait; in contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can be improved with practice and persistence, just like a muscle can be strengthened through lifting weights.  Dweck’s research shows that a fixed mindset student will be proud when they get an answer correct, but when they come up against a set-back, they lose motivation because to them it signifies that they have reached the capacity of their (fixed) ability. Growth mindset students also feel proud when they do well, but they attribute it not to a personal trait but instead to the steps that they took to get there.  When growth mindset students encounter a setback, they are more likely to stay resilient and motivated, because they understand that with more practice and support they can improve next time. Our suggestion to give a “not yet” grade instead of a “fail” is one way in which a growth mindset can be encouraged in the classroom.

There are other ways of fostering in pupils a growth mindset, too, beyond this ‘not yet’ approach.  For example the way that teachers and parents give feedback can have affect mindsets.  Praising for ability or intelligence (“Great! You’re so clever!”) fosters a fixed mindset, whereas praising for the process (“Great! You really focussed while working on that problem set!”) helps to build a growth mindset.  Additionally, teaching students about the brain and how connections are made while we are learning serves to both explain that indeed we can continue to learn and improve throughout our lives, and also highlights the universality of learning and thus might especially help those pupils who self-identify as being part of a group around which there are certain stigmas or pre-conceptions (based e.g. on gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status).

In a recent email to us in response to the report, one reader, the head of psychology in a large college, wrote in with a wonderful quote which I think sums up the spirit of this chapter:  “My experience over many years has lead me to a mantra which I bore my students with, ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’.”


Free download available

Hopefully these two explanations will go some way towards clarifying these two particularly attention-grabbing recommendations.  We encourage people to read the report here and to download the accompanying poster.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all the responses to the report or the recommendations therein have been critical. We have received many, many kind comments and supportive emails; thank you to those who have written in. The report has been described as “brave”, “hopeful”, and “insightful” and many recognise that the behavioural science underpinning these recommendations has a lot to offer to educational policy and practice.

Everyone starts with an A minus

March 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Just kidding.

New Report: Everyone *Starts* with an A

March 14, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s trumpet time again.

After a highly successful launch of the RSA’s first foreign language publication in Germany earlier this week, we are pleased to announce that today we are releasing the English-language (original) version of our report: Everyone Starts with an A: Applying behavioural insight to narrow the socioeconomic attainment gap in education which was written mostly by RSA’s resident Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer and supported by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, based on Berlin.

I believe it is a sound, creative and timely report, presented with suitable caveats about its grounded but still speculative ideas and its potential impact. Whenever you come to know a set of ideas well enough to believe they are ripe for further exploration, it is healthy to remember that those who are not as familiar with the ideas will struggle to share your conviction.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

This report is a bit like that, as indicated by an unreasonably simplistic and hostile (if predictable) response from The Daily Mail, and a more measured, but still cautious response at The Daily Telegraph. ,The Times, and The Times Educational Supplement. We have also had appearances on BBC Five Live, Sky News, Drivetime, BBC Breakfast Television, ‘Voice of Russia‘, a range of national German newspapers, and we had the familiar honour of being ‘bumped’ from The Today programme at the last minute due to breaking news (last time it was the Pope’s resignation and North Korean nuclear tests; this time the death of Tony Benn).

Failing Better

In the feedback, there have been several hundred comments, some highly sceptical if not downright dismissive, but many of them favourable and curious. For the record we didn’t ever say you should eliminate the idea of failure entirely, or that failing is not a crucial part of learning…do commentators asked for a soundbite really think we are that naive? If you look closely at the ideas in the report, they are not classic ‘bleeding heart liberal’ material at all. Some of them (e.g. starting with an A) have the potentially to be highly exacting in spirit.

Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.

A new angle on an old and stubborn problem:

There is a hugely stubborn and intractable issue at the heart of debates about social justice and it’s called the socioeconomic attainment gap in education. The point is broadly that children from families and communities that have better social and cultural resources get better school results, regardless of the quality of school provision (Crudely: richer kids do better at school, not so much because of the schools they go to, but because their families are richer). The attainment gap is a huge part of how inequality is perpetuated and why people get uneven life chances. So not only is it hugely important for major debates about equality  but it’s perhaps the toughest nut to crack in the whole field of educational research and practice.

The attainment gap issue is relatively ‘stuck’, and we had the audacity to think that some ‘behavioural insight’ might be at least relevant in our efforts to address it. However, we also had the humility to recognise both that it might not, and that if it did, it would only be part of a much bigger picture. (Unfortunately you can’t put all those caveats in a press release, or nobody would pick it up at all). This kind of research is precisely what organisations like the RSA should be doing, because it is cross-disciplinary and too speculative for most academics to take on (although we had a great deal of academic input into the report and it is as rigorous as we could make it).

How much can we expect from schools?

Given how much of education takes place outside of the school and outside of the classroom(very different things), addressing the attainment gap without major structural and cultural changes outside the school is always going to be difficult. The question then becomes: what can schools do? And part of that answer is to work in ways that ensure the learning dispositions that are picked up automatically outside of school by relatively advantaged children, are fostered as far as possible in school, by those who have less of such advantages outside.

The question then is: how do we do that? Which is where we thought some behavioural insight might come in.

Everyone Starts with an A:

The idea in the report’s title (perhaps my main contribution to the report, most of which stemmed from the excellent work of Behavioural Economist Nathalie Spencer) is based on the endowment effect, which suggests that we value things more when we own them already, and are more motivated to avoid losing what we have than we are motivated to gain what we don’t yet have.

This widely known and important (it might explain rather a lot about home ownership and property bubbles, for instance…) idea made us wonder if it might make sense that starting with the top grade might motivate students to hold on to it through continuous improvement (it’s not at all about not having anything left to aim for!) rather than starting from a completely undefined place, and aiming upwards.

It’s an idea that is at least worth considering, no? The point is not the wishy-washy ‘all must have prizes’ idea, but more about how you best get all students – not just those with high levels of educational support at home – to care about continually giving their best, when you have the best opportunity to do it (i.e. in school).  

Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

The other standard objection has been: surely the only way to go is down – won’t students find that really disappointing? Well, apart from continually improving to stay where you are, the only way is down, and then either further down or back up. Just as when you start without a grade the only way is up, and then down, and back up, or down….we are not changing ‘the ups and downs’ of learning, all we have changed is the default starting point. This is why the details of the implementation and the judgment of the teachers is crucial- there are many ways to do it.

You can, for instance, use it as a ‘love of learning’ or ‘learning to learn’ measure, and keep a different grading system for actual performance. You could interpret it very strictly so that 90% of the class lose the grade within a few weeks, or more leniently so that you really have to go quite far off the rails before losing the A. We don’t have firm ideas about such things, which are a matter for contextual and personal judgment, but what we are sure about is there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with everybody starting with an A; it’s just a different default, a new framing and a new set of teaching and learning challenges that we have reason to think might work well.

Keeping behavioural insight in perspective:

Those who are not psychologically minded, temperamentally sceptical, and wary of the idea that somebody else might know what could be good for them, instinctively feel suspicious of such ideas, but often make judgments before really knowing what is meant too, and sometimes react viscerally to the idea of behaviour change or ‘behavioural insight’.

In fact, Behavioural insight means a variety of things, as I argued in the seminal piece for the Guardian’s new Behavioural Insight blog. Moreover, behavioural insight need not be an elite discourse, and could be for everyone. Indeed I think behavioural literacy should be a core part of education.

However, some people struggle to hear new ideas as helpful additions to shed light on old ideas rather than some kind of special fix that will sort everything out. For this reason, we went out of our way to make clear that we are not suggesting our ideas are some kind of panacea.

