Tuesday, May 27, 2014



I did a course back in the 1970s in a Social Psychology degree on ‘Self-Directed Behavior: Self Modification for Personal Adjustment’. Our text was the best available then (and maybe still is), with that title, by David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp (Brooks/Cole). Amazon still sells it: ninth edition, 2006, paperback $129.35 ! It’s probably the best self-help book I’ve ever read.

The course’s and book’s aim: ‘To help you... achieve more self-determination, more “willpower”, more control over your life... The vehicle for learning will be your own self-analysis, your own program for implementing your values’ (3rd edition, p. vii).

The authors’ favourite scenarios for change include overeating, smoking, drinking and drug use; assertion; specific fears; the other sex; family, friends, lovers and co-workers; depression; studying and time management.

It’s said psychology is ‘what everyone knows in language no one can understand.’ This book uses simple language – often over-stating, perhaps, the very obvious. Like: Self-direction is all about actualizing one’s values. The A-B-C of behaviour change involve antecedents (the ‘setting events for your behaviour, which stimulate you to act and feel in certain ways’) , behaviours, and consequences (which ‘affect whether you repeat certain actions or not, reinforcing behaviour or failing to so’.

Start with a list of personal goals – long- or short-term, major or minor. Select one goal – an important one - for a learning project. Specify behaviours-in-situations: concrete examples – in your daily life; list details of the problem/s - non-performance vs an undesirable behaviour? Observe yourself and fill out this sentence: My goal is to change [thought, action, feeling] in [situation]. Give yourself reminders. Make a list of what happens if you don’t change. Get others to remind you. Write a self-contract. Be aware of the experiences of others (eg. stopping smoking, drinking, drug use – ‘cold turkey?’ or ‘reduce consumption gradually?’ Be clear about any ‘escape’ intentions).

Self-observation: be brutally honest (eg. how much you eat if your goal relates to weight-loss). Keep a structured diary (relating to behaviors – negative and positive - and their antecedents and consequences). Incorporate ‘self-talk’, thoughts, fantasies,  in your diary. Use reminders (eg. a card inside the cellophane wrap of your cigarette pack). Have a friend check with you regularly. Reward yourself for keeping records.  

Reinforcers: What works best for you? Negative (unpleasant/punishment) or positive reinforcers? Behavior that is punished will occur less often in the future. An act that is no longer reinforced, either positively or negatively, will weaken (extinction). But intermittent reinforcement increases resistance of behaviour to extinction. Self-instructions (yes, talking to oneself) control behaviours. Also many behaviors are modelled on those of others (imitation).

Antecedents: Record-keeping is important here: what beliefs cause problem behaviours? Is there a common theme? If these beliefs are illogical that should become more and more obvious. Is there a chain of behaviour leading to the final – bad – act? Self-instructions early in the chain should help. And figuring out the chain of events which lead to the behaviour in question: for example, if it’s over-eating that’s your problem, don’t shop when hungry.

Developing New Behaviors. Four techniques – (1) Shaping new behavior. Two rules here: You can’t begin too low; and steps upward can’t ever be too small. If you want to increase study-time, do five minutes more today than yesterday... Plateauing is a challenge. (2) The use of incompatible behaviours, by selecting the opposite eg. smiling rather than frowning; being courteous rather than being rude.  (3) Rehearsal: including the use of imagination, and relaxation. (4) Modeling: this is about learning from others’ skills in areas you’re lacking.

Consequences. Self-reinforcement is essential: arranging a reward for desired behaviours. Successful self-controllers are three times more likely to use self-reward procedures. One variety: the Premack Principle: ‘If behaviour B is more likely to occur than behaviour A, the likelihood of behaviour A can be increased by making behaviour B contingent upon it.’ (A young woman only allowed herself to have a shower if she exercised for 15 minutes first). Reinforcers should be prompt, maybe a token (eg. money), maybe shared with others (give them money which they give back after desired behaviour), maybe verbal (smoking clinic gives a special phone number to ex-smokers, where they hear praise for their efforts), ‘imagined extinction’ – like imagining the food you haven’t eaten in a weight-loss program is tasteless. Punishment alone is insufficient: self-punishment doesn’t necessarily teach any new behaviours.

Planning for Change.  Your plan should have a goal (make it simple and specific rather than complex, and diffuse). Incorporate accurate self-observations and feedback. Write it down and sign it – it’s then a contract with yourself. The contract lists your rules as well as your goals and subgoals. A formal contract increases your chance of success. Display it. Keep it in your diary or on your mirror. If you need a new one, rewrite your contract – and sign it again.

Analyzing the Data.  Make a graph: any progress can be diagrammed on a time-line. If something happens which is likely to torpedo your plan, tinker with it and change it.

Termination. This might not mean ‘success’: it could simply mean the problem doesn’t exist any more – you live with it. However there’s a trap here: ‘Yes, I lost 20 pounds rather than the desired 40 pounds, and stopped the dieting at that point - and I’m over-eating again!’ So situations will have to be found where any new behaviour is valued. And is praised by friends. The danger of stopping too soon is more frequent than prolonging the effort! Practise the new behaviour until it is perfect. And use the problem-solving steps to deal with new difficulties.

Uses and Limits of Self-Directed Change. Professional help may be needed if personal goals don’t lead to change; or if the technical problems are greater than the effort of reading these pages; or if your environment seems too chaotic for your plan to work.

And two quotes to ponder: ‘Life is trouble. Only death is not’. (Zorba the Greek). ‘Life is just one damned thing after another’ (Anita Loos). This is not pessimism, but realism. After you’ve solved one problem, you’ll meet some more that require thoughtful self-direction.

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