Excursions into broader theorising

Lance Workman questions Richard Stevens on the Open University, consciousness, happiness and more.

You’ve had a varied career – from directing TV programmes, to helping to set up the Consciousness and Experiential Section of the British Psychological Society, to helping to ‘make Slough happy’. What originally got you into psychology?
At school I specialised in literature and languages. I loved their focus on human experience but found them too subjective to be satisfying. So I chose a psychology honours degree at Edinburgh in the hope of getting a more systematic understanding of people. I also studied philosophy and music. Much of my time though was spent acting, and particularly directing plays for the Dramatic Society (of which I became President). I loved my time at Edinburgh, surrounded by talented and creative fellow students. I directed Tennessee Williams Orpheus Descending in only its second production in the UK. I was also one of the first to direct Pinter’s The Birthday Party and handled a cast of 80 in Buchner’s wonderful play about the French revolution – Danton’s Death. My three sons were all born during my four years at Edinburgh. Although I graduated with a first and received awards as the most distinguished student in both psychology and also in philosophy, I chose to pursue neither when I graduated.

So what career did you pursue?
Well, my first career was as a theatre and TV director. I was taken on by the BBC and became the youngest TV drama director in the UK. I directed episodes for series such as Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Maigret and Z Cars (which went out live!)

But you moved back into psychology.
Working on episodes in series in fact offered limited scope for creative direction. I was sorely missing ideas, intellectual excitement and university life. So I applied for and was offered posts at three universities (it was much easier in those days!). I chose Trinity College Dublin, as I couldn’t resist old-style college life… I very much enjoyed being there, with great colleagues, some of whom remain my closest friends.

You moved on to the OU – do you think the work in TV helped you here?
Yes, when the Open University started it seemed an ideal opportunity for me. I could pursue psychology but utilise some of my experience of broadcasting. I also wanted to move back to the UK for the sake of the education of my children and my wife’s career. The OU was very different, but offered wonderful creative possibilities.

The OU was quite unique – what kind of opportunities and challenges did you face?
Course production was an exciting if sometimes fraught affair. At that time all our writing for a course went through at least three drafts. At each stage your work was commented on, often in detail, both by other members of the course team and by external assessors. These included some of the best-known names in psychology, such as Jerome Bruner (who used to type his long missives to us in the middle of the night). We had a substantial budget (in excess of £1 million for a full credit course including television productions and publishing) and we recruited some great people as consultants – either to write course material or to work on broadcast programmes.

It was an exciting and stimulating community. OU students tend to be highly motivated and are quite often a joy to teach. We had about 11,000 students a year studying psychology, with 2000 taking the social psychology course. Several hundred tutors look after the students – as you know, Lance, having been one yourself – and many of these are academic staff from other universities. At least three of our tutors I worked with subsequently became Presidents of the BPS. Although we worked hard, we also had a lot of fun, especially at those unique events called summer schools. Looking back I realise how many interesting and creative people I have worked with in one way or another.

The OU has strong reputation for research as well as in teaching.
Yes, creating courses at the OU is more than teaching. We typically had over two years to create a full-credit course. The resources and the timescale gave us the wonderful luxury, which so few lecturers have when they teach a course on their own, to really think about and reconceptualise the subject matter we are teaching. What, for example is social psychology and what might it be? The standard social psychology course at that time was something of a pot-pourri of loosely or unrelated topics such as attitudes, social perception, groups, prejudice, with a focus largely on experimental or at least quantitative research. We took a rather different approach. The course was focused around a key question – how can we understand human social behaviour and experience? While we didn’t neglect the classic studies, they were framed by this question. This inevitably led to a focus on epistemological issues. There are radically different ways of viewing human behaviour and experience from evolutionary, cognitive-experimental approaches to existential and psychoanalytic perspectives. We tried to highlight and contrast such different approaches, their relative strengths and weaknesses. It made for an exciting course which, according to Bruner, was ‘really revolutionary; wonderfully thoughtful’.  

