Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Who's on First?

As I sat in the Media Lab at MIT on Friday, I enjoyed being exposed to so many concepts that were new to me. I felt privileged to learn about the physiological and evolutionary basis for how we think and process external stimuli from people who are experts in the field.

At the end of the day, we took a tour of the center and I got to see everything from models of next generation automobiles to software systems that were teaching themselves to speak. During our tour, I had the opportunity to speak with the students who were actually conducting much of the research and to ask them specific and perhaps pedestrian questions about what they were doing and how they were doing it. I love to look behind the curtain and get down to the nuts and bolts of things.

Agenda Free
There was something in my interaction with the students that I found particularly appealing and refreshing. Unlike the talks we had heard throughout the day which were expertly prepared and presented, the students simply talked about what they were doing in the moment without preparation. They shared both what was working and what wasn't working. In many cases, they made it clear that they weren't sure whether or not what they were doing would ever work. In particular, as I pointed out some alternatives that they might pursue, they were not at all defensive and seemed willing to go with whatever would get them there. They had no agenda but that of solving the problem they were working on.

And yet, because of how they were funded and the agendas of the professors with whom they worked, pursuing paths to solutions outside their charters was not in the cards.

If It Works, It's Not Research
This got me to thinking this morning about why I originally left the world of research and academia. I had what many would have considered to be the greatest job in the world. I was paid really well (more than $120K annually in 1992) to do pretty much anything I could think of. I had more than a million dollars to play with in terms of implementing and developing my ideas and I had access to amazingly talented people.

At the same time, I worked in a culture where the primary motivator was credit and attribution. In the research community, being recognized as the one who invented or created thus-and-such trumps all else, including money, power and relationships. Not having a research background or a PhD, I was a bit of a pariah and made many an academic faux pas. I would be invited to meetings regarding ongoing projects and innocently say something like, "Isn't what your looking for really just..."

And then I wouldn't be invited back.

Over time, I ended up not only solving some difficult problems, but also figuring out ways to commercially implement the solutions. I anticipated this being well received by my colleagues. However, the response was, "If you can solve it, then it's not research!"

I decided that I'm not a research type and left to become an entrepreneurial type.

Agenda Laden
One of the problems with being motivated by attribution and acknowledgment is that it distorts everything else: in my opinion, far more so than money or power. Once we have an agenda of attribution and acknowledgment, three things happen:
  1. we close ourselves to alternatives to the point of fabricating or stretching evidence supporting our position;
  2. we dismiss others as not being the originators of our concept or idea to the point of never mentioning anyone who might have preceded us; and,
  3. when it becomes impossible to dismiss others, we highlight immaterial nuances of our concept that differentiate it from its predecessors and alternatives.
Origins of the Option Method and related philosophies
So this morning, I got a bit curious about the question "where in fact did these ideas come from?", not because I wanted to determine attribution, but instead, because I felt that various attempts gain attribution may have obscured the bigger picture and potentially useful information.

Here are some of the concepts I discovered in my brief exploration...

It's Just A-B-C
I discovered that what we have come to call Stimulus-Belief-Response was conceived in 1955 by a man named Albert Ellis who is considered by many to be the grandfather of cognitive psychology. In an article on psychology.info I found:
Although ideas associated with cognitive psychology can be traced back to philosophers of fourth century B.C., it is Albert Ellis’s (1913-2007) who is said to be the grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy. His Rational-Emotive approach (established in 1955) is often viewed as the basis of the contemporary cognitive model. In his “A-B-C” model, the Activating event is linked through the Belief to the emotional Consequences. Our beliefs are often too extreme, such as the belief “Everyone should treat me with respect.”

The aim of Rational-Emotive psychotherapy is to bring to light these irrational and maladaptive beliefs and their connection to the inappropriate emotional consequences. Replacing these beliefs with more rational attributions of situations (such as “I like for people to treat me with respect, but I realize that some people may not.”) leads to a reduction in negative emotions. Ellis’ approach is more recently referred to as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT).
Isn't that cool! I found a paper on REBT and Albert Ellis that you can download here.

