Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could control your behavior? You'd avoid over-eating, alcoholism, all bad habits, procrastination, being late, impulsive comments and purchases, sinful behavior, misplaced objects and papers, rushing at the last minute, etc. Instead, you'd have good health, a beautifully exercised body, excellent work habits, an organized life, success, good social graces, good mental health, healthy attitudes, and practically a guarantee of getting into heaven.
The truth is: you can't control all your behavior. We are all a little out of control. Some of us are seriously out of control. For example, some of us are ruining our lives and/or killing ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, careless driving and other ways. Some of us are blowing off our school work or our jobs but still believing, even though it is very unrealistic, that we will "be successful." Some of us can't get or hold a job, or hold on to love, or properly care for our children, or manage a home and pay our debts. There is an enormous difference between the people who are out of control and those in control. It is important to understand the causes of behavior and how to change it. We could all gain better control.
Keep in mind that "behavior" is just one of five parts of any human situation (see chapter 2). The fact is that behavior (actions) and the other parts--feelings, skills, thoughts, and unconscious drives--are so intermixed that it is artificially over-simplified to talk about one part in isolation. Yet, psychologists do that a lot (me too, right now). Otherwise, things get very complicated. And, indeed, perhaps clinicians do over-analyze things, always wondering what you mean when you say "Hello!" But in the 1950's and 1960's psychologists focused on behavior and learning theory, then in the middle 1970's to 1980's the focus was on cognition (thinking). Both were over simplified. Now, in the 1990's focus has turned to the interaction of emotions, values, motivation, unaware perceptions and needs with behavior and thoughts. Psychological methods, like therapy and self-help, change our brain. This chapter explores these many interactions. William James and Sigmund Freud would certainly be pleased with the recent return to introspection of our conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings.
It is wholesome to keep a historical perspective. We must not forget how young modern psychology is (and how ignorant we all are). Only 150 years ago, we did not use the concept of unconscious forces. Instead when people behaved in ways they didn't "intend" to behave, it was thought they were possessed by an alien force--the will of God, the work of the Devil, a guardian angel, or other spirits (Ellenberger, 1970). In 1900 the focus was on instincts, the stream of consciousness, the "will," the self, and so on. Psychology has changed, but we haven't come far. Wonder what psychology will be concerned with in 2100?
Langer (1989) reminds us that many of our actions are "mindless," i.e. done automatically without weighing the rationality or the pros and cons for the action before responding. Rather than mindless, it may be more accurate to label a good bit of our behavior as self-deceptive or self-conning. For instance, when asked "why are you doing that?" people frequently give an explanation quickly and confidently, but it is often inaccurate (they overlook important factors or are unaware of some response they made and so on). Likewise, people have lots of silly ideas and feelings about their own behavior, such as "I can tell when someone is looking at me" or "I think I have a pretty good chance of winning the lottery." We could also cite as foolish the denial of alcoholics, smokers, over-eaters, non-studying students and others. In any case, whether we are just unthinking about what we are doing or unwittingly fooling ourselves, Langer's point is that greater awareness (mindfulness) is needed for more rational self-direction and greater self-control. Freud would say we haven't learned much yet; we still need to become aware of our conscious and unconscious cognition, including repression, rationalization, denial and other defense mechanisms.
There may be some behavioral habits that have little or no cognitive, emotional, or unconscious aspects, such as brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, walking, breathing and so on. But, as we learned in chapter 2, most behaviors are influenced by other parts of the problem, e.g. eating when anxious or bored, smoking or drinking to relax, procrastinating to avoid work, socializing when we need pleasure, avoiding hard tasks because we think we can't do it, learning new skills when we feel inadequate, setting low goals so we won't feel too disappointed if we don't do well, etc. Consequently, you can't fully understand most human behavior without considering many factors: environment, perception of the situation, consequences of our behavior, learning from previous experience, emotions, needs and level of motivation, knowledge and skills, values and life goals, plans and intentions, expectations, self-deception, unconscious processes, genetic and physiological or hormonal factors, and possibly many, many more variables. All at once!
In the 1940's and 1950's, psychologists thought they would develop one learning theory based largely on rats and pigeons which would explain all human behavior. Not likely! But learning is very important. Almost everything we do, feel, or think is learned. Learning is usually necessary for changing--changing your behavior, changing your mind, changing your awareness, etc. This 100-billion-neuron-brain of ours with 1000 growing, changing synapses on each neuron and over 50 chemical neurotransmitters interacting in each synapse enables some wonderfully complex behavior and thoughts. No computer comes close to matching the human brain. Two and a half pounds of fantastic living matter that can, hopefully, study and understand itself. What a phenomenon!
