David Brooks is pushing his new book.
Basic thesis: we should stop treating humans as rational and logical creatures, and instead use some kind of fuzzy logic based on theories of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
"When the Soviet Union fell, we sent all these economists into Russia, when what they really lacked was social trust," Brooks tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "We invaded Iraq totally oblivious to the psychological trauma and the cultural realities of Iraq. We had financial regulatory policies based on the ideas that bankers were sort of rational creatures who would make smart decisions."
In Washington, D.C., which Brooks calls "the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth," Brooks notes that decisions are made based on the assumption that people are cold, rationalistic individuals who respond to incentives. Those assumptions didn't quite match what the research in other fields began to illustrate, however.
Emotionally avoidant? What the fuck is that? Scientology jargon? Shit.
Anyway, he's got the overall point backwards, but not quite 180 degrees backwards. Maybe 160.
Our problem is NOT that we wrongly assume people to be rational.
We make two separate errors. In some cases we assume the wrong kind of rationality. In other cases we respond irrationally to a rationally definable problem.
Bankers are a good example of the first error. Bankers are the coldest, hardest, most purely logical creatures on earth. Like alligators, they have exactly one prime directive: EAT.
anything that moves, bankers EAT
anything that contains money.
When we assumed bankers could self-regulate, we were giving them credit for some level of morality, some kind of conscience. In other words, we were UNDERestimating their raw rationality. (Of course we were only saying that for public consumption. Phil Gramm knew exactly what he was doing. He was gleefully pouring the entire country into the alligator's mouth.)
A good example of the second error is crime and punishment. Professional criminals are innately different from non-criminals. Pro criminals are perfectly rational, capable of responding to incentives. Our court system applies the wrong incentives most of the time, thus getting the wrong result. [Note: I'm not talking here about incurable psychopaths, who are relatively rare. They won't respond to any incentives at all, so you just have to kill them or keep them locked up forever.]
Garden-variety professional criminals are short-term thinkers who need instant gratification, and they are intensely social extroverts.
If we truly wanted to punish them (in the Skinnerian sense
of doing what actually decreases the undesirable behavior) we'd respond quickly
to every crime and we'd isolate
We should put them in dark solitary immediately after arrest, with no sensory input. A few months of total boredom will be a powerful learning experience. For novice criminals who haven't developed their vocation fully, an immediate and humiliating public spanking followed by a short isolation would do wonders.
Instead we respond with glacial slowness, with plenty of opportunities to game the system before "punishment"; and then we give them a nice vacation among their homies. We put them in a situation where they can socialize at will, maintain gang structures, practice techniques of violence without real danger, and get food without working.
These are irrational
responses to the criminal's rational nature.
= = = = =
Brooks's view on education deserves a special spanking:
[Brooks says] people tend to be influenced by their underlying, unconscious emotional state, which is in turn influenced by the social relationships surrounding them. For example, Brooks has covered education reform for 20 years and writes that he has seen little improvement from multitudinous policy changes.
"The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah," he says.
He's right about emotional state in general. Lasting memory requires a certain degree of emotional arousal, whether positive or negative. Good teachers have always understood this. But I have no idea what he means by "learning from people they love." We learn from experience and example.
Experience and example can come from many sources: raw unmediated Nature, people you hate, people you love, people you don't know, computers. What matters is attention, arousal and repetition, not love.
The problem with our education system is ... Well, it's everything. We fail to apply ANY of the known facts about learning, or the known facts about human differences and innate abilities. We operate in direct contradiction to all known facts.
There's nothing new or irrational about the proper way to teach. You can see it in the New Testament, you can see it in the medieval master-apprentice system, you can see it in the one-room schoolhouse. Even within the modern Comprehensive Secondary School, a few magnificent
teachers manage to fight the system and apply these techniques. These teachers generally survive and avoid wild-eyed insanity because they love their students, which may be where Brooks is picking up his connection ... but in a more rational system, good teaching wouldn't be so damn hard to sustain. It wouldn't be limited to these rare and passionate virtuosi.