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Politics as Cognitive Anti-Therapy

Posted in: Psychology
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Many people’s mental health difficulties can be significantly improved through the skills learned in ‘cognitive therapy’. This is a form of psychological therapy that focuses upon the types of thinking people often have when experiencing distressing emotions such as depressed mood or anxiety. As we will see, cognitive therapy is based on a model of mental functioning that resonates with Buddhist psychology and philosophy in some important ways.

Harmful thinking and distressing emotions can produce each other in a vicious circle. The harmful thinking is more or less ‘automatic’, arising involuntarily. It is often triggered by the emotions or by a particular situation, but at times it arises from underlying harmful ‘core beliefs’ that typically exaggerate the negative. Automatic thoughts usually consist of negative or frightening interpretations and predictions of the world, other people, or oneself. They are typically believed to be true. Experiencing and believing such thoughts leads to the strengthening of the distressing emotion. This intensification of emotion produces an increase in the automatic thoughts, which then reinforce the emotion. Hence the vicious circle.

Cognitive therapy helps people develop the skills to recognise not only the harmful thoughts but also the harmful core beliefs from which the thoughts arise, and to challenge both. The thoughts and beliefs can thus be replaced with more realistic and balanced thinking. In this way, the vicious circle can be broken, making the distressing emotion diminish or even fade away altogether.

Practice of the therapy involves encouraging people to start noticing their automatic thoughts, and the emotional effects they produce. Usually, people are asked to write the thoughts down in a diary, and record the emotions that the thoughts provoke. They are then taught the skills of exploring evidence for and against the thoughts being true, and writing down the evidence in the diary. On that basis, they learn to cultivate more balanced thoughts. This does not mean pretending that the world is ideal and bad things cannot happen. Instead, it involves becoming more realistic — able to appreciate the positives of their existence and to assess risk more appropriately.

A typical vicious circle of automatic thoughts and intensifying emotion happens in panic attacks. In a panic attack someone’s anxiety is triggered, perhaps by a situation similar to an earlier one involving danger or harm. The physical symptoms of the anxiety may be very strong. Because they are strong, automatic thoughts arise, such as ‘I’m going to have a heart attack’, or ‘I can’t breathe’. These thoughts then increase the physical and emotional aspects of the anxiety. Cognitive therapy involves learning to understand that anxiety can itself have strong physical symptoms, so that the experience of physical symptoms when anxious is very likely to be due to the anxiety, and not some life-threatening disease. As another example, fear of flying can be diminished by learning that although anxiety about being up in the air is natural, the likelihood of the plane actually crashing is very small.

In depression, the automatic thoughts typically focus upon negative and unpleasant aspects of existence, whether real or believed. For example, everyone makes mistakes, but if you are prone to depression, you may think ‘I’m always making mistakes. I’m useless!’ Your mood goes down, with further negative thoughts occurring. Or you might, for example, misinterpret a comment made by your spouse as meaning that he or she does not care about you. Again, your mood goes down, and you start to dwell on what you see as the negative aspects of your marriage. In these instances, cognitive therapy would involve looking at the evidence for and against each belief, and finding other interpretations that do not mean you are useless or that your spouse does not care about you.

At its heart, cognitive therapy involves developing the skills of balanced, logical thinking, the evaluation of evidence, the awareness of how thinking influences our emotional states, and the application of these skills to overcome harmful and distressing emotional states. In so doing, it does not pretend that bad things do not happen, but instead helps people to develop a realistic approach to life, based upon new, realistic core beliefs that do not exaggerate the negative aspects of their life or character.

There is nothing essentially new about the insights that comprise cognitive therapy. The necessity for a balanced consideration of all relevant evidence before forming a judgement is an old principle. It has long been integral to the practice of law. In philosophy, it was already implicit in dialectical debate in ancient times, whether in the dialogues of Plato or the discourses of the Buddha. Likewise, the recognition that some people dwell too much on the dark side of things — tainting their own judgements — is a commonplace that is crystallised in the word ‘pessimist’ (just as the opposite tendency is crystallised in the word ‘optimist’). Buddhism long ago included this idea in its own system of psychology, labelling it as ‘unwise attention’ (ayoniso manasikāra). Turning from Buddhist psychology to Buddhist ethics, the development of balanced, logical thinking, based upon good evaluation of evidence, is the practice of truthful, kindly speech — to oneself. Cognitive therapy, in effect, reformulates these old ideas, underpins them with empirical evidence, and incorporates them systematically into the framework of scientific psychology and clinical practice.

