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3.6 Psychological bias

1. Appropriation by institutions

The social dimensions of human development described above are not widely accepted, although the limitations of economic development and structural adjustment are increasing sensitivity to them. But even this social sensitivity filters out certain dimensions considered essential by others, or at least leaves the question of their presence or absence a matter of ambiguity, permitting the more subtle features to be expediently dropped at the first hint of ever-present controversy. Whilst each such interpretation seems to contain the essential key words, the meanings attached to them are not clarified.

What, for example, does the World Health Organization mean by "human potential", or the International Labour Organisation by "worker fulfilment", or UNESCO by "development of personality" or UNDP by "self-fulfilment"? Under the normal political and financial pressures on programme priorities:

  • the promotion of positive psychological health must of necessity be limited to the elimination of physical disease by WHO;
  • the promotion of worker fulfilment must be limited to the reduction of unemployment by ILO;
  • the development of personality to the inculcation of reading / writing / arithmetic by UNESCO; and
  • the promotion of individual self-fulfilment by UNDP must be limited to the ability of the individual to express himself through the acquisition of a more individualistic range of products.
The same situation must prevail in the equivalent national agencies. To what extent are such terms appropriated by institutions precisely in order to encourage people to believe that more is intended than is in fact planned in practice ?

The 1990 Human Development Report of UNDP, noted above, is also admirably ambiguous in its attempt to define human development. In its human development index "Longevity and knowledge refer to the formation of human capabilities, and income is a proxy measure for the choices people have in putting their capabilities to use." It is not difficult to see how this understanding of human development lends itself readily to a limited focus on expanding the choice of consumer products and services as embodying an ever greater sense of well-being. Many will favour this interpretation because of the way in which it reinforces existing policies. But such a definition could possibly also be interpreted in terms of expanding the range of those inner choices which enable people to function with greater insight (through altered modes of awareness), effectively increasing their sense of personal fulfilment (their "psychic income") and prolonging their active lives. There is no implication in the report that this aspect will be explored, whether or not this is done for rhetorical purposes.

2. Avoidance of significant dimensions

The report of the United Nations University project, cited in a previous note, is remarkable for the skilful manner in which it avoids any discussion of the forms of human development with which people can and do identify. These are dismissed as "individual development" in contrast to "human-centred" social development that concentrates on the relationships between people. This supposedly corrects the over-emphasis on individualistic development, despite the fact that the most elaborate explorations of individual development derive from eastern cultures in which non-individualistic social relations prevail. Similarly the Bernard van Leer Foundation's Project on Human Potential is remarkable for the manner in which it avoids reference to human potential as experienced by the "developee" in favour of discussion of the issues raised for the "developer", whether parent, educator or planner. Given the immense interest in altered states of consciousness by young people, as indicated by the increasing dimensions of the drug problem, some reference to the relationship of such altered states to human potential would seem appropriate. In part such avoidance may simply be due to recognition of the inability of the mainstream psycho-social disciplines to respond effectively to such dimensions.

It would seem that official bodies are embarrassed by matters which touch upon the nature of human potential and the stages and processes in the psychological development of the adult human being with which people themselves identify. This is particularly so at a time when even the social element is being excised from the concept of development, as in the debate within the United Nations on the establishment of a New International Economic Order. Many would argue that the subtler concepts of human development are a private subjective luxury that must be ignored until the basic physical needs of every human being are satisfied. Or, as the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse argues: "The traditional border-lines between psychology on the one side and political and social philosophy on the other have been made obsolete by the condition of man in the present era: formerly autonomous and identifiable psychical processes are being absorbed by the function of the individual in the state - by his public existence. Psychological problems therefore turn into political problems: private disorder reflects more directly than before the disorder of the whole, and the cure of personal disorder depends more directly than before on the cure of the general disorder."

3. Psychological maturity and social change

The Constitution of UNESCO states, in the oft-quoted phrase: "...that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed...a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world..."

But such arguments over-simplify the situation faced by humankind in developed or developing countries. Unless the human beings - whether ordinary voters or members of privileged elites (with control over power and resources) are themselves exceptionally mature and well-integrated individuals, they will be insensitive to the needs and concerns of all those who may benefit or suffer from their decisions. Hitler is only the most obvious example; he is neither an isolated case, nor the most recent. Less extreme examples are numerous at all levels of society. Neither this well-researched fact, nor the meaning and degrees of maturity and of personality integration, can currently be made the subject of discussion within official bodies - where examples of immaturity are a matter of corridor gossip, even within the leadership of intergovernmental organizations. There would seem to be a myth that the good of society as it is defined by democratic and political processes is unaffected by the degree of integration of the key personalities and by the psychological maturity of the voters themselves. These factors are only incidentally related to formal education and to physical health.

