Maybe we should ask our staff to read Harry Potter?

What if reading novels helped us to learn the perspective taking skills that we need to empathise with others? Maybe our staff development programs should include a book club. My kind of workplace!


Harry PotterRecently Vezzali et al. (2014) showed that the more Harry Potter books that undergraduates had read, the more positive were their attitudes towards refugees and other stigmatised groups. Interestingly, the strength of this effect was moderated by the extent to which participants identified with Harry or with Voldemort. Those who identified with Harry were more likely to take the perspective of the refugees and have more positive attitudes towards the refugees. While those who saw themselves as more like Voldemort were less likely to show these effects.

Why might these results have occurred? We have a clue already from the Vezzali et al study – those who had read more Harry Potter self-reported that they were more able to understand the perspective of the refugees. But unfortunately the measure of perspective taking that Vezzali et al used relied entirely upon the person’s own beliefs about their perspective taking ability. Participants rated themselves on items like: “I think I understand the way refugees see the world” and “In general I’m able to jump into refugees’ shoes.” This was not a measure of actual skill in perspective taking.refugees

How language allows perspective taking

ACT is based upon a theory of language and cognition called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). RFT has a lot to say about perspective taking and it has been used to develop behavioural measures of actual skill in perspective taking. According to RFT, perspective taking involves the skill of being able to flexibly (i.e. appropriately to context) use such terms as I – YOU and HERE – THERE. If we are to take the perspective of another, we must be able to appropriately distinguish between I-HERE and YOU-THERE. These relational frames are very hard for children to learn because the frames rely entirely upon the point of view from which an event or object is observed. For example, if I walk across the room my initial HERE becomes a “THERE” while my initial “THERE” becomes a HERE. From an RFT perspective, mastery of these so-called “deictic” relational frames (and others that rely on a point of view such as LEFT-RIGHT and NOW-THEN) is the basis of learning to take the perspective of others. And knowing how to take the perspective of others is implicated in almost all human functioning from work performance to schizophrenia.

It takes lots of training in a language community for a child to develop a good repertoire of appropriate usages of these terms. We can easily see this by watching how a young child easily confuses right and left, or gets confused about whether they or their toy had eggs for breakfast. Young children appear to have to learn that others have separate minds and that they might think and feel differently to the child.

We can only speculate about why reading Harry Potter might enhance attitudes towards minorities. Harry is a mixed minority/majority himself and he often takes the perspectives of underdogs.

HarryParseltongue Brazil here I come
Harry takes the perspective of a Boa Constrictor – “Thankssss Amigo”

So one way that Harry Potter might contribute to better perspective taking and enhanced attitudes towards minorities is through multiple exemplar training in deictic framing. Effectively the reader might learn something like “I like Harry. Harry is a minority figure, Harry is like a refugee. Therefore I like refugees”. These perspective taking effects might also be affected by an emerging sense of a coherent and stable self. “I am like Harry, Harry likes minority figures, I must like minority figures.”


The links between perspective taking ability as conceptualised by RFT and empathy for others are only just now beginning to be researched. Vilardaga, Estévez, Levin, and Hayes (2012) proposed that we first need deictic skills to take the perspective of another, but then when we do, their suffering can become our suffering so we need mindfulness skills to bring this suffering under helpful contextual control. I made a very similar argument in a recent article on the effects of mindfulness training upon empathy (Atkins, 2013). Unfortunately, although Vilardaga et al. (2012) showed that both perspective taking and empathy predicted how interested people were in social relations (measured using a social anhedonia scale), perspective taking and empathy were not strongly related to one another in their study (r = .13). So the link between perspective taking and empathy for others might not be as clear as we first thought.

So what does this all mean? RFT suggests that reading Harry Potter (or indeed any novel) might give people practice in shifting perspectives between I and YOU, HERE and THERE and NOW and THEN. And the intriguing possibility is that doing this might eventually lead to improvements in empathy and human relationships. But, while these studies suggest this intriguing possibility, we still have a lot of research to do exploring how and when reading novels enhances empathy for others.


