Episode #60 Models of Mind: bringing emotional intelligence into the heart of governance with Rachel Lilley
How different would our world be if we understood how our minds – and feelings – worked? How would our workplaces change if everyone was doing their best to understand how everyone else experienced the world? Dr Rachel Lilley describes how shifting our perspectives changes everything – from work to home to government.
Rachel combines extensive academic research with many years practical experience working with teams and senior leaders to offer unique and practical insights into attention, emotions, consciousness and decision making. She has particular expertise in behaviour change related to sustainability, climate change and community engagement as well as extensive academic and personal experience of using mindfulness to develop self and other awareness and gain insight.
In today’s podcast, we discuss the basis behind her PhD thesis, which explored the practical results of teaching mindfulness to civil servants in the Welsh Government and how this impacted on the ability to deliver results particularly related to climate change actions. The core of this: that people learned how their own minds worked – and so began to understand how others’ minds work, that not all minds are the same, and not all thought processes follow the same lines – is transformative in our lives, our workplaces and our ability to respond to the current planetary crisis. Rachel explains the basis of her work and its results so far- as well as the potential for extending it further.
Manda: My guest this week is an academic, a mindfulness practitioner and a facilitator delving deep into the ways that our political administrations work. As you will hear, Dr. Rachel Lilley came from a childhood in which she experienced the chaos of our dysfunctional system and now. She’s a behaviour change and mindfulness academic. She has a Ph.D., she’s a consultant and trainer. She’s co-author of the book Neuro Liberalism: Behavioural Government in the 21st Century. And she’s a researcher who leads Action Research in the heart of the Welsh government and the result of her work is deeply inspiring. She doesn’t come at this lecturing people that they need to be more compassionate, or have more empathy in their work, or just in their life, but she gives them the tools of modern science that they need to do their job more effectively. And compassion and empathy and deep listening and reflexivity arise out of those tools.
Every conversation that I have on this podcast feels like it’s reaching new ground for me. But this one feels as if it’s taking us to the heart of the way that our current system works and how it might be changed from the inside out so that we can talk across the divide. We recorded this in the middle of the extraordinary political upheaval happening in the United States and in the middle of the Covid third or fourth lockdown that’s happening around the world. And more than ever, it seems clear to me that what we need is a change in the way that governance happens. And Rachel is facilitating that within the heart of the Welsh nation. And if it can happen there, then it can happen across the world. So people of the podcast, please welcome Dr Rachel Lilley.
Manda: So, Rachel Lilley, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you for coming out on quite such a momentous evening. As we record, Joe Biden is being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. And I’m fairly certain that the majority of listeners to the podcast will have experienced that as a deeply emotional and really quite relieving moment. And there’s a lot of problems that will arise, I’m sure. But still, it feels like we dodged a bit of a bullet here. So thank you for missing the inauguration. How are you out in Aberystwyth? Is it very cold and very wet?
Rachel: I’ve just been out for a run, Manda, just before sitting down with you to do this podcast. And I can tell you that it’s very wet out there, yes. It’s that kind of, ‘the air is just water’ wet.
Manda: You’re breathing, breathing underwater. I think we have Storm Chrisoph. We’ve been told that we’re about to be flooded, and get in all the supplies we might need, because we won’t be getting out for a while. But you’ve got the sea, which is very beautiful, and I am very envious. Anyway, while we’re talking about sea and politics, we know that you have been transformative, I think, I would like to think, in bringing mindfulness, behavioural science models of mind to particularly to the governance of the country that you live in, which is Wales, and we’re going to head there quite soon. But before we head there, I’d really like to explore how you, Rachel, got to be the person who thought that this was a good idea and was able to make it happen. So tell us a little bit about how you got to be who you are.
Rachel: Yeah. Thank you, Manda. And thank you for inviting me on to discuss some of this work. So, yeah, my childhood started mostly really in South London, in Croydon, although I was actually born in North London, in Essex and took a little detour via Derbyshire. And all those shifts and changes were very much, as a lot of people in my kind of situation, due to family breakdown, divorce, money issues, and my dad ultimately ending up in prison. So as a result of that childhood, I ended up with what’s called a high adverse childhood experience school. So people might have heard of that,it’s probably worth looking up. It’s very available on the Internet. And if you’ve got a school, I mean, let’s highlighted a bit because people just go to school over four, it’s shown to have quite a big impact on their future kind of life in terms of where they get to in their career, what happens in their relationships, how far they make it, or in what way they make it along the journey. But as part of that, if people have a good resilience, then they’re able to kind of balance out the adverse childhood experience. And I’m sure that’s what I had, and that’s something I was gifted with, was with resilience that also came from my family.
And I was very curious about the world. That’s kind of the thing that, in a way got me through. I loved school, I loved learning. I was very interested in how things worked and also the gift of having a childhood that’s a bit all over the place is, that maybe certainly for me, it made me question a lot of things. And I saw a lot of things that didn’t quite add up as I got older. And having gone to a school, a very, an inner city school with a lot of problems, and then moved on, and ended up in university, and started to see that people I’ve been at school with, you know, weren’t around me now in university, and the people I was mixing with, and not really.. and suddenly seeing the people that I was surrounded by didn’t seem a lot different from the people that I was in school with. So starting to see things as I can look back at it now and in a more kind of systems kind of a way. You know, how are these systems working, that some people are getting here and some people aren’t, and some people are having a voice here and some people aren’t. That was very much, I think, my starting point for a lot of what I’ve gone on to do.
