There can be no doubt that ongoing developments in sciences of the mind and brain are central to our contemporary condition and will have an immense impact upon future politics. But the particular form this may take remains an open political question - except in the United Kingdom. The nation that gave the world free-trade, cricket and Puritanism is now a pioneer in the application of ‘cutting-edge’ neuropsychology and neurophysiology to problems of government policy. We call it “behavioral change”.
Tony Blair’s new Labour came to power in 1997 preoccupied with two things: reform of the public sector (which in the UK means schools, hospitals and universities as well as the labours of the civil service); and amelioration of the poor socio-economic conditions of the very worst-off or most ‘excluded’. In both cases it sought to create systems of incentive and disincentive that would lead people to act in ways the government desired. In public services this included forms of market competition and performance measurement as well as rewards for demonstrating entrepreneurial capacity. In welfare it included tax-credits and wage guarantees to ‘make work pay’. In short, new Labour swallowed much of what was invented by the theorists of so-called ‘public choice’. Two things happened to modify this.
Firstly, improvements were not as large or fast as desired. Government therefore sought more refined ways to modify behaviors, or at least a more solid-seeming evidence base for doing so. Secondly, Labour also recognized – correctly - that from climate-change to poor educational attainment, government alone cannot solve the problems we face, and resolution also requires action on the part of citizens both as individuals and as parts of collectives.
Labour drew the conclusion that if it couldn’t solve policy problems by directly acting upon them then it could do so indirectly by acting on individuals and getting them to solve the policy problem for it. Individual mental behavior thus became a primary object of policy and ‘behavioral change’. Indicative policies include: dosing prisoners diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorders; cash-grants for low-income pregnant women intended to enhance in-utero diet and thus the physical and mental quality of babies; schooling kids in emotional and financial literacy; incorporating behavioral management principles into urban design.
These developments are symptomatic of the collapse of two prior paradigms for government thinking. The first is of course the social democratic idea that the protection of public and collective spaces from the deformations of corporate self-interest ensures opportunities for democratic self-rule that transform individual capacities. The other is the idea of public and rational choice theory that the protection of private spaces from the deformations of collective interest ensures opportunities for corporate rule that transform profit margins. Having already rejected democratic socialism Labour’s inorganic intellectuals then recognized that the simple utilitarianism of rational choice theory (which despite decades of effort still can’t work out why anybody bothers to vote) is inadequate to the task of predicting or managing large parts of human activity. In addition to thinking in terms of rewards and punishments they sought to take account of interpersonal and communal influences upon behaviors, and were excited to discover that social action is sometimes shaped by “social norms”.
And so into British public policy there came neuroscience, to sit alongside economic and psychological behaviorism and the tedious just-so stories of - inexplicably fashionable - evolutionary psychology. The conclusion has been that, as one former adviser to Tony Blair puts it, ‘by highlighting our psychological frailties and the way these contribute to market epidemics’ behavioral economics and neuropsychology contribute to ‘a powerful case for regulation, paternalism and measures to promote feelings of security’ as well as to appreciation of the fact that strong social institutions can help to contain what might otherwise be our impatient and short-termist pleasure-seeking. “It is sensible”, he argues, for politicians to work with the constraints of our mental predispositions…by revealing how social arrangements have been molded by human nature, it encourages us to respect the tacit wisdom of established norms and be sensitive to the damage that can be done in the name of modernization”.
And, that, of course is a classical form of Conservatism. People, we now learn, are frail and weak. They are prone to error and also – the most important of contemporary sins – irrationality. They must therefore live in societies where better people, who care about them, can oversee the strong institutions that keep them on the straight and narrow. And, indeed, the British Conservative Party is just as interested in behavior change as new Labour has been. Here is Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaking at the end of 2009: “There are lessons we can learn from the latest academic research which shows how government, by going with the grain of human nature, can better influence behaviour. The behavioural psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that one of the most important influences on how we behave are 'social norms' - that is, how other people behave. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued that with the right prompting, or 'nudge', government can effect a whole culture change...’. Yes, British Conservatism now takes its lead from an Obama lawyer.
