Since I started training in Clinical and Community Psychology, two major questions have driven my interests. The first is: why are so many people so unhappy? The second question is: why do people engage in behaviors that put their long-term well-being at risk? I realize, these are really big questions. My practical side asks these questions with a purpose in mind, is there something we can do about it?
More and more, I have come away with a resounding “yes”; there are fundamental ways in which society can create the conditions that support human health and well-being. Helping to elucidate those conditions and to put them into place I consider one of my purposes in life, even if I am only able to make a small contribution in this regard.
There has been a debate raging in philosophy and in society for centuries. Psychology has entered this debate in the last century and a half. That debate is the classic one of “nature versus nurture”. My training has led me to a conclusion. This conclusion is something that minds much more powerful than mine are coming to understand. It is both. As Matt Ridley so aptly put it in part of the title to one of his books on genetics; it is “nature via nurture.”
I am currently reading two books that are further shaping my ideas on this topic. One is Fritjof Capra’s The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. The other is Evolution for Everyone, by David Sloan Wilson. These books and others I have read over the years bring into sharp focus the fact that humans have evolved as complex adaptive systems that are deeply coupled with their environment. I’ll say more in a later post about the “complex adaptive system” part. What is just as important is that humans are not, as we would often like to think, separate from our environment. We shape our environment and are completely responsive to our environment in an interplay that has unfolded over the entire course of our evolution and continues to play out in our day-to-day lives. Put another way, like every living thing on Earth, we are supremely adapted and responsive to the environments in which we live.
This is not just some abstraction. It has very practical implications. The primary implication is that if you put someone in environment X you will get behavior Y – usually a behavior that is intended to help that individual make the most of said environment. People do differ in the types of behaviors that are adaptive in specific environments; that is, multiple strategies can be optimal in the same circumstance. For the most part, however, behaviors that are extremely maladaptive for a given environment were “selected out” of the population over time. In short, you can optimize human behavior and happiness by creating the correct environmental circumstances.
In a recent interview (Evolving a City), David Sloan Wilson offered these 8 design features for pro-social behavior:
- A strong group identity and a sense of purpose for everyone in the group.
- Proportional cost and benefit; that is, the benefits are scaled to what you do for the group.
- Decision making by consensus.
- Monitoring and feedback on goals.
- Graduated sanctions for misbehavior — start small but be prepared to escalate.
- Fast, fair conflict resolution. Must be regarded as fair by all parties.
- Local autonomy – groups must have the ability to make their own decisions and organize the group their own way.
- Polycentric governance – when groups are nested, the nested groups have similar (but not necessarily identical) structures.