"With a rising interest in neuroscience, we have an opportunity, which we must not squander, to sophisticate our understanding of ourselves."
– Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary
For the last two decades, the model of the rational individual- 'homo economicus'- that has underpinned our faith in democracy, reliance on the market, and trust in social institutions has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.
The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organise our societies. However, a variety of social, political and environmental challenges, culminating in the current economic crisis, makes this model seem increasingly unhelpful. Above all, it fails to grasp that social context is not an afterthought, a variable to be controlled, but the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.
The emerging early 21st century view of human nature is richer and more complex. We are
- Constituted by evolutionary biology
- Embedded in complex social networks
- Largely habitual creatures
- Highly sensitive to social and cultural norms
- More rationalising than rational.
More precisely, we need to make prevailing theories of human nature more
- accurate through research
- explicit through public dissemination
- empowering through practical engagement.
- support personal development and wellbeing
- inform government policy
- improve social, financial, environmental and educational practice.
Core thematic strands of the Social Brain programme
Social Brain team
Dr Jonathan Rowson is director of The Social Brain Centre. Jonathan holds a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Oxford University, an Ed.M from Harvard University in Mind, Brain and Education, and an ESRC funded PhD from Bristol University. His Doctoral thesis is an inter-disciplinary and multi-method examination of the concept of wisdom, including a detailed analysis of the challenge of overcoming the psycho-social constraints that prevent people becoming 'wiser'. A chess Grandmaster, Jonathan was British Champion for three consecutive years 2004-6. He writes a weekly column for the Herald, Scotland’s national newspaper.
Dr Emma Lindley is senior researcher in The Social Brain Centre. Emma is a social scientist with particular expertise in health education, attitude and behaviour change. Her doctoral work focused on anti-stigma mental health education and involved a participatory exploration of young people's understandings of mental illness. Emma's research at Manchester University led to the development of the Inclusive Dialogue approach to education about mental illness and has received media attention from the BBC and the Times Educational Supplement. As Research Fellow at Leeds University, she conducted qualitative research on a randomised controlled trial of a smoke free homes education initiative. Emma has also worked in publishing, student guidance at Leeds College of Music, events management for Opera North, and theatre-in-education in the third sector. Follow @dremmalindley.
Nathalie Spencer: After 7 years working in the private sector in the UK and Germany, Nathalie read Dan Ariely's 'Predictably Irrational' and took a rational decision to change the course of her career. She is a behavioural economist with degrees (Cum Laude) from McGill and Maastricht universities. Her Masters thesis explored the effect of time and emotions on social cooperation, and her special interests are decision making, cognitive biases, and the psychological barriers to behaviour change.”