What would Monty Python make of SMSC Education?

October 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Which is the odd one out?

1) “Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!

2) “He’s not dead, he’s sleeping!

3) “It’s not really very silly, is it?

4) Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education.

If the question seems too easy, it is worth reflecting on that ways in which number 4 might be considered Pythonesque.

This is not a polemic. Humour can be a serious business. Before challenging any educational idea or policy one needs to accept that educational disagreements are all about value judgments, conceptual caveats and political compromises. It’s also difficult to know how valid a policy is without wider awareness -preferably international and historical- of what has been tried before. And if you manage all that, many would say you really have to have ‘been there’ with your own classroom experience.

On Friday I took part in an expert seminar/workshop on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education, abbreviated to SMSC; part of a fresh RSA Investigate-Ed approach to making sense of complex educational issues, organised by Joe Hallgarten. It was a relief to be asked to be speak about SMSC on the understanding that I didn’t have to pretend to be an expert, in the hope that my naivety would be constructive.

I was impressed by the depth and range of expertise in the room. There was a mixture of School Heads, frontline SMSC teachers e.g. RE, Citizenship, Ofsted inspectors and various kinds of researchers and education consultants. For most of these professionals SMSC is a given, a reality of their working lives, and the first thing I noticed was the language forms reflected this. Many spoke in terms of “How do we do SMSC?”

For an outsider this sounds really odd. As I said in my response, there is something Pythonesque about a situation where leading education experts assemble in an opulent room at the Royal Society for the Arts and discuss how to ‘do’ what sounds like a single discrete task (e.g. shall we do lunch?) but actually comprises four pillars of human civilisation – spiritual, moral, social and cultural – that presumably are what education is all about, rather than a single issue to be ‘done’.

Moreover, the idea that each of them can – in theory or practice – be disembedded from wider processes and taught explicitly also sounds slightly absurd.  Surely there are SMSC dimensions in every walk of life, in every family, every city, every classroom? Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?

Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?

But such questions are the luxury of the outsider. I don’t have to go to work and be obliged to ‘do’ SMSC, nor think of how to measure it, or link it to other educational outcomes.

Nonetheless I did find myself asking my table: How did it come to this? What’s the history, the genealogy of SMSC?

That’s a research question in itself, but the quick answer appears to be tied to education acts in 1944 and 1988 – I will leave experts to flesh out the details, but from what I heard (and this should be checked) it sounds like S,M,S & C were originally alongside ‘physical and mental’ as six overarching domains/themes/goals of education, and then somewhere along the way there was a philosophical oversight, or ontological slippage whereby each of these dimensions ceased to be holistic goals of education as a whole, and instead became individual items, which could be separated out and taught.

The creation of ‘SMSC’ appears to have been a way of dealing with that evolution, but of course this is not merely a technocratic oversight that can be patched up, but rather a deep loss of perspective about what education is for, and for what teaching and learning should be about.

In case I sound like I think we should ‘call the whole thing off’, I really don’t. Each of these dimensions is hugely important, and we always have to play the hand we are given. I believe that doing/conceiving/reconceiving SMSC better might be a way to transform education ‘from the inside’ more broadly. In this respect, here are a few shorter points that might be relevant to this goal:

Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C?

  • Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of Iain Mcgilchrist’s work on the difference ‘ways of being’ of the two hemispheres. The drive to measure outcomes of explicit instruction rather than judge the significance of implicit learning; and the focus on parts of the learning experience rather than the integrated whole- I felt all of that was there as a kind of background music to the discussion; and, for those who sense that too, Iain’s work helps make sense of why that might be so.
  • I also felt there is an philosophical difference between ‘social’ and the other three dimensions. For me, with Social Brain hat on, I now see the social as constitutive of the other perspectives. We are so fundamentally, physiologically and psychologically ‘social’ that this grounds and shapes how we construct morality, culture and spirituality. If this subtle point sounds interesting to you, check out pages 10-15 of Transforming Behaviour change: What does it mean to say the Brain is ‘Social‘?
  • There is much to say about the spiritual. My impression is that current framings and measures could be improved in various ways. There is a real danger that in a drive to be non-denominational all the rich content of the spiritual is thrown out. The main thing I would want to impart to children about the spiritual is a deeper appreciation for experience as such, and their own role in shaping their experience. You can’t do that with a textbook, but from a relatively early stage you can learn practices related to meditation that will teach them more about, for instance, their own minds and their own breathing. Personally, I believe that’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for ‘doing’ spirituality well.