This psychological reformulation of some old insights raises the possibility of looking at familiar political phenomena in a new, quasi-clinical light. To understand this, let us first imagine a psychological experiment. Suppose that instead of giving cognitive therapy — helping people develop thinking skills which improve their mental states — someone deliberately did the opposite, and taught people ways of thinking that strengthened distressing and negative mental states. What would be the characteristics of such a nasty and unethical practice, which we could term ‘cognitive anti-therapy’?

Its core characteristics would be the opposites of what cognitive therapy does. It would teach people to focus only upon evidence supportive of the negative, exaggerating this as much as possible, whilst ignoring evidence of the positive. At its worst, it would also teach people to interpret anything and everything as ‘evidence’ of the negative. Thus, it would teach a very unbalanced method of focussing upon, and interpreting, what happens or could happen. It would deliberately train people to think in negative and unbalanced ways. In doing all this, cognitive anti-therapy would inculcate negative core beliefs in its subjects about themselves and/or the world around them.

For example, by promoting unbalanced, catastrophic interpretations of any evidence of possible danger, cognitive anti-therapy would inculcate serious anxiety. By teaching people to interpret any event, or anything they have done, as evidence that the world or themselves are bad or worthless, it would inculcate depression. By encouraging them to interpret anything other people do, such as merely look at them, as evidence of malice, it would inculcate paranoia.

Of course, as far as I am aware, nobody has deliberately developed such ‘cognitive anti-therapy’ and advertised it as such. I doubt very much that explicitly advertising a method for making people’s mental health worse would attract many clients (although it might attract psychopaths who want to impose it on other people).

However, unfortunately, there are practices and political belief systems that function as if they were cognitive anti-therapy. In so doing, they harm the mental health and psychological functioning, not just of individuals but of groups of people, and in this process undermine whole societies. An unbalanced approach to evidence is far from unknown in the world. The media often focus upon reporting the negative things occurring in the world, especially those that they wish to highlight for political or other reasons. Such unbalanced, negative reporting is unlikely to promote healthy mental states in those attending to it and believing it. Nor is it likely to help someone develop a well-informed, balanced understanding of the world. In this regard, it is interesting to read Hans Rosling’s book ‘Factfulness’ and learn how poorly informed he found most people to be about a wide range of issues.

Specifically, with regard to the spreading of fear, it is of note that in the U.K., during the whole Covid pandemic, there has been a deliberate government and media emphasis upon the dangers of Covid. Yet Covid’s fatality rate, in the world’s population as a whole, is of the same order of magnitude as that of measles prior to the development of an effective vaccine in the 1960s (or perhaps even less than that of measles).  With measles, fatalities were more likely among small children, whereas with Covid it is the elderly who are most at danger. Therefore, if loss be measured in terms of life-years, measles was a more serious illness than Covid.   Yet with measles, there were no lockdowns or other legal restrictions on people meeting. Nor was there repeated emphasis upon its dangers.

This emphasis upon the dangers of Covid has brought about significantly increased levels of anxiety. Indeed, this seems to have been a deliberate strategy designed to get people to do as the government bids. A discussion paper called ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’ was produced by the SPI-B unit government in March 2020. It included this statement: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” Some of those involved in this unit now express regret about the strategy of ‘ramping up fear’ that it produced, describing it as ‘not ethical’ and ‘dystopian’.1

This sort of strategy is not just an exceptional response to the novel situation of Covid-19. A decade before the advent of the pandemic, the U.K. government already had a ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (the ‘Nudge Unit’) whose role is to use the insights of behavioural science to influence peoples’ thinking, emotions and behaviour. While the intention behind this might be benign, it clearly represents a big step beyond the more modest conception of the government’s duty to inform the public and rely on their rational compliance and public spirit.

Since long before the advent of Covid-19, another political movement has been very prominent in inculcating fear about a quite different threat, namely climate change. This movement has a long history of deliberately emphasising ‘worst case’ scenarios about what might happen to the world’s climate in the future, and the disastrous effects of this. Hans Rosling (who was not a climate change sceptic) has given us a revealing account of his conversations with climate alarmist Al Gore:2

“We need to create fear!” That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change. It was 2009 and we were backstage at a TED conference in Los Angeles. Al Gore asked me to help him and use Gapminder’s bubble graphs to show a worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.

I insisted that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenario and – worse – continuing the line beyond the scientifically-based predictions would fall far outside Gapminder’s mission to help people understand the basic facts. It would be using our credibility to make a call to action. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts, over several more conversations, until I finally closed the discussion down. “Mr Vice President. No numbers, no bubbles.”

