The Origins of a Worldwide Contextual Community: Steve Hayes on ACBS

In a recent blog post, Steve Hayes describes the origins of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), the scientific organisation that promotes Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and other contextual approaches. (For informative papers about the history of ACT & RFT, check out Zettle 2005 and Cullen 2008).
ACBS was founded in 2005, and to date, has over 7000 members world-wide. The organisation is active in developing a diverse membership – amongst other initiatives, ACBS has a scholarship fund to support people from developing nations to attend world conferences. The low cost to join and the wealth of clinical and scientific resources available on the organisation’s website (contextualscience.org) are certainly attractive; for many, the ACBS community is also a strong draw, participating in a psychological organisation that reflects prosocial values (more on this below).

Steve describes the tragic events that shaped the formation of the organisation:

“…the actual spark that gave rise to ACBS was more specific and more emotional: the horrifying events of September 11, 2001. It think that matters that ACBS came in part from that event — and it makes more sense of why ACBS has the motto that it does [“creating a psychology more worthy of the challenge of the human condition.”]…

… I was set to go do two workshops in Sweden (one in Stockholm and one in Uppsala) organized by Ned Carter and Kenneth Nillsson, suitcase in hand, when I got a call saying to put down my suitcase on turn on the TV. I did and watched in horror as humans jumped from the twin towers like dust falling from a shaken tree, which then fell to the ground. All airlines were grounded. There would be no workshop in Sweden.

The next week I told my lab “we are going to study prejudice, bias, and stigma.” I told them to watch what was about to happen: we in the West will objectify and dehumanize others out of fear. I remember saying “there are not enough bullets and enough bomb and enough soldiers to make ourself safe in the world that is upon us. Soldiers and politicians are not enough. Behavioral scientists have to be part of the solution.” The whole lab was crying. We wanted to do something.

My lab did alter its focus, beginning basic and applied work on acceptance, mindfulness, perspective-taking and values as antidotes to prejudice and stigma. That work in ACT and RFT continues world wide to this day.
In early 2002 Ned, Kenneth and I started to talk about what to do about the cancelled workshop. I wanted to up the ante in response to the horrifying way that workshop was cancelled.  I’m not sure if Ned or I said it first but in a call with him we began to talk about not just a workshop but a world wide event on ACT, RFT, and the new behavioral psychology. I suspect it was Ned who raised the idea of a conference… I likely added the expansive vision behind a World Conference for ACT / RFT / Functional Contextualism because it was linked to the horror that starting this process. That call on September 11, 2001 was part the energy that led to the conference. It was not that we felt we had an answer — it was that we felt we have to care about developing one and that behavioral psychology in a new form could be part of that. We would meet hate with love; ignorance with knowledge; division with community.”

The blog post is well worth a read, to appreciate what has shaped several strands of contextual behavioural science (such as the contemporary research on stigma and prejudice) and the risk-taking involved in building communities. That risk-taking included organising the first world conference on ACT, RFT and CBS in Sweden in 2003, while it was a big unknown how many people would come!

In my view, along with what shaped the organisation, ACBS’ growth has been due to several factors:

An active and welcoming online community – the ACT/RFT community developed at a time when participating in online discussions became a mainstream activity (therapists are not exactly the most technologically forward as a group). Compared to other online forums, the ACT listservs are actively moderated to reflect the values of the community: to be respectful, non-hierarchical, and prosocial in outlook. Flamewars and trolling don’t really occur: quite a difference from other psychotherapy listserves I have joined. This doesn’t mean that there are no differences of opinion and robust discussions. Rather than collapsing into acrinomony and point-scoring, many times these conversations lead to important clarifications about conceptual and philosophical issues, along with sharing of research and clinical innovations. Following these discussions gives you a sense of people’s views and interests, and allows you to remain connected after you have been to a conference or training event. Some listserv participants write online in ways that are quite similar to how they behave at conferences! In recent years an added “layer” to interaction has been the increasing activity of ACBS members on social media (with Facebook groups in particular, and Twitter).

An open-source approach to science and clinical developments – from the start, the community has been about sharing resources, with an openness about the use of the model. There are stories that, prior to the publication of the 1999 ACT manual, floppy disks of book chapters were freely distributed at training events. Certainly, when I started researching for ACT resources in 2000, there was already plenty available online (papers, manuals, measures, presentations), and emailing the authors would usually result in receiving more resources. This sharing culture has continued as ACT has become more popular and visible, no largely through the ACBS website. Again, a breath of fresh air, in comparison to other psychotherapy communities where hierarchies can develop, usually in the form of credentialing or official endorsements of training by the host organisation, or resources are jealously guarded. The ACBS route of open source development means that you can easily research and practice ACT without needing permissions from anyone in the community.

An approach of the community modelling the values of ACBS – to me, ACBS is the kind of scientific/psychology community that I hoped I could be involved in when I trained as a clinical psychologist. My early career experience was different from my hopes: a number of psychological organisations I participated in were inwardly-focused, hierarchical, focused on guild issues, political in self-defeating ways, disengaged from the broader world etc. ACBS feels different. The community is inspiring, earnest in developing ways to improve the world for everyone, and encouraging of members to contribute in meaningful ways. No doubt the same unworkable processes that occur in any grouping of people happens in ACBS, it just seems that there are value-driven, prosocial ways to handle this. ACBS conferences and the online community are one of the few places in my life where people really do “walk the talk” and are compassionate  about how hard this is to do consistently. And we are all learning – ACBS is a work in progress in building a prosocial community. Experiencing this encourages you to do more in your own communities (family, neighbourhood, workplace etc) that reflects these values too.

These three factors help to create the worldwide connectedness that ACBS members experience, and I think will lead to further growth in membership. In response to the problems of humanity, and in many and varied ways, we can all contribute to “creating a psychology more worthy of the challenge of the human condition”.

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