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Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Adam Smith’s Monkey Business

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Before Adam Smith got round to inventing economics in The Wealth of Nations he invented social psychology in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Under Smith’s synthesis it’s sympathy that’s the glue that brings people together, underpins human morality and drives the engine of economic progress. Without fellow feeling there’s no basis for any kind of exchange, whether of simple gifts, bodily fluids or physical goods.

Smith, of course, was a man way ahead of his time. However, it’s still rather remarkable to discover it’s taken to the twenty first century to uncover the evidence that his intuition was not just correct as a theory of economics but is actually built into the structure of our brains. If you’ve ever bounced out of a feel-good film, full of effervescent vim you’ll know exactly what Smith was on about: we’re designed for sympathy and thus built for trade.

Morality First, Economics Second

It’s perhaps a bit of a surprise to find the father of modern, blood-on-the-streets, every man for themselves capitalism writing a book about morality but for Smith there was a clear path from the way people regard each other in a moral sense to the way they interact with each other in an economic one. He would have been appalled by the modern craze for attempting to put an economic value on everything, recognising that the human willingness to offer assistance out of sympathy was the underpinning of the business of trade. Economics is built out of moral sympathy not the other way around: morality isn't accountable to markets.

We can adduce the path of Smith’s thought through the simple observation that Moral Sentiments was written first, the necessary precursor to understanding Wealth. Without an appreciation of why people do what they do, out of self-interest and driven by sympathy, it’s impossible to understand the true meaning of the latter book. It’s not a peon of gung-ho, every man for themselves raw blooded capitalism but a natural extension of the basic moral instincts arising from within each of us.

The idea of sympathy with others is founded in self-interest, one of the driving principles of Smith’s philosophy. Innate sympathy, the ability to empathise with the emotions of others, is not opposed to self-interest but helps to fuel it. Recognising the desires of others we can exchange favours or gifts to encourage social relationships which may benefit us in the future. Through the same approach we can develop business relationships which capitalise on the same feelings and form the basis of mutually beneficial trade.

The Invisible Hand

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that it’s in Moral Sentiments that the idea of the invisible hand first appears, as Smith explains how pure self-interest leads to the benefit of all of society:
“... In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose ... be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”
From an unreconstructed socialist we might regard such statements as utter nonsense but coming from the father of capitalism it gives pause for thought. Underpinning this is the idea that humans have the ability to instinctively project their own feelings onto other people, in order to understand and sympathise with them. We have an uncanny capability to read the minds of others, albeit imperfectly, using what psychologists call “theory of mind”. People without this ability are generally socially inept and often unable to operate effectively in society – autism is, perhaps, the most extreme example of such problems.

Mirror, Mirror, In the Mind

So, somehow, we have the ability to mirror the feelings of others, or, as Smith put it “... is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.” Which, of course, is a fantastic analogy. Only it turns out it’s not really an analogy, because we really do mirror the emotions of other.

Back in the early 1990’s Giacomo Rizzolati and colleagues were experimenting with monkeys using electrodes embedded in their brains to figure out how and when certain motor neurons fired when the animals picked up food. This is perfectly understandable – when you physically move then the neurons fire in order to create the stimulus to make the motion. What surprised the researchers is that the neurons also fired when the monkeys observed someone else eating – this “mirror neuron” system was recognising the action and firing – in sympathy.

You can see where this is going now, right?

Human Mirroring Systems

There is now lots of research about mirror neuron systems which have been extensively studied in monkeys, who are frankly getting fed up with people chasing them around trying to stick electrodes in their heads, regarding this as demonstrating a lack of sympathy with monkeys. However, less intrusive scanning systems have now shown similar patterns of human neuron activation analogous to those in monkeys implying – although not proving – that we use similar methods to model the feelings of others: a real-world implementation scheme for theory of mind.

Like so much of neuroscience this isn’t uncontroversial. It’s one thing to demonstrate a neurological effect but entirely another to map this onto complex higher functions, so there’s lots of debate about how mirror neurons work, how they acquire their mirroring capabilities and even whether they exist at all. Psychologists have long ago learned to be suspicious of functional descriptions being imputed from limited physiological evidence – back in the nineteenth century scientists were happily measuring head size to show that men were more intelligent than women, white people were smarter than coloured folk, northern races more highly evolved than southern ones and rich people more gifted than poor ones.

Funnily enough all of the researchers were rich, northern, white males. Strangely the data usually proves whatever point the theorist wants proved.

Monkey Business

Nonetheless (note carefully the big step in a single word) investigations on understanding intentionality and empathy by multiple researchers implicate the mirror neuron mechanism. These are the very functions Adam Smith adduced way back in 1759. Intentionality and empathy are the components of sympathy that make us able to recognise the needs and aims of others. Through our own self-interested natures we take these basic features and build our concepts of social justice, interaction and, of course, trade and therefore business.

That it took the best part of 350 years for us to even gain an insight into how this theory might actually work tells us a couple of things. Firstly we still have a lot to learn from the father of economics about the mechanisms of why we engage in business at all. Secondly we maybe need to unpick some of the more extreme economic ideas that assume that the value of everything can be measured with a price. Some things are invaluable and sacrificing our feelings of moral sympathy to the great god of market capitalism is to invert Smith’s great idea. People are here to guide markets, not the other way around.

Related Articles: Stocks Aren't Snakes, Moral Corporations, An Oxymoron?, When A Dollar's Not Just A Dollar

1 comment:

  1. Yes.

    Our money problems are at root moral problems.

    We talk about numbers not because that is going to help but because it does not cause the discomfort that we would feel dealing with moral or emotional questions and we feel that we must do something.

    The problem with doing the comfortable thing is that it does nothing to solve the problems we are hoping to solve. Solutions will begin to appear only when we develop the motivation needed to take on the pain of talking about the true causes of the problems.