A manifesto for whole intelligence
“A little while and I will be gone from among you, whither I cannot tell. From nowhere we come, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is a flash of firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” - Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot Nation
The end of another pandemic year approaches. The start of a new year beckons.
With it some countries are hurtling towards what their medical communities are telling us will be a state of emergency for their healthcare systems, again.
The chaotic global coronacoaster continues. Many borders remain closed or movement across them heavily restricted. We are learning to speak a new language: Delta, Omicron... International bodies such as the WHO seem at a loss to lead humanity through this, which is unsurprising given how little the world's most powerful countries listen to them. Despite the WHO's positive intentions and efforts, it is hard to sense any serious sense of international cooperation or coordination, let alone control.
If this is a rehearsal for our response to climate change then there is a huge amount to learn from it. Yes, there has been an incredibly agile vaccine development and deployment programme in some of the richest countries. Certain hubristic politicians keep reminding us about that. But overall, at this point, the pandemic is perhaps giving us cause for much deeper concern even beyond the pandemic itself. Yes, there are many examples of incredible cooperation and creativity. But if we take a global perspective, it would be worryingly easy to conclude that collectively, humanity right now is fragmented and, at times, quite unintelligent in its ability to respond to global emergencies.
The pandemic has affected and continues to affect all our lives to differing degrees, depending on our personal situation and location. Unsurprisingly in modern human affairs, there have been some very big financial winners, and unfortunately, many more losers. Many people in the workforce - especially those working in frontline healthcare - are close to total exhaustion.
The winners in the COVID economy might congratulate themselves. There are people who will be celebrating, aiming for even better results in 2022. Some people have demonstrated speed and ingenuity to create opportunity out of adversity - possibly more for themselves than society as a whole. I wonder if 'positive psychologists' have inadvertantly fuelled that trend, persuading people to 'celebrate success' while others suffer?
Understandably, people who did well for themselves over the last year may attribute their success to talent and effort, rather than history, geography, luck or circumstance. Those who do not feel so positive about how the year has gone will hopefully not have spent too much time on social media, consciously or subconsciously comparing themselves to others. That way lies danger. And social media has this year completed its annihilation of the words 'proud', 'humbled' and 'honoured'.
Overall, my reflections on the continued international response to COVID are, on the positive side, that there is evidence of amazing agility, no doubt. We have seen countless instances of great compassion and sacrifice. On the other hand, there has been a lack of practical intelligence in terms of coordinated global leadership. We have experienced over-confidence, and utterly mixed messages in some countries. We have seen timidity, fear, even a lack of any real response from others.
I also reflect, as I write, on how or whether my own discipline, psychology, is making valuable contributions.
I question the role of psychology in a world that in many ways seems to be getting increasingly stuck, not just in an uncoordinated and reactive COVID vortex, but also in a digital Wild West. Ours is a 'meta' world seemingly dominated by 'meta' people, rather than the diminishing number of people nowadays many of us can see and touch.
Modern mobile devices, through which people (myself included) increasingly live our lives, do rather conveniently lend themselves to untrammelled observation and analysis of every aspect of human behaviour. In this sense the digital economy, massively accelerated by COVID, is an economy of the human mind and soul.
So, psychology rules. Connected and extremely intelligent mobile devices are, above all, psychological tools. They are very clever bits of kit with amazingly sophisticated apps that yield incredibly powerful data. But are they resulting in more or less intelligent human behaviour?
In amongst these questions and reflections on the year past, I inevitably also wander into the overarching theme of climate change, and its psychological impact.
We had COP26, which was full off possibility and conviction. I noted the presence of many captains of industry supporting the cause, and speaking with what seemed to be a genuine sense of commitment. I noticed the carefully curated combination of indigenous/tribal person, C-suite executive, celebrity, academic, and activist on stage at all times. COP26 did generate some breakthroughs. It supported the optics and promise of technological transformation. It was also worryingly lacking in global unity, in any sign of trust or mutual respect between some of the world's superpowers, or potential for deep collaboration. It ended up being a very political gathering, rather than an inspiring demonstration of shared human capacity. This can only fuel already high levels of climate-anxiety.
In this context, there has been much over the last twelve months that has left me wondering if applied psychology as it is today is really doing its job well enough. As psychologists, our job is to use an evidence-based and ethically informed understanding of mind and behaviour to improve human performance, relationships, wellbeing and ecological sustainability. We aim to do this across a wide range of domains, including industry, government, education, in prisons, and in clinical settings.
One psychologist who has definitely done his job very well over the last fifty years is Malcolm Parlett. He is an eminent psychotherapist as well as a trained experimental researcher in behavioural science. He has coined the expression 'whole intelligence', researched and written on the topic extensively over many years. He has arrived at the view that for psychology to make a difference to our collective future, it needs to change its definition and treatment of 'intelligence'.
Fundamentally, what matters from Parlett's perspective is our collective intelligence and collective behaviour, certainly when we think about challenges such as pandemics, poverty, and climate change: 'Human beings are not inherently stupid. However, collectively speaking, we underperform...'
So, as part of your own reflective process entering 2022, I invite you, indeed urge you, to read the Manifesto for Whole Intelligence. I and a few other colleagues have also provided input to this Manifesto. It is a bold and authentic synthesis of Parlett's work.
For psychology to make a sustained difference to the future of our species, our field needs to go beyond its dominant discourse. This does not in my mind mean a rejection of scientific method or the experimental foundations of modern psychology. But it does mean that we also need to be open to a holistic approach to developing people, if this offers a direct response to today's realities.
Through the Manifesto for Whole Intelligence, Malcolm Parlett is offering us a way to move forward, to get unstuck. He captures beautifully, in personal, simple and practical ways, a shared wisdom that humans have written about and explored for millennia.
Here is a link to the Manifesto for Whole Intelligence: