Psychology and the State We’re In - RSA

Psychology and the state we’re in


  • Picture of Clem Henricson FRSA
    Clem Henricson FRSA
  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Philosophy

Psychologists have long established the importance of early years attachment and subsequent separation to human development. In the context of rising popularism that challenges old institutions, Clem Henricson FRSA argues that we could do well to pay attention to what this evidence may have to tell us about our collective attachments and rejection of the state.

Dogging our collective consciousness post the 2008 financial crash we face, alongside retrenchment, the crumbling and attacks on institutions that were once the hallmark of a decent society. From the failure of the liberal establishment to redress the deficiencies of financial systems and prevent the shrinkage of state care for its citizens, to its failure to contain the populism behind Trump and Brexit, we have seen the sands under the edifice shift and the whole slip. I would argue that this failure and their consequent societal self-loathing are not unique.

While the prediction of group behaviour is problematic, history throws up some patterns that are recognisable. Ritual self-flagellation seems to take on a pattern: wars and destruction of various sorts, followed by remorse and rebuild, followed by the eating away and destruction of settlements.

Contributing to this repetition is a failure to understand and embrace the degree to which emotions and psychology govern socio-economic development. The emotional programmed psyche demands recognition and unravelling.

When structures of thought and programmes of life and emotions are grossly out of kilter with each other trouble lays ahead. Likewise, where structures that are the product of a particular emotional persuasion are imposed on a contrasting emotional seam, a war of emotional by-products ensues.

A current example of these adverse circumstances has been the pull towards globalisation across economics, communication systems and population mobility that have mushroomed to the detriment of counter emotional traits such as nostalgia, a sense of belonging, engagement with small communities and insularity. Arguably the latter has been suppressed to such a degree that it has caused a backlash of extremism and self-harming populism in the ballot box.

There has been a failure to accommodate deep-seated 'attachment' needs. I use the word 'attachment' rather than the more commonly used term of ‘identity’ as the latter has an unhelpfully broad scope. ‘Attachment’ in contrast has a direct psychological meaning and is a positive and critical part of human development.

We have come to acknowledge via psychology and the insights of the British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby and others, the importance of the bonding of an infant to an individual adult as a point of security.

The presence or lack of this attachment can have impacts throughout life. Human development also encompasses a pull away from this close and closed relationship towards the wider world and the exploration of other experiences, opportunities and relationships.

These two contradictory psychological impulses are axiomatic to survival. They constitute a tension that lasts for life and they transpose from individuals to group relationships.

My contention is that in our group relationships the pull away from ‘attachment’ towards ‘the beyond’ has been given disproportionate weight sufficient to cause a deep-seated sense of insecurity.

Just prior to the Brexit vote I attended the RSA lecture by the well-respected academic Parag Khanna on 'connectivity' versus 'tribalism'. On the side of virtue, it may come as no surprise, was ‘connectivity’. But no psychology was on offer – the geography of mobile labour, city connections across coastlines, transport, infrastructure, you name it – but no mention of psychology.

No allowance was made for the human condition. As virtuous surely as ‘connectivity’ is ‘attachment’; to parent, family and close community.

Reconciling this with an urge for breaking boundaries, getting out and expansion, is a conundrum. This is not a question of good or bad but simply the way it is. The best endeavour should be to understand and seek to manage this tension; the mechanics of siphoning off rupture, offering safety valves of some sort.

A glimpse of recognition and reconciliation is preferable to a blinkered triumphalism of one of these traits over the other, particularly knowing that however great the triumph of one, the other failed worm will turn.

Why, when the psychology of the individual dogs or rewards us to our grave, do we do so little to think about how this impacts on groups? Perhaps it is a question of which psychological pull is in the ascendancy across groups, which collection of individual dispositions has the reins of power.

There is a ding-dong of contradictions just as in the muddle of the human psyche. The tussle of emotions and associated politics will continue but there may be some modification and avoidance of blind alleys to be had through greater acceptance of the way humans work.

From the perspective of the UK, consideration should be given to ways in which governments might better balance and manage psychological dispositions in society. While there have been some moves in this direction, initiatives are principally concerned with influencing or 'nudging' behaviour in relation to limited desired outcomes such as healthy living, reduction in energy consumption and operating effectively in the labour market.

A broader approach needs to be adopted whereby the psychological impulses behind major trends and tensions in society are better understood and acknowledged.

We need to assess how communities that might best meet the disparate drives of close emotional attachment on the one hand and outward facing, opportunity seeking social development on the other.

A preliminary step towards the adoption of this approach would be the expansion of links between institutions engaged in the governance of the UK and the academic discipline of psychology.

Options might range from active cross fertilisation of knowledge and ideas to requirements for the consideration of psychology in policy formulation.

There are moves being undertaken in this vein in relation to the teaching of economics, with proposals for the expansion of economic courses to include modules on psychology. Other courses associated with public policy might similarly benefit.

In tandem with this push in education is the necessity to visit policy theories themselves. Work needs to be done to incorporate psychology in our stock of public policy development models. Needless to say the answers are not obviously there, but at least a start could and should be made.

Clem Henricson FRSA is the author of Morality and Public Policy and A Revolution in Family Policy

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