Nigel Leaney: our capacity for altruism means humans are not robots

Adam Curtis’s extraordinary three-part documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?, shown recently on BBC2, traced the development of a theory of human behaviour, based on the Cold War strategy of game theory, that postulates humankind as self-serving robots motivated by their own interests rather than any form of altruism.

This theory drove politicians and economists to abandon policies based on ideological beliefs in favour of the so-called freedom of market forces. Yet such a concept of freedom has led to greater inequalities and public control as well as the demise of social mobility.

Using game theory, R D Laing proposed that notions of love and hate towards a person with a psychosis were just a way to exert power and control over the sufferer. In effect, the same game of domination as reflected in international affairs.

A new form of control by using numbers was devised. Computerised questionnaires could be used for diagnosing a whole raft of mental disorders. Half of Americans found they had mental health problems and began queuing outside doctor’s surgeries for the pills to make them “normal”.

Similar numerical systems were devised in the political sphere to measure the standards of human organisations. So every year we still address the perennial bogey: performance targets. In the Vietnam war killing civilians was used to meet performance targets. NHS managers reduced the number of patients waiting on trolleys, as part of their targets, by removing the wheels and reclassifying them as beds.

We all know (hopefully) that people are more complex than the innately selfish model, game theorists would have us believe. And help is at hand. It seems we need the friendship of others in order to thrive. A newly discovered class of brain cells, mirror neurons, show that our brain chemistry mirrors the actions of other people’s behaviour. So, for example, feelings of calm and reassurance are transmitted from one person to another having a beneficial effect on that person’s emotional and physical well-being. Empathy and shared experience have been found in the lab. Friendship has now been given a scientific value. I just hope they don’t put a number on it.

Nigel Leaney manages a mental health residential service

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