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

February 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments
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.

New Report! Reflexive Coppers

April 16, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today we release a new report detailing our attempts to apply Steer behaviour change principles to police work – Reflexive Coppers: Adaptive Challenges in Policing. 

Journalists seem to think the report is worth knowing about. It was picked up by the press association and has been written up in several national papers, including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail (with typically trenchant comments below the main article). Earlier this morning (zzzz…) I was speaking on The Today Programme (where Evan Davis asked me to ‘keep it practical’ and ‘try to avoid too many big concepts’ before we went live) followed by Nick Ferrari (who was very friendly before and after, but asked the pertinent question on air: how much did this (taxpayer-funded) report cost?) on LBC Radio, and I just heard I’ll be on Five Live at lunchtime.

So what’s all the fuss about? I am beginning to understand three things about media coverage of think tank reports:

1) Timing is everything. The quality of writing, insight, evidence, sample size, policy recommendations, design, title and so forth are considerably less important than timing the release of the report so that it coincides with topical issues and questions that the media are already exploring but haven’t yet exhausted (in your control) and so that it doesn’t coincide with a massive unforeseeable news story(alas, not in your control; with previous reports I have twice received cancellation calls from the Today programme around midnight the night before because something bigger has happened that they need to cover instead- in one case a major breakthrough in cancer research, in another an interview scoop with a disgruntled army general).

2) The press release matters.  Questions asked by the press tend to be fairly direct: What is this? Why does it matter? What happens now? Your answers to those questions have to be clear and concise, but they don’t have to be particularly compelling- you are looking for a nod of recognition rather than a euraka moment of insight or a hug of solidarity. Moreover, many news outlets are covering so much content that there is little time for a detailed analysis. News stories tend to quote directly from the press release, and on radio the questions you are asked tend to arise from it, rather than the the much longer report that few people would have read, or, let’s face it, ever will read.

3)You need an injunction. Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? And the ‘they’  in question is usually some sort of authority – teachers, parents, governments, police….

Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? 

So almost all the coverage today will be about one tiny piece of the report: our suggestion that police officers should take twenty minutes a week to reflect on the tensions and dilemmas in their role, viewed through the lenses of brains and behaviour that we shared with them.

And that now is the story, even though it was added right at the end of the report, when we were thinking about the ‘so what?’ question and the obvious operational and funding constraints that might work against scaling up our suggestion in a more ambitious way. The hope, of course, is that all this coverage leads at least some people to take a closer look at were such a suggestion might come from.

The Research

The research was conceived by my predecessor Dr Matt Grist as a practical follow-up to our work with the general public in Steer. Our qualitative feedback from the 24 members of the public who took part in this research was that learning about their brains and behaviour, and discussing its role and relevance in their lives was not only of interest, but also lead to them thinking and acting differently, at least in the short-run. Eventually we hoped to get a more empirically robust measure of the approach, but first  we wanted to do another pilot test of the approach with a target group with a clearer set of operational challenges, and decided to focus on the police service.

Our initial advert seeking participants attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers and support staff so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach

Our initial advert seeking participants (posted on the intranet of the Metropolitan Police, with the assistance of their research division) attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers- so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach- although this number reduced to below twenty once dates were fixed. The five principles we discussed with the participants were:

1. Use your habitat to shape your habits. 

How does the working environment shape your automatic behaviour?

2. Trust your gut, but remember to pay attention.

Your intuition, based on professional experience, is powerful, but how can you remain vigilant in situations where something genuinely new is happening?

3. Take your time, literally.

There are three main decision speeds – automatic, reflective and ‘mulling’ – which do you use most and why?

4. Be influenced by others, but know your own voice.

You need others to help you think, but how can you guard against groupthink?

5. Don’t let consistency get in the way of learning.

The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance often prevents us from understanding what really happened – how can we avoid this?

To find out more about these ideas, why they were selected, how police responded to them, and more, please take time to read the report and let me know what you think.

I am grateful to colleagues Gaia Marcus, Benedict Dellot, Janet Hawken and others for helping to deliver the research, Steve Broome for helping to design it and second author Dr Emma Lindley for restructuring and rewriting large parts of the penultimate draft of the report, making it, I believe, a much more user-friendly document.

Waste Not, Want Not?

November 16, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I never really understood the expression/idiom/injunction ‘waste not, want not’.

On the face of it, it seems to say: if you don’t waste it you don’t want it…

But obviously that’s not the real message. The idea is that if you waste something, you are implicitly saying you don’t want it. So if you waste food, water, energy, and time what are you saying? That somehow these things don’t matter to you?

No. You’re saying that you don’t think they are scarce resources.

Which is not the case.

All of these things are hugely important and increasingly scarce, it’s just that most of the people we know, and those reading this blog (I’m guessing) live in such a way that we don’t feel the pinch of that scarcity.

