Friday 17 July 2009

Adapting to alienation

Changing the Subject: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Emotional Well-Being and Social Justice, Seminar Four: Perspectives from Psychology, Canterbury Christ Church University, 10 June 2009

Psychology has a lot to answer for, according to critics of today’s so-called ‘therapy culture’. The language and understandings of psychology have so permeated everyday life that people apparently think little of using terms like ‘dysfunctional’, ‘neurotic’, or even ‘autistic’ to describe themselves and others. And of course, from the perspective of the organisers of this seminar series, psychology has penetrated educational policy to such a degree that we face the Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (1). After sessions on perspectives from education, politics, and philosophy (2), psychology experts had a chance to give their views on where this agenda is coming from and whether it poses a danger to human and curricular subjects.

Tom Billington, whose career spans time spent as a school teacher and as a clinical and academic psychologist, presented a rather postmodern overview of ‘narratives’ from neuroscience. Billington argued that neuroscience has become dissatisfied with its reductive gambit of measuring stimuli and responses as if the brain is merely a processing machine, and is increasingly interested in the role emotion plays in the brain’s ongoing development and responses. Far from being an elegant processing computer, Linden’s Accidental Mind (2007), for instance, suggests ‘the human brain is basically the mouse brain with more stuff piled on top’, leading to multiple processing routes. Stimuli are processed both by the ‘high road’ of the sensory cortex, and a faster ‘low road’ bypassing this ‘thinking’ part of the brain; consequently, ‘by the time we are aware of sensations, they have [already] evoked emotional responses’.

This allowed primitive creatures to respond to threatening stimuli before knowing what they were, hence helping them survive. But what this means now, as Damasio puts it in The Feeling of What Happens (2000) is that ‘emotion is integral to the process of reasoning and decision-making’. Indeed, emotion becomes part of cognition itself. Thus, although Billington suggested such narratives are ‘liberating’ or a means for ‘resistance’ to crude government agendas, the clear subtext is actually that we may be hard-wired into being prisoners of our emotions. The view of the mind as inescapably shaped by the interaction between instinct, emotion and intellect is a clear challenge to the notion of the Cartesian subject whose centre is the capacity for reasoned thought.

Perhaps most revealing, though, was Billington’s quotation from Thomas Carlyle that ways of looking at people always reflect the identity of the age. The nineteenth century viewed the mind as a machine, reflecting the Industrial Revolution; the late twentieth century saw it as a computer, expressing the Information Revolution. The view of the human mind operating through instinctive emotion prior to reason is perhaps no less specific to today’s ‘therapy culture’. Moreover, while it appears to avoid the reductionism of crude behaviourist accounts of human behaviour, it actually seems no less guilty of missing the distinctiveness of human subjectivity by comparing human brains to mouse brains and foregrounding emotional responses. What is missed in such accounts is the inherently social nature of human consciousness.

In The Cradle of Thought (2002), for instance, Hobson argues that ‘the tools of thought are constructed on the basis of an infant’s emotional engagement with other people… the very means to thinking may [therefore] be interpersonal relations’. This is radically incomplete. Infants do not learn to think solely through interpersonal emotional responses; they are socialised into a human civilisation whose relational concepts provide the very basis for thinking and feeling. That is to say, emotions are quite possibly no more timeless than, say, our moral values; they are constituted socially by active human beings, not inherited from our rodent ancestors. What provokes and what it means to feel shame, for instance, or fear, clearly varies considerably from society to society. Natural scientific concepts are valid at all times and places, but – despite its ambitions to achieve the status of a natural science –  psychology is a human science, and as such its concepts can only be socially specific because of our capacity to transform what it means to be human. Whether theorising the minds of neurotic Viennese bourgeois women, as Freud did, or the minds of contemporaries, the subjects of psychology are always historically and socially bounded.

Guida de Abreu’s paper on ‘constructions of the child’ provided a helpful reminder of this fundamental fact, pointing out that mainstream psychology presents human subjects as highly individualistic, acultural and ahistorical, and itself as an objective science capable of ‘measuring’ things like ‘well-being’ – despite the discrediting of existing measurement processes, like IQ testing, as highly culturally specific and consequently prone to branding cultural outsiders as stupid. Cultural and anthropological psychology, by contrast, locates individuals in communities related to a wider society which itself stands in relation to other societies. De Abreu’s study of Portuguese students in the UK school system showed how ‘bright’ Portuguese pupils were assimilated to the category of ‘British’ while ‘in need’ students were categorised as outsiders, or ‘the other’.

The limitations of her approach, however, was that the human subject was presented as entirely discursively constructed. While language doubtless plays a role in constituting the human subject, so, too, do material forces. For instance, the methodological individualism De Abreu critiques in mainstream psychology – the delusion that individuals develop autonomously or at most interpersonally and owe nothing to wider society, a view implicit in Hobson’s remark above – developed out of a particular set of material and social circumstances. As Macpherson explains in his classic study of seventeenth-century liberal philosophy, it emerged to theorise and rationalise social relations in the newly emerging market economy (3).

