Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

When Ecology Is Unecological

Dr Richard Bolstad

The Experiment That Explains Psychotherapy Theory

In the 1970s, Professor Alex Bavelas of Massachusetts Institute of Technology completed an intriguing series of experiments. Two subjects are in separate rooms studying photos of human cells. They have been told that some of these cells are healthy and some are sick. Each time a photo is shown they either press the "healthy" button or the "sick" button, and two signal lights tell them whether their guess was "right" or "wrong". The first subject gets correct feedback, and within half an hour he is able to guess correctly 80% of the time. The second subject, unknown to him, is getting almost random feedback, because he is getting the feedback from the first person's guesses. There is, therefore, no way the second person can find out what identifies healthy cells. However, this does not stop the second person from developing a theory and believing that they are learning to distinguish sick from healthy cells. Their theory is necessarily convoluted: eg "a cell is sick if it has this shape, unless it has this colour or two of these patterns" and so on. This second theory is of course a complete delusion. It has no basis in reality whatsoever.

After half an hour, the two subjects have a tea break, and invariably, they chat about the experiment and share ideas. The first person has worked out the simple distinctions that enable one to see which cells are sick and which are healthy most of the time. The second person also has a theory about how to tell healthy from sick, and it is a very complex one. Every time the experiment is run, the first person now becomes convinced that they have been naive. The second person's theory seems absolutely brilliant to them. It has so many subtle nuances that they never noticed. They immediately accept it as true. When the two subjects go back to their experiment, the first person now performs as badly as the second person. They have been convinced by the delusions. Bavelas points out that once someone has a theory about what is going on, contradictory evidence does not actually cause them to abandon their theory; it causes them to elaborate that theory with more and more complex provisos. Furthermore, people are actually attracted to more complex, elaborate theories; they think they are somehow intrinsically more intelligent.

Paul Watzlawick quotes Gregory Bateson's comment about such experiments. Bateson was interested in schizophrenia. He said that the schizophrenic would be the person who claimed "These buttons don't mean anything. Someone in the other room switches the light whenever he feels like it (Watzlawick, 1976, p 48-54) Watzlawick sites an important example of this research in real life. Freudian psychotherapists believed that their elaborate method of dealing with phobias, involving perhaps ten years of psychotherapy, was the correct approach, and explained that phobias had a very complex inner structure involving repressed childhood "Oedipal" fears of castration. In the 1960s, behaviour therapists showed that they could cure phobias in a few weeks using conditioning processes. Freudian psychoanalyst Leon Salzman explained that it was obvious that the behaviour therapist "defines the condition in a way that is acceptable only to conditioning theorists and does not fulfil the criteria of the psychiatric definition of this disorder. Therefore, his statements should not apply to phobias, but to some other condition." Since a phobia is defined as an oedipal fear, Salzman says, defining it as a simple anchored response means that some other condition is being treated. On the other hand, since a phobia represents repressed childhood fear by definition, then only psychoanalysis of that childhood fear can relieve it.

Applying The Experiment To NLP

Each time a new method of helping people change emerges, it tends to have a relatively simple explanation for what is happening with human beings. This explanation works some of the time. When it does not work, however, the practitioners do not abandon it, they elaborate it. They require students to spend more time studying it, they insist that there are many factors which only a very advanced practitioner can detect that need to be considered

We know, for example, that 80% of individuals suffering major depression will "spontaneously" cease to be depressed in between 4-10 months (Yapko, 1992, p 16). People normally find their own way out of depression. This also means that if any type of "assistance" continues for ten months it will seem to have solved the problem in 80% of cases. A new form of psychotherapy that involves chanting the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" once a day will cure 80% of depressed people over the first ten months. But the practitioner of "Humpty Dumpty" therapy won't stop there. Over the next few years they will go on to elaborate the theory for those 20% who do not recover. Other nursery rhymes may be needed for more advanced cases. What they will not do is abandon their basic model. Especially, it is not likely to occur to them that the results they are seeing may (as in the case of the second person in the experiment above), be entirely random.

