I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.
Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.
If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility
Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.
His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.
What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?
I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is often an opportunity to torment ourselves with difficult questions: Did I give enough energy to the things that really matter to me? Did I give too much energy to things that aren’t important in the long term? Did I live my values? (To get a visual picture of this, you might fill out Tobias Lundgren’s Values Bulls Eye.)
When you review the previous year, it is likely that you have done well in some areas of your life and have some regrets about others. We often don’t devote as much time and energy as we would like, to what really matters . We often don’t live our values as consistently as we want. We frequently waste time and energy on things that, it turns out, don’t really matter in the long run.
When you consider the aspects of life you neglected last year, you may notice that some are very familiar to you. They will have shown up for you many times over the course of your life. Perhaps there is some aspiration that is important to you, that just keeps being put to one side?
To give you an example.
Since I was 11, I have wanted to be a writer. I love reading and I wanted to be like the authors I admired. I wanted to be one of those people, the people that befriend strangers by sharing their thoughts in a book.
I have started many books but, despite this deep desire to be an author, I have never finished writing a book. This desire to write seems to matter a lot to me but each year goes by and I still don’t accomplish my goal.
A couple of years ago, I turned 50 and I realised that time was running out. If I really want to be an author, I need to knuckle down and actually write a book. So I started another book. It is on a topic that matters to me (Meaningful Success). Sitting at my Mac trying to express my ideas with honesty and courage is hard and scary and wonderful. Two years later and I am still wading through this project. Trying to create something useful. Something that isn’t rubbish. In the process, I am discovering that this writing lark is harder than it looks!
But even though this matters deeply to me. Even though I love writing. Even though every thing I read about how to become a good writer starts with the advice – just write.
I often don’t write. My days are filled with other stuff. Stuff that isn’t writing.
How about you? What are the goals that really matter to you? The goals that year after year, you don’t quite manage to give enough time and energy to? It could be:
And …what gets in the way of you pursuing that goal?
There are lots of reasons why we don’t pursue these important goals with the necessary energy and passion. One reason that seems increasingly common is, ‘I am too busy.’
So what are we too busy doing?
If you analyse what you are too busy doing, you can divide your actions into: 1. Things that were genuinely, at that moment, a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
For example: spending time with the people you love; caring for your fragile human body; doing meaningful work; earning enough money to pay the bills; volunteering for causes that matter to you…
These choices are valued actions. You are being the person you want to be. Life is full of conflicting priorities, can you notice these choices and be gentle to yourself about them?
2. Things that, at that moment, felt like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task but they actually weren’t.
For example: trying to impress or please people; trying to earn more money than you need; doing things just to get prestige or recognition; doing things to avoid unwanted feelings.
This is a recurring problem for many of us. I certainly keep getting hooked by these activities. I look back on my life and I have spent too much time focussing on things that seemed important at the time, but actually, from the perspective of a few months or years later, I realise didn’t really matter.
3. Things that, at that moment, didn’t even feel like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
This is basically all the things we do to procrastinate and avoid the harder stuff. It might be: watching inane TV or silly YouTube clips; checking in on Facebook; going shopping. (NB These activities can also be acts of self care – in which case they are category one activities – only you can decide this.)
At this point I could just tell you to make sure you focus your energy on the right things. But I don’t think that advice is very helpful. I know it doesn’t work for me.
So I want to encourage you to do something different. To start gently.
Just start by noticing with curiosity what you are doing. In real time. Notice which category your behaviour is in. You might also notice if you tend to berate yourself for spending time on the ‘wrong’ things. How effective has this harshness been for you? What would happen if, instead, you responded with compassionate understanding of your human failings?
Instead of harshness, could you notice how each behaviour feels? Notice how it feels in your body as you take these various actions? What emotions are you feeling? Notice which circumstances seem to encourage you to do which types of behaviour. Are there any common themes?
For me the ‘category two’ activities – the ones that seem important at the time but actually aren’t important- are often associated with a scrabbly feeling, like I am desperately trying to get something. At those times, if I pause and notice what is going on inside me; I realise that I am often hooked by thoughts that I am not good enough in some way and/or there isn’t enough of what I think I need. The best response to this seems to be to pause and breathe. To turn to myself in kindness. To be willing to be with myself and the thoughts that I am not adequate or the world is not the way I want it to be.
‘Category three’ activities – the ones where I know I am frittering time away – sometimes feel to me like I am hiding out. Trying not to think about the scary task I am avoiding. At other times these activities are accompanied by a whiny voice – ‘I don’t want to…I am too tired…I deserve a break…It is too hard…’ It feels like when I was a kid and I used to put my fingers in my ears and loudly say ‘I can’t hear you…LA…LA…LA…I can’t hear you’.
If I am courageous enough to pause and check in. I notice the thoughts and feelings I am trying to avoid. Can I turn towards these feelings with compassion, knowing they are part of being human?
I want to encourage you to do the same. Instead of trying to get it right. Instead of fighting with yourself.
Notice whether what you are doing is moving you towards your values; towards what matters to you or whether it is taking you away.
Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.
According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)
Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.
Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.
But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.
I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!
How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?
In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.
My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions. This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour. The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.
In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.
Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.
The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.
The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.
This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape. Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.
Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?
As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.
As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.
Now Kelly knows we are hominids not monkeys, but ‘We aren’t that kind of hominid’ is a bit less catchy.
The hominid family includes humans and our close genetic relatives – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans. Just sit with that for a moment – think about what our ‘cousins’ need to thrive…
A sense of belonging?….Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables?….Time to rest?
What if many of the problems that beset us are because we are ignoring our most basic ‘monkey’ needs?
Based on an extensive review of the literature, Kelly suggests that, in order to flourish, you probably need to:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Cultivate your social network, and,
Now Kelly isn’t saying that, if we do this, there will be no more illness or distress. What he is suggesting is, if we look after ourselves in these ways. Then, when stressors visit us, as they will, we will have a little more resilience. We won’t be living at the limit of our resources. We will be less vulnerable to those ‘lifestyle’ disorders.
And during less challenging times, perhaps we will be more likely to flourish?
Read that list again:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Cultivate your social network, and,
and ask yourself:
What would happen if I were to care for myself in these simple ways?
What would be one small step towards self care that I could take in just one of those areas?
Kelly travels the world delivering workshops. He currently in Australia teaching counselors and psychologists how to support their clients in making these simple but challenging changes. You can get details at his website. Highly recommended.
One sunny morning around a year ago, I stormed into my office shaking with rage. In half an hour I was due to counsel someone.
My husband had driven me to work; he and the children were going on to soccer training. It had been a typical Saturday morning: coffee, croissants, music played probably a tad too loud and the children bounding around.
As we’d approached the office my husband had said something (I can’t even remember what it was), and I’d exploded with anger. My voice had sounded weird. Even as I’d glimpsed the thought “You need to keep it together,” every cell in my body steeled to fight ~ run, hit out, fix, prove ~ NOW. My eyes narrowed and hardened, and my heart felt like it was curling inwards.
I walked away, leaving my family, the people I hold most dear, sitting in the car shocked and still.
There was no turning back. I had to keep my feet moving, eyes dry; half an hour was all I had. The heavy glass doors were light as I pushed them open, fuming. Fragments of shame ~ collided with the Imposter spectre that’d whooshed in ~ collided with phrases from ACT ~ bah!
Thanks to a few less dramatic bouts of anger over the preceding months, I had found a few things which helped…
By the time the session began I was feeling a bit bruised but otherwise fine. Guilt and apologies were tucked away to manage later.
If out-of-the-blue rage is something you struggle with, these are some things you could try:
In the heat of the moment,
Slow and deepen your breathing, eyes closed if possible. Do this by counting slowly, in… 2… 3…..pause….out… 2…3…. a few times.
Soften the muscles around your eyes, especially if a child is present. My dad had what we called “The Pirate Look” when angry, and it terrified us!
Rest your tongue gently on the back of your top teeth. This helps relax the jaw.
Run cold water over your wrists. Have a swig of cold water and notice how it feels as it moves down your throat.
Take note of the different parts of your experience: notice how it’s possible to unwind thoughts, feelings and impulses to act from the tangle of fury.
