1 April 2012

Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Filed under: books, collaboration, evolution, motivation, passion, politics, psychology, RSA — David Wood @ 10:58 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have thanked me over the years for drawing their attention to the book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” written by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. That was a book with far-reaching scope and penetrating insight. Many of the ideas and metaphors in it have since become fundamental building blocks for other writers to use – such as the pithy metaphor of the human mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the job of the rider (our stream of conscious reasoning) being to serve the elephant (the other 99% of our mental processes).

This weekend, I’ve been reading Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It’s a great sequel. Like its predecessor, it ranges across more than 2,400 years of thought, highlighting how recent research in social psychology sheds clear light on age-old questions.

Haidt’s analysis has particular relevance for two deeply contentious sets of debates that each threaten to destabilise and divide contemporary civil society:

  • The “new atheism” critique of the relevance and sanctity of religion in modern life
  • The political fissures that are coming to the fore in the 2012 US election year – fissures I see reflected in messages full of contempt and disdain in the Facebook streams of some several generally sensible US-based people I know.

There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to summarise it without doing an injustice to huge chunks of fascinating material:

  • the importance of an empirical approach to understanding human morality – an approach based on observation, rather than on a priori rationality
  • moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached
  • there’s more to morality than concerns over harm and fairness; Haidt memorably says that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors”
  • the limitations of basing research findings mainly on ‘WEIRD‘ participants (people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)
  • the case for how biological “group selection” helped meld humans (as opposed to natural selection just operating at the level of individual humans)
  • a metaphor that “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”
  • the case that “The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction”
  • methods for flicking a “hive switch” inside human brains that open us up to experiences of self-transcendence (including a discussion of rave parties).

The first chapter of the book is available online – as part of a website dedicated to the book. You can also get a good flavour of some of the ideas in the book from two talks Haidt has given at TED: “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence” (watch it full screen to get the full benefits of the video effects):

and (from a few years back – note that Haidt has revised some of his thinking since the date of this talk) “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“:

Interested to find out more? I strongly recommend that you read the book itself. You may also enjoy watching a wide-ranging hour-long interview between Haidt and Robert Wright – author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Evolution of God.

Footnote: Haidt is talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts on lunchtime on Tuesday 10th April; you can register to be included on the waiting list in case more tickets become available. The same evening, he’ll be speaking at the Royal Institution; happily, the Royal Institution website says that there is still “good availability” for tickets:

Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along. By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt will show why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal.

Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important. With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt will show it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.

Discovering and nourishing an inner ‘Why’

Filed under: books, challenge, Energy, films, leadership, marketing, motivation, passion, psychology — David Wood @ 1:21 am

Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?

In the 2012 year of London Olympics, the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” is poised to return to cinemas in the UK, digitally remastered. As reported by BBC News,

The film tells the true story of two runners who compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics despite religious obstacles.

It will be shown at more than 100 cinemas around the country from 13 July as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Starring Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, the film won four Oscars, including best picture, screenplay and music for Vangelis’ acclaimed score.

Although the film is 31 years old, producer Lord Puttnam believes the message is still relevant.  “Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief…” he said.

This is a film about accomplishment against great odds. More than that, it’s a film about motivation that can enable great accomplishment. The film features athletics, but the message applies much more widely – in both business life and personal life.

I vividly remember watching the film in its opening night in Cambridge in 1981, and being so captivated by it that I returned to the cinema the following evening to watch it again. One part that has wedged deep in my mind is the question I’ve placed at the top of this article, which comes from a sermon preached by Eric Liddell, one of the athletes featured in the movie:

Running in a race… is hard. It requires concentration of will. Energy of soul… Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.

Liddell’s own answer involved his religious faith, including following the principle that forbade playing sport on Sundays. Viewers can take inspiration from the film, without necessarily sharing Liddell’s particular religious views. The general point is this: Lasting personal strength arises from inner conviction.

