BEHAVIORISM, COGNITIVISM, AND CONSTRUCTIVISM
In M. R. Goldfried (Ed.) (2000). How therapists change: Personal and professional reflections (pp. 183-200). Washington, DC.: American Psychological Association.
BEHAVIORISM, COGNITIVISM, AND CONSTRUCTIVISM:
Reflections on Persons and Patterns in My Intellectual Development
Change has been the most constant theme in my life work. My focus in this writing is my "intellectual" history. I put scare quotes around the word intellectual , to say at the outset that my intellectual and emotional (personal) lives are inseparable. I feel (as much as think) that I have lived a very fortune-filled life, and that I have changed substantially within and across several dimensions of interests. What seems to have changed least are some basic themes of value and styles of inquiry in my life.
People have been the major events of my life, and they continue to be. My children, Sean and Maureen, have been and continue to be among my most influential teachers. I will say no more about them in this chapter. I have not focused on personal and family particulars. I freely admit that my attempted contributions to theory, research, and practice clearly reflect themes that are very close to my heart as a being. I also admit that I am an inveterate explorer and organizer. I enjoy getting lost. I enjoy creating and recreating. I episodically rearrange my physical life space, usually for no conscious motive other than the change and novelty that it affords. My mother used to call it "nesting" -- a kind of combination of transition (the new nest arranement) and anchoring (the nest is home to a life, a physically stable center of safety and other life preferences). I am attached to the past (e.g., my most treasured possessions are my greatgrandfather's Blackthorn walking stick from Ireland and my grandmother's very special ivory rosary with pictures inside the cross). At the same time, however, I am procuppied with and fascinated by what is novel. New ideas, new developments, and new technologies are constant sources of enjoyment in my life. I feel very fortunate to be enjoying a life in which many days are rich with appreciation and adventure.
How have I changed in my more than 30 years of work in the profession of psychology? I have been a behaviorist, a cognitivist, and (currently) a constructivist. Cutting across my involvement in these traditions have been interests in (1) basic human change processes; (2) history and systems of ideas and practices, (3) self-relationships (including control, esteem, and perception; (4) issues and experiences of embodiment, exercise, and sport psychology; and (5) science and complexity studies (Mahoney, 1976, 1985, 1991b; Mahoney & Moes, 1997; Mahoney & Suinn, 1986; Thoresen & Mahoney, 1974).
My earliest work dealt with self-change -- what was then called "behavioral self-control" -- and my more recent work has focused on how professional helpers are changed by their lifelong work in the realm of helping people to change (Mahoney, 1972; Radeke & Mahoney, in press). I am sure that I have changed in the process of my studying and attempting to facilitate change in others. The factors involved in my changing are probably multiple and complex. I also believe that they are inseparable from the processes that have remained fundamentally stable in my life.
My remarks in this chapter are organized around the themes suggested for each of the contributors to this volume. As I will try to elaborate in the final sections, I have come to view my own development and that of others (whether clients or not) as expressive of fundamentally dialectical (contrast-generated) activities. In other words, I see development in complex systems as both gradual accumulation of small changes and a punctuated revolution in basic activities of being. I view development as a lifelong process of complex self-organization in which core processes change less, change more slowly, and change more fitfully (non-linearly) than other life processes. But now I am ahead of myself, and I should perhaps begin at the beginning.
My first impressions of the mental health profession were not positive, and they preceded my receiving any formal training in psychotherapy. In retrospect, I should perhaps be surprised that my initial experiences did not dissuade me from pursuing the career that I did. These early impressions came from my work as a "psychiatric aide" (now sometimes termed a "psych technician") on a 30-bed locked psychiatric ward in a general hospital. I was working my way through community college when I was hired as a minimum-wage assistant. My responsibilities depended on which shift I was on and the current needs of the nursing and psychiatric staff. Sometimes I was asked to lead or assist in group discussions with some of the "higher functioning" patients. As situations demanded, I also served as a fill-in recreational therapist, occupational therapist, crisis interventionist, empathic listener, and assistant in the administration of electro-convulsive shock (ECT).
Assisting in the administration of ECT was my least favorite responsibility (even lower than crisis interventions with violent or suicidal patients, who inevitably received ECT). My role was to walk with the psychiatrist, two or three nurses, and another psych aide as we wheeled the ECT apparatus from room to room. At times as many as half of the ward was receiving ECT treatment. I assisted in hundreds of administrations to individuals ranging from a 14-year-old adolescent to a woman in her 70s.
