ACT and Conscious Evolution Part B: How ACT can help us respond to global change

Last week we looked at how our psychology gets in the way of effective responding to the challenges of global change. This week we look at how ACT might help us meet some of those challenges by helping us think long-term, more complexly and with others. I want to explore with you how ACT could impact upon society not just individuals.

(As I write this, I notice my doubts – ‘who am I to write about global change?’, ‘these issues are far too complex for a short blog’, ‘do I really think ACT can make a difference in the face of huge, powerful and rich vested interests?’ and so on. And yet, here I go – stepping beyond the ways my language machine tries to protect me, and just moving my fingers to write something that might be of value to you.)

How can ACT help us to meet the psychological challenges I outlined in my last blog? Challenge number 1 was our natural human tendency to respond to short-term reinforcers.  This challenge is at the heart of ACT in the way it helps us name and act in the service of long-term values. Do we want our society to be about ever-increasing consumption or something deeper?

ACT helps us to think long-term

We are evolving in at least four dimensions: genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and cultural [1].  Just as genetic evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of genes, behavioural evolution is based upon variation, selection and retention of behaviours. Conscious evolution happens when we turn our language machine back on itself, and consciously select behaviours that work well in the long-term, not just the short-term.

We usually think of ACT as being about individual change. And change at that level is important. ACT helps people better manage their emotions so they might reach out to a friend instead of, for example, buying another pair of shoes to feel better in the short-term. Furthermore, mindfulness training might help people act on their pro-environmental intentions.

But global change is happening so quickly we cannot rely upon incremental individual change. We need new forms of public dialogue oriented around purpose and values. ACT works to support dialogue: suspending our own beliefs long enough to take multiple perspectives, keeping conversations directed towards bigger interests not particular positions, and loosening the hold of automatic, self-protective and reactive patterns of responding. We need these skills to get beyond polarised debates and turn our collective attention towards the longer term.

ACT helps us to think more complexly

The second family of barriers to change I talked about last week concerned the complexity of our thinking.  As Einstein recognised, we cannot solve global problems at the same level of thinking that created them.

From the perspective of ACT, thinking is our capacity to relate things to one another, even arbitrary and abstract symbols.  As we mature, given the right mix of challenges and supports, we can learn to relate things in increasingly complex ways  including being able to take bigger perspectives on our own and others behaviour. More complex thinking helps us notice how our existing assumptions, beliefs and values are constraining the range of solutions we can imagine to global challenges. Do I really need that large house, new car or overseas holiday to be happy?

The complexity of our thinking also depends on emotional balance. Thinking about complex issues is uncomfortable because we experience doubt, uncertainty and fear.  And we think more simplistically when we are under stress, relating in ways that make us feel more certain, more right or more comfortable in the short-term.

Learning to manage discomfort helps us to think more complexly.  If you are anything like me, you might have noticed yourself sometimes switching off from even thinking about global change because of the difficult emotions it raises.

ACT enhances awareness and emotional balance. Both contribute to thinking more complexly.

ACT helps us to think together

The last psychological barrier that I considered was how self-interest often trumps the interests of others.  Effectively responding to global change will inevitably involve responding in the collective interest. ACT appears to enhance pro-social behaviour.

Within evolutionary theory there is increasing recognition that selection occurs at the group level as well as the individual. So there is a selection pressure for pro-social behaviour. In other words, groups that work well together tend to survive. In highlighting self-interest, public discourse based upon economics has unduly ignored how cooperative we are. Governments, laws, hospitals, schools and even language itself are all fundamentally cooperative.

The science underpinning ACT shows that language, cognition and even our sense of self is intrinsically social.  ACT increases pro-social responding in different ways: Increasing self-compassion increases compassion for others, increasing self-awareness increases our capacity to understand others’ perspectives, learning to defuse from harsh self-rules and critical stories about ourselves is associated with reduced stereotyping of others [2]. The skills we learn in ACT not only help us get along better with others, they call into question the very idea that we were ever separate to begin with.

It is this aspect of ACT that may ultimately have the most impact upon the way we deal with global change. We need an ‘orthogonal rotation’ in consciousness (to quote Jon Kabat Zinn) where ‘me’ becomes ‘we’ not just conceptually but lived sense conveyed so beautifully by Martin Luther King:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” (Martin Luther King)

In a real sense, all life, not just human life, is inter-related. ACT turns that idea into science and action.

[1] Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life: The MIT Press.

[2] McHugh, L., & Stewart, I. (2012). The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science: Context Press.

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