Open up: make room for discomfort. With anger it can be easy to be swept back into whirlpools of argument during this step. Loving-kindness, prayer or self-compassion offer guide-ropes which you can try using. I found this post particularly helpful, maybe because it was quite visual.
Picture: This will sound corny, but try softening your vision and seeing the person you are angry with at a time when you loved them to bits. This may be helpful in opening up and connecting with your values. Experiment and see what works for you. It could be a role model. Or a beloved pet. Or it could be yourself that you see, managing the situation in a way that’s true to your values. (Assuming these are peaceful!)
Pursue your values: do what matters, with uncomfortable feelings in tow if need be.
Perspective & problem-solving: can be tricky in the eye of a storm, but do-able later on, and important. It’s tempting to get stuck in how right you are and how wrong they are..
Apologise (although it may feel easier to skip this step and move on.) Something we did later that Saturday which also helped, was talking about how anger had been managed in our families as children ~ and about how we wanted things to be different.
When you have calmed down somewhat,
Learn about anger. This is a gem, “ACT on life not on anger” by Eifert, McKay & Forsyth. Many posts on this blog may be helpful, for example, this one on touching fear and other difficult emotions.
Make a note in your diary when anger visits. See if there’s any pattern.
Get clear on the type of person/colleague etc you want to be, and the atmosphere and communication style you want in your home/office. Use this as motivation to make changes.
(Reading about values on this blog was, for me, like seeing colour TV for the first time. “Values” till then had been abstract, dry and dull. So, Dig in! “Your Life on Purpose: How to Find What Matters and Create the Life You Want” by McKay, Forsyth and Eifert is also excellent.)
Get to know the triggers. This takes effort, especially if the anger seems to have no cause. Use them as alerts; to plan strategies and to problem-solve.
Become clever at spotting, and responding to, the earliest flush of anger possible.
Practice, practice, practice – even with minor annoyances.
The order is not important, nor do you need to do each step. In the service of self-compassion and workability, experiment, and see which tools work best for you.
I hauled myself off to the GP that week. She reassured me that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, nor was it my dad’s fiery genes. Turns out it was medicine I’d been taking.
Catharina Belgraver is a counselling psychologist in Brisbane, Australia. After many years in the perinatal field, she is about to embark into health and wellbeing counselling, using ACT. Follow her on Twitter at @Rina_Belgraver
It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.
As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up. You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.
And he was doing something more than that.
Something I didn’t understand.
When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.
That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.
It was hard.
I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.
Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).
A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.
I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.
Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)
The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.
Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.
I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.
‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000
What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)
For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!
In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!
Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!
I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.
Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic
Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?
When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?
Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?
Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?
Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:
Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?
What would that look like?
And how would it feel?
I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.
If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)
If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.
And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.
A reader wrote to us about a problem she encountered when she moved from a hostile, aggressive environment to a much more harmonious workplace.
She was really happy in her new job and was doing well but she was given feedback that her communication skills needed work. This hadn’t been a problem for her in previous workplaces. She realised that she had learnt some unhelpful habits in her last role. Now she needed to relearn how to interact in more workable ways. She was worried that she didn’t know how to bring about this change.
So how do you let go of problematic interpersonal behaviour and start to behave in ways that work? Here are some tips:
1. Start with self-compassion. The less you beat yourself up for your failings, the more you will be able to notice the times when your behaviour isn’t working.
3. Do a self-assessment and get feedback from people you trust. There are some good questions about interpersonal functioning here that you could adapt to the workplace.
4. Don’t just change as a reaction to what others want. Spend some time thinking deeply about your values. Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to experience you? Changing your behaviour is a hard slog, linking the change to your values will help you to keep going.
6. Get really present in your interactions with people. Notice the impact of your behaviour on others. See if you can get out of your head and into this moment now.
7. Accept that when you feel threatened you are likely to revert to self-protective and unhelpful behaviours. Consider what might trigger that in you and make a plan to be particularly mindful and self-compassionate at those moment. Hold those feelings gently.
What should we measure to predict job performance?
Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so. Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.
Two classic papers help demonstrate this. The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity. Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance. At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews. Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.
And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further. After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance. Clearly other factors matter.
This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures. They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance. In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.
This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility. The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:
“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.
What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:
Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.
Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:
“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).
‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively. By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.
Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness. Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.
Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.
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.