The MWS Podcast 39: Steven C. Hayes on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)

My guest today is Steven C. Hayes, who is Nevada Foundation Professor and Director of Clinical Training at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. He’s the author of many books including the popular Get out of your mind and into your life which for a while was the number one best-selling self-help book in the US. He’s the co- founder of Acceptance and Commitment therapy or ACT as it’s more commonly known and he’s going to talk us today about ACT, what’s unique about it, what are its goals, how it pans out in practice, and how it might relate to the Middle Way. The podcast is a bit longer than usual but I can assure you it’s well worth listening to and I feel the ACT approach is very congruent with many of the aims and values we hold in the society.

If you’re interested, here is also a link to a wonderful initiative of the ACT movement to bring psychotherapist support to people traumatized by the ebola epidemic.


MWS Podcast 39: Steven C Hayes as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_39_Steven_C_Hayes

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

4 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 39: Steven C. Hayes on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)

  1. A detailed and interesting interview that I probably need to listen to again to make sure I’ve got all the useful pointers. One of the main new things I got from it is the existence of a range of little techniques for creating moments of integrated attention or jolting us briefly out of obsessive left-hemisphere states. I obviously need to read the literature to find out more about those beyond the examples given in the podcast. They certainly do sound useful for supporting a wider range of people.

    One question I’d like to ask Steven is about the language used to describe such practices, together with those of the contemplative traditions he discusses. In the Middle Way Society we have a variety of terms that are neither ‘religious’ nor reductively scientific: for example one can talk about integration and integrative practice; one can talk about ethics; and one can also use the language of right and left hemispheres developed by Iain McGilchrist. I noticed that Steven didn’t use any of these types of terminology, and when Barry used ‘integration’ or ‘integrative’ in questions he didn’t pick it up. Is there a particular reason for this? Also – the question that I want to ask nearly all psychologists – why is it apparently so taboo to use ethical language for what is so obviously an ethical undertaking – of helping people to spot their delusions, overcome limiting habits and thus develop? I’m not talking about the conventional moral language used by psychologists about the limitations placed on acceptable experiments here, nor am I talking about narrow ‘moralising’ language, but rather about how one discusses the goal and purpose of psychology once it has grown beyond the limitations of the medical model or the idea of therapeutic intervention.

  2. In the ACT / CBS tradition we try to maintain multiple languages for multiple purposes. ACT sits on a highly technical language inside behavioral psychology and Relational Frame Theory, and a set of “middle level terms” for use by therapists and applied researchers when talking to each other (acceptance, defusion, perspective taking, values, etc) and some additional terms for use with clients and the public.

    What you are calling ethics in ACT would mostly correspond to values and committed action. This is a large area of basic and applied work in the ACT / CBS tradition. We work hard to link our work to the goals and deepest purposes of the client and we have a well elaborated set of methods for doing so. But we would resist talking about this in terms of the “goals and purposes of psychology.” I’ve written on ethics but the term pulls for the goals and purposes of the group at large. We are doing important things in that area in the sense of empowering people to make prosocial choices, but we start with the purpose of the person, not the field or the society. I think that is indeed common in psychology, but because that is because it corresponds with the psychological unit of analysis, in my humble opinion (namely the whole person acting in and with a context considered historically and situationally). We do not find much benefit in brain metaphors for psychosocial processes because we are both providers and researchers and to be honest these metaphors hurt more than help when doing research work at the interface of psychology and biology (at least for contextualistic perspectives that seek to ground experience and action in a multi-dimensional stream of history and current context). You will not find history and context in parts of the organism. Lateralization is a fairly thin reed with lots of contradictory and complex issues surrounding it. I get it as a clinical metaphor … but as a research program, I would not put huge efforts there (we do have studies showing that high experiential avoiders show more left hemisphere activity than low avoiders during avoidance … so as an empirical matter these issues do touch the ACT research work, it is just that the whole issue of lateralization is a bit of a mess empirically).

    ACT is a holistic perspective across levels and dimensions (if folks want a view of that part read the article by the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and myself, Tony Biglan, & Dennis Embry in a recent issue of Behavioural and Brain Science). We are integrative folks across strands of development, response domains, disciplinary fields, and across the spiritual / scientific divides (among others). I’d be fine with using the term in that sense, and ACT folks have been doing the Western science / mindfulness integration since 1980 or so — so we think we have a little piece of the explosion that has taken place in that area more recently. How you talk about it is less important though that the basic and applied work done on that interface and there I think we have a number of things to contribute if people want to pursue what is written and published in the ACT / CBS tradition on that topic.

  3. Hi Steven,
    Looking at your response here and also at the contextual science website, I think I’m beginning to get more of a sense of both the similarities and differences in our approaches. Our focus on psychological flexibility is at the heart of what we have in common, and I obviously have lots of exploring to do in order to more fully understand your contribution to that. Middle Way Philosophy, however, began as an ethical philosophy rather than developing out of a therapeutic or scientific paradigm. That means, at root, that it involves looking for an answer to ‘should’ questions as well as ‘is’ questions. I don’t think ‘should’ questions can be pursued in isolation from ‘is’ questions, but rather that working at the cutting edge of the relationship between a recognition of the current situation and a projection of a more integrated future one is at the basis of what a justifiable ethics consists in. We’re not aiming either to prescribe impossible or alienating moral ideals on the one hand, nor to fully accept a given person’s current ‘values’ on the other, when those values could be morally stretched.

    I disagree with the assumptions you seem to be making when you say that “the term [ethics] pulls for the goals and purposes of the group at large”. Ethics has social implications, but it is not solely group based and does not consist just in the conventional assumptions of groups. Indeed I would see it as central to ethical development to be able to challenge social assumptions. If you look at the long-term discussion of ethics both in Western philosophy and in religious traditions, that discussion is a search for moral justification in individual judgement and is not just about social conventions. It is only in the twentieth century that analytic philosophy has often narrowed its approach to ethics to understand it primarily in terms of social conventions – with the relativist implication that no one value can be judged better than another. Too often it seems that those working in scientific and social scientific contexts have uncritically accepted that paradigm of ethics.

    That’s why I’m prepared to argue that our understanding of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ itself needs to be based on our understanding of psychological flexibility and associated concepts, such as provisionality, incrementality, adequacy to conditions and optionality (As yet I haven’t penetrated your terminology sufficiently to find any similar terms to these on your website, but this may just be a matter of reading your work in more depth.) This does seem crucial to the communication of this approach to a wider range of people, because people don’t just start off with justifiable values that they need to fulfil regardless of what those values are: rather they also need a direction in which to adjust those values based on a psychologically adequate concept of the good.

  4. I’ve only listened so far to two 20 minute chunks of the podcast, which I do find interesting but not easy to follow at times. I’ve made notes and will revisit the discussion again before commenting further on engaging “Joe Six-Pack”, which is one of my enthusiasms.

    But I’m encouraged by Robert’s scepticism about the ethics of social conventions. I’m very fed up with being told that “all right-thinking citizens want to see British-born jihadists stripped of their passports and refused re-entry to the land of their birth if they’ve fought in Syrian wars” and “the most serious concern that indigenous British people have is the uncontrolled immigration into our crowded island that threatens to utterly change our culture by replacing it with an alien one.”

    I’m not suggesting that such points of view don’t have a certain validity, and I think they ought not to be dismissed out of hand, but it’s another matter to have them thrust upon us as normative, and beyond dispute. So Robert’s proposals give me comfort, and spur me to careful inquiry, with the support of trusted friends and associates in the Middle Way.

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