FAVOURITES: 22 October 2009 – From Prospect magazine – If stabilising climate change means changing human behaviour – such as making the boring task of saving energy seem exciting and worthwhile – then it’s time to start understanding how our brains work.  Matthew Taylor in Prospect magazine runs through the exciting discoveries made by science and psychologists in this powerful field of study.

Brain and behaviour research is increasingly being incorporated into political and policy debate in Britain. It is forcing both left and right to re-examine old assumptions

As a schoolboy socialist in a 1970s grammar school, the first political arguments I had were about human nature. My idea of the good society rested on a view of people as collaborative and benign, qualities hidden by the depredations of “the system.”

Working-class Tory mates mocked my naivety. To them we were self-interested. Some succeeded by their efforts, others failed or cheated and would change only if incentivised or compelled.

Yet for most of the 20 years that I have been involved in politics—as a Labour party activist, think-tank director and government adviser under Tony Blair—debates about human nature have been restricted to criminality and other social pathologies, as if only bad people failed to conform to the behavioural model of modern economics. I have never fully bought the idea that people are merely self-interested, rational actors. But during my time in Downing Street, whether we were addressing business regulation or competition in the NHS, the model of Homo economicus seemed to serve well enough: offer people choice and they will act in their own interest and in so doing will make the system work better for everyone. It is not a complete view of human action but it was a useful shortcut, and it had become the prevailing view of most policymakers in the US and Britain.

Today, human nature is back. Political debate is questioning again what shapes and motivates us, who we are as social animals and what we could be. Lying behind this is not just a faltering neoliberal project, but also 30 years of research on human behaviour and the neurological processes that shape it. It can be politically unsettling: some findings seems to undermine important assumptions on both right and left. But while David Cameron has claimed aspects of behavioural economics and neuroscience for his modernising project, these insights can inspire progressives on both sides of politics, producing a new synthesis more nuanced and more solidly based than previous attempts to move beyond left and right.

In truth, virtually no one who studies the brain or behaviour, or philosophises about the mind, accepts the idea of a disembodied rational self inside our heads making all our decisions on the basis of self-interest. But whatever its problems, its advocates could until recently argue that it was the best available model. Their assumptions underpinned the free-market philosophy that brought decades of growth. But, as we struggle slowly out of a global recession, it has been behavioural economists such as Yale professor Robert Shiller who have shed light on our predicament. Shiller argues that our brains are susceptible to undue optimism and risk-taking when things are going well, and excessive pessimism and caution when they are not. Seemingly self-interested calculations—to jump into a booming housing market, for instance—are too often driven by emotion and a hard-wired tendency towards mimicry: we see others doing well, it makes us anxious that we are missing out and we copy them. The reverse happens during recessions, when we become overly cautious.

Such arguments draw on the work of Nobel prize-winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In the late 1970s they developed “prospect theory” to explain how people behave when dealing with risk and uncertainty. Of particular interest were findings about what economists call our “discount rate”—the fact that we value owning something today much more than a larger quantity of the same thing in the future. Developed in academia over the past three decades, such ideas went public with the publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge. Compared with mainstream, mathematically-based economics, behavioural economics is accessible, drawing on social and evolutionary psychology, sociology and anthropology as well as neuroscience. All of this has helped neuroscience take the place of theoretical physics as the field of science most fascinating to the amateur—books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s breezy summary Blink are bestsellers. Such research has practical applications too, for instance in the “positive psychology” movement. Begun about a decade ago by psychologist Martin Seligman, this asked why clinical psychology concentrated on mental illness rather than happiness. Flowing from Seligman’s work, experiments using methods similar to those used in cognitive behavioural therapy are now trying to “teach” happiness in schools in the northeast of England. Meanwhile, brain-imaging research showing that those who meditate have enlargement in brain areas associated with feelings of wellbeing, has helped meditation shed its associations with mysticism.

Why some people care more than others
Brain and behaviour research is reframing political debates, too. Behavioural economics has been embraced by the British right in particular. Margaret Thatcher famously backed the neoclassical model, yet it seems that David Cameron wants to refashion the Tories’ whole approach to regulation based on the insights of Nudge. On the left, the same is true for what can be called “pro-social” behaviour: caring about the welfare of others. In government, Labour has become increasingly preoccupied with the way people behave. This reflects public concern over greater social diversity and the decline of deference. It also relates to the cost to public services of our unhealthy and environmentally damaging habits. A decade of policy disappointments has taught politicians that initiatives will fail if people are unwilling to engage responsibly. But why are some people more inclined to be pro-social than others?