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Presidential Blog

Beyond binary thinking: making sense of our place in the world

18 January 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

One of the fascinating aspects of psychology is how it sits at the interface not only of the humanities, science and medicine, but also of the person and the world.

The complex relationship between individuals and our social world has been discussed in science and philosophy for millennia. And it’s been reflected in some responses on social media to blogs and news items published by the British Psychological Society over the past week. 

One of the fascinating aspects of psychology is how it sits at the interface not only of the humanities, science and medicine, but also of the person and the world.

But some recent comments rather suggest that some people resolve this complexity into binary choices. For example, some colleagues appear to see a choice between social (our psychological wellbeing as a consequence of circumstances), and psychological (for example, the focus on thinking styles inherent to CBT) accounts of emotional distress. 

When I commented last week the idea that our wellbeing at work is largely determined by social and environmental issues, this was contrasted by some colleagues both with my comments about CBT the week before, and also with my own published research work.

The arguments seemed almost to be that an appreciation of social factors was incompatible with an emphasis on cognition. This binary thinking reflects similar – mistaken, in my opinion – views that set ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ in opposition.

That doesn’t fit with my understanding of the role of psychology as the mediator of the impact of biological and environmental factors, and the means by which we learn to interpret and engage with the world. I don't have to choose between the three elements of the biopsychosocial model, I see them in elegant, dynamic, synchrony.

An understanding of this complex interactive dance between nature and nurture seems to me to be the essence of a psychological perspective in respect to our role as practitioners.

We can recognise critical perspectives in the way CBT has evolved without being ignorant or rejecting of the value of the approach. We can acknowledge the impact of negative life events and still appreciate the importance of our appraisal of these events. And we can recognise that, across the specialisms of psychology, there is value both in our distinctiveness and in our shared underpinning application of psychological science.

The promotion of a psychological perspective should absolutely not involve pitting one branch of psychology against another.

I can (somewhat in parody) imagine being posed the following questions:

  • Are biological, social or psychological factors key to our wellbeing?
  • Is our wellbeing determined by events or our interpretation of and response to events?
  • Are there strengths to, or flaws in, the ethos and practice of CBT?
  • Can educational, counselling, clinical, forensic, health and occupational psychologists contribute to the wellbeing of individuals and groups across learning, health, criminal justice and community settings? 

If I were asked each of those questions, the answer would be "yes".

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