SUBSTITUTING RATIONAL THINKING FOR IRRATIONAL THOUGHTS
Albert Ellis, 1984
Albert Ellis is Executive Director of The Institute for Advanced Study in Rational Psychotherapy in New York City. He founded the rational emotive approach to psychotherapy and developed it into a personality theory in system psychotherapy, which identifies people's irrational beliefs as a source of emotional disturbance and the cause of irrational actions. Dr. Ellis has offered the opinion that a greater threat that nuclear weapons may be used comes not from the Generals and the Admirals, but from those religious fanatics who believe that they enhance their lives in the next world by taking the lives of people in this world.
Whiteley: Dr. Ellis, as you've thought about the problems of peace and preventing war, why is it that our society has recurrently gotten into hostilities?
Ellis: Well, of course the answer is very complex, John, and there are many facets to it, but I've given it thought mainly from the standpoint, naturally, of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) which has its ideas especially on peace with and among individuals: first, themselves, peace with themselves; secondly peace with other humans with whom they relate or anti-relate, as it were; and then peace even with some of the conditions of the world, the world being the way it is. And I think that those three aspects go for peace among groups, nations, as well.
Whiteley: What are the basic assumptions that RET makes about people?
Ellis: The basic assumptions are two conflicting ones that biologically and sociologically, but especially innately biologically, humans are born with a strong tendency: one, to think about their thinking, to reason, to actualize themselves, to live and sustain themselves happily; and two, unfortunately, a tendency to foolishly, irrationally defeat themselves and their social groups. So they have both innate tendencies, and these are in conflict with each other. And RET, Rational Emotive Therapy, tries to get them to actualize more and to selfsabotage less.
Whiteley: One of the themes that run through your many writings is that people have emotional problems, that they fall psychologically ill because of a preponderance of irrational ideas.
Ellis: Yes. We go back to ancient philosophers, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, who said very clearly we largely feel the way we think, and then of course, we also think the way we feel and behave. But our behavior and our feeling, when it's bad, meaning self-defeating, and against the social group, largely stems from our irrational thoughts or ideas, and that these can be changed by accepting them, looking at them, acknowledging them, and then using this scientific method to dispel them and minimize them.
Whiteley: So what you do as a therapist is help people substitute more rational ways of thinking about issues for the ones they've held that are irrational and in conflict.
Ellis: That's right. Essentially to get them to think more rationally, logically, and empirically, scientifically, to feel appropriately both negatively and positively, and to act undefeatingly of themselves and their social group. That's the goal of RET.
Whiteley: Applying that system of thinking about human beings, helping them live better, to the problem of peace, is there something innate in the human condition that predisposes people to aggressive or hostile or combative resolutions of issues?
Ellis: Yes, I'd say the same three things that disposes or predisposes them to upset themselves and have no peace or little peace with themselves. One is called ego: I have to do, must do well and be noble and great and be loved by you or else I am pretty worthless, and that leads to anxiety, panic, depression. Two, you other humans have to, got to, must treat me kindly and nobly and be on my side or else you know what you are. And that leads to rage, to fury, to hostility, to war, to genocide. And then finally, the world, the conditions around me must give me exactly what I want because I want it - immediately, freely, free lunch, or else it's a horrible place and I can't stand it, and I might as well kill myself. Now those three ideas with which humans disturb themselves individually, they also use in their social psychology, their social relations. And they all, every one of them, each and every one leads to disruption of peace and to war, fratricide, etc.
Whiteley: You're saying that there's three aspects of the human condition. That in an irrational ego need about oneself, and expectation that others will provide, and collectively, that there is an expectation that the world will take care of them.
Ellis: A demand! A command! It's a sort of Jehovian command - I have to do well or I'm worthless. You must treat me nobly and kindly or you are no good and deserve extermination, and the world has got to treat me kindly and give me what I want or it's a terrible place. Three 'musts' I call human disturbance, the result of what I call 'musturbation': I have to do well, you must treat me well, and the world must be easy, and that leads to individual intrapsychic disturbance, but also to interpersonal and social disturbance.