Early in the sequence my responsibility was to help hold the patient down while 140 volts surged across their temples and their body went into spastic convulsions of whole-body tetany. They were receiving oxygen through a mouthpiece that also prevented them from biting their tongue, but their arms and legs had to be restrained to prevent bone breakage during the trauma. It was a gruesome spectacle. At some point in the sequence of administrations to different patients I would be asked to stay with a patient after their treatment and to remain in their room until they regained consciousness. My memories of sitting next to those unconscious people and witnessing their confusion and pain as they regained consciousness are among the most poignant of my life. Coming "back to reality" seemed like it was most often a process of questioning. Different pacing and different questions, but mostly questions and silence. Sometimes I felt like I was supposed to be a watchful usher waiting to show them back to their life.
At Joliet Community College, where I was first enrolled on a probationary basis (no high school diploma), I took more coursework in philosophy than I did in psychology. This being the case, it is perhaps not surprising that I first tried to reason with patients about their beliefs and problems. I have elsewhere described some of my naive first efforts at cognitive therapy (Mahoney, 1974). I believe that a sense of compassionate humor helped me endure some of those early lessons. Two incidents that I relate to my own students occurred when we had two men on the locked ward who each believed that they were Jesus Christ. This was a Catholic hospital, and the head psychiatric nurse was a nun. One of our Jesus patients was very verbal and bright, and he seemed to enjoy reminding this nun that she was tecnically his bride. He also taught me a thing or two about the indiosyncrasies of personal logic. When I challenged him to perform the miracle of making me disappear, he eagerly met the challenge by closing his eyes and announcing "Ok -- you're gone!"
The other Jesus figure was diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. He lay in bed all day in a cruciform position, arms out at his side. One night, however, he began a new pattern that upset the entire ward. As soon as it became dark outside, he began to moan at the top of his lungs, making sounds that were disturbing to the other patients and the staff. When I arrived for my turn at the night shift, the ward was in near chaos. The other patients could not sleep, and some were frightened by his painfully endless moaning. There was a long line of patients at the nursing station -- some crying, some yelling, and many demanding tranquilizers or sleeping pills. The switchboard to patients' rooms was alight with signals from the non-ambulatory patients who wanted attention, assurance, or medication. When I arrived, the head nurse and nun (who could have passed for Miss Ratched of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) was telling the night nurse that the catatonic Jesus had already been injected three times with Thorazine and that he had reached the maximum dose for the evening. Clearly near her own wits' ends, Sister Psyche threw up her hands and abandoned us -- storming down the hall with her keys jingling against her rosary and saying "it's in your hands now!"
The night nurse and I looked at each other in horror -- we were the only staff on duty, and the situation was desperate. She gave the other patients medications as she could, and I rushed around to the rooms where the call lights had been activated, trying to offer reassurances that I had trouble believing myself. After perhaps an hour of making little progress and having our own patience taxed, I came up with an idea. The night nurse -- who happened to be married to one of my philosophy professors -- was on the verge of tears herself, and our shift had just begun. I told her I had an idea, but I wasn't sure if she would like it.
"If it's legal and medically ethical, I don't care!" she replied. "We have got to do something or this is going to get worse."
The moaning Jesus continued to bellow out his pain as if to underscore her point, and I said, "Well, if you will step into the medication closet for one minute, I will try something."
She looked at me suspiciously. "You won't touch him?"
"No," I said, "I won't even go into his room."
"How can you . . . " her voice drifted off in desperation, and I knew that she trusted me. "Alright, I don't want to know. One minute -- that's all!" and with this she entered the small medication closet and closed the door behind her. I felt very anxious and my idea was still poorly formed. I walked to the switchboard inside the nursing station, flipped the switch that connected me to the room of the moaning Jesus, and mustered the deepest voice that I could.
"This is God the Father . . . GO TO SLEEP!"
The echo of my own voice down the hall was eerie. Our catatonic Jesus was immediately silent. Seconds later, the night nurse came out of the medicine closet. She seemed startled by the sudden silence on the ward. She rushed down to the patient's room and found him breathing quietly, his eyes closed. She rapidly swept past all rooms on all four corridors before returning to the nursing station. Smiling, she said to me "I don't even want to know how you did it." I never told her, and at the morning staffing meeting we simply said that the situation had been resolved. I wondered whether I should have told Sister Psyche, but I was afraid that she would have found it sacrilegious. It was, I thought, the same strategy Robert Lindner had used in his case of "The Jet-Propelled Couch" in The Fifty Minute Hour, which I was then reading for my first course in abnormal psychology.
