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

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

Are UKIP serious?

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

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

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

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

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

The moral foundations of politics

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

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

UKIP’s rise illustrates that the three main parties are too close together in spirit and policy, and that huge swathes of the population do not see themselves adequately reflected in this group. On this account, UKIP is not just for people who believe immigration is insufficiently controlled, or who strongly dislike Europe, but more generally for those who do not identify with Westminster, or who have been ‘left behind by the relentless mark of globalisation and glib liberalism’.

A deeper way to make this point is that UKIP, perhaps unwittingly, appear to be tapping into what some social psychologists view as ‘moral foundations’, which appear to be largely ignored by the (other) mainstream parties. To be clear, I am definitely not saying UKIP are more or less moral than anybody else, but rather that they are tapping into certain kinds of moral sentiments that a significant number of people feel and seek expression for. Indeed, while it is difficult to be precise without careful research, my reading of Values Modes suggests the values palette of UKIP supporters(principally ‘settlers’ with ‘prospector’ elements) which often finds expression in the tabloid press(The Sun and The Daily Mail are best selling newspapers) in particular, is common to between a fifth and a quarter of the population.

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

Six Moral Foundations

Moral Foundations Theory has recently been popularised by Jonathan Haidt, who spoke at the RSA last year, and kindly stayed afterwards to speak to Social Brain about his work in more detail. While I hugely recommend Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, I also recommend the more sophisticated critiques which suggest that the gap between science and morality cannot be bridged with quite as much conviction as Haidt seems to suggest.

The book includes a detailed account of the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological case for social intuitionism, which is a particular account of cognition and morality. Crudely, it says that certain adaptive pressures in evolution gave rise to quick automatic associations that are largely emotional in nature, leading us to make evaluative judgments extremely quickly, which forms the true basis of our morality. On this account, reason only emerges after the fact, to rationalise the moral position we have already intuited.

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

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

The claim is that we all have these moral foundations to a greater or lesser extent, but the degree to which they matter to us varies hugely depending on our political outlook. More to the point, our political outlooks are shaped by these moral foundations much more than we typically realise. Those with what Haidt calls WEIRD morality (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) may struggle with this message, because we have a set notion of what moral means, but the social intuitionist perspective forces you to reconsider.

Haidt’s earlier and more controversial statement of his argument “What Makes People Vote Republican?” offers evidence to show many vote against their economic self-interest because they are motivated mostly by the extent to which candidates speak to the values above, and those on the right tend to speak to all of the moral foundations, while those on the left usually only offer a very concentrated form of the first and a little of the second and third. You might say progressives are ‘morally outnumbered’, which is not to say they are wrong, because there is no empirical way to determine how much weight we should give to each of the touchstones – that’s the value judgment that determines who we are.

Why UKIP Press Buttons others find hard to reach

***Disclaimer: What I’m about to say should not be read as an endorsement of any position, nor a justification for why it is held***

(Image via:


If you tune in to the tone and language of what UKIP say, rather than analyse the claims rationally, you begin to see the breadth of their appeal, because they are touching lots of these moral foundations,

  • When UKIP ask for their country back from the EU they are tapping into the liberty/oppression foundation, resisting dominance of a foreign power, and relatedly activating ‘the legitimate authority foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak passionately about limiting immigration they are tapping into loyalty and sanctity.
  • When UKIP opposed gay marriage they were appealing to sanctity and degradation.
  • When UKIP speak about red tape from Brussels they are tapping into ‘the liberty/tyranny foundation’.
  • When UKIP speak about human rights law getting in the way of dealing with criminals they are tapping into fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression.
  • Note that UKIP actually say very little about ‘the care foundation’, which is why people on the left, who see the world mostly through the care foundation, tend to think of UKIP as barmy, extreme, or callous.

Political Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

You can follow him here.

In Search of a Prime Example

February 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

If you are interested in Social Psychology (and who isn’t?) you’ll be well aware of some of the wonderful experiments on priming i.e. situations where participants are exposed to a certain kind of stimulus that influences their response to a future stimulus. The evidence on priming appears to suggest, for instance, that:

If you prime people with images relating to money they will be less cooperative

If you prime people with words relating to old age, they will walk more slowly.

