Trying to behave myself: a Social Brain Odyssey - RSA

Blog: Trying to behave myself - a Social Brain Odyssey

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  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain
  • Cognition
  • Spirituality

As indicated at the end of my last few blog posts, after six wonderful years I am leaving the RSA just before Christmas. In most of my time here I have been Director of the Social Brain Centre and a large part of my job description has concerned ‘behaviour change’ – a notion I have always had mixed feelings about, as indicated in a recent post on the subject. In what is likely to be my last blog post on the RSA site, it felt like a good moment to share a brisk annotated chronological sketch of my time here, punctuated by some of my more vivid memories.

1.       December 2010, Said Business School, Oxford University.

I’ve giving a keynote as a policy messenger to the academic heartlands and use the opportunity to decipher the ‘social brain’ part of my job description – in what sense, if any, is it the brain that is social, and not the person. I’m familiar with the main theories from anthropology (eg Dunbar) and Social Neuroscience (eg Cacioppo) but they don’t feel particularly meaningful to me. ‘The brain’ itself is a complex and porous notion; an extended nervous system always embodied and embedded. That such a system might be ‘fundamentally’ social in the sense that brains evolve through and for relationships makes sense, but the very idea of ‘social’ is a bit slippery and has a myriad of reference points, including other people in general, key developmental relationships, and particular kinds of networks. Alas, my keynote tanked, because where I hoped there might be authoritative problematisation, there was just confusion.

This talk however formed the basis for Transforming behaviour change: Beyond nudge and neuromania where I developed the idea that the brain had become a shared semiotic tool to improve self-understanding; it is both functionally social and reflexively social. That report went down extremely well with various people who might know better, and I knew I was on firmer ground when I heard praise from the EU, the ESRC, various professors and funders who wanted me to apply theory to practice. Game on.

2.       March 2011, Garrison Institute, New York State.

I’m giving a keynote in my socks, at a retreat centre for stressed out people from ‘the City’ that doubles as a think tank connecting contemplative practice to social innovation. ‘Climate, Mind and Behaviour’ was the theme of this conference, hosted in their meditation hall. The assembled field would have been intimidating had I known them (Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, David Roberts) and though I still feel like a rookie, my message has moved on.

Behaviour change has to be ‘habitual and contagious’, I say. We need interventions that get people to change what they repeatedly do automatically, and for those actions to be sufficiently susceptible to imitation that they spread through social diffusion. I don’t really know what this means in practice, but ‘habitual and contagious’ was my first intimation that for behaviour change to be relevant to climate change it had to be about groups, structures, policies and systemic impact. I had begun to sense that ‘behaviour change’ for a problem this difficult had to get beyond lame moral injunctions to individuals to fly less or turn off their lights. 

3.       June 2011. Shell headquarters on the South Bank in London. 

I’m sitting with a colleague across from Shell’s UK Head of Marketing and Head of Media Relations, at a banquet size table designed for about thirty people. This was my first project ‘kill’ as a fundraiser, but looking back I was the prey, not the predator. What we thought was a research project, Shell viewed as a media ‘campaign’. Advocating behaviour change while disavowing political consciousness amounts to negligence. The theory goes that if you waste less energy, you use less energy overall and you therefore need to extract less fuel –good for the planet! This meeting at Shell was the first time I began to question that premise. At some visceral level I knew we were being duped. Later I would learn about the rebound effect on energy savings, which makes it almost impossible to know whether energy savings through behaviour change have a meaningful systemic impact, but the discomfort was more visceral. While we were helping about ten taxi drivers become more fuel efficient (less harsh breaking or acceleration, over-revving or idling), by making them more aware of the power of habit, and offering some design interventions to help change them, Shell was seeking to maximise global profit through fossil fuel extraction, not least by plundering the Arctic.

Our final report, Cabbies, Costs and Climate Change managed to tread the fine line between respecting our funder and respecting ourselves, but only after several difficult phone calls. Never again for me.

4.       July 2011, RSA offices, London.

Guardian Comment is Free have agreed to publish a piece I bashed out in response to the main findings of Baroness Neuberger’s House of Lords commission on behaviour change. The headlines all said ‘nudge is not enough’ but I suggested she pulled her punches. What she seemed to want to say, but didn’t, is that ‘Science’ – the presumed foundation of behavioural insight - doesn’t provide a legitimate case for shrinking the State.

It felt exciting to be at the forefront of public debate, and I added my own take on behaviour being a complex reflexive phenomenon, but there was no paparazzi following me home that evening. Instead, the first thing I read when I scrolled through the assembled comments was a concise and pungent remark from ‘CorneliusLysergic’ posted at 3:20pm:

“F**k off with your change our behaviour sh*t. Just f**k off.”