Acceptance and Non-Judgmental Attitude
Next, I found the basis for the idea of an accepting and non-judgmental attitude based on the work of Carl Rogers and what he called Unconditional Positive Regard. One article on wikipedia says:
Unconditional positive regard, a term coined by the humanist Carl Rogers, is blanket acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does. Rogers believes that unconditional positive regard is essential to healthy development. People who have not experienced it may come to see themselves in the negative ways that others have made them feel. By providing unconditional positive regard, humanist therapists seek to help their clients accept and take responsibility for themselves. Humanist psychologists believe that by showing the client unconditional positive regard and acceptance, the therapist is providing the best possible conditions for personal growth to the client.
Further, Rogers credits a man named Stanley Standal with the coinage of the phrase attributing it to an unpublished doctoral thesis from 1954.

Your Own Best Expert
In the same article, Carl Rogers is credited with the concept of each of us being our own best expert, i.e., the person best qualified to help ourselves given support and facilitation.
Unconditional positive regard can be facilitated by keeping in mind Carl Rogers’ belief that all people have the internal resources required for personal growth. Rogers' theory encouraged other psychiatrists to suspend judgment, and to listen to a person with an attitude that the client has within himself the ability to change, without actually changing who he is.
Judgments, Generalizations and Changing Beliefs
Many of us know that within the S-B-R or A-B-C models, the most powerful beliefs are those which are heavily biased or judgmental and those that lack specificity and are general. Also, those of us who use the Dialogue know that by looking at our beliefs and changing them, we can become happier. It turns out that these concepts can also be traced back to the likes of Rogers and Ellis.

In the book, Cognitive and Behavioral Theories in Clinical Practice, (Nikolaos Kazantzis, Mark A. Reinecke, Frank M. Dattilio and Arthur Freeman) we see:
To help over come negative thinking, various cognitive restructuring strategies can be used, including those advocated in more formal cognitive therapy (e.g., Beck, 1995). For example, we often prescribe use of the A-B-C method of constructive thinking. With this technique, patients are taught to view emotional reactions from the A-B-C perspective, where A is the activating event (e.g., a problem), B is beliefs about the event (including what people say to themselves), and C is emotional bad behavioral consequences. In other words, how individuals feel and act is often the product of how they think.

Such cognitions often include highly evaluative words such as should and must, catastrophic words to describe non-life-threatening events, and phrases that tend to be over-generalizations (e.g., Nobody understands me!)

By examining self-talk, the patient can learn to separate realistic statements (e.f., "I wish…") from maladaptive ones (e.f., "I must have…") as they pertain to problems in living. The patient can also be given a list of positive self-statements to substitute for or to help dispute the negative self-talk (assign the reverse advocacy role-play strategy.
So What?
I was thrilled to see in just a few minutes of googling that there is a strong and broad foundation for what so many of us have come to find so useful and that there are so many potential sources of information. I feel even more enthusiastic about the process of codifying the stuff or whatever we end up calling whatever we end up with. Who knows, as we keep exploring and researching, we might find that someone has already reduced the entire thing to something that fits on a 3x5 note card with no font smaller than 12pt.

Happy exploring!



  1. Excellent Teffy ;)
    How are your computer programming skills? Have you run across a programme that engages with a person on the keyboard, towards exploring ones issues? I know there are some forms of dialoguing with a psychiatrist I saw years ago, and keep on hoping someone skilled and passionate about Option will devise something designed to pique and fascilitate exploration of ones beliefs......why not? Of course nothing can replace the human element, and eye to eye unspoken communication included in personal interaction.....this would not be to replace that, only augement it. Stimulate self evaluation....key words could be programmed to trigger optional responses, questions, etc etc. Wouldn't it be fun? Larry

  2. BW, there was a program developed in the 60's called Eliza. I believe that there were trials inducted in which people interacted in a way that they couldn't tell whether it was the software or a real person asking the questions. In many instances, people could not tell which.

    I found a current instantiation of Eliza at http://www.manifestation.com/neurotoys/eliza.php3.

    As the Dialogue questions ideally come from a disinterested and non-judgmental perspective, I imagine that (given modern day linguistic techniques and processing speeds) one could develop software that would conduct Dialogues much better than the average person. It would of course be missing the "human" element, but then again, that's kind of the point.


  3. yes, exactly....Yah Eliza can be fun, your link doesn't seem to work for me, mine is/was http://www-ai.ijs.si/eliza/eliza.html


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