There is increasing recognition of some form of hierarchy of needs, from the most basic survival needs to those associated with self-realization. In neglecting the subtler needs, policy-makers easily forget that it is only through the cultivation of such subtler needs that people (including policy-makers and voters) come to recognize the value of responding to the basic needs of others.

4. Missing essential factors

The importance of these points, and of the focus on the more subtle aspects of human development, is illustrated by the following:

(a) Belief and personality systems: In reporting on an investigation into the nature of belief systems and personality systems, Milton Rokeach (18) states: "To say that a person is dogmatic or that his belief system is closed is to say something about the way he believes and the way he thinks - not only about single issues but also about networks of issues. The closed mind even though most people cannot define it precisely, can be observed in the "practical" world of political and religious beliefs, and in the more academic world of scientific, philosophic, and humanistic thought. In both of these worlds there is conflict among men about who is right and who wrong, who is rational and who is rationalizing, and conflict over whose convictions are dogmatic and whose intellectual... The relative openness or closeness of a mind cuts across specific content; that is, it is not uniquely restricted to any one particular ideology, or religion, or philosophy, or scientific viewpoint... Is it possible to say that the extent to which a person's belief system is open or closed is a generalized state of mind which will reveal itself in his politics and religion, the way he goes about solving intellectual problems, the way he works with perceptual materials, and the way he reacts to unorthodox musical compositions?"

Further, an individual whose intellectual or belief systems are poorly integrated may harbour logically contradictory beliefs. Rokeach continues: "Orwell, in his book 1984, has more picturesquely called this "double-think". In everyday life we note many examples of "double-think": expressing an abhorrence of violence and at the same time believing that it is justifiable under certain conditions; affirming a faith in the intelligence of the common man and at the same time believing that the masses are stupid; being for democracy but also advocating a government run by an intellectual elite; believing in freedom for all, but also believing that certain groups should be restricted; believing that science makes no value judgments, but also knowing a good theory from a bad theory and a good experiment from a bad experiment." He then notes: "A person sometimes judges as "irrelevant" what may well be relevant by objective standards... Often enough, though not always, the judgment that something is irrelevant to something else points to a state of isolation between belief and disbelief systems. It is designed to ward off contradictions and, thus, to maintain intact one's own system." It is not unknown for individuals in positions of power to have closed minds harbouring contradictions in the sense used here, and in fact to have been placed in power by supporters holding similar views. There is even some recognition of what is termed psychosocial isomorphism, namely relations within a personality structure leading to formally similar relations within a social structure, and vice versa (William Eckhardt (1972), Emmanuael Todd (1983)). An extreme example being the structural equivalence between war propaganda and mental illness (William Eckhardt, 1972).

(b) Psychological change and cultural change: Commenting on the nature of psychological change and its relation to cultural change, Lawrence Kubie (1968) notes: "The fact which confronts us is that cultural change is limited by the restrictions imposed on change in individual human nature by concealed neurotic processes. At the same time there is continuous cybernetic interplay between culture and the individual, ie between the intra-psychic processes which make for fluidity or rigidity within the individual and the external processes which make for fluidity or rigidity in a culture. It would be naive to expect political and ideological liberty to give internal liberty to the individual citizen unless he had already won freedom from the internal tyranny of his own neurotic mechanisms...Therefore, insofar as man himself is neurotogenically restricted, he will restrict the freedom to change of the society in which he lives. This interplay is sometimes clearly evident, sometimes subtly concealed; but it is the heart of the solution of the problem of human progress."

(c) Transformations of man: In concluding a historical survey of the transformations which man has already undergone, Lewis Mumford (1962) notes: "The relations between world culture and the unified self are reciprocal. The very possibility of achieving a world order by other means than totalitarian enslavement and automatism rests on the plentiful creation of unified personalities, at home with every part of themselves, and so equally at home with the whole family of man, in all its magnificent diversity... In brief, one cannot create a unified world with partial, fragmentary, arrested selves which by their very nature must either produce aggressive conflict or regressive isolation. Nothing less than a concept of the whole man - and of man achieving a consciousness of the whole - is capable of doing justice to every type of personality, every mode of culture, every human potential. At this point a further transformation, so far not approached by any historic culture, may well take place."

