A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.
The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.
Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.
The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)
Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.
There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:
Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.
Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch
Being a social brain researcher, I frequently find myself reading about, thinking about and talking about concepts of human behaviour in the abstract. We might be working on an idea as to how to help people alter their habits, make decisions differently or change their patterns of attention, and at times it can all seem quite far removed from the quotidian reality of my own life. So, it’s great when, on occasion, these things come to life and I experience them directly.
When it comes to attention (one of the three key themes underpinning the work of the social brain centre) the concept of ‘flow’ is, of course, of interest to us. Flow describes a state in which one becomes completely immersed in an activity, having a kind of energised focus that is fully directed at the activity and utterly absorbing. It is often associated with artistic and sporting pursuits like playing a musical instrument, tennis or chess.
Without wanting to crow about it, I’ve just returned from a week of skiing in the French Alps, and, throughout the week I found myself most definitely in a state of flow. For me, skiing is the perfect activity to generate flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, says that the necessary conditions for flow include being faced with a task that has clear goals requiring specific responses. The goals must be both challenging and attainable, and the task must be an intrinsically rewarding activity. So, skiing certainly fits the bill according to these criteria
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions
More than that, I think skiing works for bringing about flow because it is challenging both physically and psychologically. It requires me to be to completely “in” my body as well as exercising my mind in ways that I don’t usually have to. Certainly in the early days of learning, it was necessary to overcome a whole load of instincts (i.e. when faced with a steep slope that you don’t want to career down, completely out of control; lean forwards).
The combination of needing to command your body to move in unfamiliar ways (subtle flexing of the ankles makes all the difference!) whilst not overthinking is massively challenging. Think about what you’re doing, so you do it right, but don’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up all stiff, rigid and robotic, and therefore unable to move in the right way. Like many activities that result in flow, the best skiing (at my intermediate level, at least) happens when you stop being too conscious of the precise, separate actions, and just allow the whole to come together.
My best moments of flow happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus
When it does, there’s really nothing like it. My best moments of flow during the week happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus. An extremely steep mogul field (bumps), with a base of ice, covered with a layer of soft fresh snow, plus the helpful addition of the occasional loose rock. Skiing through the forest, having no choice but to find a way to turn, even if it looks a bit too tight or precipitous. When the alternative is to crash into a tree, you suddenly find that you can pull off manoeuvres that you wouldn’t have thought you were capable of had you had time to think about it.
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity (be it skiing, playing chess, or whatever) leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions. This, perhaps paradoxically, brings about a spontaneous sense of joy.
Sounds like something we could all do with more of in our lives. But is it possible to engineer? Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow, suggests that there are steps you can take, but in my view, flow is somewhat elusive. It’s unrealistic to wake up on a Monday morning and decide to get yourself into a state of flow. In spite of this, some surprising research has shown that more occasions of flow occur at work than in leisure time.
According to those who’ve looked into it, jobs involving activities like problem solving, evaluation and planning are particularly likely to generate flow. Come to think of it, that’s starting to sound quite a lot like my job. But do I really experience flow at work on a regular basis? There are certainly some aspects of my work which I get utterly absorbed in, but I would say the rhythm of my work is such that it’s actually quite difficult to let the flow flow, as it were.
In fact, I think flow is increasingly difficult to access, as our world becomes punctuated by hyperconnective interruptions. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is now an expectation that we are permanently available, along with a near-addiction to getting new information, through our email accounts, Twitter feeds and personal networks. These phenomena are surely major threats to flow. Flow at work seems highly unlikely to occur when you’re in an open plan office, with phones ringing all around, colleagues popping in to ask quick questions, and the general hubbub and buzz of a busy office.
I’m sure that Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that specific goals requiring specific responses, challenge and attainability are needed to produce flow. In the context of work, though, I would say that uninterrupted time, and the right conditions in terms of space are just as important. How can you really be lost in flow with a pinging smart phone by your side? For me, and I don’t know whether I’m alone in this, the physical dimension also seems critical. Sure, I can get lost in writing up a report, but it’s never as complete, as total as the flow I experience when I’m on skis, trying not to crash into trees.
