Evaluate Winter’s Ideas on How Psychology Might Play a Role in Finding More Sustainable Ways of Life

It has come to be widely accepted that the Earth is currently facing a multitude of problems, for which mankind is responsible. Natural resources such as coal (and it’s derivatives) and wood are being consumed at an exponential rate, and the ecosystem itself is under threat. Use of harmful chemicals (such as CFCs and carbon monoxide) and their effect on the depleting ozone layer is just one example. Moreover, the human race is propagating at a rate that simply cannot be supported by the planet for too much longer. The consequence of all of this is that the planet is heading towards a state in which it will be unable to sustain human life.

Brown (1990) suggests (somewhat disconcertingly) that we only have approximately 40 years to reverse these trends before the deterioration intensifies to “an uncontrollable downward spiral”. Winter (1996) has focussed her efforts on attempting to discern what role psychology can play in reversing these trends. She focuses on modernist Western lifestyle and ideology as the main ‘culprit’ of the damage thus far, and suggests ways in which current thinking and perception within the ‘west’ can be altered to adapt to the changes necessary for creating a sustainable culture.

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The first major point Winter makes is that before any change can be made, society must first ‘confront the dangerous direction in which it is heading’. By this she means that the current ‘modernist’ worldview is marked by a failure to recognise the problems that are being caused, as well as an apathy towards solving them. Psychology is needed to alter this view, but the current state of psychology will not allow for this change as it is too entrenched within this modernist ideology itself.

Thus there will need to be a realigning of psychology. The aforementioned entrenchment is said to be a product of the relative academic youth of Psychology. As it only has a history dating back approximately 100 years, it has been created in a reductionist manner that sees it splinter into a number of different disciplines that end up disagreeing over issues such as the best method to employ, and even which questions to ask. Psychology has made, as its main focus, the study of individuals, their thoughts and their actions.

While the pursuit of sustainability will need to address and affect these core components, this cannot be achieved in the reductionist style that current psychological trends employ to study these aspects in isolation. Rather what is required is a contextual understanding of the individual, taking into account its political, economic, cultural and spiritual environments. Winter goes on to (rather cynically) suggest that these core problems within psychology stem from the fact that it is a tool and symbol of the Western modernist worldview, and thus continually re-enforces the unconscious framework of modern Western tradition.

She suggests that the first problem this creates (inherent in the previously mentioned worldview) is that it focuses on individuals one at a time, rather than their place within a community and its resultant effects. This is true in many cases, but psychologists such as Zimbardo may strongly disagree that it is true of all psychological research. The resultant split that this suggests between the individual and the community is said to be indicative of the current worldview that leads to a perceived split between individual and environment.

The second problem that Winter identifies is the extent to which Psychology is defined as a science. Apparently this is shaped by the modernist view that nature has an inherently mechanical quality that allows it to be manipulated and predicted. When extended to mental life and cognition this causes a very reductionist view that separates these too much from their social context. One criticism that can be suggested of this view is that maybe it is Winter, rather than the psychological community, who have the misunderstanding.

She suggests that Psychology is too isolationist and too focussed on empirical results, but perhaps this suggests that psychology is not the correct area for her focus. In order for psychology to answer the questions it sets itself, this technique seems necessary. Morgan (1998) has written on this issue a number of times, suggesting that moving to a more ‘qualified’ rather than quantified style would cause it to loose its basis as a science, and would move it away from its fundamental purpose.

Perhaps what Winter should be doing is focusing on another discipline, such as sociology, or perhaps even creating a new discipline altogether. The criticisms she raises are valid to her point, but would she suggest that before a Chemist mixed a sodium hydroxide solution he should consider his actions in a wider political and ecological sense? At this point Winter also damages the credibility of her own argument by adding a point on gender discrimination.

She suggests that the use of the terms ‘hard data’ (meaning empirical evidence) and ‘soft data’ (meaning theories and philosophies which are not scientifically verifiable) show gender implications which support the more masculine ‘hard’ data and scorn the feminine ‘soft’ data. Apparently these gender dimensions, which plague psychology’s history, are indicative of a sexist aspect of Modernist worldview. Although there may be some significant aspect of this gender argument the way that it is presented here (as well as shadowing many of her other points) seems somewhat contrived to aid an underlying feminist political agenda.

