Overcoming Obstacles in Learning Cybernetic Psychology

This page is dedicated to students studying cybernetics. This essay was edited and published here.

There is a presentation on a similar topic available too.

Below is an earlier version of this research paper.

When reviewing the prospectus of universities that offer mainstream psychology majors , one would be hard-pressed to find any cybernetic approaches included in their course material. This is an unfortunate observation as most psychological problems arise in a relational context. Cybernetic literature deals with relationships, patterns and communication systems, which are all part of human relationships. Thus, the role of cybernetics in psychotherapy is invaluable. The absence of cybernetics in psychology tuition was not always the case though. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s cybernetics were increasingly more popular and so too were family therapy and systems thinking, which were based on first order cybernetics.
Many universities started to offer family therapy courses based on the teachings of Bowen, Satir, Minuchin, Whitaker and then later the Milan Research Institute. With second-order cybernetics the natural progression in this field, it is inconsistent that universities did not take advantage of this approach and offer it is an equal footing paradigm to the dominant psychology theories. As Scott states (2012, p75)

In the 1970s many within cybernetics and the systems movement heralded the ‘new cybernetics’ and the new second order paradigm but this heralding went rather unnoticed in other circles. “Cognitive science”, chiefly with the concept of “the physical symbol system”, established and maintained a stranglehold on cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence research.

One possible explanation rests on the premise that systems thinking and cybernetics underpins the connectedness of relationships, patterns of interaction and recursion. Western thought, however, idolises the individual and their empowerment in the controlling and manipulating of their environment. The explanation of causality and its reliance on the linear model is central to the Western mind. This attitude is common in many psychology theories and is put forward by many universities. Further, traditional positivistic research methodologies are also challenged when attempting to perform studies on the success of family/systemic therapies, which advocate a different approach to research. This makes it difficult to compare these different approaches.
Our Western world prizes mechanisation and measurable results. Efficacy that relies on standardisation has found its way into psychotherapy with the “manualisation” of process to provide a cheaper intervention (Soldz, 1990; Werbert, 1989), which integrates into modern living where clients may actually request briefer interventions from their therapists (Corey, 2005). Some therapists are pressurised to use interventions that are both brief and standardised. These treatments are operationalized by reliance on a treatment manual that specifies what is to be done in each session and how many sessions will be required (Edwards, Dattilio & Bromley, 2004:589). There is also an increasing need for psychology as a profession to demonstrate that its interventions yield tangible and measureable results to clients and their families, as well as to human rights groups in light of inhumane practices of some psychiatric institutions, or abusive traditional healing practices in some low to middle-income countries (Kagee & Lund, 2012, p103; WHO, 2011). Cybernetic psychology by its very nature could be seen as the most ethically orientated intervention; however, it is not readily modelled. Cybernetic psychology is also a difficult epistemology to teach. Having authored a website on cybernetic psychology, many students contact the website and use the resources daily . There is a common thread in the correspondence received from the public (mostly students). This paper addresses some of the main issues that have been raised by students who are learning cybernetic psychology. The purpose of this paper is to reduce obstacles for prospective learners in cybernetic psychology, with the hope that cybernetic psychology be assimilated and seen as an equal footing paradigm in psychology teachings.

The independent observing system: A fictional model
In a Buddhist Cristian interfaith dialogue, Masao Abe, a prominent Buddhist author makes a pertinent point regarding defining phenomena from a distance. In reconciling the seemingly divergent views of Buddhism’s Emptiness and Christianity’s teaching of Christ’s salvation for humanity, he states (Cobb, 1990, p10):

Who can properly and legitimately talk about Logos and its pre-existence without its revelation to the person?
It is not that only a person who receives revelation can properly speak of the Logos and its pre-existence? There can be no Son of God existing merely as “the Son of God” apart from us. Without encountering it, one can talk about preexistence theoretically or theologically. The “preexisting” Son of God must be realised right here, right now…

Abe is stressing the need for personal engagement to whatever one is attempting to interpret. Standing from an independent observing position attempting to understand a different epistemology only allows a theoretical abstract understanding. We can watch dramatic incidents on TV, but when it happens to one personally, there is an intense sobering difference. The experience of a first kiss, losing one’s virginity, near death experience, act of crime, all of which are quite different when one is both part of the content and the context.

Students are taught the different therapy paradigms in terms of models; the psychodynamic model, the medical model, the person-centred model; the systems model and so forth. Their position to the model is external and they can critically evaluate the different models and apply each model in an interpretation to various psychology case studies. When attempting to understand cybernetics, this observer-independent method of investigation does not work. When cybernetics is viewed as a model, an obstacle is formed. Cybernetics ≠ model, and thus there is no formula sheet or DSM manual that one can refer to in defining and interpreting cybernetics in therapy. The map is not the territory as Alfred Korzybski and then later Bateson expanded on (Korzybski, 1933). To know of the content, one also needs to know of the context, share in the context or even be the context. One needs to step inside this paradigm and become part of this information process. While in this paradigm a change in mind-set from information processing to meaning generating is important. This change to meaning generation rests on the premise that if I am part of something and included in it, I can no longer process information in a manner that separates me from the thing I am observing; rather, being part of this system, what I observe will have personal meaning to me and I am unable to escape my own reality and life experience. My attitudes and beliefs are shaping my experience of the thing to which I am observing, even though it seems that I am separate from it. Maturana and Varela (1987) proposed a self-enclosed nervous system with only internal representations of the outside world taking place on our control panel. Maturana speaks of structural coupling, which according to Hoffman (1985) is similar to skipping rope jumping with one’s eyes closed. She says that it is as if we never actually “obtain” or “touch” the stimulus but rather we generate trajectories invisible to us that are mutually constrained whose connections show up on our panel. Objectified reality is replaced with only a social construct. We perturb and are perturbed by other systems in our shared context. Our ideas regarding the world are observer-dependant and not necessarily matched by events and objects “out there” (Boscolo, Cecchin, Hoffman, & Penn, 1987). We are however connected to the reality we experience as it is our own neurology that is providing meaning for this experiential personal reality that is contextualised in our own life history. We move from a universe to a multiverse.

In terms of psychotherapy, the person sitting in the room with you has an equally valid worldview. Attempting to negate their position by postulating right and wrong is the same as negating their life experience. Perception is a process of construction, that is, we invent the environment in which we find our self as we perceive/construct it (Becvar & Becvar, 2006). For each person, their reality is both personally true and valid. If I am taking the position of the therapist, I am included in the therapeutic conversation as I am a co-creator of this system. What comes to light is dependent on my own life history as well as the other. The perceived separation is a misnomer, as once my neurology processes this information, the information is adapted based on the unique neurological system to which the “I” arises from. This unique “I” is a product of my past lived experience amongst other factors, and I am different from you, as we have lived a different life and have inherited different genetics. Our unique life histories make us sensitive to different things with each person having a different experience and interpretation of their life. We thus should not expect each other to process information in the same way all reaching the same conclusions. New ethical challenges are presented in attempting to judge/diagnose/pathologies behaviour. What I see as “pathological” is merely a certain social construct that has defined a set of behaviours as wrong/sick. The classical role of the knowing, defining and labelling acts of a therapist are challenged as the “I” is now part of this label/diagnosis as it is punctuated by that very “I”. I am an observing meaning generating system. As Glanville states (2012, p81)

The moment we are responsible for how we understand, we become responsible for what we understand and how we act. This means that cybernetics, at least in its second order form, is inherently involved with ethics. Cyberneticians are practitioners of ethics, as well as (as Warren McCulloch liked to say) experimental epistemologists. It also raises the significance of “listening”, as opposed to “talking”—both terms used in a metaphorical sense not limited to the auditory. Implicit in this is the need to find a way of enacting this different view, of doing it rather than just talking about it. We need to learn to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The way of acting in such a cybernetic world is very difficult, involving changes in habits, which is always challenging.

Deconstructing the therapist and the idea of a causal agent
Defining this problematic term, the common explanations given by the Merriam Webster Dictionary (2013) and the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (2001) are as follows:
– A person trained in methods of treatment and rehabilitation other than the use of drugs or surgery.
– A generic label for any individual in and practising the treatment of disease or other abnormal conditions.
These definitions are problematic as they both espouse the therapist as being an expert or specialist. The second definition includes a label of normalcy versus pathology. In the therapeutic encounter, if we share this space and our knowledge is relative, who is the expert? Surely the client is the expert in their own life, heck they lived it, not me! From a cybernetic perspective, we call into question the expert status of the professional. When the therapist speaks, he/she is disclosing their own way of seeing the world and the meaning they have attached to it. Each person’s reality makes sense and has a fit owing to the structural coupling and non-purposeful drift that has taken place in their life. Thus, attempting to negate one’s position without having lived their life and seeing how these behaviours fit, could be problematic. For example, Beverly James (1989) describes cases of traumatised children and in particular, sexually abused children. In several of these cases therapists had been involved in trying to help, yet no progress was made. According to James (1989), many clinicians focus on the immediate trauma and overlook the losses to which the child may be facing. A child whose parent sexually abused him/her may not only have the difficulty of coming to terms with the event, but also has the added pressure of sustaining a loss. The loss of attention from the caregiver, be it wrongful attention, is still a loss. A child who was involved in a cult may have identified so strongly with the group that he/she is left feeling empty as he/she has sustained a loss of a large part of his/her life. Children who had many of their early developmental needs met through sexual activity as well as children who were subjected to sexual abuse often become eroticised. The child may have been rewarded for inappropriate sexual behaviour and may have learned that their value is present only as a sexual object possibly because of the disproportionate attention that he/she received from an adult. The child may have enjoyed the extra attention from an adult as most children do like it when adults make a fuss of them, and thus there could equally be guilt feelings owing to this enjoyment. A therapist who takes the stance of labelling the abuse and/or the abusive relationship as “bad” or “wrong” may equally be labelling the child, as the child was part of this abuse system, even though it was the adult who initiated this type of socialisation. Thus, labelling the behaviours may isolate the child from the therapist where the child believes that they too are being seen as a bad person. The labels chosen in this context can be problematic and even subtle labels may be misunderstood. Labelling the system is merely the observer reflecting their own value system onto the thing to which they are observing. Pathology is and consists of labels. People look for labels when they are confused, and thus it is very easy to go label shopping and fall in the trap of labelling behaviour. Boscolo et al (1987) wrote:

