Category: Human psychology

In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close

In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close

I made a mistake. I did Zani wrong.

I’m not looking for reassurance. I’m not down on myself, just very sad. And as usual, I want to share my cautionary tale.

This is the second time I’ve made this mistake, and I plan to never make it again. I’m going to begin by telling you about the first time I made this error, long ago with different dogs.

Continue reading “In Zani’s Honor: Help Your Dog Get Close”
What Does Shower Mold Have to Do With Dog Training?

What Does Shower Mold Have to Do With Dog Training?

Am I really reaching today, or what? You be the judge!

There is a series of articles in the behavioral psychology literature that questions whether the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is important.*

These papers are often quoted by people who seem motivated to rehabilitate negative reinforcement, although the papers are generally more about nomenclature, and not whether negative reinforcement is humane.

Before we go on, here is a working definition of negative reinforcement and some examples:

Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

Some examples are:

  • The buzzer of your alarm clock goes on until you get up and turn it off.
  • You get rained on until you open an umbrella.
  • A trainer pinches a dog’s ear until she opens her mouth to accept the retrieve object.

Negative reinforcement can be involved in something as trivial as scratching an itch to something as serious as running for one’s life from a predator. There is a vast range of severity. It’s not all about pain.

When we consider dog training, we need to make a distinction regarding handler mediated negative reinforcement and automatic reinforcement. Stepping in and putting a behavioral requirement on the removal of an aversive differs from the myriad ways that dogs take action in their own lives to remove an aversive, be it mild or extreme.

Finally, there are some borderline cases where it is hard to determine whether the process involved is positive or negative reinforcement.

That is what I’m writing about today.

Borderline Cases

The classic borderline case is the thermostat. When it’s too cold and you go adjust the thermostat by two degrees, are your actions reinforced by the subsequent pleasant feeling of warmth, or the relief from the uncomfortable cold? People use the borderline cases to support arguments made in favor of doing away with the distinction between R+ and R-.

Those who like to argue that negative reinforcement is “not so bad” also like to bring up this example, even though it is not typical of reinforcement scenarios.

I ran across one of these ambiguous situations recently in my own life and am going to share and analyze it here. Let’s see whether the fact that it could go either way makes the negative reinforcement any more benign.

Blue and white checkered tiles
Tile photo credit—Wikimedia Commons

Personal Example: My Shower

I am an indifferent housekeeper. I am prone to clutter, and tend to barely keep up with the dog hair on the floor and the dirt the dogs track in.

I have a bit of a problem with mold in my house, and my shower had recently gotten pretty bad, such that even with a thorough cleaning I couldn’t get it to look nice. I have tried several times in the past to change my behavior about that, but failed.

So when it got moldy again about four months ago, I made a thoughtful plan and tried again. First, I threw out and replaced my shower curtain liner and in-tub mat. I scrubbed the shower and tile and sprayed it with bleach. I did this repeatedly over the course of a few days until it was beautifully clean.

Then I thought about antecedents and reinforcers regarding the shower cleaning behavior and made a plan to maintain the shower and keep it clean.

I purchased two kinds of shower spray: one with bleach and one without. Both claim to keep the shower clean just by spraying on. (Bear with me. I’m not much interested in the details of housecleaning either, but they are relevant here.) My goal was to arrange antecedents to make the desired behavior as easy to maintain as possible.

I then adopted a loose schedule of using the cleaner with bleach a couple of days a week and the less noxious (but also probably less effective) one a few times a week. I wasn’t sure exactly how much would be necessary to keep the shower clean, but was ready—gasp—to do something every day if I had to.

So far I have kept up—it’s been a few months now—and the shower/tub is sparkling clean.

Question: What is Maintaining the Behavior?

Shower stall with white tile and a white curtain pulled aside
Shower photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is it negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement?

Let’s map out our contingencies. We are talking about a reinforcement scenario (not punishment) because we are increasing/maintaining a behavior: spraying stuff on the tub and tile.

 Positive reinforcement version

  • Antecedent: Schedule says it’s time to spray down the shower with cleaner
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Shower looks and smells pleasant and clean

Negative reinforcement version (escape)

  • Antecedent: There is mold in the shower
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Mold is gone

Negative reinforcement version (avoidance)

  • Antecedent: There is the threat of mold in the shower
  • Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
  • Consequence: Threat of mold is relieved

So which scenario is it and does it matter?

Can We Tell By Observation?