The final problem said to arise from Psychology’s entrenchment within the western modernist worldview is the way in which it is employed as a ‘tool for the improvement of human welfare’. It is suggested that this is a perversion of the role of psychology (which many psychologists would disagree with) as it is said to necessitate the move into arenas of public service such as education, social policy and war. The (particularly atypical and rather unfair) example given here is the concept of IQ testing. It is suggested that such testing is seen to promote segregation and bigotry by promoting differences.

Moreover she accurately points out that it has been proved in the bell-curve debate that the test does not take into account cultural or social context and can inaccurately assess individuals from backgrounds different to the archetypal Western society (Herrnstein et al, 1994). This is all correct in terms of what information is presented, but the information itself seems to have been selected rather subjectively to support her own agenda (an accusation she later throws at Western culture, but perhaps she is merely herself a victim of it).

Perhaps a fairer example could have that of psychometric testing for potential gun owners. Moreover, the information is out of date. The bell curve debate occurred in the 1970’s and since then all these criticisms have been taken into account. The IQ test itself merely provides statistical information. It is up to those who employ it to make inferences. What does hold is that this serves to show how the individual is often the unit of analysis, and that as psychology attempts to help the individual, it is seen to preserve the social order.

It is then suggested that Psychology is seen as a fundamental tool to displace non-Western cultures. Psychology promotes “capitalism,… competitiveness… success and the garnering of material wealth” and replaces the familial psychiatric role of ‘traditional’ societies (Gladwin et al, 1980). Thus what is needed is a more ‘indigenous’ psychology that looks at and draws from traditional cultures and goes to the roots of problems such as global ecological destruction, rather than merely focusing on the by-products and results.

There is a great deal of strength to the argument that psychology could learn from traditional cultures, but to an extent this is already the case. Many of the cathartic therapies as well as some of the behavioural treatments can be seen to have traditional aspects. It could be suggested however that all that is needed is an assimilation of some traditional ideas into contemporary psychology. It may also be excessive to claim that psychology promotes many of the more negative aspects of contemporary Western society such as greed and competitiveness, or even that these have become fundamental aspects of modernist Western thinking.

Firstly, psychology is often employed to counteract the effects of these ‘social evils’. Secondly, if they were ingrained in the psyche of the Westerner they would not be seen to cause the cognitive and behavioural malfunctions (such as stress and depression) which are treated by psychology. Winter moves on to claim that each of the main disciplines within psychology is full of inherent flaws that are derived from the maligned Western worldview, yet each has something to offer to a possible new direction that could be taken.

The first discipline identified is that of Social Psychology. It is suggested that this has a potentially strong use in the creation of a sustainable culture, as it shows how personal processes are linked to larger, more global factors and how they can have political and economic relevance. It also demonstrates that the immediate social setting is fundamental for determining our behaviour. Thus Social Psychology can help understand how to change attitudes by first changing their behaviour.

In particular, the ‘symbolic interactionist’ theory is useful, as it suggests the individual self is merely the product of our context, and therefore environment and individual must be intertwined (Charon, 2001). The second useful discipline is Freudian Psychology as it focuses more individually and gives insight into irrational human behaviour. It allows us to be more aware of our own habitual defence mechanisms that may be used to excuse environmentally destructive behaviour. It is limited as is culturally restricted, and only helps us recognise our ecological problems rather than finding solutions for them.

It should be noted that although this concept has merit, Freud actually dismissed the concept of a larger ecological self, which Winter later goes on say is vital. Behavioural Psychology is useful to the cause as it can give a deep understanding of behaviour, although it tends towards changing the behaviours without resolving their deeper causes. The focus on stimulus response can often become too myopic and so fail to consider the larger patterns of behaviour and the more institutional structures (political and economic) which serve to shape our responses.

Also, without addressing causes, small superficial changes may simply become substituted with a similar, equally destructive behaviour. The discipline of Cognitive Psychology can help us become more aware of inner experiences by focussing on thoughts and beliefs. Most of our environmentally destructive behaviour is the result of ignorant or inaccurate beliefs and attitudes, which are easily corrected once they are identified. It also shows how we are prone to taking perceptual shortcuts and over-generalising, and so can be easily misinformed by biased authority figures.

