Mental processes; covert sensitization and reinforcement; intrinsic satisfaction and pride.
Our thoughts control or influence our behaviors and emotions to a considerable extent. This is not surprising since our thoughts include intentions ("I'm going to be the top salesperson this month"), plans ("I'll work until 9:00 every day and on weekends"), rational and irrational thinking, all our knowledge (including self-help methods), and so on. It seems pretty clear that our thoughts can be changed through experience (reading, watching, listening, experimenting), logical reasoning, learning processes (rewarding certain thoughts), and many other ways.
Some psychologists believe we can also change the frequency or strength of specific thoughts by reinforcing or punishing the thought. In other words, the conditioning processes might work inside our heads with thoughts just like they work with behavior, except it is all covert. Actually, no one would be surprised if his/her urge to approach someone increased after having a lot of sexual fantasies about that person. That all takes place inside a person's head. Likewise, if you imagined studying math on a beautiful warm beach, fantasized winning a scholarship in math, and on and on, it is possible you would start to feel more positive about math. What is less clear and more complex is whether or not the person will actually approach the person they have been thinking about sexually or if you would actually take a math course. There is a giant leap from fantasy to reality.
About 2000 years ago, Epictitus taught that our thoughts can change our feelings and actions (see chapter 14). So by modifying our thoughts, which may be easier than changing some behavior or having some experience (such as giving a great speech), we can possibly change many things--actions, emotions and other thoughts.
More recently, Homme (1965), Wolpe (1958), and Cautela & Kearney (1986) have developed many covert conditioning procedures: reinforcement, punishment, classical conditioning, modeling, avoidance, etc. for many disorders.
Some mental rewards and punishments (paired with a specific behavior) have already been described (methods #16, #17, and #18). Covert modeling was referred to in method #2. Only brief descriptions will be given here and the effectiveness will be evaluated.
- To increase, decrease or change a behavior, a thought or a feeling by changing our own thoughts and imagery using covert methods.
- Most often used for learning new behaviors (covert modeling or reinforcement) and for stopping unwanted behaviors.
STEP ONE: Clearly and specifically identify the "target" behavior or thought or feeling that you would like to change.
This can be an overt behavior, an experienced emotion (actually acted out or just imagined), or a covert thought which isn't to be acted on.
STEP TWO: Learn how to apply one of these covert conditioning methods, depending on your purpose.
There are several methods and variations on those methods:
- Covert reinforcement--imagine performing the desired behavior (or feeling or thought) and follow it with a pleasant image (playing on the beach, being kissed by a lover, eating a delicious meal, etc.). Variations: an actual behavior followed by an imagined reward or an imagined behavior followed by an actual reinforcer (an M & M). Example given by Homme: a person with a low self-concept makes a positive statement about themselves just before lighting a cigarette.
Intrinsic satisfaction (see method #15) is another (and usually much better) form of covert positive reinforcement. Not only the genuine pleasure in performing the behavior but also personal pride in the skills, self-discipline and values involved in the activity.
- Covert negative reinforcement--first imagine a very unpleasant scene and then start imagining the desired target behavior and feelings which are associated with the termination of the unpleasant scene. Example: a shy person could imagine being very nervous at a party and dreading being approached. He/she further imagines being approached and asked some questions which he/she handles nicely and even with some wit. The nervousness goes away as he/she responds to the questions (thus, reinforcing the social interaction). A similar example would be a person suffering speech phobia; he/she could imagine being terrified before a TV interview but as he/she handles the situation adroitly in fantasy, the terror immediately subsides. See discussion in method #17. In some cases, it may be better to terminate a fear, threat, or unpleasant fantasy that is completely different from your actual concern (it is another trial at learning the unwanted fear).
- Covert sensitization or punishment--imagine the unwanted behavior vividly and in detail, followed immediately with fantasies of some very unpleasant event, such as vomiting (Cautela's favorite punishment or UCS). Examples: a smoker might imagine having the urge to smoke and getting ready to light up. He/she immediately imagines getting nauseous and finally, just as he/she thinks of lighting the cigarette, he/she imagines vomiting all over the cigarette, his/her clothes, people near by and so on. The same could be done with food, alcohol, unwanted sexual urges, worries, jealous thoughts, angry thoughts and acts, etc., i.e. pair them with vomit or any other unpleasant thought.
