Science affects reality
Nature doesn't care for our study and theories about it, it goes its own way. But human nature can and will be changed by our theories about it.
To support this, Schwartz brings up a concept from anthropologist Clifford Geertz stating that "human beings are 'unfinished animals'". Human nature is more created than discovered. We 'design' human nature by designing the institutions in which people live. So we must continually ask ourselves what kind of human nature we want to help design.
Barry Schwartz brings forth the concept of a "Technology of ideas" where he proves that as much as the technology of objects affect and change our lives, the same happens when new theories and ideas about social sciences and human nature are being proposed by the scientific community.
The cater/create paradox
Does the market cater to consumer desires or does it create consumer desires?
This boils down to being a representation of science's ongoing debate of being theory-driven or data-driven. "If you build it, they will come" (data shaped by a theory) VS "Watch where they walk, then pave it" (theory shaped by data).
|"If you build it, they will come"
|"Watch where they walk, then pave it"
|(data shaped by a theory)
|(theory shaped by data)
The false rationale
In this book, Schwartz attempts to break down the original false idea that shapes the way we work. He traces it back to Adam Smith, the inventor of the free market.
The false rationale from 1776 that is, still today, shaping the way we work is that people work for only for pay. Smith showed the virtues of the division of labor, that breaking work down into meaningless bits proved to be an enormous gain to society in terms of efficiency, but it ended up shaping our approach to work for centuries to come.
The demoralizing effect of incentives
Once a price is put on the act of parking illegally downtown, it becomes a financial calculation to decide whether to park illegally or to buy a pricey parking lot access. It is no longer a moral question.
Well, the same thing happens in work. When work is incentivized only financially, it leaves less room for meaningful initiative and engagement. Extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation.
Schwartz urges us to worry about how an idea technology based on untrue ideas can become true simply by people believing it's true. This happens in 3 dynamics:
- Firstly, there is how we think of ourselves. When exposed to a new idea, we reflect on our own actions and are more likely to change our future actions which can make the idea become true. Luckily, this can be addressed with psychotherapy.
- Secondly, there is how we think of others. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy that occurs when, for example, a manager that doesn't believe performance can be improved does nothing to try and improve performance, so as a consequence, performance doesn't improve, which confirms their original theory. This happens in all areas of society but can hopefully be addressed with education.
- Lastly, there are social structures. When an institution is shaped by a false ideology, that ideology can change the world. An example could be if a politician believes that self-interest motivates all behaviour, the policies he will enact will give people no choice but to act in self-interested ways. This happens when ideologies are embedded in communities, workplaces, or at the political level which are unfortunately much harder to change.
The ideas that dominate our age are fictional, but they become less and less of a fiction when they slowly permeate our institutions. The only way to kill these fictions is to "nourish the alternatives", as Schwartz beautifully phrases it.
His final chapter is all about how we can design the future of human nature.
When we shape our social institutions —our schools, communities and workplaces—, we are also shaping ourselves, and human nature.
"It places a great burden on us [...] But this is a responsibility we must all accept. And the first step to taking responsibility over the structure of our workplace is to start asking questions. It is time for us to demand of ourselves and the people we work for and with that they seek higher ground."
If you’re curious to read more, consider borrowing this book from your local library or buying it from a local bookstore. Here are some suggestions: