Psychology, I’ve got a problem with it

Psychology, I’ve just got a problem with it. This was a sentence said by a colleague recently, and has been playing on my mind for some weeks now. Being a student of psychology and taken it through to my current career path, it follows that it would really. I get that people don’t associate well with psychology, it is a broad subject that touches on a lot of our everyday lives. So I’ve been trying to unpack why. Why would someone have problems with it?

At first glance, there’s simply too much to focus on. Do we look at cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, developmental psychology, social psychology, occupational psychology, evolutionary psychology, psycho-biology, positive psychology? There’s just too many fields. So it’s hard to know what is being referred to when someone makes the above statement.

Then, when you look at higher education, psychology is amongst the top five subjects being studied at undergraduate levels, and has an increasing number at postgraduate levels. This would suggest that there is an appeal to study the human mind, how we work, personality theories, and make sense of these. This would also suggest that the area must be a well researched area. This is certainly true as publications such as The Psychologist are a mainstay of the British Psychological Society. You of course have academic journals and papers being written throughout the year. There is a science to psychology and it’s quite rigorous. Papers and psychologists are subject to peer reviews and scrutiny like any scientific journal.

In the field of occupational psychology specifically, this rigour is even more under the spotlight. You can’t just create a questionnaire and claim it has psychological validity or reliability. You have to show it and prove it with evidence from experiments, data, analysis, and a detailed evaluation. This is a lengthy and difficult process. Programmes the likes of SPSS have been designed (and sold at great profit) for the very purpose of evaluating and analysing the data gained from studies. Many of these tools are then taken to the general workforce and public, where if used poorly can have quite detrimental effects. Used well though they enable and encourage greater debate and discussion about their usage.

Findings from studies across all fields are readily quoted in news and press articles. This is probably where the greatest worry comes from. “The smile is contagious”, “Depression spreads amongst friends”, “Separation theory informs us that parents are vital to the development of a child”. You’ve come across this everyday. And in most cases the studies are taken out of context to fit with the article as opposed to using it as was intended. This is a fault on the academics for not making their findings more understandable and a pressure on journalists (in the widest sense) to be more mindful of accurately quoting these kinds of studies.

At a more practical level, within the field of learning and development we are even more at risk of bastardising these theories to fit with the content of what we’re developing and delivering. The argument of practitioner vs academic raises its head regularly and forces both sides to consider have they done enough to make things happen. As a practitioner myself, of both positive psychology and learning and development practise, I am left considering if I am doing enough to ensure my knowledge and use of theories is not just satisfactory but up to scrutiny.

Do these theories and indeed psychological practises have a place in the workplace? I think they do. Our challenge is to ensure that we don’t belittle the theories, and at the same time we don’t lose our intended audience by overwhelming them with information. It’s this type of topic which we’ll be discussing at the L&D Connect unconference. There’s only two weeks left, so book your place and get involved with the discussion on our LinkedIn page.


The attribution of attribution theory

Many a year ago, I learned about attribution theory in psychology. It’s an interesting theory which explains what mental process we go through if something good or bad happens in your life. In essence, the theory says, if something bad happens, you tend to look inwardly and attribute the cause to yourself. If something good happens, you tend to look externally and attribute the cause to something else. For example, if you didn’t get the job you applied for, you’re more likely to think “it’s because I wasn’t good enough for the job”. If however, you do get the job you’re more likely to say “it’s because they couldn’t find anyone else”.

There’s more to the theory which can be well read on Wikipedia here. A particular part of the theory which has always fascinated me is the fundamental attribution error. This says that we can be more ready to attribute a cause for behaviour as being a fundamental flaw in someone’s personality as opposed to looking at situational or other factors that may explain it better.

The theory does try and take account of cultural differences, but does this in a broad sense where it talks about individualistic or collectivist cultures. I don’t think that does it justice, as though I live in, and have been born and raised in an individualistic culture, my family culture is collectivist, which seems to be at odds with what the theory suggests. I’d say also that the country you are in bears significantly on how you choose to attribute cause. For example, British culture promotes modesty, American culture promotes success, Indian culture promotes humility, French culture promotes directness. These all influence where we attribute cause of behaviour to.

And then there’s work environments too. Does your company promote a certain style of working? How does it promote its culture? How does it promote its values? What are its values? How does progression and promotion happen? Is there focus on team success or individual success? How are these understood by staff? How are these communicated? How do managers help? Is the recognition process clear and transparent or veiled behind policies? Are there clear motivational goals? Are staff set objectives? These also influence where we attribute cause of behaviour.

So what should we be aiming for? Is it better to look internally or to look externally for cause of behaviour? I don’t think this theory is enough to be able to direct us on that. I think what it offers is a way of thinking about other factors we may consider when thinking about the work environment, and where people attribute behaviours too. Do you understand your staff’s motivation? Do you know where this comes from? Have they had feedback on their performance? Has this been directed to them personally or about actions they’ve undertaken? Have they had coaching  to develop their skills? do they see they can uncover answers for themselves or are reliant on you to direct them? Have they been set clear objectives? Were they set jointly, by the member of staff or by the manager?

The trouble with NLP

For a while now, I’ve been stewing over what I want to say about Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). It’s been a bug bear of mine for some time, at least the last couple of years, and I’ve never really been able to clarify why. This post is in part an effort to highlight my issues with it, and to bring clarity for myself.

It was originally developed by psychologists Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the mid-1970’s. If you take the literal breakdown of the theory, it supposes that you can take an understanding of the way the brain works (neuro), how we describe and use words (linguistic) and how we go forward and act (programming).