Al Gore has been one of the leading political figures promoting the ‘climate change’ agenda. But he is far from being the only one who has emphasised frightening scenarios. There have been many predictions of supposed forthcoming disasters. For example, there was an article in the Observer newspaper3 in 2004 stating the following:

Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.

A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

To quote Hans Rosling again:

The volume on climate change keeps getting turned up. Many activists, convinced it is the only important global issue, have made it a practice to blame everything on the climate, to make it the single cause of all other global problems.

When I say this to climate activists they often tell me that invoking fear and urgency with exaggerated or unsupported claims is justified because it is the only way to get people to act on future risks.

The inculcation of fear about climate change has resulted in, for example, the doomsday cult Extinction Rebellion, whose co-founder, Roger Hallam, has predicted that six billion people will die because of climate change, by the end of this century. This is an extreme claim, not supported even by most of those climate scientists who believe in a significant human contribution to warming. Also, many young people are now convinced that a climate apocalypse is just a few years away, and do not wish to have children because of this.

Such extreme political approaches are very far from a balanced consideration of current climate change. Such a balanced consideration would include developing an understanding of various issues: how this change compares with the pattern of climate change that existed prior to the industrial revolution; what natural causes there are of climate change, and what effects these are having now; how much increased greenhouse gases add to the effects of natural causes of climate change, if anything, and what sensible steps should be taken – whether such change is affected by greenhouse gases, or is fully natural.

It is a hopeful sign that, over the last few years, the popular literature on climate change has begun to produce examples of this more balanced approach, allowing intelligent lay readers to take a more rounded and sane view of climate issues. An up-to-the-moment example is ‘Unsettled’, by Steven Koonin, which can be commended for its balanced appraisal of the evidence.4 ‘Mirrors and Mazes’ (2017) by Howard Thomas Brady, covers some of the same ground, as well as other aspects, such as the effects of variations in the sun’s energy reaching the earth’s atmosphere.5

The most serious instances of cognitive anti-therapy emerge from political beliefs and ideologies that focus, almost exclusively, on specific harms, in very selective ways. The specific harms take a variety of forms. Prominent at times in the last century (and by no means forgotten even now) were the harms allegedly done by oppressive or exploitative elite groups (the bourgeoisie for Marxists, and for the Nazis, the Jews). In the present century so far, the harms marked for ideological condemnation are the unfair stigmatisation or exclusion of groups because of their ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity, and the degradation of the natural environment, with its consequent threats to future generations. In some cases, these harms are real to some degree, or at least have a partial basis in fact. The problem is that the political ideologies focus upon the harms in highly unbalanced ways, presenting very biased interpretations of the relevant facts, and ignoring evidence that contradicts those interpretations. Such ideologies also typically propose very destructive ways to overcome the real or supposed harms.

It is vitally important to understand the necessity for a balanced approach to understanding and interpreting harms. As I have explained, individuals may suffer psychological disorders as a result of focussing too intently on actual or potential harms in their personal life. In the same way, it is possible for a social group or even a whole society to focus too intently on a harm, producing what might fairly be called a kind of collective neurosis. And often this is closely associated with the rise of a political ideology. Whether the ideology is itself the original seed of the imbalance, or whether it simply acts as a feedback mechanism, amplifying an unhealthy tendency that is already widespread in the population, is an interesting question that may have different answers in different cases. Either way, the result is a dangerous loss of balance in a group’s capacity to assess a harm accurately.

Strange as it may seem, moral feelings can play a crucial part in producing or aggravating such imbalances. Sympathy for those enduring poverty or stigma, indignation at groups that are supposed to have profited at the expense of other groups, concern for the future of our children and grandchildren — all these feelings are or seem morally correct. Assured of that moral correctness, people far too readily accept the ‘correctness’ of what are in fact one-sided interpretations of relevant data — interpretations that exaggerate the magnitude of the harm. Having gone that far, such people are also likely to accept the ‘correctness’ of some extreme political programme of action to remedy or prevent the harm. They may indeed become emotionally strongly attached to that political approach. Compounding the mistake, they may believe that anyone who criticises the unbalanced approach must be either callously indifferent to the harm, or even actively desirous of it for some nefarious reason. They then stigmatise those who disagree with the unbalanced approach, and use bigoted stereotypes to categorise the critics’ political thinking.

Typically, ideologies which are unbalanced in this way, also tend to have other serious faults. The explicit devaluing of truth, and truthfulness, is one such fault. This reinforces its adherents’ tendencies to ignore evidence that contradicts it, as well as to interpret anything in a biased way that apparently, but falsely, supports the ideology.