Links to the papers mentioned in this blog:

Atkins, P. W. B. (2013). Empathy, self-other differentiation and mindfulness. In K. Pavlovich & K. Krahnke (Eds.), Organizing Through Empathy (pp. 49-70). New York: Routledge.
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Vilardaga, R., Estévez, A., Levin, M. E., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). Deictic Relational Responding, Empathy and Experiential Avoidance as Predictors of Social Anhedonia: Further Contributions from Relational Frame Theory. The Psychological Record, 62(3), 409-432.

Are we more likely to be compassionate to others when we are compassionate to ourselves?

When you feel judgemental about yourself, do you also feel more judgemental about others? Or are you one of those people who speaks harshly to yourself in ways that you would never dare or care to speak to another?  What do you think is the relationship between self-compassion and compassion towards others?

These questions matter a lot. A strong relationship between self-compassion and compassion perhaps suggests common learning histories for the two behaviours. While ACT directly cultivates self-compassion through acceptance, it emphasises other-related compassion only indirectly. If we want to improve the ways we relate to one another in organisations and daily life, we need to know how and if changing our relationship to ourselves changes our relationship to others.

The evidence is mixed. Some research suggests we treat people very differently to ourselves, while other research suggests commonalities. Looking carefully at the differences between these studies may help us learn more about what is going on.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be unrelated

There might be no relationship between self-compassion and other-directed compassion. As children, we learn to distinguish between “I” and “you”, and much of our early sociolinguistic experience teaches us that others have different perspectives, preferences, Two-girls-looking-at-each-othertraits and experiences to ourselves (McHugh & Stewart, 2012).  We can learn to behave quite differently towards ourselves than we do towards others.

Language can create powerful differences between how we behave towards ourselves and others. One example is the fundamental attribution error where, when someone acts badly, we overestimate the effect of personal characteristics and underestimate the effects of the situation as a cause of their behaviour.  Towards ourselves we are more likely to take account or circumstances influencing our behaviour.  For example, while we are quite happy to blame bad driving on someone else’s incompetence or malice, we are more likely to see our own poor driving as the result of situational factors like being late for work. This is a clear case where we behave quite differently in our judgements towards self and others.

Once we make an appraisal that a person is personally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, we are less likely to experience empathic concern and more likely to experience non-compassionate emotions such as anger (Atkins & Parker, 2012).  And of course in Australia we have seen how it is perfectly acceptable to treat asylum seekers arriving on boats with their children in a very different way to how we would expect ourselves and our children to be treated.  The more we see the other as different to ourselves, the less likely we are to extend compassion towards them (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Society reinforces big differences between compassion towards self and others. It wasn’t that long ago that our society seemed to reinforce young women in particular for being kind to everyone except themselves.  Many older women in particular seem to feel badly about themselves unless they place others’ needs ahead of their own. So, if the distinction between self and other is seen as real, and the right social reinforcers are in place, it is entirely possible that self-compassion and other-directed compassion could be quite unrelated.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be related

But, perhaps fortunately, there is also a growing body of evidence that emphasises the similarities between the ways we relate to ourselves and others.  Many of the psychological approaches developed during the 50’s and 60’s relied upon the assumption that self-acceptance was related to acceptance of others (Williams & Lynn, 2010).   More recently researchers have begun to test this idea empirically. Neff and Pommier (2013) recently found that self-compassion is positively related to compassion towards others.

Neff and Pommier (2013) studied three groups: college undergraduates, community adults and meditators.  They measured both self-compassion and different aspects of other-focused concern such as perspective taking, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and altruism.  Overall there was a significant positive relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern.

Why might self-compassion and other-compassion be related?

Why did this relationship occur?  The factors that were consistently related to self-compassion across all groups were perspective taking, forgiveness and the capacity to manage personal distress.  Perhaps our capacity to stay present to our own difficult experiences helps us to stay present to the difficult experiences of others. Or perhaps our capacity to stand back and see our self-critical thoughts as thoughts and not necessarily the truth, is exactly the same skill as our capacity to stand back from our automatic stereotypes and judgements about others.  Perhaps learning to accept our own failings teaches us that we are all fallible. Or perhaps we acquire a deeper knowing that we are not, after all, ever separate from others, that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (Martin Luther King in his letter from Birmingham Jail).

However, Neff and Pommier’s study also revealed interesting differences in the strength of the relationships for different groups.