Sometimes, stuff just happens. That possibility seems never to occur to the second person in Bavelas' experiment. It occurs only to the schizophrenic in Bateson's hypothesis. Our brains are not built for accepting randomness, because in evolutionary terms, it is always smarter to check in case there was a pattern and a reason for an event. Take a simple example. Imagine you are in a training group of 24 people. Then you discover something extraordinary: one of the people in the group has the same birthday as you. Wow! What are the chances! Well, actually the chances that someone in a group of 24 people has the same birthday as someone else are over 50% (Taleb, 2007, p 159). That is to say, it's normal. It doesn't mean that people with that star sign are attracted to this group, it doesn't mean that the two people are destined to be together... it just means the universe is working as usual.

How NLP Lost Its Way In The Ecology Jungle

NLP as a model of changework emerged out of the study of Fritz Perls, Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir (at least in the usual mythology of its beginning). Most NLP Practitioners know something of the contributions of Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson to NLP. Perls is a bit of a mystery though. By all accounts from people who knew him, he was a fairly difficult person to know. But his approach to psychotherapy (Gestalt) contains several very important distinctions, and the clarity of these distinctions has gradually been lost in NLP. I say that as a psychotherapist who began my psychotherapeutic career, like Steve and Connirae Andreas, like Richard Bandler, as a Gestalt therapist. I'll quote from a book written by Fritz Perls, and edited by Steve Andreas under his old name (John O. Stevens). The book is called Gestalt Therapy Verbatim.

Fritz Perls was of the opinion that the whole notion of the "subconscious" or "unconscious" mind was unhelpful, in much the same way that he considered theories about the past to be unhelpful. These notions attempt to explain what is happening at this moment by saying that it is caused by something else. They answer the question "Why?" by reference to something else. Perls' idea was that if you really notice what is happening in this moment and how it is happening, in your immediate awareness, then you have everything that is necessary to understand and respond to it. After all, if there really exists an unconscious mind or a past trauma, but it has no effect on how we experience life in this moment now, then it is not relevant to how we live right now. If it has an effect, then we can just as easily study how the events are occurring right now, which give us reliable evidence of what actually exists. Perls says "The great error of psychoanalysis is in assuming that the memory is reality. All the so-called traumata, which are supposed to be the root of the neurosis, are an invention of the patient to save his self esteem.... If you ask how, you look at the structure, you see what's going on now, a deeper understanding of the process. The how is all we need to understand how we or the world functions....I know you want to ask why, like every child, like every immature person asks why, to get rationalisation or explanation. But the why at best leads to clever explanation, but never to an understanding. Why and because are dirty words in Gestalt Therapy.... We are what we are. These are the two legs upon which Gestalt Therapy walks: now and how." (Perls, 1969, p 43-44).

A core element of the radical approach of NLP at the start was this focus on "how" things happen in the mind, rather than on "why". Bandler and Grinder (1979, p 7) say in one of their first books, "We call ourselves modellers. What we essentially do is to pay very little attention to what people say they do and a lot of attention to what they do. And then we build a model of what they do. We are not psychologists, and we are also not theologians or theoreticians. We have no idea about the "real" nature of things, and we're not particularly interested in what's "true". The function of modelling is to arrive at descriptions which are useful." Their attitude to the unconscious was close to Perls', and they urged "Don't get caught by the words "conscious" and "unconscious". They are not real. They are just a way of describing events that is useful in the context called therapeutic change." (1979, p 37).

However, in the same book, Bandler and Grinder introduce the Six Step Reframe, their most profound change pattern at that time, and they explain the idea of ecology. They say (1979, p 149) "The ecological check is very important. Many of you have done elegant work, and the client is congruent in your office. When he leaves, another part of him emerges which has concerns that are contextually bound. When he gets home, suddenly he doesn't have access to what he had in your office or in the group. There are other parts of him that know that if he goes home and simply changes in the way that he was going to change, he would lose the friendship of this person, or blow that relationship, or something like that. ... Regression to previous behaviour isn't a signal of failure, it's a signal of incompetency, and you need to go back and fix it."

