Scrap of writing: Sustainable minds and relationships

I’ve just rediscovered a scrap of a note, which sort of still makes sense – throwing it out here in case it makes sense to someone else too!

“Differential” psychology orders people from clever to stupid (Nisbett et al., 2012; Spearman, 1904). Some have argued that instead of evaluating thinking ability, psychologists should instead study what it is that people care enough to think about and do (Raven, 1988). What might this mean? Perhaps we (social science, broadly?) should study:

  1. What people could think about;
  2. What people are thinking about, i.e., what they make an effort to think about and what thoughts come effortlessly;
  3. Why people don’t think about things that they could think about;
  4. What they can do;
  5. Why they are or aren’t doing things they can/could do.

The goal would be to shift studies of ability as a score to qualitative studies of the nature of what people think, feel, and do. This leads to an interesting set of problems. Let’s define a desired-action as an action which others’ want or need either to do themselves or to delegate to others and a desired-skill is what’s required to do those actions. Even with a qualitative model of thoughts, feelings, and actions, there remains the problem that:

  1. Some desired-skills are in more scarce supply than others.
    1. As a corollary, the abilities and motivations required for scarce desired-skills can be difficult to modify at the population and individual level (high gSpearman’s “general factor in intelligence” – is thought to enable desired-skills; attempts to increase it through, e.g., “brain training” have failed);
  2. Some desired-skills are more in demand than others.
    1. Another corollary: there may be no “good reason” for demand other than that a group of people have arbitrarily come to decide that they want something;
    2. In-demand doesn’t imply “useful” (in any sense) for self or society (see also ideas around social closure and opportunity hoarding; Wright, 2009);
  3. People are rewarded for doing scarce and in-demand desired-actions.
    1. This reward is currently often seen as financial, but there are other ways people can feel rewarded.

One possible conclusion (with a bit of an arm-wave) is that social scientists should be working out how to reduce the set of things that feel scarce. Perhaps it all comes down to human motivation (Maslow, 1943):

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualisation
  6. To know and understand

Another way to think about this is that needs are part of a psychosocial ecosystem. And, much like how – if we want to stop the destruction of the planet – we have to find ways to live in a more sustainable way in terms of the material resources we use, we also – if we want to stop the destruction of our minds and relationships – have to help each other manage our needs. Think about an example of material sustainability. Do we really need to have a new plastic bag every time we go shopping? Are some of our apparent needs which rely on scarce-actions just arbitrarily so?

[And the scrap fizzled out here… Over to you…]


Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). Intelligence: new findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 67, 130–59. doi:10.1037/a0026699

Raven, J. (1988). Toward Measures of High-Level Competencies: A Re-examination of McClelland’s Distinction Between Needs and Values. Human Relations, 41, 281–294. doi:10.1177/001872678804100401

Spearman, C. (1904). “ General Intelligence,” Objectively Determined and Measured. The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201–292.

Wright, E. O. (2009). Understanding Class: Towards an Integrated Analytical Approach. New Left Review, 60, 101–116.


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