- Covert extinction--imagine doing the unwanted target behavior and receiving no reinforcement or reaction of any kind. Example: a person with lots of aches and pains could imagine telling his/her complaints to many people who have no reaction at all. A clown or flirt or braggart or gossip or spiteful person could do the same thing.
- Combinations: Homme suggested a sequence of four thoughts--(a) the unwanted urge, (b) an unpleasant thought, (c) a desired behavior, and (d) a pleasant thought. You can see how (b) and (d) punish and reinforce (a) and (c). Suppose one is sexually turned on by an inappropriate person (wrong sex, too young, too old, married, otherwise unavailable or uninteresting). One might imagine the urge (only briefly, not too much!) followed by unpleasant thoughts ("I'd get hurt" or "That would get me in terrible trouble" or imagining vomiting). Then think of a more realistic, loving and available relationship, followed by a pleasant scene or a small reward.
The method of "thought stopping" is another useful covert procedure (method # 10). In a therapy case, Cautela commonly uses several covert techniques at the same time to change several behaviors or emotions.
STEP THREE: Arrange to use the methods daily; as with all aversion techniques, learn better ways of handling the situation.
To be effective these methods must be repeated over and over, preferably 5 to 10 times twice a day. Covert reinforcement and punishment can be used every time the actual behavior occurs or even starts to occur, as well as during time set aside for imaginary experience. That's a 100% schedule of reinforcement (or punishment).
If you are using an unpleasant thought, the more disgusting or upsetting or intensely it is experienced, the more effective the method seems to be. Therefore, experience the awful details of vomiting as fully as possible, e.g. imagine the food and bile starting to come up, notice the sour taste and lumps of decaying food in your mouth, the sickening, awful smelling puke fills your nose, you vomit all over yourself and others, see it drip off, you are crying from total embarrassment, etc., etc. Gross! If you use an accident, make it gruesome.
It may be helpful to have a hierarchy of unwanted behaviors, so that you vomit on them (or something equally disgusting) in order from mildly tempting (addictive) to highly enticing. Likewise, since the conditioning is very situation-specific, you may have to vomit on each kind of high-calorie food you crave or on several kinds of hostile, sarcastic remarks you make.
Therapists have found that our imagery is clearer when we are relaxed, so try some relaxing first.
The planning time is minimal. The two sessions per day will take 15 -30 minutes or so for a few weeks.
Common problems with the method
Dropping out is a problem with any aversive approach. The images are gross in cognitive sensitization. Also, many people don't believe there is a strong relationship between fantasy and behavior. Just because a sexual fetish with bras has been associated hundreds of times with imagined vomit, it doesn't guarantee that the attraction to real bras will be extinguished. Remember from chapter 4 that for conditioning to work, the association between the CS (bra) and UCS (vomit) must make sense.
Perhaps these methods work because the people who persevere are "believers." The role of suggestion is unknown in most self-help methods.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
There are some advantages for covert conditioning: (1) the ideas are simple, (2) no help, no special environment, and no equipment is needed, (3) there are almost no limits to what can be done in fantasy--vomiting, instant sex of any kind, vacations, hurting oneself, etc., and (4) it can be done anytime (since your head is almost always with you). But does it work?
The research centers on covert sensitization. It has worked fairly well with sexual deviations (homosexuality, exhibitionists, incest) but not very well with obesity, alcohol, or smoking (Bellack and Hersen, 1977). More research is needed with the other covert methods.
The results are promising enough to try these methods, especially if the approach has an appeal to you and is believable. Remember the research thus far has been done with long-term clinical disorders, not ordinary problems.
Cautela, J. R. Covert conditioning. In A. Jacobs & L. Sachs (Eds.), The psychology of private events. New York: Academic Press, 1971.