And here we have the source of decades of anguish by NLP practitioners. "Why am I so incompetent?" "Why did the change not work?" "Why did the problem come back?" "What did I do wrong?" "What did we not discover yet that is unconsciously blocking success?" "What is the hidden positive intention of this behaviour?"... And here we are, back with Freud, elaborating and re-elaborating our theory of "why" the person is not healthy and what else we need to do to fix them. The client has an addiction, for example, and despite all the Time Line processes, all the Parts Integrations, all the Reframings, all the Core Transformations... it comes back. Maybe we need an even more elaborate process? Maybe we need an even more elaborate theory about which processes to use in which situations? Maybe we need something more powerful than NLP? This, to quote Perls, is just bullshit. In what goes on in the person's mind and body between the time they are in your office and the time when the "problem" recurs, in the "how", is the answer to what needs to change. If the door needs shutting, all the analysis of the secret reasons why the person is leaving it open are a waste of time. They need to shut the door. In shutting it, everything that they do to avoid shutting it will be revealed. Obsessing about "ecology" is just one more distraction from the reality of how they do what they do.

A really good example is the treatment of depression. In Sigmund Freud's view (1953), depression results from a fantasised or actual loss of an individual towards whom the patient experienced ambivalent feelings (such as the mother). To deal with the loss, the patient internalises an aspect of that individual. However, the anger at that person now becomes directed towards the part of the self identified with that individual, leading to self-criticism and depression. Of course, NLP is more "positive" and we might restate this in a much more encouraging way. Maybe we could say that depression occurs when a person has a parts conflict where part of them is angry, with the positive intention of self protection, and therefore being safe; and part of them is avoidant, with the positive intention of not being hurt and therefore being happy. And of course, when other people respond with empathy, that provides an ecology issue that needs dealing with before we can integrate the parts in the conflict fully. And when the person doesn't respond even to this, well, as John and Richard said, that just shows that we are incompetent and have missed some other factor. Whether you call this psychoanalysis or NLP, it sounds a lot like the elaborate theory of the person who gets random results when they are trying to identify healthy cells.

In 2010, New Zealand NLP Practitioner Des Shinnick developed a method for treating depression in one session. It doesn't require the person to explore their ambivalence towards their mother, or resolve all the ecology issues about their depression; just to do some very specific things differently, looking in a different direction and shifting their attention to different aspects of their experience, in an ongoing way, through the day. Weirdly, this is successful enough so that a clinical trial of the method is being done by medical practitioners and so far the method is successful in over 80% of cases, within a few days of the process being done!!! In such a situation, it is clearly unecological to waste the client's time discussing ecology issues.

A Better Frame Than Ecology?

What do we do when someone doesn't change in the way we anticipate in NLP, for example they do the NLP trauma/phobia process and after a couple of days they start to panic about mice again? The ecology model says that we go back and check what the positive intention of the person recreating the problem might be and resolve that issue. This presupposes that there is a particular reason why this change did not work. However, most NLP Practitioners actually working with clients will have noticed that some clients can use NLP processes and change almost anything, while others cannot seem to change anything at all in a lasting way. This phenomenon of the client who can't change anything is much more common than the one presupposed by the ecology model -- the client who can change other things, but who has an ecology issue about changing this particular thing. Using the language of ecology, we might suspect that the person who can't change anything has an ecology issue that prevents them from experiencing any major psychological changes. Those of you who have studied logic will remember that once a theory explains everything, it risks explaining nothing in particular. If all of our problems are "ecology" problems, then "ecology" is just another word for "problems". In this case, if ecology explains why a person can't change anything, then everything we do will seem to be "incompetent".

