What does a good society look like…?

…And can psychology help us get there? Saskia Perriard-Abdoh, a Policy Advisor at the British Psychological Society, reports from a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology.

With three general elections in five years, these are busy times in politics. Policy-making processes can seem impersonal and distant from outside the Westminster bubble, yet people remain at the heart of government. Policies fail, and governments don’t get re-elected, if they fail to connect with the people they are meant to serve. Understanding people is the key to ensuring that our policies fulfil the needs of our society and our democracy remains fit for purpose.

Democracy, by its very nature as a structure, is not a one way street. Between the walls of parliament we often hear ‘Democracy is government by explanation’, and this notion provided the backbone to a British Psychological Society roundtable discussion in parliament last month. The event also asked whether considering questions of trust and identity could lead to better policy outcomes.

Professor Robert Johns (Essex University) picked up on this point early in the discussion and presented his own research evidence that trust in politics and political institutions was at an all-time low; though, he noted, ‘it was never that high in the first place’. Johns argued that trust in institutions was less important than social trust – namely, how much do communities and the people within them trust each other?

This notion of trust was picked up by several politicians around the table. Lisa Cameron MP, Chair of the APPG on Psychology, noted: ‘There's this vacuum that has allowed identity politics to play a huge part [in society] before elections. All these issues of trust and connection with politics have led to a public disdain for politics.’ Neil Carmichael, former Conservative MP for Stroud, agreed. ‘I worry about identity politics, because I think that it can actually become quite divisive. And I think that some of the directions of trouble [both in politics and society] that we've gone through in the last decade or so, has been fuelled by identity politics’.

Unsurprisingly, the shadow of Brexit loomed large. Sue Cameron, drawing on her longstanding experience as a journalist, underlined the importance of feeling heard. ‘If poor people feel ignored by policy makers, and if you are going to disenfranchised millions of people, what do you expect when you put the referendum to them?’

Polarising and immunising

For Chris Ruane MP, the atomisation and isolation of individuals has never been more acute. The fundamental issue, though, is that this process had happened very quickly. ‘A sense of belonging has disappeared, and people are disengaging with politics. Politics hasn’t addressed [the need for] a sense of belonging.’ Neil Carmichael mirrored this argument: ‘Our party political system hasn’t responded to it. It has turned away from it, and in some cases has been a contributing factor to it. Our system isn’t reflecting the challenges we’ve got.’

Yet despite the high visibility of the challenges, there was also a counterbalance offering potential ways forward in the direction of solutions. According to Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive at the RSA, it was easy to look at polarising factors within society, but immunising factors – those which hold people together despite polarisation – were just as important. ‘Societies that succeed balance authority, values and social autonomy.’

In response, Dr Laura McGrath (Open University) introduced the case for using psychology as a framework for developing this way forward. For example, through work with colleagues in the Psychologists for Social Change network, five key indicators and their psychological underpinnings have been identified as being of use:

  • Agency – namely, how much power do people feel they have over their own lives?
  • Connection – such as how well connected are people to their communities? Notably, Laura emphasised that ‘connection’ would be a preferred term over ‘belonging’, as the latter implies an out-group as well as an in-group (and therefore might lead to exclusion anyway).
  • Meaning – in times of political uncertainty it can be hard for people to make sense of their lives, and a sense of coherence and purpose is needed to bring society together.
  • Trust – the evidence shows that more integrated and equal communities have a higher level of trust within the community. Individuals who live in integrated communities also report a closer relationship with decision-making processes.
  • Security – how secure are individuals in their beliefs and abilities around meeting their material needs (i.e. housing, food)? Psychological research has shown the impact of scarcity, for example in the case of financial poverty, on people’s cognitive functioning.

Towards questions of identity?

Given that questions of identity and connection can have a tremendous impact on the way in which people react to policy, there is a clear need to understand people in order to develop better policy outcomes. But is it possible to reconcile the politics of identity with the policy of identity? And, if so, how can elected representatives navigate a rapidly evolving political landscape while fulfilling their potentially conflicting responsibilities to party, constituents, and parliament?