Overview of this chapter
In this chapter we will concentrate on understanding ordinary behavior, including how new behavior is learned and how behavior is changed (this is continued in chapter 11). We will look at simple models of learning. Then we will focus on motivation, especially achievement motivation. The common problem of procrastination provides us with a more complex behavior to analyze. Stopping unwanted behaviors and preventing relapses are other important skills to acquire. The chapter concludes with several explanations of why behavior is hard to understand and with a brief description of many methods for changing behavior, using various forms of oral consumption for our examples.
Obviously, emotion expresses itself partly through behavior, but separate chapters deal with fear (ch. 5), sadness (ch. 6), anger (ch. 7) and dependency (ch. 8). Also, skills (ch. 13) influence your performance in many ways. Certainly your thoughts, including your goals and plans, self-instructions (ch. 11), values (ch. 3), expectations, self-concept, personality, self-deceptions, unawareness, and unconscious factors (chs. 9, 14 and 15) influence your behavior. You may want to go directly to those chapters, skipping behavior, if those emotions or cognitive factors seem to be more at the core of your problems.
Psychologists use the term "learning" to refer to any change in behavior that results from experience (Hergenhahn, 1982). To a degree some of our actions are surely influenced by our genes or just by "human nature," but most of our behavior, in contrast to other animals, has been learned from experience. This is true of our unwanted behavior too. So, if bad habits have been learned, they could be unlearned. Likewise, becoming a better person, more thoughtful of others or more skillful, involves new learning (either new behavior, new thinking, new values, or new motivation). Thus, as we come to understand more clearly how we got to be the way we are, how we learned to be ourselves, surely we will know more about how to become what we would like to be. That's our task here.
Typical Introductory Psychology textbooks have described three common kinds of learning: operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and complex social learning. In the first kind of learning (instrumental or operant) we attempt to use our past experience to produce some result, some payoff, usually some change in the environment. Example: You act nice to get someone to like you. The second (classical) usually produces an automatic reflexive response, often an emotion, to a specific situation. Example: Cigarettes come to taste good and calm you down after you have smoked thousands in relaxed circumstances. The third kind of learning (observational or social modeling) is when we learn ways of behaving by observing someone else, such as how to approach someone in a bar or how to get our way by getting angry. In this chapter, we'll learn more about these ways of learning. We will attempt to analyze the real causes of real life situations. It is more complex than implied in most textbooks but you can understand it easily.
Therapists and experimental psychologists know quite a lot about changing. For instance, (1) changing your "environment," including your expectations and plans, can encourage good habits and discourage bad ones. (2) Simply observing your actions will often change them. Disrupting the old unwanted habits and substituting and practicing new desired responses will help. (3) Rewarding the desired actions, thoughts, or feelings immediately, while ignoring or punishing the unwanted behavior, are sometimes useful methods. The last part of this chapter and chapter 11 show you how to carry out these methods and many others. The primary focus in this book is on changing things.
For a clear understanding of behavior, we need to separate (a) the process of learning new behavior from (b) the condition of becoming energized or motivated to act out something you already know how to do, i.e. learning differs from performance (or motivation). Sometimes we must learn a new response in order to cope; the mousey person must learn to be assertive. But much of the time we know how to do the desired behavior, e.g. study, stop eating, attend to our spouse, clean the bathroom, control our anger, etc., but the problem is getting ourselves motivated enough to do it. The only new learning we may need in these cases is more understanding of how to increase our motivation or determination. However, in most self-help projects, you will need to learn new self-modification skills as well as acquiring some means of increasing your drive towards your goal, for instance avoiding temptations, persevering for long-range goals, resisting emotional reactions and so on. Self-help involves mastering self-modification techniques, increasing motivation, and developing a belief in yourself as a change agent.