NLP Practitioner Andy Austin has a different way of explaining this challenge. Some people, he says, think about all life situations in a way that creates and sustains problems. The details of the problem or issue itself are not really what stops them from changing. What stops them from changing is not some hidden higher positive intention or some misguided "part" of their mind. It is just a way of thinking that doesn't work. To understand his model you need to get over another NLP Practitioners' common accidental presupposition -- the presupposition that any style of thinking is as good as any other. This is the notion that any "metaprogram" or personality style is OK and we just need to find out how to utilise it. Shelle Rose Charvet sums up this common NLP idea when she says "There are no good or bad patterns to have. You can judge the appropriateness of each pattern only in the Context of the activity that needs to be done." (Charvet, p 13).

The work of Martin Seligman, researching the structure of depression, show why this is true but often irrelevant (some thinking styles are useful only in very, very limited contexts, for very, very limited outcomes). Take the example of depression. The very thinking styles that cause depression are used by the depressed person to convince themselves that they cannot or should not change. In fact, depression could be defined as the a style of thinking that assumes that a person cannot or should not change! Professor of Psychology Dr Martin Seligman calls this belief a "permanent, pervasive explanatory style" or "learned pessimism" (1991, p 40-48). One important thing to understand about life, before we move on to considering the learned pessimism style, is that life is cyclical. That is to say, challenges happen every so often. Rejection, disappointment, loss, and embarrassment do occur in any life. When they do, a person with a "learned pessimism" style of thinking will get depressed.

In one of Seligman's studies (1997, p 78-79), he followed a group of 400 school students through several years of their life. Those who started out with a pessimistic style were the ones who, when an event like a divorce happened, were likely to get depressed. The divorce (ie the life event) did not cause this depression by itself, and those with an optimistic style rebounded quickly from such events. What caused depression was the combination of painful life events plus a style of thinking. Because such events happen every so often, the person will appear to have a cyclical mood problem. In fact, it is not depression that is cyclical; it is life. Believing in "the cyclical nature of depression" is part of the permanent pervasive explanatory style of certain psychiatrists (Yapko, 1992, p 124). This style itself is part of the cause of depression. The person with depression is using a metaprogram that works only when things are going well. As soon as things are not going well, this style of thinking reveals a major flaw -- it prevents them getting to feel any better.

Patterns of Chronicity

The thinking styles that obstruct change (any change, in depression and in other challenges such as anxiety) are of course ones that were learned earlier in a person's life. The simplest way to deal with them is to show the person how they are operating and have them practice an alternative. It's not very glamorous compared to ten years of psychotherapy, but it's a lot cheaper. Andy Austin lists several of these "patterns of chronicity" and here they are summarised as a reminder. This is an NLP summary of the sub-patterns of a pessimistic thinking style. In each case, I will suggest a positive intention of the pattern -- not so you can do parts integration, Core Transformation (TM) or Time Line Therapy (TM) on that intention, but simply to remind us that the person who doesn't change is not trying to be "resistant". They just don't realise what they need to do differently.

The Big "What If..." Question. "Yes, but, what if... which means...(an impossible to manage scenario)?" The positive intention of negative "What if?" questions is to attempt to anticipate and find solutions to future challenges, but by running it on impossible scenarios, the person is locked in panic. Happy people don't spend all day asking "What if I die horribly?", they ask what the most useful response would be to the situation they are in, now.

The Big "Why...?" Question. "Why did this happen to me?" The positive intention of past-related "Why?" questions is to find new meanings, but the person rejects each possible future-oriented meaning and keeps searching as if trying to find a meaning which can change the traumatic event or recreate the past. This is the most common of the Patterns of Chronicity to be encouraged by an over-zealous application of the Ecology model. Happy people are more interested in how to create the life they want than in why it hasn't happened yet.

The Big Maybe Response. When asked to scale their current experience of an emotion, or give any report on their internal experience, the person says they are not sure, or prefaces their answer with "Maybe". The positive intention of "Maybe" responses is to avoid mistakes such as false hope, but by refusing to commit to any specific data, the person can never measure change and can never experience success. Happy people notice evidence of success; they celebrate it.