If you prime people with a warm mug they will be friendlier

And so forth.

But does the evidence for priming really stack up?

I, like many others I know, had taken such ideas as established facts, as firm as any others in psychology, not least because they were propounded by academic heavyweights like John Bargh, Ap Dijksterhuis, and even Daniel Kahneman. However, in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all.

in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all

There is a wonderful article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle Review that details the range and extent of these doubts. One particularly punchy paragraph highlights the heated nature of the debate in the field:

In one of those e-mails, Pashler issued a challenge masquerading as a gentle query: “Would you be able to suggest one or two goal priming effects that you think are especially strong and robust, even if they are not particularly well-known?” In other words, put up or shut up. Point me to the stuff you’re certain of and I’ll try to replicate it. This was intended to counter the charge that he and others were cherry-picking the weakest work and then doing a victory dance after demolishing it. He didn’t get the straightforward answer he wanted. “Some suggestions emerged but none were pointing to a concrete example,” he says. 

Now the stakes are pretty high here. I don’t yet have any settled view, but it does matter that people working in applied psychology, broadly conceived, figure out where they are on this matter, if only because so many people build their practice around the assumption that priming works. For instance, there was a really powerful study done by Common Cause  about priming people who are extrinsically motivated with intrinsic motivators and watching the effects:

much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

“Although all the participants in the study had been selected because they held extrinsic values to be more important, we found marked differences between, on the one hand, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon extrinsic values spoke about bigger-than-self problems, and, on the other, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon intrinsic values spoke about these problems. Compared to those primed with extrinsic values, participants primed with intrinsic values spoke about social and environmental challenges in ways that conveyed a stronger sense of moral duty, and a greater obligation to act to help meet these challenges.”

In this particular study, extrinsic values were primed with reference to wealth, preserving public image and popularity, while intrinsic values were primed with reference to affiliation, acceptance and being broad-minded. While the study’s authors are duly cautious about over-extrapolating, they do indicate that their findings show that even those who express no dispositional inclination towards thinking or caring about ‘bigger-than-self’ problems, can begin to do so over time through the priming of intrinsic values.

Come to think of it, much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

My impression is that priming fits with our best understanding of the unconscious, automatic, situational and social features of human nature, and probably does ‘work’, in the broadest sense, even when individual studies can’t be replicated. But, then again, on reflection, perhaps I just think that because I have taken too many studies at face value. Perhaps (cue voodoo music) I have been primed to believe in primes…


Understanding your values – a group exercise (+ new UK values report)

February 5, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

Discussing values at the report's launch

An invitation from leadership coach Lee Chalmers FRSA enticed me to a very enjoyable launch event for an interesting research report by the Office for National Statistics and the Barrett Values Centre on the UK’s national and community values – including the UK’s very high – 59% – level of ‘cultural entropy’, a measure of dysfunctional values.

what would a private detective think about your values if they followed you around for six months?

But it was the way the event really engaged its large audience at London’s Conway Hall - a historic centre for free thinking – that particularly impressed me.

An exercise to decide on, and then discuss – in pairs – our own values, beliefs and behaviours did indeed seem able to ‘help you meet someone more deeply, even if you’ve worked with them for ten years’, as one audience member put it.

The exercise had three steps:

  • Please choose three values that are important to you in your life
  • What are your beliefs that support this value?
  • What behaviours do you exhibit that support this value?

We were offered 70 suggested values to help us with the first question – everything from job security to wisdom.

You can download the guidance page for the Values exercise – and use it to generate a revealing discussion at your own meeting or event. (A less cluttered version of the exercise sheet is here – though it offers fewer examples of values to choose from.)

The UK values report – ‘cultural entropy’ in the UK

The Office of National Statistics/Barrett Values Centre report itself revealed that UK citizens value meaningful, close relationships and operate with a strong sense of integrity. Top personal values included caring, family, honesty, humour and fun, friendship, fairness and compassion, as well as independence, respect and trust.