Such ideologies also typically categorise people into groups, with one group being seen as the victims of another group. Associated with this, the group identity of a person is usually taken to be the most important thing about them, and individuals are morally judged on the basis of their group identity.

These unbalanced political approaches bring about serious harm, in various ways. Firstly, they seriously harm those in the group of people who are deemed victims, in that if such people take the ideology seriously, then their interpretation and experience of the world become, in effect, significantly paranoid, with a dominant preoccupation with how they are, apparently, being repeatedly or continually harmed. This damages their mental states and behaviour, and also has seriously detrimental effects on their relationships with other people.

The unbalanced political approach can also directly damage people in the group alleged to be intrinsically hurting the victim group, if they themselves take the ideology seriously. They can then develop irrational guilt, a mental state that can also be psychologically very damaging. Self-hatred can develop with this.

Thus, the bitter irony is that political approaches which focus in unbalanced ways on specific harms, are typically themselves psychologically very harmful, inculcating paranoia and irrational guilt.

Sadly too, these harmful developments have often been accompanied by others, such as the development of hatred and self-righteousness. Thus, the rise and expression of hatred is very much associated with them. This involves explicit hatred of members of the group deemed to be victimising others. This has often led to violence, especially when such violence is seen as justified revenge.

At worst, such political ideologies have led to wars and to the rise of totalitarian states and the mass murder of tens of millions of people. For example, there was Nazism. Its alleged group of supposed victimisers was explicitly Jewish people. In this regard it directly continued an ancient tradition of demonising the Jews. They had for nearly two thousand years been stigmatised as deniers of Christ, collectively guilty of bringing about his crucifixion. They had also for a thousand years been stigmatised for their moneylending, ironically one of the few occupations they were allowed to follow as a means of livelihood. With Nazism, those old hatreds had also been combined with fears about racial purity and ‘survival of the fittest’ – fears that stemmed from the pseudo-science of ‘Social Darwinism’. Nazism led to the Holocaust and a world war.

Apart from Nazism, there have also been various other ideologies that can be seen as forms of cognitive anti-therapy. Most of them stem from Marxism. Marxism divided the industrialised world into the oppressed ‘proletariat’ (industrial workers) and the oppressive ‘bourgeoisie’. Of course, working people have indeed been, and can be, exploited by employers and the wealthy. But to characterise Western industrial society as typified by that exploitation was and is highly unbalanced, especially if one understands how much Western, liberal industrial societies have raised standards of living far above the poverty in which the great mass of humanity formerly existed. Also, through the development of democratic institutions, such societies have given people protection from the arbitrary exercise of power by tyrannical rulers and hereditary elites.

Actually, Marxism can plausibly be seen as a continuation of the ancient bigotry against the ‘money-lending’ Jews, transposed to the ‘capitalists’ or bourgeoisie. This is very evident if one reads Marx’s diatribe ‘On the Jewish Question’. To quote from a translation of that text: “An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible.” Interestingly, Marx himself was from a Jewish background, his father having converted to Christianity from Judaism. This makes it tempting to speculate whether his philosophy — Marxism itself — was an elaborate rationalisation of conflicts within his family, or of underlying self-hatred, or perhaps a means of trying to avoid the latter.

Marxism led to the deaths of nearly a hundred million people, killed by the policies of their own communist governments, in the former USSR and China especially. More recently, in some Western countries, ideologies that one could describe as ‘neo-Marxist’ have become dominant in academia, and highly influential in the media and among swathes of the university-educated classes. These are ideologies that stem historically from Marx’s thinking, although they have abandoned many of the specific features of Marx’s original system, such as the notion of ‘class struggle’ (and in their own rhetoric they may deny their Marxian antecedents).

For example, ‘critical race theory’ interprets anything that white people do as being an expression of racism, and therefore harmful to non-white people. This is nothing less than the inculcation of paranoia and irrational guilt. Critical race theory focuses exclusively upon harm, whether real or supposed, done by white people to non-white people, all of which it deems racist. It ignores racism by non-white people towards white people, or towards each other, whether present-day or in the past. Nor does it compare and contrast racism in different cultures, nor acknowledge the substantial progress that Western countries have made in reducing racism in recent decades. Basically, it ignores any evidence whatever that contradicts its own very narrow interpretation of the world, in order to focus exclusively on the behaviour of white people towards others. It interprets everything white people do as racist because white people are supposedly in some way ‘privileged’ — even if they are poor and disadvantaged.

