Context – A Theory of Human Behaviour

I love Russell Brand. My man-crush on him is even bigger than my man-crush on David Beckham and Michael Buble, which is saying something. I guess the reason I love him is because I agree with almost everything he says. For example, on his ‘Trews’ program last year he talked about how Donald Trump was inevitable given the historical context that led to him. Brand’s continuing contextual analysis is something that resonates with me, and I want to spend the next few hundred words extending this contextual analysis to mental health.

In a class last week a student asked me what I thought caused mental health problems. Given my research area, the answer jumped out of my mouth before I had time to think about it. I answered with the following:

‘Experiential Avoidance is at the heart of psychopathology, in other words, most people try their best to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings and in doing so they often act in ways that move them away from who they want to be’.

The student answered with:

‘But you just talked for an hour about how life experiences and wider context (i.e. poverty, stress, capitalism, culture) probably accounted for a lot of suffering’.

In that moment I realized that I had gaps in my theory about the aetiology of Psychopathology. How could I reconcile the role of life experience and the wider context in the development of mental health problems, with the role of experiential avoidance at the individual level? I came up with the idea of a twister as a way to provide a full contextual analysis of why mental health problems exist (see brilliantly crafted figure below). The hope here is that such a contextual analysis, pragmatic at its core because we can actually influence the context, might begin to pave the way for interventions that are better equipped to help people.

Ok, here goes.

The body of my twister, from the ground up (past to present), attempts to describe the impact of our history. There is no doubt that our life experiences shape us. For example, imagine that my parents are poor. That contextual factor will impact whether I live in a nice area, whether I attend a nice school or whether I eat good food. These things will in turn affect the likelihood of me experiencing unwanted thoughts and feelings (for example, I might get bad scores on a test due to having attended a bad school and have the thought ‘I’m dumb’). When those unwanted thoughts and feelings come along my historical context has supplied me with answers for how to deal with them i.e. it is likely that I have learned, via my culture, that the way to manage unwanted thoughts and feelings is avoidance i.e. suppress them by throwing ourselves into drink, food, drugs, work, whatever.

Now imagine that I am at the top of the twister, or in the present day. In addition to the contexts of past (parental poverty) shaping who I have come to be, my current context also shapes the likelihood of me developing mental health problems. As an example, imagine that I work as a teacher. Over the past 30 years teaching has become more of a stressful career given ever growing bureaucratic pressures. As a result of this context I am likely to experience unwanted thoughts and feelings (‘I can’t cope’). Of course, consistent with my history, the current context continues to shape my views of how to manage these unwanted thoughts and feelings, and chances are that avoidance is still the go-to strategy, with psycho-pharmaceutical drugs the number 1 choice used to acheive this.

That is my twister theory. It is a theory of how the historical and current context can account for mental health problems i.e. restrictive environments and poor advice about the management of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Forget about other explanations of mental health that place the problem within the individual and ignore the context. Interventions at that level, despite being incredibly popular, will never get at the heart of the issue. Instead, as an intervention strategy, maybe it is time to change the context itself. In my eyes, this has two concrete implications:

Firstly, if we think that mental health problems at the individual level are caused because of experiential avoidance then it means that we need to change the message that we send to young people about how to manage their unwanted thoughts and feelings. I think this is slowly happening. For example, the growing influence of mindfulness, which is an approach with the explicit aim of undermining experiential avoidance, shows that these ideas are becoming more prominent in the cultural context.

However, secondly and more importantly, no amount of mindfulness is going to help someone who can’t feed their kids. In other words, even if all of the people in the world learned not to run away from their unwanted thoughts and feelings, broader restrictive contexts will continue to cause suffering.

That is why I love Russell Brand. While we Psychologists are sending people the message, one by one, that experiential avoidance in the present moment can be harmful; we often ignore the fact that the wider historical and current context is largely responsible for psychological suffering. Russell Brand gets it. He gets that the way to global change will not be to give people a coping strategy individually (as worth while as that is) but will involve a cataclysmic shift in how we function as a society, where compassion, kindness, patience and curiosity (and not greed) begin to guide decisions at all levels.

When I cover these topics with my students they report feeling helpless. They don’t have 20 billion pound or a pedestal that they can stand on. All they have are the words that they speak to other people, one by one. I encourage them to continue influencing one person at a time because chances are that it will bring them fulfilment to do so, and my feeling is that a slow trickle of like-minded people can make a difference. However, I also encourage them to support those like Russell Brand because, in my eyes, people like him, who understand the contextual nature of human behaviour combined with the importance of spreading love, and have an audience to hear that message, may just be the key to changing the world.