To understand ourselves, we must comprehend the causes of our behaviors. Wise observers have discovered many explanations for behavior which are not obvious and not common knowledge. But this uncommon knowledge needs to be made common. For instance, (1) the payoffs for a behavior may be unrealized, e.g. shyness is reinforced by avoiding social stress; payoffs may be quite delayed, e.g. a career yields rewards years later; or payoffs may be something we find hard to believe we want, e.g. to be sick or to fail. Also, the effectiveness of a specific reward depends on the context, e.g. a bribe of $10.00 is very different in a very poor family than it is in an environment offering many rewards. Certainly, the payoffs for the same behavior, say drinking, may subtly change over the years or occur only occasionally (called partial reinforcement). (2) Reliance on or over-emphasis on extrinsic rewards (instead of intrinsic enjoyment of the activity itself) may be harmful in some situations, e.g. the good student who comes to say, "I only study because I get $50 for every A" or more commonly, "I'm only studying so I can get into college." (3) Our behavior may suddenly change when we realize there is an alternative way to react or when we recognize long-range consequences hidden to us before. (4) Underlying emotions, which we only vaguely recognize, may be the major factors producing our behavior, such as when anxiety causes us to overeat or to be compulsive. Awareness of these kinds of facts about learning can help you gain self-control.
If you don't have the capacity to change yourself and your attitudes, then nothing around you can be changed.
Remember, you will learn, retain, and enjoy reading this book more if you immediately apply the ideas to your own life--see if the theories explain your behavior, think about how you could use self-help methods to change, and imagine trying out the methods yourself or telling others how to use the methods. If you don't use--or at least think about using--a new idea within 24 or 48 hours, you are at risk of losing it forever.
Introduction to learning
We change (learn) as the result of experience all the time. That doesn't mean that it is easy to change our behavior, however. If learning to be good were easy, we'd all be saints! Right? Let's see if we can understand why self-improvement is often difficult. Perhaps because there is another paradox, namely, psychologists and ordinary people know a lot about learning (changing) but there is a lot more we don't understand. Our ignorance and pessimism about self-control sometimes overwhelms and paralyzes us.
Consider how mysterious some behaviors are. Why are some very attractive people shy? Why do some of us eat and eat until we are fat, unhealthy, and ugly? Why do others refuse to eat because they weigh 95 pounds but think they are fat? Why do some drink until they die of liver disease? Why might a person smoke cigarettes until they get throat cancer, lose their windpipe, and even then continue to suck the smoke through an air hole in their neck? Why do we often hurt the people we love? Why do we put off studying until the last night before an important exam? Why are some of us pessimists and others optimists--some just get lemons while others make lemonade?
Everyone has a life-time of experience with learning, especially finding out how to get what we want. We seem to have inherited a brain that is especially adept at learning to cope, but we also learn many self-defeating behaviors. Every person has thousands, probably millions, of learned behaviors or habits. Many are very useful, like brushing our teeth, driving a car, talking, etc. Bad habits are probably learned in the same ways as good ones. Replacing bad habits with new, valued ways of behaving probably follows the same learning principles. So let's learn how to change our behavior by learning more about the process of learning. First, a case.
John, the procrastinator
Consider the case of John, a college sophomore, who is a procrastinator. John is of average intelligence and wants to be successful, a manager in a corporation. Yet, he puts off studying, especially math and science. He knows he could learn it but these subjects take time and become boring. He can't just fake his way though a physics exam. John has been and still is especially good at sports, particularly baseball and football, because he is stocky and strong. Also, John has many friends, both male and female. It is very hard for him to study when he has so many fun things to do. Lately, he has noticed resenting the teachers who pile on a lot of work. He is just barely staying off probation.
Clearly, John is in a reinforcement-rich environment; there are so many enjoyable things to do. Thus, it is hard for studying to compete with all the opportunities to socialize, party, relax, play sports, listen to music, talk, flirt, have sex, etc. How could studying math and science possibly be more enjoyable than all these fun things? This chapter focuses on this kind of dilemma.
(Follow up at age 38: John flunked out of college in his junior year, got married to a girl in his hometown, and had three children. His job is secure but uninteresting; it involves operating large earth moving equipment. He has become a loner and depressed. He and his wife drifted apart. Divorced at 37, he misses his children terribly. He still tends to procrastinate, is late for work, doesn't pay his bills on time, and makes no plans for the future. He manages to keep his job but isn't likely to be promoted. The dreams of success he had in college seem so far away and futile to him now.)