When addressing this question, Baroness Lister noted that there is a distinction between categorical identity, which can be divisive, and ontological identity, which describes people’s sense of agency as McGrath had mentioned. For example, poverty is not a part of most people’s identity – but it is imposed on them. This damages their ontological identity, and affects how they are treated by politicians and policy. People in poverty don’t feel like they are being listened to. Quoting a survey respondent, Baroness Lister said ‘Poverty is being treated like cattle. You have no dignity and no identity.’ So, in this example, we need to do research with people in poverty, not on people in poverty.

In response, Robert Johns said that the categorical/ontological distinction also raised the question of whether shared values have to be collective… can they be oppositional? ‘Hearing the other side of the argument is good for psychological wellbeing and recognition of others, but it’s not good for democratic participation – people can be overwhelmed by different points of view which lessens the motivation to participate.’ This argument was also supported by Ruane who noted, ‘at the last election 23 million people didn’t vote’.

For Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, ‘the question of what is a good society is almost completely absent from public discourse – which has led to a… deep sense of loss of what holds us together. The right wing say this pain is to do with nationhood, tribe, and tradition. The left wing says it’s to do with inequality, discrimination and power. But identity politics is visceral – it is my morality vs your morality, my ethical framework vs your ethical framework. This is a hard issue to resolve.’

As Kathryn Scott, Director of Policy at the British Psychological Society, noted, ‘Politics is about people. People themselves are units of policymaking. As psychologists if there’s one thing we know it’s people. How they think. How they feel. How they behave. As a Society we’ve become increasingly interested in thinking about the human underpinnings of policy and trying to understand how policy makes people feel about themselves and about their place in society. Understanding the formation of identity and its psychological underpinnings will be key to understanding what kind of society we want to live in, as well as developing the policies needed in order to get there.’

Saskia Perriard-Abdoh is a Policy Advisor at the BPS where she currently leads on the Psychological Government programme and the Society’s Health Policy Portfolio. George Wilkinson is a Policy Officer at the BPS.

Introducing the Psychological Government Programme

Our conversations with members and policy-makers alike continue to demonstrate that an understanding of policy which is underpinned by psychology will enable new, evidence-based, effective tools for policy-makers.

We also have the opportunity to recognise the deep divides in our society, and move away from the public and political discourse of individualism and personal responsibility which has long dominated the public policy landscape. It’s time to move towards an integrated and holistic approach to policy-making which puts people first.

We don’t just want to change policy, we want to change how policy is made.

Members are invited to apply for an exciting opportunity to play an active role in developing the Society’s upcoming Psychological Government programme. The aim of this project will be to work with our members to develop scalable and psychologically-informed solutions to policy-making whilst promoting the BPS as the primary voice of psychology in Government and beyond.

To help the Policy Team implement this programme, we are seeking to appoint up to eight members to join a Steering Group for an initial period of 18 months starting in January 2020. We are looking for members who can demonstrate innovative approaches and real-life experiences of policy-making. We are particularly interested in hearing from academics, researchers and practitioners who can help us understand questions of group dynamics, leadership, norm setting, effective questioning, evidence evaluation, behaviour change, and public policy processes.

While every effort will be made to ensure the group has a range of experience across domains, contexts of research and practice, we are keen to hear from practioners and academics who have direct experience of working in or with government departments. We also would particularly welcome BAME and LGBT+ applicants who are currently under-represented on Society working groups. 

To apply, please send a statement of interest of up to 500 words outlining your relevant knowledge and experience along with any examples of any relevant research or professional practice to George Wilkinson at [email protected].

Statements of Interest must be received by 30 January 2020. There will be a maximum of six SG meetings throughout 2020. Steering group members may also be invited to participate in relevant external events throughout the year.

To schedule an informal conversation about the programme please contact [email protected].  

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