Socialism is hard (cognitive) work

Why is it so difficult to bring about a socialist society or simply build a better world? Why there are so many injustices and too often people appear not to care enough about others? Why our friends sometimes fall short of our expectations?

Sure, sometimes solutions to societal problems are not straightforward and inequalities arise from a combination of structural differences in starting point and systemic problems that require years of study and struggle to redress. Sure, some people just care less about others and tolerate injustices that we are not ready to accept. Sure, sometimes we hold unrealistic expectations about what other people can do for us. But that’s not the whole story.

With my colleagues Luis Sebastian Contreras-Huerta and Matthew Apps we argued that part of the reason why people are not as nice and don’t think about others as we would wish them to be and do might be linked to the fact that “being nice” and think about others, more often than not, require quite a good deal of effort.

What does “being nice” means really? What does thinking about others entail? It’s not just about being pro-social, or in other words, acting in the interests of others. To an extent, all of us attribute value to be pro-social and obtain rewards for others, although to a different degree. And of course every pro-social action, as indeed every action, requires effort to be performed, as when you decide to help a friend to move to a new flat and transport boxes for him or her. But what’s important to understand is that not only pro-social behaviour but also social cognition requires effort. What is social cognition? It’s all the cognitive processes related to the processing information about other people and the social context they are immersed in. It’s the mental activity implicated in trying to understand others, necessary in order to act for them. Social cognition is therefore a necessary prerequisite of any pro-social behaviour.

In the manuscript Effort shapes social cognition and behaviour: A neuro-cognitive framework published in November 2020, we collected evidence from the literature that shows that social cognition is effortful, requires a strong degree of motivation to be pursued and therefore might take up a lot of time and energies. From understanding others to thinking and making inferences about them up to empathize with them, these are all cognitive processes that absorb energy, make us feel tired and that we avoid when fatigued, irrespective of how good it might make us feel to help others, or how good we are at doing so.

The research we reviewed shows that both our ability to utilise Theory of Mind to understand other people’s needs and desires, as well as that to express empathy towards someone are not automatic, require a deliberate choice to engage in such cognition and are increasingly avoided, for instance when cognitively loaded for another reason (some other pressing business capturing our attention). It also shows that the amount of effort to be exerted grows with the sophistication of the cognition (the more complicated and intertwined with our own the motive and desires of someone, the more effortful it is to mentalize about him or her) and with the social distance from the person involved (we tend to emphatise more easily and therefore with less effort with those similar to us). We therefore argue the neural circuit employed when making a decision about whether to engage in an effortful behaviour is also recruited when deciding to engage in social cognition and pro-social behaviour and the more effortful these will be, the least we will chose to adopt them.

While more work needs to be done (and we are working on it!) to quantify the cognitive effort associated to social cognition and more in general, to compare physical and cognitive effort in how they affect the motivation to act and the build up of fatigue, it’s worth asking ourselves a few questions about the implication of this research. What does the fact that social cognition is effortful imply, for society? How can we use this somewhat intuitive knowledge to build a fairer world where pro-social behaviour is incentivised?

The first lesson is that it’s wrong to assume that people will easily see the problems we see and feel the way we feel about them, as that depends on the amount of effort required to see and feel and this might very well be not trivial. This is particularly true for those who work long hours, are strained by familiar problems and struggle to make ends meet, with little energy left for anything else. Any attempt to promote more empathy in a society which is too poor and strained (and therefore cognitively impaired and fatigued) is destined to struggle to succeed, unless the structural reasons straining it are removed, for instance, reducing working hours and freeing mental energies for social cognition.

We can’t expect everyone to be able to care in the same way at all times. But we can improve our ability to do so over time. Understanding other people and feeling their emotions are skills that can be trained and improved over the years, thus reducing the efforts required to perform them. Education is fundamental, and sentimental education and psychology should be taught and practiced in schools since an early age. Children that grow up familiar with their emotional world, and aware of their needs and desires will also be able to better understand those of others and are likely to require less effort to do so, in the long run.

It must be kept in mind that we when we make up our mind do something, including thinking and acting for others, we do so, to an extent, by comparing what we get for what we give (offsetting rewards and costs). Everything that incentivise our brain to engage in social thinking can be encouraged. Motivation to emphatise or mentalise about others’ needs and desires can be boosted in a number of ways, for example by reciprocity (showing to others that we think and care about them), example (showing that we think and care about others and that we like doing so), reputation (praising those that do think and care about others) and many others. If something is hard, it doesn’t follow that shouldn’t also be rewarding and how much it can be, it’s to a great extent, down to us.

And a final, more political point. Promoting a more emphatic society where people think and therefore take more care about each other requires a good deal of effort by a sufficient amount of people. This has two implications. First, if more people need to do more effort, they need persuading this effort it’s worth and need being rewarded for that. There must be a sense that everyone is on board with such effort which will be therefore be reciprocated. And there must be also policy designed to make sure that society will take care of us and alleviate some of our burdens. Secondly, an implication at the individual level. Those of us fighting for a better world are often thinking deep and hard about many others’, some time entire people’s, needs and aspirations. And caring about societal problems requires our empathy to encompass large group of people, sometimes entire societies, sometimes even the entire planet. And the greater the physical and social distance covered by our emotional system to feel the pain of fellow human beings or animals, the greater is likely to be the cognitive effort. Let’s keep it in mind for a good care of ourselves and of our friends and comrades.

So the lesson of neuroscientific research is clear: the rocky road to socialism is hard (cognitive) work indeed.

“Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.”

Karl Marx

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