Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change

One of my students, Nikolas Dawson, hipped me to these nifty animated videos developed from lectures at the RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, ‘a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress.’ My student was pointing out a video about recent financial crises, RSA Animate – Crises of Capitalism, that combined an edited version of a David Harvey lecture with great animation, but in the process of poking around their website, I realized that there’s an interesting clip for readers at

The video is ‘RSA Animate Matthew Taylor: Left brain, right brain,’ and fortunately, it has virtually nothing to say about ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain,’ but is instead a very interesting discussion of the relation between human psychology and the possibility of social and political change. In addition, the animation is great!

The video is linked to the RSA’s project, The Social Brain, which is a platform for a number of expert speakers to discuss how the things we’re learning about the brain help us to understand a range of social issues. If you want to watch the whole video, but without the animation, you can go to YouTube recording of the whole lecture: Matthew Taylor – Left Brain, Right Brain: Human nature and political values. Matthew Taylor has his own blog as well.

The RSA website also has a piece by our colleague, Joan Chiao, ‘Face Value.’ Chiao discusses why some societies seem to prefer hierarchical governments, and others prefer leadership that promotes great egalitarianism, as well as some of the relationship between research on facial preferences and democratic decision making. She concludes:

This cultural diversity in political preferences and structures is proof that our evolutionary instincts for social hierarchy are not cultural destiny and that, through knowledge of where we come from and imagination about whom we may become, we can come closer to building a society with consideration and compassion for all.

For more information about the RSA, especially the Social Brain project, you can read below.

The Social Brain project

Background to Social Brain project

There are three main strands to the idea that the brain is essentially social.

1) The brain, now it is finally beginning to be understood, turns out to unconsciously execute many of the decision-making processes that were previously thought to be self-consciously produced. The idea that all decisions flow from an executive rational subject, in principle capable of operating in isolation from others, now appears to be at worst false and at best unhelpful.

2) The brain has evolved to develop and function within social networks. For example, a deficit in the neurotransmitter Serotonin (which, amongst other things enables self-control) will result from unstable social environments lacking in qualities like empthy. Or, another example: mirror neurons are designed to enable (amongst other things) altruistic behaviour that facilitates social cohesion and allows an agent to successfully engage with others (and thus to achieve her own goals).

3) Even when we do make self-conscious decisions these are partly constituted by systematic biases that are fundamentally social. For example, behavioural economists have shown that people often indulge in herd behaviour. Game-theorists have also shown that it can be optimally rational to act altruistically because an agent’s good reputation amongst her fellows is massively important for her ability to successfully negotiate the social world. And as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have shown, these kinds of socially motivated biases have their basis in the neurology of the brain.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

2 thoughts on “Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change

  1. Excellent video!

    As a cultural anthropologist and public interest entrepreneur I have a natural interest in tools and technologies and their relationship to social change.

    I believe there are social ‘tools’ that can be enormously helpful in the sort of transition in thinking about governance that is necessary.

    The Individually-controlled/Commons-dedicated Account* (and especially the resultant network) is a simple concept… but provides an essential framework essential for re-vitalization of Enlightenment principles within an excessively commercialized world.

    *A Self-supporting , Commons-owned neutral platform for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for very fundamental scaling reasons must allow a viable micro-transaction (think x-box points for action in the Commons). The resultant network catalyzes additional functionality for co-ordination of other ‘social energy’ utilization. (P.S. Its the most neutral and ultimately politically viable method for the public finance of elections.)

    Extinction requires only inertia.
    We’ve reached that critical point now where…
    Evolution requires tools…
    Carefully thought out tools.

    Money and the Machinery of Representation

    Personal Democracy: Disruption as an Enlightenment Essential

    The Foundations of Authoritarianism

    How would hunter-gatherers run the world? (pssst… They Do!)

    Credit Creation and the Building of Sustainable Economic Ecologies

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