Monday, 27 April 2015

Agential Success

Credit John Wildgoose, Wellcome Images
My idea for the project focuses on agential success. We need to better understand the notion of agential success which is often upheld as a worthy goal without being fully understood or critically examined in the philosophical, psychological, or mental health literature. The notion of agential success is usually explained in terms of an agent’s capacity to pursue and sometimes achieve her goals. My research goal is to identify the psychological factors contributing to agential success and explore the costs and benefits of those factors for human agency broadly conceived. In particular, I am interested in the relationship between success and rationality, and in the relationship between success and wellbeing.

Rationality and success

As I am starting to explore via Project PERFECT and I hopefully will explore as part of a new fellowship supported by the Templeton Foundation, positive illusions and unrealistic optimism (i.e., the tendency to have a higher opinion of oneself than is warranted by the evidence and to predict one’s own future in a rosier way than statistical evidence would recommend) seem to support successful agency. This would mean that some forms of irrationality (false beliefs and inaccurate predictions) are good for agents. But it is not clear whether optimism is beneficial and conductive to success across contexts and populations. In what way does optimism promote engagement with the social and physical environment surrounding the agent? Moreover, it is not clear that the best way to understand the literature is in terms of a trade-off between rationality and success. Cannot optimistic beliefs enhance rationality as well as success in some context, and compromise both in other contexts?

Success and wellbeing

The identification between agential success and mental health has a long history. Some of the criteria for mental health (such as good functioning) seem to be other ways to capture agential success. But it is not obvious that agents with compromised mental health are less successful as agents or that agential success intended as goal satisfaction contributes to psychological wellbeing. We can all think of cases where mental distress and creativity go together, and similarly of cases where highly successful agents present symptoms of mental distress, often related to their prioritising their goals over other aspects of their lives.

Responding to negative feedback

Once the notion of success and its relationships with other values are critically examined, the recent empirical literature on agential success can be taken to suggest that the key feature is the capacity to respond positively to negative feedback and other challenges (psychologists talk about ‘hardiness’ and ‘preparedness’ in that context, in the popular culture we talk about ‘bouncing back’, and in the mental health literature the word ‘resilience’ is used to denote some of these phenomena). Are successful people in different domains hardy and prepared for set-backs? How do they overcome disillusionment and maintain motivation in the face of failure?

In the proposed project, I see my role as analysing some features of agential success that can help us understand in what contexts and to what extent success is something that agents should aim to achieve. This requires the study of case studies: success in elite sport (which will be explored in collaboration with Silvia Camporesi), success in the arts and fashion (Victoria Tischler’s focus), success in relationships (Zoe Boden’s focus), success and mental health (Michael Larkin’s focus), success and political or social power (Matteo Mameli’s focus), and at a more methodological level, success in interdisciplinary research (which concerns all of us!). Such cases will illustrate the complexities of measuring or assessing success: elite sportspeople, successful managers, and even top academics often give up long term health prospects or happiness in their relational and family lives to achieve career objectives in their field; self-harm, psychotic symptoms, or eating disorders involve actions and experiences that are at the same time bad and good for the agent. They may bring relief and some sense of achievement or accomplishment, maybe in the short-term, but they also cause pain or suffering, and are responsible for broken relationships or ill-health down the line. And many more examples sping to mind where assumptions about success are challenged.

My own research goal is to try and understand the significance of the single case studies for the general context of any agent’s success. The framework I would like to propose rests on the notion of success criteria for engaged agency. The proposal I would like to test is that the successful agent is the agent who engages with the physical and social environment in a way that allows her to give meaning and direction to her life. This is possibly one sense of success that is central to mental health. We often identify long-term wellbeing and mental health with the agent’s capacity to effectively pursue and ultimately achieve at least some of her goals, forgetting that the agent needs to be engaged to do so: she needs the capacity to interact successfully with her physical and social environment, to feel motivated and supported, and to develop creative responses to inevitable failures and set-backs.

My dream collaborators

Charlotte Gwinner – theatre director who would assist us in producing a play on success for families, to be performed on weekends at the Wellcome Trust.

Matthew Syed – successful sportsperson and now author and media who would feature in a podcast on the residency and deliver a public lecture on what elite sports can teach us about success in more general terms.

Anne Khazam – producer for the radio programme BBC Forum (World Service) who provisionally agreed to work on one or  two episodes of the Forum with core members and collaborators on success, to be aired worldwide and available as a podcast on the BBC website. She has confirmed that her editor is keen to pursue the project.

Amy Hardy – research clinical psychologist interested in the role of imagery in mental health who will deliver a series of lectures on positive and negative aspects of imagery and its role in ‘success’ (including a critical perspective of the recovery framework in mental health).

Some outputs and activities

  • Preparation of two research articles on agential success
  • Organization of a series of interviews, lectures and debates with experts from different backgrounds (podcasted)
  • Book: Bortolotti and Larkin, Health and Happiness, Routledge (contracted)
  • Contribution to set up an open access journal: Journal of Human Experience
  • Co-editing a collection on success with papers from Core Members and their collaborators
  • One or two episodes of BBC Forum (World Service) for each year of residency: (1) on individual vs. society and (2) on success in sport and performance art.
  • Play for families on success to be performed at weekends at the Wellcome Collection.
  • Two informal exhibitions in the Hub or Reading Room contributing to the two themes, success and rationality, and success and mental health.

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