5.       October 2011, Edinburgh International Climate Arena.

I’ve been flown up to speak about behavioural science at an away day for staff working in savings and investments at a major national bank. I’m a performing monkey, but a willing one, pimping myself out in the hope of future programmatic funding. That never quite happened, but it was helpful to distil my take on behavioural science into five ideas:

1. Creatures of Habit: Most behaviour is automatic.

2. Social Norms: We are highly sensitive to whatever is perceived to be ‘normal’.

3. Cognitive Biases: our judgment is rarely impartial or objective.

4. Choice Architectures: Many decisions are effectively taken for us.

5. Reflexivity: Knowing the underlying causes of behaviour changes behaviour.

That last one is the heart of the matter for me. A ‘reflexive’ approach to behaviour change requires that one becomes aware of the general principles that underlie behaviour so that they can be refashioned for purposes of one’s own. The bankers don’t seem too interested in this philosophical issue, but they are intrigued by the quotation by Billionaire George Soros about his own writings on reflexivity: 

“It is a very curious situation. I am taken seriously; indeed a bit too seriously. But the theory that I take seriously and, in fact, rely on in my decision-making process is completely ignored.” 


6.       November 2011, Institute for Public Policy Research, London.

I listen intently to a genial panel discussion about the place of behavioural insight in public policy with Professors Daniel Read and Gerry Stoker and Uber-wonk David Halpern. I stand up and ask: “What is behaviour? How do the theoretical underpinnings of the idea of behaviour play out in policy terms?”

The question felt curiously subversive, like Oliver Twist tremulously but very reasonably asking for more. I have deep respect for Halpern’s books on Social Capital and Hidden Wealth, so I felt a bit let down when he seemed to concede that the current approach did not really have firm philosophical foundations. Gerry Stoker had a more visceral interest in what follows from viewing behaviour in terms of agency in particular, because then your responsibility is to help people understand their own capacity to direct their wills, rather than just working with what we know of their minds, to change what their limbs do.

I believe this philosophical issue – how ‘behaviour’ is implicitly conceived- is deeply political, indirectly shaping our perspective on the legitimacy and validity of behaviour change interventions and how we measure their efficacy. There is no fact of the matter about what behaviour is, but like all social science constructs, what we choose to foreground has implications. The centre of research gravity might have been values modes, social efficacy, common cause, post-formal operational development, lay normativity, social practice theory and so forth. How much is society shaped by the fact that none of these alternate paradigms seem to be welcomed as equal players in the policy game of applied behavioural insight? Quite a bit, I suspect.

7.       April 2012, Today Programme studios, London.

I’ve been asked to speak on our preeminent news programme about a report relating to behaviour change with police officers, which has appeared in various broadsheets. The report had huge media impact not because of its research quality or policy relevance but because we made a clear, if random, suggestion that police officers should take 20 minutes a week to reflect on their decisions. In my experience there is no meaningful relationship between research quality, or even apparent policy relevance and media interest. More than anything, the media care about what the rest of the media care about; they are as subject to social diffusion as the rest of us. Before the microphone goes live Evan Davis asks me for the title of the report. “Reflexive Coppers”, I say. “Reflexive?” he says, as if the answer should have been ‘reflective’. He advises me in a slightly disdainful avuncular way not to introduce too many big concepts because listeners at that time in the morning wouldn’t be able to follow. I do my best to keep it real, and I vividly remember, with gladness, the big smile and thumbs up he gave as I left the studio.

8.       June 2012. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

I’m sitting on a carpeted stage in a gigantic basement room of an audaciously opulent building. The RSA are trying to internationalise and I’ve been invited by the CEO of the Emirates Foundation to talk about financial behaviour. The audience, containing a good critical mass of Sheik-like figures, look at me like I’m from another planet, and perhaps I am. My interest in financial behaviour is limited, but it stems from a curiosity about the impact of defaults and choice architectures designed to encourage savings behaviour, while the problem in the UAE is rather different. Lots of young native Emirates overspend on designer clothes, jewellery and cars, because they feel they can. When they get into debt, bank managers give credit because of family connections, and sometimes the Royal family has to bail people out, which is embarrassing for all concerned. It’s a genuine problem, it seems, but I find the issue so culturally and politically specific that I struggle to see how principles of behavioural insight could help. I enjoy a visit to the world’s second largest Mosque, and even stood on the biggest carpet in the world, but feel relieved when I’m back on the plane.

9.       February 2013. On BBC’s The Daily Politics TV show.

I’m all glammed up, being questioned by Andrew Neil, Rafael Behr and Anne McElvoy on the importance, or not, of recent research on the neuroscience of political affiliation. I try to de-link reference to the brain to implicit assumptions about genes and determinism, and end by saying: “The value of this research is not that it shows our views are set in stone, but it should help us appreciate our political opponents start from somewhere different… and we shouldn’t assume they are always wrong or immoral.” I acted like a spin doctor rather than any kind of Scientist but I felt like I knew what I was talking about (which I suppose is always the risk). My boss emails immediately after the show: “Top tip: always unbutton your suit jacket when sitting down for TV interviews.”

