Individualism: why Behavioural Economics is a dead-end

Read a very disappointing Green Paper from the Cabinet Office (HMGovernment's policy HQ) today on Charitable Giving. 

Disappointing not for the recommendations per se (up to you to make your mind up of what you think of them politically) but on the quality of the thinking behind them. Despite having built a crack team to rethink how policy and behaviour change might interact and taking soundings in all kinds of places, they've come up with essentially nothing which is likely to have an impact on the behaviour of the UK population in the area of charitable giving.

Put simply, the paper clings onto the old individualist type of models that have shaped policy for generations. Minister Frances Maude: [my italics]

"Social action is not something that government can, or should, compel [individual] people to do; it has to be built from the bottom up, on the back of free decisions by individuals to give to causes around them. This is not easy, particularly given the pressures of life in 21st century Britain. For many of us it can feel like a struggle just to keep up with commitments spanning work, family, and friends.

So the call to social action needs to speak to individuals’ motivations and account for the obstacles to giving; to fit with people’s lifestyles and interests. In short, giving should be made as easy and attractive as possible"

No surprise, maybe, given that the Nudgers and the Peacock Tailors are the key source of insight into human behaviour (what tosh btw is the essay on Human Nature?).

As we've observed before, both these schools cling on to the default setting for thinking about our species as a fundamentally individualist one and human behaviour as a fundamentally individual phenomenon (rather than the fundamentally social one we've been arguing for). (And no, it's not good enough to mention "social influence" or gesture wildly at "social norms" as if they were something that got done to individuals and thus easily fabricated – our social species takes influence from those around us and co-creates social norms with the many hundreds and thousands of folk we share our world with – without understanding the mechanics of these kind of things, you're unlikely to get them working for you)

I think it was Emile Durkheim who noted that something qualifies as an ideology when it stops being an assertion or assumption and just becomes part of how we see the world.

Until we get beyond this Individualist Ideology embedded in the neo-dismal sciences, nothing much is going to change round here and that's a really big worry for both Big Society Fans and the rest of us.



  1. James Cherkoff
    December 30, 2010

    Cameron’s idea of The Big Society increasingly sounds like John Major’s Back To Basics: harking back to a ‘better time’, rather than addressing a future where tech-powered communities and groups organise themselves around their passions.
    Ironically perhaps, the best recent example of this is students protesting against government ditching its university funding and replacing it with private contributions.
    But I’m not sure this is what DC had in mind…

  2. John
    December 31, 2010

    Its all very well advocating new thinking – don’t you realise we are social animals and people are happier copying ideas. See you for that postponed beer imminently.

  3. Audrey Victoria
    January 1, 2011

    Excellent post and wonderful blog, I really like this type of interesting articles keep it up.
    Nice job I really like it!