The behaviorist school of thought maintains that behaviors as such can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as thoughts and beliefs. In other words, consciousness is not relevant to understanding human behavior. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behaviorism)
As regular readers of this blog know very well, I do agree that some of our behavior (especially emotional eating) and some of our feelings (such as anxiety and anger) can be the result of conditioning.
This agreement would seem to validate the claim of the behavioral school of psychology that our behavior is the result of environmental stimuli (in other words, conditioning) and that we don’t need the idea of consciousness to understand human behavior.
In fact, however, I disagree totally with the idea that we are not, at our essence, conscious beings. Most of our behavior and feelings are caused by beliefs, which are the result of the meaning we give meaningless events. And meaning requires consciousness. When conditioning does happen it is because the faculty of consciousness that we do possess is not being used.
Let me explain.
How classical conditioning happens
The type of conditioning that causes feelings is called classical conditioning. Anything that occurs repeatedly (or even once if the incident is traumatic enough) at the same time that something else is causing an emotion will itself get conditioned to produce the same emotion.
That’s how making mistakes, being criticized, not meeting expectations, being rejected, and a host of other non-scary situations get conditioned to produce anxiety and how other stimuli get conditioned to produce other emotions or actions.
An example of classical conditioning
Here’s an example I use with my clients that will make the idea of classical conditioning very clear. Imagine that I handed you an ice cream cone with one hand. How would you feel? … If you were like most people who like ice cream, you would feel happy. Now imagine I handed you an ice cream cone with one hand and made a fist with my other hand and drew it back as if to hit you. What would you probably feel now? … Some level of anxiety if you thought you might get hit. Now imagine that the next few times someone handed you an ice cream cone, the same thing happened and you felt anxious each time.
What do you think you would feel the next time you were handed an ice cream cone, even if there was no menacing fist? … Probably anxious. And yet it’s clear that ice cream cones are not inherently scary. If this next time there were no fist, only ice cream, why would you feel anxious? Because the ice cream cone got conditioned to produce fear when it became associated with the fist. Ice cream just happened to be there every time you got scared by the fist.
Here’s a practical example of classical conditioning
It is common for us to get conditioned to experience fear whenever we are criticized, judged or evaluated. Whenever our parents criticized, judged or evaluated us as children, they almost always were annoyed, frustrated, or angry with us. The meaning young children give this type of parental behavior is that their parents no longer love them, so their parents could leave them, and so they could die. That meaning is what causes the fear. The “neutral stimulus” that gets conditioned is the criticism, judgment or evaluation.
But notice what is actually happening here. We are not making a distinction between the real cause of the fear (the meaning we give to our parent’s behavior) and a neutral event (being criticized) that is happening at the same time. In other words, consciousness is absent from this situation, resulting in a conflating of two separate events into one.
Consciousness prevents conditioning
If we had made a conscious distinction at the time between the real cause of the fear and an event that merely accompanied the fear, conditioning would not have taken place. Moreover, the way to decondition the stimulus (for example, criticism) so that it no longer causes fear is to consciously make that distinction.
Thus it isn’t that consciousness is not relevant to understanding human behavior, it’s that automatic processes (such as conditioning) can determine human behavior only when consciousness is absent. When consciousness is present, conditioning doesn’t happen.
Is it possible to prevent all conditioning if we were conscious enough? Although it might be theoretically possible, from a practical standpoint it seems to be impossible. Most of the conditioning that results in negative emotions takes place in childhood, where our level of consciousness (in other words, our thinking and understanding capabilities) is at a lower level than it is after we have become adults.
Most of the “programming” that runs us is the result of a conscious (or at least semi-conscious) process, namely, forming beliefs by giving meaning to events. The other programming (conditioning) happens automatically when we are not conscious of what’s happening. Luckily, if that happens, we can decondition that type of programming by making a conscious distinction we failed to make earlier.
To the extent we are at all robotic, it is because we are not using our consciousness effectively. If we do, we have the ability to act and feel pretty much however we desire.
For more details on how the Lefkoe Stimulus Process (LStimP )works, see https://www.mortylefkoe.com/how-to-eliminate-some-of-your-negative-emotions/#.
For the steps of the LStimP, check out http://www.decisionmaker.com/docs/LStimulusP_Steps.pdf.
For a recording of a session in which I help a client decondition a stimulus for a negative emotion, please listen at https://www.mortylefkoe.com/anna-charlotta-demo/.
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Copyright © 2013 Morty Lefkoe
Use this information to improve your life
Identify one belief you formed in your childhood and find its source. Notice that the belief is the meaning you gave childhood interactions with your parents. Although you might not have been aware of forming the belief, notice that some level of conscious was required to create a meaning for the meaningless event.
Then identify an emotion that you always have following a certain type of event. Become aware of the earlier circumstances that led to the event getting conditioned to produce the emotion. Notice the absence of consciousness.