Curious Jordy

What I Learned At The Psychotherapy Conference (Part 1)

Q: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.


This is the first in a series of posts where I describe some of my experiences, impressions, and takeaways from the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference.

Psychotherapy is a huge and diverse field
This was a MASSIVE conference. 5 days, dozens of speakers, over 150 lectures. I had a chance to hear many smart and passionate people, including Martin Seligman, Ernest Rossi, Marsha Linehan, Dan Siegel, Philip Zimbardo, Jean Houston, Don Meichenbaum, David Burns, and Albert Bandura. There were thousands of conference attendees: therapists, researchers, social workers, students, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and about 3 or 4 technologists like myself. 🙂

Is psychotherapy an art or a science?
It seems there are two major schools of thought in psychology and therapy:
– It’s a science: typically American perspective, focus on behavior, analytics, “Evidence-Based Practice”, e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
– It’s an art: more European/Eastern perspective, more experiential, e.g. psychoanalysis, hypnosis, energy work

To me, this question inevitably leads to others: do humans have a soul? What do we mean by a soul, anyway? Is there a god, or some kind of source of cosmic energy and unity? Is it possible to ask these kinds of questions without sounding like a hippie? Can science and the scientific method play a role in answering these questions?

I found it fascinating to attend a conference where these kinds of questions are raised in an academic setting. That being said, I was disappointed that there was only seminar (to my knowledge) explicitly bringing the two different sides together for a discussion. More debates between the scientists and the artists next time, please!

What I believe, based on my life experience so far, is that both sides contain truth. Focusing on behavior can lead to insights and breakthroughs; so can focusing on the unconscious or the concept of “soul”. Both perspectives are lenses through which you can see reality, and like any lens they can make certain things visible and obscure others. If you want to experience reality in all of its fullness, it helps to have different lenses at your disposal.

A year ago, I would have had a very different answer to this question – leaning much more heavily on the scientific side of things. I’m a programmer and a chess player, and I’ve always seen things in a very rational way.  But over the last year, I’ve become convinced that being able to see things rationally, while certainly helpful, doesn’t let me see the whole picture. In particular, in the areas of negotiating and relationships, being rational and right just doesn’t get you very far. So I’ve made conscious efforts to develop or “work out” my emotional/unconscious/intuitive side. Several months into this work, I’ve noticed that at times I am able to understand certain things that used to be totally incomprehensible. (For example, women.) I realize I’m being vague here, and in a future post I’ll elaborate on the specific benefits I have felt from going through this “emotional boot camp”. For now, I’ll leave it by saying that I have become more open-minded in terms of what I feel are viable lenses with which to examine reality.

I love mixing it up
I once ordered a strawberry/vanilla/chocolate milkshake. What can I say? I am naturally drawn to hybrids, to people or examples that draw on different disciplines and bridge the gap: art and science, eastern and western psychologies, psychology and technology.

Some very brief examples, all of which merit posts of their own:

  • Marsha Linehan and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)Emotional Awareness, a book by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, one of the most well-respected psychologists specializing in emotions
  • BJ Fogg and the entire field of persuasive technology
  • Jean Houston and her theory of polyphrenia: how we all have different personas we can activate at various times to suit the situation. For example, I have various personas: chess player, mountain biker, programmer, cat lover, DJ. I could choose to channel my persona as a chess player in order to help me get through my writer’s block. In theory.

Albert Bandura really knows what he’s talking about
The great thing about going to a huge psychotherapy conference is that you realize that EVERYONE has their own theory for human behavior. There’s a lot of models out there, and it can be daunting. I’m curious how professionals in the field figure out which model to make their own. Maybe there’s a scientific way to do it. Or maybe certain models just FEEL right on a gut level.

That’s how I feel about Albert Bandura and his self-efficacy theory. It just makes sense. I was first introduced to Bandura by my mentor BJ Fogg, who recommended that I read his book “Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control.” It’s more of a tome than a book, really. 600 incredibly dense pages, all packed with insight.

At the core, Bandura’s theory advocates that the biggest predictor of someone’s ability to do something is none other than their BELIEF about their ability to do that thing. It’s not how good they actually are at it, how hard it is, or anything else. It’s their belief about their abilities. In Bandura-speak, it’s their “self-efficacy beliefs”.

For example, Bandura conducted a study where people were tested on their ability to handle pain. Two groups of people were given the same painful stimulus, the only difference was that one group was told, “According to our charts, we can tell that can handle pain 50% more easily than the average person” and the other group was told that they handled pain less easily than average. This judgment was completely made up – there were no differences between the two groups. However, when they did the pain test, the group that had been persuaded that they handled pain better in fact DID handle pain better!

At a gut level, this feels right to me. But the good news is, Bandura has done lots of research investigating how to turn this gut feeling into measurable science. Again, it’s hard to do justice to a massive theory in just a few sentences, but for now I will highlight two things in particular.

Guided mastery experiences
First, Bandura proposes that the way to improve one’s self-efficacy is what he calls “guided mastery experiences”. This makes sense intuitively. You can’t just get good at ping pong by reading books about it – at some point you actually have to pick up a paddle and play. The same applies to phobias. Bandura did some fascinating studies where was able to cure people of their extreme snake phobias in just three  one-hour sessions. The trick is to have somebody MODEL the desired behavior. In this case, the phobic person can start out by seeing a video of a demonstrator successfully handling a snake. Then, she can be in the same room with the person. Then, she can try moving closer… then simply touching the snake once… then holding it… and so on.

Having a role model is essential because it helps the person change their self-efficacy beliefs. At the beginning, she has a very strong belief that she could never be in the same room with a snake, let alone hold a snake. But when she sees another person handling a snake, she can start to imagine herself doing the same thing. “I couldn’t even imagine doing that” turns into “I can imagine doing that”, which then turns into “I could give that a try myself.”

How to effect change on a societal level
At this conference, Bandura spoke about how he is using his concept of self-efficacy and guided mastery experiences in order to change not just a single person, but an entire society.

Along with a team, he created long-running serial dramas for television and radio which have been broadcast on a mass scale in Tanzania and India. In many parts of India, for example, the treatment of women and girls is a major issue. Girls don’t go to to school, are not encouraged to speak up or stand up for themselves. His approach was to design a television drama centered around a girl, Taru, who shows courage and achieves success dealing with the same real-life situations that Indian girls find themselves in on a daily basis. Taru becomes the role model for not just one but thousands of girls. The drama essentially broadcasts guided mastery experiences to an entire society using mass media. I think it’s truly inspiring stuff.


That’s all for this first episode in my psychotherapy conference recap. As always, I’d love to hear what you think. So don’t be shy – leave a comment!