An Unusual Path: Moving from Psychopathology to Diversity
Michael W. Bahr
Adaption-Innovation (A-I) Theory …provides a potentially rich alternative in understanding what at first glance might be construed as disordered behavior.
One of the strengths of the discipline of psychology is its emphasis on understanding and treating psychopathology, or disordered behavior. For two centuries, psychologists have aided literally millions of individuals afflicted with disorders such as anxiety, personality problems, and substance abuse. As research increased, exciting breakthroughs occurred in the treatment of depression, hyperactivity/inattention, and dementia. Because of its deep, careful understanding of disordered behavior, psychology significantly contributes to the overall mental health of children and adults throughout the world.
Concurrent with these strengths, psychology has also been prone to pathologize—to identify as disordered behavior—those behaviors that are not overtly understood or accepted. For example, individuals from particular minority groups were regularly diagnosed as homosexuals and were viewed as pathological until research concluded that being gay or lesbian represented a normal variation on a continuum of affectual orientation, ranging from heterosexuality to homosexuality. Consequently, the American Psychological Association (1975) ceased to consider it as a type of psychopathology. More recently, psychology continues to be concerned about the disproportionate numbers of women diagnosed with mental health problems, thereby raising concerns about gender bias (Russo, 1990). Thus, as individuals trained to identify and treat aberrant behavior, psychologists must be careful not to pathologize those problems that are not adequately understood.
I am a psychologist. Although I work predominantly from a wellness orientation and because I tend to view a behavior as pathological only under the most serious circumstances, I believe that I am not the type of person who quickly goes down the path of psychopathology when solving a problem. I admit, however, that when confronted with a difficult behavior from a person or group, I am sometimes inclined to think about it relative to how any psychologist might view it—as disordered behavior.
What if, however, problems were conceptualized not as the result of aberrant behavior but of cognitive style? Adaption-Innovation (A-I) Theory (Kirton, 2003) provides a potentially rich alternative in understanding what at first glance might be construed as disordered behavior. At its core, A-I theory posits that each individual has a preferred cognitive style that implicitly influences behavior. High adaption and high innovation are extremes on a continuum with an individual having a preferred style, to a specific degree somewhere along the continuum. Adaption is a style that generally relies on clear and well-developed parameters, has less rather than more flexibility, and works effectively in familiar and existing circumstances. By contrast, innovation as a style relies far less on well-developed parameters, is characterized by its flexibility, and may work effectively in which the very setting of the proble is changing. Behaviorally, adaptors may be viewed by innovators as “sound, conforming, safe, predictable” (Kirton, 2003, p. 55); conversely, adaptors may view innovators as “glamorous, exciting…impractical, risky” (p. 55).
When it comes to problem solving, people with more adaptive preferences have a unique set of characteristics. They tend to work via consensus and problem solve effectively under well known boundaries within a system. They also contribute to problem solving by typically developing a few, well-defined, efficient solutions. Their more innovative counterparts can be equally effective in problem solving, though their abilities tend to be very different from adaptors’. Innovators tend to redefine problems and understand them in ways that look very different than the original description. Innovators also are less concerned with working in an efficient manner, choosing instead to focus on information that may appear irrelevant to the problem. According to Kirton (2003), adaptors can be very useful in addressing problems that require short-term change within the parameters of an existing system; on the other hand, innovators may work effectively on problems that require long-term change and result in modifying a system. Finally and most importantly, both styles have their unique strengths and limitations, and according to the theory, neither is superior to the other.
Because of its descriptive rather than diagnostic nature, A-I theory provides psychologists an alternate perspective through which to understand behavior. Whereas behaviors such as paying extraordinarily close attention to detail and having an extremely high need for clarity could be grounds for considering obsessive-compulsive disorder, A-I theory suggests that an individual may be highly adaptive and possesses a unique set of problem-solving skills. Although an individual who appears to have difficulty concentrating for an extended period and moves quickly from one task to another could raise a concern about the existence of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, A-I theory might explain these behaviors within the context of a highly functional innovator at work.
These brief and perhaps simplistic examples are not meant in any way to diminish the importance of treating individuals with real and significant psychopathology. They offer psychologists, however, the prospect of understanding behavior through a different set of lenses. A-I theory informs psychologists of the important context cultural variables play in understanding behavior. Broadly defined, cognitive style can be conceptualized as an individual difference that is manifest in distinct cultural ways as are other characteristics (e.g., gender, race, social class, religiosity, etc.). I admit this is an arguable point, but Kirton (2003) appears to understand the importance of a descriptive, rather than diagnostic, conceptualization of behavior when he reminds us that “there is a marked tendency for people to attribute differences in style (indeed, any differences between them and others) as level differences” (p. 5). In this case, level refers to hierarchical differences in ability or competency.
As a psychologist who values cultural identity, I believe that A-I theory provides an opportunity to move from a pathology-based model of understanding behavior to one much broader that promotes uniqueness, highlights stylistic strengths, and ultimately embraces behavior as an expressed form of diversity. This is a very different path for the field of psychology to follow, one far less familiar and less comfortable. But then, if we’re sincere about embracing diversity, such paths always are.
Dr Michael Bahr, Chairperson, Department of Educational and School Psychology in the College of Education, Indiana State University. 2004
American Psychological Association. (1975, January). Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns Policy Statements. Retrieved February 20, 2004, from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/policy/statements.html
Kirton, M. J. (2003). Adaption-Innovation in the context of diversity and change. London: Routledge.
Russo, N. F. (1990). Forging research priorities for women’s mental health. American
Psychologist, 45, 368-373.