Once labelling has been accepted by the family, then all behaviours are related to the labelling …I am always impressed by the power of labelling: “You are cooperative”; “You are good”; “You are bad”. It is like being cast in a role in a play and never being able to get out of it. If you say “I get along with my son, we have fun together,” that’s relational. But if you say “My daughter is intelligent,” you use words to kill the relationship. To unstick that kind of system, you must bring in a process that helps people get away from labels—not only negative ones, but positive ones too (p44).
Therapy is seen as a linguistic event that takes place in a “therapeutic conversation” between equals. This conversation is where a mutual search and exploration takes place. An exchange of ideas in a context where new meanings are continuously manifesting towards the ‘dis-solving’ of problems (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). As Glanville put it (2012, p81) “Conversation allows, even requires, that each of us build our own meanings and understandings”. Questions or comments that begin with phrases like; “could it be that?” or “what if?” immolate or reduces the professional persona and enhances participation and invention (Hoffman, 1992). Genuine interest in an unknowing approach that is free from a Socratic dialogue.
Change occurs with the creation of new narrations of current meanings. Change is synonymous with the genesis of a greater context for new behaviour. New meanings derive from a different narrative of a previously held meaning. Instead of asking questions about why things are the way they are, more time can be spent on what and how things regulate themselves. This departs from mainstream psychology where aetiology is an important aspect of therapy. Causality is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it is in the eye of the beholder and linked to one’s own epistemology. We find different cultures defining similar phenomena in different ways. For example, In South Africa, in the Xhosa culture, many people believe bewitchment as a cause of psychotic behaviour, termed amafufunyane (Lund & Swartz, 1998). While many of the symptoms are similar to schizophrenia, those understanding their psychotic episodes as amafufunyane believe the cause to be the consequence of hated others arising within a context of hostile and envious familial and social relations (Ivey & Myers, 2008, p54). Secondly, defining the cause for certain behaviours sets itself up to be an unending endeavour, as we can continuously locate new causes and gain new insights as new information presents itself. Knowing the apparent “why” something is the way it is, does not necessarily solve the problem. For example, if my motor engine overheats as the nylon belt for the water pump snapped, the “why” it overheats is not the solution to solve the “how” to stop it from overheating. The answers to the why and how are different. A plausible answer to the why is based on the build-up of internal heating of the cylinder block due to the controlled explosion in the engine, but an equally valid answer could be that there is no movement of water to cool the side walls of the cylinder block. The how of solving this rests on an explanation of how to install a new belt, and has little to do with the internal heating mechanism of a cylinder block. Steve De Shazer (1988, 1991) in his solution-focused therapy believes that there is no necessary relationship between problems and their solutions. Gathering extensive information about a problem is not a prerequisite for change to occur. Thus, if knowing and understanding are less important, so is searching for the “correct” solution when there may be multiple solutions available as each person is unique. The only important and possible way to interpret a word is according to how the client uses it and contextualises it into conversation. The concepts of equipotentiality and equifinality provide a basis for an example. Equipotentiality describes the ability to begin from a common starting point but have different end points. There are many individuals who were subjected to the conditions that Nelson Mandela was born into during the Apartheid times in South Africa, yet the end points for each person were not the same. For example, a child who has been subjected to severe trauma from a parent may re-enact the same behaviour to their offspring, while another child who was also subjected to similar parenting may not exhibit any of these behaviours and could be loving and caring. Equifinality is the inverse principle whereby differing starting points may lead to the same end point. A teenager who endured a rape may have sexuality problems in later relationships, while a teenager who has not endured any sexually related incidents may too have sexuality problems in adulthood. There are no rules, only observations. This can free a person of the caged thinking “you are like this because you were born poor” or “I am an angry person because I was bullied as a child”. Lastly, the notion of a single cause is also problematic. Cook (1977, p12) states that the function of 7th century Chinese Hua-Yen philosophy is to destroy the idea of there being a single cause. He states that “the cause, then, in its identity with other causes, is able to create the result totally out of its ability to be a cause, and as such does not differ from any other cause” (Cook, 1977, p67). A pure cause would be itself its own essence without the need for any pre-occurring links to other parts. However, on the examination on any cause, there can be seen a cooperation of other parts for this supposed cause to take the place as the single causal feature. For the cause to be defined as such, it needs to be contextualised by other parts. In the same way a masochist needs a sadist to complete the definition, a cause needs the help of other parts so that it can fulfil this role of the cause.