Manda: Ok, because I think I remember from our earlier conversation that your school, nobody went to university from your school other than you, obviously.
Rachel: Well, I wouldn’t say nobody, but certainly I think, you know, this showing my age here, I think the average grade was a CSE grade three. So that’s pretty low. And there was no sixth form in the school. So the majority of people left at 16.
Manda: So if you wanted to go to university, you had to go to a different school.
Rachel: You had to go to a different school. And there was two or three of us that went to a different school, went on to sixth form or to another place to do A-levels. And the three of us, as I know from my year, went on to university. But I’m sure another number of people went on to university, you know, as they got older. You know, they would have done other things that got them to university.
Manda: Okay, so it wasn’t impossible.
Rachel: It wasn’t impossible. But that was again, that’s another kind of systemic issue, isn’t it, because those people didn’t get on the ladder. You know, so they’re they’re catching up all the time, even though they’ve got valuable skills and thinking to bring to the table. But they’re always on a bit of a catch up.
Manda: Yeah. Whereas people who went to other schools where the expectation was that you went to university, the only question was what you were going to study. They have a whole different framing to start with as they get there. And then you get to university and discover that the people who went to the very expensive schools are not necessarily any brighter than the people who didn’t. It’s just that they had a different start in life. What did you study when you went to university?
Rachel: I studied a kind of interdisciplinary kind of social science degree that served me quite well, really, looking at sociology, psychology, linguistics and studying the media as well and how the media constructs our reality.
Manda: Interesting. Particularly now that’s…. yeah, I don’t know how long ago that was, but I imagine now they’re teaching also how social media constructs our reality. And the balance between the legacy media and the social media and the new media must be a very fertile ground for people to explore, I imagine.
Rachel: I really hope so, though I went on… just as part of my journey, I did a teaching qualification, and taught media studies A level as part of that. And actually they’d taken out out all the critical element, a little bit or a lot of the physical elements. So there is a danger, and obviously I mean, this is another podcast, but I think this kind of critical study of the media should be a core part of the curriculum, in my opinion. But it seems to actually have got a bit dumbed down in more recent times.
Manda: So, OK, so we set up our university, you and me, we will have critical views of the media. The capacity to critically think about anything, you know, should be a core part of the – just teaching critical thinking, I think, should be a core part of everybody’s curriculum. But anyway, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Rachel: I think that was that light bulb, another light bulb moment to me when I suddenly realised that, yeah, how media was a construct. You know, having grown up in a pretty ordinary working class, you know, home, and experienced a lot of poverty and issues, then to have my – and in fact, I saw that when I was teaching it as well, having your eyes opened to the fact that, oh, actually, no, this isn’t fixed, this isn’t just how it is. You know, there’s much more to it than this, which again, fed into my story about, oh, actually, things aren’t fixed. Things are created. The world is constructed. So what can we do, if the world is just a construction? So many people live as though it isn’t.
Manda: Yes, this is all down to framing. And if we share a common frame with the people in our bubble in our 150 people, let’s assume the Dunbar number is roughly correct. We all share the same framing, then we think that’s the way the world is. So with a hop and a skip that takes you from journalism to Shelter, to the Centre for Alternative Technology, in what sounds to me like a brilliantly crafted career to get you to where you needed to go, although I’m sure it only looks brilliantly crafted in retrospect. At the time you were simply taking the stepping stones that arose, you ended up in Aberystwyth. Tell us a little bit about the path there, and then what you did once you got there.
Rachel: Yeah. So like you say, I went from journalism and then into social change, and campaigning with Shelter. And the reason I’d done that is because as a family we’d experienced homelessness and lived in temporary accommodation for a while as part of that family journey. And I also worked at VSO. I worked overseas and worked on issues like AIDS. Again, that shows my age as well. And what brought me to the environmental work and the link between social and environmental justice and work was permaculture. I worked on permaculture and I lived in a low impact dwelling for a little while. So again, I kind of experienced that. So I went through lots of different worlds moving from people by then who who had gone to private school, I had a partner who was from a private school background. So I had a real insight into that world. And then I’d lived with people living in benders on the Land, doing permaculture. So lots of different places I’d moved between. I ended up at the Centre for Alternative Technology and living in an intentional community, trying to bring a permaculture kind of dream together. So I became really interested in the people aspects of change. And with early sustainability work, there was a lot of bringing different facilitation techniques, different ways of getting people to talk together.
It was at that time that we, there was a lot of cafe style facilitated events, to give people a voice in different ways. And I guess by the time I got to my PhD, I wanted to take that almost to another level, because there’s one thing about – I mean, it changes things completely to bring people around the table to talk, to use Post-it notes to find different ways of voices coming together. If you take that to another level, it’s about people understanding themselves, understanding their own minds. You know, how their perception is feeding into this voice and into this conversation that they’re trying to create change. That’s kind of taking it to another level. And because what a lot of what I saw working on sustainability and bringing all this together, by this point, I was also working with local authorities, with the Welsh government and with NGOs and people in their bubbles, seeing the world from their very different perspectives. And even when they came together in these innovative spaces, still being held by the frames, if you like, that they’re in the cultures of their organisations. And although this is a lot better than it was, it needed to go like a step further.
