No one knows who can fix all that ails our society: the poverty and crime and depression and addiction, the schizophrenia, the family friction, the corporate practices that make us more materialistic and less equal or fair.
Is it our political leaders, with their tight grip on power? Is it our self-help gurus, who plumb the depths of their imaginations and come up with their own personal programs? Is it the kindest and most compassionate among us, whether professionals such as therapists and doctors and aid workers or ordinary unsung heroes? All of these types of people, and many more, could potentially contribute to a better society.
But, according to Anthony Biglan, they don’t hold the ultimate keys.
Biglan, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology and is a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, sees a different type of person. The key-holders, he believes, are behavioral scientists — all those trained professionals who discover and demonstrate research-based ways of improving our health and wellbeing.
To help us heal at both the personal and the societal level, Biglan writes in The Nurture Effect, we need to look at the work of behavioral scientists — and use their research to make ourselves more nurturing.
The book takes an optimistic, research-based, thinking person’s approach. And when I reached out to Biglan to ask more about it, he had some very specific ideas.
For decades, various social scientists have sought solutions to a range of particular social problems. Biglan, though, has surveyed the towering heaps of research on preventing and ameliorating human maladies, and he thinks that the successful solutions to all of our many challenges have one thing in common: They make people’s worlds more nurturing. They create more nurturing families and schools and workplaces and everyday interactions. They make societies more compassionate and less antagonistic.
Biglan’s recommendations are rooted in a particular scientific tradition. With all the touchy-feely talk about nurturing — it’s even in the title! — what do you think it is? Humanistic psychology was my first guess, before reading the book. Any approach centered on the person, with a distinctly optimistic glow, would merit a nomination. But no, Biglan’s work comes from B. F. Skinner and his very pragmatic approach to modifying human behavior — and more broadly, from an evolutionary perspective.
“In my view,” Biglan writes, “the fact that human behavior is selected by its consequences is the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century.”
In other words, because the consequences of our actions influence how we behave, Biglan believes we all need to “richly reinforce” the behaviors we want to promote. Make the consequences rewarding, and more people will act in ways that are good, healthy, kind, and cooperative.
Here, Biglan is deliberately using Skinner’s term: reinforcement. When I was an undergraduate, I trained a pigeon for my behavior modification course. Reinforcement meant that the pigeon got some seed when it pecked a button. Happily, Biglan’s concept of reinforcers is much broader. It does include material things such as treats and toys and pay, but also makes room for less tangible rewards such as “praise, appreciation, public recognition, attention, interest, approval, smiling, touching, [and] love.”
“Promoting and reinforcing prosocial behavior” is one of Biglan’s four key ways of making environments more nurturing, and it is the one most clearly tied to the behaviorist tradition. To link the other three to that tradition seems like more of a stretch. They are: “Minimizing socially and biologically toxic conditions,” “Monitoring and setting limits on influences and opportunities to engage in problem behavior,” and “Promoting the mindful, flexible, and pragmatic pursuit of prosocial values.”
In the middle section of The Nurture Effect, Biglan shows how his approach can help children thrive in families and schools and with their peers. He makes his case by describing the relevant research, sometimes even pointing to interventions that save more money than they cost to implement. Each chapter ends with a series of “action implications,” suggestions for particular categories of people such as parents, educators, citizens, and policy makers.
Biglan points to relevant treatment approaches in clinical psychology — for instance, Steven Hayes’s acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. It involves “making room for our thoughts and feelings without judging or struggling with them, being in the present moment, and doing what matters to us.”
But can ACT — or Biglan’s overall plan — really help all kinds of issues? As Biglan tried to persuade me through his book that his approach can effectively heal family conflict, help keep adolescents out of trouble, promote prosocial behavior in schools, and help adults who are depressed or caught in cycles of coercive interactions, I was on board. But when he said it was useful with schizophrenia, too, that just seemed a bridge too far.
It turns out, though, that Biglan has the goods. In a methodologically sophisticated study, patients who were assigned to an ACT intervention did far better, after less than four hours of treatment, than those who simply continued with their usual treatment.
In many traditional treatments, patients talk endlessly about their symptoms (including, for schizophrenics, their delusions) and try repeatedly (and futilely) to control them. In ACT, patients do none of that. ACT practitioners realize that attempts to suppress disturbing thoughts and other unwanted symptoms often backfire. So they do not encourage any such attempts, nor do they try to talk patients out of their delusions. Instead, they help patients with exercises that create psychological distance from disturbing thoughts and encourage acceptance of their symptoms. They focus on patients’ goals and what they can do to achieve them.
And so, despite my wariness of Biglan’s approach to schizophrenia, the research does seem to back him up.
In the final and most ambitious section of The Nurture Effect, Biglan argues that we can, and should, create dramatic cultural change. He is aiming at huge problems such as violence, traffic deaths, addiction, and obesity. He thinks we can get corporations to knock off the harmful advertising. And he wants us to take on poverty and economic inequality.
Sounds daunting. But Biglan points to several instances in which people effected sweeping societal change, both for good and for ill. His inspiring example is the anti-tobacco movement, which brought powerful corporations to their knees, totally rewrote social norms about smoking, and cut the rate of smoking in half.
Still, that was then. Now we have a Congress that does even less than the infamous “do-nothing Congress” from decades ago, and a political system in which obstructionism is commonplace. Does Biglan really think that large-scale social change is possible in today’s environment?
I don’t know Biglan personally, but out of the blue, I emailed him to see what he would say. He responded immediately and in detail. Here’s one excerpt:
“…suppose that every person and every organization that values the wellbeing of children and adolescents (to begin with) put 1% of their resources into increasing the prevalence of nurturing families and schools?” he asked. “I submit that such a movement could be created via social media and the building of a coalition among organizations.”
And in a fitting line for the author of a persuasive but ambitious book, Biglan also emailed this: “the meaning of life is in the pursuit of our values — what we choose [to] make our lives about — not whether we succeed.”
The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World
New Harbinger Publications, March 2015
Hardcover, 272 pages