5. Inner limits and constraints

Ervin Laszlo, who directed the Club of Rome's project on Goals for Mankind, stresses the importance of "inner limits", having noted the importance of the "outer limits" identified in many international reports (1989). "It is said that more than half the effort in solving a problem goes into identifying it. Regrettably, much current effort has been wasted: it has identified the wrong problems and identified them on the wrong scale."

He argues that it is not that the most-publicised problems are illusory: "they are real, but they are global, not national or local, and they are not the ones to which to direct our primary attention. They are outward manifestations of inner causes: the symptoms of malfunctions, not the malfunctions themselves....It is forgotten that not our world, but we human beings are the cause of our problems, and that only by redesigning our thinking and acting, not the world around us, can we solve them." He concludes that the critical but as yet generally unrecognized issue confronting mankind is that its truly decisive limits are inner, nor outer. "They are not physical limits due to the finiteness or vulnerability of this world, but psychological, cultural and, above all, political limits inner to people and societies, manifested by individual and collective mismanagement, irresponsibility and myopia."

For Laszlo "Many world problems involve outer limits, but most of them are due fundamentally to inner limits. There are hardly any world problems that cannot be traced to human agency and which could not be overcome by appropriate changes in human behaviour. The root causes even of physical and ecological problems are the inner constraints on our vision and values."

6. Psychological development

There is no lack of work on human development from a psychological perspective although very little of it is considered of relevance to the challenges confronted by the international community. Much of this work is concerned with explaining the emotional and cognitive growth of the individual and is primarily valued for any bearing that it has on human development perceived as education or training. Some of it is concerned with attitude formation and is valued for the insights it offers for mass communication efforts as an approach to education, training and opinion formation as forms of collective human development.

Psychology has tended to focus on behaviour rather than experience. For the most part it is concerned with observed behaviour rather than subjective phenomena. Furthermore, in academic psychology it has been customary to focus upon regular or 'normal' phenomena rather than those that might be described as unusual or of low frequency. This tendency to ignore or actively avoid anomalous instances continues to prevail. Those phenomena that do not readily fit psychological models are regarded as, at best, messy and inconvenient.

Psychology continues to find it difficult to clarify what is meant by a highly developed individual. A few psychologists are prepared to outline the goals of individual development in adults, as opposed to the stages of development to adulthood, for example: "From the point of view of psychology, a high level of development in personality is characterized most essentially by complexity and wholeness. There is a high degree of differentiation, a large number of different parts or features having different and specialized functions; and a high degree of integration, a state of affairs in which communication among parts is great enough so that different parts may, without losing their essential identity, become organized into larger wholes in order to serve the larger purposes of the person... The highly developed individual is always open to new experience and capable of further learning; his stability is fundamental in the sense that he can go on developing while remaining essentially himself." (Sanford Nevitt, 1970)

7. Psycho-social health and psychotherapy

There is increasing emphasis on individual health as opposed to disease, and increasing interest in psychological health and human potential, although the degree of importance attached to these changes is not always clear from official reports.

The World Health Organization in the report of a Scientific Group on Human Development and Public Health (1971) delimits human development as follows: "Human development embraces every aspect of the maturation process, including its physical, biological, psychological, and social aspects. To bring about healthy human development and to realize human potential, it is necessary to draw upon many areas of scientific knowledge and many components of the health service. Such areas as nutrition, communicable diseases, human reproduction, mental health, handicaps, and many others, together with the corresponding services, are related to human development. Many of these services have their greatest impact on development when they are employed early in the individual's life." (9)

The World Health Organization does not in fact have any definition of mental health as such. Its approach to the question is currently based on premises elaborated in a document on the "Social Dimensions of Mental Health" (1981): "Man is a thinking being; inner experience linked to interpersonal group experience - in other words, mental life - is what makes people's lives valuable. To be human is to think, feel, aspire, strive and achieve, and to be social. Promoting health therefore must not only be concerned with preserving the biological element of the human organism: it must also be concerned with enhancing mental life."

The WHO report continues: "Economic growth and social change exert significant influences on the mental life of individuals and the structure and functioning of families. When insufficient attention is given to this fact the cost of progress, in terms of diminished quality of life, may be unnecessarily high. The application of mental health knowledge could help to prevent harmful psychosocial consequences of socioeconomic change and facilitate harmonious development....Mental health skills can be used in developing positive attitudes towards community participation in health programmes. They can also help in persuading social sectors to adopt health as a motivating value for action. A mental health perspective in general health care can counter the dehumanization of medicine, and make health services more effective and less costly."

