Society Can Drive You Mad

At the beginning of this century we started to think a bit more explicitly about wellbeing in society – what it might mean and how we might measure it. In 2010 ‘The Big Society’ was a ‘big topic’, but not only was there scepticism about the political motives but in many ways, it missed the point.

YouTube Video, David Cameron launches Big Society Capital, 10 Downing Street
10 Downing Street, April 2012, 13:53 Minutes

The Big Society missed the point, partly because it was about more of the same (e.g. volunteering and promoting the third sector) just presented under a new banner. It was not about doing things that would really make a difference. It was not about bringing the bankers to account. It was not about finding mechanisms to identify and head-off systemic failures. It was not about really understanding what wellbeing is, in the individual and in society, and designing really effective ways of addressing it. And, in the event, most discussion about it turned out to be the same tired old politics, in exactly the same rut of traditional thinking about the distribution of wealth.

Here is the final audit report on the Big Society, published by The Civil Exchange in January 2015: The Final Big Society Audit

Blog 2 – ‘Society Can Drive You Mad’ turns its attention from the individual to society but tries to use the same models, language and analysis as applies to the individual to look at structures on a larger scale. This will turn out to be a brief diversion, just to flag the direction of travel, before returning to a deeper analysis of the meaning of wellbeing and control.

We only have to look at the European Union to illustrate how larger social structures affect the individual. The fault-lines in the design of the economic elements of the EU have been growing since they first cracked open in 2008 as a result of the global crisis in banking. Looking back, we can now see how lending and debt was used by the designers of the system, primarily Germany and France, to influence economic policy decision-making in countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. The longer-term consequences are now being picked up, not by the system designers, but by ordinary people across Europe (including those in Germany and France).

BBC Radio 4, Start the Week, Greece and the Eurozone with Yanis Varoufakis, April 2016, 48:19 minutes

Once it was the practice that the designer of a bridge had to live under it for a year to be sure the design would be robust. Now, designers and the people affected by the consequences of the design, have become dissociated.

Much of the change and dissonance in our lives is brought about by the actions of others, either as individuals or in society at large – family and friends, peers, organisations and the state. Life is unpredictable – things just don’t turn out how we expect them to.

In much the same way that the body automatically gets hungry to motivate eating, the mind tries to maintain its world model by dealing with dissonance, and society adapts to resolve dissonance between interest groups with differing value systems. It’s a similar type of process where change creates imbalance (i.e. dissonance) that requires action to restore a stable state of affairs. In physiology this may be maintaining levels of blood sugar. In the mind it might be maintaining the correspondence between the world as it appears and the model of the world in the mind. In society it may be the balance between different interests and value systems. Although there are many different sources of dissonance and many different methods of resolving them, the homeostatic model provides a good starting point for understanding all self-regulatory systems – from the body, to the mind, to society.

YouTube Video, Consciousness and the Underpinnings of Social Behavior, Big Think, June 2011, 4:54 Minutes

This blog starts to sketch out how the ways in which organisations work can impact on the wellbeing of the individual. This jumps to a point on the larger scale – somewhere between the individual and the state. It illustrates both where the type of thinking in this blog leads, but also how a consistent story about wellbeing and control can be made all the way along the spectrum from physiology to society.

The ways in which organisations can operate is insidious, and often under the cover of a plausible, but flawed, story. Who told us the story that the banks are too big to fail? (I pick the banking industry because it is an example most people will understand and agree with but the points apply in many other sectors including health, benefits, housing, the law and more).

YouTube Video, David Cameron in conversation with Nassim Taleb, 24 Feb 2010, 29:14 Minutes

We all have a need for fair play but this blog is not about the most obvious and deliberate injustices. The argument being made is more to do with what organisations do as part of everyday and commonly accepted business practice. Sometimes this is at the fringes of legality but for the most part there is very little ‘checking’ to correct any issues in this form of ‘accepted’ behaviour. If there is a homeostatic mechanism then it operates over the longer term and can be thwarted by agile management and individuals that move around the system in time to avoid the long-term consequences of their actions. It is here where the plot is hard to follow and we need a much more robust understanding of the relationship between wellbeing and control in order to see what is really going on. As Taleb says – it is about nuances – the devil is in the detail.

In particular, it is about how organisations use their power to shift costs away from themselves and onto others – the individual, smaller businesses, and society generally. Customer service has changed. The customer must now do much more work to select suitable products where the market is deliberately designed to confuse. Big companies bully little companies, squeezing their margins to the limit. To keep costs down problems, often created in the private sector, end up in the public sector, then because of limited budgets, are passed around from agency to agency (social care, to healthcare, to the legal system). We have been paying for banking and insurance products that are next to worthless. These ways of working can deliver economic benefit to particular organisations, and even society at large, but do they deliver a net increase in wellbeing?

While larger organisations may have genuine benefits in terms of efficiencies and economies of scale, often they survive by simply moving costs off their own profit and loss account and onto society at large. These social costs are unaccounted for. They are ignored by most of us as part of life. They are written off by society, but if they were tracked, aggregated and invoiced for, many large businesses would go bankrupt (or at least show a considerably diminished return on investment).

Even the organisations with noble objectives can err badly. Take the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust for example, where many patients died due to lack of care despite the sustained protest of relatives, friends, and the media.

For illustration of the way in which the actions of governments, regulators, banks and global corporations can impact on the lives of individuals, take the case of somebody who suffered the effects of negative equity. Let’s say that the mortgage payer also lost their job and suffered a bereavement. This led to anxiety and then depression and, after a period, to family breakdown. They then became homeless, and having few sources of support, found themselves on the streets. They were already drinking heavily. Some minor criminal act leads to temporary imprisonment, following which they had nothing left. Let’s say they ended up in a psychiatric hospital with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts.

YouTube Video, Depression is a disease of civilization: Stephen Ilardi at TEDxEmory, May 2013, 22:20 minutes

But although depression is more recognised in the developed world, it is endemic throughout the world and potentially much the same analysis and remedies can be applied.

TED Talk, Vikram Patel, Mental Health for All, 12:19 minutes

The decline from normality to depression involves many agencies including banks, employers, the family, government (the job centre, benefits, housing, police, courts), and healthcare. In a sense it is the failure of these agencies that has led to the decline. People slip through the holes in all the layers of support.

What starts with the operation of macro-economic forces (rises in interest rates, sub-prime mortgages) and the operations of banks, ends with the taxpayer footing the bill for healthcare. The original act is dissociated from its outcome. The people who created the starting conditions may benefit (in this case, the bankers) while those at the other end suffer.

YouTube Video, The banks: how am I here again? Paul Mason on the news, Channel 4 News, November 2014, 2:20 minutes

This blog is not so much a rant at what’s wrong with society, as an observation that the system can fail.

Not only can it fail but it’s just not very good at supporting wellbeing. At every stage the various agencies (particularly banks and financial institutions, but also many private and public organisations, the operation of the law and educational system etc.) seem to act to push the individual down and a person must have some resilience to fight against the pressure. There is a touch of Nietzsche’s notion of ‘ressentiment‘ and the ‘will to power‘ (i.e. not be pushed around by those that have more power), but in the main it attempts to be an impartial analysis of ‘how things work’ to empower everybody to enhance wellbeing. Power, control, mastery, competence, agency and autonomy are all themes in Nietzche and this blog. We all have a desire to be effective agents and seek the power to impose our own values on the world.

YouTube Video, PHILOSOPHY – Nietzsche, The School of Life, October 2014, 6:56 minutes

In case it all looks like doom and gloom, I support Pinker in his view that, all in all, there is plenty of evidence that the world is becoming a better place.

BBC Radio 4, Start the Week: Fascism and the Enlightenment with Steven Pinker, February 2018, 45 minutes

We ought to be able to do better at maintaining individual and societal wellbeing than we currently do. We ought to be able to create organisations and systems that push people up the wellbeing ladder, that capitalise on their capabilities – that recruit the best that we know about wellbeing and control to motivate and support the individual. We should make this type of fall resist gravity. If we were serious about creating a ‘Big Society’ we would not still be arguing along the traditional political grounds, we would be rolling up our sleeves and debugging the system.

At least now, wellbeing is on the agenda and discussion about it is ‘legitimised’. What’s more there is a different mood and some attempts to think through how change can be brought about. For example, Daniel H Pink’s book ‘Drive’ sets out how people doing more creative work benefit from a ‘Results Only Work Environment’. This is where the individual is tasked with some goal but has autonomy to achieve it how they like. Many of the biggest and most successful companies have introduced this style of working.

YouTube Video, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, April 2010, 10:47 Minutes

Also, there are tools like the Dolphin Index and companies that espouse this philosophy that will help benchmark organisational culture. Whilst discussion on the ‘Big Society’ may have gone flat there are government initiative such as the Behavioural Insights Team (originally part of the cabinet office) that apply knowledge from social science to help achieve policy objectives.

YouTube Video, David Halpern: Nudge and Beyond: Behavioural Science, Policy and Knowing What Works, July 2012, 24:30 Minutes

As things stand in 2014/2015, we are waking up to the idea that the design of society and its social structures need not be around the classical economic model. We have some clues about where to go, some initiatives and some experiments. But really we are at the stage where this approach is on the fringes. To be really effective it needs to be developed as an applied science, then fully embedded into everything we do. This is the direction that these blogs lead.

This Blog Post: ‘Society Can Drive You Mad’ shows why it is important to understand wellbeing in the individual and how society often undermines it. It provides the rationale for a better understanding of wellbeing and control.

Next Up: ‘Wellbeing is not just the Satisfaction of Needs’ presents some popular and expert definitions. This kicks off the process of tying down definitions for all sorts of slippery terms.


Nietzsche’s notion of ‘ressentiment‘ in more detail:

Youtube, Video, Nietzsche – Ressentiment, Power, & Values, Philosophy Overdose, January 2018, 44:37 minutes

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.