One of the basic theories in the field of psychology is the focused around how we reinforce behaviors. The understanding of this theory started with the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), a Russian physiologist awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on digestion. Dr. Pavlov developed Pavlovian (classical) conditioning, which focused on subjective mental processes. His work demonstrated the basic learning process that involves repeatedly pairing a neutral stimulus with a response-producing stimulus until the neutral stimulus elicits the same response. His work was further expanded upon by Behaviorist Theorists, specifically Skinner, who determined that conditioned responses in humans can be reinforced or extinguished.
In this theory there are two forms of reinforcement, which are 1) Positive: Response is followed by the addition of a reinforcing stimulus that increases the likelihood that the response will be repeated in similar situations and 2) Negative: Response results in the removal of, avoidance of, or escape from a punishing stimulus that increases the likelihood that the response will be repeated in similar situations.
We often apply this to the behaviors of others, particularly in regards to punishment and rewards. The old saying, “you teach people how to treat you” is at the foundation of this concept in regards to reward and punishment and the concept that we do not reward negative behavior if we want to distinguish it. The question is why do we not apply this to ourselves and our own behavior more often? We tend to focus on how we teach others to treat us but give little thought on how we teach and treat ourselves. The point is that we can use these same concepts to teach ourselves to treat ourselves better by reinforcing the positive in ourselves and extinguishing, or at least reducing, the behaviors that are not working for us.
So, how we do this? We start by conducting a full inventory of the behaviors we know are not working for us and what we would like to change. From there we must break down each behavior into a set of specific things we want to change and then work backwards to “extinguish” it. For example, if you have a tendency to worry too much, which is causing you emotional distress, you have to as ask – what is the reward you are getting from worrying and where does that stem from? You also have to ask yourself if the reward you are getting is what you want or if there is a better and more effective way? Maybe you determine that the payoff you have been getting is you feel in some sort of false sense of control of your situation by worrying. Maybe you determine that worrying was a way in which you felt alive when you had nothing else to hang on to. Either way, you know it is not working and you must extinguish this negative reward and replace it with a more positive one in order to move forward to your best life.
I am sure you are saying, “easier said than done”, but it is doable. It is a simple matter of deciding that you want a different reward, a more positive one, and implementing that. Instead of further solidifying your negative behavior, you have to stop feeding it and instead feed that which you want to grow. Using the principles of reinforcement, we must essentially psychologically starve out the old behaviors and develop positive behaviors by psychologically feeding them. Using the example of excessive worry, it is a simple matter of starving out the negative fear-based behavior so it does not return so easily next time you are triggered with a stimulus.
For example, when you feel intense worry coming on you could stop and reroute that worry into a positive behavior, such as a problem-solving session, journaling or doing what you can to bring back a sense of control over your situation. This will reduce the fear reflex in the amygdala, thus reducing the fear response and allowing you to reprogram your brain to produce positive behaviors going forward. As you repeat this positive reinforcement process, through repetition, you will increase the likelihood that your new response to worry will become your new behavior and that the negative responses, excessive worry, will be reduced or removed.
One way that I work with my clients to reduce negative behaviors is what I call “Problem Root Mapping”. I find this exercise really helps people get to the root of what is bothering them and then utilize their problem-solving skills to reinforce new positive behaviors using the principles of brain stimulus. To do this, get a piece of paper, draw a circle, name your problem and an emotion you feel as a result of this problem. Here is an example using the excessive worry example:
Problem: I Have No Job And Am Afraid I will Lose My House
Feeling: Fear of Losing My Home
The next step is the mapping exercise, which is how we drill down to the root. This requires breaking down the problem, thoughts and emotions associated with the problem you are trying to solve. You can walk through this process as often or in as much detail as you need to until you get to the root of what is causing distress. Here is the process using the same example:
I feel worried because:
•I have no money in the bank
•I have no job prospects
This brings up feeling of:
•Fear I will not have enough
•I will end up like my parents
Root of the problem:
•Childhood fears because we never had enough
•Trauma of unresolved pain
•Fear of repeated trauma
Now that you know the root of the problem, or the injury, you can start to heal it. You can begin to recognize the stimulus, or trigger, that elicits the negative worry response. You can then begin to replace the negative worry with the understanding of where the root lies. Once you know that you can address it head on, face it for what it is and replace it with the new rational perspective. In this example you could change your perspective and recognize that the situation you are in is not the same, and you have control over it because you have control over your life and choices going forward to avoid the same outcome. You can now recognize the stimulus and replace it with repetitive positive responses and perspectives, which over time, will extinguish the negative worrying response.
There are no easy fixes, and it will take some deliberate conscious work, but you have the power within you to use Pavlovian conditioning theory to your benefit. By removing any victim thinking and replacing it with a new way of thinking, you can change everything about your life. Condition yourself for success and reduce distress by getting to the root of the problem, face it and extinguish it. You have the power!
Dr. Robin is an Industrial Organizational Psychologists and Dean of Curriculum and Program Administration at Western Education Institute. She
also is an Executive Coach and Trainer at Dr.G Consulting.