Manda: Did you find that people were caught in the cultures of their organisations because the organisational culture was so powerful that they’ve been kind of sucked in with this gravitational force of a black hole? Or was it the organisations only recruited people who already shared their values?
Rachel: I think it’s a complex problem that you’re pointing to. And let’s think about the second thing that you said. You know, only recruiting people that have the same values. And that in itself is not something some people do intentionally. It’s something that just happens, isn’t it? And it’s about the people with their values probably presenting themselves to be recruited into the organisation as much as people then recruiting people with the same values. So there’s almost a sense of an organisation even before you show up to become part of it. So these are embedded within wider systems, aren’t they? I think it’s really useful to look at history then. You know, that these most of these organisations have got long histories. The government, the civil service, NGOs, they’ve all got histories which kind of dictate where they are now, and the cultures that they have. And they never have time to kind of look at that and go, well, actually, you know, we’re a product of our history. And there can be a sense that they’re in some way intentionally holding on to something that’s not useful anymore. And I’m not sure that intention is quite what we think it is sometimes. I think it’s just as we all do, we we kind of, there’s only so much we can do to change anything.
Manda: Yeah. And doing the day by day stuff, it becomes a default, I think, doesn’t it? You just you get up in the morning, you go into work and you do what needs to be done today, and taking care of the larger ethos and the larger frame isn’t anybody’s business, so it just I think it just takes over because it’s there. I did work with Patricia. Oh my goodness. Her surname currently escapes me, whose job it was to go into businesses, and look at their culture and explore it, and reflect it back to them and go, is this really who you are and what you want to be? But, you know, she was one woman. And I think that’s a… it’s a big project, but… So let’s keep going down the track we were going, because I think we’ll end up looping back to this sense of personal and organisational mindsets and cultures. You must have been studying mindfulness, Buddhism, meditation, already, by the time you got to Aberystwyth, I’m thinking?
Rachel: Yeah, right. So I had been doing yoga since I was in my early 20s. And when I first moved to Wales and there were no yoga teachers, I was distraught. So I trained as a yoga teacher. So I ended up teaching yoga alongside everything else. And then I came into contact with someone who’d done a Vipassana course. And so I went and did a Vipassana meditation, which is the kind of thing that was available in those days.
Manda: And mindfulness by then hadn’t really become a thing separate to the Vipassana, I guess.
Rachel: Yeah, obviously, there was bits of meditation with yoga courses and this, that and the other, but a lot of people went and did Vipassana, which is quite, quite significantly different to what most people experience through a Headspace app or something, isn’t it? Yeah, but yes, that’s how I started out. So and then yeah, as time went on, I linked in to places like Gaia House and more kind of Buddhist based centres. So by this time I’d had intentional communities, I’d had my kind of dysfunctional childhood. But now intentional communities and then Buddhism, yoga, social change and environmental change, all kind of coming together.
Manda: So having done all of these things, you got to Aberystwyth, you were working in realms of local government by then, and you started to do a Ph.D. that brought mindfulness and self-awareness into the realms of civic government, which is so inspiring. Tell us a little bit about how you got there, and why you did what you did, and and what you did.
Rachel: Yeah, I think the thing that would start, that gave me the bridge to bring this work into local and well, central regional government in terms of Wales was behavioural economics. And I wasn’t sure Manda, if your audience would know what behavioural economics…
Manda: I think let’s yeah, let’s take a little sidetrack, and tell us what is behavioural economics, who brought it to the world really, and what the central concepts were then for you that mattered.
Rachel: One of the founders who might be seen as a founder of behavioural economics or a very significant person is Daniel Kahneman. He wrote a book called Fast and Slow Thinking, and his work mainly in the 60s, 70s, it started out really, was he was a cognitive psychologist. He started looking at economics, and looking at some of the experiments around decision making and kind of going back through them and recognising that often we don’t make the most rational decision in terms of classical economics. And in terms of classic economics, the idea is that we will, all of us, when we wake up in the morning, will make the best decision for our long term benefits. And that’s kind of what economics… to put it in a probably quite crude way, economics is based on the idea that people will always make the best decision to optimise utility for the long term. But obviously we don’t. We know we don’t, because if we did that as we got up, we’d check our pension, sorted our pension out, we would – you know, we wouldn’t eat cake. We’d do the right amount of exercise. These would all be the kind of good, rational decisions we would make. And we don’t – that’s not what we do. And Daniel Kahneman came up with an idea called dual process theory. He drew an idea from psychology and said, well, a lot of the decisions we make are kind of System One decisions, they’re very automatic. They’re emotionally informed decisions. We’re not rational in the way that we think we are.
Manda: Yeah. If anybody is really interested in this, my friend, and friend of the podcast, Della Duncan, with her Upstream podcast, has done an entire really long documentary episode, which is brilliant on on the fact that Homo Economicus, that totally rational individual, has never existed, and all of the reasons why. So we can, people can head off and listen to that. But yes, System One thinking is: the emotional, fast, what we would call less rational, or less maybe, locked in a reductive world thinking. And then what other thinking did Kahneman suggest?
