politics of the hap

The foolishness of thinking Or why Howard Davies is a bellend
February 11, 2011, 10:50 am
Filed under: Happiness | Tags: , , , , ,

Mindspace's vision of the human brain

This week I attended a lecture at the LSE entitled ‘Absolute beginners: Behavioural economics and human happiness‘ given with a certain car salesman charm by the slightly slimy Professor Paul Dolan. Thinking about it now I am not sure whether I have ever felt quite so alone as I did that Tuesday evening. As Howard Davies, who was chairing the event, cracked bad jokes and the numerous suited grey-haired or poncy-haired men around me guffawed in response I felt for the first time a deep soldarity with the unwashed dishevelled looking types at Goldsmiths, not to mention the reawakening of my contempt for Davies. But my discontent was something more than that. I will attempt to document here the distinct bad taste I was left with after my visit to LSE (a distaste caused only partially by my envy of the fancy interior of the New Academic Building).

Paul Dolan is an advisor to the current government and one of the Mindspace team that are responsible for introducing the idea of behavioural economics into policy. Dolan’s lecture encapsulated the recent themes and ideas that have been propagated recently; the role of nudges and incentives; the fact that people don’t do the ‘right’ things and the findings of positive psychology and the happiness ‘data’. He introduced a new theme as well however, namely the importance of attention in understanding individual behaviour. Essentially Dolan was arguing that where attention is drawn affects the judgements a person will make. When we are asked to reflect on something it becomes ruined, or becomes a distorted version of the ‘truth’. This causes problems and can explain why we are ‘prone’, in Dolan’s words, to making mistakes about happiness. This is because when we imagine the outcome of a decision, to give up smoking for example, it may seem hideous and frightening but afterwards Dolan says we realize the reality was not as bad. But we avoid making these ‘right’ choices because of what we imagine may happen.

Our attention is therefore is not allocated properly. Dolan goes further to state that attention is either voluntary or involuntary and that us humans are largely driven by involuntary attention. This involuntary attention is an unconscious response and outside of our control. Therefore when we make a decision we often think we construct a rationale before making a choice, but instead in Dolan’s opinion we make an unconscious decision and then rationalize afterward with an explanation that is actually at odds with the subconscious reasoning behind our choice. This subconscious decision is the ‘real’ behaviour as it were and Dolan et. al. (the government) are now trying to find ways to measure this ‘in the moment’ choice on deciding that what people say about their choices cannot be trusted.

What I find strange about this is less the verity of the argument concerning the process of decision-making but the usage of the subconscious in the understanding. Again the paradox emerges where on the one hand we see individual responses taken at face value in happiness studies (which inform a lot of this behaviour economics thinking), and the proliferation and championing of cognitive behavioural therapy, which rejects psychoanalysis and the subconscious and maintains a superficial understanding of the human psyche, and on the other an embracing of the role of the subconscious in decision-making. Now this selective usage of the subconscious is nothing new. We only need to think back to the ways in which Freud’s ideas were picked up and then utilized by heads of marketing and advertising and politicians (as illustrated so brilliantly by Adam Curtis in the Century of the Self). Both then and now the ideas were taken not for the emancipatory tool they had the possibility of being but as a new technique to manipulate the masses. The aim of exploring subconscious drives is not to understand where they come from, what they do, how they are constructed, but rather to find out how these involuntary attentions can be redirected. Yet something far more pernicious is occuring now for these actions are being spoken out in public. As Dolan spoke about the aims to re-orientate our desires a packed lecture (people had to be turned away) applauded – whereas I felt we had officially reached the End Times. For now this manipulation is being undertaken under the guise of ‘for your happiness’ or to increase your well-being. Happiness is beyond reproach, an unquestionably good endeavour, right?

But scratch a little beneath the surface and it is not hard to discover the foundations of this happiness agenda – simply economics. Unhappy people are expensive and they increase unemployment. This is the reason behind IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) which emerged following the finding that countries with high GDP aren’t necessarily happier. The move in positive psychology appeared as a happy coincidence as suddenly all this data emerged to say that what people think they want (money) doesn’t make them happy. IAPT with its deliverance of nationwide time-efficient CBT was then created in order to remedy the increasing depression rates that now were a cause not of lack of wealth or socio-economic status but simply maladaptive thinking. This was also a convenient solution for the government as it would resolve the problem of unemployment and demands on health services without having to change the structures of an unequal society.

This is even more apparent in the new developments in IAPT where clients/patients are provided with employment advisors. The intention has never been so clear, a report declares unemployment makes people depressed so therefore lets get them back into work asap. But what about considering why people may become ‘depressed’ when they are unemployed? Because they live in a society with a high precedence and value on being employed and a disgust of those who do not work perhaps? Even the language – you are ‘un’ employed, you are defined positively or negatively by employment, to have a job is not be ‘un’ leisurely for example.

So whether it is to get us to get a job, or give up smoking or recycle more the strategies used by the government are designed to reorient our thoughts not only on a conscious level but also it would seem now on a subconscious level.

This new approach is once again reshaping the common conception of subjectivity. There has been a move from taking an individuals account or reporting of their own lives without question, and holding up the subjective account as the most valuable claim on experience, to claiming that what people say they want is at odds with their true desires. In the hands of politicians this seems a troubling situation as the presupposition that there is a ‘true’ unconscious drive behind our each choice or act, and further that our drives are always bad or deviant or uncontrollable, grants the powers-that-be the permission to harness this abnormality and remould it towards the ‘appropriate’ goals that suit their ends, i.e. creating an easily malleable population.

Conscious thoughts are undermined or are viewed as unnecessary in this understanding of the subject. When we are consumed by something or pay it too much attention we are allowing thoughts to take on different proportions or more importance than should be attributed to them. This is also classic CBT speak, in which thoughts are labelled irrational or logical. Depression for example is a result of a consumed mind according to Dolan. A mind consumed with depression leads to poor judgement, as do wandering minds. A recent study in Science claimed ‘ a wandering mind is an unhappy mind’. The article presented research that claimed the people reported to be less happy when they were thinking about things other than what they were doing in the present. Instead of considering the fleeting, contingency of thoughts or the importance of uncomfortable thoughts, thinking at all, other than about the act you are undertaking is apparently problematic because it may produce a feeling of being less than ecstatic.

Too much thinking is a bad thing. It would be best it seems to now stop thinking altogether and just let the government through its nudges and incentives do it for you.

P.S. Dear Howard Davies if you are still Director of LSE/alive in three years time please find it in your heart to forget the bellend comment above and please, please, please give me a lecturing post, regards.


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