Using Principles of Evolutionary Theory in Psychotherapy with Adolescents

Evolutionary theory is based on three principles: variation, selection by consequences, and retention. Practitioners can apply these principles to help young people develop their full potential.

Let’s look at how variation, selection, and retention promote development in two widely different realms: that of rabbits and that of humans. Imagine that one thousand rabbits are released in a snowy area. They differ in color, ranging from brown to white (variation). The lighter rabbits are more likely to survive because they can blend in with the snow (selection). Over time, the lighter rabbits pass on their genes for pale fur to their offspring (retention). In this way, the rabbit population will gradually become paler, with more individuals blending into this snowy environment.

In the realm of humans, instead of looking at development across many generations, let’s consider rapid development across just two generations, in the context of one person and her children. Let’s say a 13-year-old girl moves to a new country. When she goes to her new school, the other kids tease her about how she dresses. She desperately wants to fit in, so she tries wearing different types of clothes (variation). Her peers respond extremely positively to some clothes but give her little positive feedback on others (selection). Gradually, she starts to wear the clothes her peers like (retention). She fits in and increases her chances of social success, including eventually finding a mate and reproducing. When she has children of her own, she teaches them the culturally appropriate style of dress through modeling (behavioral transmission) and direct explanation (verbal transmission). As a result, this style of dress is passed down to the next generation (retention).

This is such a simple theory, yet it’s incredibly powerful. It can be summarized like this: We try different behaviors in the world (variation), we are reinforced for doing some things and punished for doing others (selection), and we repeat behaviors that have worked for us in the past (retention). We repeat these behaviors for the purposes of adapting to our context and, ultimately, surviving. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this theory is that failure to thrive can be thought of as failure in variation, selection, and/or retention.

Young people often become so dominated by their inner experience that they show little variation in behavior. For example, imagine a boy who responds to his anxiety in only one way: social withdrawal. His anxiety seems to stop him from going to school dances, engaging in extracurricular activities, introducing himself to new people, or trying out for a sports team. He merely sits in his room.

By teaching the boy to respond to his inner experience in new ways, to notice anxiety and allow it to be, rather than reacting to it, the boy learns to systematically increase behavioral variation through discovery processes. The boy would be encouraged to leave his room and begin to contact the physical world. Then, natural reinforcers can shape his behavior. He may discover that he loves a particular extracurricular activity and that someone in his class has similar interests. Over time, he learns to live with his social anxiety without letting it restrict his behavior. He changes (variation), learns what behavior works for him (selection), and develops his strengths and grows (retention).

DNA-V (Discoverer Noticer Advisor – Values), a model designed by Louise Hayes, PhD, and Joseph Ciarrochi, PhD, to promote psychological flexibility among adolescents and help them thrive, teaches young people to select their behaviors based on values rather than on unhelpful impulses or immediate circumstances. For example, a girl might try two rewarding activities: smoking pot and learning to dance. Let’s say she can’t do both regularly. Which behavior will she select? By clarifying her values, the DNA practitioner can help her think in terms of what she cares about and what sort of person she wants to be. She learns to think about both the short term (What do I love now?) and the long term (What will help me grow and develop a life that’s fun and meaningful?). If she identifies learning to dance as a value, she’ll tend to select that behavior rather than smoking pot.

 For more, check out The Thriving Adolescent by Louise Hayes, PhD, and Joseph Ciarrochi, PhD (Insert Link).

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