Brains, breastfeeding, and behaviour change

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks if you are interested in the popularisation of behaviouralism. A couple of weeks ago, there was the wonderful news story that seemed to suggest that babies who are breastfed suffer from fewer behavioural problems later in life than those who are bottle fed (this was quickly collapsed into a story about breastfeeding being the route to better behaved babies – not true in our case at the moment, since our breastfed baby is currently refusing to have anything to do with a bottle, which just isn’t good behaviour at all). This science story was fantastic precisely because the causality involved in the correlation was open to entirely different interpretations – it could be something to do with acids in breast milk; or bonding between mother and child.

This week, The New York Times’ pundit David Brooks has been in the UK, promoting his book The Social Animal, which makes strong claims about the importance of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics in establishing the non-rational factors which explain decision-making (in fact, Brooks’ version is really a rehashed version of the low-level conservative anti-rationalism that runs from Burke to Oakeshott; it also seems in part to be shaped by a concern to account for the failure of the US punditocracy of which he is a leading figure to notice that invading Iraq might not work out too well, oh, and that unfettered financial speculation tends to lead to catastrophic banking crises). Brooks got to trail his argument in The New Yorker earlier this year, where the Churchlands and David Eagleman have also been profiled recently – if nothing else, neuro-thought seems to have become something like the ‘spontaneous ideology’ of a certain field of academic-policy-punditry discourse in which the discovery that people don’t conform to the most abstract of models of rational utility maximizing seems to have come as a surprise (while we’re on the topic of The New Yorker and economists’ models of rationality, there is a fascinating series of interviews, from last year, by John Cassidy with various economists from the Chicago School – including Gary Becker, Richard Thaler, and Raghuram Rajan – which provides interesting insights into just where the differences between different understandings of rationality and non-rationality lie within this world).

The attention, and credulity, extended to Brooks this week reminded me of a line from a blog by Alice Bell which I think I have mentioned before, in which she refers to Nikolas Rose’s observation to the effect that neuroscientists themselves are highly sensitive to the mis-representation of their field, and that “if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get”.

But anyway, what was my point? One of the features of the popularisation of brain-led behaviouralism in public culture – through more or less selective reference to cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioural economics, or neuroscience – is the degree to which it reproduces a deep, underlying individualism even as it seems to disavow certain understandings of individual rationality. This is most evident in the claim that various forms of action which, ordinarily, don’t seem that odd at all actually stand as proof of the fundamentally irrational, or non-cognitive, or emotional, or unconscious dynamics of human decision-making. This framing is indicative of the way in which the associational dynamics of action get folded back into an individualised model of action in specific academic fields, and certainly in popular representations of these fields. This is not my thought – it’s a recurring riff throughout Viviana Zelizer’s recent collection of greatest hits, Economic Lives, which I was speed-reading on a train a while ago now. Zelizer is keen to distinguish economic sociology and its attention to the social relations in which economic action is embedded from the approach of game theory and behavioural economics, which also breaks from excessively ‘rational’ models of rational utility. As she puts it, “game theory and behavioural economics involve modification, but not elimination, of economic models’ deep individualism” – and this is evident in the way in which categories such as emotion or irrationality effectively condense the relational contexts of action back into psychologise-able, model-able figures of explanation (Diane Coyle has an interesting, sceptical response from the perspective of an economist to Zelizer’s own project).

I’m still trying to work out how, exactly, to approach this whole set of debates in a way that doesn’t reproduce the in-built prejudices of ‘constructivist’ social theory (which would include most styles of self-styled ‘materalist’ approaches), which sees in all this simply the machinations of ‘power’ and or bad-ontology; and which acknowledges that a critical social science that doesn’t think it has anything to learn from these fields about rationality is probably doomed to moralistic irrelevance. I am beginning to get a sense of where exactly my discomfort lies, not only in relation to the popularisation of all this behaviouralist discourse, but also in relation to the established norms for being sceptical towards it. I was helped by attending part of, but sadly not all, of a workshop on the practice and theory of ‘nudge techniques’ at the OU earlier this month. This included an excellent introduction to the Mindspace report developed by The Cabinet Office and The Institute for Government in early 2010 which provides the framework for behaviour change initiatives in public policy in the UK.

One staple feature of these popular and policy discourses around behaviour change, nudging, and the like, is the claim that there are two systems shaping behaviour – a rational, reflexive, cognitive system; and an automatic system, of unconscious motivations. One interesting division within this field of policy discourse, it seems, is just how the relation between these two ‘systems’ is understood: one version of nudging assumes that government can manipulate ‘choice architectures’ not so much behind people’s backs, but by prompting them to re-interpret their actions in new ways – it assumes that beliefs, habits, feelings, can be apprehended cognitively as a route to changing them (and others presume that the in-built, automatic systems which guide people’s behaviour can be ‘attacked’ directly, without routing through any rational ‘system’ at all).

Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, gave a very good Keynote at this workshop, in which he basically argued that effective nudging is quite difficult – on the grounds that the logical conclusion of an emphasis on the intuitive, unconscious, less-than-rational dynamics of human decision-making is that most beliefs and attitudes and habits are enmeshed in webs of relations with other actions, habits, and commitments, which makes changing any one really difficult – this is why nudging tends to focus on behaviours and decisions which are not strongly connected or embedded (e.g. rare decisions like organ donation or investing in a pension). Chater’s emphasis, then, was on the efficacy of nudge techniques, not their ethics. Of course, the ‘ethical’ worry shaping this debate follows in large part from the bifurcation between ‘rational’ and ‘automatic’ – the concern is shaped by worries over covertly shaping people’s choices in directions they might not otherwise have taken by doing things to them ‘under the radar’, as it were.

I think it’s interesting that this intuitive ethical worry is so central to debates about the use of behaviour change approaches, because it seems to get at an aporia at the heart of the ‘theory’ behind much of this discussion. Chater’s talk exemplified this – it focussed on that the sense that there is introspective depth to human behaviour was an illusion. Now, the substance of his account of the self is really about the temporalities which relate behaviours, habits, beliefs, attitudes, reflection, and so on – but the rhetoric of illusion, the sense of an inner self endowed with a rational will is a fiction, is telling nonetheless. It’s never quite clear in much of the discussion around these issues what attitude is held to the everyday, intuitive sense that we do tend to have of ourselves as having inner selves, able to introspectively reason about our actions (actually, sometimes it is clear, there is a strong strain of explicitly eliminationist neurophilosophy that sees all this as mere folk psychology ripe for correction). Am I in error to hold this belief about my actions, my behaviours and attitudes? Or, shouldn’t this same range of theoretical work be able to provide an account of how such beliefs and attitudes actually help constitute the intuitive, unconscious, embodied, non-cognitive capacities that they otherwise champion? Old uncle Habermas has pointed out the degree to which arguments which collapse normativity into simple models of scientific naturalism end up having to present the self-understanding of acting subjects as mere epiphenomena (see the essay ‘Freedom and Determinism’ in Between Religion and Naturalism).

There is a range of broadly ‘genealogical’ analyses of the emergence of these new styles of thinking about governing behaviour – I can think of Rose’s work on the brain sciences and the new susceptible subjects of public policy, the Soft Paternalism project at Aberystwyth, or work informed by affect theory which discerns the emergence of new anticipatory logics in security apparatuses or urban design. These types of study are good at identifying new political rationalities, if by that we just mean the ‘causal’ understandings of behaviour that shape various attempts to intervene in different social fields.

But the difficult question is what to make of the emergence of these new fields of neuro-enhanced, behaviouralist intervention, once the genealogical description is done. Here, I think there is a division amongst critical social scientists: you can interpret all this as rather sinister, being drawn into a trap laid down by the reflective/automatic binary, adopting an inadvertently rationalist ‘ethical’ position that one might not, otherwise, be inclined to endorse at all; or you can affirm the basic understanding of the non-rational, non-intentional, non-cognitive dimensions of action that informs behaviour change ideas, but with the help of a dash of affect theory, more or less inflected by psychoanalysis perhaps, but draw up a distinction between good and bad affect – extending credulity to the rhetorical deflation of intentionality and rationality in the new behaviouralism, but finding therein untameable resources for disruption and creativity. Both these styles of ‘critique’ end up leaving intact the claims of scientific authority upon which behaviour change discourse depends.

This is why I have found the Ruth Leys intervention in debates about affect theory so refreshing and though provoking – it does two things which seem to me to provide important resources for thinking through what a sustained critical engagement by social scientists and the humanities with a whole range of new scientific fields of the mind would look like: it identifies some key questions about experimental design, inference, and generalisation that should be asked of any scientific field when its’ ideas begin to travel; and it locates this style of questioning within broader philosophical debates about the relationship between normativity and naturalism. My sense is that this second set of philosophical debates in particular – ones in which the status and value of the concept of action is quite fundamental (not behaviour, not subjectivity, but action) – is where the deep ethical and political issues at stake for a critical engagement with the (social-)sciences of behaviour change, really lie. I’m not convinced that the current conventions of theory-formation in critical social science as I have learnt them are well placed to engage with these debates – conventions in which mention of intention, rationality, or reason are met with quizzical looks or confident dismissal. I’m still trying to unlearn these conventions.

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