That perspective may change if we found ourselves identifying with somebody starving, dying from a disease caused by lack of access to fresh water, migrating from a small island that will soon go under due to rising sea levels, or just told they have a terminal disease(other than life)….If only we felt ‘as one’ with such people, we might be aware of the scarcity and waste less of the precious resources that such people may die for want of.

Perhaps the world is getting a bit smaller in this sense. Jeremy Rifkind  seems to argue as much i.e. that our circles of empathy are expanding, and the suffering of ‘others’ is beginning to feel more like our problem, because those others are ‘closer’ due to social media and travel, and therefore closer to us emotionally too.

Perhaps. I still think there is a role for experience here. I suspect you only real ‘get’ the tragedy of waste when you really feel the pinch of scarcity at the level of personal experience…

Indeed these thoughts were prompted by reading a good news story in The Independent that says we are wasting much less food than we used to. We are still wasting far more than we need to, and there is massive scope for improvement, but it seems when we felt the pinch- when money was tight and couldn’t be wasted, we didn’t let invisible vegetables languish in the invisible parts of our fridge, or have one spoon of humous before throwing the rest out uneaten a week later.

I am not sure whether I have a point here- but does this suggest that the experience of scarcity may be an important part of behaviour change strategies to reduce waste? If so, how do we go about it- can we simulate scarcity to help us waste less of the precious resources we are (for now) lucky enough to have?

If you focus on the average, you miss the majority

November 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I picked a copy of the Guardian out of a (relatively clean) bin on Saturday, and immediately congratulated myself on the discovery. The highlight was the science column by Alok Jha which gives some mathematical insight into the ‘We are the 99%’ mantra of the Occupy movement.

The vast inequality of wealth is related to broader natural patterns, described as power laws. Power laws have been simplified by trainers and consultants and turned into the so-called ’80/20 rule’ which looks less and less like a rule the more you think about it, and more like a rough and ready heuristic to explain something much more complex and important, which is what it is.

Jha writes: “The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.

The simplest version says that 80% of your company sales will come from 20% of your customers; that 80% of the world’s internet traffic will go to 20% of the websites; 80% of the film industry’s money gets made by 20% of its movies; 80% of the usage of the English language involves just 20% of its words. You get the picture.”

I could dwell on this for hours, but need to get back to serious work. Suffice to say that power laws are important correctives to the human intuitions on what is ‘natural’.

As Jha puts it: “The average height of the people in a room (following the normal distribution) might tell you a lot about the spread heights of people in that room, but the average wealth of a country’s citizens (which follows a power law distribution) tells you little or nothing about how rich or poor most people are.”

You Know More Than You Think You Do

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

RSA’s Director of Design Emily Campbell just celebrated three years of working here, and future plans, with plentiful bubbly and some highly inclusive gluten free chocolate cake.

Before joining the RSA I had no idea what ‘Design’ meant. I thought it was something vaguely connected to arcitchture and buildings, and had no particular need, or so I thought, to think otherwise. Now I hope I am confused on a much higher level. Largely because of the influence of Emily and colleagues, I see that Design is a way of thinking, of inventively reimagining the world. In fact now when I think about behavioural challenges, I find that cognitive frailties and behavioural foibles often look like Design problems in disguise.

The core emphasis of RSA Design is that everybody can become equipped to think like a designer. In this sense design is not about aesthetics, but about logic. Design is viewed here as a form of resourcefulness. Hence the expression ‘You know more than you think you do.’ Any thinking person, and even those who don’t think much, can be given some experience of the perceptual and creative tools of a designer. The RSA believes that by taking on the mantle of a design perspective, you can unlock your own capacities to fashion systems and solve problems.

I should also confess that until recently Buckminster Fuller was a name I only dimly recognised, but after reading the following quotation(of which there are many) in the New Yorker I was keen to find out more about his work. 

‘But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.

“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”’

This is sagacious insight, and gave me pause. But of course choosing between people and the environment is a false dichotomy. What matters is to undersand deeply how the two are connected, and work with that understanding to change the world. We know more than we think we do, and should face our challenges with that understanding.


The Embodiment of Life: Francisco Varela (1946-2001)

May 30, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

On Wednesday I will be attending a conference to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Francisco Varela, organised by the Centre for Real World Learning, and hosted at City University in London. There are still places available for those who wish to attend.

Have you heard of Francisco Varela? If not, I envy you, because you have the chance to experience the excitement of his singular contribution to knowledge for the first time, while I can only read him again, and again, and again.

I was introduced to Varela by my Phd supervisor, Guy Claxton, who is one of the main organisers of Wednesday’s conference. It is difficult to do justice to Varela’s thought with a standard academic description. ‘Cognitive Scientist’ is a good start, but there are thousands of those. What makes Varela particularly special is the confluence of three main strands of thought: Biology, particularly Neuroscience, European Philosophy, particularly the Phenomenological and Existential strands, and Tibetan Buddhism, particularly his own sustained practice of meditation.

What these perspectives gave him was a view of consciousness from third(objective/impartial), second(inter-subjective/relational) and first(subjective/embodied) person perspectives. He was a scientist, philosopher and meditator. He had a unique ability to understand human beings simulatenously as bodies, relationships and minds. His experience in contemplative practice also brought a strong ethical dimension to his work- he was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.

I enjoyed his classic texts The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (co-written with Maturana) and The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience(co-written with Thompson and Rosch), but the book that made the deepest impression was a small book comprising three lectures called: “Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition.”

When I came upon this book I was at a low point in the process of thesis writing, struggling for a fresh perspective on the concept of wisdom, and disenchanted with the main theoretical perspectives available, including those of Robert Sternberg at Yale and Paul Baltes at the Max Plank Institute of Human Development. These proto-canonical models were basically sophisticated psychometric measures, reducing wisdom to a form of advice-giving expertise. They succeeded in making the concept of wisdm more tractable and amenable to empirical measurement, but could only do so by cutting it off from the embodied, situated nature of wisdom, which is what I most valued, and wanted to understand better.

Varela was always thinking about the ethical implications of our understanding of what it means to be human.

Varela’s view of wisdom was very different, because it presents it as a form of ethical know how in action. There is no point in being wise in abstract if you cannot act wisely in complex situations when called upon to do so. Varela doesn’t give the particular example that follows, but his perspective helped me to understand this kind of wise action:

There is a classic story of Mahatma Gandhi hurredly boarding a train that was pulling away from the platform. As he boarded, one of Gandhi’s sandals fell onto the track. With no time to retrieve it, and with the train gathering speed, he instantaneously took off his other sandal and threw it down, so that whoever came upon the first sandal would now have a pair of sandals to wear.

What struck me about this example, and what I wanted to understand better, is the difference between thinking of doing such a thing, perhaps five minutes later when it would no longer be effective, and being ready, willing and able to act wisely in an immediate problematic situation, as Gandhi was in this case.

Varela’s view of ethics helped me considerably in this regard,because he has a highly sophisticated view of virtuous action arising from extended inclinations and dispositions, usually cultivated through sustained ethical or spiritual practice, in which we gradually decentre from our egoic impulses by becoming aware of our fragile or ‘virtual’ selves. In the small book I mentioned(p73) he puts it as follows:

“The means of transformating mental constiuents into wisdom is intelligent awareness, that is, the moment-to-moment realisation of the virtual self as it is-empty of any eogic ground whatsoever, yet filled with wisdom. Here one is positing that authentic care resides at the very ground of Being, and can be made fully manifest in a sustained, succefful ethical training. A thoroughly alien thought for our nihilistic Western mood, indeed, but one worthy of being entertained.”

There is lots more to say about Varela, who was originally from Chile and became the Director of Research for the French National Research Council. I hope to report back after the event on Wednesday, but for now, you can get a glimpse of the person and his thought by watching the following video.

The happiest pair of gloves in the world

April 26, 2011 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

What a wonderful surprise!

I arrived into work this morning to find a mysterious parcel containing…a pair of black thinsulate gloves.


I hadn’t ordered them, and I am unlikely to need them for a while, but they nevertheless filled me with joy.

Here is why:

1) They were a token of gratitude from for whom I wrote a blog a few weeks ago in my capacity as a chess grandmaster. I had forgotten all about it. They say swift gratitude is the sweetest, but sometimes belated gratitude is better, because it makes you feel that the value of whatever you are being thanked for is enduring.

2) The gift was part of dothegreenthing’s ‘glove love‘ campaign which encourages people to send in single gloves wherever they are found. So many are received that they quickly find pairs. Then they are washed, and sent back out into the world. In my case, one was ‘rescued from’ Victoria park and the other from London Eye. They were washed and matched by Lebinh, to whom I am grateful.

3) This cycle of action was a series of gift exchanges, and began when Katee Hui of came to give a short lunchtime talk to the RSA. She heard about my chess background and asked me to write a blog about chess being a pleasurable and environmentally friendly activity. After a reminder of two, I gladly did so, and latched on to Earth Hour as the narrative hook.

4) Gratitude is a very powerful emotion. We feel good when we are thanked, but we feel even better when we take time to feel grateful. Of all the meditative practices I have tried, a guided gratitude meditation made the biggest impact…going back from the present moment to thank parents, the widwives who helped bring you in to the world, the people who cared for you when you were helpless, your first teachers, your friends, your doctors…if you keep going on like this you soon find yourself welling up with gratitude…which is a wonderfully affirming experience.

So the next time you see a single glove…think of all the gratitude you have the power to create.