Monday, 7 July 2008

Using psychology and neuroscience to improve society

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (the RSA) has launched a new project that seeks to bring together all that we know about our brains and the way we think, so as to help humankind reach its full potential in a changing world, and to shape public policy for the good of society.

An article in the latest issue of the RSA's in-house journal puts it like this:

"Our growing knowledge about our brains and our ability to intervene in our own neural processes may offer us an unprecedented opportunity to shape our behaviours (conscious and unconscious) and to rise to current challenges. This potential will remain unfulfilled unless we can develop a cogent and accessible framework (bringing together science, social science, ethics, public policy) through which the wider public can understand, interpret, debate and exploit these possibilities. Developing this framework is the aspiration behind the RSA’s ambitious new project."
The article flits a little confusingly between the potential usefulness of biological interventions (e.g. cognitive enhancers) and psychological findings (e.g. Daniel Kahneman's Prospect Theory; Robert Cialdini's work on persuasion), and it sounds rather like what must have been the pitch for the recent book Nudge. However, there's no doubt that gathering all these threads together, and finding ways to apply them for the common good, is a laudable aim.

As part of the project launch, Jonathan Carr-West of the RSA interviewed Steve Pinker about some of these ideas, the video of which has been pasted on line (a screen grab appears above).

Pinker actually throws something of a dampener on the idea of intervening neurologically to improve our performance or help society. For instance, with over 100 trillion synapses, he thinks the idea of surgical brain enhancement is a long way off. However Pinker says there is plenty of scope for using what we know about the biases and heuristics in human thought - psychology in other words! - to improve our decision making, planning and behaviour.

Pinker cites the example of Dan Gilbert's work on affective forecasting, which has shown just how poor we are at predicting what will make us happy, despite our great confidence in our ability to do just that.

About 13 minutes into the interview Pinker says he himself learned from Gilbert's findings. Before Pinker made the decision to switch from MIT to Harvard, rather than imagining himself in his new job at Harvard, he asked colleagues he knew who'd made the same move, how they had found the experience.

This may sound shrewd but I couldn't help thinking that Pinker forgot to factor in the power of cognitive dissonance. Because of the tendency we all have to justify our own actions, and to see ourselves as wise decision-makers, the colleagues who gave up their job at MIT and went to Harvard are perhaps the last people Pinker should have spoken to if he wanted an objective assessment. Subconsciously or otherwise, research on cognitive dissonance predicts these people will have been highly motivated to perceive their decision to have been a good one.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to RSA Journal article: Brain Power.
Link to video of interview with Stephen Pinker.

disclaimer: I'm a fellow of the RSA.


Riemannzeta said...

How about a synchronized flow theory of cooperation, including how and why firms form and economies grow?

See here:

and here:

Mike Lawrence said...

Re: "the colleagues who gave up their job at MIT and went to Harvard are perhaps the last people Pinker should have spoken to if he wanted an objective assessment"

I disagree; Pinker himself, despite that fantastic hair, is only human and therefore susceptible to those same cognitive dissonance effects. The idea of the survey, then, is not to establish what choice is "objectively best", but that which has the better average subjective experience, cognitive dissonance included. Consider: either choice potentially elicits cognitive dissonance effects (though, I suspect there might be literature suggesting such effects are stronger as a consequence of a choice resulting in action vs one that results in inaction), so the survey simply seeks to assess the balance of pros/cons over-and-above these effects.

Hm, (obviously still ruminating on this) this perspective seems to suggest that it's possible for a choice with demonstrably less optimal outcomes in the objective domains (financial outcome, etc) to elicit stronger dissonance effects and thereby yield the most optimal outcome in the subjective domain ("I *must* be really happy here if I'm staying despite this crappy wage!").

Digest said...

Mike - that's a really interesting point. However, following your logic, Pinker ought really to have compared the subjective reports of people who chose to make the switch and those who didn't. What's more, you are placing great faith in the switchers' powers of cognitive dissonance reduction. Seeking to justify their choices may have led the switchers to tell Pinker what a good choice they'd made (perhaps also hoping to reassure themselves in the process) but that doesn't mean they really were happy. One way around this could have been to simply ask the switchers how happy they are with their lives, without framing it in the context of the choice they had previously made as to whether to switch or not.

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