[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, June 2013]

Since 1949, the profession of psychology has most often trained its practitioners  under what came to be called the “Boulder Model.”  This philosophy, first formalized in Boulder, Colorado, establishes a scientist-practitioner expectation of aspiring graduates into the profession.  That is, those who seek to apply psychological knowledge to help others must have a firm background in the principles of scientific theory and research.  The rationale is that the profession needs to protect the public from quackery or otherwise unproven treatments.

The reality, of course, is that most of us really dreaded the experimental and research methods classes when we were in school.  I well remember the long lectures over dense material about Bell Curves, probabilities, null hypotheses, and then the mind bending study of the squiggly-looking Greek characters used to denote complex statistics that seemed designed for an age of Spartans in space ships.  We really just hoped to squeak through those courses, so we could keep our eyes on the “real” training in counseling, hypnosis and abnormal psychology.

Years later, however, I have developed a whole new appreciation for the utility of the scientific perspective, whether in clinical work or just in conversations with people.  It amazes me how useful it can be, and yet how alien it can still seem to the general public.  Consider one little illustration:  the operational definition.  Without going into too much detail, an OD is basically a measurement for something.  For example, you might measure how tired you are by counting the number of minutes you were awake past your bedtime last night.  Why is an OD useful?  Let’s take a closer look and see.

Often in intimate relationships or friendships, communication has broken down because neither side is defining their terms.  Instead, they are reacting.  Finger-pointing, accusations and expressions of hurt.  We see only our own feelings, and not what the other person is actually doing that bothers us so much.  Here is where we observe people calling each other “jerk” or “inconsiderate” or in the worst circumstances, “evil.”

But how helpful are such adjectives?  Once you’ve called someone a name, what options have you left them except to bristle and respond defensively?  The role of counseling is often to get hurting people in a relationship to define their terms rather than emoting about them.  What is the problem with the other person’s behavior?  What behavior would you like to see them decrease or increase?   If the other person is a “jerk,” is it because they won’t wipe their feet when the weather is wet?  Because they forget birthdays?  Chew with their mouth open?  You see, once you have measurable behavior, you can negotiate from a position of neutrality and objectivity, rather than hurt, aggressiveness or defensiveness.

It gets better.  When you focus on behavior, you can make a constructive plan for how to increase or decrease it.  Think about sensible eating plans, for example, where the operational definition for physical attractiveness or self-esteem is usually in pounds or waistline inches.  You know if your plan is successful by changes in the scale or the tape measure.

Now, learning how to think in terms of operational definitions can be challenging.  How, for example, do you measure feelings like jealousy?  Low self-esteem?  Positive thinking?  With the help of a counselor, however, each one of these terms can indeed be defined in behavior.  Even the journey of a thousand miles is measured in footsteps, right?