10.   April 2013. A few metres away from the line of the old Berlin wall, Germany.

I’m in the offices of the Vodafone Foundation, Germany andwe’re chatting about the research methodology for our report into behavioural interventions that might help narrow the socio-economic attainment gap in education. My colleague Nathalie Spencer did most of the heavy lifting for our final report, but I conceived the idea that became our title: “Everybody starts with an A”.

From past experience, I knew we needed a media hook of this nature to cut through, and it worked. The report appeared on the front page of the Telegraph and in most other national papers, and I found myself defending it against Educational traditionalists on BBC breakfast television. The report contained some analysis of how the major socio-economic and cultural aspects of the educational attainment gap (crudely; rich children do better than poor children, even with apparently identical schooling) might be mitigated by behavioural interventions, but it’s a moot point how many actually read the report. The flagship idea, grounded in research on the endowment effect, was that students may be more motivated to hold on to a high grade they already have than aspire to attain one they feel is out of reach. The only kind of empirical validation we could get within budget was to run the idea past a range of classroom teachers in Germany and the UK, most of whom were intrigued but sceptical.

The report had legs, and I felt a renewed enthusiasm for behavioural insight of this nature. Half seriously, I now suspect everybody starting with an A- is a better idea, to foreclose the fear that ‘the only way is down’, but it’s very unlikely that more nuanced idea would have captured the same attention.

11.   May 2014. The Houses of Parliament.

I’m at the first All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on Mindfulness. I am an associate of ‘the mindfulness initiative’ that has picked up a little steam in recent months, making the case for mindfulness-based-practices to play a bigger part in a range of policy areas, including health and education. This is the world of behaviour change too.

At the time I described the convening of an APPG as:

A small but significant step forward for the diverse and growing movement of people who broadly adhere to a radically sane idea, namely that some experiential awareness of the functioning of our own minds, and greater skill in directing our attention, might be important.

12.   June 2014 RSA Great Room

I’m on the stage with Will Self, chairing an event called “Let’s Talk about Death”, part of a two year inquiry I’m leading into ‘spirituality’ – a term that means too much and too little, which I believe we can’t really do without. While many if not most forms of behaviour change are discrete – about doing one thing differently – spirituality points towards a complete reorientation in your sense of who you are, and how you should live. I was motivated to raise the public salience of death by a curious anomaly. It appears that near-death experiences relating to illness or accident very often lead to a transformed sense of value and perspective. When people viscerally sense that there days are numbered, they often turn their lives around, typically away from extrinsic rewards towards activities with intrinsic value. But here’s the thing. We already know we’re going to die, so why exactly do we need a reminder before we start living the way we apparently really want to?

13.   August 2014. Kitchen table, Putney, London.

I’m up late writing “If the case for Scottish Independence is so strong, why isn’t Yes winning?” for a major Scottish website, Bella Caledonia. I’m Scottish, but have lived most of my adult life in London or Oxford. I don’t consider myself either a ‘nationalist’ or a ‘separatist’, and although I didn’t have a vote, after a lot of thought, I decided that Yes was the way to go. My impression, widely shared, is that Yes has a much better campaign, but still the 3/2 ration for No seemed to be holding. I build a case, built on what Jonathan Haidt calls ‘moral foundations’ to explain why No is still winning and indicate what Yes has to do. I hear later that these ideas were considered carefully at the very highest levels of the Yes campaign.

14.   December 2014. The British Academy.

My climate change research must have made a dent somewhere because I’ve been invited to a roundtable featuring The Chief Scientific Advisor and The Head of the British Academy. The discussion is quite technical, but I have a strong feeling that nobody quite knows what’s going on. I introduce my framing of climate change as being a problem of seven dimensions: Science, Technology, Law, Economy, Democracy, Culture and Behaviour. Senior people around me start scribbling furiously, but I wonder if this is just because everybody likes a list.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. From 2016, after six wonderful years at the RSA, he will begin a new venture, co-founding his own institute – Perspectiva - which will examine public policy challenges by integrating systems, souls and society; connecting the evolution of the political economy to relationships and the inner world. You can reach him on Twitter@jonathan_rowson

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  • Fare well wherever you are going.  You have contributed much to RSA.  I would like to know your views on how RSA is managed and how it can become more accountable.  I have been trying to understand why the RSA Fellowship numbers have been almost static for the last 5 years and centered on London.

    My own view is that RSA is too complex in structure and too introverted.  It needs to become far more open, more transparent and more ambitious in its reach.  Let's remember RSA was the primary initiator of the Great Exhibition of 1851.  This resulted in the creation (among many things) of the V&A, the Science Museum and the Royal College of Art.  WOW.

    Please share your views.