Background to theories explaining why we behave as we do
Learned people have always been interested in learning. 2400 years ago, Plato believed that we all had a soul which knew everything. He thought this knowledge was available to us through our "mind's eye" via introspection and reasoning, not observation. His student, Aristotle, disagreed; he believed we learned through observation and thinking to discover the "laws of nature." For instance, Aristotle observed and concluded that ideas were associated in certain ways; namely, ideas that are similar, opposites, frequently paired, and were originally experienced together tend to occur together. So, observing events lead to ideas, then ideas lead to other ideas, according to these "Laws of Association." Both Plato and Aristotle grossly oversimplified human learning and thought.
Unfortunately, Plato had more influence than Aristotle on Christianity. Thus, the Christian religion set "man" apart from natural law, i. e. since man (not women) was made in God's image and had "free-will," man could not supposedly be studied scientifically. This anti-empiricism, i. e. opposition to learning by observation, lasted for 1500 years! About 1600 philosophers started to speculate about the nature of man again. Some thought there were innate ideas (from Plato), e. g. Descartes and Kant; others believed ideas come from experience, e.g. Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, very much like Aristotle...and current thinking (Hergenhahn, 1982). For about 300 years, we philosophized about learning. Empirical, careful research on learning only started about 100 years ago, a blink of the eye in the history of life. In general, humans have avoided learning about themselves.
The Old Testament in the Bible described Adam and Eve as being made by God's own hands (God was pictured as an ordinary man). All the other animals were assumed (even by great philosophers) to be very different from humans; they had no mind, no rational thought, no language, no feelings, and no soul; animals were mechanical machines. But in 1859, Darwin in Origin of Species challenged the separation of animals from humans with his idea of evolution and aroused interest in adaptation to the environment by his idea of survival of the fittest. Evolution was another way, instead of God's hand, to create humans and all other creatures. A species may come into being and adapt by capitalizing on mutant changes and/or by learning how to cope better. People suddenly became interested in psychology, especially in learning to adapt. Learning was also considered another sign of a mind, so psychologists asked, what are the smartest animals? Was learning a mechanical process or a thinking-symbolic-creative, self-controlled process? Is there a continuum from lower animals to humans--do they think like us, as evolution theory suggested, or are they inferior and different organisms?
The 1880's and 1890's brought some remarkable breakthroughs in understanding learning. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist, described the laws of learning and forgetting by experimentally studying his own memorization of thousands of nonsense syllables. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a brilliant, systematic, Russian physiologist who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his studies of the digestive and nervous systems. For the next 30 years, he carefully explored a kind of learning he called "conditioned reflex" (classical conditioning), which he believed was the basis of all acquired habits and thoughts. At about the same time, a young American studying under William James, Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949), established the "Law of Effect," which states that voluntary (controllable, unlike Pavlov's reflexes) behavior followed by a satisfying experience tends to be repeated (learned). Later, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) saw operant conditioning as a way of controlling almost all behavior. These scientists sought to study experimentally a very simple form of animal learning, which would help explain complex human behavior. It was a good idea, but it didn't work as well as they had hoped. There were many other psychologists, following Darwin, interested in learning but these four are giants.
Three basic kinds of learning: Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social or observational learning
Let's start with the more simple forms of learning, even though it's never so simple in real life. It is helpful to think of behavior as occurring in a certain context or following certain events (environmental or internal stimuli) and resulting in certain consequences (rewards or punishment; success or failure). Thus, several writers have spoken of the ABC's of behavior as described in Table 4.1.
Antecedentsè Behaviorè Consequences classical-Pavlov 1. pair tone & food salivation --- classical-Watson 2. pair rat & loud noise fear of rat --- operant-Thorndike 3. (in a cage) pull strings escape & get food operant-Skinner 4. (in Skinner Box) press bar food operant (job) 5. (at work) work pay self-reinforcement 6. (self-help project) study more watch 1/2 hr. TV avoidance-Mowrer 7. see a rat run away temporary relief of fear (but fear grows) avoidance learning 8. child cries give in to child crying stops but cries sooner and louder next time social learning 9. observing model or receiving instructions imitating model or using information success
Learning new associations between the antecedents and subsequent behavior is classical conditioning (1 & 2 above). Knowing and/or using the relationships between the behavior and its consequences usually involve operant conditioning (3, 4, 5 & 6 above). Many behaviors are strengthened by negative reinforcement, i.e. avoiding some unpleasant experience (7 & 8 above). We often learn new ways of behaving by watching others (9 above). Some more examples will clarify each type of learning.