Monday, December 27, 2010

Aspects of a critique of the “positive” psychology of self efficacy

M.A. Cohn and B.L. Fredrickson,“Positive emotions” (ref.3), whom I’ve discussed recently (A, B, C) are modest in their terms, relative to how teachers and counselors might be expected to understand their short-term opportunities. Building “personal resources” results from “increases in daily positive emotion” (18) because reliably-recurrent good feelings lead to enjoyable “broaden-and-build” (generative) processes or developmental activities, thereby (I add) self-nurturing talents, self-cultivating interest, and honing one’s own skills (but how such recursive efficacy works remains mysterious in their research summary). C&F attend to a behavioral process happening that seems magically lacking life-centered minds or individuational enactivity: desire, aspiration, purpose, and identity (though all that is easily implied by them—just not focal, which all that should be for a theory of learning, which they claim to be conceptualizing).

I do find a sense of life-centered enactivity in C&F’s rather behaviorist conception, but their spiral-cyclical learning model, which is heavily “biased” by their interest in “emotion,” must be understood as a supplement to thinking that is oriented by identity-developmental capability formation or individuation, belonging to one’s aspirational interest in self fulfillment.

They might readily agree, though they seem a little comical to me (not their intent, surely): They proffer the “resource-building effects” of “hav[ing] emotion inductions that are [durable, i.e.,] reliable and continue to work over time [] visualizing one’s best possible self...[for a] practice [of persons] using their signature strengths” (op. cit., 20). This is implicitly about self-evincing motivation in light of realized self efficacy, but other psychologists’ modeling seems more constitutive for self-directed learning.

C&F passingly mention the professional efficacy of cognitive-behavioral (C-B) processes (ibid.) for instilling generative feeling about newly challenging situations. But C-B psychology is essentially behaviorist, taking a rather black-box stance toward the character of goal-specified change. Perfect for short-term workshops (and cost-effective short-term therapies), C-B psychology easily seems (in institutional settings) to lack a guiding approach to long-term enowning of positive changes, I would argue. The short-term-oriented knowledge-behavior-rehabituation loop in C -B psychology lacks a standardly-educational sense of capability formation that is integrated with broad-based, long-term developmental aims.

I think there’s great promise in positive psychology for giving C-B practices a better foundation, thus better promise (more long-term cost-effectiveness!). But that’s a big topic.

Developmental understanding of given efficacies is vital to understanding those efficacies as such, i.e., as belonging to purposive identities. However, empirical psychology (with its legacy of behaviorism) has tended (and continues) to describe, rather than developmentally explain—or rather: to synchronically explain (thanks to easily-accesible measurability), rather than diachronically explain, which is the non-quantifiable province of clinical work. Optimism about one’s self efficacy is a practiced, life-historical part of oneself (not a “personal resource”).

I could elaborate this point easily relative to a researcher, James E. Maddux, on “self-efficacy” who offers a synoptic of “social cognitive theory’s four basic premises,” which intends to explicate how “understanding human cognition, action, motivation, and emotion...assumes that we are active shapers of...our environments,” but lacks—in an article on self efficacy!—any allusion to a person’s values, purposes, intentions, identity, or development of capabilities. Maddux’s environmentalist approach to self efficacy, as part of a handbook on positive psychology, continues the behaviorist legacy (ref.1: 336-7). He goes to some length to explain the development of a child’s “self-efficacy” in terms of social-operant conditioning. Self efficacy is explicated as a set of beliefs that have behaviorally and responsively arisen, somehow working into motivation, rather than as an efficacious identification with one’s capabilities. Like C&F, this is like relating to a resource base rather than identifying with one’s capability and appropriating capability into one’s values, purposes, and identity.

I could easily appropriate his discussion into my developmental view (I can get there from here, so to speak), but such an educational psychological approach doesn’t follow from a social-operant perspective (one can’t get here from there). “[B]eliefs about what I am capable of doing” presume the enowned actuality of what one is capable of doing. Indeed, “[e]fficacy beliefs in a given domain will contribute to my self-esteem only in direct proportion to the importance I place on that domain.” But this is a matter of the importance I really place on actual capabilities, i.e., the nexus of motivaing (or appealing) importances in one’s capability formation and one’s life. Maddux tends to cognitivistically split off belief from the character of motivation.

This discussion was the basis for part of “enowning development.”