More generally, I was struck by the impression, perhaps mistaken, that teachers and schools sounded like they were in danger of doing SMSC to students rather than making it possible for them to acquire such understanding/appreciation/experience themselves.

Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C? It would be helpful to have more examples of the kinds of activities that would allow students to grasp such things for themselves through their own thoughts or action. In this respect, I was reminded of the following quote by Matthew Lipman (Philosophy in the Classroom, 1980, p13) which seems a good place to end this personal reflection:

“Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves.”

Taking Spirituality Seriously

October 2, 2013 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Later this month I will be giving a short talk at the beginning of an RSA public event introducing the project outlined in The Brains Behind Spirituality. I am arguing that we need a reappraisal of the cultural and social value of spirituality as essential foundational work for deepening our understanding of a range of practical and policy issues.

As outlined in the above essay, rather than thinking of ‘the spiritual’ as an aspect of religion, or as an alternative to religion, we want to view it through the lens of what we have learnt (or perhaps remembered) about human nature over the last few decades; including the fact that our cognition has evolved and it is embodied in flesh, embedded in culture and extended through technology; we have a fundamentally social nature, we are burdened and blessed by automaticity, and we now understand that our ‘self’ may not be unitary and soul-like but rather in some sense illusory, protean or virtual, and created and maintained mostly through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

The resulting conception of the spiritual is evolving, but some core aspects of what might be considered central to spirituality – meaning, belief and morality for instance, do start to look very different. In the talk I will develop the idea that meaning is best understood as embodied and made, that belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions and that morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed, while also working towards the experience of integration.

It is a daunting task. In about twelve minutes I will have to cover a lot of ground, so for now I wanted to try to hone the part about the rationale for the project, which also relates to why the RSA might be doing something like this. I currently see three main reasons why it is timely and important to enrich our idea of spirituality:

In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and less likely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration

1) In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and unlikely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration – of what we should be aiming for – and ‘wellbeing’, a relatively static concept, doesn’t always suffice.

2) In light of the intractability of various social and ecological challenges, include climate change, security, and public health, we need to deepen and widen our understanding of what ‘behaviour change‘ might mean.

3) There are several policy domains where ‘spirituality’ is recognised as being important – education, end of life care, mental health, but the concept is rarely unpacked in detail and needs a sounder grounding in what we know about ourselves.

To take these in turn:

1) Beyond wellbeing: aspiration in austerity.

The extent to which money makes you happy is complex, and to some extent unresolved, but the evidence appears to indicate that, at best, money brings diminishing returns for wellbeing. More to the point, in the context of public debt, austerity, and increasingly salient environmental limits on economic expansion, it is likely to be harder for most people to meet material aspirations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore timely to look more closely at what non-material aspiration looks like.

The issue is not so much the familiar ethical question of how we should live, but the more subtle one of how we can grow and develop over time rather than merely change. If what I seek to improve or increase is not necessarily my wealth, what is it? The domain for such questions used to be philosophy and religion, but these questions have a new urgency in the developed world, and we may need to look in new places for the answers.

One such place is ‘How much is enough?’ by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, which is a marvellous book (Rowan Williams called it ‘crisp and pungent’) with the underlying claim in the virtue ethics tradition that our proper collective aim is to help people not just to be happy, but to have reasons to be happy.

You don’t need spirituality to have reason to be happy, but it could help rather a lot. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls spirituality ‘a signature strength’ which is an important aspect of resilience, and he suggests it is about “knowing where you fit in the larger scheme,” as he writes in his book, Flourish.

There are abundant definitions of spirituality, and my particular framing of spirituality is gradually emerging. I am beginning to think of it as a mixture of three inter-related fundamental aspects of how we relate to each other and the world: perspectives (world views, life stances, values), practices (meditation, rituals, customs) and experiences (belonging, aliveness, transcendence). On this framing, spiritual growth is about enriching our capacity to develop and align our perspectives, practices and experiences. In this sense spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

2) Deepening behaviour change: ‘improving the grain’ of human nature.

The hegemonic behaviour change perspective – libertarian paternalism (‘nudge‘) takes many aspects of human nature as givens- things we should just accept and work with rather than try to change. Policymakers in the UK and many other countries are increasingly advised to ‘go with the grain’ of human nature, as if this grain was invariant and inflexible. This perspective has its place, but is largely blind to the potential of spiritual practice.

spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

To take two examples, while much of human behaviour is automatic, and heavily influenced by the choice architectures of the surrounding environment, messenger effects, social norms and a range of other influences, meditators who have cultivated the capacity for mindfulness have much greater control over their reactions. Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control. This may not make them entirely immune to all cognitive biases, but it does show the possibility that we can change our ‘grain’.

Second, in the Summer RSA Journal, there was an article about ‘The Biological limits of empathy‘ by Steven Asma who makes the superficially compelling case that there are limits to how much we can expand our empathy:

“If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers…Our tribes of kith and kin are ‘affective communities’ and this unique emotional connection with our favourites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There is an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion and that limit makes universal empathy impossible.”

Now I am not saying he is strictly wrong, but I strongly suspect he hasn’t heard of metta bhavana, or ‘loving kindness meditation‘, which is precisely about expanding this sense of empathy and care beyond our natural impulses. If every child were to learn this practice and be supported in doing it regularly with supervision and advice, the ‘upper limit’ to empathy and ‘emotional expansion’ may not hold at all.

Moreover, I have only skimmed the surface with just two forms of practice, from a predominantly Buddhist perspective. Other traditions would have things to say, and the Common Cause group may add that you don’t even need spiritual practice to illustrate this point, and that it is enough to prime people’s sense of caring about bigger-that-self problems to get them to think and act more generously and altruistically.

3) Informing spiritual needs and practices in specific domains.

Later this week RSA Education is hosting a workshop on “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education‘ and although I don’t know the area well, I believe the ‘spiritual’ dimension is considered particularly hard to teach and assess.

One of the best references to inform this perspective is Guy Claxton’s Inaugural address to Bristol Graduate School of Education in 2002 called ‘Mind Expanding‘. He unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

Claxton unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

The claim is that if they don’t find such experiences in safe nurturing environments, they may seek them out elsewhere. So gangs may give belonging, crime may offer aliveness, drugs the experience of mystery and so forth. The point is definitely not to encourage such activities, but to recognise the legitimate spiritual need that legitimately seeks a less harmful form of expression.

There are also significant bodies of research on spirituality in nursing  and in psychiatry and no doubt numerous other domains that need to better understood and appreciated.

So that’s my current pitch for the relatively public aspect of the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ question of Spirituality. It’s very much a work in progress, so if you have made it this far, I would be very grateful for any thoughts.

The Brains Behind Spirituality

July 22, 2013 by · 40 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

The Summer issue of the RSA Journal features the following essay outlining the intellectual context for a new project by the Social Brain Centre. We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large.

We are currently completing our background research for a series of forthcoming workshops and public events, culminating in a final report in 2014.  

The Brains Behind Spirituality

Immanuel Kant said that the impact of liberal enlightenment on our spiritual life was such that if somebody were to walk in on you while you were on your knees praying, you would be profoundly embarrassed. That imagined experience of embarrassment is still widely felt in much of the modern western world, not merely for religious believers, but for the silent majority who consider themselves in some sense ‘spiritual’ without quite knowing what that means. This sense of equivocation is felt when we hear the term ‘spiritual’ referred to apologetically in intellectual contexts. Consider, for instance, ‘the mental, emotional or even spiritual qualities of the work’, or ‘the experience was almost spiritual in its depth and intensity’.

This unease with public discussions of spirituality is not universal and clearly varies within and between countries. Perhaps the embarrassment is a peculiar affliction of western intellectuals, since ‘spiritual’ appears to convey shared meaning perfectly well in ordinary language throughout most of the world. This intellectual unease matters because spiritual expression and identification is an important part of life for millions of people. But it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.

“many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief” – Andrew Marr

Andrew Marr astutely opened a recent BBC discussion by referring to the “increasingly hot-tempered public struggle between religious believers and so-called militant atheists, and yet many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief”. There is some empirical backing for this claim. Post-Religious Britain: The Faith of the Faithless, a 2012 meta-analysis of attitude surveys by the thinktank Theos, revealed that about 70% of the British population is neither strictly religious nor strictly non-religious, but rather moving in and out of the undesignated spaces in between. While the power of organised Christian religion may be in decline, only about 9% are resolutely atheistic, and it is more accurate to think of an amorphous spiritual pluralism that needs our help to find its form.

The point of rethinking spirituality is not so much to challenge these boundaries, but to clarify what it means to say that the world’s main policy challenges may be ultimately spiritual in nature. When you consider how we might, for instance, become less vulnerable to terrorism, care for an ageing population, address the rise in obesity or face up to climate change, you see that we are – individually and collectively – deeply conflicted by competing commitments and struggling to align our actions with our values. In this respect, we are relatively starved for forms of practice or experience that might help to clarify our priorities and uncover what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan calls our immunity to change. The best way to characterise problems at that level is spiritual.

There are so many dimensions to spirituality that it is necessary to qualify what we are talking about. Personally, I think of it principally as the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world. Others may place greater emphasis on the forms of experience that inspire the changes we want to see, or the realities we need to accept.

Personally, I think of the spiritual principally in terms of the lifelong challenge to embody one’s vision of human existence and purpose, expressed most evocatively in Gandhi’s call to be the change you want to see in the world. 

Being spiritual can mean safeguarding our sense of the sacred, valuing the feeling of belonging or savouring the rapture of intense absorption. And then there is the quintessential gratitude we feel when we periodically notice, as gift and revelation, that we are alive.

Such experiences do not depend upon doctrine or on institutional endorsement or support. They are as likely to arise listening to music, walking in nature, celebrating the birth of a child, reflecting on a life that is about to end, or losing oneself – in a good sense – in the crowd. With such a rich range of dimensions, it is regrettable that spirituality is still framed principally through the prism of organised religion. But it is perhaps no less unfortunate that those who value spiritual experience and practice are often suspiciously quick to disassociate themselves from belief in God and religion, as if such things were unbearably unfashionable and awkward, rather than perhaps the richest place to understand the nature of spiritual need.

Spiritual but not religious

While there has been a growing normalisation of the idea that a person can be ‘spiritual but not religious’, this designation may actually compound the problem of intellectual embarrassment. It does nothing to clarify what spirituality might mean outside of religious contexts, nor how religion might valuably support and inform non-believers. People in this category get attacked from both sides; from atheists for their perceived irrationality and wishful thinking, and from organised religion for their rootless self-indulgence and lack of commitment. And the category of spiritual but not religious hardly does justice to the myriad shades of identification and longing within it and outside it. What are we to make, for instance, of the fact disclosed in the same Theos report, that about a quarter of British atheists believe in human souls?

Such findings highlight that spiritual embarrassment is grounded in confusion about human nature and human needs. We struggle to speak of the spiritual with coherence mostly because it has been subsumed by historical and cultural contingency, and is now smothered in an uncomfortable space between religion and the rejection of religion. Surely religions are the particular cultural, doctrinal and institutional expressions of human spiritual needs, which are universal? In this respect, is it not the sign of a spiritually degenerate society that many feel obliged to define their fundamental outlook on the world in such relativist and defensive terms? Compare the designations: ‘educated, but not due to schooling’ or ‘healthy, but not because of medicine’.

There must be a better place to begin the inquiry. The categorisation spiritual but not religious still tacitly assumes the most important question to interrogate is which version of reality we should subscribe to, rather than what it might mean to grow spiritually in a societal context where for most people belief in God need feel neither axiomatic nor problematic. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer highlighted the depth of this point on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme when he responded to the question of what he believed by saying: “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”

Reconceiving spirituality 


One major challenge in making the spiritual more tangible and tractable is, therefore, to enrich our currently impoverished idea of what it means to believe. To believe something is often assumed to mean endorsing a statement of fact about how things are, but that is both outdated and unhelpful.

Consider the story of two rabbis debating the existence of God through a long night and jointly reaching the conclusion that he or she did not exist. The next morning, one observed the other deep in prayer and took him to task. “What are you doing? Last night we established that God does not exist.” To which the other rabbi replied, “What’s that got to do with it?”

The praying non-believer illustrates that belief may be much closer to what the sociologist of religion William Morgan described as “a shared imaginary, a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms”. Within the same discipline Gordon Lynch suggests this point needs deepening: “The unquestioned status of propositional models of belief within the sociology of religion arguably reflects 
a lack of theoretical discussion… about the nature of the person as a social agent.”

It is therefore time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world. It is not just about sociality. The emerging early 21st century view of human nature indicates we are fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual creatures, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational.

It is time to question the common default position that emphasises the autonomous individual striving to consciously construct their own religious belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world. 

Such a shift in perspective is important because every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.

The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.

Such self-knowledge is a deeply reflexive matter. The point is not to casually introspect, but rather to strive to connect our advanced third-person understanding of human nature with a growing skill in observing how one’s first-person nature manifests in practice, and to test the validity and relevance of this experience and understanding in second-person contexts. In this sense, spirituality is about I, we and it, and this process of trying to know oneself more fully, both in understanding and experience, is therefore no mere prelude to meaningful social change, but the thing itself.

The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. 

There are many ways to illustrate how new conceptions of human nature might revitalise our appreciation for the spiritual. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s work on the competing worldviews of the two brain hemispheres offers a new perspective on the challenge of creating balance in one’s thought and life. Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist, has suggested that we can’t really do anything about our innumerable cognitive frailties, but this questionable claim is challenged by mindfulness practices, where we can see and feel the root cause of some of our mental tendencies and biases more viscerally. And cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s idea that thinking is fundamentally grounded in bodily metaphors gives us new appreciation for our need to be touched, moved or inspired on a regular basis.

The point of reconsidering spirituality through such lenses is not to explain away spiritual content. We do not want to collapse our deliciously difficult existential and ethical issues into psychological and sociological concepts. The point is rather to explore the provenance of those questions and experiences with fresh intellectual resources.

Returning to Kant, if enlightenment in his view was about humanity emerging into adulthood, one corollary is that unquestioning subservience to organised religion may now be condemned as immature. However, the deeper implication is that we need to rediscover or develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves.

By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, RSA Social Brain Centre. Follow @Jonathan_Rowson

What if Climate Change is not an ‘Environmental’ Issue?

May 31, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

 

Smart enough to be dumb, or vice versa?

May 14, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.”

Racist? eu must be joking…

March 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

 

Where are the economists when we need them?

February 15, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.

Religion for Atheists: What is the ‘it’ that De Botton doesn’t seem to ‘get’ ?

February 2, 2012 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

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’.

The Optimism Bias (2)

January 23, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Following from my previous thoughts on optimism, I enjoyed chairing Thursday’s event on the Optimism Bias, but found it hard to answer the ‘so-what?’ question at the end.

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.

 

The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society

January 5, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

I wish I had a trumpet. We just released a report Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active CitizenshipAllegra 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.

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