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cognitive science

Jerome Bruner and the cultural construction of emotions

I just finished a fascinating small book by Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (that’s him on the right), called Acts of Meaning. Although it was published in 1990, I don’t think it’s widely known among lay-people, and I think its ideas are worth briefly discussing – because they offer an interesting critique of cognitive science, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and a call for it to become more culturally aware.

Let me say at the outset that CBT helped me enormously and that what follows is not a rejection of CBT but an exploration of how it could be expanded to include more from the arts and humanities.

Bruner was one of the pioneers of the cognitive revolution, which transformed psychology from the 1950s on. The cognitive revolution was a rebellion against behaviourism, which claimed (to generalise) that all human behaviour could be described by a very simple process: Stimulus – Response. There was no need, behaviourists said, to inquire into human thoughts or beliefs or values. We simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons, or rats in a laboratory.

The psychologists of the cognitive revolution rebelled against this view of human psychology, and insisted that humans’ internal thoughts and values play a powerful role in defining how we experience reality, how we feel about it, and how we respond to it. Between the Stimulus and Response lies a person’s beliefs and values – and we can change our beliefs and become the ‘authors of ourselves’. This, of course, is a very different view of humanity. We go from being helpless automatons passively reacting to stimuli, to autonomous beings, actively creating meaning from our experience, able to choose how we respond to life’s challenges.

Part of the cognitive revolution is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which was invented by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck in the 1950s. Both Ellis and Beck were inspired by their reading of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly of the Stoics, who insisted that humans create their experience of the world through their beliefs. As the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Life itself is but what you deem it.”

The Stoics were the vanguard of the cognitive revolution, 2000 years before it happened. Humans, they suggested, were “disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about them”, as Epictetus wrote. Therefore, to heal yourself of emotional disorders, you should simply become aware of your beliefs, see how they cause your emotions, and then change your beliefs if you decide they are false and irrational.  Eventually, the Stoics believe, we will be able to perfectly match our beliefs to external reality (or God), and nothing that ever happens will ever upset us. The therapeutic process is, the Stoics believe, entirely individual. We can’t expect society to change its foolish ways. Rather, the lone Stoic heroically separates themselves from their toxic culture, and makes of themselves a perfect little fortress of calm rationality amid the irrationality of their society.

CBT might not believe in God, but apart from that, this is pretty much a description of CBT’s therapeutic approach. We must rationally examine our beliefs, and reject any that are false, until we become perfectly adapted to reality and nothing truly upsets us anymore. As in Stoicism, this recovery process is entirely individual.

Clearly the Stoics got something right – our emotions dofollow our beliefs, and if we change our beliefs we change our emotions. Realising this helped me personally to overcome depression. But perhaps both CBT and Stoicism are too individualist, and ignore the importance of culture both in emotional disturbances and in the recovery process. Other Greek philosophical schools, like Plato and Aristotle, agreed with the Stoics that our emotions are caused by our beliefs. But they had a much keener sense of how our beliefs are shaped by our culture and political system. So the process of recovery is not just individual – it is also cultural and political.

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PoW: Friday highlights from philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