Respiratory problems made it increasingly difficult for me to endure the harsh winters of northern Illinois, and my allergist recommended that I move to a dry climate like that in Arizona. I was so naive about college that I did not realize that an application was required. After learning that there were two state universities in Arizona, I decided to flip a coin as to which one to attend. My coin came up ASU in Tempe, and I was very fortunate that they did indeed accept me. What happened thereafter is an illustration of "chance encounters in life paths" (Bandura ,1982). When I tried to register for summer school at Arizona State University, I was informed that I had to declare a major "by Monday." Not feeling prepared for such a decision that Friday, I was absorbed in an existential panic that rivaled my earliest encounters with ambiguity and helplessness. I decided to ask for professional help. I went to a public phone booth in downtown Phoenix and looked up psychotherapists in the yellow pages. There were hundreds of listings, and I have no idea why I dialed the number that I did. It was my good fortune that he had an opening that Friday and was willing to see me. Having only $60 in life savings, I told his receptionist that I could only see him once but that it was very important to my future. He was kind enough to give me two hours of his time, and he advised me with compassion and wisdom. The details of that encounter are elaborated elsewhere (Mahoney, 1997a). I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my first therapist, Milton H. Erickson, for giving me the permission I apparently sought for declaring psychology as a major.
The following week I was assigned to David C. Rimm as my academic adviser. "Dave" and John Masters were first-year faculty members at ASU, both having just graduated from Stanford. At the time, the Psychology Department at ASU was thoroughly Skinnerian: Art Bachrach was the chair, Tom Verhave and J. Gilmore Sherman were on the faculty, Fred Keller had set up the self-paced lab courses in animal learning, Skinner had debated Rogers there (among other places), and Wolf had recently graduated and helped establish (with Baer and Risley) the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Undergraduate ASU psychology majors were then required to pass two animal learning labs (one with rats and one with pigeons) and to read the behavioral classics: Bernard, Pavlov, Ryle, Sidman, Watson, Ullman and Krasner, Keller and Schoenfeld, and, of course, everything that Skinner had written.
I was an enthusiastic and dedicated student. Dave Rimm helped me learn to better cope with my considerable anxieties about getting into graduate school, and in so doing he became my first mentor in relaxation technique. I would later have the privilege of further refining those skills under John N. Marquis at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital. Dave was a liberal thinker relative to the Skinnerian mainstream in the department. He introduced me to Bandura's early work on social learning processes and self-regulation; it was Dave, in fact, who introduced me to Al Bandura during a colloquium visit. My first publication resulted from a study that Dave and I did comparing the effects of token reinforcement and participant modeling on snake avoidance behavior. Dave also introduced me to the writings of Ellis, Lazarus, Wolpe, and Yates, and he was the first to show me how mathematical principles could help to refine questions about change and its determinants
My original view of human change processes was probably an incomplete mixture of classical and operant conditioning combined with vicarious learning and self-regulatory processes. When I arrived at Stanford in the summer of 1969 I didn't have an integrated "big picture" of change. The ASU enthusiasm for pursuing experimental science remained with me, but the inadequacy of conditioning models for were becoming apparent. That fall I was awed by and grateful for the publication of Bandura's (1969) Principles of Behavior Modification. That book, in my opinion, was a tour de force challenge to traditional views of conditioning and learning. It documented the need for a better understanding of cognitive processes in change and thereby helped to usher in the "cognitive revolution" that was sweeping through psychology. Bandura was on sabbatical my first year in grad school, which allowed me the honor and genuine pleasure of working with Gerald C. ("Jerry") Davison. Davison was himself a recent Bandura graduate and already a leading thinker and researcher in clinical psychology. He was and is a true mensch, and he taught me invaluable lessons about psychotherapy, science, and their responsible relationship. We remain close friends some 30 years later.
