Character and determinism

There’s a great article on ‘Character’ in this month’s Prospect by Richard Reeves, an old friend of the RSA and the newly appointed director of Demos.


His piece is a convincing attempt to reassert a liberal account of the importance of character – ‘an old idea with a contemporary relevance’. He defends liberalism against the charge that it has somehow eroded character and he defends the value of good character against the idea that it is somehow illiberal.


“Good societies’ he concludes ‘need good people’.


Along the way there’s a really interesting discussion about what character is and where it comes from which avoids getting bogged down in sterile nature-nurture debates.


Reeves argues that while “it is clear that some character traits are inherited… the weight of evidence is that good parents provide good insulation against inherited negative traits.” And he cites research by Stephen Scott of KCL to this effect.


This is a really important point: one of the key insights of modern cognitive science is to illuminate (if only partially) the ways in which different factors combine and interact to inform our character and behaviour.


So we can see how genetic inheritance, neurophysiological processes, cultural and physical environments, and conscious decision making all have a part to play in making us what we are. We do not have to choose which of these is the ‘real’ key to who we are, but can attempt to understand and unpick how they work together in different contexts and at different times.


Reeves shows how this approach to character has concrete policy implications in areas such as early years care, skills provision and parenting, but it also illustrates a wider point.


A scientific approach to understanding behaviour does not, as is sometimes claimed, commit us to neuro-determinism, evolutionary-conservatism, or genetic-fatalism. Understanding the processes that make us think and act as we do, does not condemn us to blindly act them out, but frees us to follow or resist them as we choose.


More Thaler

New on the RSA website this week, video of Richard Thaler’s lecture here and an interview with our own Matthew Taylor.

Admidst all the recent Nudge-mania it’s good to get back to what the man himself says – and his claims are considerably less overblown than some that have been made.

But of course not everyone is convinced. James Harkin, for one, writing in today’s Guardian is sceptical. I think, as I’ve argued before that Nudging has its place as long as we remember that it is about means and does not save us the hard work of thinking about what social goods we want to achieve.

Memories are made of this

There was a long piece by Phil Hogan in Sunday’s Observer on memory loss and how to avoid it. He travels to San Francisco to find out about the latest neurological insights into how memory works and what happens in our brain when it fails. Then he goes to New York to watch the finals of the (rather awful sounding ) Memory Championships.


Two things struck me:


One was that the scientists he spoke to were clear that there was little or no evidence of generalisable improvements in cognitive capacity from the sort of brain training that the Memory Champions advocated.


That’s pretty important given how much of this stuff people are trying to flog us.


Second was this comment from Professor Alan Baddeley at York University


‘Forgetting is very useful. You’d be in a mess without it, like being without the garbage man. The memory encodes things so that, on the whole, you can get hold of what’s important and the things you need most often. Forgetting is a very well-designed aspect of that.’


We’re so used to thinking about forgetting as the failure of memory that we forget just how valuable it is. Perhaps we should think of it not simply as ‘not remembering’ but as a positive value in its own right.


I’m not familiar with the science in this area but I was reminded of the Borges story ‘Funes the Memorious’. After being thrown from a horse the eponymous Funes finds his memory is infallible, but this is more curse than blessing. As the narrator says of him:


“I suspect, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.”


Dementia and senility are terrible afflictions and we should welcome the extent to which modern neuroscience promises to mitigate and eventually overcome them, though this is still sadly limited. But in pursuing this essential goal we should not be fooled into seeing memory itself as simple benefit.


As Borges reminds us, “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind”.


The RSA project

As this blog starts to get a bit more traffic – and thanks to everyone who’s visited, commented or linked – I thought it might be useful to say a little more about what the RSA’s planning to do in this area.


This Power Point is an attempt to set out in simple terms the thinking behind the RSA’s new project and what we are hoping to do.




