Impulse and Cupidity
Posted by dlende on June 22, 2010
So I’m now down in Tampa, getting set up at the University of South Florida after some good years at Notre Dame. Tampa looks great – an exciting city. And USF looks like it will definitely support interdisciplinary efforts like neuroanthropology. So it’s all good.
Here’s a quote that caught my eye on Sunday:
For in the anything-goes atmosphere of our recent past, it wasn’t just external controls that went awry; inwardly, people lost constraint and common sense, too. Now there is a case to be made that problems of self-regulation — of appetite, emotion, impulse and cupidity — may well be the defining social pathology of our time.
In the late 1970s, the historian Christopher Lasch famously described America as a culture of narcissism. Today we might well be called a nation of dysregulation. The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere.
It came from the NY Times article Dysregulation Now by Judith Warner. She featured the work of Peter Whybrow in the second half of the piece. Whybrow directs the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
Whybrow is the author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. It definitely looks like a neuroanthropology-friendly work, with the Amazon description reading: “The indictment of American society offered here—that America’s supercharged free-market capitalism shackles us to a treadmill of overwork and overconsumption, frays family and community ties and leaves us anxious, alienated and overweight—is familiar. What’s more idiosyncratic and compelling is the author’s grounding his treatise in political economy (citing everyone from Adam Smith to Thorstein Veblen) as well as in neuropsychiatry, primatology and genetics.”
Building on Whybrow’s work, Warner writes near the end of her piece:
The larger structural problems that create our widespread envy, greed, overconsumption and debt — gross income inequality, for starters — will be much more difficult, politically, to address… [T]he pressures that drive the dysregulated American haven’t abated any since the fall of 2008. Wall Street is resurgent, and unemployment is still high. For too many people, the cycle of craving and debt that drives our treadmill existence simply can’t be broken.
It’s the “modern misfits” story, where human nature no longer matches the human culture we’ve created. That too is familiar. But at least there is an appreciation of causation at different levels, from human psychology to structural problems, and that’s good. And I do happen to think that issues surrounding consumption and self-regulation are rather important, and not sufficiently recognized as problems that need more than simple answers like a Drug War or a pill to break the cycle of craving…