Whiteley: But the nature of the initial problem is the disturbance within individuals themselves that then has manifested itself externally in conflict with others.
Ellis: Psychologically, yes. You begin with the individual. But then whenever humans get into social groups there are complicated economic, social and other factors which combine with these individual factors and encourage, don't make them fight each other, but encourage fighting, and especially go along the lines or interact with those three individual 'musts.'
Whiteley: I would like to switch the focus of our discussion from your very clear view that part of the problem is definitely in human nature, and move to ask you to analyze how three of the major institutions of societies around the world interact with people to perpetuate the fact that peace has not been a dominant persistent theme in our society which we want to have in future generations. Let's start with the role of religion. How do you see religion as an institution in our society affecting the issue of peace?
Ellis: Well, ostensibly and theoretically, religion is mostly on the side of peace because religious groups want to survive and they want to help the world, each other survive. So theoretically, they are on the side of peace, but actually, when they become devout, when they become exclusive, and think mainly of each individual religion, and that they prevail and know the right over other religions, when they become cultists, then they get bigoted and insist that other groups follow their way and become the Moral Majority, for example, or some of the cultists of the extreme sort. And my view that in terms of things like the atomic bomb that those Generals that we have and that the Soviet Union and other countries have, are going to be intelligent enough not to push the buttons because they know the reprisal from the other side. But some of these cultists who think that their role on earth is really to get into heaven, sometimes buy terrorism and deliberately annihilating other groups against their cult, against their religion, I think they will deliberately push those buttons one of these days when they can, and deliberately blow us up. And they'll presumably go to heaven while the rest of us will go you know where. So that kind of deep down religiosity which is political, it's not just religious in the theistic sense because some of the dictatorships think the same devout, pious way. That kind of religiosity may actually destroy us unless we psychologists, psychotherapists, and other social scientists are able to do something about it, make inroads against it.
Whiteley: Okay. You seem to be distinguishing between several different types of what are generally thought of as religiously oriented groups. And the group that gives you the most concern is that group that is mostly preoccupied with issues in the next world that their behavior in this world is not designed to make this a better world, but to somehow translate their life in this world into a favorite place, or a place in the next world.
Ellis: To sanctify themselves in the next world through deliberately destroying us and themselves, because they will actually destroy themselves as terrorists, devout terrorists sometimes too, but they're happy doing so because they're convinced that the goal in life is to reach some kind of heaven that they believe in, and not to foment peace on earth, good will to men and women.
Whiteley: Let's start with the second group, government. What is the role of government as you've observed in preserving peace?
Ellis: Well, both governments again say that they're very interested in peace, and in a sense they are because they do not want to be disrupted. But unfortunately, at times, in order to gain power, to keep power, to get some of their other goals, and their incidentally egocentricity over other national groups, they will really foment war. So they think more for the government, rather than for the people in that government at times.
Whiteley: The issue as you've discussed it, however, is the issue of power.
Whiteley: Power over others, power to dominate how certain kinds of decisions are made. Is that rooted in some personal need people have for power over others? Is it some kind of collective activity? What's the source, because identifying the source seems important to helping think our way through collectively as a society?
Ellis: The source is always personal. At bottom humans are individuals and are human, and therefore the basic source is that I must be good, must do well, must have control, power over you. But as soon as you form a social group, the group consists of humans and the group normally takes over. We must control, have power, and dominate over you in order to preserve our safety and to do better, presumably, and preserve ourselves at all costs. That's the must. Not just a desire to do well and achieve power, which would be okay, but the necessity, the command to do so under all conditions at all times, and that seeps into governments even though the government begins off in a nice democratic social way.
Whiteley: Okay. If you were to intervene in government as a general institution, it sounds like you're saying your interventions would be at the individual level.