Hi, welcome to another issue of the PoW digest. The Journal of Medical Ethics found itself in hot water this week when it published an article in which two Australian philosophers said that ‘after-birth abortion’ should be permissible in a wide variety of cases (in fact, pretty much in any case) because new-born babies aren’t really persons. The editor of the journal, Oxford transhumanist Julian Savelescu, seemed surprised by the subsequent furore, and says the authors have since received death-threats by ‘fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society’.
OK, I’m against death-threats. But what was Savelescu thinking? ‘Afterbirth abortion’? The whole point of the young field of medical ethics is to try and give science and medicine some moral grounding and prevent it from ethical abuses like the Nazi eugenics programme – not to urge science on in that very direction. This will not do much for transhumanism’s reputation.
Here’s a piece on a better example of medical ethics – the new report from the Commission on Improving Dignity in Care for Older People, calling for a values-based approach to elderly care.
Some better news from Oxford: the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, has left £26m in his will to humanities research at Oxford, the biggest ever grant for humanities research.
The positive psychologist and social intuitionist Jonathan Haidt has a new book coming out soon on the emotional and psychological roots of different political ideologies, arguing that our brains have particular emotive buttons around issues like justice, purity, fairness and so on, which political parties need to learn to ‘push’. Here, he applies this thinking to contemporary American politics:
America is in deep fiscal trouble, and things are going to get far worse when the baby boomers retire. Normally, when a nation faces a threat to its very survival, a leader can press the shared-sacrifice button. Churchill offered Britons nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” John F. Kennedy asked us all to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against communism. These were grand national projects, and everyone was asked to pitch in.
Unfortunately, President Obama promised he would not raise taxes on anyone but the rich. He and other Democrats have also vowed to “protect seniors” from cuts, even though seniors receive the vast majority of entitlement dollars. The president is therefore in the unenviable position of arguing that we’re in big trouble and so a small percentage of people will have to give more, but most people will be protected from sacrifice. This appeal misses the shared-sacrifice button completely. It also fails to push the share-the-spoils button. When people feel that they’re all pulling on different ropes, they don’t feel entitled to a share of other people’s wealth, even when that wealth was acquired by luck.
If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness–which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what.
Interesting stuff – although Haidt seems to be putting forward a brand of ethics called emotivism – what’s right is what feels right. Or perhaps he’s really putting forward a version of rhetoric, which is the ancient art of emotion-button-pushing. But, to raise the old Platonic criticism of rhetoric: what’s to prevent anyone using such manipulative techniques for any ideology?
Ulric Neisser, pioneering psychologist and the man who reportedly coined the term ‘cognitive psychology’ in the 1960s, died last week. Here’s an NYT obituary of him, and here’s a good piece by Mind Hacks about how he came to criticise cognitive psychology’s narrow focus on the individual in favour of a more social, networks or Gestalt model of psychology. Thanks to the BPS blog for those links. And here’s an old but interesting piece on Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Didn’t know he’s a graduate of Erhard Seminars Training!
Here’s a piece where I climb on my soapbox and rail against the normalisation of violent pornography and demand that the global porn corporation chiefly responsible for this, Manwin, cleans up its act and stops making money from the glamorisation of rape. The CEO of Manwin is a young entrepreneur who apparently cares about social responsibility so I think we can get him to stop this line of business – our society shouldn’t accept it, in my view. Tweet him and challenge him to stop making money from rape-porn websites like PunishTube.
Here’s a piece where I suggest that Alain De Botton’s ‘religion for atheism’ has a class problem. Religions help the poorest and most vulnerable, while De Botton’s project seems to be closer to a retail company selling well-being to the middle classes. The School of Life, which he set up, has done wonders for making philosophy more accessible – I’m just suggesting it needs to go further.
On that topic, here’s a piece about a ‘philosophy-rapper’ in Brazil, whose mother runs a philosophy cafe in Rio’s favelas. And here’s a brief video of Richard Holloway, a former bishop and now a self-proclaimed ‘expectant agnostic’, on God’s crazy love for losers (and also on why agnostics should learn to ‘raid institutions’ for meaning, which is quite in line with De Botton’s project). I like that phrase ‘God’s crazy love for losers’. Too much self-help seems a religion purely for winners (in the material sense).
Talking of which, here’s a good piece from New Inquiry about what’s wrong with TED talks, and how they often express a sort of religious optimism in the power of social science and tech entrepreneurship to solve all the world’s problems, in fifteen minutes.
Here’s a piece where Slavoj Zizek considers The Wire.
Here’s the last thing Christopher Hitchens wrote – a nicely balanced piece on GK Chesterton.

Richard Layard is doing a talk next week on mental health as ‘the new frontier of the welfare state’. Could be interesting…could be weird! Will unemployment end up in the DSM? What would Ulric Neisser say?
That’s all for this week, see you next week,