I first met Jules Evans at a Franco-British council’s conference on the measurement of well-being. That’s him with the microphone, and yours truly listening intently.
Shortly after the event, Jules produced a wonderful 10 minute video and a few weeks later I enjoyed his excellent question to Lord Layard at an RSA event called “Happiness, New Lessons” . With one question, Jules showed clearly that Lord Layard is basically a Benthamite, who chooses not to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures, and takes happiness to be little more than a personal feeling.
For weeks thereafter, I enjoyed his ‘Politics of Well-being’ blog, which is a lively, stimulating, and frequently hilarious read. I looked forward to it not merely for information relating to well-being, and our capacity (or not) to measure it, but because Jules consistently applied insights from both philosophy and psychology- the work was broad and deep and grounded, but not blinkered by a single perspective.
Philosophy and Psychology
In this respect I share Jules’s view that the academic divide between philosophy and psychology is an unfortunate loss for both disciplines, which really need each other to make sense of human experience. In fact in my own Phd thesis on Wisdom I write about this, because you feel the insanity of this division intensely when trying to fathom what it might mean to be wise:
“Philosophy and psychology share an intellectual heritage that tried to make sense of the workings of the mind, the reliability of knowledge, the basis of morality, and our understanding of the world. Such questions were central to the rationalist and empiricist traditions, but gradually, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, the concerns of the two disciplines diverged, with philosophy becoming increasingly concerned to become a foundational discipline, an under-labourer for science, concerned with epistemic warrant in logic and language; while psychology sought to become a natural science, focusing on predicting and measuring human behaviour… In this process of separation, I believe both disciplines lost something vital, and when they came together again under the auspices of cognitive science, they both looked like paler devalued versions of themselves, perpetuating an impoverished view of the mind and our capacity to understand it.”
Philosophy for Life, and other dangerous situations
This ‘bi-lingualism’ is one of the things that make Jules’s writing so readable, and I therefore slightly regret the fact that in recent months he seems to have rebranded himself as a philosopher first and foremost. His new blog ‘Philosophy for Life’ is just as good as the politics of well-being, and indeed is very similar in spirit to the old one, but it has been reframed now as a platform for his book: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
The book has a Video trailer here and I finally got round to finishing it a couple of days ago.
In the book, Jules shares his admiration for some remarkable figures (I particularly liked Jean Vanier, the ‘kindly polar bear’ on p227) and is adept at weaving in his personal experience (including a near-death spiritual experience following a skiing accident) and shows impressive philosophical and psychological acumen throughout, as well as considerable wit. So when Jules is allowed to let rip, as he does in his weekly blogs, the text is wonderful to read.
However, to honour these considerable authorial qualities, I should say that I felt they were undermined, not supported, by the tone and structure of the book as a whole. My impression is that the publishers felt Jules’s voice by itself wasn’t enough to get people to buy the book, so they added a superstructure that made the book appear more like a ‘how-to’ guide and made it more explicitly about philosophy as such- to frame the ‘offer’ more clearly to prospective buyers.
That’s life, I guess, and publishing is a ‘dangerous situation’ of sorts. However, I would have been happier just to hear Jules share his insights and experiences, and pose his pertinent questions. Instead in several places I had to deal with an overarching narrative that felt exogenous, and enjoyed neither pretending the book was read over the course of the day, nor straining to imagine what ancient philosophers might eat for lunch.
That said, I hope you can see from the thoughts above and quotations below that the book is worth reading, and I would strongly encourage you to sign up to his blog to learn more about what he is thinking about on a regular basis.
This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents
On his own mental health at university: “What help could literature and philosophy possibly be to me? My brain was a neurochemical machine, I had broken it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Somehow, after university, I had to plug this broken apparatus into the great steel machinery of the market, and survive. I graduated in 1999 with a good degree and, to celebrate, had a nervous breakdown.” (p3)
On the longing for social acceptance: “We internalise the gaze of others, and this internal spectator becomes all-powerful over us…This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents.”(p161)
On the alleged cult of SES, The School of Economic Science: ”To be fair to the school, if Plato set up his Academy today, or Epicurus set up his Garden, they would probably be accused of being cults.” (p191)
On the path to societal wellbeing: “My hope is that we can find a better balance between the ancient idea of the good life, and a modern pluralist and liberal politics. It would recognise that well-being is not a simple concept that can be objectively defined, pinned down and measured by empirical science, and the world would be a much more boring place if it was. We should explore the plurality of philosophical approaches to well-being. We should treat citizens as rational adults who deserve to be brought into the conversation as equals. Empiricism balanced with practical reasoning. Instrumental techniques balanced with a consideration of values and ends. Science balanced with the humanities. Not one version of the good life, but several. Not a mass enforced march to an official well-being target, but groups of friends helping each other in their search for the good. That’s what I would like to see.” (p230)
The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.
On the classic Dionysian/Socratic conflict: “They would say that the last people you should turn to for advice on life are philosophers. Look at them: weak, pale, stammering creatures, visibly unhealthy, palpably out of touch with their bodies and their societies. Nature has cursed them with weakness and timidity, so they wreak their revenge on nature by constructing their own artificial and self-conscious version of happiness. ‘Only Virtue is happiness’, the philosophers insist, and cough. But we Dionysiacs know they are lying, we know the genuine joy that comes from the body, from hunting and dancing and love. The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.” (p257)
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it” (1)
One may think that this may be a quote by a self-help guru, a Buddhist monk or a philosopher. Actually, I came across it yesterday reading Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s latest book. What he means by this is that “any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation” (1).
Daniel Gilbert provides examples how terribly inaccurate people are guessing what will bring them happiness and what will bring misery. Apparently, winning in lottery or getting married brings much less happiness than most people are absolutely certain they will. Also, becoming paraplegic by far does not bring as much misery as we think (2).
It seems that our intuitions constantly magnify the importance of specific aspects of our lives that we are paying attention to. Attention is a bit like magnifying glass: whatever we bring our attention to seems bigger than it actually is.
It is my common experience that when I do a mistake or do not meet some sort of criteria I have set for myself, often I get a feeling suggesting that this is really bad. It feels like this will have a big negative impact on my life even in the total context of my life they are pretty minor things. However, as I continue deepening my practice of mindfulness and as I become more observant of the patterns of my mind, I start noticing things I was not noticing before. I start seeing my own blindness. I notice myself developing an intuitive feeling that tells me when I am blowing things out of proportion again. It’s like a little voice inside me going ‘here you are doing the same again’. After becoming aware of this intuitive impulse, usually I discount whatever my initial reactions of fear or frustration suggest. More often than not, this leads to being more level-headed and making better decisions.
Also, it’s a very humbling experience to see how flawed my perceptions are. This makes it into a lifelong quest of learning more and more when my perceptions can and cannot be trusted.
- Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast & Slow, p. 402
- Gilbert, Daniel (2006). Stumbling on Happiness
For details of the list below, please go here but also stop to ask whether this ‘top ten’ rings true for you. Personally I think it’s quite inclusive, though numbers ten, eight and seven should be higher up, but do let me know if you think something important is missing.
10. Cognitive dissonance
9. Hallucinations are common
8. The placebo effect
7. Obedience to authority
6. Fantasies reduce motivation
5. Choice blindness
4. Two (or three, or four…) heads are not always better than one
3. Trying to suppress your thoughts is counterproductive
2. Incredible multi-tasking skills
1. In life, it’s all about the little things
Addendum: Where did this come from?
For those who don’t use twitter, a ‘retweet‘ is typically a way of sharing something that you want others to see. It usually works that way for me too, but these days I retweet mostly to remind myself to read something later- the links stay in my tweet stream, and I can open and read them at leisure. That was the case here, when I came upon a tweet by Rupert Sheldrake(a somewhat controversial figure, but I highly recommend his book, The Science Delusion, as a lucid account of the distinction between scientific evidence and scientific ideology, and why that matters) who linked to an article at http://io9.com with the intriguing title: “10 of the Most Surprising Findings from Psychological Studies” A closer look suggests this came from Psych blog at http://www.spring.org.uk/ which appears to be something worth plugging into more generally (although at first blush they seem o’er fond of top tens as a way of getting people like me excited…)
RSA’s Director of Design Emily Campbell just celebrated three years of working here, and future plans, with plentiful bubbly and some highly inclusive gluten free chocolate cake.
Before joining the RSA I had no idea what ‘Design’ meant. I thought it was something vaguely connected to arcitchture and buildings, and had no particular need, or so I thought, to think otherwise. Now I hope I am confused on a much higher level. Largely because of the influence of Emily and colleagues, I see that Design is a way of thinking, of inventively reimagining the world. In fact now when I think about behavioural challenges, I find that cognitive frailties and behavioural foibles often look like Design problems in disguise.
The core emphasis of RSA Design is that everybody can become equipped to think like a designer. In this sense design is not about aesthetics, but about logic. Design is viewed here as a form of resourcefulness. Hence the expression ‘You know more than you think you do.’ Any thinking person, and even those who don’t think much, can be given some experience of the perceptual and creative tools of a designer. The RSA believes that by taking on the mantle of a design perspective, you can unlock your own capacities to fashion systems and solve problems.
I should also confess that until recently Buckminster Fuller was a name I only dimly recognised, but after reading the following quotation(of which there are many) in the New Yorker I was keen to find out more about his work.
‘But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.
“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”’
This is sagacious insight, and gave me pause. But of course choosing between people and the environment is a false dichotomy. What matters is to undersand deeply how the two are connected, and work with that understanding to change the world. We know more than we think we do, and should face our challenges with that understanding.
Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.
So wrote Bertrand Russell in 1950. The idea of rational man, or homo economicus, (that people weigh up the economic costs and benefits of each choice open to them and choose the one that maximises their gain) has been widely debunked by a series of peer-reviewed papers and popular books by behavioural scientists.
But one criticism of this emerging field is that many of the studies used to support the debunking – of experiments in which people making seemingly irrational choices – tend to involve similar samples of people. A trio of behavioural scientists from the University of British Columbia report that 96% of subjects in the top psychology journals came from western industrialised countries; Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies as they dub them. But the results of these studies are too often assumed to be universally applicable.
The researchers continue to review a number of studies in which the behavioural quirks and biases investigated are compared across cultures. One of these is a visual perception bias, illustrated by the well known Müller-Lyer illusion, in which lines appear to differ in length according to arrows or tails placed on the lines.
It turns out that the effect of the “illusion” is much reduced for non-WEIRD people; it has virtually no effect on the San Foragers of the Kalahari for example. But the cohort of people from the States were the most powerfully affected by the illusion.
As the paper concludes; “Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity”.
Perhaps Bertrand Russell should have gone to the Kalahari Desert in his quest for rationality.
One of the main ideas to emerge from the Social Brain Steering group in year one of our project is that the dynamics of human behaviour are best captured in a three-part rather than two-part relationship.
We are not just a controlled system and an automatic system, in which our automatic and largely unconscious behaviours are supplemented and informed by occasional conscious deliberation. In fact our behaviour is mostly habitual.
Habits are important because they define who we are, but also because they can be changed. You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually. Confucius captures the point nicely when he says: ’Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.’
Habits are driven by our automatic (principally limbic) system, and often feel automatic due to the way our brains predict events, and reward us when those predications are accurate, principally through the release of the ‘feel good factor’ in the form of dopamine. But habits are acquired and conditioned behaviours rather than strictly automatic. They are second nature rather than first, and therefore amenable to the influence of deliberation and reflection.
However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare, you need behaviour to change behaviour. Thought alone will rarely change a habit, because willpower is scarce and depletable, and rarely sufficient to turn the thought into action on an ongoing basis.
Yet the right kind of thoughts can help you to outsmart your automatic system. By using whatever conscious control you have, you can change your environment, such that your automatic system is not given the fuel of familiarity, and your habitual behaviour is not repeatedly reinforced. ‘Nudge‘ therefore seeks to change what we do by shaping the environment to make best use of what we know about our automatic behaviour.
You can also free yourself from your habits to an extent by shifting your goals and expectations. In this respect, ’Think‘ seeks to change our conscious thoughts, such that we change our sense of who we are and what we should want, and thereby recalibrate our habits by seeking out different kinds of reward.
The RSA Steer approach takes the best of both approaches. We seek to bring people’s conscious attention to the power and strength of automaticity,but we also respect the role of conscious deliberation. Changing habits is the main aim of this endeavour, which is one reason why the first principle of our Steer report is that ‘habit is king’.
We know a lot about how hard it is to change bad habits, but much less about how we form good habits. This asymmetry is perhaps in the process of changing, because a recent study authored by Phillippa Lally at UCL suggests that it takes about 66 days for a behaviour to become habitual, by which she means completed without thinking about it. Commentary on this finding can be found here and some ruminations about different numbers of days for different kinds of habits can be found here.
66 days? In other words it is not easy to form a good habit. You need repeated practice, and need to find a way to keep motivation high. As Canadian Magician Doug Henning once put it:
‘The hard must become habit. The habit must become easy. The easy must become beautiful.’
George Bernard Shaw famously described dancing as “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire”, but it seems that some express this desire better than others.
Today’s Guardian reports on a recent psychological study which indicates that when you strip away appearance, personality, dress sense and eye contact, women express a marked preference for men who dance with their whole bodies, including their torsos and heads, and not merely their arms and legs.
Quite a cute study, but a small sample and a fairly unsurprising outcome. Will Brown, a psychologist at the University of East London is suitably tentative:
“Flexing the trunk while dancing may be attractive, but we need to show it is indicative of a better quality male using an independent measure of biological quality.”
Better quality male? Biological Quality? Trunk?
A little respect, please…
I’ll focus on one aspect of the report – which as a whole seems ranging and unfocussed, a general gripe about modern life. But there are serious issues, and here are some of them.
Lord Layard said there was a problem with too much individualism – by which he seemed to mean the excessive individual pursuit of happiness through material success relative to others’ material success.
This is a ‘zero sum game’ because there is only so much relative material success to go around. What we need is a ‘positive sum game’ based on gaining happiness through the following:
1) success measured in part in terms of being of use to others;
2) private pursuits that have ‘intrinsic’ (rather than relative) worth.
Lord Layard didn’t explain the link between happiness and these value-laden activities, but here are three linkages:
1) success in being of use to others counters inidividualism; it increases trust and empathy and satisfies us more fully as the social beings we are (and of course, trust and empathy are social goods in themselves);
2) the intrinsic worth of virtuous behaviour satisfies a person in a way that lasts – the satisfaction of buying a new pair of shoes will fade and is reliant on wealth, whereas ‘doing well’ through virtuous activity is less reliant on wealth, and the satisfaction it yields can stay with one for a lifetime (as Aristotle insisted two and a half thousand years ago);
3) values facilitate personal and social efficacy – they are easier to teach and once internalised within individuals and embedded in social norms can be taught and are thus enduring (as opposed to instrumental norms which do not internalise or embed in the same way and are harder to teach).
The problem is that Lord Layard didn’t say anything about how we inculcate such values. He did make an observation: we shoud encourage more psychology graduates to go into teaching. But he didn’t say why. Here’s a suggestion.
The problem with teaching values is twofold:
1) how do we disentangle them from class-based, racial and gender-specific assumptions (the problem of universalism);
2) how do we teach them effectively to diverse communities (the problem of particularism).
Here’s how the behavioural and neurosciences could help:
1) There is a nascent post-individualist picture of human nature emerging from the behavioural and neurosciences: that both in behavioural and evolutionary terms we are dispensed fundamentally towards fairness, justice, empathy and kindess. These are your universal ‘values’ not derived from class, race, or gender.
2) The behavioural and neurosciences show us how important (largely imitative) social cognition is. They can help teachers think about how to make the universal values accessible through localised social models that speak to kids’ contemporary experiences. (Although slightly different, think of the ‘Jade Goody effect’, and how this has facilitated effective behaviour change.)