  • For meditators, there was a stronger link between self-compassion and other-focused concern – perhaps we can explicitly train people to break down barriers between self and others?
  • For women, there was a weaker link. Women are more likely to display higher levels of other-focused concern than men, but they are not more likely to display higher levels of self-compassion.  Perhaps that social training of young girls that I mentioned earlier is still alive and well.
  • Finally younger adults showed weaker links between compassion for self and others. Neff and Pommier argued that this might have been because young adults over-estimate their distinctiveness from others and they are still forming their own identities and understandings of others.

Neff and Pommier’s study has big limitations. It ignores individual differences and relies upon self-report measures.  We cannot tell whether the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others really is weaker for women or whether this is just an artefact of women feeling more pressured to self-report compassion towards others.  What we really need are within-person studies using measures of behaviour and context.  Am I more likely to act compassionately towards others in circumstances that have primed me to act compassionately towards myself: e.g. when I have just meditated or been treated kindly by another?

And what life experiences strengthen or break down the distinction between self and other?  ACT is one experience that can build both self-compassion and compassion for others (Atkins & Parker, 2012). Perhaps other life experiences work the other way.

lawyers-arguingAs I have been writing this blog, I have been working with legal educators to design programs to enhance well-being and relationships among legal students and practitioners. In emphasising objectivity and the distinction between right and wrong, legal training seems to sometimes create almost impenetrable walls between thoughts and feelings, and between self and others. And legal students and practitioners are among the unhappiest people in Western society  (e.g. Kelk, Luscombe, Medlow, & Hickie, 2009).  Could lawyers perhaps be a canary in the coal mine for what happens when we let language excessively dominate our lived experience and we build the walls too high between ourselves and others?

Relational Frame Theory offers a very useful way of understanding what is going on here. Consider the two sentences:

  • I am less deserving
  • I am more deserving

The first thought might precede a lack of self-compassion, while the second might precede a lack of compassion towards another.  What is going on in these sentences? Our society generally focuses on the comparison words MORE or LESS, and so we have endless debates about who is more or less deserving of compassion. But by focusing on this comparison we ignore the more fundamental move contained in these sentences. The shared “I am” slips by unnoticed.  It is in these little words that the “truth” gets established that there is a separate “I” that has inherent qualities. And of course what these sentences really mean is “I am more or less deserving THAN YOU” so in making the claim that I have certain qualities I am implicitly and always making the simultaneous claim that YOU are separate and have certain qualities as well.

Macro-Water-Drops-Grass-GreenDifference and separation arise in language. We relate to ourselves and others differently only when we are caught up in the world of words, judgments and abstractions. Perhaps Neff and Pommier’s results point to what is left when the language of separation loses its hold just a little. In those moments we see that these divisions only exist in language not in the underlying reality. In the end we are drops of water, or bubbles rising in a pot.  What looks like difference and separation is really only a temporary expression of an unfolding process – and “I am” and “you are” become simply “IS”.

Of course, philosophers through the ages have come to the same view.  Rumi put it this way:

Out beyond our ideas
Of wrong doing
And right doing
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the words
You and me
Have no meaning.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

Taoism is a rich source of similar ideas. I would love to hear from you if you have other examples of similar quotes illustrating the power of language to create separation between self and other as this is an area I would like to explore further. Thank you.



Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 524-546.

Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Kelk, N., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S., & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners: Brain & Mind Research Institute: University of Sydney.

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

Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.649546

Williams, J. C., & Lynn, S. J. (2010). Acceptance: An Historical and Conceptual Review. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 30(1), 5-5.

How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

How can ACT help reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels?  In this blog, the third and probably last in my series on ACT and environmental change, I want to critique an economist’s view of behavioural change and argue that ACT helps us understand how to tackle our addiction to consumption.

An Economists Perspective on Addiction to Fossil Fuel Use

So first to the economists’ view. In a fascinating article, Suranovic (2013) argues that addiction to fossil fuels use is a lot like addiction to cigarettes: In both cases, there are short-term reinforcers for continuing current behaviour and punishers for changing. And in both cases, people undervalue the long-term outcomes. Suranovic argues that:

“… an individual can break an addiction to fossil fuel only if two conditions are met. First the present value of the future costs of climate change, accounting for its likelihood of occurrence, must outweigh the current benefits of using fossil fuels. Second, this perceived net future benefit of preventing climate change must also exceed the adjustment costs borne by an individual switching to alternative energy sources.”

