Posted by: thealienist | August 25, 2014

Foundations of Mental Health: You are Someone’s Stimulus

It seems that recently people have spent a lot of time trying to prove that they are not stimuli for others to react to.  On one news site, I saw a picture of a nude woman on a public street who had pained her body with the words, “Still not asking for it.”  I have seen pictures and videos of citizens protesting government violence by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.  I have seen police officers calling for peace while brandishing clubs and guns.  I have had patients dressed in motorcycle club jackets and bandanas and wearing long hair and beards wondering why people would be anxious around them.  The examples could go on and on.  Sometimes we forget that what we look like and how we behave affect those around us.  Other times, we just enjoy sending out mixed messages.

The real world is a complicated place.  We have a primary responsibility to control our actions or to accept the consequences.  All of this seems to me to be morally and legally correct.  On the other hand, life is not all about moral judgments and legal actions.  Life is about behaving well so that we, and the community around us, can live peaceful, productive, and meaningful lives.  How is this to be accomplished?

One of the most powerful tools for explaining and predicting behavior is behaviorism.  As a science, it looks at the factors that control or influence the likelihood of particular behaviors.  Two of the most common models of behavioral influence are Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning.   In both of these models, certain stimuli increase or decrease the likelihood of particular behaviors.

In classical conditioning, an individual is assumed to have an automatic reaction to certain types of stimuli.  For example, when one is threatened with violence, one naturally has either anxiety or a defense reaction.  The threatening stimulus is called the unconditioned stimulus (US) and the anxiety and defense reactions are called unconditioned responses (UR).  No one has to learn to become anxious or defensive.  It’s built in.  The trick happens when the US is paired with another stimulus enough times so that  this new stimulus (called the conditioned stimulus or CS) can take the place of the US and provoke anxiety or a defensive reaction on its own (this time called a conditioned response or CR since it was not triggered by a US).  The behaviors that are classically conditioned are generally involuntary.

How does this apply to sending mixed signals?  Well let’s take the big, burly, long-haired, motorcycle club member example above.  My patient was wondering why people were always getting anxious around him.  Let’s think about what most people’s experiences are in threatening situations.  What did the person threatening look like?  They may have been big; they may have been long-haired and had beards; they may have dressed in ways that indicated they were not members of the larger community but were associated with a fringe group; they may have been conspicuously tattooed; and their voices may have sounded gruff.  Certainly all of these were not associated with every episode of threat, but they may have been present in some (and certainly they were present in t.v. shows and movies).  These aspects of my patient are not directly associated with violence or threat, and my patient did not see himself as violent in any way.  Still, many people have enough experience with certain types of threat to associate these features with aggression and violence.  Thus, my patient presents powerful features that function as CSs for anxiety or defense.  If it is important for him not to stimulate anxiety and defense in others, he might consider a shave, haircut, and change of wardrobe.  If those changes are too onerous, then he needs to get used to anxiety and defense.  Complaining about other people’s reactions is not a good use of his time.

In operant conditioning, one’s behavior creates a change in the environment that affects the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.  In operant conditioning, we tend to talk about discriminative stimuli and reinforcing stimuli.  A discriminative stimulus is one that informs the individual that an operant is in effect.  A reinforcing stimulus is one that increases or decreases the likelihood of the operant behavior recurring.  My favorite example of operant conditioning is the soda machine.  Just outside my classroom, there is a soda machine.  It is loaded with bottled water, energy drinks, Dr. Pepper, and a variety of other drinks.  Whenever I have been deprived of drinking for a long enough period of time and I see the soda machine lit up and full of sodas (the discriminative stimuli), I know that there is a behavior I can do that will change my environment.  I can take some coins or bills out of my pocket, insert them into the appropriate slots, and push certain selected buttons on the front of the machine.  If I perform these actions correctly (the operant behavior), then I will receive the soda I want (a positive reinforcing stimulus).  This will make it more likely that I will emit the operant behavior in the future.  It is also possible that the machine could malfunction and give me nothing or a soda I hate.  This is likely to make it less likely that I will emit the operant behavior in the future.  Behaviors that are operantly conditioned are generally voluntary.

How does this apply to sending mixed signals?  Let’s take the example of the word-enhanced nude woman protesting in the streets.  Her verbal and written communication denounce treatment of women like objects.  Her display of her nude body and effort to obtain attention create the conditions for operant reinforcement.  Any heterosexual male will realize that all he has to do is look at her to obtain his reward.  Having obtained this reward, it makes it more likely that the operant behavior (looking at the nude woman) will continue or be repeated.  In short, her behavior makes it more likely that she will be seen as an object.  Even worse, no one has to teach a heterosexual male how to respond to the sight of a nude woman (unconditioned stimulus).  The unconditioned response is sexual arousal.  This woman who is protesting that she is not asking to be the object of sexual behaviors has created emotional conditions increasing the likelihood of sexual behaviors.  Could you possibly give out more mixed signals?

Now please understand, I am not saying that people being afraid of large, burly, hirsute, motorcycle club members or that people who direct sexual attention to unwilling people are behaving acceptably.  One of my friends from Bible class is a large, bearded, member of a Christian motorcycle club.  He is about the nicest guy I know.  Another of my friends from medical school was a young lady who was attractive and had such a sultry speaking voice that it made her the target of a stalker. Anyone who made assumptions about either of these people that led to mistreatment of them should be held responsible for their own actions.  The fact that they were responding to a provoking stimulus does not excuse them in any way from taking full responsibility for their actions.  On the other hand, we should all be thoughtfully responsible for how we present ourselves to others.  We should take care to present ourselves as we wish to be perceived and not to provoke others to treat us in hurtful ways.  This is true responsibility.

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