I’ve recently been travelling around Europe and the Middle East on a kind of values and defusion tour. It’s been an amazing experience.
And no matter where I went I saw humans. Lots of them! Some in busy cities like Brussels or Munich; others miles from anywhere, in the wilds of Sweden, the deserts of the Middle East or quiet fishing villages in the Med. And everywhere you see how humans have adapted to their environment through different cultures, clothing and lifestyle. Clever old things.
But if humans are so good at adapting, why do we sometimes struggle to adapt to what life throws at us?
Funny you should ask, because this is where our second Very Exciting Idea from Behaviour Analysis comes in:
“Fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer”.
And why is this such a big idea?
Because it is useful for clients who struggle to adapt and that turns out to be, erm…
ALL OF US!
So sit back, take the soft top down and put on some rock classics, as we explore why ‘fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer’ is such a useful idea, especially in coaching.
What is Fusion?
In ACT, fusion is a term for when we become fused with, or stuck to, our thoughts.
In a state of fusion it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts. For example, if I am fused to the idea that ‘this is a hopeless blog post’, that is all I can see. Yikes!
From this perspective, it is easy to act as if the thought is true. So I might give up writing halfway through and see that the garden needs watering, or that the cat urgently needs stroking. (And I don’t even have a cat).
If this becomes a pattern I might fuse to a new story: I am hopeless…
Here there is no distance at all between me and the thought.
One recent example I had was with a manager at a construction firm who had received negative reviews about his ability to influence senior execs. His story was that as an ‘I’ on Myers Briggs and someone who hates small talk, there was little he could do to influence others. He was simply “not cut out for senior management”.
It is easy to see how fusing to stories like this can hinder development. But why do people fuse so readily to such unhelpful stories about themselves?
Meaning as the Brain’s Priority
Klinger (1998) argued that humans survive primarily by being able to respond to their environment. The brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into action”.
Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is therefore the brain’s top priority. This is why the experience of not understanding something is associated with feelings of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood, we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is much more pleasant (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006).
With language, meaning takes on a wider metaphorical significance, so humans start to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:
“meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).
Meaning is constructed in context ,and for humans especially this means it becomes socially constructed: “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” (Mead and Morris, 1967). Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.
When someone tells me that I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean’ is often greatly reassuring:
“Provided that languaging is reinforced from an early age, coherence is also reinforced. As a result, coherence… becomes a generalized reinforcer for verbally competent human beings.” (Blackledge, Moran, & Ellis, 2008).
Aha! Why Fusion acts as a Reinforcer
One reason why fusion is reinforcing is that it can quickly provide a sense of coherence (i.e. meaning) to otherwise confusing or ambiguous information.
For example, if I receive a poor assessment of my influencing skills, I can make sense of this by fusing to a story that I am an introvert, or have never had any training in assertiveness, or am ‘not cut out for senior management’.
Perhaps it is no surprise that people cling to these stories as a means of control over their lives. My life is a mess and this is why.
Meaning trumps everything, including whether the story is helpful or not.
For example I often fuse to a story that certain aspects of my character and upbringing make me unable to hold down relationships, and this can be consoling at times. The story makes sense of my experience – and relieves me of the responsibility to change.
And this is when fusion becomes truly problematic.
Because when we fuse to language our behaviour tends to ossify, which can reduce our capacity to adapt.
But if we can learn to hold language more lightly we retain our ability to adapt, and the world opens up before us once more.