In those days, cognitive psychology was called "information processing." My first idea for a term paper in graduate school was on "the implications for information processing for behavior modification." My proposal was declined by a teaching assistant as being empirically premature. I have forgotten now what I wrote my paper on, but my interest in the interface of cognitive science and clinical services endured. A graduate course from Atkinson and Bower suggested that the literatures in cognitive psychology were rich with relevancies for practical applications. My earliest research in graduate school was on self-regulated thought control (the term "thought" was then deemed less scientific than the term "cognitive behavior"; changing thought patterns amounted to "cognitive behavior modification.
Since thoughts are followed by a range of events, I wondered about the forces influencing thought patternings and the effects of thoughts on the person's feelings and actions. It seemed to me that thinking processes were important and influential, and that they did not follow the linear associationism that had been the dominant paradigm at ASU. I wrote to Skinner, hardly expecting a response. I expressed my doubts about the possibility that thoughts were "automatically" shaped by the valence of events that succeeded them in time. Much to my delight and surprise, Skinner responded with a brief note that he, too, doubted automaticity in the effects of reinforcement on thoughts. He did not elaborate. But his response presented me wih both encouragement and challenge.
Carl Thoresen arranged for us, Fred Kanfer, and Skinner to have dinner during the joint meeting of the American and Canadian Psychological Associations in 1973. That evening was an influential one for me. Being "up close and personal" with someone like Skinner was an invitation to reflect and challenge. I came away from our evening together feeling both Skinner's encouragement of my work on behavioral self-control and his stern warnings about the misguidance of my interest in thoughts and thought patterns, an interest that he considered the "blind alley of mentalism." I had just finished a summer of teaching in Brazil, where one of the organizers had thanked me for "giving them permission" to study and talk about the inside of the person. I wondered what was so powerful about this domain that it brought such emotional reactions, and I wondered what a review of the existing research would reveal. I was teaching a special topic graduate seminar that fall at Penn State on human belief systems. During that seminar I wrote Cognition and Behavior Modification (Mahoney, 1974), in which I attempted to evaluate the theory and evidence relevant to conditioning and cognitive models of learning. I concluded that there was warrant for cautious optimism regarding the promise of mediational models. Others in the field were voicing similar opinions at the time, and a polarity began to develop within behavior therapy around the issue of cognition.
I cannot specify a particular event or year when I stopped considering myself to be a behaviorist (or, for that matter, when I became a cognitivist or a constructivist). Some of the changes within me came from my reading and research, but there were many lessons from clinical practice that forced me to reconsider the adequacy of orthodox behaviorism. While I was a graduate student I worked as a live-in “teaching parent” in a community-based treatment program for pre-delinquents. It was a live-in laboratory as well, and those children taught me a lot about the complexities of change. They didn’t react the way the textbooks said they would. I remember one boy who threw temper tantrums every night at bedtime. We tried all the behavioral techniques we knew: time out for tantruming, praise for approximations to more acceptable behavior, token rewards and fines, and so on. Then one evening he went to bed without a problem, much to our surprise. In trying to figure out why, I realized that I had unwittingly offered him a choice between the two available bathrooms for his shower. During subsequent evenings I offered him his choice of color in towels, and that alsoseemed to help! In a somewhat related instance, another child refused to accept any candy when we offered it around one evening (free of tokens). I knew she liked the candy, so I asked her why she declined. She said, “Because you just want to control me.” Slowly, with the children’s help, our program began to drift toward one that invited them to communicate and collaborate with us.
I am sure that another factor in my disillusionment with behaviorism came from the reactions that my cognitive colleagues and I received for venturing into realms of research and practice that lay beyond those condoned by some of the more conservative behaviorists. Davison had tried to interest me in reading Kuhn's (1962) book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions while I was in grad school, but I wasn't then ready for it. After a couple of years on the conference and colloquium circuit, I was more than intrigued by Kuhn's notions about the social psychology of scientific developments. Indeed, my 1976 book Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative was probably motivated by my needs to process the harsh attacks I received from Skinnerian loyalists when I suggested the relevance of cognitive sciences for clinical services.
