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Why We Behave The Way We Do: Conditioning, The Unconscious and Pavlov’s Dogs

(2 minute read)

Most people have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. By sounding a buzzer when feeding his dogs, this Russian psychologist taught his animals to associate the buzzer with the imminent arrival of food. Now they would not only salivate when the food was presented, but as soon as they heard the buzzer. This is now called Classical Conditioning.

This experiment was on my mind when I was working with a client who was struggling with his creative writing. He had become increasingly unproductive, and, as time went by, increasingly anxious. Every day he would sit in the same chair in his apartment, open his computer and try to force himself to write. And every day his anxiety would rise, and he would become more and more worried that he would never be able to write again, and that he was doomed to failure. It occurred to me that his apartment and even his chair might have come associate with anxiety, just the way Pavlov’s dogs associated a buzzer with food. So I suggested he go to the library to write. And that simple change was enough to unlock things. (There were other issues that needed to be addressed, but this was a good start.)

Good sleep hygiene also relies on Classical Conditioning. If you spend lots of time in bed doing things other than sleeping — playing games, watching TV, reading or even just trying hard to fall asleep — then you unconsciously associate your bed not just with sleeping, but with being awake. If you make sure that your bed is only for sleeping, your chances of having insomnia go down. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that you ONLY use your bed for sleeping: research has proven that it’s not a bad place to have sex too!)

We can be conditioned not just by our environment, but also by other people, and this is where things get really interesting. We learn how to respond to other people early in our lives, and those childhood patterns are often repeated again and again throughout our lives. Just as being in an apartment where you’ve been anxious many times before makes you anxious yet again, or being in a bed where you’ve spent many hours awake makes you feel awake, meeting someone who reminds you (perhaps unconsciously) of someone from your past generates the same feelings and behaviors in you.

For example, there are some people who find it very difficult to challenge their bosses, and a good portion of them are reacting to the earliest authority in their lives — their parents. Perhaps speaking up was considered disrespectful, or mocked, or harshly punished. They were conditioned to be obedient. When these people meet authority figures later in life, they react in the same conditioned manner — they are obedient, perhaps even timid, and find the thought of challenging these people to be terrifying.

Similarly, there are some people who struggled mightily against their parental authority figures. For them, getting through childhood involved rebellion, overt or covert. And when they meet authority figures in later life, they too react in a conditioned manner — they feel the need to challenge authority, to criticize and perhaps to subvert.

The problem with responding in a conditioned way — whether submissively or in a rebellious manner — is that it may no longer be appropriate. As a child, surviving a parent’s explosive temper may well have required being submissive. But as an adult, it’s necessary to push back at times, and the failure to do so impacts careers and relationships. Similarly, it may have been a sensible strategy to rebel against parents at one point in your life, but to rebel against every authority figure is to ask for trouble.

Most of the time, we have no idea why we respond the way we do. It just feels right, and so we don’t recognize that we need help unraveling these issues until they cause us pain in other parts of our lives. The submissive adult sees nothing wrong with their response to authority figures, but seeks counseling because everyone pushes them around and they feel helpless and depressed. The rebellious adult sees their confrontation of authority as something natural and necessary, but seeks counseling because their career is in tatters.

Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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