Embracing Loss to Gain all that Matters

Happy New Year ABAIers! Today I am thrilled to have colleague, friend and RFT expert Dr. Nigel Vahey talking RFT and embracing loss to gain what matters. This blog has great tips for using behaviour analysis to enhance effective public health messaging as we enter 2021.

Thank you Nigel for joining the ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series. -Prof. Louise McHugh, University College Dublin, ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series host 2020.

Nigel Vahey Bio: Dr. Nigel Vahey is a tenured lecturer in psychology at Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) and a visiting research fellow at Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN). He completed his PhD in 2015 under the supervision of Prof. Dermot Barnes-Holmes at Maynooth University. This work specialised in developing the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) as a tool for quantifying tobacco addiction. He joined TU Dublin April 2019 having spent the previous three years as a senior postdoctoral research fellow in Prof. Robert Whelan’s research lab at TCIN. While there Nigel worked on multiple projects developing machine learning models designed to personalize the diagnosis and treatment for tobacco addiction, by synergizing neuroimaging with a wide range of measures of impulsivity, personality, and mental health. Nigel has attracted €485,000+ of research grants, awards and scholarships addressing a wide variety of both quantitative and qualitative research. You can find his publications to date here.

When was the last time that somebody did something that you strongly disapproved of? Can you remember the first phrase that surged into your mind in response? I am guessing that it was something like ‘Ugh, you’re such a _______! I’ll show you!’ Even if you did not outwardly express your disapproval, you probably felt a strong desire to challenge the offender with warnings about the errors of their ways.Of course, the problem with a moralistic approach to messaging is that it is often experienced by its recipients as being coercive rather than persuasive. Coercion leaves people feeling invalidated and misunderstood. For this reason, we all have the tendency to disregard, dispute and/or subvert correction – and this can escalate rather than reduce conflict. The same problem arises when we attempt to coerce ourselves as means of motivating behavioural change. When we lack self-compassion about what motivates our own problematic behaviour, we will lack self-awareness, and this invariably leads to self-conflict. So, if right now you are feeling shame about your tendency to coerce yourself or others please rest assured that you are not alone. To paraphrase Carl Rogers – that which is most personal is also most universal.

Nonetheless, the question remains, how can we correct problematic behaviour in a way that is persuasive rather than coercive. After all, this is clearly a pivotal issue for most aspects of contemporary human society including public (mental) health, climate change, social inequality, crime, and international conflict. In this blog, we will explore what a modern behavioral theory of language and cognition, called Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes et al., 2001), recommends.

RFT is grounded in the same basic behavioural principles of animal operant conditioning that traditional applied behavior analysis is. However, it extends those basic principles to describe how humans are uniquely capable of relating things in the environment to each other based upon social convention. Crucially, this skill of arbitrarily deriving relations among objects transforms the psychological functions of those objects – even to the point where we can turn compassionately towards challenging experiences in service of something meaningful. Let’s begin by considering why we have a tendency to both deliver and receive warning messages in a punishing rather than a persuasive manner. Having unpacked the problem at hand in terms of basic behavioural principles we can then explore what solutions RFT recommends.

The biological basis for coercion

The instinct to punish those who frustrate us has very deep evolutionary roots. Defending against threatening behaviour from predators and competitors is such a basic survival response that it predates the emergence of most learning processes 500+ million years ago. Even single cell organisms like bacteria exhibit aggressive species-specific defence reactions, without much if any capacity for simple habituation learning[1] (cf. Boisseau et al., 2016; Jablonka & Lamb, 2014; Moore, 2004). In fact, the antibiotics that we use to protect ourselves against bacterial infections are almost exclusively harvested from fungal species that evolved these chemicals as a poisonous defence against attacking bacteria. Punishment, in the sense of reactive aggression is thus utterly fundamental in the evolutionary dance of natural selection (Wrangham, 2018). It is baked into our biology as the ‘fight’ in our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

When we are faced with threatening situations it triggers a host of physiological processes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, enhanced muscular strength, focused vision, and changes in time perception – and these process

es coordinate to influence our behaviour in powerful ways. For example, a common first response to sudden physical pain is to attack the perceived cause even when it is an inanimate object. When children hurt themselves by tripping and falling, they will often lash out exclaiming something like ‘Bad ground!’ Of course, our basic instinct for punishing others is modifiable through learning and this gives rise to individual differences not just in what we find threatening, but also how we respond to threat. Nonetheless, as explained below, operant learning processes commonly encourage rather than diminish our instincts for punishing disagreeable others.