Skinner himself became increasingly intolerant of the growing popularity of the cognitive sciences and therapies in the 1970s and 1980s. Toward the end of his life, he launched an attack on cognitive psychology, humanistic psychology, and psychotherapy in general (Skinner, 1987). These, he said, represented the greatest obstacles to a truly scientific psychology -- a science of behavior rather than a pseudoscience of consciousness. Reluctantly and apprehensively, I responded with a proposed differentiation between radical behavioristic ("scientistic") and traditionally scientific psychology (Mahoney, 1989) -- suggesting that an important difference involved the dimension of dogmatism and openness of inquiry. Implicitly, I challenged Skinner's intolerance of criticism and the isolationist tendencies of his followers. Skinner was apparently angered by my response, although he never contacted me about it. Instead, he encouraged Catania to organize an attempt to pressure the editor of the American Psychologist to print a scathing letter of attack on me, co-signed by scores of radical behaviorists (Catania, 1991). I have documented these events elsewhere (Mahoney, 1996b). To counteract the adversarial polarization process that ensued, I organized a collective tribute to Skinner signed by many of the cognitive scientists, humanists, and psychotherapists that Skinner had identified as enemies (Mahoney, 1991a).
Although I strongly challenge the adequacy of conditioning models of learning, I have continued to embrace elements of the behavioral tradition. I believe that behavior therapy is transforming, and that its valued contributions are being incorporated into integrative approaches, including constructivism (see below). In my opinion, the major strengths of behaviorism include the following:
- 1. an emphasis on agency and the activity of the organism;
- 2. an emphasis on contrast and directionality;
- 3. an emphasis on the wisdom of working with small steps in the direction of desired change; and
- 4. an emphasis on accountability and the evidence of experience.
In brief elaboration, I believe that human change processes involve changes in the activity patterns of the person. One of the things that behaviorism and behavior therapy highlighted was the need to do more than talk about a problem. The "corrective emotional experiences" proposed by early psychodynamic and contemporary integrative therapists require that the person become an engaged agent in their own development. Talking about one's fear of flying is not usually as powerful as actually approaching an airport with a ticket in hand. Behavior therapists were among the first truly experiential therapists in the profession, and their emphasis on this dimension is borne out by many studies of "exposure" and "participatory" therapies.
Contrast and directionality refers in part to immediate goals, and behaviorism help to emphasize the importance of structure and clarity in many programs of personal change. But getting from here to there requires more than a sense of direction. It also requires patient and persistent movements that capitalize on the person's abilities to maintain an existential balance in their life movement. "Shaping" (or "successive approximation") is a valuable skill in teachers, parents, and therapists. It requires recognizing small (sometimes awkward) movements in a desired direction and an appreciation for the non-continuous (or non-linear) nature of learning. What may seem like a small step to the counselor may be a giant step for the client, and the size of the step (or its appearance) may vary from moment to moment or session to session. What is important, I believe, is an appreciation for maintaining a viable sense of balance between familiar (refined) skills and new challenges (Mahoney, in press).
Finally, I believe that the tradition of behaviorism has contributed significantly to our current appreciation for the role of scientific research and accountability in informing our services and responsibilities as helping professionals. It is ironic and, indeed, unfortunate, that a dogmatic interpretation of what it means to be scientific has also been at the heart of some of the limitations of behaviorism.
Again in brief relief, I would say that the major limitations of behaviorism (and there are now several 'behaviorism's,' so I should say perhaps radical or orthodox behaviorism) would include the following:
- 1. the attempt to press associationism beyond its warrant;
- 2. the tendency to either deny cognitive processes or to redefine them as relatively simple connections between presumably isolated events (whether defined as "stimuli," "responses," or whatever);
- 3. the claim that a pattern (habit) can be totally eliminated from a person's repertoire; and
- 4. an authoritarian and dogmatic tendency that denies the meaningfulness or warrant for knowledge claims that fall outside of a positivist (or logical positivist) approach to epistemology.
The first two limitations, which are related, are dealt with at length in other sources (Bandura, 1969; Mahoney, 1974, 1991b). They essentially deal with an oversimplifying notion of how human experience organizes itself. As Hayek (1952) pointed out in his classic treatise, one cannot reduce the complexity of our "sensory order" to an accumulation of pairings (associations). The human nervous system (which is embedded in and influenced by other bodily and social/symbolic systems) is essentially classificatory in nature, and any semblance of an adequate theory of human experience will have to address the complexity of our "central" symbolic processes. As it turns out, these central processes have now been shown to be inseparable from the phenomenon of embodiment, making untenable the Pythagorean/Platonic/Cartesian dualism between mind and body.
The oversimplifying tendency of some behaviorist doctrines has led to claims that activity patterns can be permanently eliminated from a person's repertoire. I believe this to be one of the more irresponsible and damaging claims in 20th century therapeutics. One does not (and cannot) totally eliminate "bad habits." Indeed, to promise such an achievement is tantamount to jeopardizing a person's ability to navigate the warp and woof of developmental dynamics. In the course of biological evolution, nervous systems rarely eliminate any structure or functional pattern that has served the survival of the system in its past. When early mammals developed a proto-cortex and what we know call the limbic system, they did not eliminate the reptilian complex on which it was built. Humans show the vestiges of their reptilian heritage -- a heritage that serves us well in the protection of basic life support networks. Leaping here to more clinical examples, the person who has suffered from anxiety, panic attacks, and episodes of depression is always going to be capable of experiencing those patterns (particularly in the face of fatigue, trauma, and novel challenges). The occasional reappearance of old patterns of coping do not necessarily signify "relapse" or "recidivism" so much as they reflect the self-protective conservatism of the surviving organism.
The last limitation listed above touches upon issues of epistemology. Positivism was a perspective proposed by Comte (1789-1857), who also proposed to render science as a natural religion. This first version of positivism declared that all scientific statements must be capable of public inspection. Although there was some wisdom to its appeal to consensual evaluation, it essentially split off all forms of personal or private experience from the realm of scientific discourse. The second form of positivism was called "logical positivism," largely because it attempted to wed the formal requirements of logic with the realm of observations. In this sense, at least, it was a kind of shotgun marriage between the rival positions of rationalism and empiricism in theories of knowing (Mahoney, 1976; Weimer, 1977). Regrettably, both forms of positivism -- which were vigorously endorsed by most behaviorists -- encouraged a "scientistic" dogmatism. I elaborated on this in my 1987 response to Skinner, and I shall not belabor it here. Suffice it to say that radical behaviorism, at least in its evangelical forms, came to take on religious trappings.
I find it interesting that one of the recurrent questions about human change is whether it occurs suddenly or gradually. Dressed in various terminological garments, that same question has been asked in studies of human personality, biological evolution, and the quest for conscious enlightenment. I used to think that sudden changes were less common and less enduring. Slowly -- and in punctuated bursts -- my thinking about change has changed. When I look for punctuations in my own change processes, I tend to find them in several realms. My clinical work has clearly been a catalyst for much of my change. When I first began teaching and developing a private practice in the early 1970s, I was not prepared for the challenges and complexities that my clients presented me. None of them fit the neat textbook examples or diagnostic categories, and they were not as easily changed as I had expected. I often felt like I was barely navigating through the emotional rapids of their and, hence, my life, and I realized that I needed more training, experience, and some personal therapy.
I entered personal therapy with an existential-humanist who introduced me to the work and, later, the person of Jim Bugental, who has remained one of my therapeutic heroes and mentors ever since (Mahoney, 1996a). I learned the central importance of the therapeutic relationship, and I began to relax some of my needs to understand everything that was taking place in my life and my clients’ lives. I began to enroll in experiential workshops that stretched me beyond my behavioral and cognitive base camps ? including bodywork, creative dance, gestalt techniques, restricted environmental stimulation, and a variety of approaches to meditation. On one retreat in the Mohave desert, I felt particularly accelerated. Our two week stay included three days of fasting and silence, during which I was amazed at the deepening I felt in my awareness of how extensively I actively construct a world inside myself. To help accelerate my clinical skills, I sought more peer supervision and I decided to be more selective in the clients whom I treated.
From 1975 to 1985, I restricted my small private practice to difficult clients -- clients who might now be labeled borderline or personality disordered. Since 1985 I have tried to confine my consulting to mental health professionals -- partly because I believe that we therapists need a lot of support in what we do, and partly because I believe that personal change processes are accelerated and amplified in practitioners (which makes them very challenging -- but also very edifying -- clients).
The cognitive revolution was sweeping through clinical psychology in the 1970s, and many of us who were on the early waves of that phenomenon were also going through revolutions in our own lives, personally and professionally. I remember fondly the first panels on cognitive approaches at meetings of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. By 1976 many of us who were pursuing cognitive themes wanted a forum for networking. I served as Founding Editor of Cognitive Therapy and Research, which first appeared in 1977. At the time I was making regular visits to Beck's Center for Cognitive Therapy in Philadelphia, and there was regular dialogue with Ellis' Institute for Rational Living and Meichenbaum's Cognitive Behavior Modification Newsletter.
During this period of time I felt myself to be changing at a rate that felt like it would leave stretch marks. As a young faculty member at Penn State I had met Walt Weimer, Dale Harris, and Don Ford, all of whom influenced my reading and thinking. Walt introduced me to the writings (and later the persons) of Friedrich Hayek (Mahoney & Weimer, 1994) and William Bartley. Bartley's (1964/1984) book The Retreat to Commitment left me sleepless for weeks, and Hayek's (1952) The Sensory Order is probably the most underlined book in my personal library. We converged on a New York meeting of Friends of the Open Society honoring Karl Popper's 80th birthday, and I discovered that Don Campbell had left factorial designs in his own dust as he and Popper had moved into "evolutionary epistemology" -- the study of the development of knowing systems (Mahoney & Agnew, 1996).
Opportunities to travel became rich opportunities to experience different cultures and to interact with colleagues whose experiences helped to stretch my own. In 1980 I made the first of many trips to Italy and Portugal, where I encountered the version of cognitive therapy then being practiced by Vittorio Guidano and Luis Joyce-Moniz. I say "version" because it struck me as very different from what I had seen in North America. Guidano and Liotti were combining the epistemological writings of Lakatos with the findings of ethological research on primate behavior and Bowlby's attachment theory. I presented a paper in Rome on "the structure of personal revolutions," which was patterned after Kuhn's classic on scientific revolutions. Guidano and I were struck by the parallels in what we were doing, and we began a friendship and professional collaboration that is now in its 20th year. On that same trip I stopped in Lisbon to meet Joyce-Moniz, who was drawing upon his work with Piaget and the drama therapy of Moreno to conduct a much more experiential approach to personal counseling. Guidano, Joyce-Moniz, and I began to exchange visits. I eventually spent a sabbatical in Rome, taught a summer in Lisbon, and had the pleasure of knowing and working with the likes of Giampiero Arciero and Oscar Goncalves.
In 1981 I met Viktor Frankl at an Adlerian conference in Vienna, and we began correspondence about the search for meaning and therapeutic strategies. I remained in contact with him until shortly before his death (Mahoney, 1997b). He was a close friend of constructivist Paul Watzlawick, who edited a classic volume on The Invented Reality (Watzlawick,1984). As I began to move into dialogues with people like Neil Agnew and other epistophiles, I learned of the incredible writings of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, which also influenced the directions I saw myself taking. A few years later I met Bob Neimeyer at the first meeting of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration, and we began to dialogue about an emergent interest that would eventually be called "constructivism" (Mahoney, 1995; Neimeyer & Mahoney, 1995).
The label "constructivism" may be new, but the tradition itself dates back at least as far as Giambattista Vico in the early part of the 18th century. Some of my spiritual and Buddhist friends (especially Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, and Ken Wilber) have reminded me that the opening line of the Dhammapada (The Sayings of the Buddha) is "Mind is the forerunner of all things." Constructivism, at least as I construe it, is a view of human beings that emphasizes their active participation in creating the meanings around which they organize their lives. Much of that construction is socially-embedded, of course, and it is powerfully influenced by symbolic processes like languages and mathematics. I met Sophie Freud in 1996, and she has helped me to discover and appreciate the constructivist developments in psychodynamic theory (primarily in the writings of such individuals as herself, George Atwood, Merton Gill, Irwin Hoffman, Stephen Mitchell, Donald Spence, Charles Spezzano, Donnel Stern, and Robert Stolorow). I also found feminist theories to be rich with contributions to constructivist views of knowing, learning, and human relationships.
As I understand it, constructivism emphasizes five overlapping themes: (1) the inherent activity of the organism, (2) the directedness of that activity toward self-organization (and most of this goes on at levels far beyond our capacities for consciousness), (3) the centrality of processes associated with "selfhood" or personal continuity in referencing and organizing experiences, (4) a social embeddedness (what analysts call "intersubjectivity" and others call "inter-being") that is predominant in humans and inseparable from our symbolic capacities, and (5) a view of development that is dialectical (contrast-generated) and dynamic. Among other interesting features, constructivism connects the processes of memory and anticipation (which share a time-transcending function). It also challenges the neat separation of experience into thoughts (cognition), feelings (emotions), and actions (behavior). For the constructivist, all of these are organizing activities that contribute to the creation of "personal realities" that make sense to the idiosyncratic logic of each individual.
How this translates into practice is itself highly individualized, but there are some common themes. Constructive therapists tend to respect and honor the phenomenology of the client, and to trust that personal realities have developed out of the client's best efforts to survive their unique life circumstances. There is an emphasis on exploring personal meanings and core ordering processes (which include both explicit and tacit assumptions about what is real and necessary, what is good or bad, what is possible and impossible, who they have been and are, and what they are capable of). Exploratory processes are encouraged at the individual pacing of the client. Indeed, at the heart of constructive therapy is the human relationship that is psychotherapy. Within that context, which serves as a safe and secure base, the client is encouraged to explore and experiment with new ways of experiencing themselves and their worlds. Because development is contrast-generated, progress is usually nonlinear and punctuated by episodes of "expansion" and "contraction." These are normal parts of a healthy and self-protective process that is attempting to balance individual needs for coherence (familiarity) and challenge (novelty). One of the primary tasks of the constructive therapist is to coordinate and collaborate with the client in such a way that comfort (support, "holding") and challenge are paced according to changing personal needs.
So how is constructive therapy different from any other kind? I don't think of constructive therapy as a separate school, and it certainly will not be manualized or defined by distinguishing techniques. In a sense, constructivism is a philosophy of human knowing that affords a broad spectrum of expressions and sub-theories. Indeed, this integrative and transtheoretical capacity of constructivism appeals to me, as well as the fact that it is inherently an organic philosophy (i.e., one that is both capable of and dedicated to growing in response to the challenges it faces). I believe that it offers some refreshing alternatives to the pathologizing that has dominated clinical psychology and psychiatry for more than a century. In this sense, at least, it is well attuned to the contemporary "positive psychology movement).
At the time of this writing I am serving as Executive Editor of the journal Constructivism in the Human Sciences, which is read in more than 30 countries. It is a publication devoted to exploring views of "human beings as actively complex, socially-embedded, and developmentally dynamic self-organizing systems." I have just finished a manuscript on Constructive Psychotherapy (Mahoney, in press) and I have begun work on another dealing with the role of the body in psychotherapy. My research on the spersonal life of the psychotherapist continues, and I have begun to explore the changing meanings and perceived correlates of spirituality. I continue to be intrigued by the history of ideas, and I believe there are promising relevancies for our understanding and practice of psychotherapy in the developing dialogues about dynamic self-organizing systems and the sciences of complexity.
That is my life so far. Have I changed? Most definitely. If asked to specify how and when, I cannot point to more than some themes, and in those themes I see continuities that have remained throughout all the shifts in terminology and theoretical assumptions. Labels seem much less important to me now (behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist), particularly in comparison to the importance of opportunities for genuine dialogue with others in and beyond the profession. I have come to strongly believe that diversity lies at the heart of development, and that open dialogue allows us to exchange ideas and experiences in more enriching ways. I feel very fortunate to have been able to follow some of the many “chance encounters” that have unfolded along my life paths.
How have I changed as a therapist and teacher and supervisor? Probably in many more ways that I realize. The ones that come to mind, however, are that I am more patient now, and much more tolerant of ambiguity. I am not in as much of a hurry to change clients’ presenting concerns (which often evolve into other concerns as our work together continues). I am more flexible (I can now do single session, time-limited, episodic, and intensive long-term therapy with some degree of confidence in my potential helpfulness). I am less technique-oriented, and feel much more comfortable working in the lived moment (with its many unknown challenges and trajectories). I have a deeper respect for individual differences, for human resilience and resourcefulness, and for the importance of relationships in the quality of our lives. I now view emotions as healthy and adaptive processes rather than as part of the problem, and believe that many difficulties in change (“resistance to change”) are expressions of a basic self-protective process by which the adapting person attempts to preserve a precious balance of familiar order (systemic coherence) while exploring changes that necessarily challenge that order.
Overall, I tend to trust my intuition and that of my clients much more than I once had. I am more comfortable with not understanding why things happen the way they do, and I am more emotionally nurturing (or more forthright about it). I speak from the heart and to the heart as often as I can, and I encourage my clients to do the same. I feel very grateful for the privilege of participating in their lives, and I enjoy my work now even more than ever. If my life patterns continue as they have over the past 30 years, I will continue to explore and expand in ways that I cannot now anticipate. I look forward to that adventure.
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