But, when asked about the values of the nation as a whole, a rather depressing picture of the UK’s values emerged: bureaucracy, crime and violence, uncertainty about the future, corruption, blame, wasted resources, media influence, conflict/aggression, drugs/alcohol abuse and apathy.

‘Cultural entropy’ – a measure of  the proportion of dysfunctional and negative values – was found to be 59% in the UK. Bhutan, by contrast, had a cultural entropy level of only 4%.

Some people will quite rightly point out that our espoused values can all too often tend to be rather more uplifting than the values we in fact exhibit in our day-to-day behaviour.

The audience was encouraged to look candidly at whether we are really living our values: ‘what would a private detective think about your values if they followed you around for six months?’

(An automated values analysis of the texts of Matthew Taylor’s Twenty-first century enlightenment pamphlet and the RSA’s Purpose, Vision & Strategy is here. It uses a version of the ‘Hall-Tonna values inventory’, a precursor model to Richard Barrett’s).

The current controversy over how best to work with values for effective behaviour change: two models at loggerheads

For me, the most intriguing – and crucial – argument around values at the moment is between Pat Dade’s Maslow-based ‘Values Modes’ approach (articles and a free ‘Values Modes’ assessment are here) and the approach outlined in the WWF’s 2010 report ‘Common Cause – The Case for Working with our Cultural Values’.

They are both very influential amongst  numerous organisations seeking behaviour changes towards more sustainable, environment-friendly behaviours – but each believes that the other approach contains a fundamental flaw which will derail its hopes to enable behaviour change.

Common Cause warn that the Maslow-based ‘Values Modes’ approach is wrong to encourage strategies which dress up eco-friendly actions so that they can also appeal to status-conscious – dare I say selfish? – ‘Outer Directed’ people. Rather than satiating that level of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ – and thus prompting people move to new more globally compassionate, caring needs – they will just strengthen the values of selfish consumerism, they argue.

Pat Dade, by contrast, warns that Common Cause’s advocacy of deeper green language – that his research finds appeals particularly to a narrow subset of the population called ‘Concerned Ethicals’ – will just alienate many, perhaps even most of the UK population, who don’t enjoy the feeling of being lectured in worthy-sounding Guardian-esque language, and rarely if ever change their behaviour as a result of it.

One attendee at the RSA’s recent Social Entrepreneurs Network meeting – who had worked for a leading environmental communications agency Futerra Sustainability Commuications – told me that while her radical heart would love Common Cause to be right, for effective communication and behaviour change,  she would always opt for Values Modes (which have in fact been used in recent work the RSA has done in conjunction with The Campaign Company).

Matthew Mezey is Online Community Manager. Twitter: Matthew Mezey

- The United Kingdom Values Survey – Increasing Happiness by Understanding What People Value (pdf)
- UK Values Alliance
- Barrett Values Centre (their free values assessment is here)
- Plainer version of personal values exercise worksheet (though with fewer suggested values)
- Action for Happiness
- Cultural Dynamics/Values Modes (includes free values assessment)
- Common Cause
- ‘We shouldn’t simply try to change people’s values when it comes to the environment‘ [Blog in The Independent by recent RSA speaker Tony Juniper on the ‘Values Modes’ approach ]
- Common Cause’s critique of Tony Juniper blog about Values Modes

Values, attitudes and behaviours: Which box would you tick?

September 3, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Here is an important and rather difficult multiple choice question for people interested in behaviour change. Which of the following best represents your understanding of what makes people change how they think and act?

1) Attitudes Drive Behaviour

i.e. You need to change what people think before you can change what they will do. e.g. I  have come to really value the environment, therefore I have started behaving in a more environmentally friendly way.

2) Behaviour Drives Attitudes

i.e. You need to change what people do before they will change what they think e.g. I started recycling and now I find I really care about not wasting stuff.

3) Both 1 and 2 apply, but in different contexts.

i.e. It depends on the definitions and contexts of the terms in question. e.g. Your attitude to a specific behaviour e.g. smoking, might be a strong predictor of your tendency to smoke, but this doesn’t mean attitudes drive behaviour in general.

