(3.3) Assumptions: Labels, Attribution Errors, Cognitive Distortion, etc.

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Labels Aren’t Helpful for People, Either

In the dog training field, there’s a movement in the last several years to unlabel the dogs. Susan Friedman, Ph.D. urges us to stop saying “aggressive dog,” “fearful dog,” “alpha dog,” etc. because it makes it seem like that behavior is an unchangeable part of the dog’s personality.

Susan Friedman’s sticker and other handouts are downloadable at BehaviorWorks.org

No dog is aggressive 100% all the time. She might show behavior that we would call aggressive in a certain situation. But she’s not an “aggressive dog,” she’s a dog with emotional reactions to stimuli and habitual ways of responding. We know how to change habits.

Labeling a dog tends to limit the way we thinking about how to change their habits.  Taking off the label and looking at what meets the need or craving is much more productive.

The same goes for you. Maybe someone in your past diagnosed you with a mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety) and eventually you took it on as a label, as a part of your identity. It isn’t. Those things are all habitual ways of responding to your environment, things you’ve picked up along the way.

You are not your diagnosis.

And if you don’t have a diagnosis, that doesn’t make you any better of a person than someone who does. I find I only get judgmental when I’m feeling insecure about my own worth. Whenever I feel solid, I can see the good in others. I might still need to set boundaries on behavior, but if I find myself looking down on someone else, it’s a sign that my own self-confidence is low, and I need to work on it.

We are all good, at our core, and we are all doing the best we can. Some folks do have more behavior that doesn’t serve themselves (or others) than others. But that’s fixable, to the person who truly wants to change. Healthier behavior and thoughts can be learned.

Behavior (including thoughts and the release of chemicals in your brain) is responsive to ‘distant and proximal antecedents” – stimuli that come before the behavior, either way before (distant) or right before (proximal). Food, alcohol, drugs (including sugar & coffee), exercise, sleep, past experiences,…all of that goes into how we view and respond to the world.

The moment you view BEHAVIOR as being mentally unhealthy versus a character flaw, a world of possibilities opens up. You don’t have to change yourself – that’s not possible, anyway.

Your spirit is wonderful, totally lovable and 100% acceptable.

You are not your behavior.

That said, you are responsible for your behavior and can be the architect of better choices. It’s not easy – engineering your own healthier choices is a skill that you get better with over time. So at first it seems really impossible. But it isn’t. Change one thing, and another. Build momentum.

If you don’t yet feel equanimity (a steady, warm state in which you feel comfortable with yourself and others without hostility), you *would benefit* from a change in your mental and external behavior.

[Just for the record I still have blips where I totally get sucked into my emotions and identify with them, like diving into a pool. But I do come up for air much more quickly now and recognize that those feelings are things I have, they aren’t me. I’m patient and love myself where I’m at. I can’t wait for perfection before I love myself, because loving myself IS part of the perfection. I might as well start now! I’m pretty sure I can’t fully reach perfection in one lifetime, anyway.]

Totally healthy brains can learn unhealthy ways of responding. When you repeat things enough, you build a habit, which eventually might be considered to just be part of who you are.

But it isn’t. Your mental and external habits are just strategies you learned to help meet your needs, and some of them are getting in the way of meeting your other needs. It takes time and effort to go through your own mental ‘garden’ and figure out which parts are authentic/healthy and which parts are weeds, choking out the health of the other plants.

Observing your behavior and thoughts with love is immensely powerful. Every behavior you have is there because it was (or seemed) useful at the time. But that doesn’t mean that you need to keep doing it.

Cognitive Dissonance

The following is am excerpt from my book, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs (edited for brevity).

Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling we get when we simultaneously believe two ideas that can’t both be true. It is an uncomfortable feeling to hold onto conflicting opinions and the theories on cognitive dissonance in social psychology is that humans work hard to avoid this state of being. Here are some examples of conflicting ideas:

  1. “I want to be thin,” “I love chocolate,” and “chocolate makes you fat.”
  2. “I have trained with choke chains,” and “Training with choke chains is inhumane,” and “I am a good person.”

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have an innate motivational drive to reduce dissonance. People get rid of cognitive dissonance in different ways. One way is to simply avoid thinking about the conflict. So the chocolate-loving per­son may just put the desire to be thin out of her head when eating chocolate.

Or she may change behavior or add another belief, so there is no conflict, after all. For example, if you add on exercise: “My workout burns those chocolate calories,” or wishful thinking: “Calories only count if you eat them while sitting, so I will eat my chocolate standing up!” then the dissonance is reduced. She could also remove one of the beliefs: “Being super thin doesn’t matter” or edit one of them: “A small amount of chocolate in a balanced diet does not make you fat.” We have a lot of creative ways to reduce dissonance. Some of them totally remove the dissonance and others just bring it down to a manageable level.

