Using Behaviorism and Reinforcement Theory for Self-Exploration, Part 1

They could be exaggerating. In fact, they probably are, but a quick browse of the internet shows a shocking statistic: 97% of New Year’s resolutions fail, often in the first few weeks!

And so, a follow-up to the Behavioural Mastery series. It is commonly said that we can change ourselves on three levels: thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. I’m a firm advocate of working with the first two, which naturally spread across to your actions – but others might prefer direct change. And for that, how can we go past the school of psychology known as Behaviourism?

This series will present some of the basic concepts; another technique to add to your toolbox. Please note that this is not strictly a post on Behaviourism, but rather inspired by it. Those familiar with the topic will realise I happily mix, mangle, and even leave out various concepts and explanations. I did this to make the article more practical to self-work (a lot of this understandably revolves around changing others), and less technical. So just in case someone wants to use this as a reference for an essay – don’t .

More interestingly, I’ve been struggling with a question for a long time – why do we cling to hatred, self-pity, and all the rest of it – when we know it is hurting us? Behaviourist theories, although not traditionally used in such a manner, shed a lot of light on these painful inner habits. However, lets leave that for a later post and begin with the external world.

Positive Reinforcement

Have you ever thought about where most of your habits, perhaps even preferences, come from?

We are all familiar with the concept of the reward. When a father buys his daughter a new toy for doing well on her exam, he is rewarding her efforts and high marks. Another way of looking at it: he is associating pleasure with something that he wants her to do. Naturally, this makes it more likely that she will repeat her efforts.

So when it comes to stopping our self-defeating behaviours, it makes sense that we should look for the ways they are reinforced, or what pleasure we have associated with them. Note that there are subtle differences between the two. Some of these are quite obvious – we get a nice “buzz” from alcohol, or perhaps we feel less shy and have more fun.

This is common sense so far. But we have to realise that such pairings are often illogical and even accidental. Before we continue, take a second to think about a self-defeating behaviour you would like to change, and look to see what you have paired it with. Next, see how you reinforce that pairing. Keep in mind that self-defeating behaviours, for our purposes, can include mental or social habits such as perfectionism, pushing the blame onto others, or even excessive reliving of old traumas.

Done? Let’s continue. I remember case studies of strange sexual desires in an abnormal psychology class once. Some people require certain actions, such as choking themselves, public exhibition, or whatever, in order to get aroused. Nothing else will do, and naturally this interferes with a normal sex life. But how did these desires come about? One explanation based on their case histories was Behaviourism. Many began with odd and often accidental pairings – a voyeur might have just happened to have his first experience of sexual excitement when he accidentally saw a woman bathing. This was reinforced over time by various other events and thoughts, other forms of arousal “died out” in the process, and this eventually built into a full disorder.

Also note that needs, desires, and emotions can be part of the pairing. I’ve discussed in an older article how, as a teen, I had mistakenly associated an angry outburst with a feeling of manliness and power, which tied in to my insecurities at the time.

Now think back to your behaviour. Can you trace it back to the roots? Did the information above change what you thought the root was? When was the first “pairing”? Then move forward from there. How was it then reinforced? Did you have any substitutes? For instance, if you watch too much television to numb feelings of loneliness, what other actions did you perform? Did they slowly “die out” as watching television became your No.1 and finally your only option?

Further Reading: Finding and Challenging the Causes

Negative Reinforcement

The next form of reinforcement, negative reinforcement, is slightly confusing. Negative, in this case, means the reward comes in via the removal of something, not negative in the sense of “bad”. This will make more sense if you think back to a time you were in physical or psychological pain.

Take a smoker who has intense cravings as an example. Even though smokers have been bombarded with health warnings, a cigarette is still reinforcement. The discomfort of the craving has been taken away.

Of particular importance is the fact that this also applies to psychological discomfort or pain. It is commonly known that external addictions are often used to numb internal sadness, but it goes beyond that. In the book Self-Esteem, authors McKay and Fanning make some eye-opening connections. The following example rings true for me, in particular: blaming others as a way of relieving secret guilt. A marriage, for example, might be falling apart, and both parties were partly at fault. Despite knowing this, it is more painful to own up to their mistakes, and whenever such thoughts arise, they deflect it by immediately pushing the blame onto the other party.

So once again, think back to your behaviour. In addition to the positive reinforcements and pairing, above, do you receive any negative reinforcements or pairings? Please don’t be stuck in the examples here – there are a many different self-defeating behaviours, with countless possible pairings for each.

Reinforcement Schedules

The next important point is the reinforcement schedule. This is just a fancy name for how often we are reinforced for the action we take. There are many types, but can be generalised for our purposes into three broad categories:

  1. Continuous: Every time I do something I get reinforced, i.e. I get a “buzz” every time I drink alcohol.
  2. Fixed: Every (number) times I do something, I get reinforced, i.e. every five times I drink, I get a buzz.
  3. Variable: I get randomly reinforced for each action I take. Sometimes I get a buzz, sometimes I don’t, and nobody knows when I will.

We’ll focus more on variable schedules, for the simple reason that variable reinforcement is actually more addictive than constant reinforcement! Yes, read that again. A common illustration here is the slots machine used in gambling. Part of the reason people get addicted to it is because we never know when we will hit the jackpot!

When we realise that variable reinforcement is more addictive, we begin to see even more pairings – often, subconscious, almost forgotten, pairings. The first few times I started smoking, I got a “buzz”, a physical high. Naturally, when I started smoking daily, I almost never got the buzz again. But when I quit smoking, I realised the entire time I was smoking, I was subconsciously still waiting for it!

This is especially true for our thoughts and feelings. McKay and Fanning gives another great example – an obsessive worrier who wastes hours a day torturing themselves with mental images is rewarded when, perhaps once a year, they manage to come across a workable solution.


At this point, a perceptive reader might be thinking – we’ve discussed reinforcements, rewards, but what about punishments?

Punishment works in the same essential manner as reinforcement – one might get positive punishment (a father “giving” his daughter a spanking, perhaps), or negative punishment (taking her favourite toy away). The reason I have not put much emphasis on it so far is simple: while it is great for self-understanding, I definitely don’t recommend it for changing ourselves. Some will debate this, though.

But first things first. The process of analysis in your own life is the same as it is for reinforcements. Why does a certain song make you sad? It might remind you of a past lover. Sometimes a happy song might make you sad, simply because it happened to be on the radio when something painful happened. Why do we avoid doing the laundry? Most likely, we have associated it with boredom and monotony.

The Practical Aspects

And so we come to the end of the theory. The next post will begin looking at some practical applications. While that article is being prepared, please do some analysis of your own, but don’t do any work! I believe that using behaviourism by itself can have some harmful side effects, and the next post will detail that. The beauty of this school, for me, lies in the understanding and exploring portions of self-work.

Also, I’ve found a couple of blogs that have been stealing my content and passing them off as their own, which is pretty common. But what pisses me off is that they ignore repeated polite emails to stop, and keep doing it! I wouldn’t mind at all if they had at least credited me. If you read this anywhere that is not UrbanMonk.Net, you know where to go to get the real deal. *Update* I take most web aggregators as a compliment, for they acknowledge me, thats all I need. Im specifically referring to those who pretend they wrote my content.