Has this multiple perspective influenced your own approach?
Absolutely. Because my goal, unfashionable in psychology as it often is, has always been to try to understand myself and other people. To do this effectively you have to explore a range of approaches and look at their implications. I chose to write a book on psychoanalysis not because I am a devotee of the approach but because I found it fascinating that a theory that had been so influential in intellectual and everyday understanding was so derided in standard UK psychology. This paradox highlights the critical issue of epistemology – what kind of understanding is possible and appropriate for an effective psychology? Also, in spite of the undoubted weaknesses of the specifics of Freud’s theory, he did attempt to get to grips
with what for me is a central issue for psychology – the bridge between biology and meanings and the problem of interrelating the two. Curiously evolutionary psychology also focuses, though in a totally different way, on the same issue. So you can see I am fascinated by the communalities and differences between different psychological approaches, and what each might contribute to our understanding.

What about your interest in consciousness?
For several years I was Chair of the Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain, emphasising the ‘openness of being human’ which makes possible personal growth. Exploring these issues experientially made the conferences really exciting affairs. I was interested in the topic of consciousness then, long before it became fashionable. Subsequently, with my colleague Jane Nolan, we systematically explored our own experience of what it is to be conscious, developing a perceptual-lingual theory.

Our theory came to view consciousness as essentially multimodal perception, although, in humans this will include awareness of symbols like words and concepts which carry with them implicit meanings. However, consciousness is now a less interesting issue for me. Human cognition operates largely at an unconscious level. Consciousness is not what is quintessentially human. The key difference between us and other species is language. Language has extraordinary qualities. At one and the same time it depends on key biological structures, it is a product of socialisation, and, most extraordinary of all, it has the quality of openness that permits the generation of the new. Any one of us can say something we have never heard before. Understanding each of these three aspects requires different epistemologies – natural science for the biological substratum, hermeneutics for meanings and ‘transformational’ to accommodate ‘openness’. This kind of analysis is at the heart of my ‘trimodal theory’.

Your recent work has been the area of wellbeing and happiness.
Well, I guess this naturally follows on from the focus on personal growth in humanistic psychology. I am glad that Seligman has put positive psychology on the map. But he is wrong to actively ignore the legacy of humanistic psychology. What Carl Rogers, for example, realised, and Seligman does not, is that, although natural science is clearly the method of choice for investigating physical matter, it has critical limits when it comes to understanding the very different subject matter of human experience.

You were very much involved in a TV series Making Slough Happy. How did this come about?
The BBC wanted to do a series of TV programmes on the ‘new’ science of happiness. But being the BBC they wanted it in the form of ‘reality TV’. So a group of us were recruited to go into Slough to try to make at least some of its residents happier. I was the psychologist on the team and my task was to work with 50 volunteers to help increase their sense of wellbeing. We had 12 weeks to do this in! I love putting psychology on the line like that. For me an acid test of our discipline is how useful can our ideas and strategies be in practice.

I was fortunate in being able to recruit a team of creative colleagues – Jane Henry, Linda Corlett and Nevia Mullan – to help with the project. We thought intensively about the methods we might try. At the base of our thinking was the trimodal approach. So we worked with the body – using exercise and dance for example. We also worked at the level of meanings – modifying ways of thinking about oneself and life, and also existentially by, for example, opening up awareness of nature and oneself, and exploring ways of connecting with others.

We were deliberately eclectic in the sources which we mined for ideas. We used some of the methods developed by positive psychology. For example, we set up a gratitude party, which proved to be deeply moving. But we also drew ideas from CBT, neurolinguistic programming, and Buddhism. We used meditation, awareness training, and biodanza. And we invented our own – graveyard therapy, for example, aimed at helping volunteers become more aware of their own mortality and thus stimulate a greater sense of the significance and excitement of being alive. We also specifically explored relationships, work and community involvement.

As you might expect, there were differences between volunteers as to which method each found most useful. We measured their happiness levels all through the project, using a battery of tests. On average, these measures showed improvement in wellbeing by about 30 per cent. I should stress though that this was not intended to be a research project. Clearly the presence of the cameras and taking part in a TV project had its own effects. The aim really was to inspire the six million or so viewers of the programmes and open them up to the idea that they could be instrumental in improving their own wellbeing.

Did the programmes lead to anything?
There were a few informal follow-ups which indicated that, for several volunteers at least, the effect was sustained. One volunteer had become Mayor of Slough and danced for us in his back garden with his gold chain on! But as with physical exercise, this depended on how far they carried on practising wellbeing activities. The programmes certainly impacted on the public. Our strategies were taken up by several schools, by the Netmums organisation among others. I also went to Thailand in response to an invitation from their health minister to help develop a project in their northern provinces, where they were concerned about higher rates of depression and suicide.

I am glad that the topic of wellbeing is now becoming political as well as personal. The Open University Psychological Society set up a fascinating conference on wellbeing and society, on how governments should and could focus on wellbeing rather than GDP.

Is there anything you dislike about psychology?
Narrowness of perspective, particularly when it is ideologically or methodologically driven. Remember, behaviourism dominated psychology when I was a student, and I had several social constructionist colleagues who believe that biology is an irrelevance to understanding behaviour. Human beings are complex. The essence of science is to be humble if the face of our subject matter. Neither the ideological nor the methodological tail should wag the dog.

What about current projects?
I am now retired from the OU but I still work with the marvellous Open University Psychological Society of which I remain a Vice President. I also continue as series editor of Mindshapers – an ongoing set of books published by Palgrave Macmillan. Each is focused on a thinker, usually a psychologist, who has changed our way of thinking about what it is to be human. Authors are asked to be both sympathetic and critical and to relate the ideas to the personal and social contexts from which they emerge. So far, we have books on Freud, Erikson, Fromm, Skinner and George Kelly, among others; and of course, Lance, your own book on Darwin, one of the few to look in depth at how Darwinism impacts on psychology. In progress and due later this year is Philip Corr on Eysenck – and this promises to be another cracker! What I always appreciated about Eysenck was his open-mindedness and preparedness to do grand theorising.

Other current projects include a personal book on my wonderful relationship with my partner Ruth who tragically died of breast cancer two years ago. I have also been working on a cancer project with the theatre company Complicite, which may result in a production at the National Theatre next year. But my favourite activity nowadays, I have to say, is meditating, writing and enjoying the sun and sea on Siquijor, my island retreat in the Philippines.

Still pretty busy then! Is there anything else you would like to achieve in psychology?
I have published a few papers on trimodal theory, but I need to write it up as a book. And one idea which would like to follow up in some way is a course called Human Existence. This was designed for the OU but never took off, and it explores the topic using a variety of epistemologies, including reason (philosophy), reason and empiricism (natural science) and existential analysis.

You seem to think in rather – how can I put it – grand terms?
I am not ashamed of that. I tend to think psychology in the past has focused too much on specifics. Psychology education on the whole has not encouraged more general creative thinking about the human condition. We desperately need some excursions into broader theorising and applications. Physics didn’t develop the understanding it has from experimentation alone. Theorising, model-building and thought experiments all played a crucial role.

So where would you like to see psychology go in the future?
Critical problems face humankind. Not just personal and social wellbeing but climate change and population expansion. In each of these psychology has the potential to play a central and positive role. With a few notable exceptions, there is not much evidence of interest from psychologists in these issues at the moment. Although the tasks are certainly formidable, I think we need to change that!

Finally, and with apologies, any take-home messages to boost happiness of our readers?
Nothing that I am sure they don’t know already. Increase social communication (especially intimacy), exercise, get into nature, be grateful for all the good things you have and express your gratitude to others, help and care for others when you can, and engage with your community. The important thing is to find the strategies which work best for you – and to practise them! Oh, and spend some time contemplating in a graveyard.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber