It is very unusual for so long to pass between Postings on As It Happens. We can put this down to two developments.
First, the remarkable 'take off' of the Right2Link Campaign which has touched a nerve in the new economy and set the agenda far more quickly than we had all expected. Follow the Twitter account for the latest news which includes a news on a Clause put down by The Lord Lucas to the Digital Economy Bill.
Second, although we remain cautious about 'recovery', our sister company, Pendry White (which is also handling much of the implementation for Right2Link), has been seeing a surge of activity and this has pulled the As It Happens editorial team into the new business fray.
So, apologies to regular followers, but ten more days of this and we should, with a fair wind, be back on stream ... in the meantime, here are some thoughts on psychology ...
The picture of humanity that is emerging today from the fast-moving world of behaviourial psychology and from the new cognitive sciences is very different from the 'tabula rasa' model that so long impressed policy-makers, especially those of the Left, often against all the instincts of common folk.
As animals, we come out as a lot less flattering to ourselves than we might have liked but before we go any further, we must state our prejudice - a distrust of science-derived theory being applied too easily to social relations. We alluded to this in our climate change and anthropology postings.
Psychology & The Normal
There is a particular problem that arises out of psychology - the 'science' of psychology is solely a method since no human, let alone collection of humans, can be knowable in the way that inanimate matter or even animals can be known.
Psychology is thus only partially a science. It is a series of experimental probabilities and of 'norms' of highly variable reliability. In this, the science of normal perception seems to be far more reliable than the science of normal behaviour and this should be constantly borne 'in mind'.
The quintessential psychological tool is the Bell Curve. There is a danger that the centre of the Bell Curve is given a normative rather than a descriptive value - that the process of describing the Bell Curve both lessens the 'value' of the rims of the Bell and over-values the 'norm' at its centre.
The 'norm' of Victorian or German fascist or Soviet Communist thinking would horrify our contemporary liberal. The 'good person' in all of these societies would, by modern liberal standards, have been normalised out of existence as we try to normalise out prudes, racists and reds today.
But contemporary psychology, neuroscience and sociology are often funded by the public purse and so are part of the political process. Even contemporary liberalism has its totalitarian aspects. The association of these 'soft sciences' and power needs to be placed under permanent critical scrutiny.
The Psycho-Arms Race
Nevertheless, great strides in understanding the working of most brains in most circumstances have been made in the last two decades.
A picture is emerging of a sort of arms race between the normal person's instinct to take the easy way out in dealing with data, in order to process the vast amounts of it coming into the mind through perception, and organised attempts to manipulate that laziness for commercial or political reasons.
As psychologists uncover the tram-line aspects of most people's behaviour under most conditions, so some, in learning these truths, learn also to resist manipulation and to build relatively independent world-views.
The corporate and political manipulators, meanwhile, create ever-more sophisticated means to manage those who either cannot (for reasons of intelligence or access to information) or will not (for lack of will or excess of comfort) question their situation.
It could be argued that people in the advanced Western societies are falling into three broad classes of person in any one particular situation.
A large majority who are unaware of or uninterested in their own manipulation, a class of manipulators for profit, power or (increasingly 'security') and a minority who see what is happening and either fight it or seek to insulate themselves from the process ('fight or flight').
The last group which is far from small is made impotent by the sheer weight of numbers of the first group although, to be cynical, the weight of numbers depends on that weight being well fed and entertained.
It may be that this is just the normal condition of humanity - as applicable to the Roman Empire as the modern West: a struggling mass, a manipulative ruling class and those who cannot but see how the trick is performed.
Knowing Is Resisting
However, a new factor may be the degree to which an understanding of psychology itself arms the 'rebels' as much as the elites.
For example, the experimental work in the wake of the authoritarian fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, notably that of Stanley Milgram, caused horror rather than emulation and it drove ruling elites increasingly towards 'soft' forms of social management.
At the same time, Milgram's work is known to far more people than just the 'rebels' in society and this has helped them become more resistant to blind authority and command.
Ordinary soldiers are increasingly volunteers from the least well educated and poorest comunities and are less likely to be conscripts for good reason - better educated conscripts are no longer prepared to accept authoritarian claims to knowledge.
Perhaps some personality types pine for a simple world of command and control and military obedience but the cultural norm is (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) one of a presumption of liberty and questioning to which ruling elites have now had to adjust.
Governments - as in the recent announcement that the British Government will be using military drones against its own population - are thrown back on intense surveillance and on the isolation and marginalisation of the people who are at the extremes of the political Bell Curve.
In addition, fuelled on the centre-left by the post-Marxist interpretations of thinkers like Gramsci, they are more intent than ever on guiding the centre of the social Bell Curve into territories of automatic self-willed compliance with an authority that presents itself as benign, inclusive and liberal.
One suspects that this master plan of social management will last only so long as the population does not grow hungry. It is designed for a world in which economic decline for large numbers of people is small, incremental and steady rather than precipitous or sudden.
Whether this system can remain both effective and benign with a large angry population on the streets is another matter.
The Problem Of The Sociopath
Fortunately, psychiatry and abnormal psychology (in the sense of conditions that cause serious distress to a person) have been de-politicised fairly effectively by the medical establishment's historic compromise with the anti-psychiatry movement.
But we should not be complacent - the sociopath (a biological reality) is in danger of being quasi-medicalised as complaints grow about a 'broken society'.
Sociopaths used to make up marginalised criminality and the highest ranks of the elite, with social order containing them in the levels between the two. Today, social order has partially collapsed leaving far freer rein for the sociopathic personality, especially in the lower ranks of business.
Similarly, sociopathic behaviour by one sexual predator at the expense of others is much easier in a liberal society. The problem of the sociopath preying on communities under pressure has become salient as case after case of child abuse, including by children on children, horrifies the British at least.
The solution - the systematic reintroduction of community and reversal of thirty years of radical liberalism - does not fit the time-scale of electoral politics so clumsy state intervention, weakening civil liberties and a form of 'liberal terror' against problem communities seem likely.
The irony that it is the sociopathic and authoritarian BNP that is emerging to defend beleagured poor communities from a sociopathic crisis is merely an indication of the depth of the failures of liberal governance.
The Rationality Of The Irrational
At the other end of the social is the personal. Contemporary psychology paints a fairly grim picture of our general inability to think or act rationally or altruistically. In fact, psychologists tend to exaggerate what this means.
Given their particular conditions of life, 'irrational' thought or conduct (including delusions and apparently self-destructive behaviour) amongst the disempowered may be wholly rational - a truly rational assessment of those conditions might well lead to despair.
Some of the most interesting recent research is into 'irrational' modes of thinking although the inherited positive value attributed to 'reason' makes us blind to its flaws and accidentally judges the 'rational-'irrational' behaviour of the masses, irrationally, as somehow 'bad'.
The existence of 'group think' as an observable phenomenon encapsulates why New Labour is consistently incompetent in its decision-making.
There is also useful research from the behavioural economists on why we make dumb decisions on investment and cannot seem to get out quickly from a failing situation. Such research should be required reading by anyone active in public life or in business.
Unfortunately, most of the people making the decisions that affect us do not read books like this and it may take a generation before some of this commonsensical material feeds through into the wider public domain.
The Construction Of Memory
Another area of interest is memory. We construct ourselves and our society on narratives of the past. Yet we forget and remember selectively even if different people have different tendencies in this area, whether towards repressing trauma or sensitising themselves through a talking repetition of trauma.
One can see how there would be a natural conflict of interest between these two main personality types amongst Jews in dealing with the Shoah. Some would want to put the horror behind them and create a new life. Others would want to tell the world and get them to understand and empathise.
This happens in families with child abuse histories, even if the 'talking' might be displaced onto other related subjects. In the case of the Shoah, the narrative required by Israel and European guilt forced the pace and gave the edge to the 'talkers'.
One powerful tool for transforming individuals has been Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy and we should also not be too dismissive of its happy-clappy cognate, Positive Philosophy.
Critics might say they merely create a better class of delusion but, if our aim is not to sink into the unproductive gloom of critical theory but to live long, prosper, love and be happy, then these practical applications of experimental psychology are wholly beneficial.
It is tough out there. If people can use the discoveries that the mind is malleable and that life can be made more tolerable and even be improved through thinking in a different way and positively, then psychology (so dangerous in the hands of governments and corporations) can be a liberating force.
Indeed, a mentality of positive thinking might, eventually, help direct the mind to thinking not only about how to improve one's own condition but why our rulers are so signally failing to assist in that process. In our current crisis, a 'positive politics' is sorely needed and can only come from below.
Cognitive behaviour therapy seems to be particularly useful for conditions where distress (such as depression) is caused by a negative narrative of life that has been built up in the past for good reason but has become increasingly dysfunctional over time.
Improvements in the treatment of mental illness in recent years have been considerable and are only be held back by lack of resources.
If the £8bn spent by the New Labour Government on the Iraq War had been directed into mental health services and improved community conditions, a great deal of human distress might have been avoided in two nations.
The Complexity Of Intelligence
Another positive development is in the increasing sophistication of psychological work on intelligence. This has two countervailing potential results. The first unnerves liberals but has to be faced - we are not all equal in general intelligence and general intelligence matters.
The 'tabula rasa' view is defunct and not only in relation to intellectual equality but in relation to gender difference. We can safely predict the imminent death of the extreme version of egalitarian ideology (though not that of the equal value of all persons regardless of intelligence).
The countervailing discovery (still uncertain in the detail) is of many different types of intelligence to be found in humanity, painting a picture of complexity of talent that no longer privileges people according to their place in a pecking order of general IQ.
This means that a simple stratified society is likely to be sclerotic. The dynamism of society depends on it being a society of all the talents. This opens up society once again to people who may not be formally highly intelligent but have massive advantages in particular types of intelligence, skills and aptitudes.
It also suggests a society of respect for the potential of everyone rather than obeisance to a privileged exam-passing few.
Respect For Difference
The shift from a stratified world of fixed roles to a tabula rasa world of forcing individuals into an egalitarian straitjacket (often under the malign influence of the behaviourists) is now becoming a further shift from the 'tabula rasa' to a respect for difference.
Nowhere is this clearer than in gender relations where the feminists of the 1970s school have found themselves on the run as society rediscovers the fact that boys and girls are fundamentally different even if you can get very boy-like girls and very girl-like boys where the Bell Curves overlap.
There may be an alchemical truth in the magical position of the hermaphrodite where the curves meet but the real message is that is no longer regarded as helpful for women to strive to become like men.
The model is one not of separate but equal (with all the apartheid implications) nor equal and not separate but of complementarity and difference yet equality in worth and access to resources.
This more sophisticated formulation has been seized upon by younger women (as sex-positive or 'lipstick' feminism) as far more truly liberatory than 'traditional' feminism.
Although the new could not have taken place without the struggle of the old, the new really is based on the science that we have in place so far.
Language too now looks as if it follows Chomsky's model of having innate characteristics even if one can dispute the detail.
Deep brain structures imply profound predispositions in learning, language, behaviour and gender difference - not to the extent of presenting any silly predestination arguments but as representing natural constraints on radical versions of existentialism.
Why Psychology Matters
Brain matter, in short, matters. Anyone who has been at the birth of his child knows that twenty years later aspects of personality present then are present now.
The history of psychology is full of half-baked nonsense - the Rorschach inkblot test, phrenology, simplistic Freudian and Behaviourist ideas, discredited left/right brain theories - and there may be half-baked nonsense in the new ideas but we are moving forward all the time.
Much past experimentation is redundant and even silly so that, as tools for understanding oneself, or for creating a dialogue about personal meaning, Tarot cards and dream interpretation are now as one with the ink blot (and that does not mean that they are not useful).
Freudianism increasingly looks daft in its potty theorising about repressed sexuality but it was a vital stepping stone in exploring the unconscious even if the path best taken was back into neuroscience and into imaginative cultural studies (Jung) and investigation of particular drives (Adler, Reich).
Behaviourism too seems more like an ideology than a considered exploration of the mind but its experimentation in conditioning has proved central to effective treatment of phobia as well as providing further proof in its findings that cruelty and conditioning can debase both child and man.
The new wave of research is taking us into fresh territory with real public policy implications. The tendency to enforce conformity, the use of psychology in the struggle between authority and freedom and the problem of the sociopath are all live issues in contemporary politics.
Of equal importance is a proper understanding of how individuals are pre-set to irrational decision-making, to selective memory and to their talents and gender. The ability to improve lives through behavioural therapies contain the seeds of liberation but also of political manipulation.