Friday, April 1, 2011

Automatic Thoughts: How it Causes Negative Behavior & Addictions

By: Dianne Heath

Widespread social behavior significantly impact how the schema organizes
information and the intensity of automatic thoughts

The Role of Automatic Thoughts and Addictions

The concept of automatic thoughts and automatic thinking provides deep insight into how people accomplish their daily activities, develop routines and cope with hardships. An example that deeply resonates with automatic thinking is negative behavior such as addiction. Aronson, Wilson, and Akert (2010) define automatic thinking as “nonconscious, unintentional, involuntary, and effortless”. Automatic thinking makes up a significant portion of decision making even if it is not the most rational or ideal. There are so many small stressors, complex daily tasks and social norms that our brain can get overloaded. The feelings of frustration and sadness can result in addiction in an attempt to escape mentally. The processes, such as automatic thinking, start to aid in our destruction.

If a person had no strong exposure in their life to alcoholism it would take a deliberate act to begin drinking. Controlled thinking would be used to decide if they want to begin drinking. A person could think, “All my friends are drinking at this party so I should drink too.” Depending on the situation that they being drinking, they will begin to relate drinking to that specific situation. Soon the person won't have to make a deliberate thought to drink but the unconscious thoughts will encourage behavior. If the person grew up in a home with drug addicts then addiction will make a strong imprint on the person's schema. Starting an addiction would be almost unconscious for this person. Some drug addicts acknowledge that their habits are detrimental; however the automatic thoughts that the person is unaware of can make the schema for addiction even stronger. If a person has responded to hardship by taking drugs then the schema will input data and the response to stress is to take drugs. Once someone responds to stress by drinking, then unfortunately each stressful situation will be characterized as similar and they will start drinking in response to just daily life. In other words, they began to behave similarity to other situations without putting any conscious effort into the reaction.

The schema strengthens these automatic thoughts and reinforces the behavior for future situations. These mental structures set the precedent for any other knowledge gained about similar circumstances. This has dangerous implications for the individual and people that are directly or indirectly affected by the individual. Socialization also has a huge impact on our behavior and the development of the schema. The media, our authority figures, our parents, each have a role in inputting easily accessible data into our mental framework. This is one reason why a child that is being raised by a parent battling alcoholism may be more susceptible to being an alcoholic. I think those who play music do have a stronger understanding of the schema. At first music takes intense learning. For example, if you were a novice violin player you may use tape to play the correct notes and constantly glance at your fingers. However after a while you can play the notes perfectly just by touch without even thinking. Just like any other habit, you don't have to think about what you are doing, your brain automatically know what needs to be done because of past situations. Some people are even more musically inclined if they come from a musical family and teachers further enforce the music lessons in the schema. Similarity, an addiction could be difficult at first but the person will still unconsciously do that same action time after time. For some people especially those with addictive personalities or grew up in households where addictions are a part of daily life, addiction would already have a highly developed schema.

Even after time has passed the song is so strongly embedded in your schema that brain can unconsciously create the correct impulses for the movement of your hands. I think this can explain some relapses, aside from the psychological and biological causes of relapses. Even if the person has been abstaining from drugs or alcohol for some time, the automatic thoughts can be strong in certain situations. Then the person may succumb to the urges and they feel like they've drinking or doing drugs the whole time. Since music is such a strong behavior, I think that it in fact can be a healthy way to overcome addiction or cope with stress.

Harold Kelley (1950) demonstrated that prior knowledge given to us by others can be encoded into our schema and used to help us interact with a new situation. Due to the accessibility of the comments, Harold Kelley was able to influence the student’s perspective on the teacher. This phenomenon can also be explained by priming. Individuals often seek out the assistance of a third party to overcome addictions. The goal of priming would be to teach the students a new form of handling everyday life without their addiction and prime behavior before the situation. The therapist can help to change the addict’s perspective on the addiction, hardship and coping techniques. Support groups can create experiences for the addict that alters the schema and automatic thoughts. The combined effort of these individuals and groups can enable recovery to be more accessible. It would be important for the addict to expose themselves to as many coping and therapy experiences as possible to reinforce the accessibility of coping in the schema and replacing the negative automatic thoughts with more positive thoughts. It would be especially helpful to form friendships or observe people without addictions to further positively impact their schema. A positive schema results in positive automatic thoughts.

Controlled thinking is also offered as a remedy to flawed automatic thinking. It takes a degree of controlled thinking to begin a new activity instead of engaging in negative habits or ruminating on negative thoughts. The effectiveness of controlled thinking does depend on many factors such how significant are the perceived consequences or benefits, the person’s willpower, the amount of support the person is receiving, etc. In some instances a person’s controlled thinking can be faulty due to the corrupted automatic thoughts that have influenced the schema. An addict could think about the consequences of their behavior and transform their automatic thoughts.

There are many factors that play into the start and reinforcement of addiction and eventual recovery. The schema can have a strong impact on the likelihood of addictions being avoided or started. A child that grew up in a household full of addiction will have a schema that is slanted towards addiction. While children that was primed against drugs, alcohol and other substances or activities which can encourage invasive addictions are less likely to suffer from addiction or be tempted by addiction. Socialization and self-fulfilling prophesy can further encourage or discourage new addictions.

Aronson, Wilson, and Akert (2010) Social Psychology (7th Edition)


V.R. Leavitt said...

Very insightful post! It's amazing all the intricate variables that can effect a person's behavior.
Coffee and a Keyboard

D. Heath said...

@ V.R. Leavitt
It is amazing, which is why refining and changing behavior can be so difficult.

michelleinashell said...

Interesting post! What about addictive personalities? Or maybe better said, people who are prone to becoming addicted to anything..

D. Heath said...

@ michelleinashell

Great question!
I've read a little bit about addictive personalities (not too much) but I'm guessing the automatic thoughts would be very strong, lol. An addictive personality could have a biological component and adding in the experiences related to addiction reinforces the personality type, brain chemistry, responses to life. I was reading about how some people biologically have a lower tolerance for alcohol and therefore have less chances of succumbing to alcoholism. However people with a higher tolerance are more prone to alcoholism. I don't know about the validity of the study but it's an example of how body chemistry can affect behavior and thoughts.
Another example could be people that are not getting enough nutrients and their body starts to crave certain foods. Automatic thoughts could be screaming for chocolate to handle stress but the craving is actually originating from a biological need, which makes the fight harder.
Then you have the argument of nature versus nurture. So are personalities more shaped by genes or environment? If the addictive personality was nurtured by environment then perhaps the person has just as much chance as anyone else at transforming their automatic thoughts without having to fight with biological urges. People that are prone to depression, impulsive behavior are vulnerable to addictive personality types. Therefore the automatic thoughts would be based off feelings and constantly acting on the feelings in the same destructive manner. For both cases the person would have to pay very close attention to their thoughts and develop positive methods of coping. Then you have to solve the underlying issue, if it's depression, then pinpoint what the person would need help for that issue(changing the situation, therapy) if it's chemical then get that in order. Then it will be easier for the person to fight the automatic thoughts and addictions (people only have so much energy to go around, stress, work , school, relationships fighting addiction, fighting against biological urges, conquering personalities types can be too much without some assistance).

In addition to addictive personalities, it's also important for parents to understand that it's easy for teens to become addicted to activities and substances. Teens' brains aren't fully developed so for this period of time, they will almost behave in a manner that seems to mimic an addictive personality. Parents could use this to help a teen discover their passion instead of letting negative influences corrupt this trait.

Doris Plaster said...

Very interesting post. Based on these premises, cognitive-behavioral therapy seems quite successful in helping people to change the way they think/feel.

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D. Heath said...

@ Doris Plaster
Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful especially for certain personality types (that's a whole other story, lol). It's primarily about the environment that the person is exposed. Humans have such a huge effect on each other.

Arlee Bird said...

This is some pretty deep, but interesting information. I guess the bottom line is that we all make our own choices, but it is more difficult for some than for others. Educational!

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D. Heath said...

@ Arlee Bird
Thanks for your comments! I'm glad you thought it was interesting because it is a bit long, lol. It's just amazing how much our cognitive processes and social environment influence our actions.