28 November 2005

Achieving social goals requires imagination, not selection

Even if you could get more RAM for your brain, the extra storage probably wouldn't make it easier for you to find where you left your car keys. What may help … is a better bouncer – as in the type of bouncer who manages crowd control for nightclubs. Source
This research measured the brain activity of people asked to remember arrays of colored squares or rectangles. In one experiment, researchers told subjects to hold in mind two red rectangles and ignore two blue ones. Those considered to be ‘high-capacity’ individuals excelled at dismissing blue, but low-capacity individuals held all of the rectangles in mind. The researcher said that:
People differed systematically, and dramatically, in their ability to keep irrelevant items out of awareness. This doesn't mean people with low capacity are cognitively impaired. There may be advantages to having a lot of seemingly irrelevant information coming to mind. Being a bit scattered tends to be a trait of highly imaginative people.
There are many ways to interpret these results, (published in full in Nature, 24 November). From the Social Policy Bond point of view, I would make these points:
  • Today’s society defines ‘high capacity’ individuals as those who can be most selective in the choice of information they consider; and
  • Policymakers – politicians, government officials, corporate bosses – are overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of those considered to have high capacity.
Excluding extraneous information may be desirable, and even necessary when looking at defined tasks where success will be measured in terms of one-dimensional units such as sales, market share, profits, or numbers of people on waiting lists, etc.

But aggregating such uni-dimensional targets, whether corporate or government, will not optimise society’s well being. For this, we need to target broader social and environmental outcomes. These could, and should, include quality of life indicators; the provision of a tight safety net that maximises rates of basic literacy, health and housing; baseline environmental indicators; and the maintenance of law and order.

A government could define such broad social and environmental goals, but it should not prejudge how best to achieve them. Such achievement requires an awareness of a huge number of variables and a responsiveness that policymakers do not have: all the evidence bears this out, and the research mentioned above explains it. Excluding information is necessary for articulating society’s wants and raising funds – which governments do quite well. But when it comes to actually achieving our goals, we need a different sort of intelligence; one that is comprehensive, imaginative, pluralist and highly adaptable. Markets, in the service of social goals, are the answer. Social Policy Bonds are a means through which government and markets could each do what they are best at.

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