Extinction; withholding the pay offs
If a behavior yields no pay off, it should gradually stop, i.e. be extinguished. Thus, it is sometimes better to disregard an unwanted response than to punish it. Extinction and punishment lead to the same results: stopping some behavior. However, in extinction the unwanted response is allowed to occur freely. The person learns "this behavior just doesn't work; it gets no results at all." Note the striking contrast with the person whose behavior is punished by someone else, the punishee might think, "Wow, they (the punishers) are really upset. Well, maybe I'll cool it while they are around but I know how to drive them crazy if I ever want to. I'm powerful!"
In this method, we remove the reinforcement of unwanted behavior, but the neglect of good, desired behavior (that's extinction too) is the source of many problems in the world. Parents and teachers attend far more to bad than to good behavior; we forget to tell the people closest to us that we love and appreciate them; we take our own good behavior for granted but get upset by failures, etc. Thinking by the brain is required for reinforcement and for extinction (where you have to think, "I'm not going to respond to this."
- To stop or reduce an unwanted behavior.
- To do the above without harsh, unpleasant punishment.
STEP ONE: Specifically describe the unwanted behavior that you want to extinguish.
This may be a behavior or emotion or thought.
STEP TWO: Do a careful behavior analysis to determine the consequences that support the unwanted behavior.
See method #9 because it is necessary to know all the pay offs for the behavior. Otherwise, how can you eliminate all the reinforcement?
Extinction works best with new, recently learned behaviors and/or with behaviors that are reinforced almost every time. However, you need to identify any occasional or intermittent reinforcement. Indeed, all the reinforcers (there may be several--see method #1 in chapter 15) must be identified; any one alone may sustain the behavior.
STEP THREE: Plan to prevent all reinforcement for the unwanted behavior.
Every time the unwanted behavior occurs, all pay offs should be eliminated. Let the behavior occur but without pay offs. With children, this is done by just leaving them alone, which is hard if the behavior is disturbing. Likewise, when we are working with ourselves, it may be difficult not to respond to our own unwanted behavior. Suppose you resent or are upset by your own behavior, can you control that reaction? (If not, the resentment and upsetness may reinforce the behavior.) Suppose you get some relief from stress via the unwanted behavior, can you avoid that negative reinforcement? Suppose you get a lot of concessions from others because you are the boss or intimidate them with your anger, can you give up that power?
In addition to your reactions, you have to eliminate reactions from others too in order to extinguish a response. Suppose you get attention by being loud, by being critical, by bragging, or by telling embarrassing ethnic jokes, but you want to stop. Can you continue the behavior but tell friends you want to quit and, therefore, would like for them to not respond to your behavior? Not likely. They might help you monitor your behavior and point it out when you goof up.
STEP FOUR: Carry out the plan.
Extinction usually works slowly. Self-destructive children may hit themselves 10,000 times in 8 to 10 days before self-abuse is extinguished by ignoring the behavior. Also, children often increase the frequency of the to-be-extinguished response whenever the usual reactions and pay offs are not forthcoming. They frequently get mad, even though no punishment is involved. So, with yourself, expect to feel some frustration. But stick with it.
Whenever a void is created by doing away with a behavior, it is important to be sure that reasonable, valued and desirable behavior takes its place. Work on strengthening the desired responses.
The behavioral analysis will take an hour or so a day for a couple of weeks. Depending on the frequency of the response, it will take 2 to 4 weeks of extinction. Assuring that there are no pay offs may take only a few minutes each day.
Effectivenss, advantages and dangers
Research on the extinction of crying, tantrums, disruptive behavior, self-injury, vomiting, bizarre behavior, excessive questions, "fits," etc. has shown some success (Bellack and Hersen, 1977). Many studies of crying young children and disruptive school children have shown that ignoring the behavior works quickly, indicating that attention is often the reinforcement for these behaviors (Miller, 1975). Little is known about self-extinction.
Compared to punishment, extinction is likely to be less stressful and perhaps easier to carry out. But it takes longer (because all reinforcement has to be stopped), so punishment may be more humane in some situations, like self-abuse. There are probably fewer side effects and dangers with extinction.
References cited in this chapter are listed in the Bibliography (see link on the book title page). Please note that references are on pages according to the first letter of the senior author's last name (see alphabetical links at the bottom of the main Bibliography page).