4) Both are false, there are never just these two discrete factors in play (and what on earth does ‘drives’ mean anyway…)?

i.e. attitudes and behaviours are just conceptual constructs with fuzzy edges, and they are both always influenced by numerous factors other than each other e.g. I may think voting is a good idea and this may or may not be because I enjoyed voting in the past, but if I don’t vote on a particular day it might be because of my an idiosyncratic mood or the weather, not because of general attitudes or behaviour.

5) To understand behaviour and attitudes, and their relationship, you really need a deeper understanding of values.

i.e. whatever the relationship between behaviours and attitudes, perhaps both are driven by or somehow underpinned by deeply help but somewhat unconscious values. e.g. If I steadfastly use reduce power and water consumption at home after receiving information on the subject, this might be related to wanting to save money, or wanting to save the planet, but you’ll never know which- and what follows for how to achieve similar impact- until you have a better sense of how my values underpin what I do and say.

None of these five options are strictly wrong, which is why it would make a terrible multiple choice question!

In my view, one and two are equally right and wrong because they are partial, which means three must be true, but on reflection that is also only partial. At a deeper level, the philosopher inside knows that four must be closer to the truth, but it’s a bit harsh and unhelpful because we need some heuristics to work with, people care about behaviour and attitudes and you don’t make much practical progress by rejecting all available working theories and concepts out of hand.

If I had to tick one box, I think I would therefore now opt for number five, but let me take this chance to make better sense of options 1-4 in passing:

On the attitudes/behaviour link(briefly):

Through Twitter (Hat tip Jim Mintz) I came upon an excellent overview on the behaviour-attitudes relationship. I distilled this source into the following points:

‘Attitudes’ are not the same as ‘reported attitudes’ because people cannot be relied upon to say what they really think. (Though the ‘bogus pipeline‘, where feasible, can be a good way round this problem).

However, stated attitudes do predict behaviour quite well when

1) Other influences are minimized.

i.e. the behaviour is not heavily related to contextual or situational features.

2) The attitude is specifically related to the particular action.

i.e. your attitude to jogging is a good predictor of whether you jog, while your attitude to fitness may not be.

3) The attitude is particularly potent.

i.e. Your attitude to your health-related habits may change if your life is suddenly at imminent risk because of them.

On the other hand, behaviour is more likely to drive attitudes when one of the following theories applies:

1) Self-presentation theory
People who care about how they are thought of will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions to others.

2) Dissonance theory:  We feel tension after acting contrary to our attitudes and to reduce this discomfort we internally justify our behaviour. This is not just about self-presentation but about our own experience of internal coherence. Moreover, the less external justification we have for an undesirable action, the more we feel responsible for it, and thus the more dissonance arises and the more attitudes change.

3) Self-perception theory: When our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behaviour and its circumstances and infer our attitudes – ie sometimes our behaviours do not so much cause our attitudes as create them. Within this perspective, the “overjustification effect” also known as ‘crowding out‘ can be relevant- it suggests that rewarding people to do what they like doing anyway can make them less likely to do it (e.g. showing up on time, or giving blood.)

So far, so tentative, which has brought me to think more about values and how they relate to behaviours and attitudes.

On Values(briefly):

Three main sources: Common Cause/Values and Frames, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Values Modes all make major contributions to understanding how our values shape our attitudes and our behaviour. However,  they don’t all agree with each other- not by a long way- on what exactly values are, how exactly values have their influence and what it means for acting on that understanding.

That’s where I am now on this important background issue- trying to figure out which aspects of each of these perspectives makes the most sense, and then thinking of how that knowledge might be best applied to the major behaviour-change imperatives of our day. Any thoughts on the above, or where to look next, much appreciated.


Lest we forget

January 27, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. As I write, the phrase is trending on Twitter, as is ‘Alain de Botton’.

