Can humans respond to crisis? More or less... - RSA

Can humans respond to crisis? More or less...


  • Social brain
  • Cognition

The economic crisis is an opportunity to think afresh about the good society. To learn from this disaster and to avoid the next crisis means not just deciding what we think but understanding how we think.    

Phillip Blond has every right to call himself very influential. Writing just a few days ago in Prospect, the self styled ‘red Tory’ advocated turning the Post office into a people’s bank - which Peter Mandelson has now apparently agreed - and the break up of massive private sector corporations, which is in keeping with George Osborne’s suggestion yesterday that wholly or part privatised banks be dismantled when they are fit to return to the private sector.

But the part of Phillip’s engaging article that caught my attention was this line:

The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right–liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be’

Until recently I was fond of describing the last three political decades in the West through the following aphorism (although I never could find the source):

‘The right won the economic argument, the left won the social argument and the centre won the electoral argument’

Blond turns this on its head. Whatever the substantive view of his argument, there are three broad categories of response: first, he is wrong; second, he is right; third, he is right (or wrong) but only in relation to how things are now.

It is the third of these possibilities I find most interesting, the implication being dialectical: three decades ago we may have needed to liberalise social attitudes and to free up markets but now we need to reassert common values, hierarchal authority and the need for business to serve the interests of society.

At our joint seminar with the neuroscience folks at UCL on Friday we had a presentation from Professor Nick Chater. His research supports the thesis that the human brain has a very limited capacity to organise immediate perceptions in relation to an objective index. Instead, he argues, when we are asked to compare perceptions along an axis (such as brightness or loudness) we have only five categories: basically, much less, a little less, the same, a little more and much more. This may help to explain some of the idiosyncrasies in the ways human beings value things, for example the way comparison (over time and between people) seems more important to us than absolute measures.

Is this true also of human affairs? Instead of  human societies reaching higher levels of wisdom as we learn from past mistakes, we simply move from wanting more of one view of the world until it becomes excessive,  at which point we want less of it and more of something else. The human race does advance but only through a succession of failures, which can sometimes turn into disasters.

There is nothing new about this kind of gloomy dialecticism, indeed this world view is neatly captured in common parlance (for example, ‘plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose’). But in cultural theory, psychology and neuroscience we may find a richer insight into how we might find less painful and dangerous forms of learning.

Cultural theory is one of a family of theories arguing that human decision making is neither, on the one hand, explicable on the basis of a single logic (as in the model of homo economus) or, on the other, impossibly complex and indeterminate. Instead social problem solving derives from a limited array (in most theories between three and six) of basic responses, each of which is largely defined in terms of its antagonism to the others.

The social dialectic (which may underlie Phillip Blond’s call for a reversal of the conventional wisdoms of the last three decades) could be partly rooted in the collective expression of our cognitive predisposition to a limited array of comparative responses to the social world: ‘What we used to want more of, we then had too much of, and now we want less of.’

The point here is not to succumb to some kind of historical, much less neurological, determinism. Instead it is to argue that our capacity to learn from the past and plan realistically for the future is (in this year of Darwin) enhanced by better understanding of the predispositions and limitations of our species.

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