Sunday, 31 August 2008

All in the mind...

I was googling around last week and found something that Matthew Taylor of the RSA wrote on his blog a few months back that chimed with what I've been thinking lately. Here's a snippet:

advances in related fields of inquiry and activity together amount to what could become a paradigm shift. One way of putting this is that instead of being concerned primarily with what we think about the world and how we act on this we may increasingly be concerned with how we think about the world.

By ‘what we think’ I mean conscious thought expressed through the always and ever present ‘voice’ in our heads, and though intentional verbal and written communication. By ‘how we think’ I mean the ways in which the unconscious processes of our brains condition our thoughts and behaviours.

Certainly it does seem that a lot of interesting stuff in the future is going to be based a lot more on an understanding of how we actually think, make decisions etc, rather than assumptions about our behaviour (ie that we will respond rationally to incentives).

Personally speaking, the George Lakoff stuff I've read lately has had a big influence on me. To be honest I find his attempts to apply some of his insights to politics far less interesting than the original theories themselves, which really do reveal a lot about how our minds work. If you accept the idea that our ways of thinking about the world are not abstract and machine-like systems but rather are deeply rooted in our human experiences (including basic experiences like movement) it does put a rather different perspective on things. It also suggests answers to why so many of our ideas don't work, and so many of our predictions are wide of the target. Often I think we simply don't properly grasp what we are dealing with.

Then you've got the rise of behavioural economics, seeking to apply insights from psychology and sociology to economic decisions. I find this stuff really interesting since it has had a bit of an influence already in two areas I've been involved in - pension reform and institutional investment (though the book that first got me interested was probably the Paradox of Choice). It helps explain why when we make economic decisions we don't act like the rational creatures we have been presumed to be. Very small influences, intended or not, can have a significant impact on our actions (for example, the way a game is named can change the way we play it).

My one reservation is that to date a lot of these developments have been better at highlighting how we get things a bit wrong, and make mistakes, rather than helping identify how we might do things better (though perhaps books like Nudge are starting to address that). But in general I think that Matthew Taylor might be right to argue that there is fairly significant shift taking place.

I think the Tories have been quite canny to talk about these kinds of ideas, though I'm still sceptical about the extent to which they will really apply them, as the recent food-labelling decision highlights. In addition I think that some of findings from these new areas of research pose some pretty big challenges for the typical right-of-centre view of the world. It continues to baffle me therefore why the Left doesn't take more of an interest and even champion some of these ideas.

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