Theory and Psychopathology

Lines of thought

From Superstition to Psychological Anarchy

Cognitive- Brehavioral Theory Applied to Psychosis

Skinner’s variable interval ratio reinforcement is aligned with chance rewarding of chance behaviors. The “variable interval” component of such a reinforcement schedule reflects the fact that behavior is rewarded inconsistently after a variable interval has ensued. This means that arbitrary periods of time elapse between rewards. The “ratio” component of this reinforcement schedule indicates that the subject will be rewarded in varying amounts based on chance alone or an arbitrary schedule of reinforcement. Overall, this means that the subject will be rewarded off and on, more or less, for emitting no particular behavior. Based on the subject’s “understanding” of this reinforcement schedule, the subject will learn to enact behavior that represents whatever they were doing at the time that the reward was forthcoming. This is how superstitious behavior is learned.

Skinner was able to produce superstitious behavior in pigeons by rewarding them arbitrarily for no particular behavior or any behavior that they were enacting at the time of reinforcement. These pigeons had, in the past, learned that reinforcement was contingent upon behavior, similar to human beings, who learn that pay is contingent on work or that friendship is contingent on some kind of loyalty. In terms of contingencies, the emergence of superstitious behavior in pigeons resulted from the fact that they were rewarded for arbitrary behavior that produced chance reinforcement of chance behaviors.

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It is a questionable postulation that superstitious behavior that implicates largely mental action, as opposed physical behavior, could even be considered behavior because it is not observable. Nevertheless, superstition in people involves mental associations between behavior and belief. Belief is not generated scientifically. It has arbitrary emotional components, for example. An athlete wearing his “lucky socks” at a baseball game emerges as superstitious behavior due to the fact that this “luck” regarding his socks is perceived by the athlete, even when it is based upon chance rewarding of chance behavior.

There exist intentional mental acts that might be termed behavior if the definition of behavior did not generally imply action that is observable by the five senses. Cognitive theorists would agree that mental acts, as constituted by thought, are covert behavior. This article postulates that superstitious belief results from mental acts that are primitive in their use of reason.

Reason may be seldom used by individuals in determination of belief. Individuals may believe what appeals to them, with little thought of rational aspects or consequences of belief. A large majority of people operate with belief systems or world views that are inconsistent, and, although some use of reason pervades the rationale of most people, rationale for beliefs is not necessarily tied to fact. Perhaps fact and precise knowledge does not impact belief as much as is believed by people globally.

Perception also involves mental skewing of information that is derived from sensory experience.This implicates Gestalt theory. Perception is not fact, although perception continually impacts belief, and, although sensation largely may be aligned with fact, perception is always an interpretation of sensory experience. It is the baseball player’s perception of his situation and the circumstances that entail “luck”, for example, that constitutes his basis for belief.

Interaction and synergy between the individual and his environment is implicated by belief. This does not mean that belief generated from this synergy is reliable. This synergy is this interaction that results in chance reinforcement of arbitrary behavior. It is the individual’s perception of sensory information derived from the environment that results in superstitious belief. The Heisenberg principle is an example of the extreme consequences of perception based on observation. An individual’s observation of the world changes how the environment “responds” to an individual. The idea that our perceptions shape reality for us is an interesting idea, and our perceptions alter that which is perceived.

Mental actions are performed routinely. An example is represented by math equation. However, questions of belief are generally not examined by individuals in terms of their belief systems, even though recognition of disparities between conflicting beliefs make people uncomfortable, and discomfort is a natural reaction to cognitive dissonance. Most people and perhaps all people have inadequate consistency in terms of their beliefs, and their inadequate systems of belief that reflect contradictory elements.

Deviations in belief are widespread, and religious belief is an example. There are many conflicting views regarding religion, and some people adhere to their views vehemently. Religious perspectives represent beliefs about which there is perhaps insignificant evidence, whether one adheres to a Christian, as Buddhist or an Atheistic view. Even though some religious beliefs may have minimal to moderate support in the scientific community, ideas such as the miracle of consciousness may represent a basis for religious belief.

Very extremely few individuals have consistent belief systems. Perhaps no one does have a systematic and contingent set of beliefs representing a world view. As ‘evidence” for religious insight is derived from the mental realm generally, it is not based largely upon observable behavior. This makes the basis for religious belief somewhat dubious. Christian faith could be said to be reinforced by a variable interval-variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, based on chance alone. The miracle of consciousness, however, may be construed as profound.

Psychosis and delusions, in particular, that are reinforced by chance events, amount to something similar to cultivation of superstition as defined by Skinner, but with recognition of a cognitive element. Note that psychotic ideas or delusions can find arbitrary “responses” from the environment. Superstitious behavior, based upon faulty cognitions and beliefs, are common.

This is seen in the athlete that finds evidence for a superstitious belief in the environment even when the evidence does not exist as a matter of fact, as opposed to belief. This is seen in an athlete’s conferring upon a baseball glove or sock’s the attribution of ‘luckiness”. Perhaps, largely, evidence does not exist or need to exist in this matter of belief.

In terms of the psychotic individual finding evidence for his delusions in his environment, there exists a problem in that this perceived “evidence” is not rewarding, and, due to its punitive qualities, it should not persist. Although delusional experience may not produce observable rewards, some aspects of delusional experience are rewarding: delusions of grandeur erotomanic delusions, delusions of reference, even delusions of persecution. Such delusions can allow one to feel a sense of importance, and this may be rewarding to individuals who may be said to represent, to an extent, a discarded element of our society. There exists the reality that the schizophrenic will receive punitive experience based on his own perception of the world. However, vigilance and awareness of danger in one’s environment can be reinforced through belief that such vigilance, constituted at times by paranoia, renders one more safe. This is true even when paranoia is a punitive experience that would not be expected to continue if it is not rewarding.

Behavior, in a strict sense of that which is observed by one’s senses, may differ significantly from the quasi-behavior represented by automatic thoughts or delusions and the visceral experience of hallucinations. Sensory experience can be automatic, whether it represents hallucinated experience or not. As a visceral experience, hallucinations, and corresponding delusions, might be automatically assimilated. Moreover, accumulation of thought, emotion and belief can be construed as a continuous, rapid and ongoing process.

Much psychotic experience and accumulated delusional material are based upon primitive understanding of the world. As primitive experience, there is little bases on which a schizophrenic might understand his false sensory experience. There is reason to fear this type of experience. To be told that what you seem to sense is not reality is terrifying. Delusions can be punitive, leading to learned helplessness and reduced frontal lobe activity, but the effort to find reinforcement while adhering to delusional perspectives may be compelling, if only in that the psychotic individual may feel that he will be able to “prove’ the legitimacy of his perspective, and thereby earn respect that is not forthcoming as he remains in the shadow of stigmatization as a “psychotic” individual.

Clearly, this implicates labeling and stigma as they are associated with mental illness. If mentally ill psychotic individuals were not denigrated by others in society, perhaps there would be less of a need in these affected individuals to “prove” that they can be understood, may receive empathy and can feel themselves to be human beings. The consequences of alienation are emotionally destructive, and prescribed for the mentally ill at this time is a kind of psychological anarchy on the level of the self. Clinicians may be able to discern this as an initial step in treating psychotic individuals compassionately and therapeutically.

This article was originally published on the brainblogger website.

Ann Olson is a doctor of psychology, a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry.

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