Rachel: So Kahneman came up with a System One and System Two thinking. System Two thinking is more reflective, slower thinking, where you’re more likely to do the kind of thinking that might change habits, or do something slightly differently. And yeah, but it takes more energy, basically. And so for most of us, and I want to caveat this, because it’s moved on. The thinking around System One and System Two thinking has significantly moved on. So what I’m sharing with you is the starting point of these ideas. So this is… really his thinking was oversimplified. But, you know, it’s a good start. It’s a good start. The idea that a lot of our decisions are automatic, and not rational in the way that a lot of our public services, public sector has believed them to be for, you know, many, many years.
Manda: So I would really like to look at where that thinking is now, or where our belief systems around this thinking are now. But presumably at the time that you started your Ph.D., the level of behavioural economics that you wanted to bring in was the System One/System Two dichotomy, is that right?
Rachel: Yeah, it was to an extent. That’s it, yeah. It was this idea, well, could.. In those early days, it was could mindfulness come together with, you know, System One and System Two thinking? There was an intuition that I had, and some of my colleagues in Aberystwyth University, that mindfulness is about supporting different ways of reflection and being. Is there a way that maybe mindfulness could support more System Two thinking, I guess, or more awareness around our System One thinking? Those were the very early questions, though we moved a long way from that along the four or five or probably six years of the research. But that’s where it started.
Manda: Yeah, OK. So for the people who aren’t familiar with the concept yet, and for whom System One and System Two are new ideas, what you were thinking was that the practise of mindfulness meditation, of simply sitting watching your breath, and watching thoughts arise, would give people insight into the processes of their own minds, and thereby into the processes of other people’s minds. Is that a fair summary of the starting point?
Rachel: Yeah, I mean, certainly into that that process of setting, it gives you that metacognitive ability to see your own thinking and to see that you’re thinking. Especially when we’re talking about it in the public sector, the government realm, to see your thinking isn’t the rational thinking you thought it was, it’s a bit more flawed. You’re not this Homo Economicus, as you say, this Spock like person for those of you who are Star Trekkies. And by doing so, that will give you an insight into others in the same way.
Manda: Yeah. And stop believing… because if you think that you are totally rational, then you also think that your way of thinking and seeing the world is the only right one.
Rachel: That’s it. Yeah.
Manda: I guess. And at the point when you realised that perhaps your thinking is not entirely rational, then other people’s viewpoints begin to have equal validity.
Rachel: Yeah, well it throws the whole pack of cards in the air, doesn’t it, if you give someone that insight. And I guess specifically in the civil service that actually which is so, you know, such a particular institution, to kind of.. actually if you start a job in the civil service, within days you’re taught that you need to be objective and impartial, and that all your systems are orientated towards objectivity and impartiality, and that there is a sense that you are rational, because you’re in a system and in a culture that has been designed to be rational. But I mean in short, that design was around an idea of objectivity that’s based on a model mind that no longer exists. If it ever did exist.
Manda: If it ever did. And it makes sense now, why so much of the civil service is culled from the public schools of England, certainly in Britain. And I’ve been looking a little bit into how the workings of the civil service work in the United States. And obviously they’re not culled from the public schools of Britain, but they’re culled from the Ivy League in the same way. So what they see is objective and rational and impartial is all within the same frame. They’ve been brought up, they’ve been socialised from a very early age, into a particular way of thinking. And if you all share that and you all agree that this is what’s objective and impartial, then it must really bolster that sense that this is the right way and the only right way. Is it like that in Wales, is the civil service also culled from the public schools of England?
I’m not so sure. I haven’t done that kind of breakdown. I don’t have that sense as much, I mean, maybe the sorts of grammar school type or that, you know, that kind of level of person, I would say there probably is, certainly in those higher positions, you know, because they’ll be that kind of age, that much older. And yet that whole system has been based on an idea of rationality, objectivity, and that we can put systems in place. But it doesn’t take me long, speaking to a lot of civil servants for – to recognise that as individuals, they can all see the flaws in that, or a high percentage of them are really aware that the processes they have in place do not deliver on the kind of rationality and objectivity that they purport to deliver. They can see that, but they’re in a very big system that’s very, you know, old.
Manda: Ok. So that sounds like a really.. I would love to head down that one of personal responsibility and personal agency. And maybe we’ll get to that. But let’s have a look before that at how you brought mindfulness and behavioural economics into the civil service: what you actually did, and then what the results were, and then where does that take us?
Rachel: Yeah, great. Well, so I had this sense, I guess, across the board, working with NGOs, with local authorities, with the Welsh government, that there’s ways that we could understand ourselves better. Like you say, using behavioural economics, using mindfulness, that might help us all understand ourselves internally better, and others around us. So I was making links in all of those places, but I made a particular link in Welsh government, who was very interested in making change, who was also working around the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
Manda: Hang on, tell us a little bit about that. Because quite a lot of our listeners will not be familiar with that. So tell us what that is.
Rachel: Wales, and I think Scotland as well, both have quite innovative legislation. In Wales it’s about requiring all public bodies to be responsible for all of their decisions in terms of future generations. So they need to have a plan, a strategy that demonstrates that all of their decisions actually take into account future generations, the long term. And they divide that into, you know, wellbeing, economy… I can’t remember, there’s five different areas. And certainly all local authorities are meant to have come back with a plan as to how they can make that happen.