There are lots of things wrong about this. There is space here to mention only three. The first is this: policy claims about neuropsychology and behavior almost always make it seem as if the latter studies the brains only of those whose behavior is an object of social policy and rarely the brains of, say, the people who make such policy. But if neuropsychology, neuroscience (and evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics) tell us that our minds are not very good at making decisions then this must surely apply as much to the Downing Street Policy Unit as it does to any else. And given that these people have the power and position to affect national policies that include matters as significant as how we educate our children and which countries we invade, should we not be concerned with their brains above all? Perhaps (to employ insights the evolutionary psychologists are very proud of) people go into policy-making, think-tanks and government because they imagine that the heady scent of power coming off them might help them to attract more partners with whom they might mate? And if there is one thing that policy makers are good at in a country such as the UK – with a venerable tradition of centralized government – it is exercising the irrationality of groupthink (q.v. ‘invading Iraq with neither a reason or a plan’). In short, if new findings about brain and behaviour are true then they should not change how government works but how we think government in the first place.
Secondly, this approach to policy is significantly silent about something: if we want to understand how and why people today behave as they do maybe we should look at not only the ‘internal’ influences but the ‘external’ ones. Those might include, say, advertising companies encouraging unsustainable debt, film and television studios inflating fears of crime or junk-food chains wrecking our biochemistry with appallingly bad products. Indeed, much of what is presented as new findings about how to frame decisions and ‘nudge’ behaviors has been most developed in the field of marketing. There is little point, if one is worried about energy costs in expending effort to get people to recycle a bit more, use some different light bulbs and generate bit of their own electricity - much better to change the ways in which energy corporations produce and deliver their electricity. In short in a society such as ours where people – whatever we pretend – have radically different levels of power over the world, the behavior the matters most is not that of the routine individual but of the powerful; the people who run and own corporations and banks and so on and whose madness and anti-social tendencies have of late been all too apparent. But about this the advocates of behaviour change policy are mostly silent.
Thirdly, the incorporation of neurological thinking into British government is not the outcome of a careful reflection on the state of research and it is very selective. That is unfortunate because there is so much to be learned from neuroscience. My concern is that the way it is being incorporated into policy may encourage us to reject the science and to depart yet further from materialist theories and methods. It is unlikely that many will come fully to embrace the Churchlands’ declaration that human brains and bodies are “epistemic engines” exploiting the “flow of environmental energy, and the information it already contains, to produce more information, and to guide movement”. But they might see the significance of the finding that our dynamic neural networks are parts not only of our internal nervous system but also of much larger networks comprised not just of other persons and their bodies and brains, but also a natural environment (including rain, gravity and e-coli) and cultural environment (including forms of communication, types of food and kinds of routinised or institutionalized activity).
Politics has not just become neurological now that we have studied brains and that governments can take neurology into account when designing polices. Humans have always acted on themselves and on their brain-states (thorough diet, fasting, intoxication etc.) and States have acted on their subjects (through festivals, military training, education etc.). Understanding that and specifying how it happens today is a vital contemporary challenge.
The incorporation of neuroscience into the thinking of British politicians and policy makers is part of a wider collapse in the confidence and conviction of politicians of all kinds and who, as a result, turn to whatever sounds clever and looks ‘cutting-edge’. With no faith in the difficult processes of democratic government, and unwilling or unable to challenge the pathologies caused by those who control significant means of production, our politicians have instead turned to micro-techniques for trying to manage individuals. The outcome – of course – is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
All politics is concerned with behavior change. People have written books, sung songs, and made speeches, they have marched in celebration, in protest or to war all because they wanted to change the habits, thoughts and feelings of others. British politicians may have rejected literature for behavioural neuropsychology. But the rest of us need not be so refined in our choice of political techniques. There is behaviour out there that needs to be modified and there are powerful people who are finding it difficult to learn the lessons of their bad behaviours. It is up to us to help them by any means necessary.