I feel bad about that… Wait! Its okay! ABAI Convention #2 June 2013

Each year at the ABAI Convention the Conceptual Behaviour Analysis folks provide a thought provoking commentary on a complex behaviour (please note that conceptual behaviour analysts spend all their time thinking… no experimentation or people confounding their workdays), this year I was drawn to their presentation based on the topic: Justification and Guilt. We’ve all encountered Justification and his evil twin Guilt in our lives, and sometimes the timeline of measure for how frequently I contact these feelings/thoughts is greatly condensed… on a bad day I might wrestle these guys multiple times! Let’s be honest… have you cheated on a diet? Check, but I was great for 5 days in a row. Have you skipped a workout? Check, but I was tired, I can go tomorrow. How about that upcoming visit to see the mother in law?? No? – Had to work? Me too, (well not really, but she’ll never know, hope she doesn’t read this!).

Why do we do things that we know with certainty or at least high probability, are not going to work out well?? And why after we get caught doing something that didn’t go well or we stumble unwittingly and do something untoward, do we try to sweep it away?? Good versus evil, bad guys versus good guys, right versus wrong… daily we weigh the protagonists against the antagonists only to be undone by our need to get rid of the pesky feelings of guilt… The phenomena of justification and guilt are unique to the human species…my bulldog for instance ate a whole bag of Cheezies and did not bat an eye when scolded, no offers of excuse, no remorse (not even when the Cheezies wreaked havoc on his bowels… wait, that’s a whole other story…) life as a family pet may not be all that bad. But really, from a behavioural perspective, how does justification and guilt work?

Let’s look at an example or two. First, how about one where justification comes out on the side of good (because really why keep reading this if we’re all just going to feel bad)… Let’s say I’m getting ready to go get my bike to ride to work, I head into my shed and I encounter a snake. I am afraid of snakes…not just a little bit, full out screaming like a girl, no shame whatsoever kind of fear – this is a reflexive (uncontrolled) response, although it’s likely just a tiny garden snake, after all I live in Victoria, (there are no poisonous snakes here), but my brain is saying “it’s a humongous deadly cobra!”. Now let’s say I need to get my bike out because I have to get to work. I say to myself: “the snake is probably scared more of me than I am of it”; or maybe “the snake is harmless”; “when I open the door, it’s probably slithered away”… “I’m perfectly safe”; “I’ll be okay the mower and my bike are between me and that deadly creepy reptile”. Finally, I manage to make my way into the shed, elevated heart rate, cold sweat, where I retrieve my bike, slam the shed door and pedal off to safety as quickly as possible.

So, behaviourally, we act or behave due to our current circumstances (the presence of the snake) and to the “response products” to our current circumstances. These response products are “private events” (thoughts) in the form of talking ourselves into things or out of things. They may be memories that we recall, where the memories may be factual information or similar/related events. Often the response products are a form of negative reinforcement. What does this mean – if we are in an aversive state (in the presence of a snake) and the “self-talk” allows us to escape that (gain relief) we refer to this as “justification” and to the whole situation as negative reinforcement. In other words, to be negative reinforcement, the action (consequence) following the behaviour leads to feelings of relief, so that we’ll likely do that behaviour again. So in the case of my snake, my self-talk helped me get through the event, I obtained my bike, I felt relief, I’m likely to talk myself through future snake encounters (well in all honesty, I’d likely bail and take the car… but you get it).

So how about guilt… we’ve all felt guilty for doing something that hurts someone else. Guilt is a private perseverance on an aversive consequence (we keep thinking about something bad we did). People don’t like to feel guilt! Indeed, we like to get rid of that feeling as quickly as possible, and we will engage in behaviours that will allow us to eliminate that feeling and if it works, we’ll do it again (negative reinforcement). So let’s pull out a TOTALLY hypothetical example because I enjoy all my co-workers. Let’s say I’m at work and Mary asks me to go out for a coffee with her after work. I don’t really like Mary’s company, last time I went out with her all she talked about was ABA – actually it was more than talk, it was a monologue. So I say to myself: I could tell Mary I find her company boring and therefore I don’t want to go, or I could tell a little white lie – I could say something like “sorry Mary I already have plans” or “I have to get caught up on work tonight”. Why do this and not be honest? I know I would hurt Mary if I told her the truth and I want to avoid hurting someone else (avoid the feelings of guilt) so this leaves me two options (escape the situation by telling a fib), or suffer through Mary to avoid hurting her. Obviously, I don’t want to suffer through Mary (I’m not quite that altruistic), so I begin my self-talk about how its better to tell the fib than hurt her, I justify further by telling myself that’s what I’d want if someone were to find my company less than enjoyable (please keep in mind this is of course hypothetical I’m sure I’m totally fascinating). I call up previous learning and I utilize that learning to influence my current situation and avoid the feelings of guilt, because who doesn’t want to feel happy and guilt free?

Historically, Behaviour Analysts have gotten a bit of a bad rap from the general psychology field because of a misconception stating we don’t care about feelings. Of course we care about feelings, we fully acknowledge that people feel things, but we also know that these feelings are a result of a current situation and the related response products. This pesky human ability to recall past events and justify our behaviour may occasionally lead us down the wrong path (or sometimes to self improvement); but regardless, since I currently don’t enjoy the life of a family pet, and demolishing a bag of Cheezies would lead to feelings of regret, they sure are handy when I’m feeling bad about something I did. Unfortunately, as long as justification is part of my behavioural repertoire, I’ll likely do the same behaviour again. D’oh! Pass the Cheezies!