For instance, one of the three authors of the report, RSA Associate Director of Education Louise Bamfield said:

“We’re not saying that these measures represent a silver bullet or that they will magically fix all the problems teachers face on a day to day basis. What they do provide, however, is more than a ‘nice to have’ optional bag of tricks. The ideas in this report include simple, low cost interventions that when added together could have a significant impact on the relationship between teachers and learners. Behavioural insight alone is certainly not sufficient to cure educational disadvantage, but it may be a necessary component of a larger whole.”

Here are the core ideas in the report, as expressed in our Press Release:

1) Mind-sets and attitude towards student’s mental abilities and intelligence: The report concluded that academic ability is not a fixed personal characteristic, but can be increased through practice and diligence. The report said that teachers should focus on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in order to break through stereotypes (held by both pupils themselves and teachers) and subsequent expectations about ability and performance. Researchers recommended that pupils are praised for effort instead of ability. The report also suggested giving a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’ and positioning wrong answers as an opportunity to learn more and enjoy the natural learning journey.

2) Cognitive biases: Whilst most of us like to think that we make rational, calculated, carefully weighted judgments and decisions, in reality, we are susceptible to biases in our thinking. Teacher’s first impressions of pupils in the first days or weeks of the academic year may have undue weight on their continuing evaluation of them throughout the year, and pupil’s may behave and perform in response to how they see themselves in the teacher’s eyes. The report recommended that educators engage in ‘perspective-taking’ (role-playing) exercises and discuss the relevance of such biases on a regular basis to promote learning reflexivity. They also suggested structuring incentives around ‘loss aversion’ with having an entire class defend an A grade.

3) Surroundings (environment influences): Subtle and no-so-subtle cues in our surroundings can affect pupils’ effort levels, aggression and test scores, the report said. The evidence in this area is significant and given the relative ease of the interventions they’re worth exploring. Changes to pupil’s environment could include priming students with exposure to words associated with intelligence, including priming with the letter ‘A’ on top of a quiz. The report concluded that views of nature of ‘green space’ can reduce mental fatigue and reduce aggression. Poorly maintained school buildings and classrooms (cues of poverty) were also found to have increased students impulsivity and short term thinking (over long term gain).

Professor Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mindsets’ features prominently in the report, and her core message, which is also, I believe, the very heart of behavioural insight, is that the most fundamental human trait is our capacity to change. More to the point, making sure this message is understood by everyone is one of the most effective changes we can make, which is what we hope this report will help to do.


Mindsets, biases and the implausible importance of plants: Classroom tools to unlock pupil motivation

March 12, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

We’re delighted to announce that the Social Brain and Education teams’ newest report was launched yesterday in Berlin. The paper, supported by Vodafone Foundation Germany, explores the application of behavioural insight in the classroom to improve learning, and is the first in the RSA’s history to be published in both English and a foreign language.

VFG launch

(L-R) Sebastian Gallander, Louise Bamfield, Nathalie Spencer, Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt

The report builds on recent research from behavioural science and our evolving understanding of human nature to explore how effort, motivation, learning enjoyment, and performance might be influenced in ways not often traditionally recognised. To support our research, we consulted experts in education policy and practice specialising in motivation, ran a survey of over 750 educators in England, and conducted focus groups with teachers in Germany to co-develop a set of tools and techniques which we encourage teachers to trial in their own classrooms.

The concepts covered in the report, summarised here in an earlier blog post or below in this video clip, were very well received by the German audience. Mrs Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt, a school principal, offered a practitioner’s perspective on the value of the recommendations provided in the report. She explained the need for teachers to be given the space and time to trial various approaches and develop their understanding of the complex processes involved in learning and motivation.



With this report we hope to start a conversation, one that will be continued by practitioners. German speakers are encouraged to visit the www.lehrerdialog.net website, developed by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, to share their experiences of trialling out the tools and to exchange ideas about other potential tips and techniques.

If you don’t want to wrestle with the German version available here, you won’t have to wait long, as the English version will be published on the RSA website this Friday (March 14th). Mark the calendar and revisit the website for a free download!

