England and psychological inflexibility

This weekend gave us an extraordinary rugby story. Not Wales winning the Grand Slam – although well done to them – but what happened when England played Scotland. England crushed Scotland in the first half, leading 31-7. Then, in the second half, Scotland suddenly scored five tries, to lead 38-31 with four minutes left. England looked totally shell-shocked. The captain, Owen Farrell, seemed to lose his cool and was substituted. Somehow, England managed to gather their wits and score a try in the dying seconds, to draw the game 38-38. It was the highest-scoring draw in rugby test match history.

In the post-match media conference, coach Eddie Jones admitted that England have a mindset problem. This is the third or fourth time they have given away a big first-half lead in the second half. They relax, take their hand off the tiller, then can’t adapt when the tide turns. We saw the same thing happen when they lost the game and tournament against Wales. They had a very clear plan – kick and run – but Wales adapted to it in the second half, and England didn’t have a Plan B. Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio called it ‘tactical inertia’. They need leaders on the pitch with the ability to see what’s changing and the psychological flexibility to react.

It reminds me somewhat of Theresa May. Just keep going with Plan A, because there is no Plan B.

I know some of the England team a little from my days working as ‘philosopher-in-residence’ at Saracens rugby club. I was invited  to do a talk there in 2013 by David Jones, head of personal development at the club. I felt pretty uncomfortable talking about how ancient philosophy helped me overcome social anxiety, but just thought ‘fuck it’.

It went down surprisingly well. After that, we started a ‘Saracens philosophy club’. Every month or two, I went to their training ground in St Albans, and gave a half-hour talk on some aspect of ethical philosophy or psychology. Then there would be a group Socratic discussion on the question. Usually around 10 or so players and coaches would attend, including many of the England set-up, like Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, coach Paul Gustard (now Harlequins coach) and others.

They really enjoyed it, both the basic Stoic-CBT stuff (like ‘focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t), and the chance to talk to their team-mates about what really matters to them. It was part of a broader Saracens culture, built up over the last eight years, which aims not just at winning, but on 'making memories', making the players feel cared for, encouraging warm, honest relationships. It's this culture (along with the huge amounts the team spends on players' salaries), which has helped Saracens become the top rugby club in Europe over the last few years.

Why isn’t that winning Saracens mentality carrying into this England squad? ‘It’s 100% mental’, said coach Eddie Jones, ‘and not easy to fix. It will take some digging into the team’s psyche.’ He’s right. The team needs to be more resilient, certainly. But you can be Stoically resilient and not adapt to change. Theresa May is quite Stoic. Just stick to your principles and to hell with the consequences. More than that, the team needs psychological flexibility, which is the ability to stay composed in changing circumstances, and react with nimbleness and insight.

I wondered, can one teach psychological flexibility?

As it happens, I was sent a video the next day by a friend, about a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which aims to help people develop 'psychological flexibility'! That sounded too good a coincidence to miss, so I spent yesterday teaching myself about it.

ACT defines psychological flexibility as 'contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being and, based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behaviour in the service of chosen values'.

The approach was developed by a psychologist called Steven Hayes in the 1980s. He grew up in California, got into Eastern philosophy through Alan Watts, lived in an ashram, and then become a behavioural psychologist. In the late 1970s, he developed a serious panic disorder which ruined his life. He was trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, so looked to that for assistance, but discovered that rationally disputing his panicky beliefs didn’t much help.

Instead, he found Eastern contemplative practices offered more effective advice. Rather than disputing his negative thoughts and emotions, like CBT and Stoicism teach, he just observed them and accepted them, as the Buddha suggested. Both Stoicism and Buddhism seek to help people cognitively distance from their thoughts, but they use different methods to get there.

This 'observe and accept' approach is similar to mindfulness-based stress reduction and Mindfulness-CBT. But Hayes says that his ACT approach gets to the same goal as mindfulness – greater psychological flexibility and consequently greater well-being – without requiring people to sit and meditate. He says:

Some of the things we can do to put the core of the wisdom traditions into, for example the factory floor, you can do in ways that take 60 seconds, not in ways that require sitting for any period of time. I ask some of my contemplative practice friends: ‘is this really for Joe Six-Pack or is this for the educated elite?' In the Eastern countries where meditative traditions developed, the normal folks are not sitting around doing 10-day silent retreats, only the monks are. We’re trying to put that into the factory floor, and that’s just not the way to open the door. There are parts of the South where I used to live where if you used the B word [Buddhism] people would leap up and run out of the room.

This is a very good point. I gave a talk on wisdom practices at the European Commission this weekend, and  got a generally positive response. But I noticed two negative responses: first, ‘I tried meditation and couldn’t do it’; and second, ‘isn’t this just for the middle class?’ So I think Hayes has a point here. The response to mental suffering can’t just be 'meditation for everyone'.