The problem is that human beings heavily discount the value of future outcomes. Just as smokers are likely to discount the negative effects of long-term illness from smoking, most of us in the developed world are excessively discounting the negative long-term effects of our consumption patterns.

In the end, Suranovic seems pessimistic. If it has taken us 50 years to deal with the relatively simple case of cigarette addiction, what hope do we have of bringing about behaviour change in the much more complex and interdependent case of addiction to fossil fuels?

While I do occasionally despair, I also find hope in watching how ACT can help people create real and sometimes rapid changes in problematic, repetitive behaviours.  In the next section, I explore how ACT could change some of the basic assumptions arising from economics.

An ACT Perspective: Changing our relationship to the stories we tell changes what and how we value

The view of people as utility optimisers is limited in at least two important ways: it doesn’t account for how we can change our relationship to what we value, and it ignores identity.

The stories we tell affect the value of events

For Suranovic, the extent to which we value different outcomes is relatively unchanging.  He treats utility as “exogenous” – it affects the system but cannot be affected by the system. But as we practice with ACT we know that we can change not only how much we value different aspects of our lives, we can also change the process of valuing itself.

One reason why mindfulness seems to help with smoking addiction is because it helps addicts reinterpret and accept the pain of withdrawal (e.g. Witkiewitz et al., 2012). Positive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated the power of reinterpreting aversive experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Psychological flexibility is about changing our responses to negative experience.  If reducing fossil fuel use is not happening in part because of the short-term ‘pain’ of change, then psychological flexibility can help us reinterpret and re-value the pain.

What is interesting here is that changes in meaning and valuing can occur instantaneously.  I remember standing in a line at a café growing increasingly annoyed at a sandwich maker who seemed to be taking forever to make each sandwich.  But then I heard him speak …. and I realised he was intellectually disabled.  As my perceptions shifted in an instant, so did my valuing of standing in line patiently.

Think of the 180 degree shift in perception we experience when we stop seeing a person as selfish, stubborn or lazy and instead choose to see them as an individual with needs and wants just like ours.  This type of change in meaning and valuing of a situation is not the linear, incremental change that Suranovic bases his argument upon. It is nonlinear – there is a tipping point as changes in one small meaning cascades to change the meaning of everything about the situation.

The stories we tell about who we are change the value of events

Often this sort of radical reappraisal of a situation involves a change in identity. We suddenly see that we are defending some belief about who we are or what we stand for. And this might also be true for dealing with addiction to fossil fuel. For many of us, our self-worth is entwined with our purchasing power.  My value as a parent sometimes feels proportional to the things I can give my children.  ACT helps us become more flexible about our identity, less defensive of any particular view of ourselves – and this makes change easier as we become more flexible and responsive to what is actually going on and not rules about how we should be.

I have tried to emphasise how change can occur not just in what we value or how much we value it, but in the way that we do valuing – in the way we make sense of our lives.  While this might be obvious to readers of this blog, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions economists make about human behaviour. Relational frame theory provides an account of how changing the stories we tell ourselves changes the way we value our experiences.

I am excited about the possibilities of combining the tools of ACT with powerful tools from other disciplines such as scenario planning.  Vivid stories about possible futures, like those outlined in this wonderful paper by Bob Costanza, help us avoid the perils of excessive discounting of future outcomes. But these stories also help us reinterpret our experience now, and the tools of ACT help change our relationship to the pain of change so that we can act more in the direction of what really matters. This is making use of language at its best.

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.

ACT and conscious evolution Part A: Why cant we get our act together to respond to global change?

We live on a planet completely transformed by humanity.  Our impacts upon the planet are so great that scientists have now coined a term for a new geological age – the Anthropocene.   We are changing the climate, the chemical balance of the oceans and soils, biodiversity and even the physical structure of the planet –humans move more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined.  Together this is referred to as ‘global change’.  Whether we like it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are designing the future of not just our species, but every other species on the planet.