Anyone watching the film is implicitly challenged: do we have our own inner basis for lasting personal strength? Do we have a ‘Why’ that gives us the power to pick ourselves up and continue to shine, in case we stumble in the course of our own major projects? Indeed, do we have a ‘Why’ that inspires not only ourselves, but others too, so that they wish to work with us or share our journey through life?

In similar vein, the renowned writer about personal effectiveness, Stephen Covey, urges us (in his celebrated book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) to Begin with the end in mind and to Put first things first:

Are you–right now–who you want to be, what you dreamed you’d be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty–successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster…

To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay. There’s no need to over-extend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities…

I was recently reminded of both Chariots of Fire and Stephen Covey when following up an assignment given to me by a personal coach. The assignment was to view the TED video “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek:

This talk features high on the page of the TED talks rated by viewers as the most inspiring. Watch the video and this high placement won’t be a surprise to you. I liked the video so much that I downloaded the audio book the talk is based on: “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”. I’ve been listening to it while walking to/from work over the last few days. It’s been both profound and challenging.

Sinek’s central message is this:

People don’t buy ‘What’ you do, they buy ‘Why’ you do it.

To back up this message, Sinek tells a host of fascinating tales. He offers lots of contrasts, between individuals (or companies) that had a clear, inspiring sense of purpose (their ‘Why’), and those that instead became bogged down in the ‘What’ or the ‘How’ of their work. The former generated loyalty and passion – not so the latter. Examples of the former include Southwest Airlines, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, and Apple. He also gives examples of companies that started off with a clear sense of purpose, but then lost it, for example due to changes in leadership, when an operational leader took over the reins from an initial inspirational leader.

Sinek repeatedly contrasts “inspiration” with “manipulation”. Manipulation includes both carrots and sticks. Both inspiration and manipulation can lead to people doing what you want. But only the former can be sustained.

One vivid example covered by Sinek was the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton of the 1914-16 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. According to Sinek, Shackleton gathered crew members for this expedition by placing the following advertisement in the London Times:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. —Ernest Shackleton.

Another of Sinek’s example is how the Wright Brothers succeeded in achieving the first powered flight, beating a team that was much better funded and seemed to be better placed to succeed, led by Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley.

In Sinek’s view, it’s not a matter of having energy, or skill, or financing; it’s a matter of something deeper. It might be called ‘charisma’, or ’cause’:

Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of ‘Why’. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.

Energy can always be injected into an organization to motivate people to do things. Bonuses, promotions, other carrots and even a few sticks can get people to work harder, for sure, but the gains are, like all manipulations, short-term. Over time, such tactics cost more money and increase stress for employee and employer alike, and eventually will become the main reason people show up for work every day. That’s not loyalty. That’s the employee version of repeat business. Loyalty among employees is when they turn down more money or benefits to continue working at the same company. Loyalty to a company trumps pay and benefits. And unless you’re an astronaut, it’s not the work we do that inspires us either. It’s the cause we come to work for. We don’t want to come to work to build a wall, we want to come to work to build a cathedral.

There’s a bit too much repetition in the book for my liking, and some of the stories in it can be questioned (for example, the advertisement supposedly placed by Shackleton is probably apocryphal).

But the book (like the TED video) has a tremendous potential to cause people to rethink their own personal ‘Why’. Without clarity on this inner motivation, we’re likely to end up merely going through the motions in activities. We might even seem, from outside, to have many achievements under our belts, but we will (to return to Stephen Covey’s analogy) have climbed a ladder leaning against the wrong wall, and we’ll lack the power to inspire the kind of action we truly want to see.

I’ll finish with a few thoughts on what I perceive as my own ‘Why’ – To enable the widespread radically beneficial application of technology:

Technology, deployed wisely, can do wonders to improve the everyday lives of humans everywhere. But technology also has the potential to do very serious damage to human well-being, via unintended disruptions to the environment and the economy, and by putting fearsome weapons in the hands of malcontents.

