Man walks into a column, no.35: Cognition

The Social Animal by New York Times columnist David Brooks was, by some measure, the best book I read on my recent Antipodean excursion, and certainly the most thought-provoking. It merits several blog posts all on its own, such is its range, but for now I wanted to expand briefly on just one of the many ideas about human interaction and cognition that the book explores.

The central argument of The Social Animal is that human beings depend for much of their cognitive, emotional and even physiological development on interaction with other people. This is because we are not in any meaningful sense of the word rational beings, or rather the reasoning part of our minds, whilst important, makes up only a small part of cognition.

Instead – Brooks argues – the act of perception is not just a simple or passive matter of ‘taking things in’ but a thinking and skilful process, one governed to a large degree by emotions, unreasoned cues/triggers and the subconscious mind. You can argue about the degree of influence one should accord to the non-rational mind but it seems difficult in light of the weight of scientific and other evidence to dismiss the basic principle that it’s jolly important.

It follows from this that we should pay much greater attention to the perceptual, the emotional and the subconscious processes in realms such as education, the workplace and even social policy, because this kind of broader focus allows for greater creativity, innovation, productivity and so on. It’s the workplace I want to concentrate on for now, and in particular what a greater focus on subconscious cognitive processes might mean for a public sector workplace.

Brooks’ narrative device is to follow the lives of a hypothetical North American couple, Harold and Erica, from birth to old age, in order to explain and demonstrate the ideas – drawn from neuroscience, philosophy, economics and sociology – that he covers. Halfway through the book Erica goes to work for a large telecommunications firm that is failing because it is in thrall to rationalist modes of organisation and doing business.

As recession hits, the company’s management team responds as only it knows how, by driving through efficiency savings, including cutting office space and eliminating all company gatherings that were previously a space to build personal bonds and trust between employees. All policy changes are driven hard from the top and no-one dares question the CEO.

Now this is in one sense strictly fiction, but I couldn’t help but see similarities between this fictional workplace and the local and central government office environments that I’ve encountered over the past few years. They are, I think without exception, strictly hierarchical, rule-bound and dominated by the rationalist paradigm.

Trivial but illustrative examples abound: the sign on the wall of a government department room instructing employees to keep meetings to a 90 minute maximum (we were into our third hour), the normally opinionated civil servant who literally said nothing when his boss was leading the session, or the dandyish local government officer who was given a stern talking to for wearing a (very smart and stylish) cravat rather than a necktie with his three piece suit.

Forming an argument based on anecdotes is not my style. So let’s say instead that my working hypothesis, which I’m keen to find time to test and – please! – have tested by the insights and experiences of others, is that the vast majority of public sector workplaces would benefit enormously from following a looser, more human and social model. What do you think?