Steve Hayes has been working on his new book A Liberated Mind for 11 years, but he’s been working on its content for nearly 40. Now, only a month after its release, its last chapter has swelled into a book of its own, Prosocial, written with Paul Atkins at Australian Catholic University and David Sloan Wilson, a well-known evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York.
A Nevada Foundation Professor in the Behavior Analysis program in the Department of Psychology, Hayes is the originator and pioneering researcher into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is one the most researched new form of psychological intervention world-wide over the last few decades. A Liberated Mind (from Penguin/Avery) tells his personal story of struggle with panic disorder nearly 40 years ago, and the science story of how ACT and its underlying “psychological flexibility model” was then developed and tested by a worldwide community of scholars and therapists. The book shows readers how to develop their own psychological flexibility skills and to apply them to problems that are based on their behavior, from mental health (anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, PTSD); to physical health (chronic pain, dealing with diabetes, facing cancer); to performance (sports, business, diet, exercise); and social processes (relationship issues, prejudice, stigma, domestic violence; social transformation).
The core idea is simple but subtle: We struggle because our problem-solving minds tells us to run from what causes us fear, hurt, or worry. That not only often amplifies the impact of difficult thoughts and feelings, it also cuts us off from a key source of human vitality and purpose because we hurt where we care. Thus, if we run from a sense of vulnerability, we must also run from what we most care about. Using psychological flexibility skills, ACT teaches how to tap into a different mode of mind that is more emotionally and cognitively open, and then to use greater conscious awareness and mindfulness to turn attention toward what brings meaning and purpose into life, building habits around growth instead of avoidance.
Prosocial scales these ideas into the development of cooperation and success of small groups, by linking psychological flexibility to the Nobel Prize winning “core design principles” (CDPs) of the late Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom won the Nobel in economics by showing that groups have succeeded for millennia in protecting their common pool resources (fisheries, forests, rivers, and so on) without either government control or private ownership, but only if they organize themselves in ways that foster cooperation. She and Wilson later showed that her eight CDPs that predict success flow from an extended evolutionary synthesis. Wilson and Hayes met with Ostrom shortly before her death to discuss the implications of the linkage between psychological flexibility principles, which have also been developed within an evolutionary perspective, and the CDPs. Prosocial is the name for an applied method that later emerged based on these two sets of ideas. The final chapter of A Liberated Mind tells the story of how ACT and the CDPs were applied in Sierra Leone to help slow the recent Ebola outbreak and the full story of that method and how to use it is now laid out in detail in the new book Prosocial.
The video featured in this article about Prosocial was released recently on a website for behavior analysts (professionals who use learning principles to alter behavior). The site also published a similar video featuring Hayes's book A Liberated Mind. The behavior analysis program is one of three graduate programs in the Department of Psychology, which joined the College of Science this summer. The video shows Hayes explaining why BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) should learn the Prosocial method, but it also provides a quick tutorial in Ostrom’s CDPs.