Yesterday I wrote about Alain de Botton’s views on how atheists might pick and mix the bits of religion that cut across cultures and are universally useful. One of the great things he pointed out is the calendar of character development reminders that religions provide. He suggested that we all benefit from such reminders; moral and spiritual check in points to help us reflect on who we are and how we are in the world. Well, today is precisely such a day. It’s explicitly secular, and explicitly serves the purpose of reminding us of how important it is to connect with our humanity.

Holocaust Memorial Day is important to me personally. My grandfather, Werner Lewinsky, was a Jewish doctor and dentist from East Berlin. He and his brother, Helmut, also a dentist, escaped Germany when Hitler came into power. In many ways they were very lucky. It might be an exaggeration to call them holocaust survivors, because they managed to get out of the way before the holocaust began.  Their story is part of the fabric of my identity, but it is, to me, a story, which has been passed down to me, rather than one I heard first-hand.

Photo by Joseph Lindley

I never met my grandfather, who died of a heart attack when my father was only two. I’ve seen photographs of him; when my Granny was alive I’d sometimes manage to get to her to tell me about what he was like, and a couple of Christmases ago my dad showed me a fascinating collection of documents – Werner’s alien’s passport, his permission slips to stay out beyond his curfew. Being a refugee from Nazi Germany was obviously not just challenging, it was a bureaucratic nightmare. My dad’s cousin Judith, Helmut’s daughter, has told me about her father, and through her I’ve come to understand more of our family’s heritage.

we must consider what reservoirs of resources are available to us to ensure that holocaust-like atrocities never happen again.

According to my assimilation of the stories I’ve inherited, my grandfather was a pragmatist. Culturally Jewish, but theologically flexible. He had his two sons both circumcised and christened, for good measure. Seems like a sensible enough thing to do, given the life experience he had. He didn’t live long enough to pass on his cultural, political, religious or philosophical reasoning to my dad in a direct way, but, via my dad, I inherited the raw ingredients of a world view which does exactly what I think Alain de Botton is trying to argue for. Taking the bits of one’s own cultural heritage, including the religious bits if they’re prominent, and reinterpreting them for the context and circumstances in which one lives.

So, on holocaust memorial day, I think we should all take a moment to reflect on where we come from, who we are, what our values are and how our actions reflect those values. Most importantly, we must consider what reservoirs of resources are available to us to ensure that holocaust-like atrocities never happen again.

Throwing out the baby, not the bathwater

January 26, 2012 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I’ve just returned from Alain de Botton’s talk on the content of his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. There was so much in what he said that speaks directly to my personal experience, my academic interests and my current professional life at the RSA that I could quite easily ‘go off on one’. But, time is short, so I will hold back on the ranting and make a just few points in response to Alain’s talk.

In summary, de Botton argues that atheists don’t need God, or the structured philosophy, values and codes of a religion, but they do have spiritual needs that can be met by picking and mixing from all of popular culture. This broad thesis, I am in agreement with, but for me, there’s a massive gaping hole in de Botton’s vision of atheist religiosity.

The Durham Street Auditorium was packed, so along with several other members of RSA staff, and those members of the public unable to get in, I watched the talk from the live video link room in Vault 1. Once it was time for questions, I couldn’t resist sneaking in order to ask one myself and the question I asked him was about the apparent lack of conceptual model for what a modern day atheist stands for.

 Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up. 

Although he intimates that there are general principles of living which are basic common sense and says explicitly that he is in favour of savouring and maintaining the secular preference for complexity, he doesn’t offer a framework for aligning these. Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.

In my view, the vague suggestion that ‘we all know that love is sacred’ isn’t enough. It only works if we reach a conceptual consensus of what love is first. Although I absolutely agree that, as a species, we do have sufficient cultural resources, including religious ones, to find the things that we need to get through life, I don’t think that the idea that we’ll just spontaneously do it without any kind of road map is a robust one.