As a technology super-convergence accelerates over the next 10-20 years, with multiple hard-to-predict interactions, the potential will intensify, both for tremendously good outcomes, and for tremendously bad outcomes. We can’t be sure, but what’s at risk might be nothing less than the survival of humanity.

However, with the right action, by individuals and communities, we can instead witness the emergence of what could be called “super-humanity” – enabled by significant technological enhancements in fields such as synthetic biology, AI, nanotechnology, and clean energy. Progress in these fields will in turn be significantly impacted by developments in the Internet, cloud computing, wireless communications, and personal mobile devices – developments that will ideally result in strong positive collaboration.

The stakes are sky high. We’re all going to need lots of inner personal strength to steer events away from the looming technology super-crisis, towards the radically beneficial outcome that beckons. That’s a cause worthy of great attention. It’s a race that we can’t afford to lose.

28 December 2010

Some suggested books for year-end reading

Looking for suggestions on books to read, perhaps over the year-end period of reflection and resolution for renewal?

Here are my comments on five books I’ve finished over the last few months, each of which has given me a lot to think about.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard – by Chip & Dan Heath

I had two reasons for expecting I would like this book:

I was not disappointed.  The book is full of advice that seems highly practical – advice that can be used to overcome all kinds of obstacles that people encounter when trying to change something for the better.  The book helpfully lists some of these obstacles in a summary chapter near its end.  They include:

  • “People here don’t see the need for change”
  • “People resist my idea because they say, ‘We’ve never done it like that before'”
  • “We should do doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis”
  • “The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behaviour”
  • “People here simply aren’t motivated to change”
  • “People here keep saying ‘It will never work'”
  • “I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it”
  • “I’ll change tomorrow”…

Each chapter has profound insights.  I particularly liked the insight that, from the right perspective, the steps to create a solution are often easier than the problem itself.  This is a pleasant antidote to the oft-repeated assertion that solutions need to be more profound, more complex, or more sophisticated, that the problems they address.  On the contrary, change efforts frequently fail because the change effort is focussing on the wrong part of the big picture.  You can try to influence either the “rider”, the “elephant”, or the “path” down which the elephant moves.  Spend your time trying to influence the wrong part of this combo, and you can waste a great deal of energy.  But get the analysis right, and even people who appear to hate change can embrace a significant transformation.  It all depends on the circumstance.

The book offers nine practical steps – three each for the three different parts of this model:

  • Direct the rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination
  • Motivate the elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the change; Grow your people
  • Shape the path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd.

These steps may sound trite, but these simple words summarise, in each case, a series of inspirational examples of real-world change.

The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work – by Shawn Achor

“The happiness advantage” shares with “Switch” the fact that it is rooted in the important emerging discipline of positive psychology.  But whereas “Switch” addresses the particular area of change management, “The happiness advantage” has a broader sweep.  It seeks to show how a range of recent findings from positive psychology can be usefully applied in a work setting, to boost productivity and performance.  The author, Shawn Achor, describes many of these findings in the context of the 10 years he spent at Harvard.  These findings include:

  • Rather than the model in which people work hard and then achieve success and then become happy, the causation goes the other way round: people with a happy outlook are more creative, more resilient, and more productive, are able to work both harder and smarter, and are therefore more likely to achieve success in their work (Achor compares this reversal of causation to the “Copernican revolution” which saw the sun as the centre of the solar system, rather than the earth)
  • Our character (including our degree of predisposition to a happy outlook) is not fixed, but can be changed by activity – this is an example of neural plasticity
  • “The Tetris effect”: once you train your brain to spot positive developments (things that merit genuine praise), that attitude increasingly becomes second nature, with lots of attendant benefits
  • Rather than a vibrant social support network being a distraction from our core activities, it can provide us with the enthusiasm and the community to make greater progress
  • “Falling up”: the right mental attitude can gain lots of advantage from creative responses to situations of short-term failure
  • “The Zorro circle”: rather than focussing on large changes, which could take a long time to accomplish, there’s great merit in restricting attention to a short period of time (perhaps one hour, or perhaps just five minutes), and to a small incremental improvement on the status quo.  Small improvements can accumulate a momentum of their own, and lead on to big wins!
  • Will power is limited – and is easily drained.  So, follow the “20 second rule”: take the time to rearrange your environment – such as your desk, or your office – so that the behaviour you’d like to happen is the easiest (“the default”).  When you’re running on auto-pilot, anything that requires a detour of more than 20 seconds is much less likely to happen.  (Achor gives the example of taking the batteries out of his TV remote control, to make it less likely he would sink into his sofa on returning home and inadvertently watch TV, rather than practice the guitar as he planned.  And – you guessed it – he made sure the guitar was within easy reach.)

You might worry that this is “just another book about the power of positive thinking”.  However, I see it as a definite step beyond that genre.  This is not a book that seeks to paint on a happy face, or to pretend that problems don’t exist.  As Achor says, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change.  It is the realization that we can”.

Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk – by Massimo Pigliucci

Many daft, dangerous ideas are couched in language that sounds scientific.  Being able to distinguish good science from “pseudoscience” is sometimes called the search for a “demarcation principle“.

The author of this book, evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, has strong views about the importance of distinguishing science from pseudoscience.  To set the scene, he gives disturbing examples such as people who use scientific-sounding language to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS (and who often advocate horrific, bizarre treatments for AIDS), or who frighten parents away from vaccinating their children by quoting spurious statistics about links between vaccination and autism.  This makes it clear that the subject is far from being an academic one, just for armchair philosophising.  On the other hand, attempts by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper to identify a clear, watertight demarcation principle all seem to fail.  Science is too varied an enterprise to be capable of a simple definition.  As a result, it can take lots of effort to distinguish good science from bad science.  Nevertheless, this effort is worth it.  And this book provides a sweeping, up-to-date survey of the issues that arise.

The book brought me back to my own postgraduate studies from 1982-1986.  My research at that time covered the philosophy of mind, the characterisation of pseudo-science, creationism vs. Darwinism, and the shocking implications of quantum mechanics.  All four of these areas were covered in this book – and more besides.

It’s a book with many opinions.  I think it gets them about 85% right.  I particularly liked:

  • His careful analysis of why “Intelligent Design” is bad science
  • His emphasis on how pseudoscience produces no new predictions, but is intellectually infertile
  • His explanation of the problems of parapsychology (studies of extrasensory perception)
  • The challenges he lays down to various fields which appear grounded in mainstream science, but which are risking divergence away from scientific principles – fields such as superstring theory and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

Along the way, Pigliucci shares lots of fascinating anecdotes about the history of science, and about the history of philosophy of science.  He’s a great story-teller.

The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires – by Tim Wu

Whereas “Nonsense on stilts” surveys the history of science, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to continue to find out deeper truths about the world, “The master switch” surveys many aspects of the modern history of business, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to organise society so that information can be shared in the most effective way.

The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia Law School, and (if anything) is an even better story-teller than Pigliucci.  He gives rivetting accounts of many of the key episodes in various information businesses, such as those based on the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, cable TV, the personal computer, and the Internet.  Lots of larger-than-life figures stride across the pages.  The accounts fit together as constituents of an over-arching narrative:

  • Control over information technologies is particularly important for the well-being of society
  • There are many arguments in favour of centralised control, which avoids wasteful inefficiencies of competition
  • Equally, there are many arguments in favour of decentralised control, with open access to the various parts of the system
  • Many information industries went through one (or more phases) of decentralised control, with numerous innovators working independently, before centralisation took place (or re-emerged)
  • Government regulation sometimes works to protect centralised infrastructure, and sometimes to ensure that adequate competition takes place
  • Opening up an industry to greater competition often introduces a period of relative chaos and increased prices for consumers, before the greater benefits of richer innovation have a chance to emerge (often in unexpected ways)
  • The Internet is by no means the first information industry for which commentators had high, idealistic hopes: similar near-utopian visions also accompanied the emergence of broadcast radio and of cable television
  • A major drawback of centralised control is that too much power is vested in just one place – in what can be called a “master switch” – allowing vested interests to drastically interfere with the flow of information.

