Presenting at the Bucharest International ABA Conference 2018:
Covert aversive self-control: Why do we threaten and denigrate ourselves?
Laboratory of Experimental and Applied Behavior Analysis, Panteion University of Athens
Many so-called psychological disorders are characterized by a high frequency of generation and maintenance of privately-observable aversive events, to include the act of fantasizing or perceiving disturbing images in the absence of the thing seen; berating or demeaning one’s self; or creating improbable threats of danger. For example, in paranoid thinking, harmless strangers are perceived as enemies; in anorexia nervosa, one’s own emaciated body might be viewed in a mirror as embarrassingly overweight; in panic disorder, one’s own sympathetic arousal in a crowded theatre may be perceived as a sign of heart failure—all events that disturb and frighten their creators. In clinical psychology, such behavior patterns are frequently attributed to an underlying mental pathology, but from a functional perspective, what would maintain such apparently fruitless self-exposure to aversive events?
In this presentation, these and related phenomena in which a person frequently constructs disturbing and threatening private stimulus events will be interpreted as a form of covert aversive self-control, in which self-produced threats function as discriminative stimuli that evoke chains of activity incompatible with socially punished patterns of behavior that are also highly reinforcing. Experimental support for this interpretation of problematic patterns of thinking and perceiving will be presented, and its implications for case formulation and treatment planning in clinical behavior analysis will be discussed.