Moving from either/or to both/and
Students are often expected to take a single approach in therapy and use that as their mainstay. Universities bed themselves in a paradigm, the medical paradigm or the psychodynamic one and so forth. From the feedback which I receive from my website, I have concluded that many people learning cybernetic psychology are attempting the same thing, whether it be a mainstream approach or even cybernetic therapy and then presenting the same question: “How do I help the client from this perspective, where do I start?” Opening this up, why limit the scope of options, as Foerster (2003, p227) teaches “act always so as to increase the number of choices”. Ethics rests in choices. We have viable options in the context of our goals and our ethics. Cybernetics of cybernetics challenges us to observe our observing. I must ask myself, “Can I take responsibility for my choices?” Have I been able to co-create a dialogue where change can take place in the therapy setting? Can our conversations enable individuals to design more of their own choices? To date the most empirically tested mainstream therapy is Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which has one of the best long-term success rates in dealing with psychological problems (Barlow & Durand, 2005; Lambert & Garfield, 2004), including success in treating depression that has a better prognosis than antidepressants (Butler et.al, 2005). The reason for this quick review of CBT is not to advocate it as the best option, but to re-phrase the earlier question. Instead of “How can I help the client from this perspective?” let me use “what tools are available for me to use, from any perspective?” Cybernetic thinking is more about a way of seeing the world rather than a specific method of dealing with problems. There are many successful ways of using many different tools, as an artisan would agree. Thus, I can use valuable therapies but still have a cybernetic ethic. There are many cybernetic therapy options but this can be challenging for someone who is new to cybernetic thinking. Jumping into a scenario like Tom Anderson’s reflecting team approach may be too daunting for someone who is still new to cybernetic psychology. However, a cybernetic approach can be taken in even the most seemingly mundane activity. For example, taking notes is often important in the therapeutic conversation; however, it can create an unintentional separation. Reminding the client, as therapists do, that the client can see the notes is not the same as sharing them openly in the here and now with the client. If we are co-creating the conversation then lets co-create the notes and you the client are part of this so help me with choosing the best words that suit you. We can use a white board and work on the notes together and when the session is over, a photo can be taken, which can be emailed to the client and used as a tool in the therapy process. The evolution of the notes could be seen as a progress chart or review heuristic if the client wishes.
Being comfortable and at ease without trying to do the “right thing” can help. Mastering cybernetics is a myth. There is a difference between repetition and recursion. It may be true that practiced cyberneticists have learned reliable or stable ways of conversing, but this should not be translated to “manualisation”. Reflexive thinking is part of the therapy and is equally valid for the so called therapist, or to use a more adept term, the change agent (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974).

Marrying cybernetics into a Westernised world has its challenges. Ethics has become a catch word in many disciplines. If we look at the outcomes, cybernetic psychology should not be seen as a remote option or something that was once popular in the past. The outcomes of cybernetic psychology could also be used to meet the demands of evidence based psychology, bar the modelling aspects. Evaluating, whether the therapeutic conversation is of purpose to the client is part of a cybernetic ethic. Moving even beyond this to an ethic of owning one’s own epistemology and how this is part of the therapeutic conversation is uncommon in most other therapies. Counselling psychology fathered by Carl Rogers was set to become the most popular therapy. He posited that the counsellor should step into the client’s shoes attempting to see things from the perspective of the other (Rogers, 1980). His teachings have been modelled and formulated into an almost “to-do” list for prospective counsellors. The problem is that in his most prolific writings, he speaks more about how he was present in the here and now, rather than focusing on tricks on how to listen empathetically. It is the realness of the here and now and the spontaneous relational conversing including personal meanings that I believe he was referring to. His book is even titled “A way of being”. Glanville reminds us, cybernetics is something that is lived (in the sense of a verb), not just talked about (2012, p84). Further, cybernetics is especially challenging if one is deliberately trying to have a cybernetic outlook during therapy. Cybernetic therapy works when one is the thing they attempt to be. For example, I cannot try and be a Buddhist and then a Muslim and then later a Mormon. It is even worse to portray a persona that I do not readily believe or understand. It is ethically easier to just be me and hopefully I have been living a cybernetic life that cybernetic thinking comes naturally to me where I am continuously observing my observations in a shared world. Now I at least am closer to an authentic therapeutic encounter. No impersonators allowed!

copyright. P.Baron 2014

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