Beyond the argument he makes in the book, de Botton appears to have got quite carried away with establishing a brand identity for atheism. His vision is grand. His website is graphically impressive, and lays out his plans to build and run atheist temples all over the country, to set up a chain of high street atheist therapy clinics, along with a family of atheist-appropriate spiritual hotels and a repositioning of the role of museums. It all seems a little messianic to me.  You can read Steve Rose’s thoughts on this in the Guardian today. For me, there’s something about it which just feels dark. I don’t doubt that de Botton could be onto something in terms of a capitalist venture, but personally I’m more troubled than I am inspired. As I said to him after the event, his business model is better than his conceptual model.

his business model is better than his conceptual model

But, that’s not to say he doesn’t also make some very important points. In the early part of his talk he mentioned the way in which religions provide people with what you might call a calendar of character development. In Christianity, saints days are a regulated reminder to reflect on the spiritual lessons in the stories of each of those saints. Festivals, be they Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, bring light into our lives when the changing seasons bring darkness.

The point of these calendarised events isn’t just to give people a random ‘check in’ though – the structures also guide people through the lifelong quest of coming to understand ourselves and our place in the world. To do this requires perseverance when the going gets tough. Continued reflection, deeper consideration, engaging with the struggle – all of these are a necessary part of the spiritual journey. And, what religion offers is a values-based foundation for this process, which insists on depth.

De Botton’s view of the pick and mix doesn’t seem to account for, take seriously, or accommodate this need for values-driven assessment of where we’re at. And, although some people might be quite good at coming up with their own frameworks and living by them, I don’t trust a vision for atheist religion which is essentially structureless. So, yes, you can accept the non-existence of God, that’s fine. And yes, the idea of keeping the trappings of religion which are helpful is also fine. But, to draw on the metaphor, if you want atheism to resemble or be analogous to religion, you still need a baby in the bath.

The Common Cause Report: A line in the sand?

November 29, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Matthew Taylor  argued yesterday for the need to keep communications on climate change simple, and implied that the more radical call for an overhaul in our value system was too utopian to work. He may be right, but an Oliver Wendell Holmes quotation sprung to mind:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side.”

A truly ‘simple’ approach to climate change would have to go beyond (transcend and include) the complexity of the issue, rather than avoiding it. It is not just about insurance, or a sophisticated form of the precautionary principle. As Matthew pointed out in his lecture on 21st Century Enlightenment, the world system continues to be driven by three main logics.

“The success of the Western post-Enlightenment project has resulted in a society like ours being dominated by three logics: of scientific and technological progress, of markets, and of bureaucracy. The limitation of the logic of science and of markets lies in an indifference to a substantive concern for the general good. If something can be discovered and developed it
should be discovered and developed. If something sells then it should be sold. The problem with the logic of bureaucracy, as Max Weber spotted over a hundred years ago, is its tendency to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends).”

We need an approach that recognises the power of these logics but is not complicit in their perpetuation. If simplicity is the answer, it lies on the other side of this complexity. (Or, at the risk of overquoting “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”- Einstein)

So here is why I think we need to take a viewpoint on the common cause report. Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

I hope to come back to the Common Cause Report later(and a recent selection of their updated briefings will be worth writing about), but for those who are unfamiliar, the following captures the gist of the argument(forgive the long quote):

“It is increasingly evident that resistance to action on these challenges (humanitarian and environmnetal crises) will only be overcome through engagement with the cultural values that underpin this resistance. It also seems clear that, in trying to meet these challenges, civil society organisations must champion some long-held (but insufficiently esteemed) values, while seeking to diminish the primacy of many values which are now prominent – at least in Western industrialised society. The values that must be strengthened – values that are commonly held and which can be brought to the fore – include: empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world. Undoubtedly these are values that have been weakened – and often even derided – in modern culture….they are values that must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges.”

That bald overview does not do justice to the structure of the argument, or its considerable evidence base. The heart of the challenge is moving from values are that essentially selfish to values that lead us to identify with ‘bigger than self’ problems.

It it difficult to be take a stand on either side of this argument. At first blush, you either position yourself as an ally of the values that are (arguably) destroying our habitat, or you look naive in arguiing for a complete otherthrow of everything that is assumed to be acceptable and normal. A third perspective is to deny the importance of values in the context of global challenges. So which is it? How do you begin to position yourself on this issue?

I look forward to writing again about this later, especially if I get some good feedback.


The Politics of Climate Change: 5 Questions for Giddens

October 27, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Just back from RSA Thursday with Anthony Giddens speaking about a new edition of his book, The Politics of Climate Change. You’ll be able to listen to the podcast of the event very soon, and possibly watch the video, though I suspect they will edit out the bits of the speaker and the chair – Matthew Taylor – doing a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy cameo- they clearly go back a long way…

Alas, there was nothing very new in the talk, but I liked the link to the two worlds in the Matrix. Giddens suggested that international climate negotiations are a bit like that- a virtual pleasant world where we assume things are happening and a real world where promises are broken and discussions continue indefinitely as the planet steadily cooks itself beyond a habitable state.

Giddens is not the first to argue that the scale of the climate challenge challenge requires, inter-alia, a complete rethinking of how we structure our way of life, a shift in values, technological success stories, concerted policy action, behaviour change, a few miracles etc.

In this sense I felt a bit deflated. We are already knew that we are failing badly, and I wanted him to explain what we might do about it. So here is how I would have cross-examined him, given the chance.

1) Rethinking democracy: You say that we need a return to planning, and a ‘politics of the long term’, but two things militate against that: Firstly we know that human beings discount the value of the long-term compared to the present, and secondly most advanced economies (the worst carbon culprits) have democratic systems with electoral cycles that are built to reward short-term promises. Given that climate change is not just another policy issue, but as you say, ‘an existential threat’, how would you restructure the relationship between state and citizen to make long-term thinking and planning possible and rewarding?

2)Immunity to change: In response to Matthew’s question to the audience- asking us to choose between 1)International policy agreements, 2) lifestyle and value change, and 3)incentivising technological innovation you said we obviously need all three. This claim chimes with the pervasive wisdom on climate change that we just need to throw everything we can at the problem and hope that it will all add up to enough. But what about how these solutions interact? For instance, the Common Cause report suggests that appealing to financial incentives when advocating lower fuel consumption perpetuates the problem by activating the ‘me-first’, consumerist frame, rather than helping people see climate change as a ‘bigger than self’ problem. What about such unintended consequences? Is it at least possible that some of our solutions, when taken together, actually compound the problem?

When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. 

3) Value Change: Your suggestion that we need value and lifestyle change is well taken, but feels facile unless it involves a strategy. Values are often incommensurate (e.g. how do you compare the relative value of freedom and security?) and the choice between them is agonistic, in the sense that we don’t always have a rational basis to choose. Moreover, experts in values surveys seem to argue that the idea of ‘changing values’ is in itself antithetical to many people’s values! What would a societal strategy to change values look like?

4) With respect… It is great that an eminent intellectual like yourself is devoting your energy to this problem, and your contribution in clarifying the nature of the challenge is helpful, important and appreciated. Yet you seem to approach the politics of climate change in a very conventional political way. What bothers me is this: given that you understand the problem so well, why does your contribution look so much like the kinds of contribution that don’t appear to really change anything? You write books, give speeches, and the content is a mixture of statistics, fear and informed imagination. David Attenborough does something similar, as do many leading thinkers. What if the medium is the message? Is it not incumbent on leaders like you to do something different? (I don’t know exactly what but I think I have a point here…)

5) Grief. As anybody who has grieved for a loved one will know, there is a huge difference between accepting something intellectually and accepting it emotionally- how do we get to that point? When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. Personally I think this is the most profound insight into climate change I have heard and, with respect, gets much closer to the core of the problem than anything you said today. What do you think?

Between tension and contradiction – the wonderful complexity of people

August 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Let’s celebrate something. People are polymorphous – they take many shapes, and I don’t just mean their bodies. I mean, people, on average, can hold a variety of evaluative moods and attitudes; produce a plethora of responses to the ways of the world. They can see that sometimes one has to be disciplined and unforgiving, at other times compassionate and fraternal. They can see the need to stand up to a bully, but also to put an arm around him and ask what’s wrong. On people incapable of this polymorphous social and ethical engagement, we are none too keen.