There are four pillars to NLP that form the basis of the theory and approach.
1) Rapport – how you build a relationship with others and yourself
2) Sensory awareness – how the world is different when you use all your senses
3) Outcome thinking – how to think about what you want
4) Behavioural flexibility – how to do something different when what you’re currently doing isn’t working

And to help with various parts of the pillars, there are techniques used to help you think about how they are achieved. Concepts such as ‘reframing’, ‘anchoring’, ‘representational systems’, ‘mirroring’ are taught and trained on. Other techniques are about using ‘trance states’ and practices in hypnosis. And then there’s the other stuff like looking for eye movements and playing to ‘Visual’, ‘auditory’ and ‘kinaesthetic’ senses.

At face value, this seems fine, right? Well, kind of. Even at face value, something seems amiss to me. If you take a look at the term itself, the main criticism from researchers and critics is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. There’s little in it’s theory or delivery which is about the neuronal side of things. You don’t learn about neural networks, or language processing and development, or any original work on actual neurological development. It seems to be that the ‘neuro’ part of the title is misleading and affords it a level of security to Joe Public, that it is steeped in some sort of scientific evidence.

Ah, there’s the other cornerstone of psychological research in general that no psychologist worth their salt would do without. Empirical evidence. The ability to take someone’s research, put it to test, and see if you achieve the same results. NLP is somewhat bereft of this. Instead there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about its success. The trouble with anecdotal evidence is that it can’t be replicated. It’s anecdotal because it’s few and far between. And it’s also anecdotal because I’ll wager other factors were in force that enabled that person to achieve their desired result.

Surely the anchoring, reframing and representational systems are sound though? Well kind of. By all means do your own research, and here’s my take. Anchoring is about creating an association with a word or action that brings someone back to a desired state. Hmm. So the classic ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ comes to mind. Are we that susceptible? It would seem we are. It’s about where our focus lies. Have you seen the classic ‘count the number of times the basketball gets passed’ perception video? Go watch it, it’s truly fascinating, and happens all the time. If you’re told to focus on something, that becomes your anchor, and you neglect all other information. Fickle beings we humans are.

Reframing also works to help you ‘talk yourself’ or convince a group about something. For example, I may choose to talk to a group about my poor navigational skills on the approach to the venue. Or I can describe my brilliant use of modern technology helping me to successfully find my way to the venue. They say the same thing, just differently. The reframing one emphasises what I think you need to hear. In turn it also emphasises what I think I want to believe.

And the representational systems piece is interesting. This one’s a bit tricky to get a grasp on. If I understand it (and I could be way off here), it’s about the way in which we process events and memories by using our senses to make sense of them. For example, I might describe an insight as > I looked within myself and saw the light. I’m using the ‘sense’ of my eyes to describe an action. We also do this when internalising a question. For example, how does my dress look? > hear question, picture meaning, picture mental image of dress, gauge your feeling of the dress, respond. Sounds complicated. This particular piece of theory seems to have given way to talking about Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic senses instead. Erm, so the theory wasn’t sound enough in the first place?

In fact, if you want more introductory information you should go look at the Business Balls site on the topic. There’s a lot there but very informative.

One of the things that I suppose is concerning for me, is the way NLP can be used to manipulate those you interact with. That is if you do the above well, consciously and with concerted effort, you can ‘make’ others do what you want. And that just doesn’t sit right with me. People should be allowed to do things of their own accord, not because they’ve been manipulated into doing something they are unaware of.

As an aside, this is why I respect Derren Brown. He openly admits to manipulating those he entertains. He doesn’t hide the fact he’s going to manipulate and deceive you. He just doesn’t disclose how he did it, well not all the time. And that’s the key. Even if you are trained in NLP, you shouldn’t be using these techniques to give you the upper hand or advantage over others.

So where does this leave me? Confused really. Which is why I am not a fan of NLP. It purports to be an effective organisational and communication tool. That’s just clever marketing. A self-awareness tool? A self development tool? Yes, to both. I have met, worked with, and been friends with NLP practitioners and master practitioners. If they’re practising their NLP skills, I’ve certainly never been able to put my finger on what they’re doing specifically. Not in the same way you can identify when someone is using a range of techniques like facilitation skills, or presentation skills.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe NLP is about daily communication, but I certainly don’t see how it’s different to what I would provide training on, the exercises I do, or the theory behind the practise.

NB – I am not trained in NLP, but use a lot of the same techniques and theories in what I believe are the original contexts and not in the context of this practice.

Sources of information:

Business Balls

>Living up to the title

>An occupational psychologist on life? Ha! That’s pretentious enough to be believable. But let’s back track a bit. I am an occ psych for a reason. I believe in the applicability of psychology to be able to help businesses/organisations/companies achieve more by harnessing the potential of their people. Okay so that’s just marketing speak and bullshit. But it’s true.

Anyway beyond that, I do have a lot of living up to the title to do. Occ psych is an interesting incestuous world much like the digital marketing industry I’m currently working in. All the regular players know each other, and speak highly of each other, and recommend each other. It’s a wonder any of the consultancies that exist have any true unique selling points. But that’s a different blog for a later date. Yet I want to contribute to this world. I want to make a difference to what it means to be an occ psych. I truly believe that I can bring to the fore an occ psych mentality coupled with actual work experience resulting in truly insightful learnings.

I’ll talk about a lot. My wife Mrs P. My twin boys aged 2 and 10 months old – A & K. My baby yet to be. My friends Jim, Joe and Jerry. My work. My newfound commute to work on the cycle. Religion – Sikhi in particular. And all things technology. Other things may crop into that mix of topics. But why not? It’s all a learning experience.

So an occ pysch on life. I hope to present to you an array of things both interesting and incredibly dull. Welcome to my world. May it be as interesting as yours.