A second way ACT differs from CBT and Positive Psychology is in a general acceptance of suffering. CBT and Positive Psychology posit happiness and flourishing as the healthy norm. The great wisdom traditions disagree – they say the norm for all beings is suffering. Wisdom can’t help us escape suffering, unless we achieve the distant goal of Nirvana or complete enlightenment. But wisdom can help us change our relationship to suffering.

Suffering is to be expected, not run away from or personalized. You feel sad or afraid or confused or angry sometimes not because you’re dysfunctional but because you’re a human being in samsara, a world of constant change, ubiquitous delusion, worldwide suffering and death.  That’s not the whole picture but it’s always going to be some of the picture. You’re always going to suffer somewhat. But you can learn to handle the suffering rather than run away from it.

The Enlightenment massively improved the material conditions of humans, but created the expectation we could rationally solve human suffering, by fixing society or upgrading the human machine. CBT / Positive Psychology somewhat bought into that Enlightenment mechanistic optimism. It’s not the case. Suffering is more of a given than that.

A third way ACT differs from CBT and mindfulness is its inclusion of values. Both CBT and mindfulness take psychological techniques from ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism and Buddhism), and drop the ethical context (virtuous living) and the metaphysical goal (harmony with the Logos or Nirvana). That’s because they are trying to be evidence-based sciences rather than moral or spiritual philosophies.

But their lack of ethics is a problem. We can use the technique of CBT or mindfulness to be more rational, and still a bad person. We could be a rational bank-robber, or a mindful sniper. These instrumental techniques have been absorbed into neoliberal capitalism, becoming $toicism and McMindfulness.

Yet how, in a multicultural scientific world, can a psychology include values without becoming preachy? ACT, a bit like Positive Psychology, tries to help people articulate their own values and goals, then give them the means to move towards them. In that sense it’s in the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, the philosophy of John Dewey and William James. Let people define ‘flourishing’ for themselves, then help them move towards that definition.

ACT teaches people to know the difference between goals like winning the rugby world cup, and values like courage, trust, compassion and persistence. Winning the World Cup is a one-off project, values are life-time projects.

Having goals to aim at and values to commit to helps one accept a certain amount of suffering along the way. As Dostoevsky wrote: ‘He who has a ‘why’ can cope with almost any ‘how’’.  We can’t wait until we’re confident and happy before we start out towards our goal – if we do that, we’ll be waiting our whole life. Rather, we develop confidence as we move towards the goal, while still feeling pain, anxiety and sadness along the way.

And we may change our goal or our framework of values along the way. You don’t just set one life-philosophy and stick to it your whole life, do you? We change and environmental conditions change, so our life-philosophy has to change as well.

Two ACT theorists, Kashdan and Rotterburg, define psychological flexibility as

the measure of how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) re-configures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. Thus, rather than focusing on specific content (within a person), definitions of psychological flexibility have to incorporate repeated transactions between people and their environmental contexts.

CBT tries to get people to a static, personal state, called ‘psychological health’ or normality. As if our beliefs can be labelled true or false, normal or sick, regardless of the social context we’re in. ACT takes a social constructivist position – our beliefs exist in a dynamic interaction with other people and with our environment. This can create feedback loops, where our negative beliefs are reflected back to us by others and become true (this is what happened to me with my social anxiety). Health doesn’t just involve adaptation to the social norm (a criticism often levelled at CBT and Stoicism), but the social norm itself is a dynamic construction between all of us on the planet.

These are some of the ways that ACT aims to teach ‘psychological flexibility’. Hayes says its goal is similar to the ancient Greek goal of eudaimonia, which means flourishing or ‘having a good flow of life’. I think it differs from CBT, Positive Psychology and mindfulness in some important ways. Rather than measuring emotional outcomes (depression / happiness) it measures processes of change, and highlights improved psychological flexibility as a key mental process that can be measured and improved, leading to better outcomes in life.

Can this help England? I don’t know. Apparently they have hired two psychologists already. They may just focus on performance, which wouldn’t be much help. Or they may teach CBT, which would be some help but not necessarily the most efficient solution to England’s problems. I’ve emailed them to suggest they hire Rob Archer, a psychologist I know who specializes in ACT for organisations.

I hope they get the help they need, though bringing in a sports psychologist for a session or five just before a World Cup (as Roy Hodgson did) is a bit late. What one is really talking about is a team’s culture. That’s set by the coach in every detail and interaction, and it takes years to grow. Saracens has a winning culture partly because the players feel loved and valued as humans, not just high-performing machines.  Is that the case at Eddie Jones’ England? Do the players feel loved and encouraged to act with emotional openness, flexibility and creativity, or do they feel brow-beaten and ordered to stick to the boss’ game plan no matter what?

CBTJules Evans1 Comment