Like most people I know, I accept the gravity of climate change at an intellectual level, but don’t live my life as if the message has really sunk in. It seems that many if not most people reading this blog will be in a similar state: fully aware of the balance of evidence but somehow trapped in patterns of thinking and behaving that seem to prevent us from aligning our actions with our awareness.
Today, via twitter, I read an ‘oldie but a goodie’ blog by David Roberts at the wonderful Grist site that offered some fresh perspective on why this might be the case. Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before:
Environmentalism” is simply not equipped to transform the basis of human culture. It grew up to address a specific, bounded set of issues. For 50 years, (American) environmental politics has been about restraining the amount of damage industries can do. Environmental campaigners have developed a set of strategies for that purpose, designed to overcome the resistance of industries and politicians to such restraints. And they’ve been successful in a number of areas. So when climate change entered (American) politics via environmentalism, that is the model into which it was slotted. Environmental campaigners set about restraining the amount of greenhouse gases industry can emit, and industry set about resisting. Greens and industry fought ferociously, but in the wake of the victories of the’70s, the public largely watched with indifference, barring a few episodes where support swung one way or another (usually as much due to economic circumstances as anything).
The fact that climate change became framed as an environmental issue meant an opportunity was missed. Instead of leaping on to the existing environmental movement will all the limitations that brings, and opportunity was lost to form a climate change movement that could target the problem more directly, more holistically and more powerfully (because it wouldn’t be lumped together will all the other environmental issues).
Two things fall out of that:
1) We may need to actively build a climate movement that deliberately distances itself from environmentalism.
2) We need to start being more careful with our language. Perhaps we shouldn’t conflate climate change with other environmental issues, even if they are related. And for a while now, I have felt we should always say ‘climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’, if only to prevent knee-jerk reactions to the more familiar term.
More generally, I like this kind of deep reframing. There is a lot of peripheral, half-hearted, tokenistic work done on climate change. Over the last few months I have occasionally tried to highlight some of the approaches or suggestions that made a deeper impression, for instance here, here and here and I am glad to be aware of this one.
So what follows? If climate change is not an environmental issue, what exactly should we call it: an existential threat? a planetary emergency? an economic problem? The ultimate test of democracy? I am not sure, but the basic idea is sound. It is not just another green issue, but the defining challenge of our time.
Just came across this section of Transforming Behaviour Change while looking for a reference about decision-making and thought it was worth sharing. Any vegetarians or anti-vegetarians out there with views on the subject?
“This message that we are not rational is not a simple one to convey, because we also appear to have a somewhat craven need for rationalisation. In fact, the social presumption of rationality is so strong that we are inclined to find and create reasons for our actions, or even invent them, merely to preserve the illusion that our choices are freely chosen.
This social imperative of cognitive consistency is the reason why vegetarians, for example, are frequently cross-examined, often by an entire dinner table, on the rationale and consistency of their preference to avoid the meat that most people eat. At an anecdotal level, it seems the ethical and environmental gains achieved through eating less meat are given relatively little attention, compared to the social sanction of highlighting perceived inconsistencies in the individuals making the effort.
For example, the inconsistency of wearing a leather belt while avoiding a beef stew appears to be more salient in social company than the fact that, for example, if every
American reduced meat intake by one meal a week, it would have the equivalent environmental impact as taking five million cars off the road.
In a recent talk on ‘Eating Animals’ at the RSA, Jonathan Saffron Foer argued that most meat eaters simply do not want to know about the conditions on factory farms, for fear that it would create unbearable cognitive dissonance. In light of animal suffering, and concomitant environmental degradation, Foer suggests people cannot reconcile their desire to enjoy the taste and cultural appropriateness of meat eating with their desire not to cause unnecessary suffering, so rather than stop eating meat, they prefer not to know about the suffering and the environmental harm:
“We have such a resistance to being hypocrites that we would rather be fully ignorant and fully forgetful all the time.”
This claim is a strong one, but it is important to make this case because it is fundamental to the social influence on decisions, and supports the need to shape social norms, rather than merely being subject to them, for it is these norms that norm-alise our behaviour.
A similar point about the challenge of pervasive self-justification is made by Tavris and Aronson, who contend that there are very few conscious hypocrites in the world. Indeed our capacity to rationalise our behaviour as being consistent with our beliefs is extraordinary, and we usually achieve this by shifting our beliefs rather than our behaviour, even if doing so paradoxically flies in the face of reason. As Tavris and Aronson put it:
“All of us, to preserve our belief that we are smart, will occasionally do dumb things. We can’t help it. We are wired that way.”
There is a well worn truism in the world of marketing: “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”
There is no such doubt with a recent high-budget promotional video by the European Commission that was recently withdrawn, available in today’s guardian.
To start with perhaps the only positive feature, I liked the way the lady in yellow representing Europe morphed into one of the stars of the EU flag…there might be a way to rescue some similar device to make the case that we are stronger together, better with more etc…Maybe.
But that concluding trope came at the cost of a shockingly insensitive set of implicit messages. A white woman, dressed in yellow(confusingly, it looked like a reference to the American film, ‘Kill Bill‘) is threatened by three very ‘other’-looking men from China, India and Brazil…all of whom look more or less menacing. She represents Europe (White) against the threat from major world players (non-white) and she defends herself by multiplying herself (several White) such that the three non-white characters are ‘tamed’ into submission. They all sit down, but clearly on the terms of the white majority….
I accept that there are other ways of reading the messages of the video, and I am sure there was no intention to be ‘racist’. However, the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism are often subtle in that way. They are about acting on unchallenged assumptions and stereotypes, and perpetuating them as if they are innocent and unproblematic.
Our emphasis on social brain is about acknowledging that pro-social behaviour should be normal(the accepted norm) and natural(arising from our natures) rather than being viewed as a form of deviance from the utility-maximising individualistic model that is often assumed. However, such pro-social behaviour is always relative to our perception of in-groups and out-groups.
‘Social’ is not good in itself. It is not an honorific term, but a descriptive one, and we need to expand and complexify its range of reference. In this video, by contrast, the expanding European in-group to whom we supposedly belong is narrowed and simplified. The resulting implicit message is in terribly bad taste and I am glad the video has been pulled.
Simon Jenkins’s typically trenchant piece in yesterday’s Guardian opened with a strong assertion, followed by a striking assumption, leading to a pertinent question:
“Inflation is falling, debt is rising, growth is static and credit is edgy. All these are facts. There must be an economic equation that says what to do next. So where are the economists when we need them?”
“There must be an economic equation that says what to do next.” ?
Well no, not really. The problem is precisely that it is becoming increasingly clear that the equations of academic economics do not adequately speak to problems in the real world.
Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism captured the problem succinctly in his talk to the RSA:
“You have to know that academic economists today are not even interested in the real world. In the economics profession today, interest in the real world is an indirect admission that you are not very good. If you are really smart you do really abstract mathematical modelling. If you are a bit less good you do econometrics, basically manipulating statistics. If you are really down in the pits you are interested in the real world…It’s a strange academic culture… when you say these uncomfortable things, people refuse to listen to you.”
Perhaps the main reason academic economists are not very interested in the real world is that much of economic theory rests on axioms that are not true to the real world. In Transforming Behaviour Change, we explore this point in some detail. The following quote by economist John Gowdy captures the jist of the problem:
“The most serious shortcoming of the standard economic model — the mathematical
formulation is called the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) model — is that
it must assume that human behaviour is self-regarding. The mathematical constraints of the model dictate that decisions of one individual cannot be influenced by the behaviour of others. Without the assumption of independent preferences the whole mathematical edifice of the DSGE model comes crashing down like a house of cards, and with it many if not most of the tools of contemporary economics (marginal analysis, constrained optimization techniques) and policy recommendations (privatization, more trade).”