In this blog and the next I argue that Contextual Behavioural Science is not just a tool for individual wellbeing, it is a tool for global transformation.  For future generations to live meaningfully, happily and sustainably, we must master our thinking and feeling at least as much as we have learned to master the physical world. We need to more consciously evolve our behaviour, choosing our evolutionary path instead of reacting unconsciously.

Getting better at choosing is critical for many of our most pressing problems, but nowhere is it more important than the choices we make about our treatment of the natural world. The natural world is the context for everything else: It is the cradle of our development as a species, the support system for our thriving today and the legacy we leave our children.

Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.  In this blog, I outline some of the reasons we seem to be so ineffective at collectively responding to anthropogenic changes to the natural world.  Next week I will explore some ways contextual behavioural science can help us to respond more effectively to such wicked problems.

Why cant we get our act together?

From a contextual behavioural perspective, human beings have at least six characteristics that get in the way of successfully responding to complex problems [1].   These characteristics served us well in old contexts, but might just be big problems for our ongoing survival.

Responding to reinforcement

a)      Immediate consequences outweigh delayed consequences – we might be concerned about the fate of our children, but we tend to act on our desire for that new car or second helping of food right now.

b)      Strongly unpleasant stimuli presented abruptly prompt action, but gradually increasing unpleasant stimuli do notThis is the story of the boiled frog. So long as global conditions worsen gradually, we will tolerate bad air, foul water, and species loss that would once have been considered intolerable.

Complexity and Accuracy of Thinking

c)       Simple, familiar ideas are often preferred over complex, alien ideas that are more correct. It is estimated that evolution, about as well-established a fact as it is possible to obtain in science, is rejected by 46% of the American population, one of the best educated populations on earth.  This figure doesn’t appear to be changing – there is a limit to the power of science and education, in part because…

d)      Coincidental events often strengthen ineffective behavior –  Short term weather events lead to claims that climate change isn’t happening. Our cognitive systems are tuned to use even random patterns as evidence supporting our beliefs.

e)      Thinking more complexly puts us in contact with uncertainty and paradox which can both feel aversive – As we learn language we are repeatedly rewarded for being coherent [2]: Parents discourage children for saying they like spinach one day and not the next.  Uncertainty, ignorance and inconsistent beliefs feel deeply aversive for most of us and thinking about complex environmental issues inevitably exposes us to these states.

Our relationships

f)       Consequences for the individual usually outweigh consequences for others although we can and do act altruistically, our primary concern is usually to protect ourselves and satisfy our own needs.

So what can we do about it?

This is a pretty depressing list. But actually these characteristics are just the products of human evolution.  Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.

But what makes human beings really interesting are the times when we act differently to the basic tendencies outlined above.  Next week I will explore how ACT and contextual behavioural science help us to make sense of what happens when we are at our best as a species – when we plan well for the future and act beyond our own self-interest.

Between now and then, you might like to see if you can notice examples of these evolved tendencies in action.  How do they serve you and how do they get in the way of living the life you want to live?  I would love to read about what you notice.

1. Chance, P. (2007). The ultimate challenge: prove B. F. Skinner wrong. The Behavior analyst, 30(2), 153-160.  Available at

2. Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Vahey, N. (2012). Holding On to Our Functional Roots When Exploring New Intellectual Islands: A Voyage through Implicit Cognition Research. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 17-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.003. Available at

Closing the intention-behaviour gap

Over Christmas I put on an additional 3kg. I have been getting rid of it ever since and I have realised that losing weight is a fantastic practice in psychological flexibility.  Just about every minute of the day there are opportunities to be mindful of bodily sensations associated with hunger or satiety, and each day there are dozens of opportunities to reconnect with why losing weight is important to me.

This experience also got me thinking about why weight is such an enormous problem. Obesity rates doubled globally between 1980 and 2008.  In 2008, the total annual cost of obesity in Australia, including health system costs, productivity declines and carers’ costs, was estimated at around $58 billion.  In Australia 68% of men and 55% of women were overweight or obese in 2008. Part of the problem here is diminishing physical activity. The World Health Organisation reports “Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28% and women 34%). Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.”  Nobody wants to be obese but people are getting fatter, and everybody knows that they should exercise more than they do.   Clearly there is a disconnect between intentions and actual behaviour. 