Manda: So this was something that happened at the points of devolution when Wales and Scotland began to have a degree of autonomy in their self governance. Then they were each able to create something that always felt to me as if it was very much based on the Indigenous law of North America, where people were said to make decisions based on the next seven generations, on the impact on the next seven generations. And to see that actually put into law struck me as hugely innovative, and and quite astonishing that it got passed. The structures of the UK government, that seem to me pretty much determined to make sure that seven generations are never going to happen. so I’m always very, very impressed that Wales actually managed to do that. So they got this concept within their legislature, and you had, it sounds like an individual in the Welsh government who was really interested. What did you, how did you set up bringing this in in a way that that didn’t threaten people, didn’t tell them that you were planning to overturn their entire way of being, and how did it pan out, really? is my question.
Manda: Well, as you say, I mean, in the early days, it was about, you know, it was about getting in through these doors, getting certain people on board, and then an interest in mindfulness amongst, you know, a number of people in Welsh government. And having worked in Wales on sustainability myself, it’s a small country, so people knew of me. I was based in a university. And we’re bringing together this idea of behavioural economics, which the Welsh government had become increasingly interested in, but using these self reflective practises to explore behavioural economics. So I guess behavioural economics was on their agenda, behaviour change using behavioural economics was on their agenda, so, as something which needed to be brought in, and something which would help them deliver on the Well-Being Act. And here I am bringing something in that’s also on trend: mindfulness, if you like. So we’re offering a free programme that combines these two elements, both of which are, you know, of interest to people. And we started lower down the ranks, I guess, as in all organisations, those people who are interested in doing something a bit different. And once we gained traction with that, more people because because it was quite effective, more people got interested. Other people wanted to do programmes.
Manda: How did they see the impact of that then? When you say it’s quite effective, how did effectiveness show itself to people who weren’t already part of the programme?
Rachel: Yes. So some of the early research we did, so this has changed over time, you know, this effectiveness, that we could talk about it over time. But in the early comments were exactly linked to something we were discussing earlier, this idea of objectivity. They were saying things like, well, we thought we were objective and now we realise that we’re completely subjective. But because of that, we’re far more objective than we ever were.
Manda: Ok, what was it? Was it the act of just sitting, watching, attending to their breath? Or was it the understanding of neurophysiology and neuropsychology that you’d brought in with the behavioural economics? Or none of these, or all of them? What was it that let them see their own subjectivity?
Rachel: It’s a combination, I would say. So it’s the combination of the two. So normally mindfulness would be procured in their setting or, you know, brought in in a kind of wellbeing.. for well-being. You know, something which would help you deal with your stress. But in this instance, it was specifically being brought in in relation to objectivity. And so as we explore System One / System Two thinking, theories of behavioural economics, and then we say “Right, now we’re going to do a practice and we’re going to watch our thoughts, and ultimately we’re going to notice that our thoughts are not rational, they’re not linear. They kind of go all over the place. And also the way that we feel, changes what we’re thinking, changes what we see, and doing bodily practices that enable you to see that, is that first person experiential learning. |It’s not just, oh, yeah… The issue of behavioural economics is it’s easy for, I say easy, it’s not easy, but it’s possible for a policymaker to say, oh, yeah, now I understand all this psychology about that person out there. I can use this to more effectively deliver on policy, be it to do with recycling… You know, good policy recycling, use behavioural economics really effectively to improve recycling rates in Wales. And Wales has got amazing recycling rates.
Manda: So just let’s take a quick rundown on that rabbit hole. How has behavioural economics helped people in actual terms? What has been done to change things?
Rachel: In olden days, probably there would be very much an information deficit approach to things like recycling. “We’re just going to tell you that recycling is a good thing, and we’re going to give you information on it, and therefore you’ll do it.” So behavioural economics, I guess, and that whole behavioural insights makes you think, well, actually, if people can’t collect recycling in their kitchen because it’s too small, then they won’t do it even if they believe it’s a good thing, and they have the knowledge. Behavioural Insights helps you understand that people’s behaviour is not, is a values action gap, even if people have listened to the information that you’ve given them, and actually believe it. There’ll be other reasons why they might not be able to actually act on that information, why the behaviour won’t happen, and behavioural economics, and it’ll come back to – we can still use our System One/ System Twos, you know, they have to make quick decisions. They have to live in a small house with a big family. They haven’t got the boxes. You know, there’s no space. They hate the yuckiness of food scrapings going into food waste. They don’t really understand. Recycling is a bit confusing because, you know, you’re not quite sure what to put where or what’s recyclable and what isn’t. And when there’s confusion, people are less likely to do the right behaviour. So there’s many, many things that local authorities have done over the years to make recycling much easier for people to do, and ultimately in Ceredigion, we’ve got the one bag system now. Now, that’s after years of realising, well, people can’t separate. Separating is too difficult, even if ultimately it makes a better product. And it’s not because people don’t want to separate always, it’s just because they physically can’t do it. And things like behavioural insights would really help you work through those problems.
