How else to know people?

This is an extract from The Happiness Industry by William Davies. If you find it interesting then you’ll like this podcast.

Psychology and social science are perfectly possible, under the sorts of conditions described by Wittgenstein, indeed they are much more straightforward. Systematic efforts to understand other people, through their behaviour and speech, are entirely worthwhile. But they are not so different from the forms of understanding that we all make of one another in everyday life. As the social psychologist Rom Harre argues, we all face the occasional problem of not being sure what other people mean or intend, but have ways of overcoming this. “The only possible solution”, he argues, “is to use our understanding of ourselves as the basis for the understanding of others, and our understanding of others of our species to further our understanding of ourselves”.[i]

One implication of this, when it comes to acquiring psychological knowledge, is that we have to take what people say far more seriously. Not only that, but we have to assume that for the most part, they meant what they said, unless we can identify some reason why they didn’t. Where behaviorism always attempts to get around people’s ‘reports’ of what they’re feeling, an interpretative social psychology insists that feeling and speaking cannot be ultimately disentangled from each other. Part of what it means to understand the feelings of another is to hear and understand what they mean, when they use the word ‘feeling’.

Techniques such as surveys may have a valuable role to play, in fostering mutual understanding across large and diverse societies. But again, there is too much misunderstanding as to what is going on when a survey takes place. Surveys can never be instruments which represent some set of quasi-natural, objective facts; rather they are useful and interesting ways of engaging with people, probing them for answers. As the critical psychologist John Cromby has argued with respect to happiness surveys:

Happiness does not exert a determinate force that always makes all human participants tick the boxes on a… scale in a particular way. There is not the law-like relation between happiness and questionnaire response that exists between, say, the volume of a quantity of mercury and its temperature.[ii]

This doesn’t mean that a happiness survey doesn’t communicate anything. But what it conveys cannot be disentangled from the social interaction between the surveyor and the surveyed. The ideal of discovering something more objective than this, through stripping out the self-awareness of the respondent (for instance, analysing twitter sentiment instead) is a chimera. It also involves forms of trickery and manipulation, which open up a breach between the researcher and everybody else.

Another way of understanding this argument is that psychology, clearly understood, is a door through which we pass on the way to political dialogue. This is in contrast to the Benthamite and behaviorist traditions explored in this book, which view psychology as a step towards physiology and/or economics, precisely so as to shut the door on politics. Unless something goes wrong, the core questions of psychology are relatively simple. ‘What is that person doing?’. ‘What is that person feeling right now?’. For the most part, the answers to these questions are relatively unproblematic, and the first and most important ‘methodology’ for answering them is one that we all use every day: just ask them.

That this methodology is not taken more seriously by managerial elites is scarcely surprising. It requires processes of deliberation. It credits people with their own legitimate interpretations and critiques of their own circumstances. It also requires skills to listen, which become submerged in societies that have privileged the power to observe and visualise. Management and government are more secure with the notion of brains ‘lighting up’ or thinking being ‘no less observable than baseball’, than they are with the prospect of people intentionally expressing their emotions and judgements. For various reasons, making our minds visible seems safer than making them audible. Entire organisational structures would need to change, if the behaviorist vision of an automated, silent mind were abandoned, in favour of an intelligent, speaking one.

In a society organised around objective psychological measurement, the power to listen is a potentially iconoclastic one. There is something radical about privileging the sensory power of the ear, in a political system designed around that of the eye. The clinical psychologist, Richard Bentall, argues that even quite severe forms of ‘mental illness’, which are routinely treated with drugs in the West today, can be alleviated through a patient, careful form of engagement with the sufferer and their life history. He suggests that:

If psychiatric services are to become more genuinely therapeutic, and if they are to help people rather than merely ‘manage’ their difficulties, it will be necessary to rediscover the art of relating to patients with warmth, kindness and empathy.[iii]

Listening and talking will not ‘cure’ them, because they are not ‘treatments’ in the first place. But behind the symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia there are stories and emotional injuries, which only a good listener will discover.

The rediscovery of listening is a priority that permeates other fields of social science. The sociologist, Les Back, argues that “listening to the world is not an automatic faculty but a skill that needs to be trained”, noting that it is this which gets lost in a society of ‘abstracted and intrusive empiricism’ of endless data, exposés, facts and figures.[iv] To know others is to engage with their stories and how they tell them. In the past, critiques of ‘ideology’ have proposed that most people labour under a ‘false consciousness’, not knowing what their real interests are. There is a certain irony, in the age of ‘nudges’ and clandestine facebook experiments, that it may now be more radical to highlight precisely the ways in which ordinary people do know what they’re doing, can make sense of their lives, are clear about their interests. For this, researchers need to learn some humility.

Amongst all of this, one of the most important human capacities which is rediscovered by the sociological psychologist is that to offer a critical judgement. To describe a critique or a complaint as a form of ‘unhappiness’ or ‘displeasure’ is to bluntly misunderstand what those terms mean, or what it means to experience and exercise them. ‘Critique’ will not show up in the brain, which is not to say that nothing happens at a neurological level when we exercise critical judgement. The attempt to drag all forms of negativity under a single neural or mental definition of unhappiness (often classed as ‘depression’) is perhaps the most pernicious of the political consequences of Benthamism generally.

If we understand concepts such as ‘critique’ and ‘complaint’ properly, we will recognise that they involve a particular form of negative orientation towards the world, that both the critic herself and her audience are aware of. As Harre puts it, “to complain verbally is a part of being discontented, because part of what is ascribed to a person who is described as ‘discontented’ is a tendency to complain”.[v] Notions such as ‘critique’ and ‘complaint’ mean nothing, without also appreciating that people have the unique power to interpret and narrate their own lives. Where the ‘sentiment analyst’, mining reams of twitter data, is looking for evidence of psychological emotion which people have emitted by accident, to listen to someone explain the rights and wrongs of their own lives is to grant them the human dignity of both understanding and articulation.

Recognising that people get angry, critical, resistant and frustrated is to understand that they have reasons to feel or act in these ways. People express themselves in different ways, and with different levels of confidence, but there are good reasons to accept the narratives that people offer about their own lives. If someone is invited to express their feeling (rather than instructed to correctly name or quantify it), they make it into a social phenomenon. Once people are critical or angry, they can also be critical or angry about something, which is external to themselves. Whether or not they are considered an articulate or expert person is scarcely relevant. This is already a less lonely, less depressive, less narcissistic state of affairs, than one in which people wonder how their mind or brain is behaving, and what they should do to improve it.

[i] Harré, R. & Secord, P. (1972) The Explanation of Social Behaviour. Basil Blackwell

[ii] Cromby, J. (2011). The Greatest Gift? Happiness, governance and psychology. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 5: 11

[iii] Bentall, R. (2009) Doctoring the Mind: Why Psychiatric Treatments Fail. Pengui p. xvii

[iv] Back, L. (2007) The Art of Listening, Berg. p. 7

[v] Harré & Secord (1972) p. 107


Categories: Rethinking The World

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1 reply »

  1. Thanks for this. I found it useful, but a bit patronising towards the end.

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