AT&T – the company founded by Bell – features prominently in this book, both as a hero, and as a villain.  Wu describes how AT&T suppressed various breakthrough technologies (including magnetic disk recording, usable in answering machines) for many years, out of a fear that they would damage the company’s main business.  Similarly, RCA suppressed FM radio for many years, and also delayed the adoption of electronic television.  Legal delays were often a primary means to delay and frustrate competitors, whose finances lacked such deep pockets.

Wu often highlights ways in which business history could have taken different directions.  The outcome that actually transpired was often a close-run thing, compared to what seemed more likely at the time.  This emphasises the contingent nature of much of history, rather than events being inevitable.  (I know this from my own experiences at Symbian.  Recent articles in The Register emphasise how Symbian nearly died at birth, well before powering more than a quarter of a billion smartphones.  Other stories, as yet untold, could emphasise how the eventual relative decline of Symbian was by no means a foretold conclusion either.)

But the biggest implications Wu highlights are when the stories come up to date, in what he sees as a huge conflict between powers that want to control modern information technology resources, and those that prefer greater degrees of openness.  As Wu clarifies, it’s a complex landscape, but Apple’s iPhone approach aims at greater centralised design control, whereas Google’s Android approach aims at enabling a much wider number of connections – connections where many benefits arise, without the need to negotiate and maintain formal partnerships.

Compared to previous information technologies, the Internet has greater elements of decentralisation built into it.  However, the lessons of the previous chapters in “The master switch” are that even this decentralisation is vulnerable to powerful interests seizing control and changing its nature.  That gives greater poignancy to present-day debates over “network neutrality” – a term that was coined by Wu in a paper he wrote in 2002.

Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality – by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

(Sensitive readers should probably stop reading now…)

In terms of historical sweep, this last book outdoes all the others on my list.  It traces the origins of several modern human characteristics far into prehistory – to the time before agriculture, when humans existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of personal exclusive ownership.

This book reminds me of this oft-told story:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

I’ve read a lot on evolution over the years, and I think the evidence husband and wife authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha accumulate chapter after chapter, in “Sex at dawn”, is reasonably convincing – even though elements of present day “polite society” may well prefer this evidence not to become “generally known”.  The authors tell a story with many jaw-dropping episodes.

Among other things, the book systematically challenges the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan that, absent a government, people would lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  On the contrary, the book marshals evidence, direct and indirect, that pre-agricultural people could enjoy relatively long lives, with ample food, and a strong sense of community.  Key to this mode of existence was “fierce sharing”, in which everyone felt a strong obligation to share food within the group … and not only food.  The X-rated claim in the book is that the sharing extended to “parallel multi-male, multi-female sexual relationships”, which bolstered powerful community identities.  Monogamy is, therefore, far from being exclusively “natural”.  Evidence in support of this conclusion includes:

  • Comparisons to behaviour in bonobos and chimps – the apes which are our closest evolutionary cousins
  • The practice in several contemporary nomadic tribes, in which children are viewed as having many fathers
  • Various human anatomical features, copulatory behaviour, aspects of sperm wars, etc.

In this analysis, human sexual nature developed under one set of circumstances for several million years, until dramatic changes in relatively recent times with the advent of agriculture, cities, and widespread exclusive ownership.  Social philosophies (including religions) have sought to change the norms of behaviour, with mixed success.

I’ll leave the last words to Ryan and Jetha, from their online FAQ:

We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves.

15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

6 December 2008

Discovering the adaptive unconscious

Filed under: books, motivation, unconscious — David Wood @ 3:19 pm

Like most people, I sometimes behave in ways that surprise and disappoint either myself or other people who are observing me. I’m occasionally dimly aware of strong under-currents of passion, that seem to have a life of their own. Of course I wonder to mysef, what’s going on?

