Good thinking

It can help you get a job. It can help you sell insurance. It can also help you stay sane. Cognitive therapy is not new, but it's new to the employment market. Jerome Burne reports how a professor of psychiatry might come to you by CD-Rom and Virginia Ironside tells why she has positive thoughts about it
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Imagine you've just been fired. Once you've got over the shock, how do you come to terms with it? Do the clouds of gloom descend and thoughts like "I'll never work again... I always get picked on, I should have tried harder" endlessly circle round your brain? Or do you look at it in a different light - "I was getting a bit stuck there anyway. The manager felt threatened by me. I've been wanting to get into a different area for some time."

The first group's answers clearly accentuate the negative, the second the positive. How to shift your way of thinking towards the positive? With only 10 or 15 sessions of cognitive therapy, you can at least learn to catch yourself when you start down a negative spiral and learn the techniques for pulling yourself out.

Cognitive therapy is, as Virginia Ironside explains below, widely used in clinical situations. Now, as a report in the Lancet last week reveals, the cognitive approach is coming out of the consulting room and into the marketplace. The idea behind it is not just to make you feel better but to make you more effective.

Professor Jeffrey Gray of the Institute of Psychiatry in south London gave seven sessions of cognitive therapy to a group of long-term unemployed professionals who were compared with a similar group who only got the usual job-seeker pep talks. The result was that the therapy group had three times as much success at finding jobs.

"We now have a lot of evidence that having a positive outlook is linked with success," says Gray. "For instance, a study of the acceptance speeches by American presidential candidates found that, in 17 out of 20 elections, the winner was the candidate whose speech contained the most optimistic phrases."

When Gray talks about optimism he means something very precise. There are three aspects to the explanations we give ourselves for the outcome of events - internal, stable and pervasive - which combine to give you an optimistic or pessimistic outlook.

You can hear the process in action every day in those interviews with sportsmen explaining a defeat.

"So what happened?" asks the interviewer. "It was the weather," they reply - a classic optimistic response. On the "internal" scale he's not blaming himself; he's putting it down to some outside factor. As far as "stable" goes, it's not something that is going to last, so next time he could do better. As for "pervasive", it's not going to affect all his games, just this one. The pessimist's reasoning is just the opposite - he blames himself, it's likely to happen again and it won't just be this game but the rest of his life that will be affected. (This attitude is almost unheard of among sports stars; if they had it, they wouldn't have made it in the first place.)

One US study found that it was possible to predict success in a baseball season simply by analysing the reasons given by players for their performance. "We've found that a certain amount of optimism seems necessary for normal functioning," says Gray. "On average, successful people over-estimate their abilities, while people who are mildly depressed are more realistic."

When Gray embarked on his new enterprise - Psychology at Work - in which he offers his techniques for use by employers, he approached, among others, the insurance industry. That, for certain, is a business where positive attitudes are essential.

"When a salesman's optimism drops it creates two problems," says Gray. "Their sales take a dive and they leave. Companies can lose 50 per cent of their workforce in a year and each one costs pounds 25,000 to train." So Gray persuaded a large insurance company to let him train a group of salesmen who were performing poorly. "Not only did their performance improve but number of resignations declined significantly, too."

Gray and his associate Dr Judy Proudfoot now plan to package cognitive behaviourism on a CD-Rom. Together with the software company Ultramind, they are on the verge of completing a program that will be available in GPs' surgeries - a trial run of half a dozen this autumn - for patients with anxiety or depression which, at some time, affect 20 per cent of the population.

"The program will be very easy to use," says Proudfoot. "It will take patients step by step through filling in questionnaires, responding to scenarios played out by actors and setting goals to help them change their behaviour."

Assuming the trials go well, the way will be open for Psychology at Work to produce customized, optimism-boosting CDs to help actors ground down by failed auditions, deselected MPs, and even curmudgeonly journalistsn

If you are interested in the practical application of Dr Gray's work, contact Psychology at Work (0171-722 2136). For the academic side, contact the Institute of Psychiatry (0171-919 3238/3245)

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