The only ‘normal’ people are the ones you don’t know very well

March 6, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Cover of What's Normal Anyway? Celebrities' Own Stories of Mental Illness by

I haven’t taken many sick days in my working life, but whenever I have I return to my desk to find a ‘sickness absence form’ asking for some basic administrative information including the line:

Details of Sickness/Injury: I was unfit to attend for work for the following reason(e.g. Influenza, diarrhoea, rheumatism, etc.):”

When I see that form, I often think to myself: Do you really want to know?

As this honest and uplifting book indicates, the only ‘normal’ people in the world are the ones you don’t know very well.

The truth is that while some of those days featured garden variety ailments, others featured ‘details’ of an altogether different kind. There are days where you are physically intact, but just can’t quite face the world, and occasionally you sense that if you don’t stop pretending all is well, you might completely fall apart.

But I always put something else on the form.

I know I am not alone in not always giving full disclosure when it comes to mental health, and there seems to be a growing awareness that we need to norm-alise, in the literal sense of making an accepted social norm – mental health challenges. Our sadly departed colleague, Dr Emma Lindley, wrote with great passion and clarity about stigma relating to mental illness, but we still have some way to go to win that battle, and fresh ammunition is timely and welcome.

It is therefore a great pleasure to announce a new book “What’s Normal Anyway?” co-authored by RSA Director of Research Steve Broome and Forensic Psychologist Dr Anna Gekoski. The book features ten candid first-person accounts of mental illness from some of the UK’s most prominent names including Alastair Campbell, Bill Oddie, Trisha Goddard, Alicia Douvall (model), Tasha Danvers (former Olympic athlete), Richard Mabey, Stephanie Cole (actress), Dean Windass (former premiership footballer), Charles Walker (conservative MP) and Kevan Jones (Labour MP).

These celebrities share their experiences of a range of conditions including bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts.  Their stories are also ones of recovery, positivity and acceptance – illustrations of how mental illness does not have to be a bar to achievement, happiness, and fulfillment in life. The book is also practical, detailing coping strategies, and will offer solace for anyone out there who feels they are suffering alone.

From a Social Brain perspective, the book clearly makes good use of ‘the messenger effect’ – building on a body of research that suggests who says something is often more important than what is said.

From a personal perspective I am just happy to see one more step in a positive direction of travel for people suffering from mental illness. Whether what you are facing is acute and enduring, or mild and temporary, it should be easier to talk openly about it.

As this honest and uplifting book indicates, the first thing we would discover about mental health, if we were to talk about it more often, is that the only ‘normal’ people in the world are the ones you don’t know very well.


The UKIP Paradox: Why the party that needs to get serious will suffer when it does.

March 4, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Are UKIP serious?

Is it timely to assume that a party that appears to have a reasonable chance of topping the polls in our next national election and winning seats in our next general election must have solutions for the major problems in our lives? Presumably now that UKIP are about to get more television coverage because Ofcom have reclassified them as ‘a major party’, they will they use that bigger platform to showcase a range of big ideas?

This ‘bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ as our Prime Minister once called them, just happen to be the party ‘viewed most favourably’ and ‘viewed least unfavourably’ by the electorate in a recent ComRes national poll. Surely that indicates they must have some finely honed policies that people resonate with, or at least some coherent organising principles to indicate what they would do with respect to the economy, health, education, crime, and other such sundries?

Well actually, no, not at all, and UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage admitted as much on The Andrew Marr Show this weekend. Farage said that his core aim is to continue with popular campaign themes and ideas (principally on The EU and Immigration) to try to finish first in the European elections, but he also openly acknowledged the policy vacuum and wanted to reassure prospective voters that UKIP are currently working hard on a carefully budgeted manifesto in preparation for the 2015 general election.

This might sound like a good idea, but it is likely to hurt UKIP quite badly, and to understand why we need to look more deeply at UKIP’s appeal:

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. 