The behavioural basis for coercion

The basic idea underpinning operant learning is that behaviour can be controlled by its consequences. When the delivery of specific consequences for a given behaviour results in an increase in that behaviour this is called operant reinforcement; and when it leads to a decrease in that behaviour this is called operant punishment. Thus, while reinforcement and punishment are both operant learning processes, they are opposed to each other by definition. This makes it rather ironic that we often find it satisfying to punish others – that our instincts for punishing disagreeable others is encouraged by reinforcement learning. Apart from the fact that there are many unconditioned reinforcers for aggressing against rivals (e.g., for food and social status), our tendency to punish is supported much more broadly by a powerful statistical illusion. Daniel Kahneman described the phenomenon in his acceptance speech for the 2002 Nobel prize in Economics. Kahneman observed that humans tend to reciprocally reinforce or punish other peoples’ behaviour according to how unusual that behaviour is from their perspective:

“We tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.” (DeFulio, 2012, p. 182)

To the extent that we only reward exceptionally desirable behaviour it will on average be followed by less desirable behaviour just as a normal part of the variation in that behaviour (regardless of any rewards that we deliver). Likewise, when we punish exceptionally bad behaviour it will typically be followed by an improvement in that behaviour regardless of that punishment.

In other words, human beings have a strong tendency to superstitiously view coercion as being much more effective than reinforcement. Indeed, the philosophy of an ‘eye for an eye’ has historically been the traditional foundation stone of most legal systems (Carlsmith, 2006). If anything, as individuals we like other animals tend towards exacting a higher cost in revenge than the original offence – to teach our offender a memorable lesson (Chester & DeWall, 2017; Ent & Parton, 2020; Gollwitzer et al., 2011; Wrangham, 2018). It is easy to see how this approach can escalate into a vicious cycle of conflict rather than cooperation. In the words of B. F. Skinner:

“A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.” (Skinner, 1971, p. 81)

“Severe punishment unquestionably has an immediate effect in reducing a tendency to act in a given way. This result is no doubt responsible for its widespread use. We ‘instinctively’ attack anyone whose behavior displeases us – perhaps not in physical assault, but with criticism, disapproval, blame, or ridicule. Whether or not there is an inherited tendency to do this, the immediate effect of the practice is reinforcing enough to explain its currency. In the long run, however, punishment does not actually eliminate behavior from a repertoire, and its temporary achievement is obtained at tremendous cost in reducing the over-all efficiency and happiness of the group.” (Skinner, 1965, p. 190)

The Verbal Basis for Coercion

A central tenet of RFT is that the purpose of derived relational responding is to coordinate our existing instincts and experiences with other peoples’ instincts and experiences for better collective survival. Derived relational responding is fundamentally an elaborate expression of cooperation (Hayes & Sanford, 2014). Crucially, the more consistently we are socially reinforced for repeating a given pattern of derived relational responding the more that pattern will become habitual in similar situations (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2017; Vahey et al., 2017). These networks of habitual relational responding become the basis for the treasured stories that give meaning to our lives – how we behave toward other people and our sense of self. In other words, our values and our morals are embedded in the stories that we share with the tribes that we belong to. Nonetheless, human cooperation evolved in the context of intense inter-group competition, and this means that when we feel threatened, our derived relational responding will be biased toward disputing unfamiliar stories regardless of whether they might be useful to us (Hayes & Sanford, 2014). In other words, we are inclined to interpret warnings that disregard or contradict our core beliefs as being coercive.