First, let’s think about whether there is any way that a person observing my behavior could tell. Is there a special way to apply shower spray that shows one’s motivator is to prevent mold? Or is there an indicator that one loves the look of a sparkly clean shower?

Behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement tend to be minimal. The person or animal does the very least he or she can do to get the result. I believe this has shown to be true in the workplace, and can also often be observed in dogs that are trained using aversives only.

As Aubrey Daniels says:

Positive reinforcement maximizes performance, while negative reinforcement gets a level of performance that is just enough to get by, just enough to escape or avoid some unpleasant consequence.—Bringing out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels

In the case of the shower, could we tell by watching? If we observed my behavior over time, we could note whether I sprayed the whole shower or just the parts that tend to get moldy. We could also note whether I made efforts to determine the minimum amount of work it takes to keep a shower clean (or mold-free) using the methods I chose.

Also, we could try to tell whether I took any enjoyment out of the clean shower. Do I go out of my way to admire it? Do I polish parts of it to make it extra sparkly? Do I shower even when I don’t need to because I find it so pleasant?

But since I’m a human being with many motivations, I think it would be a little difficult for an onlooker to tell what is driving my shower cleaning behavior. I may use minimal efforts because I want to save on cleaning supplies or I like to make a game out of efficiency. When I look at the shower, I may be looking for flaws, not admiring my handiwork.

But I know which it is!

So Which Is It?

What is driving my behavior is the threat of mold. I hate it. I remind myself to notice how nice the shower looks, but that is an incredibly weak reinforcer for me.

Even though I have worked out a system with minimal effort and virtually no elbow grease, I HATE having to spray stuff to maintain the clean shower. There is no pleasure in it for me, before or after. I am continually trying to figure out whether I can skip a day, or two, or maybe leave off the bleach version for a while. The situation is doubly frustrating because I feel like I can’t mess up. Because if the mold comes back even a little, it will be that much harder to eradicate. So I don’t even know where the boundary for “minimal” is, but I am sure trying to find it.

This is almost a purely negative reinforcement scenario for me.

Application to Dog Training

I have previously written about two situations in which it could be hard to tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement in dog training. One is when training with food if the dog has been deprived. The behaviors that allow a starving dog to eat are negatively reinforced as her hunger is assuaged. Likewise, a game of hiding from your dog could involve either positive or negative reinforcement.

However, I think the most common situation where positive and negative reinforcement can be confused is when dogs are said to work for praise. Yes, you read that right. Compared to food and play, praise is a very weak positive reinforcer for most dogs, and often nonexistent unless it has been deliberately paired with a primary reinforcer and/or the bond with the human is very strong. More often, praise is a safety signal, a sign from the human that, “You have done the right thing and I won’t hassle or pressure you anymore.”

So we may think our dog is working “for the joy of a clean shower” when she really is working to escape the mold. And, unlike humans, dogs tend to be a little more obvious about how happy they are with an interaction or a method, if we can just learn to pay attention.

Take-Home Lessons

Even if it is a negative reinforcement scenario, cleaning the shower is one of those fairly benign sounding applications. Perhaps I sound like a pretty spoiled person to be complaining about it. I know that I am privileged for that to even be on my radar as a problem, for sure. But you know, when searching for photos to use with this post, I got grossed out. And even though I found a couple of moldy tile pictures on Flickr that would be permissible to use, I ultimately decided against it because they were disgusting. I didn’t want icky pictures of mold on my blog.

I have been describing an “automatic” negative reinforcement process. My own actions directly remove the aversive, the threat of mold. How would I feel if someone used the threat of mold to get other behavior from me?  Easy answer. I wouldn’t like them very much. Especially since I am so easy to please with food or money, grin. Really, why on earth would someone want to use a threat instead?

These kinds of analyses of everyday activities are helpful to me. I hope they are helpful to others, and I hope I didn’t over-share. I have contemplated trashing this post several times, but then I thought perhaps it would help someone understand negative reinforcement just a little better. When one is first learning about the processes of learning, negative reinforcement methods can sneak in, seeming like magic. Look, I didn’t have to hurt my dog or give it food either! That’s one of the main reasons I write about it so much. It can be quite insidious.

Got any personal negative reinforcement stories?

Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

* This is the first in the series of articles I mentioned. Even the last part of the title indicates that the paper is about nomenclature and not excusing negative reinforcement.  Michael, Jack. “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things.” Behaviorism (1975): 33-44.