Manda: That’s interesting because we had… one of the things that transformed that for me was we had a Ridan at Schumacher College and that’s a great big cylinder with a bucket-sized opening on the left hand end on the top, and another bucket-sized opening in the right hand end at the bottom, and you tip stuff in at the top on the left and you find a great big handle and an amount of time later it drops out as compost at the other end. And you have to add wood in, and it’s not quite as simple as I’m making it sound. But that magic, that alchemy of actually watching food turn into compost transformed my concept of food recycling. And I learnt, because we’re trying to get a Ridan for the village here, there’s somebody in Leeds who now has six of the great big ones, and he’s got a little electric van and he goes round his postcode and collects everybody’s food waste, put it through these great big things, turns it into compost and sells it back to people. And he’s got a business. And I think that kind of thing, where you can see it happening, and he can video bits of the process. And there are now Ridans at schools and things like that, where.. and the kids are learning the alchemy of composting. And I think this is completely separate to what you’re doing. But I’m just so inspired by the idea that if I had learnt that as a kid and really, you know, there’s a lot of chemistry and biology and soil science and things, in the process of turning the yuck into amazing compost, I think the trajectory of my life would have been different. Anyway.
Rachel: I have to say, one of the highlights of my career has been doing a talk at the Shambhala Festival called, without wanting to go down a rabbit hole here, called Sex, Cake and Compost.
Manda: Oh wow, we have to do this rabbit hole.
Rachel: Yes. You know, the joy you were talking about in terms of seeing compost in a completely different way, and and seeing the link I was trying to, through. I like to think quite an exciting journey. It did seem to get very good feedback, getting people to make different associations with compost that then made them more inclined to do their food process. When they put their food waste into their bin, they were thinking of this kind of crazy little journey: this woman, at a festival, took them from sex to compost through food waste, and that made them smile, and that made them more likely to… So there again, we’ve got an issue where it’s not to do with any rational belief that composting is good, it’s to do with how we feel about it, what makes us smile, where our desire is. And I think that has, or was, definitely within NGOs that I work with, a sense of it’s all a bit dry, wasn’t it, that we should, just everyone should just do the right thing, and just do the right thing because they knew it was the right thing. But behavioural economics and, you know, the Kahneman work, you know, the idea that we do things because they feel good, has really changed how we do things.
Manda: Yes. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious, I think, when we look at politics, because the Right has always been very, very good at hooking into that gut level, limbic level, whatever. I know, trying brain theory, problematic. But on a functional level, it seems to me that there’s the part that works very fast below the level of our consciousness, and that it’s quite easy if you understand how to speak directly to that point. So with the whole Brexit debate, the phrase Taking Back Control spoke directly into people’s sense of themselves as having lost agency, and wanting to get it back. And the Remain camp or the Democrats or up to a point, the Labour Party or whoever is on the other side is going, yes, well, if you were to understand the details of of how the public sector deficit was not quite as bad as you thought it was under the last Labour government, you would, of course, vote for it. And instantly you’ve lost people before they’ve even taken breath, in that kind of conversation. And learning to have the conversations that connect people at the more than rational level seems to me really, really important. And that grows out of Behavioural Economics? Yes, maybe?
Rachel: Yeah, behavioural economics and associated work, like I mean, you’re really talking to and I don’t want to… George Lakoff’s work, aren’t you, around framing, and exactly what he says is exactly, the Right knows how to use all of this stuff, and the Left kind of looks askance at advertising and says, you know, that’s what they do, that’s spin. That’s kind of advertising, marketing.
Manda: It’s bad. And we don’t want to do it. Yeah.
Rachel: Yeah. So in a way, behaviour change, and behavioural economics is really saying, well, actually this does work. Let’s use it in a way that fits with public policy. Because ignoring it is unethical as well, arguably, because if you ignore the fact that people in reality are emotion, you know, emotion is part of their cognitive system. That’s who we are. And that’s unethical, too, because you’re just wasting money basically trying to, you know, change behaviours by giving people rational arguments, which isn’t how we operate.
Manda: Yes. So it seems to me that this concept of government changing behaviour of civil servants, working to change behaviour, however objectively and impartially they’re doing it or not, begins to bring up really ethical questions of governance and what governance is, and how much we want our behaviours to be changed, and how much we are agreeing with the nature of behavioural change. So we all want to wear seatbelts more. It’s perfectly good to have a campaign for that. Not so good having Jimmy Saville heading it, but we didn’t know that then. Or we want to recycle more. That’s great. At the point when the government wants us to hate foreigners more, and become more divisive and set different groups of working class people against each other, for instance, which they seem to be able to do very successfully. And I’m not sure we’re all buying into that. So where does the ethical question come into the work that you were doing?
Rachel: Yeah, well, it was very much… thanks for that, Manda, because you’re totally right with that. It’s very much where the research started. And it was an interest of my colleagues who’ve been looking a lot at the introduction of behavioural economics into government. And our interest was, well, if through the programme, the civil servant is also implicated as somebody who is not rational, then we’re all in this together in a sense, that it’s not us trying to change you. It’s all of us needing to look at models of mind, how we understand ourselves, how we make the decisions and how we think about the world, in order to really change all of our systems, to think very differently about how we’re doing what we’re doing, and what we’re doing. I mean, that doesn’t mean to say that, it’s less then of a ‘us changing you using these psychological understandings in dark ways’. It’s more like, okay, us all taking a step back, realising that behaviours emerge in very different ways to the ones we previously thought. So, OK, that’s true of us, the government. That’s true of you, the public. How shall we go forward now? You know what, in a way, what should all of us do with this in terms of multiple issues, really? Because it certainly points to, if you want to improve recycling, deal with climate change issues, if all of us are kind of irrational in this way. How do we give government legitimacy to do this in ways that is ethical and appropriate?