There seem to be two crucial ranges of polymorphousness. The first is ethics. Most of us hold a certain set of values that pull us in different directions: we can see that bullys should be reprimanded, but also that they are probably hurting too. The second range spans methods. We hold to a certain set of rules of thumb, conceptual frameworks, nuggets of practical know-how and principles of thinking and doing. Some examples: don’t change everything at once; if ain’t broke don’t fix it; don’t bite off more than you can chew; don’t just treat the symptoms treat the cause.

Our view of the world is a complex plot of points on the ranges of ethics and methods. One range is in the domain of values, the other that of facts. And of course, these domains influence one another: punish too hard out of moral conviction and you may well increase the bullying you seek to stop; be too caught up in the empirical causes of bullying and you lose sight of the moral clarity that it is wrong.

So within a single person there will be conflicts in ethics, conflicts in methods, and an almighty conflict between ethics and methods. In all their wonderful polymorphousness, people constantly negotiate these conflicts. And hooray to that.

In politicians, it seems to me, people want to see individuals who recognise the complexities of this delicate process of negotiation. They don’t take kindly to John Redwood style neo-liberals and they don’t much like dyed-in-the-wool socialists like Bob Crow. In short, they don’t like ideologues: their certainty across the terrains of ethics and methods is disconcertingly simplistic.

But although people will welcome ethics and methods that are in tension, what they can’t stand are outright contadictions. For example, take the slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. This acknowledges a tension that most people feel in terms of both ethics and methods. In terms of the former, that committing a crime is wrong, but that so is the fact some criminals have grown-up in awful circumstances. In terms of the latter, that tackling a problem properly requires getting to its root causes.

But within time, the tensions captured in this slogan become too great. It becomes apparent that people haven’t been sold a workable blend of values and methods, but an unworkable contradiction. For example, as was reported on the Today programme this morning, we now incarcerate children between twelve and fourteen years-old that don’t complete their community-based sentences. The idea of the latter is that they rehabilitate youngsters – get them to understand the consequences of their actions and to take into account their responsibilities to themselves and others. But incarceration just turns them into criminals. So being tough on crime actually means being pathetic on the causes of crime.

The way out of a contradiction like this is to convert the blend of ethics and methods back into a workable tension. One option would be to take the view that because crime is wrong, we are justified in locking people up and throwing away the key, and that since most criminals will be off the street, we’ll be tough on the causes of crime too. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it is the causes of crime that are considered the real moral wrong, so let’s put much more effort into rehabilitation – spend more money on it, make the process far more thorough and multi-faceted.

Either kind of rebalancing will have to take into account both facts and people’s cherished ethics and methods. Both will run aground on these sandbanks. But people do want to see their own polymorphousness shone back at them from politicians. This makes the challenge the development of policies that accept the requisite tensions, but which don’t push as far as contradictions.

FSN’s Mission Statement – Sneak Preview

January 10, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

In my capacity as an Education Team research elf, I’ve topped and tailed the Christmas holidays with working on one of the background papers for the Future Schools Network. We and our partners at the Innovation Unit are producing a series of these which will all be available online eventually. However, we thought this one, which deals with our aims and ambitions for the Network, could get a bit of a discussion going about where we all want to go with FSN. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 Firstly I’ll recap some things you may remember from elsewhere. The Network will bring together up to 30 schools and several other innovation and education experts and decide on up to six key themes for schools in the twenty first century. They’ll develop “next practice” to address each theme and apply them in their schools.

 We’re hoping to get two things out of this. It’s hoped this process will create a coherent picture of what a future school could look like. Of course, there’s no one answer to that, but it’s hoped that we can build up an idea of how schools can better serve pupils’ needs.

The Network will also be creating next practice and sharing concrete skills and strategies for addressing our core themes. This will mean producing resources for a wider group of schools to explore, adapt and develop these themes, as in Opening Minds.

 The question I’d like to put to you all is what are the working practices that you think will help us achieve all this? There are three types of relationships here; between network members; within school communities; and between people from professional fields outside of teaching. What are the values (such as respect, trust, equality) that we’ll need in the Future Schools Network, and what ways of working will encourage them?