Gestalt and Transpersonal Psychology lead on from the Cognitive approach showing that individuals are rooted within the larger world and this effects our thinking. This view can help to create an ecological form of psychology as it offers a much more holistic view that could easily incorporate more spiritual and political views. Winter suggests that the next action to take is to amalgamate the best aspects of each of these views and to combine them with practical political and economic considerations, in order to create this ‘Ecological Psychology’ (as these deeper issues shape much of our worldview).

This Ecological Psychology is defined as “the study of human experience and behaviour, in its physical, political and spiritual context, in order to build a sustainable world”. Environmentally destructive behaviours are fundamentally the result of the mistaken belief that individuals are totally separate from their environment and their actions do not effect the ecosystem. Whereas traditional psychology looks only at improving information, reinforcements, stimulus response and mere consciousness of action, Ecological Psychology would have a much deeper and broad-reaching aim, it is far more global and spiritual in attention.

It is global, because it looks to understand all the larger dimensions of irresponsible actions, such as looking at why we continue to use cars despite their obvious harm. In this case it would take into account the structural forces that seem out of the individuals field of influence, such as the lack of public transport, the distance to (but necessity of) work and the relative inexpensiveness of petrol and cars. If global systems can have a strong influence on individual behaviour, they must be better understood.

Moreover, it seeks to confront the attitude that nothing seems to be able to be done, and to highlight the point that all actions have much larger consequences that need to be considered. In literal terms this could mean that understanding the way the Western over-consumption creates unnecessary suffering could lead to a reconsideration of consumer-focussed lifestyles. The spiritual aspects Winter suggests are more complex in nature. She points out that it is important to consider the self as an artefact of the world in which we live (as supported by the symbolic interactionist view), and not a separate entity.

She looks to Post-modern Psychology for the basis of this, as from this perspective the self is seen to be neither separate nor stable, but continually changing as new information from the environment is presented. This use of comparative information to gain a sense of self is thought to lead to a very empty, or even nihilist view according to post-modernists, as the unstable nature of the information constantly being received means that we cannot maintain a feeling of identity.

This feeling that nothing is real can be the cause of apathy towards creating a sustainable way of life, or more extremely towards taking action to sustain human existence. While some aspects of this thinking (such as the interdependence of the individual and the environment) are useful to the goals of Ecological Psychology, Winter suggests that the lack of self identity comes from a misunderstanding that still sees too much focus on the individual. Humans have only existed for less that 0. 25% of the total time the earth has existed. Human life is only sustained due to a recent and delicate set of physical conditions.

Therefore the physical world does exist and in fact has pre-eminence. Therefore the post-modernist suggestion that knowledge is shaped by political, economic and spiritual dimensions is valid but it must be adapted to accept that we do exist, but need to consider the environment in order to continue to do so. The more we come to understand of our environment, the better we can identify the self. The final major aspect of Ecological Psychology is then to move towards a more integrated knowledge that encompasses all the currently divided academic institutions (such as maths, and poetry) as well as all spiritual and other global ideas.

Winter’s ideas on how psychology might play a role in finding a more sustainable way of life have great merit, and seem to be sensible, though extreme. The concept of Ecological Psychology seems to be an important step forward in reversing the trend towards ecological disaster, yet it still seems that, with all the criticisms she launches towards current ‘modernist’ psychology perhaps (as mentioned earlier she is looking at the wrong discipline to revise. Also, she fails to take into account that in the current state of education, most Westerners know of their destructive behaviours and the consequences they will have.

In attacking the Western culture for being the chief ‘villain’, she fails to recognise that it is also the ‘reductionist sciences’ of this culture that identified the problems, which may be the best source for an effective solution. Perhaps instead of the wide-ranging exploration Winter suggests is necessary, what is needed is a specific look at why people choose to continue the actions which they are often fully aware of. It may even be that many of the problems inherent in the West are due to the traditional values such as unquestioningly respecting authority figures.

If this is the case, then rather than promoting a sense of unity and interrelation, it may be more important to promote a sense of individuality so that people can feel direct responsibility for their actions and so rethink them accordingly. Perhaps in Winter’s attack on reductionism, she has gone too far the other way. There may be some middle ground, incorporating a wider general understanding but a more focussed goal, that offers the most effective solution to our ecological problems.