Why we need to look at behaviour differently

Depressing the happy button

Well the New Year is well underway and those New Year resolutions and targets may not seem so exciting or as achievable as we first thought!

Failure to reach goals has been identified as one reason people become depressed and it dawned on me that at various times in my life I may have been depressed following major disappointments or apparent failures. I contemplated how I came about a recovery; and to what degree I might have not recovered. What helped me rise above the feeling of being depressed; was it my environment, the people around me or was it something innate within me, a genetic predisposition to be happy?

We know that depression is hard to define behaviourally but despite issues defining it, depression is very real and very much a part of some people’s daily lives. It may affect their interactions and daily functioning to the point that they are either drugged or institutionalised. In the popular press it is frequently linked with mentalisms such as anxiety and lack of confidence. As I have said before mentalisms fail to help us when we attempt to address problem behaviours because we may have different interpretations as to what anxiety is or what lack of confidence means.

Here is a behavioural observation: when Jim is asked to perform a task he places both hands with palms together and interlocks his fingers, and he says either I can’t do this or I feel sick in a monotone that is barely audible. Jim may avoid eye contact with the person making the request and may look towards the floor. Here is a mentalism: Jim becomes anxious when he is asked to do anything and he sometimes ignores people. This may give you an idea how emotive and unproductive most of our conversations about behaviour really are! These mentalisms crop up in mainstream articles referring to the behaviour of animals, children and adults. We need to move away subjective language towards a rational, objective description if we are to plan for a solution. Several methods may be employed to treat depression such as counselling, and the use of various medications to alleviate symptoms. One area that is seldom acknowledged or understood by most of us is the behavioural model employed by behaviour analysts.

One could behaviourise ‘failure’ if an expected outcome was not forth coming; we didn’t get the pay rise or the promotion after all the hard work we did over the year. Our hard working behaviour was not reinforced, therefore it decreases and perhaps unwanted behaviours increase as they provide more immediate reinforcement. Suddenly we become ‘depressed’ after any failure and our behaviour repertoire may expand. We may also avoid behaviours that might lead to further disappointments, such as talking with people (which might remind us of our disappointments!) .

Depending on our previous learning history we may be predisposed to ‘depression’ and sleep more, eat more, stay at home, and think depressive thoughts. Think about times in your life when you felt down or disillusioned – try to identify the trigger or the series of consequences that may have reduced access to reinforcement. Simply put, a decrease in positive reinforcement may be due to either a reduction in access to previously reinforcing activities or fewer opportunities to receive reinforcement for certain behaviours that used to result in positive reinforcement.

Behaviour analysts ask questions, observe behaviours, define them, measure them, and attempt to determine the function of the behaviour. These are important distinctions from other traditional counselling models . Problems arise if we attempt to ‘ fix’ a behaviour without knowing what function it serves

the individual in the first place. All behaviours serve a function and despite what teachers and parents often say, there is now such thing as ‘random behaviour’.

Behaviour is governed by rules that quite simply don’t allow for random acts of violence, or kindness for that matter! There is always a function behind everything we do no matter how altruistic we think we are, or despite thinking we have free will and just decided to do something for no reason. Once we accept this fact, we can then look at how to increase reinforcement for a replacement or desired behaviour, while reducing reinforcement for unwanted behaviour.

I did a search for behavioural approaches to dealing with depression and was fascinated by a couple of research articles. Reisinger (1972) used two behaviour technologies - a token economy and response cost - to increase smiling and decrease crying in an institutionalised patient with anxiety/ depression. Tokens were given for appropriate behaviour of smiling and saved up for a special reinforcer, and tokens were removed for inappropriate behaviour or crying.

Kanter et al (2006) used a behaviour analytic treatment with two outpatients. The treatment involved providing positive reinforcement for in-session improvements in clinically significant behaviours associated with depression. These in-session behaviours were supposedly functionally similar to behaviours outside of the sessions so generalisation should occur naturally. Kanter had limited success, noting the difficulties associated with measuring both treatment progress and outcome. However the interesting point is that both studies noted some success and yet despite this, behavioural research on depression is very limited itself. For many of us the behavioural model may seem a simplistic approach to ‘treating’ depression especially when we consider the vast array of preferred medications and therapies available. The true test of any behaviour programme is – does it last over time and allow the participant to function within their environment? Behavioural treatments put the locus of control with the individual and ultimately focus on generalisation of the treatment to the natural environment, without the need for drugs.

It really is that simple and once we start to look at behaviour as simply that – a single action or series of actions that occur based on previous history and experiences, we might at last start to resolve many of our complicated mental conditions that really may not be as complicated as we think. Of course there will always be exceptions, but maybe more of us have just learned inappropriate coping mechanisms and need help to train ourselves to learn new more effective ways to access reinforcement. Reinforcement history is an important part of tackling behaviour change – if a behaviour is reinforced under certain conditions then it is more likely repeated under similar conditions. If this

reinforcement is consistent over time, a strong reinforcement history is established under these conditions. This may explain the glass half full/empty analogy. Some people who have experienced failure but managed by whatever means to survive and rediscover their ability to succeed, are more likely to reflect on failure with a positive outlook than someone who ‘failed’ and sank into a fit of despair which further reinforced their fear and avoidance behaviours of ‘trying again’.

When you next feel depressed, challenge yourself to identify what is no longer pushing the happy button for you, change your behaviour and watch to see how that affects your thinking and your attitude (more mentalisms) and the way you

interpret the world around you. Wishing you much happiness this year!

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