Ned has solved my dilemma about what to write about this weekend. Commenting on my post on Hope, he asks:
How do positive psychologists quantify this information if you are no longer studying behavior? In other words, how do you maintain empiricism?
Learning to be systematic
As I said in my post on Hope that during my training as a psychologist, Hope and such moral virtues, were out-of-bounds. Like most psychology departments at the time, we were behaviourists and positivists. We studied what we could see, and we looked for the underlying ‘laws’ of behaviour.
Learning to watch carefully
I am still in favour of psychologists being taught in this way. A lot of psychologists arrive from the ‘Arts’ and the ‘laboratory method’ is a good counter-balance to their prior training. The first step in developing empathy is to recognize the ‘other’. And even psychologists (particularly psychologists) struggle with this. If I have to describe you, and you alone, and if I am given the challenge of describing you in exactly the same way as the next person sees you, I begin the journey of separating what I want, from what you want. And as a result, I will be a lot more effective in everything I undertake.
Practically too, quantitative questionnaire-based studies are heaps easier to do for your dissertation!
Learning to tell a story
The analytical tradition is not, though, the whole story. When we work as psychologists, we have to learn to synthesize information about a person. We have to bring together all the measurements we have gathered, and understand the person as a whole. Regrettably, even at the post-graduate level where people are training to go into practice (as doctors do in the clinical part of their training) psychologists are given little help in this formative task. They are taught, after all, by people whose university careers depend upon being analytical.
At this juncture in a psychologist’s training, people who came from the ‘Arts’ have a better time. Our measurements need to be woven together into a coherent narrative and people who studied Literature and History at school are now at an advantage.
The new age is the age of synthesis and morality
Practising psychology has been a journey, for me, towards learning to synthesize information. I was pleased to see that Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi, who you probably know for his concept of Flow, has predicted that synthesis is the new science. And more so, synthesis with a moral edge.
- It does mattter that we can walk in other people’s shoes.
- It does matter that we can judge the effects of our actions on others.
- It does matter that we can understand how our actions hurt others, and how an action that seems essential to us might be repulsive, disgusting and quite repellant to other people.
- It matters too, that we have the capacity to imagine a narrative, or story line, in which we are not at each others’ throats. Development and world peace depends on our imagination.
We are part of the contests and conflicts of life
The difficulty with the analytical tradition is that it pretends that we are above the fray. We are part of the story of this planet. Thankfully. And I intend to play my part in making the tough decisions of life. To raise issues. To look for ways forward. To press my case and the case of those dear to me To negotiate. To look for common ground. To apologize when I have it wrong. And to go to war when necessary. But understanding that to do so might put me in a position where I get a heap lot wrong. I’ll try the diplomatic route first.
But above the fray, No! Always right? Good lord. The only way to be always right is to be in a laboratory. To lock oneself up and throw away the key.
The world is not like this. We are giving-and-taking all the time. That is life. That’s the part I like! Can psychology cope with it? We need to learn an expression common in management theory. A business is path-dependent. It is completely unique in other words. From studying other businesses, I can develop a sense of the possible. I can learn to look at my situation methodically from a variety of perspectives. But they way things turn out is not predicitable. The way things turn out is the result of all our actions – yours, mine and people we don’t even know. All these taken together are far too complicated to predict with any specificity.
The unknowability of life may be depressing if you are wedded to the idea that the world is predictable. But who said that it is? The analytical tradition asks, only, what can we predict? Unfortunately, if you spend to much time in a psychology laboratory, being rewarded for finding phenomena that are amenable to analysis, you start to think that everything must be analysed and if it can’t be subjected to experimentation that it is not important. An occupational hazard of being a research psychologist is that you gradually lose your capacity for synthesis under real life conditions.
Are we up for the fullness of life?
David Whyte, British corporate poet, has a wonderful poem that he calls a Self-Portrait. It begins:
“It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods”
“I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat. I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even gods speak of God.”
So while I endorse analytical training for people embarking on a career as a psychologist, training in synthesizing information is also a necessary part of our ‘clinical’ training. At the same time, we learn to understand that it is not about our clients getting it right, or avoiding the downside of life. It is about our clients entering the fray. Of putting their passions at the disposal of the collective. Of living with glory, and with defeat. And doing so knowing that a full life for the collective and themselves depends upon they doing their job ,with their special talents, even though sometimes it feels like a ‘cross to bear’, and a ‘cross to bear’ with no certainty that we are even doing the right thing.
One age at a time
That is life. For most twenty-somethings, this is very hard to understand. I am happy they take the first step in understanding their personality is different from others, and that to have winners, by definition we must have losers. Those concepts are hard enough. They will learn more later, just as our stumbling one years olds delighted us by running like gazelles in their teenage years.
2009 promises to be a hard year. The financial crisis is even worse than most people understand. My analytical training helps me here and I am collecting visual explanations on the page Financial Crisis Visually.
This month has also been a horrible month with out-and-out conflict breaking out in Gaza (hence some of the fiercer imagery, perhaps).
But it is our year. It is our time. And our life, in 2010, depends entirely on what we do together, now.
Come with me,
life is contested, but it is ours.
P.S. Ned has persuaded me to re-orient this blog more to non-psychologists. Please let me know if I am on the right path and what you think I should be doing!
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