I can get dizzy trying to keep up with how rapidly and radically the field of psychology is changing. I certainly can’t capture the entire scope of its development, but there is a growing movement towards “physicality,” the role and influence of biological and environmental factors in how we think, feel and change. For instance, the “Chocolate and Radish” experiment, described in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch, shows how willpower is literal – an amount of energy that can be depleted. In a recent Atlantic article, Ray Baumeister, the author of the study discusses his 1998 experiment which shows how people ‘use up’ their will power. This is intriguing because we still commonly consider willpower in moralistic terms. We also tend to think of it as a sign of mental strength, and certainly, when we use our will power and do something difficult, we get a ‘boost’ in self esteem. But that boost doesn’t always mean we have the energy to tackle the next challenge.
And this speaks to another area where “physicality” is central. If willpower can be depleted, then, as the Heath brothers say, people need help from their environment. They need to “shape the Path,” or craft their environment to support the change. Experiment after experiment shows that when the task is simplified, people change their behaviors. “One click” shopping really does increase sales. OK, this seems obvious, but when applied to large scale human behavior (recycling, drug abuse, philanthropy), this gets really interesting.
“Physicality” may not be the most accurate term, but it points to a certain plasticity in our behavior. What we think of as deeply ingrained personality traits may be more manipulable than we think. I’ve been reading a lot of psychological research lately, and many experiments use ‘priming,’ stimuli which happens outside conscious awareness. For instance, on an experiment on aggression, subjects are exposed to aggressive words, and then asked to complete a test. Another test group is “primed” with exposure to kind and polite words, and given the same test. Results show people exposed to the more aggressive word, respond more aggressively, and those exposed to the kind, polite words, respond with less aggression.
This effect of how we think about ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, on our behavior has been used successfully in the work of Carol Dweck, whose studies show that students who believe their intelligence is fixed (entity theory) don’t handle challenge and failure as well as students who believe their intelligence is malleable, and the result of effort (incremental theory). In a series of experiments, she found that children who were doing poorly in math were given a special lesson in which they were taught that the brain is a muscle, which like other muscles can be strengthened with hard work. The results? Their grades rebounded and they participated more in class.
These experiments and theories of physicality, and the idea that behavior can be so easily manipulated by outside influences is anathema to a depth psychological way of thinking about human nature, that there are deeply unconscious motives and movements which underlie our behavior. I’m amazed how much pushback I get from people when I suggest they consider their environment (routines, behavior, schedules, physical space) when trying to change a behavior. They prefer to see behavior as deeply mysterious, less susceptible to conscious efforts at change. If it were just my environment, they say, it would be easy to change. The Heath brothers talk about this, indirectly, in terms of the conscious mind (the Rider), which equates the size of the problem with the size of the solution: a huge problem must have a huge solution. It’s unthinkable that something as insignificant as a schedule can affect something as painful and intractable as a smoking habit.
All this leads me to a question I ponder frequently: where is psychology going? Is depth psychology coming to an end? How will it be transformed by today’s research? I think where depth psychological approaches are effective, the reason for it may lie not in the theory espoused by the method, but in another, perhaps unintended side-effect of the approach.