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This week Matthew Taylor outlines a vision of twenty-first century enlightenment that acts as a call for some paradigm shifts to our ways of thinking and a reimagining of core enlightenment ideals which may be needed for the coming years. Answering the complex, rapidly-expanding challenges of today and tomorrow means having to live differently, which in turn means appreciating that we are going to have to think differently.

Without doing so we’re going to find it harder to close our social-aspiration gap: that gap between the world in which we aspire to live in and the world which we are going to create through our present behaviour. Essentially, this vision says that what we require is a revived consciousness but more importantly it says that we must have a conviction to act on that revived consciousness.

Matt Grist’s Steer puts forward one possible way of moving towards this rejuvenated awareness. Based upon an ‘holistic reflexive’ approach to behaviour change, Steer suggests that by becoming more aware of how our brains operate and by being attentive to the myriad of influences and subtle forces that may affect our judgement and behaviour, we will be far better placed to make improved decisions for our own health and happiness. This “thinking about thinking” model puts forward a refreshing alternative to the context-specific nudge set out by, among others, Thaler and Sunstein and comes at a time when the old carrot and stick behaviour change methods are once again being called into question.

Catherine Bennett, a notable ‘root vegetable sceptic’, recently pointed out the problems with a simplistic incentive-led approach to behaviour change – especially the NHS trial of using cash rewards for weight loss and the chip’n’bin scheme for recycling – and described how these methods may actually end up undermining people’s motivation when the financial incentives stop.

At the same time, these sort of approaches hit upon a moral-reasoning dilemma – that coercion or reward for partaking in a certain behaviour may ‘crowd-out’ and cheapen positive and pro-social actions that an individual was willing to partake in anyway. Steer, on the other hand, tries to avoid many of the problems of these clunky top-down approaches and instead strikes right at the heart of Charles Taylor’s idea of positive freedom. Alain de Botton recently put it that people tend not to lack freedom as the chance to use it well - the methods behind Steer allow us to effectively use what you might call positive cognitive freedom to understand what actions our behaviour might have on ourselves and others while allowing us to achieve the lives that we aspire to lead; closing our own social aspiration gap through the merits of our own thinking. Without the need for cumbersome carrots and/or sticks.

How then might the results of these findings be best put into practice? Matt Grist offers a number of different areas where this model might be implemented ranging from teaching about thinking within schools through to helping those in rehabilitation to change their habits. But in reality this research can add a great deal of value to a whole range of different areas including a number of our own projects at the RSA. If, for example, we take the Civic Health Audit strand of our Citizen Power work in Peterborough, we can embed this reflexive holistic approach as part of an additional strategy to improve civic participation. This project is essentially about designing a tool that can be used to better understand civic health in any particular group or locality by measuring the presence of  core capabilities and qualities needed to effectively place-shape. But from the findings laid out in this report, we now know that we are not just able to use the Audit for understanding changes in civic health but that we can also use the Audit itself to improve civic health by playing back the results to the community and allowing them to ‘mull over’ and reflect on their own capabilities, their networks and their social assets - in fact, one of the biggest capabilities is knowing that you actually have the capability and the agency to effect change. This instance may be just one of many projects, areas and initiatives where embedding a reflexive element can really start to add add value and allow people to steer their own lives and shape their own futures.


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