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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

The Fatty Crab

Behavioural Sciences in the Fatty Crab

(Image Credit: Trip Advisor)

I meet with David Berreby in a Malaysian restaurant called the Fatty Crab on Hudson Avenue in New York. Hudson Avenue starts at the point where the rigid line of 8th Avenue gently dissolves in to the leafy complexity of the West Village. It is a crisp and clear day and I am pleased to find refuge in the bijou warmth of the restaurant. David is a writer and journalist. The reviews of his latest book, Us and Them: The Science of Identity (2008) describe it as a meaty version of Malcolm Gladwell. My rendezvous with David is part of our ongoing conversation about the impact of the behavioural sciences on how we understand and attempt to govern human behaviour.

David is an interesting person. While he is a writer by profession, he has a keen interest in science and its impacts on the human condition. He thinks and talks like an academic, but has a happy knack of being able to write about science in an engaging way. He even spends time teaching the art of accessible writing to budding scientists. What I like about David’s most recent work is that he creatively explores some of the applications and implications of the behavioural sciences for our everyday lives. His latest writings consider whether the quantified self-movement reflects a kind of “outsourcing of humanity”, whereby the decisions we make about ourselves become embedded within an ever more complex technological apparatus. He has also considered whether it would be possible for a citizen to sue a government that had nudged people in a direction that ultimately turned out to be detrimental to their wellbeing.

Our conversation progresses while we eat spiced crab and it feels to me like we are old friends. My sense of automatic kinship stems, I think, from the fact that we tend to approach the contemporary debate about the role of the behavioural sciences in society from very similar perspectives. In our conversation we both identify two broad perspectives on the behavioural sciences in emerging systems of government. On the one hand are those who oppose the emerging role of these sciences in shaping our everyday lives. This group simultaneously overplays the role of these sciences in manipulating humans and diluting human dignity, while also, paradoxically, insisting that related applications of the behavioural sciences are marginal to people’s to-to-day existence. On the other hand are the advocates of the behavioural sciences (working both within government, academia, and the non-profit sectors). This constituency perceives the valuable contribution that related sciences could make to society, but they tend (perhaps as a form of pre-emptive defense) to downplay the significance of related development. They adopt a line of argument that when it comes to nudge-type policies we can all move on as there is nothing significant to see apart from a smarter form of what works government.

What unites David and I’s gestalt is a common desire to chart a path between these two behavioural camps. We want to suggest that the behavioural sciences are having an impact that is both less ethically troubling than the scaremongers suggest, but also more philosophically and constitutionally significant than advocates of these sciences would often have us believe. David is thus keen to explore what long-term developments in the behavioural sciences might mean for human autonomy. I am interested in the potential impacts of these sciences on our collective understandings of the state and citizenship (and the bigger concept of neuroliberalism). These are big questions that are difficult to extrapolate from the as yet modest advances that the behavioural sciences are making. But they should, I think, be important parts of the debate about the behavioural sciences. I see these perspectives as constituting a form of social science of the behavioural sciences, through which the significance of new behavioural insights are understood and interpreted beyond the narrow confines of the decision-making moment and immediate choice architecture. They are forms of behavioural utopianism/dystopianism, within which we allow ourselves to more openly imagine what a future in which humanity more fully understandings its behavioural nature will look like and to question if we like how it looks.

As we tidy away the crab shells and settle the bill I wonder who else is interested in the social science of the behavioural sciences. As we head our separate ways on Hudson Avenue we both express our desire to stay in touch. There may, after all, be not many of us out there, but I suspect there are more than we think.

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