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

You Can’t Cure MY Fear By Shoving Cookies at Me!

I think it’s so interesting when someone says that.

Every so often I hear or read a confident claim from someone saying that desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) wouldn’t work on them.  They seem offended at the very idea that food would help them overcome their fear. The nerve of anyone to even mention it!

Actually, I can relate just a little. Maybe the idea is a tiny bit threatening. So many of us hold our individuality near and dear.  Americans especially, I suspect, are taught (conditioned, hah!) to view conditioning as some kind of mechanistic insult to our personhood. It evokes scary thoughts of self-serving mind control as in Brave New World.

But could any of us really be immune from associative learning and respondent conditioning? Do the processes of learning apply to us or not? Are we really such exceptional super-humans that we know in advance that a method that operates in a fairly predictable psychological and physiological manner just….won’t?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shoving Cookies

a handful of vanilla sandwich cookies

To start with, the phrase about “shoving cookies” signals either a basic misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation of the process of counterconditioning/desensitization. The claim usually goes something like this:

You could shove all the cookies at me you want but it wouldn’t make me feel any better if I were trapped in a room full of [spiders, clowns, snakes, etc.]

I could end the post right here and just say that’s a straw man argument, because it is. But I’m interested in what’s behind it, so I’ll keep going.

Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and nonthreatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counterconditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesired response with something that evokes desired emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.

So of course if the process were started with a full-blown exposure to the scary thing, those cookies probably wouldn’t do much. Cookies wouldn’t help a person who is already scared out of their wits. However, that scenario is not DS/CC. The desensitization component ensures that we never start at such an over-the-top exposure.

What’s This About Starting with a Low-Grade Exposure?

Performing desensitization/counterconditioning when addressing fears ensures that we start with a low intensity, manageable form of the scary stimulus. This is done for at least two reasons. One is ethics, and the other is efficacy. I have discussed the ethics issue in my publications on thresholds. Since we can’t explain to animals what we are doing or get their “buy-in,” there are issues of consent that are not present with humans. It is more ethical to start with a non-traumatic exposure to the scary thing.

But the second reason, efficacy, applies to humans as well as other animals, and this is why the quote above about creepy things vs. cookies doesn’t cut it. We start with a tiny, controlled exposure to the scary thing precisely so that the emotional reaction to it doesn’t overpower the positive response to the pleasant stimulus we will use for our counterconditioning.

The anxiety-producing stimulus must be presented at a low enough level that the parasympathetic nervous system response to food (or specifically for humans, the practice of trained relaxation or other internal technique) is stronger than that of the sympathetic nervous system’s fear response. (See Behavior Therapy Techniques: A Guide to the Treatment of Neuroses, by Joseph Wolpe.)

Pavlov’s Work as an Example

Let’s compare classical conditioning, which doesn’t usually necessitate desensitization, and counterconditioning, which usually does. We can use Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs as a starting point.

Pavlov’s dogs learned via respondent conditioning to salivate when a sound, probably a bell, immediately preceded the delivery of food. They most likely did not have any negative association with the bell to begin with; it was probably a neutral stimulus. Because of the bell being paired as a temporal precursor to food, the dogs’ physiological response to food (including salivation and other internal preparation of the GI system) transferred to the sound of the bell. This straightforward classical pairing changed the dogs’ simple auditory response to the bell to an appetitive one, apparently without a hitch.

But what if there had been a dog who was deathly afraid of the sound of a bell beforehand? When the bell rang, the dog’s sympathetic nervous system would have kicked in, with a cascade of biochemicals and physiological responses. Just like for the person in the room full of spiders, snakes, or clowns, that situation would have provided a strong competing response that would inhibit the ability to relax or respond to even the yummiest food.

Depending on the order of events, the dog could even get reverse conditioned, and the fear triggered by the bell could get associated with the food. Likewise, the person in the room full of spiders being showered with cookies may not want a cookie again for a long time.

So for the bell-fearing dog and the spider-fearing person, we would use desensitization in addition to the counterconditioning. We would start with a very dilute, weak exposure to the scary thing. Then the seesaw would drop on the side of response to the conditioning stimulus being the more powerful process at work.

This is also why we use something like steak and not kibble when doing counterconditioning on dogs. We take every opportunity to get the strongest positive response possible.

So again, our people with their off-the-cuff denials are not describing DS/CC at all.

Let’s explore how DS/CC is typically done with a human.  I’ll volunteer for the thought experiment.

My Phobia: Crawdads

A reddish orange crawdad (crayfish) is in some green plants and facing the camera. Its eyes and antennae are facing straight forward. This photo could be used as a step in desensitization/counterconditioning .
A crawdad ready to get me. Also called crayfish (the formal name) and crawfish.  (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I spent a lot of time playing in a murky creek as a kid. Crawdads creeped me out.  I was afraid of being pinched by one, underwater where I couldn’t see it. I felt like they were ugly and sneaky. And I was also really, really grossed out by the dead ones I would see sometimes. They would be in the still, shallow water, and have algae and murk on them. I would think they were alive, just lurking, until I moved the water around them and they would slowly disintegrate. Ewww!

However, crawdads are just not all that dangerous. They generally are not going hurt you very badly, especially if you leave them alone. Certainly, they are not as potentially harmful as bumblebees (which I don’t fear abnormally) or the non-poisonous snakes I had as pets. I believe I was pinched by a crawdad one time. It was completely underwhelming. I felt this little pinch on my big toe, and then it was gone.

The comparative harmlessness of crawdads makes my little phobia a perfect candidate for DS/CC. There is no ethical problem with making me comfortable around crawdads, as there would be, for example, with escaped convicts or bears.

Let’s Make a Plan

So how would we really go about addressing my irrational fear of crawdads with desensitization/counterconditioning?

First of all, we have many more options with humans than with animals (on this page is just a sampling of the many things that have worked with humans). We don’t have to use “cookies,” although we certainly could. With humans, we can often evoke a competing emotional state by using imagination/cognition or a physical activity. There are lots of things one can use.

Now, the idea of cookies (especially chocolate ones) is enticing, but what if I got full too fast? Satiation can indeed be a problem. And all that imagining or virtual reality described in the resource list sounds like more work than I feel like doing. So, my first choice for a tool to use for my own counterconditioning is that potent secondary reinforcer for humans: money!  How about if some rich person funded my DS/CC by arranging for me to be paid $50 every time I perceived a crawdad in any form, proceeding up a desensitization hierarchy? (I’m actually already thinking about how I would go around looking for crawdads.)

To do it properly I would need to establish a hierarchy of exposures, so here is what I came up with. In real life, I would do this in consultation with a knowledgeable psychotherapist, who would also monitor the sessions to gauge the exposure levels and my response.

Steps of Graded Exposure to Crawdads

Each iteration of each step will pay $50, with the option of adjustments by the supervising psychologist.

  1. Read a story in which crawdads are peripherally mentioned.
  2. Write the word “crawdad” myself on a piece of paper. Note that this might be a good first step for the people who write posts about how DS/CC couldn’t work for their fear, since they have already shown that they can write about it. In contrast, there are people with phobias so severe (emetophobes come to mind) that they can’t even stand to see the word that is associated with their phobia.
  3. View a cartoonish picture of a happy crawdad.
  4. Look at these silly crawfish guys at Mardi Gras.
  5. Play with this adorable plush crawfish. (I actually want one!)
  6. View a realistic still photo of a small, clean crawdad (remember the part about murk—I’m trying to avoid that).
  7. Read an educational piece about crawdads and their importance in the environment like this one (it has one photo).
  8. (Steps 9a, 9b, 9c, etc) View a variety of photos, gradually including bigger crawdads and murkier environments. No movement yet.
  9. Watch a video like this one that shows a small crawdad moving around in a crystal clear tank.
  10. Watch more videos, gradually increasing numbers of crawdads, movement, size, and murk.
  11. View, in person, a single crawdad in a tank, such as in the setup in Step 9.
  12. View more crawdads in tanks, raising criteria with movement, numbers, and intensity as with the photos and videos.
  13. Put my hand in a tank with a baby crawdad for it to investigate.
  14. Do the same in a tank with several babies.
  15. [I’m leaving out steps of deliberating touching juvenile or adult crawdads because going that far is not necessary for my needs and could hurt the crawdads.]
  16. Listen to the song, “Crawdad Hole.” I originally had this as an early step, since it’s a very pleasant tune, but then I actually listened to the lyrics, which include a whole bag of crawdads breaking and the crawdads were “back to back.” Oops! Imagining multiple moving crawdads was too intense for an early exposure, but is probably okay about now.
  17. Go explore a creek (something I love to do, by the way) where there are known to be crawdads, but stay on the bank.
  18. Go back to the creek and actively look for crawdads (probably won’t find any). Just for fun, the fee has just gone up and I will get $200 if I see a real crawdad in the wild.
  19. Sit by the creek with my feet dangling in the water. Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.
  20. Wade in the creek (with footwear if appropriate). Still paying $2o0 for crawdad sightings.

