Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Much of life is spent in motion—physical , mental/emotional, relational , and especially neural motion. Our conscious and non-conscious brain continually scans and interprets this motion, allowing us to focus our attention on other needs and desires, rather than having to pay attention to each motion as it occurs. In the absence of this scanning, psychological problems such as anxiety and hyper-aroused sensory disorders may occur (van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisæth, 1996).

There are certain life experiences that alert a person to pay closer attention to the daily motion of life. These alerts come in a many forms, ranging from fear and safety to pleasure and beauty; with seemingly infinite variations between. Of all the “movement” that catches our attention, however, one particular variant likely has the greatest impact on our lives: decision making.

As humans, and unlike any other biological creature on the planet, the decisions we make define who we are.

In Man’s Search for Meaning (1984), Victor Frankl argues that people must create meaning, even under the most dire of human conditions; this is an example of the power of decisions.

Ethical decision making is perhaps most connected with a human being’s highest intellectual abilities. An ethical decision may be thought of as an event that strives to resolve the tension between a highest good and other temptations or desires. This article will examine the process of mindful decision making through the lens of a Reynold’s (2006) model of ethical decision making.

The Reynolds (2006) Model

Reynolds (2006) outlines an ethical decision making model from a management perspective, using neurocognition research to help business managers. Reynolds applies the Jones (1991) tradition, defining an ethical decision as “a decision that is acceptable to a larger community based on its adherence to moral standards of behavior” (Reynolds 2006, p. 273). Such a definition provides a framework through which to explore simple to complex issues, as well as providing room for cultural and legal topics.

Reynolds agrees with Jones (1991) that many of the cited models use a four-stage approach. An example of such a four-stage model was developed by James Rest (1979, 1986), who suggests that an ethical decision begins with an awareness of an ethical issue, followed by an ethical judgment, then by the establishment of an intention to act ethically, with the result being to act with ethical behavior. Although this model is helpful, it raises questions in terms of how one becomes aware that an ethical dilemma is present, the role that bias and intuition may play in terms of judgment, and that intention to act in an ethical way may not lead to actual ethical behavior. Reynolds’ model, on the other hand, adds intuition and persona/cultural beliefs (prototypes) to the deliberate process stated by Rest, as well as adding different classifications of an ethical decision.

Other writers in the psychology field have also worked to expand the traditional four-stage model. Holcomb (2006), reviewing Bush, Connell, and Denney’s (2006) “Ethical Practice in Forensic Psychology: A Systematic Model for Decision Making,” notes that the authors include the traditional steps of ethical decision making: Identify the problem, develop possible solutions to the problem, consider the potential consequences of various solutions, choose and implement a course of action, and assess the outcome and implement changes as needed. However, the authors include the additional crucial steps of considering the significance of the context and setting; identifying and using ethical and legal resources; and considering personal beliefs and values.

We can see how the first part of Bush, Connell and Denny’s model (2006) has remnants of Rest’s model (1979, 1986) and they rightly add to it by including more details concerning the true complexity of an ethical decision. However, both models are limited to what should be done in the face of an ethical decision; neither discusses how it is done. Even with additional safeguards, the specific neuromechanism of an ethical decision is still not understood. I suggest that understanding how can help us know more about what needs to happen in an ethical context.

Reynolds (2006) uses a dual-processing model to describe ethical decision making. His model differs from others by his incorporation of the role, relationship, and continual redefining of the conscious (C) and the nonconscious (X) systems.   The X-system of the model mostly pertains to what many scholars refer to as automatic processing, analysis of the environment, intuition, or implicit learning. Neurologically, the X-system is hugely complex, but researchers believe the lateral temporal cortex, amygdala. and basal ganglia and associated neuro-circuits are mostly responsible for automated social cognition (Lieberman et al., 2002).

The C-system, or the higher-order conscious reasoning system, is even more complex than the X-system. Mostly talked about as the frontal cortex, the specific areas we are most concerned with in regards to social cognition are the anterior cingulate, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and associated neuro-circuits (Lieberman et al., 2002).

The X-system holds all things known and organized. As we come in contact with the ongoing motion of life, the X-system is constantly scanning to make sure all is in place. In short, it is responsible for reflexive pattern matching. This vast organization helps keep the cognitive load off the C-system, hence allowing the C-system to engage in the higher cognitive functions such as present moment decision making. The X-system also holds our prototypes, constructs similar in meaning to schemas, belief systems, scripts, and implicit memories (Reynolds 2006).

The C-system is able to analyze rules and provide regulation to the X-system by feeding it additional information to aide in prototype refinement. This refinement allows for further load to be taken off the C-system. There is evidence that the anterior cingulate, which seems to be connected to both the C and X-system, acts as alarm system, allowing the X-system to alert the C-system when something is out of prototypical order. The C-system will then take on the cognitive load in attempts to problem solve. Although Reynolds does not discuss this, if the threat is bad enough, C-system becomes deregulated, with a deeper part of the X-system taking control by engaging the flight or fight mechanism (Scaer, 2007)

When it comes to ethical decision making, the C-system has two primary modes of engagement: Reflexive and Concession. Reflexive judgment comes from a C/X-system prototype match up. In order for an ethical decision to be a reflexive act, it has to be supported by a lot of experience and proper intuition. The C/X-system prototype match occurs because the prototype matches with the present context, so the ethical decision is reflexive in that little conscious deliberation is needed because of the felt sense of familiarity of the context. The Concession manner of ethical decision making is engaged when there is C/X-system prototype mismatch. The C-system will then engage active judgment in order to analyze, learn, apply rules, reason the rules through, take in outside resources to further reason the rules through, and finally make a judgment and act with ethical intent and behavior. “This level of active judgment is the focal event of ethical philosophy” (Reynolds, 2006, p. 741).


Taylor et al. (2011) use Bishop’s definition of Mindfulness as “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the intentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is” (p. 1524). They compared experienced mindfulness practitioners (those with 1000 to 3000 hours of mindfulness experience) with novice mindfulness practitioners (those with no prior experience, who were instructed in mindfulness for the purposes of the study) using neuro-imaging in effort to discover what happens in the brain during a mindfulness practice when emotional and non-emotional pictures are shown.

The significant findings of the study were that “mindfulness attenuated emotional intensity perceived from all valence categories of pictures across the entire sample of participants, whereas functional brain imaging data indicated that this attenuation was achieved via distinct neural mechanisms for each group” (Taylor et al, 2011, p. 1530). Findings included a deactivation of the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex in experienced practitioners, with no influence on brain activity in those areas associated with emotional reactivity. Findings for the novice group included a down-regulation of the left amygdala. Taylor et al. stated these findings “indicate that mindfulness constitutes an efficient strategy to promote emotional stability” (2011, p. 1531).

Baijal and Srinivansan (2010) found in their study concerning oscillatory activation that theta oscillations are created during deep meditation in the frontal regions of the brain. It is thought that theta oscillations are involved with working memory operation and attention processing. This research confirms that something is happening to the brain during the practice of mindfulness. The question then becomes, how can mindfulness help us make better ethical decisions?

The Reynolds Model and Mindfulness

In studying Reynolds work (2006), I began to wonder if there were any utility in moving in between a reflexive and active judgment, as well as moving in between the X and C-systems. Clearly the C-system is hugely complex and there is a neurologic difference between reflexive and active judgments. How does one then move in between the X and C-systems, and what could be the use of moving between a reflexive judgment ethical decisions to an active judgment ethical decisions? In the practice psychotherapy, I believe that the difference lies in between making a firm decision (reflexive) and using the context (active) to discover nuances about the dynamics of 1) why the context was created in the first place; 2) what we can learn from making the ethical decision; and 3) what we can help another learn from making the ethical decision. Furthermore, even if a Reflexive judgment is made, it is important to activate the Active process in order to further explicate and learn from ethical experiences. The following short example will illustrate the importance of moving between the systems:

A psychotherapist is in session with a client. They have been in a professional relationship for over a year. During a recent session, the client professes his love to the therapist and asks if a romantic relationship is possible.

The X-system becomes alerted that this context is not matching with current prototypes. However, other parts of the non-conscious X-system linked to emotional centers are also activated by the power/pleasure/fear of the idea of a romantic experience with the client. The therapist quickly recognizes the inappropriateness of those thoughts, activating the C-system to make the correct reflexive ethical decision and informs the client that a romantic relationship is not possible. The client has a bit of a surprised look due to the quick, abrupt nature of the response. This surprised look again activates the X-system in the therapist. The C-system is alerted, more fear becomes activated in the therapist upon realizing that the feelings of the client may have been hurt by the therapist’s thoughtless response.

The therapist takes a couple of moment, centers and breathes (mindfulness). The mind becomes quieter and the more full context of the client’s history comes to the forefront of the therapist’s mind. The reflexive response moves to an active process of deliberating on why these romantic feelings in the client are happening. The ethical decision stands, but the therapist begins to realize that for many, intimate relationships are directly correlated with physical, sexual relationships. The therapist is prompted to discuss the context with the client, with hopes of prompting further insight on the client’s view of intimate relationships, which may result in an expanded view of intimacy in general.

Mindfulness has been used throughout the ages as an exercise to create internal cohesion through a disciplined practice of being in the present moment. Ethical decisions are those contexts that demand us to contemplate the best action for us and other sentient beings. An ethical decision requires us to be aware of our prototypes concerning power, pleasure/fear and experience/inexperience. If we are not aware of these prototypes, chances are emotion will find its way into the ethical context, and poor judgments will be made.

Evidence shows that mindfulness can help a person down-regulate emotional centers of the brain (limbic system) as well as deactivating regions associated with self-referential thought process (MPFC and PCC) (Taylor et al., 2011). The consequences of these neuro-activities can create a sense of neutral ground from which to work. I believe this neutral ground can help us navigate between the X and C-system as well as between Reflexive and Active ethical judgments.


Ethical decision making models presuppose that the ethical decision is being made successfully. Reynolds’ model (2006) uses neuroscience and gives a way to conceptualize “how” ethical decisions are made from a neurocognitive perspective. Other models, such as Rest (1979, 1986) and Bush et al. (2006) can be superimposed on Reynolds’ model to give more “what” to the process. Using a mindfulness practice will encourage a neural neutrality as a platform to work from, and return to, in times of C/X-system mismatching and reflexive/active judgments. Returning to a mindful neutral space can allow for further certainty when making ethical judgments. Furthermore, a mindful practice will allow for regulation of the X-system, if prototype mismatches occur, hence setting the stage for more effective C-system processing.

Cite This Article

Schwenkler, R. (2014). Ethics and mindfulness. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 49(2), 22-26.


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