Taking a look at the second line, you’ll see an example of the quandary that a trainer may have after her first exposure to positive training. Seeing that positive reinforce­ment training produces reliable results may have made her realize that choke chains are unnecessary. If they are not necessary and they are aversive, the trainer has been using inhumane training. But only bad people do inhumane things, and she is a good person! Her head threatens to spin off of her neck unless she can get rid of the cogni­tive dissonance.

At this point, she has at least three choices in order to continue to believe she is a good person: become a “crossover trainer” and decide to stop using choke chains, become a “balanced trainer” by eliminating the belief that choke chains are unnecessary, or discount her learning of positive training altogether and go back to her old way of training. (If you’re in this boat, I hope you choose the first option!)

Here’s a good video from the University of Texas at Austin’s Ethics Unwrapped series on Youtube:

Having healthy boundaries is a good way to resolve cognitive dissonance in a way that maintains your integrity. I believe that one of the roots of depression is resolving cognitive dissonance in unhealthy ways (essentially lying to oneself by justifying behavior that doesn’t match one’s ethics).

  1. Never ignore your guilty feelings. Analyze it honestly.
  2. Study the ways our brains distance us from immoral actions
  3. Get to know the most common justifications used, and when you notice them in yourself (or others), see that as a red flag. For example, “everyone does this,” or “this is the way it’s always been done.”

Getting rid of cognitive dissonance by any means necessary is one way our brains trick us. Another is the Backfire Effect, which the Oatmeal describes so well, that I’ll just link to it.

Next, let’s talk about why people mess up. Is it something about them or is it circumstances?

Cognitive Distortions

Our brains are really skilled at “automatic thinking,” which helps us to quickly understand our life experience. Unfortunately, we are also good at cognitive distortions, which gives us a view of the world that has very little to do with how another might see it. Trauma will often skew the way we interpret words, facial expressions, and other people’s intentions. Erring on the side of “I’m in danger”,  “don’t trust them,” etc. can prevent us from getting hurt, but they also block true intimacy.

I’ve been on both sides of cognitive distortions – we all have. By living with a man who I loved unconditionally who was often overcome by his cognitive distortions, I started really seeing these for what they were — attempts to feel safe and loved that backfired and ultimately just kept him from seeing how many people loved him. His world became very lonely, because he couldn’t trust other people’s intentions toward him. And while his distortions were frequent and large, I realized that I have them too. We all do.

Personally, when these crop up, I’ve learned to check others’ intentions as soon as I can. I try to keep my own intentions clear and clean, coming from a place of love and not fear. I surround myself with people whose intentions I trust, and work hard not to let distortions break that trust. Each time I ‘reality check’ and ask how they meant something, rather than trusting my own worst fears, I remove a little of the artificial distance between us.

Here’s a list of cognitive distortions from Wikipedia. In the original article, several of these distortions are explored more deeply in additional articles.

Always being right
In this cognitive distortion, being wrong is unthinkable. This distortion is characterized by actively trying to prove one’s actions or thoughts to be correct, and sometimes prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.

Blaming is the opposite of personalization. In the blaming distortion, other people are held responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Disqualifying the positive
Discounting positive events, such as scoring highly on an exam but not achieving a perfect score.

Emotional reasoning
In the emotional reasoning distortion, we assume that feelings expose the true nature of things and experience reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts; we think something is true solely based on a feeling.

Examples: “I feel stupid, therefore I must be stupid”. Feeling fear of flying in planes, and then concluding that planes must be a dangerous way to travel. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning one’s house, therefore concluding that it’s hopeless to even start cleaning.

Fallacy of change
Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person [This is one I think dog trainers and behavior geeks may be especially prone to.]

Fallacy of fairness
The belief that life should be fair. When life is perceived to be unfair, an angry emotional state is produced which may lead to attempts to correct the situation.

Jumping to conclusions
Reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) with little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:

Mind reading
Inferring a person’s possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from his or her behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst suspected case without asking the person.

Example: A student assumes that the readers of his or her paper have already made up their minds concerning its topic, and, therefore, writing the paper is a pointless exercise.
Fortune-telling: predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events

Labeling and mislabeling
A form of overgeneralization; attributing a person’s actions to his or her character instead of to an attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or otherwise extrinsic, one assigns a label to someone or something that is based on the inferred character of that person or thing.

Magnification and minimization
Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so that the weight differs from that assigned by others, such as “making a mountain out of a molehill”. In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and their negative characteristics are understated.

Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable

Making hasty generalizations from insufficient evidence. Drawing a very broad conclusion from a single incident or a single piece of evidence. Even if something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.

Example: A woman is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to dinner and to meet new people. She feels it is useless to even try. No one really could like her.

Attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, to events over which the person has no control.

Making “must” or “should” statements
Making “must” or “should” statements was included by Albert Ellis in his rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), an early form of CBT; he termed it “musturbation”. Michael C. Graham called it “expecting the world to be different than it is”. It can be seen as demanding particular achievements or behaviors regardless of the realistic circumstances of the situation.

Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes.
In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns clearly distinguished between pathological “should statements”, moral imperatives, and social norms.
A related cognitive distortion, also present in Ellis’ REBT, is a tendency to “awfulize”; to say a future scenario will be awful, rather than to realistically appraise the various negative and positive characteristics of that scenario.

Splitting (All-or-nothing thinking, black-or-white thinking, dichotomous reasoning)
Evaluating the self, as well as events in life in extreme terms. It is either all good or all bad, either black or white, nothing in between. Even small imperfections seem incredibly dangerous and painful. Splitting involves using terms like “always”, “every” or “never” when they are false and misleading.

Fundamental Attribution Error

“Attribution” is what we believe is the cause of someone’s behavior. It can be “dispositional attribution,” meaning that it’s something about the character of the person that caused the behavior. It can also be” situational attribution,” meaning that we believe people’s behavior is shaped by their circumstances.

Study after study shows us that situational attribution is more accurate, but we often use dispositional attribution with other people. That’s the “fundamental attribution error,” the error that we are sort of hardwired to make, in part because we are almost never aware of all of the external and internal events that led up to other people’s behavior.

With anxiety and depression, the fundamental attribution error sometimes gets made in reverse. An anxious person might be able to justify other people’s behavior as responses to their environment, but think that they themselves are flawed, that good things happen to them only because of pure luck, and that their own mistakes are due to a character flaw, rather than just what they’ve learned to react to the situation. There’s a self-defeating attitude of “I can’t do this” versus “I can’t do this YET.”

Honestly, I think that’s why meditation and other mindfulness tools can combat depression and anxiety. The more we understand how our own behavior is shaped by circumstances, the more we can learn to give ourselves a break and work on changing what we can of the circumstance. That empowers our physical and emotional behavior to change in response. Making one little change is a HUGE, wonderful first step, it creates a little crack in the wall of dark impossibility, a glimmer of hope.

But let’s get back to the fundamental attribution error. The following is is another excerpt from, BAT 2.0:

When we ourselves behave in some way, we tend to think of it as being justified, even if it turned out to be a mistake (unless we are depressed or overly self-critical). When someone else makes a mistake, we tend to attribute it to a character flaw. This difference in how we look at behavior done by “us” versus “them” is the fundamental attribution error at work.

For example, let’s say you’re on a walk and your dog poops in someone’s yard. Sud­denly, you realize you have no bags, so you make a mental note to come back later to scoop it up. You know the whole situation and you know that your decision to walk away was based on what just happened. But the neighbor sees you walking away without scooping and calls you a lazy, inconsiderate dog walker. You knew that your behavior happened for a reason, but the other guy assumed there was something in­herently wrong with you.

According to the research of social psychologists, people have a tendency to look for character flaws to explain bad behavior, rather than looking for a situational explana­tion. It’s kind of like the opposite of functional analysis and it’s the reason why dogs are labeled as “dominant” or “stubborn” rather than “under-socialized” or “under­motivated.”

In ourselves and those close to us, we tend to create situational explana­tions of behavior (unless we are in a conflict with them over the behavior in question). With others, we tend to just write them off entirely as being fundamentally flawed. As another example, you probably have some explanation for why your dog may lunge on a walk, but if another dog does that, you might think of that dog as a bad dog, or that the dog’s handler is a jerk for walking too close to your dog.

I’m writing about this here for two reasons. First, make sure that you remember to look for situational explanations of your dog’s behavior (and then use those to train alternative behaviors). This empowers you and your dog: you can change the environ­ment, and thus the behavior. Character flaws have a fixed property, so we just give up.

Second, the fundamental attribution error applies to other trainers, too. “Positive” trainers tend to see a character flaw in “traditional” trainers who use physical punish­ment, thinking of them as inhumane or cruel, too stupid to learn good, modern train­ing. Conversely, traditional trainers tend to see character flaws in “cookie pushers,” thinking that we are weak people who don’t have the stomach for real training.

Both sides think that the other does harm and that their own behavior is justified, so we don’t empathize, look for common ground, or use our well-honed behavior modifica­tion skills. While I don’t always agree with the explanations that other people have for their behavior, remembering that they do not necessarily have character flaws, gives me the empathy to reach out to find a strategy that meets both of our needs.

Every one of us has some justification for our behavior that may be hard to stop believing, due to the cognitive dissonance problem that I mentioned before. Knowing that lets us empathize with one another and gives us a chance to create a better world together.

Here’s another UT Austin ethics video:

Compassion for all, including ourselves, is the root of happiness. Let’s plant some joy.