I would get paid for each iteration of any one of these tasks. Under the care of the psychotherapist, I could repeat tasks, or add interim steps as needed. (In case the potency of the $50 tempted me to linger unnecessarily on a particular step, the psychotherapist would observe me for possible “fake” responses, and would be free to make alterations in the protocol accordingly.)

For the sake of thoroughness, I added more steps to the list than would probably be necessary for me. You might want to note how many steps there were before the real-life crawdad made an appearance. That is the beauty of desensitization, and why it’s really a shame that people misrepresent it.

If anybody wants to fund my project, please let me know!

Would it Work?

There’s the question. If I went through standard DS/CC of my crawdad phobia, would it work? Probably! Claiming to be exempt from this well-documented process, whether happening naturally in life or in a protocol, is what’s pretty hard to defend.

Our bodies are wired to make associations. If we didn’t build these associations, we wouldn’t have many of the pleasures in life that we do. We do have to be a bit more creative and work a bit longer if we are “rehabbing” a stimulus with negative associations rather than a neutral one. Yeah, it seems kind of silly for the sight of a crawdad to predict $50, but if it did, I bet my feelings about them would change.  And with a bit of finesse, the added pleasure from mucking about in creeks without fear–access to pleasurable activities–would kick in as I weaned off the money.

To make one comment about dogs: I have watched that exact process with my feral dog Clara, and it is thrilling. For a long time, strangers predicted spray cheese. Now they predict comfortably hanging out with her dog and human friends, being able to walk up and give interesting people a good sniff, being able to go in completely new environments and explore without worry, and of course being able to sniff good pee-mail. She actually chooses these activities rather than hanging around for the food. She is free to choose environmental reinforcers. She was formerly prevented from that by her fears.

So I bet I could go from cartoons to plush toys to photos of itty bitty cute (really?) ones all the way up to the gnarly crusty crawdads hiding in the mud. This is not some kind of faith on my part. It’s in keeping with what I have learned that science says about the process, creating a protocol that is in keeping with what we know, and personal observations that are in concert with that knowledge.

Can One Resist?

You do kind of have to wonder whether the people who are adamant that it wouldn’t work would actually cooperate. Could one actually resist counterconditioning?

Stay tuned for a future blog on trying to resist respondent conditioning. There is an interesting story in the literature. But in the meantime, let me leave with some words by Dr. William Mikulas, a behavioral psychologist and also the author of this cool book:

Counterconditioning of fear/anxiety takes place outside of cognitive control, so does not require cognitive acceptance or beliefs. But, of course, cognitive co-operation makes it much easier!!

Dr. William Mikulas, excerpt from personal email, August 2014

*There are also issues of order and timing that would affect which response would “win.” We’re leaving them aside for now.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

Why Not to Respond to that Facebook Post While You’re All Fired Up

Why Not to Respond to that Facebook Post While You’re All Fired Up

Thanks to Scott Beale on Flickr for the photo. 

This post may not be about what you think. There are several obvious reasons not to rush off the deep end with a critical Facebook comment, first among them that you may really hurt someone or make yourself look like an asshole. But I don’t think that point really needs a whole blog post, do you?

But here’s an idea that I do think is worth examining, since I think it is much less familiar to many of us, psych majors excluded.

I’m talking about responding to that inner drive that tells you that you MUST get out there and write something to STOP THE NONSENSE that people are writing. And that you need to do it RIGHT NOW. Dealing with the feeling is a very interesting topic to me.

A friend told me that when you take your first abnormal psych class in college, you are blindsided by the perfect descriptions of your mother, your boss, your next-door neighbor, and your ex–right there in the textbook. 

I kind of had that feeling when I started learning about maladaptive coping strategies, but it was, umm, not just other people. Oh oh. This really hits home.

I’ve been reading and studying psychology in a piecemeal way most of my life, but I hadn’t read much until recently about coping.

So when I recently read this blog post on maladaptive coping strategies, it started me burrowing into the topic. While some of my buddies are reading original sources and writing about the ramifications in dog training (as I probably will too), I’m sticking with the basics and thinking about people!

Maladaptive coping mechanisms: how could something that feels so right be so wrong?