So in response to Jenkins’s question(albeit a somewhat rhetorical one) it is not clear that what we really need at the moment are economists, but in so far as we do, the reason they are not as accessible as they might be is that they are probably beginning to sense – due to significant theoretical challenges and major economic and financial problems – that the legitimacy of their discipline, at least as it has been classically conceived, is very much in doubt.
I have been a big fan of Alain De Botton for a number of years, and have enjoyed many of his books. As an undergraduate I was excited by the very title ‘How Proust can Change your Life‘, before I had even heard of ‘Prooost’, and I remember a diagram on the improbability of a couple meeting on an aeroplane, I think in ‘Essays in Love‘, that made me ponder the idea of fate more deeply than I ever had before. I am also a fan of The School of Life, which he inspired, and broadly support his considerable efforts to make philosophy, non-academically conceived, more engaging, accessible, and, frankly, enjoyable.
I believe Status Anxiety was by far his most powerful contribution. He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life. (On a personal level, I related to the idea as a chess Grandmaster because the chess rating system functions as such a tangible status metric).
I didn’t get much out of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work although it was such a beautifully designed and produced book that I kept expecting to, and enjoyed travelling hopefully. And now I am struggling a bit with Religion for Atheists, which he spoke about at the RSA last week.
He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life.
Richard Holloway, one of the wisest thinkers in the country, seemed to value the book, which gave me pause, especially because he felt it would be most appreciated by “uneasy believers” who would “welcome it like a well of water in a dry place.” In other words De Botton’s reappraisal of religion is thought to be deep and sophisticated enough to revitalise moribund traditions, by reminding them that the true sources of their value are not, and never have been, wedded to doctrine. (Karen Armstrong makes a similar point in The Case for God).
So what’s the problem? Why do I feel, as I recently tweeted, that De Botton doesn’t ‘get it’? As Emma recently wrote, and Cognitive Media beautifully illustrated ”Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.” But that’s just part of the story. Something deeper is bugging me.
I felt a similar dissatisfaction when he interviewed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (about eight and a half minutes in) and it was related to De Botton’s somewhat promiscuous attitude to ideas. In essence he argues that the value in not subscribing to any particular tradition is that an individual can freely ‘pick and mix’ from all the available ideas and thereby come upon those ideas that suit their needs and interests at a given point in time.
This is not a religious position, but you might call it De Botton’s ‘Life stance’ which is an increasingly popular term used to describe people’s spiritual position, or perspective on how the way they live their lives relates to matters of fundamental concern. (‘a properly articulated framework of values’, even).
My concern for this position is that it doesn’t acknowledge the positional nature of depth, of the need to stick with something even when you don’t like it and it’s not working for you.
De Botton is surely right that you can experience depth in a variety of settings without religious commitment- there is depth in art, architecture, music, literature etc. But I wonder if the kinds of existential challenges we face can be adequately dealt with in this relatively piecemeal fashion. For instance, why read the Bible for insight into human experience when you could read Shakespeare? Why pray to an unknowable God when you could just enjoy the aesthetic power of the sunset?
I think there is an answer, and it relates to a story I came upon from a less revered but much enjoyed cultural resource, the WestWing:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.”
A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’
The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another.
The idea that ‘I have been here before’ and ‘I know the way out’ is what I mean by positional depth in this context. In the context of a shared tradition we recognise similar human needs that are culturally embedded and socially constituted, in a way we cannot by a personal pick and mix approach.
The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another. I don’t quite feel I have nailed it, but I think this might be the ‘it’ that De Botton doesn’t seem to ‘get’.
So we know now (and in fact we knew already) that we have this optimism bias, and consistently and predictably expect things to turn out better for ourselves(though not for others) than they actually do. What follows?
Tali Sharot suggested we can incorporate this knowledge into our planning decisions, and indicated that the Government indeed have in their Green Book but somehow this feels too simplistic.
For starters, it sounds suspiciously like contingency planning with a bit of extra scientific backing. You know that you consistently mis-predict, mis-assess and so forth, so you factor that in. It is different from having a bit extra for unexpected events, but not that different.
In any case there is a deeper problem.
During a book tour of his own a few weeks ago Daniel Kahneman was speaking about cognitive biases more generally. In an interview with Oliver Burkeman he made the telling remark: ”It’s not a case of: ‘Read this book and then you’ll think differently,’” he says. “I’ve written this book, and I don’t think differently.”
Tali Sharot’s argument, combined with Kahneman’s comment reminded me of the wonderful Hofstadter’s law:
it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves.
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s law into account.”
In other words, it is not so easy to trick ourselves into not tricking ourselves. Sharot seems to suggest that the optimism bias is adaptive, and that it is broadly a good thing, but again this feels like an answer designed to reduce dissonance rather than being fully thought through. In this respect I have sympathy with Jules Evans who argues that The Optimism Bias is unduly pessimistic about our ability to change ourselves.
The issue, of course, is HOW to we go about changing? (And how much does this matter?)
My first set of scribbles in response to Sharot’s book was “This is about a deluded sense of self rather than optimism…”
This point goes beyond the scope of this blog, and I have written about it before but my impression is that our best hope in addressing biases are forms of psychological or spiritual practice that lead us to transform our fundamental sense of who we are. There may be no short-cut out of delusion.
One finding of many that might support this claim is the curious discovery that Buddhist meditators are more conventionally ‘rational’ in classic behavioural economics experiments i.e. they are more self-interested, and care less about norms of fairness and reciprocity. The stock response to this curious finding is that Buddhists are not so kind and compassionate after all! However, it looks to me more like they are much more aware of what is going on than most participants, and fully grasp that this is a game they are playing, and not a proxy for the human feelings and relations that actually matter, and which they experience more acutely than most. If you are genuinely altruistic, you have less need of altruistic punishment. Similarly, if you have an experiential (rather than merely conceptual) grasp of how the mind distorts reality, you may be better able to prevent it doing so in practice.
The issue of cognitive bias matters hugely in general, but when you consider the major issues of our time, not least the climate crisis and the debt crisis, both are arguably grounded in problems relating to optimism.
I am not saying that we should all just meditate and everything will be ok (that would be too optimistic!) but it might be a more fruitful ‘so-what’ to fall out of our awareness of the optimism bias.
I wish I had a trumpet. We just released a report Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship. Allegra Stratton covered it in the Guardian, it was discussed on the Today programme, and hopefully there is plenty more coverage to come.
Like everybody else, we are not too sure where the inner circle of Downing Street stands on the Big Society. My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.
I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.
My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.
The uncertainty over the status of the Big Society is reflected in the title of the report. Throughout several months of drafting, it was called ‘The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society’ but at the last minute we feared this may sound out-dated, and given the content of the report applies to participation more broadly, and ‘curriculum’ tends to activate conventional educational frames, we decided to hedge our bets, in case the Big Society really has died as a political idea.
Nonetheless, the report is about the Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society in the following sense(from the report):
Curriculum literally means to ‘run the course’, as in curriculum vitae, the course of my life. The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process. The main purpose of this report is to highlight the nature of this hidden curriculum, and indicate how it might inform policy and practice, particularly in relation to releasing hidden social wealth and increasing social productivity.
The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process.
As indicated in our web blurb, we believe the idea of the Big Society is at its weakest when it is presented as a partisan technical solution to acute socio-economic problems, and at its strongest when viewed as a non-partisan long term challenge to enrich our social and human capital. At the core of this challenge are the demands we place on people when we ask them to be, for instance, responsible, autonomous, or to show greater solidarity with their fellow citizens. Such demands are grounded in implicit assumptions about human nature and adult competencies that need to be made more explicit if the Big Society is going to survive as a viable idea.
We introduce a perspective on public participation that is rarely considered by policymakers, namely mental complexity in the adult population – our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Rather than theories of ‘personality’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ that only pay lip service to the complexity of human capital, we believe this perspective helps us to deepen the discussion on public participation, with greater explanatory power and clearer practical implications.
This argument is informed by the work of Harvard Theoretical Psychologist and Educator Robert Kegan, whom I was lucky enough to be taught by a decade ago. I also make use of his ideas in our Transforming Behaviour Change report but in the more recent work I try to show the central relevance of his work to one of the biggest policy issues of our time.
The core argument is that what makes society ‘big’ in the sense of significant are big citizens, and what makes a citizen ‘big’ are their competencies. When you look closely at the things people are asked to do and master (participate, volunteer, take responsibility, cooperate etc) in the name of the Big Society, these tasks clearly entail certain competencies.
Why I think our report has value is that we look at these competencies in detail, and find, inspired by Kegan, that they implicitly ask for a certain level of mental complexity in the adult population. That is fine, good even. Our argument is that if the Big Society is ever going to be taken seriously this implicit challenge has to be recognised, and we need to be more explicit about what this means in terms of designing policies and practices that support people in meeting that challenge.
Confused but intrigued? Read the report.
I wrestled with the document for months, as Gandalf wrestled with the Balrog, so I am glad it is out, and want to thank those who helped, especially the background research and contributions of co-authors Matthew Mezey Kalman and Benedict Dellot.
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.
Yesterday I attended an event at IPPR about the role of behavioural economics in public policy. Director of the Behavioural Insight Team, David Halpern, was the main speaker, and the panel include Gerry Stoker, Daniel Read and Claudia Hammond.
- Background: Whatever your critiques of behavioural insight, let’s not forget that it is an achievement to have started at all. We have moved from ‘should we do this?’ to ‘How should we best do this?’ which is a big step forward.
- Role in economic growth. It sounds like the Behavioural insight team are thinking of how behavioural insights might kick-start the economy. Halpern was quite careful not to disclose things prematurely, but it did sound like he believed there were many ways that economic activity could be promoted/supported with behavioural insight-a lot of it seemed to be about reducing the ‘hassle’ of transactions, so watch this space.
- Message Framing: Don’t say: We will insulate your home for free. Nobody wants that(too much hassle) Do say: We will clear out your loft for free. Everybody wants that(the same thing, but reframed).
- Social trust: I think I knew this already, but I was struck by the fact that in response to the question(need to check exact wording): “Do you think people can generally be trusted”, only about 30% of British people agree, and the evidence suggests there is no good reason for people to feel this way. As Halpern put it: “We drastically underestimate our fellow citizens.” Moreover, in relatively deprived areas, people see each other more AND distrust each other more, so it’s not simply a function of not knowing people. Halpern added an interesting historical perspective about Anglo Saxons “using their wealth to escape from the inconvenience of dealing with other people.”
- Indifference and the limits of Nudge: More on this later, but a key point from Daniel Read is that nudge tends to work best on issues that we don’t care too much about. So organ donation and pensions sound like big issues, but actually they don’t matter that much in terms of immediate desires. He added that the deeper problems relating to climate change and obesity etc (what we call ‘adaptive challenges’ in our recent report) arise because people basically want things that are not in their interest or the broader social interest. Nudge works when we are moved along our ‘indifference curves’ as he put it in economic language, but doesn’t really change what we want.
- What is behaviour? More on this later too, but I asked a question about the theoretical underpinnings of behaviour and how this plays out in policy terms. Behaviour can be framed in many ways, e.g. in terms of agency, stimulus response, goal seeking etc. Halpern conceded that the current approach basically was behaviourist and outcome focussed, and Read seemed to think this was right. But Gerry Stoker seemed to have a much bigger interest in what follows from viewing behaviour in terms of agency- because then your responsibility to help people understand their own behaviour, rather than just changing it for them, comes to the fore. Again, all of this is in our recent report.