Ellis: Mainly, but there is social psychology and the psychology of groups, so we would also intervene at that level, but still social groups consist of individuals. And if we could get as RET (Rational Emotive Therapy) tries to get into the school system, into the heads and minds and hearts of children, and we could get them to not be egocentric to the extreme, to not demand that others do their bidding, and to not demand that conditions be easy, then presumably the theory would say, at least, the groups of people will also follow along that pathway.
Whiteley: What role do you see business as an institution in society playing in the peace issue?
Ellis: Well, business again has its own thing and is normally neutral or not on the side of any war. But unfortunately, vested interests sometimes do gain by wars and do gain by conflict and do gain by drama and things like that. And consequently it has, as every other institution has, this dual role of wanting stability, wanting peace, wanting prosperity, but at the same time at times falling into the short-range hedonism that, at the moment it would do us better to get on the side of war.
Whiteley: So an economic perspective for some groups within the business community gives them more of an incentive to be involved in war issues than it is to be involved in peace issues.
Ellis: Right. And especially for the moment because businesses are business people and they are short-range hedonists and have low frustration tolerance, go for the pleasure and joys and good satisfactions of the moment, and they forget the consequences. That's a normal human aspect of what we call human nature.
Whiteley: So your issue there in human nature is a natural tendency to not look at long-range consequences of behavior.
Ellis: That's very difficult, and in RET we have the greatest difficulty teaching humans who come to us for help to not only go for immediate joys and satisfactions which are great, but also to think of the future and the long range gains.
Whiteley: What role has education, as one of the dominant opportunities to shape coming generations in our society, what role is education currently playing?
Ellis: Well, it currently plays the hither and yon role of both pushing certain bigotries, even prejudices, because the group in which the individuals are educated have those prejudices, and those bigotries lead to hostility, dissension and war. But at the same time education does teach, does educate, does give knowledge, and the more knowledgeable you are, and especially I say, with RET, the more scientific then the less devout, the less bigoted you are. So education has an enormous role and we see RET not as individual therapy or even group therapy, but as educational therapy in the long run. If it were taught in the school systems to practically everybody, and they gave up their absolutistic commands and demands on other humans, then education could be the main role or the main device for fomenting peace and lasting peace.
Whiteley: And you seem to be saying your analysis that one, education generally defined, is not doing what it could at present to make peace a more significant issue in the curriculum, number one.
Whiteley: And number two, that there are groups within the world, within this society, that put their educational system to particular uses that do not bring the next generation up valuing peace as much as you think it ought to be valued.
Ellis: Don't forget armies use education; they do a great deal of teaching. So it's the usual kind of conflict, but its role could be maybe the most useful of practically all those things because they interact. The government has education, it sponsors education and people are educable and, again, vote for the government and teach in the schools. So they're all intertwined. But education, to teach humans to be non rabid, non bigoted, non demanding that other people have to do their bidding, would be an educational function more than a therapeutic one.
Whiteley: What do you see to be the role of the family?
Ellis: The family again goes along with the system frequently, and has its own nationalism: "Our family is better than your family." You see, this is dissension. But again, it's the interest that in the preservation of its people, and especially of its children, so the family could be an educational force for RET and for antibigotry and for scientific thinking. Now it frequently isn't, but I think that it could be along with education and all those other institutions, one of the foremost forces. But at the present time it has war aspects and peace aspects both.
Whiteley: So the family, in your view, is underutilized as an institution to bring more peace to the world at this point.
Ellis: Yes, and I think by a sin of omission it may even foment more warlike attitudes and internecine warfare between individuals and one family against another than not. So it may be anti-therapeutic in that sense, but it could be used for very therapeutic purposes.
Whiteley: Okay. One of the special topics that you'd wanted to talk about was what you see the role of the helping professions to be in bringing more peace to the world.
Ellis: I think that's crucial in the sense that I don't know who would understand human nature and the impulsions to both peace, sanity and war, insanity, than the helping professions. And consequently, they'd better investigate, get the facts, develop the theories, see what humans are like, and of course, in psychotherapy that's the philosophy and psychology of change. How to change some of these innate tendencies to get on the side of peace and selfactualization and pleasure, and against the musts and the shoulds and the imperatives, and the self-defeating attitudes which humans easily create? So I think that psychotherapy is almost at the bottom, or the helping professions of understanding it, and then teaching it not just to disturb people, but supervising the teaching of it in the educational system, in religious institutions, if they will accept it, and in the family and every other institution that you can name.
Whiteley: Okay. Your view of the special contributions that the helping professions can make seems to be based in one, as a group they give a lot of thought to the nature of the human condition; two, for many of them the business of their profession is helping people change whatever part of their life is not going well, and that there's a methodology within the helping professions of studying problems and designing solutions, and studying the effects of those. Given the fact you believe that the helping professions are an important place to start to achieving a more peaceful world.
Whiteley: How would you design some interventions? And let's run back up the groups we started. How would you first intervene within the family? What would you tell those people in whose unit is the crucible for the development of the next generations? What would you tell parents to do differently?
Ellis: Well, we would teach parent and parenting - parent teaching is a part of the helping professions. We would teach them the great dangers of the bigotry, the dissension, the needing others to do your bidding instead of preferring and inducing, and trying to get them communicatively to do so. And we would show them how they could help educate and reeducate their children because you have to take away from some of the mass media, the television, etc., and use the family in a parenting fashion to raise children who are interested in cooperation, collaboration, communication, understanding, and looking at the other point of view and not only at your own. So I think that the helping professions could show family members how to do that in the schools, teaching them, and individually when the families get into trouble.
Whiteley: How would you intervene with the curriculum for education?
Ellis: Psychologists and social workers and psychiatrists, and other members of the helping professions would consult with the teaching and put emotional education into the classroom. They wouldn't teach it; the teachers would teach it, but they could supervise teachers showing the children how to fully accept themselves unconditionally, accept themselves, get rid of that ego - I must do well - how to accept others unconditionally and how even to accept the fact that the world has hassles and unpleasant conditions and not to whine and scream about that.
Whiteley: Both with the family unit and with education, you've chosen to make the impact on the individual in large part, it seems, because your basic assumption about why their problems are those inherent in human nature. Moving to larger social organizations, what would be your advice to business?
Ellis: Well, in business again, we would consult, and right now in RET we have; we consult with EAP, Employees' Assistance Programs, that we would consult and do education in business, because education had better be continually, not just stop at the school system. So we would show the business people how they, by some of their techniques, are anti-collaborative, anti-cooperative, and how they are destroying, again mainly by going for the pleasure and the profit of the moment, some of their future profits and pleasures and how they may even be interfering with the social good in the sense of fomenting negative warlike kinds of activities.
Whiteley: What about government?
Ellis: Well, government too we can train people or help train people who are members of a government, versus individuals in the school and in remedial help, in psychotherapeutic help if they require that. But again I think that psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and other members of the helping professions had better consult much more than they do with legislators, with legislative processes, to devise methods of communication better than, say, Roberts Rules of Order which have their advantages and their disadvantages, and other communication systems.
Whiteley: The last group we've discussed, and the one we began with, is religion. What impact would you try to make on religion?
Ellis: Well, the main one would try to be somehow, and I haven't figured this out in detail, John, but somehow to go against those devout religionists who I think are against living a happy life on this earth. I have no objection to people believing they can also be happy in heaven if there is one. But to sacrifice this earth for heaven, to be absolutely 200 percent convinced that if you destroy people and yourself on this earth you will get sanctified in heaven, then we would try to get the helping professions to get people to give up that kind of idea which I think is anti-human and anti-humane.
Whiteley: And you would try to substitute in its place a greater owning of life in this world and an affirmation of their principles for living better in this world thinking about the consequences.
Ellis: And if there were any heaven, I think those people who live better in this world and were collaborative and not hostile and warring, would be the ones who would probably get into and enjoy the next. But I'm not concerned with that. Let's talk about the world we know exists and will not exist unless we do something like this.