The problem with habitual stories is that we overapply them. When we encounter new experiences, our instinct is to engage in derived relational responding that coordinates those experiences with our existing stories about superficially similar situations. Unfortunately, this makes us relatively insensitive to warnings about the unhelpful environmental consequences of our actions. As the saying goes, ‘when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail’. This phenomenon is variously referred to as confirmation bias, cognitive fusion, and rule-governed behaviour. Experiential avoidance is a particularly problematic pattern of rule-governed relational responding intended to suppress one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. This approach is presumably an overgeneralization of the misconception described above that coercion is an effective way of controlling other people’s behaviour. Just as coercion encourages conflict with other people, coercing oneself ultimately entails setting one part of the self into an escalating conflict with the other. One set of person’s treasured stories are used to try to undermine another and this leads to more rather than less ambivalence about how to proceed in valued directions. When a person becomes conflicted like this they are stuck and their ability to learn from warnings is diminished – whether those warnings arise from one’s own derived relational responding or from somebody else’s recommendations.

Recommendations for communicating warnings

One way that we might circumvent the above problems associated with warning messages is to focus upon delivering messages that incentivise behavioural change by highlighting what is to be gained rather than what might be lost. Indeed, when gain-framed messages are used in public health messaging they are generally rated as being more acceptable and persuasive by their recipients than corresponding warning messages framed in terms of losses (Richards et al., 2017; Salovey & Williams-Piehota, 2004; Shen & Coles, 2015). Nonetheless, when it comes to actually instigating behaviour change, gain-framed messages risk being so innocuous and reassuring that they are easily ignored. And in practice this is the case particularly when it comes to motivating changes in strongly habitual behaviour such as smoking. In comparison to the imminent and prolonged discomfort that quitting smoking entails for a smoker, delayed promises about better health and living longer are not very compelling in practice.

When it comes to influencing inconvenient changes in habitual behaviour it seems necessary to disturb a person’s complacency by considering what losses are at stake should the problematic behaviour in question continue. Extensive research attests to the fact that people consistently prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains (Barberis, 2013; Novemsky & Kahneman, 2005; Rasmussen & Newland, 2008; Tversky & Kahneman, 1992); and losses generally have more lasting motivational effects than equivalent gains (Estle et al., 2006; Hardisty & Weber, 2009; Myerson et al., 2017). Loss by its very nature implies something that matters to a person – an integral part of the stories that a person identifies with. To quote Steve Hayes who conceptualized RFT: ‘We hurt where we care.’ As such, losses have the potential to powerfully motivate our behaviour when they are framed in terms of our core values.

The problem is that in disturbing a person’s complacency, loss-framed messages also tend to provoke fear about one’s ability to cope with the self-conflict generated by the relevant behavioural changes. The solution then is clear. In order for warning messages to be effective their recipients must first possess the skills necessary to mindfully accommodate any self-conflicting derived relational responding that those warnings are likely to provoke. An additional benefit of helping people to actively engage in living their values with self-compassion and self-awareness is that in principle, they are more likely to recognise messages that are truly attempting to manipulate or coerce them. Thankfully, there are already a wide variety of evidence-based tools designed to teach individuals these skills.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a psychotherapeutic approach inspired by RFT that is specifically designed to teach people how to manage the fearful self-conflicts that often arise when pursuing one’s values instead of engaging in experiential avoidance. There is currently no published research testing the applicability of ACT techniques for improving the persuasiveness of warning messages. Nonetheless, research with 12,477 participants attests to the efficacy of these techniques for a wide range of mental health issues involving self-conflict (Gloster et al., 2020). And preliminary research that I am preparing for publication has already provided proof of principle for this concept. In summary, approximately three quarters of daily smokers who received a brief video recorded ACT intervention prior to a loss-framed smoking-cessation information sheet returned one week later to a smoking-cessation workshop. By contrast, only about one in seven such smokers returned for this workshop when they had received a control video prior to their loss-framed messages; and less than one in three returned after they received the equivalent gain-framed messages, regardless of which video preceded them.


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[1] Learning in the sense of an adaptive process that occurs within an individual’s lifetime rather than phylogenetically across generations.