To quote Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, from their book Cynical Theories6 (chapter 5):

Critical Race Theory’s paranoid mindset, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found, is extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it. Always believing that one will be or is being discriminated against, and trying to find out how, is unlikely to improve the outcome of any situation. It can also be self-defeating.

A similar critique could be made of those strands of feminism that have become prominent in recent decades, which typically demand equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, and insist that different outcomes are, ipso facto, evidence of covert ‘patriarchal’ oppression. To justify this, radical feminism places a disproportionate focus upon real or alleged harm done by men (especially Western men) to women. It also focuses upon how men are, or have been, more fortunate than women. It typically ignores harm done to men by women and the serious disadvantages that men have suffered compared to women. It also ignores the benefits that women have enjoyed through the activities of men. One is unlikely to find feminists comparing the range of activities that a traditional mother-housewife can be involved in (or the range of skills and abilities she can acquire) to the limited opportunities for these in so many jobs that men do — such as emptying dustbins and maintaining the sewage system. Instead, the emphasis is typically upon issues such as women being under-represented in the more prestigious and best paid jobs. Also, much of feminist theory interprets male behaviour as intrinsically harmful to women — ‘toxic masculinity’ being the catch phrase that goes with this. In other words, to be a man is to be intrinsically a sinner.

These ideologies (as well as related ones based on ‘critical theories’) are, in essence, forms of cognitive anti-therapy, and have become widespread and very influential. Indeed, they are now wreaking havoc in Western societies. When one investigates the ‘critical theories’ underlying these ideologies, one finds that they devalue logic and evidence in favour of ‘lived experience’. All too often, that means believing in someone’s paranoid interpretations of experience.

Historically, these ideologies stem from thinkers such as the members of the ‘Frankfurt School’, especially Herbert Marcuse. They also stem from post-modernists such as Derrida and Foucault, and from those within academia associated with the growth of so-called ‘critical theory’. In this article, it would take too long to explore this history, but it needs to be acknowledged, and its key factors noted.

All the ideologies stemming from this background display an obsession with ‘power’, and the denial of universal values of truth and objective evidence. They all also embody highly unbalanced interpretations of Western society, and conversely, they ignore the faults of other cultures. They are, in effect, forms of paranoia about the culture of the industrialised, democratic Western world. They share this trait with Nazism and communism. (It is noteworthy, too, that much of the climate change movement is associated with anti-Western and anti-industrial beliefs. It even has a specific group who are often demonised, namely people involved in the fossil fuel industries.)

The behaviour of the believers in such ideologies often reflects the unconscious presence of psychological ‘projection’. This is the false perception of one’s own faults in others. Thus, the political believer’s hatred can be projected onto other people — those who are allegedly causing harm, who are then incorrectly seen as the hateful ones.  Whether due to such projection or some other reason, the believer can then engage in sanctimonious ‘moral’ outrage. A common expression of this is to denigrate those that disagree as being ‘fascists’ or ‘far right’. Meanwhile, their own expression of anger and hatred, if actually to some extent acknowledged, is assumed to be a moral pursuit of justice.

In general, such ideologies function very much as cognitive anti-therapy, encouraging the development of unbalanced thinking and negative emotional states. This harms individuals and whole societies. From a Buddhist perspective, such ideologies are manifestations of wrong views, unwise attention and harmful, untruthful speech.

The vigorous life and manifold forms displayed by cognitive anti-therapy are among the most troubling aspects of the political culture we presently inhabit. Yet precisely this vigour and variety point to the possibility of an alternative. If there can be anti-therapy aimed at groups and society as a whole, can there not also be collective forms of therapy? What if one were to develop a political parallel to cognitive therapy? How would it analyse and interpret the world, including, for example, issues of racism and sexism? I will explore this question in a future article.

Footnotes

  1. Use of fear to control behaviour in Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, admit scientists (telegraph.co.uk) See also Laura Dodsworth: A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid 19 pandemic (pub. May 2021)
  2. Hans Rosling; Factfulness; Sceptre Books, 2018
  3. ‘Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us’: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2004/feb/22/usnews.theobserver
  4. Steven Koonin; Unsettled; BenBella Books, 2021
  5. Howard Thomas Brady; Mirrors and Mazes; 2017
  6. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay: Cynical Theories; Swift Press, 2021
Advayacitta

Advayacitta is a retired clinical psychologist. He is the author of  'Thinking at the Crossroads - a Buddhist exploration of Western thought'.

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