The moral foundations of politics

Research in political psychology by George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and Drew Weston, among others, indicates that most people don’t really vote for ‘policies’ at all. We vote rather on the basis of unconscious moral frameworks often expressed in metaphors (e.g. Putin is ‘the strict father’) projective identification with leaders (e.g. ‘The barbecue test’ that apparently won George W Bush his elections – people could imagine enjoying his company more than Al Gore or John Kerry), and narratives (e.g. Bill Clinton’s ‘it’s the economy, stupid’; Obama’s ‘Yes we can’).

With this in mind, I believe UKIP’s meteoric rise relates to the way they are tapping into certain kinds of ‘moral’ foundations that have been relatively neglected by the (other) mainstream parties. Satirical takes on UKIP’s distinctive style of righteous indignation capture something important about their appeal, like the ‘UKIP keyboard’ designed “to remind you of the good old days before the country went to hell in a handcart”.

UKIP’s rise illustrates 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’.

A deeper way to make this point is that UKIP, perhaps unwittingly, appear to 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 definitely not saying UKIP 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. Indeed, while it is difficult to be precise without careful research, my reading of Values Modes suggests the values palette of UKIP supporters(principally ‘settlers’ with ‘prospector’ elements) which often finds expression in the tabloid press(The Sun and The Daily Mail are best selling newspapers) in particular, is common to between a fifth and a quarter of the population.

The thing is, most of the rest of the position may not recognise such perspectives as ‘moral’ at all…

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.

A quick overview of Haidt’s palette of moral foundations includes:

  1. The Care/Harm Foundation is based on concern for others and a desire to protect them from harm.
  2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation relates to a particular sense of justice, treating others in proportion to their actions, sometimes called proportionality, as in Aristotle’s famous line that ‘justice is giving each their due’
  3. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation is about resisting domination, and the sensitivity to people being tyrannized. Haidt says this “triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.
  4. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation is about the love of tribes and team mates, about our drive to form cohesive coalitions, whether through families or nations.
  5. The Authority/Subversion Foundation is tradition and legitimate authority, grounded in respect and an appreciation for the structures provided by hierarchies.
  6. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation is about avoiding disgusting things, foods and actions but it extends to a broader conception of purity or disgust, and our ideas about what is sacred

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. More to the point, our political outlooks are shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise. Those with what Haidt calls WEIRD morality (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) may struggle with this message, because we have a set notion of what moral means, but the social intuitionist perspective forces you to reconsider.

Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of his 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. You might say progressives are ‘morally outnumbered’, which is not to say they are wrong, because there is no empirical way to determine how much weight we should give to each of the touchstones – that’s the value judgment that determines who we are.

Why UKIP Press Buttons others find hard to reach

***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***

(Image via: http://thebackbencher.co.uk/tag/ukip/)


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, because they are touching lots of these moral foundations,

  • When UKIP ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into the liberty/oppression foundation, resisting dominance of a foreign power, and relatedly activating ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into loyalty and sanctity.
  • When UKIP opposed gay marriage they were appealing to sanctity and degradation.
  • When UKIP speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression.
  • Note that UKIP 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.

Political Psychology

When you think about these moral foundations, you can see that the risk of getting serious is partly that UKIP might lack the ideas, intellects and infrastructure to develop a credible and creative manifesto, and also that UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all.

UKIP are popular not in spite of their lack of policies, but because the public don’t really associate them with policies at all. 

However, the most profound risk for UKIP lies deeper, because people are voting for them for ‘moral’ reasons that the other parties do not view as moral at all, and which are ‘moral’ in ways that are inherently anti-policy in spirit. The fifth or so of the electorate that are currently inclined to vote for UKIP are finding nourishment from UKIP’s manner and message, which appears to me to be a mixture of lionised ‘common sense’ and self-righteous indignation. ‘Policy’ is antithetical to both, because it requires details that are technocratic in spirit, and a position of one’s own that makes indignation more self-conscious, and vulnerable to counter-attack.

The other risk of developing policies is that the nature of the messenger changes from being a particular kind of anti-politics, anti-policy morality, to being another political party that looks less moral for fraternising with the enemy. UKIP are therefore in an interesting bind. They need policies to get serious, but getting serious about policy will dilute and diminish their ‘moral’ appeal.

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

You can follow him here.

Is cooking a subversive act? (microwave reheated version)

February 24, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Have you seen our latest RSA Short: How Cooking Can Change your Life?



“Eat anything you like, as long as you cook it yourself?” Pretty intriguing advice, no? Did it make you want to get home and buy, unpack, wash, peel, chop and fry some potatoes?

Not quite? Well this reheated blog post full of hidden salt, sugar and fat from July 15th might help to convince you.

I wrote it after listening to the podcast, which gives a much fuller picture of the important argument, and which I would strongly recommend listening to, ideally in your kitchen with a good chopping board and a few willing vegetables.

More than half a year later, I am even more sure that the idea is worth heeding and reflecting on for its political implications. The basic idea sounds trivial (let’s all cook more, ha ha…) but it might just be the kind of small revolutionary act that could lead to significant systemic change if it really took hold.

The idea that we should (in the pragmatic and moral senses of the term) all cook more might even be relevant to the RSA’s emerging world view around the power to create; at its heart it’s about shifting the balance of power from big to small, and distributing a daily act of creativity much more widely. It’s also fun, good for your health and ecologically beneficial, but those arguments are small fries….

Potentially much more motivating is the Bachanalian carnival of aromatic delights that lies dormant within your very own unsuspecting kitchen.

Why not start tonight by adding some cumin to your beans on toast?


That title (Is Cooking a Subversive Act?) makes the content sound like a combination of self-help and how-to, but it’s much more political than that. The speaker, Michael Pollan, is a professor and activist who sees food in general, and cooking in particular, as a critical driver of the economic and social order.

That might sound a little bourgeois and worthy- Who has the time? Who has the kitchen space? But the evidential case is pretty strong. Processed food generally tends to be much less cheap and convenient than we imagine, for instance, and the relationship between cooking and health is apparently very robust.

He starts the talk with the example of the fries sold at a famous fast food restaurant having to be long to look right in the red boxes, which means a special kind of long potato has to be grown, and that that strain of potato has to free of blemishes, which means you need a certain kind of pesticide which is highly toxic…and this is one example of thousands- the food we see every day carries with it a huge range of generally hidden public health and environmental issues.

The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other. In this sense cooking is the fulcrum around a much broader argument for an economy, promoted by nef amongst others i.e. an economy that properly values time and the costs of not having time, and allows us to be a bit less like time-starved consumers and a bit more like time-plenty producers (who, on balance, tend to be happier).

The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other

A few ideas/quotes from scribbles on a train (check audio for verbatim quotes):

  • Poor women who cook are healthier than rich women who don’t.
  • The food industry don’t speak of fat, salt and sugar in terms of ‘addiction’. Instead they tend to use the words ‘cravability’ and ‘snackability’
  • Food marketing tends to operate by creating anxiety and the providing a solution (at one point Pollan makes reference to feminism giving rise to a domestic redistribution of labour, in which women who work couldn’t possibly be expected to cook as much as they used to…However this change doesn’t happen without resistance, and the ensuing arguments are then placated by adverts that implicitly say – don’t fight about it, we’ll do it for you…)
  • “Special occasion foods become every day foods when we let industry cook for us.”(One example Pollan gives is french fries or chips. They taste great when you cook them yourself, but the process is highly labour intensive(washing, peeling, cutting, pan, oil, splattering, oil, washing up etc) so left to our own devices we might eat them only every month or so as a treat, but many Americans now eat two batches of french fries a day because they have become so convenient.)
  • The diet that would work for everybody is: eat anything you like, just cook it yourself.
  • Michele Obama’s original speech about food and the subsequent ‘let’s move’ campaign was really powerful/radical, but its impact was lessened when she got into a conversation with the food industry about reformulating the ingredients of processed food. The speaker compared this to ‘low fat’ food being a mixed blessing, because it tends to mean other ‘bad things’ are put in to replace the fat.
  • “Slightly improved processed food is a trap”
  • “Health is a collective property of the human microbiotica”
  • “The environment is not just ‘out there’, it’s passing right through you.


By Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre, Follow at @jonathan_rowson



Climate Change and the Creative Industries

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

A few weeks ago I popped into our Folkestone Room  to do a short interview for the good people at Swarm about our recent report A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.



This video was shown at the event #whitepencilswarm supported by D&AD, The Global Association for Creative Advertising & Design Awards, which this year created a #NewBloodAwards brief in partnership with Al Gore around Climate Change. 

The event included a presentation by the intensely honest Kevin Anderson, and focused on helping professionals within the worlds of Advertising, Marketing & Design to come to grips with climate change in particular, rather than just ‘sustainability’ in general, which they tend to find much easier to navigate. (For more on that distinction, this recent Guardian piece on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change is a good place to start).

I gave a similar pitch when I spoke at The Hospital Club about Climate Change as part of their sustainability week, alongside Adam Elman, Global Head of Marks & Spencers celebrated ‘Plan A’, Jez Frampton Global CEO of InterBrand, and Jon Alexander, Director of The New Citizenship Project.

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end).

In each case I had the felt sense that the challenge for those working in the creative industries is that many of the implicit associations relating to ‘climate change’ (emissions, floods, existential threat) are quite different from the buzz surrounding sustainability(chic, desirable, caring).

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end). That’s quite a different vibe for those professionals sometimes termed ‘creatives’ to work with, compared to the challenges relating to waste and broader ecological constraints, which are more tangible and tractable for companies and consumers alike.

Anyway, the video is 16 minutes long, features a yellow jumper, and, in case you’re wondering, there is a cup of coffee at the end of my right arm that you can’t see.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The 7 Dimensions of Climate Change: Science, Law, Money, Technology, Democracy, Culture, Behaviour

February 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Everybody is speaking about the link between flooding and climate change, and many are saying it is time to ‘act’ on this understanding. The trouble is, as I’ve written before, this injunction to act on climate change is often simplistic and painfully generic, which serves to dissipate political will.

With this in mind, the Guardian’s behavioural insight blog features my latest thoughts on how to improve the quality of our thinking on climate change, following up on our report at the end of last year: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.

The point of this particular piece was to begin to flesh out what it might mean to think of climate change as being distinct from more general ‘environmental’ concerns, and to explain why that reframing matters. The following is an abbreviated version, so if you feel you have another click in you, please go here for the fuller version and leave comments or tweets there, but if you’re happy with ‘the gist’, read on:

“We need a form of simplicity that rejects the lazy conflation of climate change with environmentalism by presenting a more energising set of associations. … Second, the right kind of simple would offer a vision of human behaviour informed by political consciousness, so that calls for “behaviour change” connect with the deep roots of the problem in fossil fuel production, rather than a misplaced emphasis on energy efficiency…Third, the right kind of simple would promote systems thinking, such that the climate problem is not viewed as having discrete independent elements, but rather multiple inter-connected dimensions that co-exist in the same space…

1. Science matters because it is the closest thing we have to an objective reference point for debates that might otherwise lack grounding.

2. Law matters, because it acts as a powerful constraint at scale…

3. Money matters, because capitalism is the planet’s operating system, and given the time constraints, we will need to respond to the climate change problem from within the system that created it…

4. Technology matters because we need innovative forms of creating, storing and transporting energy urgently…

5. Democracy matters because it is a mechanism for making collective decisions, and climate change is the biggest collective action problem of all time

6. Culture matters because our response to climate change is informed by everything from its place in formal education to implicit consumerist values in advertising to how the media frames judgments on systemic risk as scientific “uncertainty”.

7. Behaviour matters because while our choices are shaped by the facts (science), the rules (law), the resources (money), the tools (technology), the institutions (democracy) and the ideas (culture) around us, it is ultimately what we individually and collectively choose to do (behaviour) that matters.”

I hope you can read the fuller version in the Guardian, but based on the gist here, what do you think?

Too simple? Not simple enough?


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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