In psychology, coping is expending conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.–Wikipedia

Adaptive coping is coping that works to achieve these aims. Maladaptive coping is unsuccessful in the long run and actually raises stress levels. But since maladaptive coping can feel so good in the short run, it’s very very seductive.

Here’s a list of adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies I have compiled from some different sources, both scholarly and pop culture.  This one in particular was a particularly nice succinct little list: Adaptive and Maladaptive Coping Strategies, and all its entries made it into my list below.

In my list, I tried to pair them when possible, but it’s not in any way exact.

Adaptive CopingMaladaptive Coping    
Concentrating on efforts to do something about the problemPracticing anxious avoidance–avoiding anxiety provoking situations at all times    
Seeking instrumental social support (getting advice, talking to someone who can do something to help)Looking for sympathy/social support    
Deriving meaning from stressful experiencePerforming safety behaviors    
Keeping physically fit and preventing adverse physical effectsRelying on someone or something else to cope    
Lowering arousal through relaxation techniquesAggressing    
ExercisingAbusing substances    
Using humorEscaping–fleeing at the first sign of anxiety. Panic or phobias    
Taking action about the problemDistracting oneself    
Accepting and learning to live with itBeing in denial    
Showing restraint: holding off on doing something too quickly and making it worseRushing in to “put out the fire.” Seeking relief from the discomfort no matter what the cost    
Confronting problems directlyWallowing in self blame    
Suppressing competing activities, i.e., concentrating on the problemPerforming mental avoidance–turning to other activities to distract oneself    
Planning: making a strategyDisengaging–giving up    
Changing unhealthy emotional reactionsFocusing on venting emotions    
Performing altruistic actsPerforming self-indulgent behaviors    
Preparing ahead of time for stressorGetting sensitized (rehearsing and anticipating future fearful events)    
Changing perspective and making realistic appraisalsDissociating (compartmentalizing)    
Utilizing internal locus of controlUtilizing external locus of control    
Counting one’s blessingsRuminating    
Planning how to use one’s time productivelySleeping too much    

If you are like me, some of those in the maladaptive column were a surprise!

Adaptive or Maladaptive: A Quiz

Let’s say your job at a big company sucks. There’s a bar on the way home where you and your coworkers hang out. Several times a week, on your way home, you stop at the bar. A couple of drinks help you unwind from the stress of your jerk boss, your impossible quotas, and the toxic guy in the next cube. But also, your coworkers are there. There is lots of camaraderie as you support each other in your complaints, and share the difficulties in the workplace. It feels great to get that social support. When you get home, you are still a bit frustrated, so you get on Facebook using your fake account and gripe a little more, or post anonymously on a “my terrible boss” website.

Question: Which part of what I have described is maladaptive and which is adaptive?

<<insert Final Jeopardy tune>>

Answer: As described, all of it is generally maladaptive. Most of us recognize the downside of regularly using alcohol to handle a situation. But the type of social support described is also maladaptive a lot of the time. This comes as a surprise, since we usually look on social support as a great thing. And the support described above undoubtedly feels great. Such a relief it is to hang out with people who understand and can commiserate! But doing so is unlikely to lower stress in the long haul. In fact, it is likely part of a dysfunctional coping strategy that may keep you in your miserable job, and/or keep you miserable in your job. So is griping on Facebook, but that doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us.

Expansion: How could we tweak this to make it more adaptive?

  • How about, instead of drinking and bitching at the bar, you had a meeting with your co-workers about ways to improve the workplace? You could even bring in people who worked at other corporations who have managed to implement grassroots improvements.
  • Or if that turns out to be too “pie in the sky,” you can form a support group where you help each other job hunt to get out of the toxic company. (Just don’t let it devolve every time into a gripe session.)
  • OK, so in today’s job market, neither of those will probably work for everyone who is discontent. We have to be realistic. So in the meantime, keeping physically fit, meditating or doing other mental relaxation techniques, counting one’s blessings about having a job at all, and creating internal challenges and learning experiences relating to the job are all positive coping strategies.

So What Does This Have to Do With Facebook?

Facebook is a pleasant place where you visit with your friends and family, chat with like-minded people, exchange ideas, and share photos. What a happy place it is! It must be since so many people spend so much time there, right?

Not! For some of us, Facebook is also a place where we find disagreement, insults, and mayhem. And it’s things we care very deeply about that are being argued about. Facebook can instantly cause one’s blood pressure to shoot sky high!