Testing for Existence of The Problem Rather Than Testing for Change. Even though 99% improvement might be made, if the person with chronicity is able to locate just 1% of the problem existing, this will generally be seen as representative of 100% of the problem existing. The positive intention of "Can I still do it?" responses is to detect and respond to danger effectively, but by failing to notice improvement the person continuously reinstalls the entire problem. Again, happy people notice evidence of success; they celebrate it.

Negative Nominalisations. The person talks about their traumatic responses as if they were "things" rather than actions. "I have Trauma", "I have PTSD", "I have a Wounded Inner Child", "I have a Clinical Depression." The positive intention of Negative Nominalisations is to explain what is happening by labelling it, but the result is that the processes being discussed seem permanent, damaged and even become personified as malevolent, and so are unable to be simply changed. Happy people think about how they are behaving (internally and externally) as actions that can be changed if they want to get different results.

Being "At Effect" rather than "Being At Cause". By being "at effect" the person experiences emotional problems happening to them, rather than being something that happens by them. A person "at effect" will seek treatment rather than seek change. Questions such as "Will this work for me?" or statements such as "It didn't work for me." And "It worked for a day and then the problem came back." Presuppose that the problem and the NLP process are 100% responsible and the person themselves is 0% responsible for their own results. The positive intention of "At Effect" responses is to explain what is happening without being at fault, but by not allowing for the possibility of their responses affecting their internal experience, the person makes it impossible to change their experience. Again, happy people think about how they are behaving (internally and externally) as action that can be changed to get different results.

Three Stage Abreaction Process. The person has a "nocebo" (I will not please; the opposite of placebo) response to NLP processes where they have an "uncontrollable" negative response to all interventions designed to actually help them change, although they permit interventions which maintain their problem. The positive intention of "Abreaction" responses is to protect the person from feared results of the change process, but it blocks all change.
Stage 1. Signal (Implied Threat of Emotion) eg "This is making me feel ill."
Stage 2. Increased Amplitude of Signal (direct Threat of Emotion) eg "Now I really feel sick. Your process is harming me. Stop or I will start screaming!"
Stage 3. Abreaction (Punishment of the Practitioner) eg vomiting, convulsing, running out of the room screaming, uncontrollable crying.
Nocebo responses often disappear once the person consciously realises what is happening, in just the same way that other "Hysterical" or "Dissociated Somatiform" responses such as mysterious psychogenic paralysis do - which is why we see fewer of these symptoms in Psychiatry nowdays (people know the psychological explanation and therefore these symptoms no longer produce the supportive response of sympathetic tolerance from others). Happy people don't tend to produce strong nocebo responses. In the research, happy people are, if anything, a little less realistic than depressed people: they expect good things to happen, and this snowballs into a placebo response by their body.

Recovery From Ecology Thinking

The Ecology Frame, while sometimes very useful, when overused encourages a kind of magical thinking: the idea that I don't have to change what I'm doing because I can just resolve the mysterious hidden unconscious "ecology" issue, and then my unconscious mind will invent new ways of thinking and acting, and that will save me having to do anything. I remember at one training when someone asked how to lose weight. A fitness expert at the course announced "Eat less and exercise more." And the questioner replied "No; I want to know the NLP way of losing weight, without having to do anything." Actually, the aim of NLP is to change what you do, so you get different results. The aim is not that you can carry on doing the same things that cause the problem and somehow get magically better results. Hoping that you can get better results without having to change what you do is a definition, remember, of insanity. That includes hoping that you can keep doing the same things because your unconscious mind (or your fairy godmother, or your mummy) will make it all better for you. If ecology interventions help you to change what you do, they will be useful. If they encourage you to abdicate responsibility and believe that some mysterious "ecology" issue is obstructing you, then they are harmful. Sometimes there is no other way that works: it is the most efficient thing to do what NLP was originally doing -- finding out how successful people do it and practicing doing what they do until it happens automatically.