I wrote it for a presentation I did for some nice people from Arkanum Consultancy – but I found it really helpful in clarifying my thinking and thought it might be interesting for others. It was designed to be spoken to but I think/hope it’s pretty self-explanatory.  Of course details and timings may all change in response to events and to the useful feedback everyone is giving.  All comments welcome…


Cognition, free will and democracy

Elections are on everyone’s mind today following Labour’s disastrous showing in Glasgow East.


Thinking about the electoral process made me wonder if there was a tension between what we know about cognition and a commitment to democracy.


One of the consistent themes to emerge from a number of behavioural and cognitive sciences in recent years is that the conscious decision-making part of our mind has a lot less primacy than we like to think.


We know that the neurological processes that generate our conscious thoughts are dependent on chemical and electrical reactions in other parts of our brains of which we are completely unaware. More worryingly still, recent research published in Nature found that “the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness”.


What price free decisions then?


But of course democracy is rooted in the idea that we are rational decision-making agents capable of exercising free will.


I’ve referred in an earlier post to the debate about whether neuroscience abolishes free will. This normally finds its way into the public arena in relation to criminal responsibility  – “it wasn’t me m’lud; it was my brain” – but its implications for democracy are even more profound. (Drew Western covers some of this ground in his book the political brain.)


Without free will democracy looks absurd. Of course, it may be the most absurd system except for all the other systems that have been tried, but I think that many of us would feel uncomfortable with the idea that the democratic process is simply a complex way of post-rationalising unconscious and unwilled reactions.


As I’ve said before, I think there are both philosophical and scientific reasons to resist the idea that we have to give up on free will, but I’m not sure the argument is yet won – in any event the relationship between free will and democracy shows us how these debates have very real meaning and are not just academic abstractions…


A nudge to where?

Matthew blogged yesterday about the (inevitable?) backlash against the ubiquity of nudging. He suggests that nudging is most likely to be useful at a local level and concludes that “Changing behaviour is hard. Nudging is a useful technique but it doesn’t abolish the classic dilemmas of policy making.”


I think this is right (and not just because he’s my boss).


There are three key features of the discussion around nudging that are particularly interesting.


The first is the debate about what sort of issues nudging best addresses and at what level.


The second is the persistent uncertainty about whether this is an idea that sits more happily on the big-state left or the small-state right (libertarian paternalism may not be an oxymoron but it does seem to encourage this debate).


In part this debate comes out of the fact that nudging appears to be non-ideological, simply a means of helping us to more easily achieve rational ends.


This leads to the third element: it is often suggested that nudging is a way of “fixing” adaptive discrepancies between the way we evolved and the way the world now is. So for instance we evolved to crave sugar in an environment in which sugar was scarce and have not adjusted to a context in which it is plentiful. Hence obesity and hence our need for nudging.


This again, underlines the non-ideological nature of nudging – it simply helps us to become better suited to the environment we live in and who could take issue with that?


But of course nudging is not free of values it simply defers them. If I am nudged to save money for the future and improve my health, it is only because we have as a society decided that health and prosperity are values that we want to pursue. There’s nothing rational about the choice of ultimate ends and Libertarian paternalism has nothing to say about it.


And neither does evolution. Natural selection does not have a goal; it has no moral or prescriptive content. It is at its most essential level simply an account of which biological adaptations have historically proved best suited to their environments. As such it tells us nothing about how we should live now.


That is an essential task of political debate and neither behavioural economics nor evolutionary psychology can do it for us.


Social standing and the brain

Thanks to Tessy Britton for highlighting this fascinating study from the Netherlands which I had completely missed.


It concludes that the effectiveness of our cognitive function is influenced not just by physical environment but by social context in which we operate. So if I’m in a situation in which I feel socially disadvantaged my brain will not work as well as if I feel “empowered”.


If we really understood this, the implications for how we organise education or workplaces could be pretty profound. How should we manage people in away that helps their brains work better?


As Tessy points out it’s also another example of how this area has an amazing capacity to generate new jargon. Partly I suspect because you can put “neuro” in front of pretty much anything…