Socialism is hard (cognitive) work

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

You might say that solutions to societal problems are neither easy not straightforward. True. Inequalities arise from a combination of structural differences in our starting points, as well as systemic problems that require years of study and struggle to redress. You might also say that some people just care less about others and tolerate injustices that we are not ready to accept. Sadly also true. Or that sometimes we hold unrealistic expectations about what other people can do for us. True again. But that’s not the whole story.

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

What does “being nice” really means? 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 being pro-social and obtaining rewards for others, albeit to different degrees. And of course every pro-social action, as indeed every action, requires effort to be performed (as when you decide to help a friend 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 processing information about other people and the social context they are immersed in. It’s the mental activity involved in trying to understand others, which is in turn required in order to act for them. Social cognition is therefore a necessary prerequisite for 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. Understanding others, thinking and making inferences about them up, empathising 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 neither our ability to utilise Theory of Mind to understand other people’s needs and desires, nor our faculty to express empathy towards someone are automatic. Rather, they require a deliberate choice to engage in such cognition and are increasingly avoided when we are 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 mentalise about him or her). Finally, the effort is greater the greater the social distance between us and the person involved (we tend to empathise more easily and therefore with less effort with those similar to us). We therefore argue that the same neural circuit which is employed when making a decision about whether or not to engage in an effortful behaviour is also recruited when deciding to engage in social cognition and pro-social behaviour. The more effortful these will be, the less likely we will be to adopt them.

Of course more work needs to be done to quantify the cognitive effort associated to social cognition and more in general, to compare how physical and cognitive effort affect the motivation to act and the build up of fatigue (and we are working on it!). Still 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 those problems in the first place 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 that is too poor and strained (and therefore cognitively impaired and fatigued) will struggle to succeed, unless the structural reasons straining its people 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 from 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 when we make up our minds 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 incentivises our brains to engage in social thinking can be encouraged. Motivation to empathise with others or mentalise about their needs and desires can be boosted in a number of ways, for example by making clear that such effort will be met by reciprocity (showing to others that might think about and care about us that we think and care about them too), by demonstrating that is a rewarding experience in itself (showing that we think and care about others and that we like doing so), and that having a reputation as a kind person is socially desirable (praising those that think and care about 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 empathetic society in which people think more about each other and therefore take greater care of each other requires a good deal of effort by a sufficient number of people. This has two implications. First, if more people need to make more effort, they need persuading that this effort it’s worthwhile and they need to be 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 also be policies designed to make sure that a society will take care of its people and alleviate some of their burdens. Secondly, there is an implication on the individual level. Those of us who are striving for a better world are often thinking deep and hard about many others’, some time even entire nations’, 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 the cognitive effort for us. Let’s keep that in mind so that we can remember also to take a good care of ourselves and of our friends and comrades.

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


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