Manda: Yes, and particularly – so recycling, I think, is relatively uncontroversial. Climate change begins to hit up against, what would seem to me a divide that has been deliberately created, between those who are on board with the idea that we actually need to act, and those who are highly resistant to the concept of acting, and who will resist the idea that government should be involved in any way in helping people to move towards mitigating climate change. So I think that begins to become a really interesting a lot of the QAnon stuff that I’ve been reading online in the last couple of weeks, and this is a rabbit hole that I had never even really noticed existed, butthere are large numbers of people who genuinely think that they have been manipulated into thinking stuff that they’ve now realised is not true. I suppose we’re heading down the truth rabbit hole. Let’s take a step back. You were talking about models of mind. And it seems to me that the models of mind that you’re probably talking about now are not the same as when you started this work ten years ago. Where are we at with models of mind just now?
Yeah, so we started off with System One / System Two thinking, I started off with that, and started running the programme, and then obviously doing more reading. Looking more now at the programme, bringing in more training around bias, and how people understand bias. I came across some models of mind and emotion which really help explain, I think, more effectively than System One / System Two thinking and certainly with more up to date research, why we’re all biased, why we have ways of seeing the world which are not helpful. Which if I was to kind of sum it up, make it so that we see the world we expect to see, rather than the world that’s kind of really there.
Rachel: Can you sum up the thinking on that?
Rachel: Most of us, and most civil servants if I bring it down to them, but I think this applies to all of us. You know, if asked, we just believe that there’s some kind of, there’s a real world out there, and it comes into our minds, and we respond to it. And yes, therapy has pointed to, and religion has pointed to, the fact that there’s certain things in our mind that help us make sense of the world out there. But we’re very much responding to the world. Now models that are coming through now are saying the mind’s more predictive, that I’m just sending out all the time my expectations of the world. So right now, I’m sitting in a room, there’s a chair. I actually don’t, I’m not really seeing the chair out there. I see scraps of it. And then I kind of fill it in with my expectation of what should be there. And a classic, classic phenomenon that would, you know, would explain this is when, you know, when you’re looking for your phone, you know, and and then somebody, your partner or friend points out that it’s right in front of you. And it’s almost because you’re not expecting to see it. You don’t see it because you’re… and there’s lots of illusions we use in the trade, visual illusions you can you can use to show this, to say that you’re kind of seeing patterns you’re expecting to see. You’re not really seeing what’s there. And your emotions are part of that cognitive process which feed into your expectations of what you see. And when you expect to see something, that’s what you see.
Manda: And that applies right through life from the phone in front of me to the politician who stood up and had the wrong colour rosette on, so I saw them as inherently evil rather than listening to what they were actually saying?
Rachel: And it’s almost, i was going to say, worse than that. But if, depending on the expectations you set up, and the kind of felt sense you were in and if that made you agitated, you would then hear their words in a way that would completely confirm your expectations, and therefore make it more likely that it’s true. And this is why I taught the civil servants, I taught the civil servants some of this stuff. And we did exploratory exercises, both personal mindfulness, body scanning, and then in dialogue exercises, so they could really experience how sometimes quite a lot, their felt sense or their expectation was actually completely informing or predicting what they heard, and the evidence that came in prior to that. They thought that they had a rationality, that what was out there was just more kind of pure and, you know, real. And now they have this sense that, oh, actually, it’s not real. I’m kind of making it up a little bit from my previous experiences that are then creating expectations that are then becoming real. But actually through the programme, they have numerous experiences which show them that wasn’t true.
Manda: Where does that take us? Where does that take them, and where does it take us in terms of people who are not members of the civil service, but want to have a sense of agency in the way that the world… because what I’m hearing from you is we create our own reality, we all collude in the creation of a collective reality, I think I kind of heard from what you said. And that therefore we have a degree of agency in the nature of the collective reality that we create. Is that a fair process or am I skipping too far?
Rachel: No, I think you’re right. When I hear you say that, it reminds me, you know, that there are spiritual traditions that would also point to that. And I think what we’ve got now is a science that supports it and a science… and I would really point people towards the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett on emotions and cognition.
Manda: She’s got a new book coming out soon, hasn’t she?
Rachel: Yeah. And she’s already got a book called How Emotions are Made. And she’s got some great YouTube videos. And she says if we understand emotions in the way that she, as a scientist now understands them, it would be the same as world flat-world round, it kind of completely shifts how we see things. And she says it would completely change some of our major institutions of law, of politics. And the other person that, I mean there are other people in all this, but is Anil Seth, his work on the predictive mind. I think his videos aren’t quite so accessible as Lisa’s, and Lisa’s written, not with him, but with other neuroscientists who are talking similarly to him. But he also is, he has actually got some great videos. He’s got a book coming out as well.
Manda: He did a very interesting podcast also with Sam Harris. I think if you wanted to synthesise his work, if you.. I’ll hunt that down and put it on the show notes, because it was… I have to say, I hit a lot of ‘Yes, but’ moments with both of these people. But I can’t remember what they were. And that doesn’t mean they’re not right. It just means I hadn’t got my head…there were bits there, I thought, no, that can’t be right. But it’s still a very, very interesting set of concepts. And I’m wholly prepared to believe, I just haven’t gone deep enough. And I need to look back.
Rachel: What they both say, in some ways on face value is quite straightforward. But when you start, I think this is the thing. And that’s what having programmes like mine, they give you the opportunity to really move through it slowly and reflectively. And because are other models of mind about the mind being reactive, for example, are really deeply embedded, and our mind being rational in a particular way, are deeply embedded in our psyche. And I think, as in a previous conversation we had. So many of our concepts are… Freudian, as well, you know, 100 years ago, I don’t know, Freud?
Rachel: Ego, subconscious. You know, a lot of these new ideas really, dare I say it, throw quite a lot that out really, and look at the mind in a very, very different way. And someone else said, you know, Freud’s very popular because he’s kind of quite spicy, isn’t he? And it’s just, you know, a part of my Ph.D. was looking at the history of, you know, psychological and mental kind of models and, you know, why Freud kind of sticks so much, and what has happened since then. Most people don’t get that opportunity.
Manda: That’s a whole other podcast. I’d love to go there, because it seems to be Freud stake’s because he’s very hierarchical. He fits into a system that already exists that says rational mind at the top, then you’ve got the subconscious, and then you’ve got the under conscious and, you know, little bits might blip through and break out. But fundamentally, you’ve got a structure. And it’s the same with dog training. You end up with people believing in Alpha dogs and pack hierarchies, because that’s what works for people. And the fact that it’s completely not what works for dogs is irrelevant, because we can create a model that we like. Is that is that fair with Freud also?
Rachel: You know, Manda? I don’t know. I remember speaking to an academic and he said he looked at, he’d taught a course on, you know, different… Jung, Freud, you know, all these different therapists, I guess, people who came along with different views of consciousness. You know, he reckoned the reason Freud stuck was just because he was so spicy, just because he talked about sex, and kind of weird stuff. And that’s basically what people remembered. And the other stuff like Jung and even I can’t draw any others at the minute. You know, they just weren’t quite so it’s like well, you know, Game of Thrones, I suppose. It’s just so good. isn’t it, it just sticks in your mind. And I like, I love it when people say that because I’m very suspicious that things like, you know, it’s as simple as that, basically.
Manda: If you can put enough sex and go, yeah, then people take notice. Oh, isn’t that sad.
Rachel: Oh, those stories just carry on. Like, you know, they’re the most raucous stories. And so they stick. To some extent, you know? Yeah, whatever.
Manda: Yeah, we’re back to contention that we have Palaeolithic emotions and mediaeval institutions and godlike technologies, and we’re just stuck with that set of wiring. And I keep thinking, no, but we can move our emotional state beyond the Palaeolithic. We can. We just need to have a model of mind that explains to us what Palaeolithic emotional states look like and and how we might evolve beyond them, in time to not destroy the world.
Rachel: Yeah. And I think, you see, it’s the last…a lot of what I’ve read said, you know, this is the last vestige. And because, you know, we’ve had movements in physics. We’ve had, you know, paradigm shifts in physics, and chemistry and all these. But actually, it’s taking a while to get this paradigm shift in how we understand consciousness, cognition, emotion. And I think that’s been held back because it’s generally been the realm of religion and therapy. And they are huge institutions. And, you know, we still ,you know, there’s still prayers in the Westminster. You know, they’re still, so their model of mind, you know, they still stop and, a Christian faith informs a bit of what they do still, you know. And that’s, where else is a politician going to be informed about Mind, and how their mind works? At the moment, religion’s still quite prominent.
Manda: Yes. And a particular aspect of religion, because I was talking to David Blower, who’s a Christian theologian, in a podcast that will go up before this one. And I would say his model of mind is much closer to yours. But it’s not, that’s not the model of Christianity that informs Westminster, or Washington, or any of those things. Just before we go then, is there anything for people listening? And we’re going to point them at Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Anil Seth. And do you have a programme up and running that people can do?
Rachel: No. So I’m at that stage. I’ve got a website called predictingmind.com, and I certainly will put this podcast up there. And there’s other videos, I think, which people might find interesting. But it’s just been the place where I put things, for the minute. It’s in development.
Manda: If there’s one thing that people listening want to take agency, and come away from this podcast with the feeling that their world has opened up. They can see that there are other ways of being and other ways of thinking and other ways of behaving, other models of mind. Are there ways that they can begin to bring that to bear in their own lives that you would recommend?
Rachel: As a first step, I really would look at Lisa Feldman Barrett, so it would be my starting point. And some of her videos, there’s a great one she’s got where she talks about the story of a soldier and thinking they’d seen somebody going to shoot them. But actually it was just a shepherd in the distance. And it really, those kind of talks really kind of blew my mind in the sense of, we need to do things and understand ourselves in very different ways. And understand our perception in very different ways. I think this stuff will be coming forward more and more in the next few years. So I think if people are looking at Feldman’s work Anil’s work, and then obviously you’ll get videos that will spin off from there. They’ll be at the forefront of something that will be in development and that will more and more inform what’s happening in the world. Lakoff is always good as well. They should, everyone should read Don’t think of an Elephant. That’s a good starting point, yes.
Manda: OK, brilliant. And then we will be at the forefront of the new wave, which is a pretty good place for Accidental Gods to be. Rachel, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom and your patience.
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