Likewise, in an earlier essay I suggested that the contemporary obsession with ‘well-being’, and its manifestations in education may well be an attempt to grapple with today’s social relations and help individuals ‘cope with the psychological effects of living under late capitalism’ (4). That is, the agenda is to make people adapt to rather than transforming the society which gives rise to these deleterious effects. This seemed to receive clear confirmation from the seminar’s final paper, ‘The Science of Well-Being’ prepared by Dr Felicia Huppert of Cambridge University’s ‘Well-Being Institute’ (but relayed in her absence by her former close colleague, Dr Jonathan Sharples of York University).

According to Sharples, the government’s ‘well-being’ agenda emerged as a knee-jerk response to the 2007 UNICEF report, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, which ranked Britain last among OECD countries.(5) Until then, ‘well-being’ was an term not used by psychologists, who have since, in the time-honoured New Labour tradition of policy-based evidence-making, responded to the government’s agenda. (The implementation, Sharples noted, has been ‘a complete mess’.) Huppert’s paper summarised the ‘science’ of ‘sustainable well-being’ – which is defined not simply as happiness but the production of ‘appropriate responses’ to negative emotions. The paper’s most remarkable claim was that the drivers of ‘well-being’ could be scientifically identified as 10 per cent material circumstances, 40 per cent intentional activity and 50 per cent ‘set point’ (ie, basic temperament, largely determined by genetics and experiences in infancy). Since one can ‘do nothing about’ either material circumstances or ‘set point’, the emphasis of the ‘science of well-being’ is on altering intentional activity, ie, altering people’s cognition and sense of motivation, encouraging positive thinking, and so on. (Actually, as Kent University’s Dr Ellie Lee pointed out, the plethora of coercive interventions around parenting, such as pro-breast-feeding campaigns, show that ‘set point’ is not overlooked; the ‘well-being’ bandwagon is broad enough for virtually any agenda’s inclusion.)

It is, of course, no surprise that when ‘well-being’ is defined as eliciting ‘appropriate responses’ to stimuli that interventions designed to train people into producing such responses should be evaluated as contributing to well-being. Lord Layard’s recent review of the Penn Resilience Project, a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) trialled in schools, fell into just such a trap in announcing a ‘significant positive impact’ in reducing depression and anxiety. If ‘well-being’ is ‘proven’ by certain forms of behaviour, and people are trained to enact this behaviour, then measuring the incidence of such behaviour (falsely) appears to measure well-being – when all it really measures is the success of behaviour management. Indeed, Layard noted approvingly that Penn helped children ‘behave well’.

This strongly suggests that the therapeutic education agenda is principally a form of behaviour management whose underlying ethos is to encourage students to adapt themselves to conditions they find frustrating, angering, alienating and depressing, and to emote more ‘appropriately’. It is highly convenient for such an ethos that material circumstances allegedly play such an insignificant role in determining well-being that they can be entirely discounted. It is highly inconvenient, however, that the reality is quite the opposite. In a very recent update to the 2007 UNICEF report, its authors state that material ‘deprivation measures do best in representing overall well-being’, explaining ‘62 per cent of the variation’. Ironically, ‘education is most independent of overall well-being’. Subjective well-being also fails to correlate with overall well-being (6). Quite how the pseudo-science of well-being will accommodate these unsurprising findings remains to be seen. Why we should support interventions designed to reconcile young people to conditions of depressing deprivation (and, moreover, to view themselves as traumatised individuals in need of the state’s therapeutic support) is likewise unclear.

The seminar thus raised very uncomfortable questions for psychologists and others pioneering the emotional well-being agenda. Beneath many of the issues raised is the question of meaning. What does it mean to be a human subject? What does it mean to try to measure ‘well-being’? What is the meaning of education? Though contradicted by others present, consultant psychiatrist Dr Pat Bracken argued that his profession is slowly waking up to the fact that questions of meanings and relationships hitherto pushed into the background by psychologists in their quest for measurable variables is now emerging as the key factors in explaining psychological states. Drugs, he suggested, are less effective than placebos: it is not the cognitive aspects of CBT that ‘work’, but the relationship with the therapist; the intervention serves as a conduit for more important, relational aspects.

Similarly, the mere presence of adults willing to engage in a kind, empathetic way with youngsters probably explains any positive effects observed from therapeutic interventions in schools – rather than reinforcing the rag-bag of pseudo-scientific theories adduced by those flogging the packages to the government (often the same people who then go on to ‘evaluate’ them). But isn’t this engagement simply part of what good teachers already do? Won’t formalising such engagement as ‘interventions’ and psychologising children both undermine the organic nature of teachers’ dynamic interactions with their students? Asking children to focus on themselves and their emotions, one teacher present warned, simply bores students to tears. The meaning that young people naturally crave does not come from within. Moreover, it is a distraction from the proper subject-based education: another participant complained that, already, it is impossible for her children to take three sciences at GCSE anywhere in their city. This seems an unforgiveable abdication of our responsibility to induct young people into our civilisation’s frameworks of meaning, without which full human subjectivity cannot be fruitfully realised.


(1) Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (Routledge: London, 2008); see Lee Jones, Therapy Culture and its Critics, Culture Wars, 2 October 2008.
(2) See Dolan Cummings, Knowing Me, Knowing You, Culture Wars, 16 January 2009; Lee Jones, Resisting Emotional Education, Culture Wars, 3 February 2009.
(3) CB Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (1962).
(4) Jones, Therapy Culture and its Critics.
(5) See BBC News, online 1 April 2009), pp. 21, 27. Available free here.


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