The increasing importance of psychotherapy has however been described as a stop-gap effort to fill the spiritual void left by the demise of religion. From this perspective, it has endeavoured to meet unmet metaphysical needs without recourse to mythical ideologies or magic ritual. In doing so it has ignored the assumptions that guided "soul care" in the past, adamantly believing that it bears no relation to earlier spiritual traditions and practices. (Benner, David. Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest, 1988).

In the case of psychiatry, a Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry investigated the phenomena of mystic experience in the USA. Their report explored the subtle dividing line between mystic experience and mental derangement (GAP Committee, 1976). It distinguished the various categories, stages and phases leading through to religious conversion. It also describes the different interpretations mystics put on their experience. The report did not reach any consensus, concluding that from one point of view all mystical experiences may be regarded as symptoms of mental disturbance, and from another, they may be regarded as attempts at adaptation. They were however satisfied that such phenomena were explicable in psychiatric terms. The conclusions of the report were criticized by one dissenting member (A Deikman, 1988).

8. Corporate psychological training programmes

Most work in psychology avoids the "humanistic" or "transpersonal" dimensions which, as emerging disciplines, continue to be marginalized within mainstream psychology. However there is a growing professional interest in the phenomenological quality of experience as opposed to observable behaviour. Ironically it is the interest of the business community in these dimensions, as a means of facilitating creativity and team work, that is leading to greater acceptance in practice, if not in the theory of the discipline.

Many leading companies are sending executives on management training courses which are designed to make use of new and experimental psychological techniques, some of which have been developed by quasi-religious groups. They may be described as "human potential" or "personal growth" seminars. The past decade has also seen many examples of employers investing in programmes of an experiential nature as a means of reducing stress in employees and increasing working potential, especially where creativity is a factor. The techniques may involve disorientation, demoralization, group meditation, group confession, peer group pressure, love bombing, rejection of old values, presentation of confusing doctrines, removal of privacy, time sense deprivation, uncompromising rules, sleep deprivation, chanting and singing, financial commitment, change of diet, fear, leader dependence and verbal abuse.

For many people such courses are beneficial, improving self-confidence, self-esteem and performance at work. It is for this reason that the business community is so active in exploring them. However, given that many of the techniques are experimental, the results for some can be profoundly disturbing psychologically. This is especially the case where the courses are deliberately designed to challenge ingrained, habitual modes of thought.

The existence and use of such techniques is a matter of some controversy, especially to those who are poorly informed about them and to those anxious to safeguard particular patterns of thought at all costs. Understanding is especially difficult for those who are unable to discriminate between their benefits and the abuses of religious cults and political re-education ("brainwashing"). The issues is exemplified by corporate interest in challenging executives physically to develop self-confidence and more fruitful modes of behaviour. The most dramatic example is leaping from a high bridge with elastic ropes tied around the legs. In this case the individual is called upon to face fears and take physical risks. In other cases the risks are more subtle and the changes possible more significant.

In selecting employees, especially at the highest executive level, much importance is attached to such subtle qualities as "maturity", even if psychologists have the greatest of difficulty in defining what is meant by this in theory. The same may be said for other results of human development, such as qualities like "balance" and "insight".

9. Vindication of subjectivity

A Latin American collective report on human scale development chose to include a section on the "vindication of subjectivity" in which it is argued that: "The ways in which we experience our needs, hence the quality of our lives is, ultimately, subjective. It would seem, then, that only universalizing judgement could be deemed arbitrary. An objection to this statement could well arise from the ranks of positivism. The identification which positivism establishes between the subjective and the particular, though it reveals the historical failure of absolute idealism, is a sword of Damocles for the social sciences. When the object of study is the relation between human beings and society, the universality of the subjective cannot be ignored. Any attempt to observe the life of human beings must recognize the social character of subjectivity....Yet there is great fear of the consequences of such a reflection. Economic theory is a clear example of this. From the neo-classical economists to the monetarists, the notion of preferences is used to avoid the issue of needs. This perspective reveals an acute reluctance to discuss the subjective-universal....Whereas to speak of fundamental human needs compels us to focus our attention on the subjective-universal, which renders any mechanistic approach sterile." (Human Scale Development, pp 28-9)

It is a tragic symptom of the times that subjectivity should need to be "vindicated" to those concerned with the development process. It suggests that developing countries are paying the price of an unhealthy western obsession with objectivity. There are no institutionally acceptable indications as to the nature of a healthy balance between subjectivity and objectivity.