The anicent Greek Delphic injunction is “know thyself”. Modern writers use the phrase “Emotional intelligence” to cover some of the same ground. As these modern writers point out, people who are manifestly unaware of their own emotions are unlikely to be promoted to positions of major responsibility within modern corporations or organisations.

Timothy Wilson’s fascinating 2002 book “Strangers to ourselves – discovering the adaptive unconscious” takes a slightly different tack. Reading this book recently, I quickly warmed to its theme that – as implied in its title – our attempts to perceive and understand our own motivations can be a lot more difficult or counter-productive than we expect.

Through many examples, the book makes a convincing case that, in addition to our conscious mind, we have a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent, feelingful “adaptive unconscious” that frequently operates outside the knowledge of the conscious mind. It can be just as inaccessible to introspection by the conscious mind as is the operation of our digestive system. Because it is inaccessible, we can often be misled about why we do things (subsequently “fabricating” reasons to explain our behaviour, without realising that we are deceiving ourselves in the process). We can also be seriously misled about what we’re feeling, and about what will make us happy.

This adaptive unconscious can often be at odds with our conscious mind:

  • Experiments described in the book show how people, who in their conscious mind are sincerely unprejudiced against (eg) people of other races, can harbour latent prejudices that result in significant discrimation against certain job applicants.
  • These unnoticed prejudices can even have fatal effects – if, for example, policemen have to react super-quickly to a potentially life-threatening situation, and mistakenly infer that (say) a black person is reaching for a gun in his pocket.

Of course, psychologists such as Freud have written widely on this general topic already. But the great merit of this book is that it provides a very balanced and thoughtful review of experimentation and analysis that has taken place throughout the 20th century into the unconscious mind. It puts Freud’s ideas into a fuller context. For example, it shows the limitations of the idea that it is “repression” that keeps the activities of the unconscious mind hidden from conscious reflection. Repression is indeed one factor, but it’s by no means the only one.

This book contains lots of thought-provoking examples about people’s attempts to understand the well-springs of what motivates them. Here’s one, from near the end of the book:

“When Sarah met Peter at a party, she did not think she liked him very much; in many ways he was not her type. However, afterwards, she found herself thinking about him a lot, and when Peter telephoned and asked her out for a date, she said yes. Now that she has agreed to the date, she discovers that she likes him more than she knew. This looks like an example of self-perception as self-revelation, because Sarah uses her behaviour to bring to light a prior feeling of which she was unaware, until she agreed to go our with Peter…

“But another possibility is that Sarah really did not like Peter at all when she first met him. She felt obligated to go out with him because he is the son of her mother’s best friend, and her mother thought they would be a good match. Sarah does not fully realise this is the reason she said yes, and she mistakenly thinks. ‘Hm, I guess I like Peter more than I thought I did, if I agreed to go out with him.’ This would be an example of self-fabrication: Sarah misses the real reason for her behaviour…

“The difference between self-revelation and self-fabrication is crucial from the point of view of gaining self-knowledge. Inferring our internal states from our behaviour can be a good strategy if it reveals feelings of which we were previously unaware. It is not such a good strategy if it results in the fabrication of new feelings.”

Another issue with gaining greater self-knowledge is that it can damage our self-confidence. The author argues that it can sometimes be beneficial to us to have a slightly inflated view about our talents. That way, we gain the energy to go about difficult tasks. (However, if the discrepancy between our own view and the reality is too great, that’s another matter.)

The book concludes by urging that we follow another piece of advice from ancient times. He quotes Aristotle approvingly: “We acquire [virtues] by first having put them into action… we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage”. In short, “do good, to be good”.

He goes on to say, “If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.”

The book has struck a real chord with me, but it leaves many questions in my mind. Next on my reading list on this same general field is “The Happiness Hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt.

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