Manipulation vs. Learned Behavior

EnglishSupersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

I am frequently asked “What do I do as a clinical psychologist?” My usual answer is “I help people restructure the way they think on a level of consciousness.” For all intended purposes our brain is a biological computer and every time we make an interpretation or act in a specific way, we write a program into our software on how to respond in similar circumstances. When we change the way we think, we write a new program. Our emotions and actions are products of thoughts. Colloquially it is called “I changed my mind” and, therefore, I changed my feelings about a situation and how I deal with it.

Cognitive restructuring is one of the main ways to improve our ability to manipulate self and other people. Yes, I know, the word “manipulation” has a negative connotation of taking advantage of others. Yet, manipulation is just a selection of tools that can be used for the good or for the bad. Just like hammer is a tool that can be used to nail something into a wall or yank someone on the head. Manipulation is strategic. It is a conscious process that includes three aspects: 1) I have a detailed goal, 2) I have the means to achieve this goal, and 3) I am skillful in applying my means to my goal.

The main tools of manipulation that we learn in therapy are: 1) validation and self-validation, 2) reinforcement and self-reinforcement, 3) learning and teaching ways to influence own responses, 4) compassion and self-compassion, 5) changing the way we think and teaching others cognitive restructuring, 6) care for others and self-care, and 7) love and self-love.

Manipulation is the opposite of force. Manipulation is an influence, while force is an imposition, an attempt to exercise control. But we cannot really control other people, life, or circumstances. We cannot even fully control ourselves. We can only directly influence the four aspects of self: 1) what I do, 2) what I think, 3) what I feel and 4) my biology. And through directly influencing ourselves, we can indirectly influence other people, without using force.

Self-manipulation requires pointing the finger at ourselves. If we want things to be different in our lives and in relations with other people, we need to first change our reactions, instead of attempting to change other people. Every time we attempt to control others, we are making them responsible for how we feel and act, which paradoxically means that we just gave our control away.

For example, my child is having a temper outburst. I’m very angry and my emotion is telling me to scream. Instead, I am manipulating my reactions. I am breathing in and out to calm down and start ignoring my child’s behavior. Thus, I am directly influencing my behavior, which is indirectly influencing my child’s behavior. Initially, his behavior is going to get worse, as to be expected. It is an extinction burst, which occurs when reinforcement through attention is removed from a previously heavily reinforced response. Instead of fearing an extinction burst, I am restructuring the way I think and recognize that worsening of my child’s behavior in the moment means that my strategy is working. I can pat myself on the back with self-reinforcement for not attending to negative behavior and for using the skill of breathing to stay calm. I can also self-validate on the difficulty of the task. Over time, if I’m consistently ignoring, that negative behavior will extinguish. Thus, I was able to change my child’s behavior without using or modeling forceful means, such as punishment, criticism, judgements, derogatory comments, or physical restraints. Force can work in the short-term, but with a significant cost in the long-term, as we are damaging relationships and modeling to the child use of force as a way to solve problems.

Parents frequently tell me that their children are manipulative. Well, I usually reply “you wish your child knew how to manipulate!” What parents are referring to is not manipulation. When a child is having a temper tantrum, he is not saying to himself “as I start screaming, the intensity of my emotional reaction is going to decrease, while the probability of my parents giving me what I want is going to increase.” What parents are seeing is not a conscious strategy but a learned behavior, which is a response that was performed and reinforced in the past and acquired multiple functions in the process of the transaction with the external environment.

Indeed, most behaviors are multifunctional. Screaming may start with a function of decreasing emotional arousal. As a child is screaming, people may begin to attend. A new function just got reinforced – getting attention. Further, parents may start to accommodate to stop a tantrum – an instrumental function of “getting what I want” just developed. People also appear miserable, which may give rise to yet another function – retaliation. And so forth.

Moreover, we usually are not even consciously aware of these functions. However, they govern our behaviors with or without our awareness. These programs are even stronger when we do not realize that they exist, as then we have no freedom of choice but to follow them. How many times have we all noticed that we keep doing the same thing, while not getting what we want? We respond to the same program over and over again in the same manner, because this is the main way that we learned to satisfy its function, even if we are not aware of what that function is. To get freedom from a program we need to 1) understand its functions; 2) catch the program triggering an action urge to satisfy this function, and 3) override it by performing a different response.

This is self-manipulation!


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