Calvinism, confirmation bias, county councils and the Big Society


  • Social brain

I don't have any Calvinist influences in my life or family history, so it has always struck me as odd that I seem to be an instinctive believer in predestination. There is a Margaret Atwood novel - I think it's Bodily Harm - in which she describes a strongly Calvinist community in which the sense of fatalism in the face of God’s plan led people to assume good fortune would sooner or later even out. 'For us' I recall Atwood writing 'good luck was bad luck'. 

This mirrors my own neurotic tendencies. I had a good few days last week with a positive reception for the first edition of my Brain Culture radio programme (edition two is on Radio Four at four this afternoon), lots of good reaction to my blogs on a hope bond for the young unemployed and various signs of further progress by the RSA. When West Bromwich Albion won at the weekend I knew things were too good to last. 

And so it was. Yesterday was a stinker. A trusted expert friend told me the bond wouldn't work, a key stakeholder - positive about the RSA last week - was back in critical mode, and for the first time ever I got a complaint from someone who had booked me to speak (not that I'm taking that lying down, oh no!). When at bedtime I got an email titled ‘RSA project update’ I hardly needed to open it to know it would report somewhat underwhelming findings. My instinctive belief in predestination combined with confirmation bias to create a solid wall of pessimism. 

What possible relevance does this have to the Big Society? This morning I crawled out of my bed of despond to speak to the County Council Network conference in St Albans. I'm glad to say that my talk seemed to go down pretty well (yesterday's complainant needs to know just how completely and utterly alone he is in the world, oh yes!). 

Beyond saying that I am still in that dwindling band of people who think the core concept is insightful and important, I made four points about the scale of the Big Society challenge: 

1. It needs to be seen as a long term process of social and cultural regeneration. Using the categories developed by Ron Heifetz, it is an 'adaptive challenge' not a 'technical problem'. 

2. Building the Big Society requires a new social economy of place, a way of understanding, measuring and enhancing the hidden wealth of care, compassion, trust and solidarity. Key to this is a much better qualitative and quantitative understanding of social networks. 

3. The Big Society approach cannot just be about greater citizen engagement and responsibility in relation to those non statutory services that are bearing the brunt of current cuts, such as libraries and the youth service. It must also lead to a ‘re-socialisation’ of core public services like schooling, primary care and policing. These services need to be reconfigured around their core; the relationship between public servant and citizen (not just immediate user) in pursuit of shared individual and social outcomes. 

4. The Big Society approach requires individual reflexivity and organisational ‘clumsiness’.

By the latter I mean solutions which draw on differing and inherently competing models of change. This takes me back to a regular subject of this blog in former years: cultural theory with its four paradigms of individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchy and fatalism. But similar points about clashing models are made in this paper by RSA Fellow Eileen Conn (she contrasts the ‘vertical hierarchical’ model of public agencies with the ‘horizontal peer’ model of community organisations), or this excellent post by RSA Fellow Tessy Britton which distinguishes the ‘consumerist’, ‘representative’, ‘charitable’, ‘challenge’ and ‘creative/collaborative’ modes of social action.

The point is not to privilege one over the other of these modes (although Tessy is pretty clear about her preferences) but to see the validity and power of, and the inherent tensions between, each. 

In relation to individual reflexivity, a forthcoming RSA paper entitled ‘the hidden curriculum of the Big Society’ will argue that the Big Society requires citizens who are capable of greater autonomy, responsibility and solidarity. These attributes are in turn associated with a higher degree of mental complexity, which survey evidence suggests is only currently possessed by a small minority of the population. 

Big Society citizens need to be thoughtful, ethical, connected people who – among all these qualities – are aware of, and able to mediate, some of the cognitive frailties which arise from trying to negotiate a modern world with prehistorically evolved brains. 

I guess one sign of such an ethical ‘ubermensch’ (I know strictly speaking that’s a contradiction in terms but give me a break), would be an ability to withstand superstition as well as illusions such as confirmation bias. 

I guess this means I’m not good enough to be a proper Big Society citizen. Never mind, I will draw comfort from the undeniable fact it is definately my turn for a better day on Wednesday.

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