We don’t do what we say we will do

Many studies have examined the relationship between intentions and behaviour and, somewhat surprisingly, the correlation between the two is not all that high.  Have you ever had the experience of setting strong goals to exercise or eat well and then not followed through?  Timothy Wilson wrote a fascinating book called “Strangers to Ourselves” outlining all the evidence for unconscious, automatic influences upon our behaviour.  Meta-analyses have revealed:

“… intentions account for a weighted average of only 30% of the variance in social behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001; Hagger et al., 2002), mainly because people with strong intentions fail to act on them (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998).”  (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).

Why might this be the case?  One reason people fail to act on strong intentions is because they simply forget to start the behaviour.  Have you ever said something like “This week I will exercise three times” and then before you know it, the week is over and you haven’t exercised at all?  This is why setting specific goals and thinking about contextual reminders is so important.  In the literature, this sort of planning is called “implementation intentions”.

But another reason why people fail to act on their intentions is because their responding has become habitual and automatic.  When we don’t reflect on our moment to moment behaviour we are very likely to do what we have always done in the past.

Mindfulness helps us act on our intentions

From one point of view, this might be a bit of a problem for the ACT model.  If our behaviour is relatively independent of our intentions, then what is the point on getting clear on our values when we might just act out of our habits and unreflected impulses anyway?  This is where mindfulness becomes really important.  Values clarification on its own is of little use unless we bring awareness to what we are doing and we have the self-regulatory skills to enact new behaviours.

But is there any evidence that mindfulness can help us do what we want to do?  Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) explored how mindfulness affects the relationship between people’s intentions to engage in vigorous physical exercise and their actual behaviour.

First they confirmed that people’s intentions to exercise didn’t actually predict whether people exercised or not. But the really interesting finding was that more mindful people were more likely to act on their intentions than those who are less mindful, even controlling for the physical exercise was already a habit for the participant.  So mindful people, but not non-mindful people, were more likely to do what they said they would do!  Isn’t that just the coolest reason for learning to be mindful?  “Learn mindfulness and you will do what you say you will do!”

Why does mindfulness help us act on our intentions?

The authors then went on to explore reasons why mindfulness might strengthen the relationship between behaviours and intentions. Before we go any further, what do you think? Why might mindfulness increase the tendency to act on intentions?

Got something?

Perhaps mindfulness increases awareness of goals in each moment and therefore reduces the tendency to forget what we said we would do. Or perhaps mindfulness improves our self-regulatory skills so that we are more likely to be able to manage the difficult emotions that arise when we do something new or challenging. Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) tested a third possibility, that mindfulness helps us control counter-intentional behaviours, in this case binge drinking.   They reasoned that binge-drinking probably interferes with doing vigorous physical activity (is it just me or do you too have an image of lying on a couch with a pillow over your head?), and that mindfulness might reduce the extent to which habitual binge-drinking interferes with intentions to exercise.

And this is what they found:

C and H 07 Fig 2b 3

Let me step you through this diagram.  Start with the dotted line first. What this says is that people who are NOT mindful and who habitually engage in binge-drinking are LESS likely to engage in physical exercise. That is, habitual binge-drinking decreases the likelihood of engaging in physical activity. So far so good, this confirms the idea that binge-drinking ain’t great for getting up in the morning and going for a run!  But look at the solid line. For this group, even if they did engage in habitual binge-drinking they were still just as likely to engage in exercise as those who did not habitually binge drink. So some mindful folk still go out on the town, but they don’t let this interfere with their intentions to exercise.  In the words of Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007: 672):

“These results, therefore, corroborate the view that greater awareness of and attention to internal states and behavioral routines helps mindful individuals shield good intentions from unhealthy habits and thus can play a key role in fostering effective self-regulation. In contrast, diminished attention and awareness of counterintentional routines and habits is likely to prevent individuals acting less mindfully from engaging in effective self-regulation, as the negative relationship between habitual binge-drinking and physical exercise suggests (see Figures 2a and 2b).”

So maybe next Christmas I will be better at mindfully saying no to that Christmas pudding!

Growing Compassion in Organisations


I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).


“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?