Tuesday 29 October 2013

Habit: the flywheel of cognition

William James famously called habit 'the enormous flywheel of society.'  He could also have called it the flywheel of cognition.  Levi Bryant links to a really fascinating article in The Atlantic on a study that shows how 'poverty taxes brains' - that is, poverty deprives people of the habits that permit wealthier people the luxury of saving cognitive energy by not having to think about so many things.

For example, if you have to think (and worry) about where your next meal is going to come from then you will expend enormous cognitive and emotional resources on achieving only that goal.  A wealthier person who can breeze through the supermarket without having to stop to think whether or not they can afford what is in their basket is free to think about other things.  If they are really wealthy they needn't even set foot in the shop, they simply bark 'food!' and it appears before them!

The really important thing to realise, as James did well over a century ago, is that habits run deep.  We are plastic beings.  Our brains are plastic, our habits are plastic.  It isn't just that the rich person saves time by not having to consciously recall how much money is in their bank account and then carefully add up every item in their basket in order to ensure that they are not humiliated when they reach the checkout because they are unable to pay.  It runs much deeper than that.  No, these kinds of practices affect the way we are 'wired' at every level - the aforementioned study focuses, of course, on brains but it is a general truth.

So writes James:
What is so clearly true of the nervous apparatus of animal life can scarcely be otherwise than true of that which ministers to the automatic activity of the mind … Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.
Habit is self-perpetuating.  The more that we expend our cognitive energies on survival the less energy we have to expend on other things and, over time, the less we are capable we become of thinking about other things.  The more attuned we become to survival thinking the less attuned we become to anything else.  Habits are plastic - they have a structure that yields but not all at once, as James puts it - and so they can be reversed but only with great effort.  Human being is habitual long before it is 'rational.'  Indeed, rationalities are habitual.

This is at odds with pretty much everything economics and psychology have assumed in the last hundred years - and with the entire disciplinary logic of neoliberalism.  The Atlantic article notes that:
The design of these experiments wasn't particularly groundbreaking, which makes it all the more astounding that we’ve never previously understood this connection between cognition and poverty. “This project, there’s nothing new in it, there’s no new technology, this could have been done years ago,” Shafir says. But the work is the product of the relatively new field of behavioral economics. Previously, cognitive psychologists seldom studied the differences between different socio-economic populations (“a brain is a brain, a head is a head,” Shafir says). Meanwhile, other psychology and economics fields were studying different populations but not cognition.
Behavioural economics is only just catching up with the man who died in 1910.  It's utterly shameful, really.  A brain is not a brain, a head is not a head.  A brain without a body is a dead lump of goo.  A body without all its social accoutrements is a dead lump of flesh and bone.  A human being without its habits is moribund.

Assuming perfect, habit-less rationality of human subjects in order to make your sums add up (as this is what modern economics basically amounts to) is criminal in its absurdity.  Latour (following Callon) is right that economics is a discipline and not a science.