There is a lot to cope with there. And what is the main stressor? For most it’s dissent. Both the fact of disagreement and the emotional reaction to the ways people disagree.

It turns out that few of the ways I’ve been using to cope for a long time came up on the maladaptive list!

Maladaptive? Really?

I have shared before that I am pretty thin skinned. I’m an unlikely candidate to be writing about anything controversial since argument makes me really nervous. Throughout my life I’ve been proud that I have been able to just turn away and ignore stuff that has been written about me or even to me if I knew it would be upsetting. It does take some self discipline.

Hare making a run for it
Hare making a run for it

So how could ignoring somebody who bothers you, or protecting yourself from having to read the opinion of every Tom, Dick, and Harry be maladaptive? First of all, remember that we are dealing with stressors. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid eating egg yolks if I just plain don’t like them. It’s not maladaptive for me to avoid arguments about the Greco-Persian wars if those are not interesting to me. But it’s maladaptive to turn away from criticism of my posts as a default, fearful reaction. It is an escape response if it stems from an inability to cope with the criticism.

If I’m completely honest, when I try to ignore critical stuff about me or my writing, that doesn’t relieve the stress. I know it’s out there. After a while it may fade from my mind, since I’m forgetful. But the most important thing is that ignoring it doesn’t build any resilience. Since I do get some relief from the escape, I will be more likely to do it more in the future, not less. The behavior may generalize and become an automatic coping mechanism. 

I think we can perceive that that’s not good. I would much rather be in a place where criticism didn’t hurt so much. Let’s look at the Adaptive column for some alternatives.

What if, instead of turning my back, I could take a look at this criticism? What if I derived meaning from the act of reading these other opinions? Gave them some thought. Either firmed up my own views, saw some merit in the others’, or just had a good laugh? What if then I was just able to accept that this person is out there thinking that particular thing, and not have it bother me personally? Wouldn’t that be better than having to continue to escape and avoid whenever I see that they have written something about me?

I think it would. Acceptance is underrated. In my opinion, the list item about “acceptance” doesn’t mean that you agree with or excuse the person. It means that it doesn’t stress you out that they are out there disagreeing with you. Huge difference.

And if I got to that point where it just didn’t bother me, then whether or not I looked at it wouldn’t matter. My emotional reaction to a diatribe about one of my posts would be a bored yawn or a quick scan for new information rather than a quick click away.

I want to be clear that I’m not pointing a finger at anybody else. This adaptive/maladaptive stuff is tricky. If you are somewhat in the public eye and tend to ignore some types of non-constructive criticism, you may just be a lot farther along than I am in the growing-up process. But for me, that ignoring thing has been a fear reaction.

That’s the missing piece for me. I have been thinking all along that in some cases, not paying attention to someone or something could be just fine. Even severing ties with a relative or former friend may not necessarily be maladaptive, in my opinion. We don’t have to associate with everyone in the world to be mentally healthy.

I talked to a very wise friend about this. She said immediately that she thought that if one could make a choice about it, that was an indicator of more adaptive behavior. It wasn’t running away. That person didn’t have a huge emotional impact on you. You just thought it logically through and decided they just weren’t worth your time in the grand scheme of life.

Fools Rush In

And that brings me to the title. Did anybody notice the item in the maladaptive side about rushing in to “put out the fire”? We all know that feeling. Here’s the famous cartoon.

Credit and license for the cartoon. Thanks!

You can even see that this is maladaptive. The person is losing sleep to get their comments in right away.

Learning about maladaptive coping has been a revelation to me. Here, all that time I have been seduced by that feeling of absolute urgency. It is powerful! But I have learned now how to classify that feeling. For me, it is MISPLACED. It is maladaptive. It’s a classic response to pressure (negative reinforcement, anyone?) And that can lead us to take the quickest avenue to relieve the pressure. Writing an elaborate response to straighten everybody out and pressing Post!

But the internet will be there tomorrow. I can sleep on it. See all that stuff in the “adaptive” column about showing restraint and planning? Facebook comment threads are probably the last place in the world where you are likely to change someone’s mind, anyway. After a second thought, you may decide it’s not even worth your time. And if you are just wanting to help someone—they’ll probably be there tomorrow. It is just not an emergency after all. How interesting it is that some words on a screen can tap so effectively into those physiological responses to stress!

How about you all? What do you think of the lists above? Agree? Disagree?

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

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