financial crises and lizard brains

hmmmmmmmm. from michael lewis’ latest:

“[A]s he talked about the bankrupting of Vallejo, I realized that I had heard this story before, or a private-sector version of it. The people who had power in the society, and were charged with saving it from itself, had instead bled the society to death. The problem with police officers and firefighters isn’t a public-sector problem; it isn’t a problem with government; it’s a problem with the entire society. It’s what happened on Wall Street in the run-up to the subprime crisis. It’s a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It’s not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans….

Dr. Peter Whybrow [is] a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America’s society is a by-product of America’s success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. ‘Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited,’ he says cheerfully. ‘We’ve got the core of the average lizard.’ Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. ‘The only problem,’ he says, ‘is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.‘ Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. ‘When faced with abundance, the brain’s ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress,’ says Whybrow. ‘In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.’

“The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. ‘What we’re doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don’t have,’ says Whybrow. ‘We’ve created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded.'”

(note: comments do not require an email. or a lizard brain.)

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11 Comments

  1. Dear chick: (your last name?): I like your explanation better. It’s all about genetic relatedness, or the lack thereof. Evidence? Not all societies are like that (Sweden, Norway, Japan) and the ones that are are genetically diverse (USA) or, the the worst cases, divided along clan and tribal lines of kinship.

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  2. The answer, btw, would seem to be better policing, transparency, regulation in societies like the USA; and a few generations of out-breeding in all those other countries which shall remain nameless.

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  3. Duh?

    Not to knock Michael Lewis, but this is incredibly fucking obvious to anyone who’s spent more than a couple minutes thinking about these sorts of things.

    How come he gets to be a high status writer for an elite magazine?

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  4. Diversity, whether ethnic or cultural undermines the sense of a cohesive “us” and the sense of a cohesive “us” is the glue that holds everything together.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_Alone

    i think Lenin’s equation: power = mass x cohesion, is applicable in dozens of versions

    social capital = mass x cohesion

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  5. @luke – i do think that there is something to this “lizard brain” idea — it seems very right that we, like all sorts of animals, should hoard or at least gorge ourselves in times of plenty. but, yes, too much ethnic diversity in a society (or too much inbreeding of the sort that leads to clans/tribes) adds to the greed — or subtracts from the sharing, anyway.

    mostly i was hmmmmm-ing at the term “lizard brain.” primal brain would be a better sort of term, i think. i mean, why pick on the poor lizards?! (~_^) and anyway, lizards are altruistic, too. (^_^)

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  6. @anonymous – “How come he gets to be a high status writer for an elite magazine?”

    connections. (~_^) he was a wall street insider for a time, too, wasn’t he? or he worked on wall street anyway. then he wrote a book on how dodgy the financial world is — and that was back in the 80s!

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  7. “sense of a cohesive ‘us’ is the glue that holds everything together.”

    Also if

    cohesion = ethnic cohesion + cultural cohesion

    then

    a corollary would be a cohesive society can be ethnically diverse or culturally diverse but not both

    a cohesive society can be very open (culturally diverse) but only if it is very ethnically homogenous

    a cohesive society can be ethnically diverse but only if it is culturally coercive e.g political correctness, or strongly self-selecting

    e.g you can see this on a small scale where a sports team can be very cohesive despite being very ethnically diverse because the individual team members are so alike in other ways. similarly, geeky scientists or any other sub-group with particularly strongly defined group membership separate from ethnicity.

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  8. @g.w. – “e.g you can see this on a small scale where a sports team can be very cohesive despite being very ethnically diverse because the individual team members are so alike in other ways.”

    sure. but then this is like assortative mating, just without the mating. (~_^) people are attracted to other people like themselves, one way or another. i can see that if you’re, say, italian, and you’re a great football (soccer) player and you’re just driven to play football, but most of your fellow italians are not great football players, you might feel very comfortable hanging around with some (mon dieu!) french guys or even some berbers. but this is just rushton’s genetic similarity theory, isn’t it?

    @g.w. – “a corollary would be a cohesive society can be ethnically diverse or culturally diverse but not both”

    i have a hard time seeting how ethnically diverse societies can work over the long-term — not without some really strong coercion — and even then, not when times get tough (which is what worries me). this is what history is all about, after all. =/

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  9. “but then this is like assortative mating, just without the mating”

    yes, my point is examples of cohesive diversity aren’t neccessarily. they’re examples of how extreme self-selection of compatible personality types or how an extremely coercive and uniform group culture e.g police and miltiary, can *outweigh* genetic trust issues in small groups. if you take the Japanese jock and put him with the Chinese geek and the Chinese jock with the Japanese geek then you’re back at genetic trust square one.

    .
    “i have a hard time seeting how ethnically diverse societies can work over the long-term”

    i think they work in the same way a tribal society like Libya works. it’s basically the same thing. the level of trust falls below a level where a nation-state is viable, everything becomes localized, public goods like roads, education and medicare gradually decay or disappear completely. life goes on but at a lower level.

    the thing with America is that it had a particularly large population of particularly high trust individuals in a terriotory with a particularly high natural bounty so in terms of synergy = mass x cohesion America had history’s high score. the *gap* between the score of that version of America and the total score for the Libyan version is so vast the potential drop is cataclysmic but the end-point is simply what currently counts as normal in most of the world.

    the other big element of course is America plays a large part in the carrying capacity of the whole planet so a fall will knock everyone down a few rungs on the ladder. the people currently on the bottom rungs will starve.

    another big difference though is this process of re-tribalization has been achieved using anti-white demonization in media and education to suppress white American’s terriotorial instincts. the consequences of that won’t suddenly disappear overnight so any transition to a Libya-America will inevitably be very bloody.

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  10. @g.w. – “how extreme self-selection of compatible personality types or how an extremely coercive and uniform group culture e.g police and miltiary, can *outweigh* genetic trust issues in small groups.”

    yes!

    @g.w. – “i think they work in the same way a tribal society like Libya works.”

    in other words, they don’t work. =/

    @g.w. – “the consequences of that won’t suddenly disappear overnight so any transition to a Libya-America will inevitably be very bloody.”

    ugh. that’s what worries me. =/

    Reply

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