Mind the gap: modern society meets the stone age brain

December 17, 2007

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.

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Why changing reading habits could spell the end of empathy

December 5, 2007

The way we read is changing. Could this affect our ability to empathise?

Reading used to be something done with care and dedication, and over long periods. Now, if it happens at all, it is more likely to happen briefly, and with a ruthless eye for relevance.

We used to get married to the things we read; now, we have one night stands.

So what?, I hear you saying. Yes, some people lament the decline of old-style reading: hence the chorus of disapproval greeting the report of the International Literacy Study, released last week. Saner voices see that “youth literacy isn’t actually decreasing; it’s just moving into arenas that the fogeys don’t know about or understand”.

But what if the changing reading habits also changed the way we thought about liberty, equality and fraternity: our most fundamental mental concepts?

Reading historian Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, such a possibility doesn’t seem that remote.

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Short-term thinking: blame the brain

November 26, 2007

Why do we insist on making decisions that only take short term consequences into account? Economist David Laibson thinks he has the answer.

Last year, David Laibson bought annual membership at his local gym. The membership cost him $1000. Over the course of the year, he went 6 times.

Laibson is an Economics Professor at Harvard, so he’s quite capable of working out that his 2006 gym visit cost him a bit over $160 each. It was, he admits, a supremely irrational act.

homer-donut.gifIt is also the kind of mistake we make all the time. Today, I’ve eaten two donuts and a big slice of carrot cake; not exactly the most forward-looking of diets. Meanwhile, the global economy is on the edge of collapse, all because a bunch of hubristic bankers – supposedly among humanity’s more rational brains – can’t see beyond the reach of their own noses. For supposedly sophisticated creatures, our horizons are impossibly short. We are little better than a bunch of Homers.

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