Mind the gap: modern society meets the stone age brain

The most critical division in our politics this year won’t be between left and right, or between Labour and the Tories. It won’t even be between rich and poor. In 2008, we will find the most important split in public life within individual citizens. Inside ourselves, we see a gap – profound and entrenched – between private optimism and public gloom.

For a long time now, politicians and policy-makers have been aware of a startling schizophrenia in British life. Known in Westminster as the “perception gap”, and in Washington as the “happiness gap”, the split between private optimism and public pessimism is one of the most serious problems of current political life. Resolving this cognitive rupture must be the task of 2008, or we will end the year once more paralysed politically, unable to deal with the challenges that face us.

Time and time again, opinion polls reveal a dramatic gap between what people say about their personal experiences, and what they say about the state of things in general. On the whole, people are confident, even buoyant, about their individual prospects – witness journalist and 20-year absentee Jon Henley marvelling at “the energy, the entrepreneurism, the ambition, the can-do”, on his return to the country. Yet they insist on believing that the nation as a whole is going to hell in a handcart.

Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81% of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same group was asked whether they thought the NHS was providing a good service nationally, only 47% felt able to declare that it this was so. Total violent crime has fallen since 1997, and most people report themselves confident with the way crime is dealt with in their locality. Yet the bulk of people think that violent crime has risen, and a strong majority think that crime is handled badly in Britain as a whole.

For the British public, seeing, it seems, is not believing. A recent BBC poll on families revealed the familiar combination of personal optimism and societal pessimism. 93% of us describe ourselves as happy with our family life, a figure up 4% from the last time the survey was conducted. Yet increasing numbers of people – 70 per cent, across race, class and gender – believe families are becoming less successful overall. They prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of their parents’ generation.

Who is responsible for the perception gap? Most obviously, our friends in the media. Behind them, in a close second, our friends in politics.

But as pleasurable as it is to kick these pariahs, we must also acknowledge our own responsibility for the perception gap. We are the ones who buy the papers, and watch the news, thereby giving support to a culture of spin.

It may be, though, that this tendency to prioritise the local is hardwired into the functioning of our brains.

The human brain is ill-equipped for the scale of modern mass society. Designed by evolution to go on a kind of eternal camping trip, they now find themselves faced with bigger groups and longer horizons than they are able to deal with.

In the dense tropical forests of Africa, our ancestors learned the importance of a warning. Spreading the news about a dangerous snake or spider could be life-saving. It is understandable, then, that the thinking device adapted to operate in this situation finds itself unprepared to function in conditions where packets of peanuts have on the side the legend: “Warning. May contain nuts”.

What is more, we are predisposed to believe malicious gossip, even when hard facts are available. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology conducted an experiment recently to compare the effect of gossip and factual information on generosity. To their dismay, gossip was the clear winner every time.

According to Max Planck researcher Ralf D. Sommerfeld, we originally learnt to trust reputation because it worked well to make small groups cooperate. Now, living in mass societies, we find it a positive handicap.

MORI polling data shows that, when something good happens to us, we tell two people. When something bad happens to us, we tell nine people. At its most basic, this is the cause of the perception gap.

Biology, though, does not have to be destiny. We are quite capable of defying the dictates of our ancestry. This year, we should all resolve to take on board a grounded optimism about public life. And, sappy as it may sound, the best way to express this is to pass on good news and keep bad news to yourself. As your mother always told you: “if it’s not good, don’t say it”.

If we do not take this course, we may well be left with a choice of two evils. First, to let our society be carried along on some kind of autopilot. In this world, everything will operate on the basis of an automatic opt-in, with the crucial default settings chosen for us – a kind of pensions utopia, if you will. In a best-case scenario, the managers setting the defaults will be kindly, paternalistic sorts. History, and Franz Kafka, tell us this is rarely the case.

Second, a world in which we are stripped of our dials and instruments, and forced to fly without aids. Instead of being allowed to opt-in, we will be required to choose on everything, required by the exigencies of the situation to think where we once just acted. A world in which, to paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are “forced to be free”.

Both these visions remain a distant prospect. But, as society’s problems become tougher, we will need to keep our eyes on the horizon if we are to prevent them becoming a reality.

Hat tip: Matthew Taylor.

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2 Responses to Mind the gap: modern society meets the stone age brain

  1. […] they forget to mention the perception gap – without which, any discussion of this issue is half […]

  2. […] hardly sounds pleasant, but it may be the only solution. I have written before that, if its current path continues, we may end up having to choose between two evils: extreme […]

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