Identify causes of self-destructive behavior and addictions

The human being is the only animal capable of tripping over the same stone twice, but, although not learning from our experiences –and even less from those of others– is part of our nature, some people insist on maintaining self-destructive behaviors that have serious consequences for their well-being, and they seem unable to get out of that loop. Now, new research has discovered that this is not due to an unwillingness to change, but rather a learning disability that causes them to find logical, but flawed, explanations for why they have suffered.

The study has been carried out by psychologists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) and Western Sydney University, in Australia, and their results may help to adapt therapies for people with self-destructive behaviors that lead to addiction and the negative consequences of their actions. His findings have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The psychologists created an experiment in which the participants – young adult volunteers – played a video game whose theme was intergalactic space trade. They had to click on two planets to accumulate points and win a cash prize. They didn’t know that clicking on any of the planets provided a similar amount of reward, but could also make different spaceships appear: clicking on one of the planets would activate a pirate ship that would steal much of their earnings, while that the ships the other planet activated would be harmless.

“It is not a matter of motivation, impulsiveness or lack of control. The problem seems to be the ability to cognitively form a model of how your actions lead to certain results that you want and don’t want.”

The individuals with the best results, who were considered the ‘sensitive’ by the researchers, they were the ones who made the link between choosing the ‘bad’ planet and the pirate ship and stopped clicking on this planet. However, after several game sessions, a significant number of participants still had not established a link between choosing the bad planet and the appearance of the pirate ship.

When the consequences of choosing the wrong planet were explained to them halfway through the game, most of them adjusted their behavior so as not to lose their winnings. What surprised the researchers is that some of them continued to click on the planet associated with the pirate ship despite being warned what would happen if they did. “We already know from previous studies that they use the same video game as many people, whom we call ‘unconscious’they do not realize how their actions lead to negative results”, has pointed out the Dr. Philip Jean-Richard-dit-Bressellead author of the study.

“But in our recent experiment in which we revealed to the ‘unconscious’ how their choices lead to negative outcomes, most quickly changed their behavior and started acting in ways that were beneficial to them. But there was still a subset of individuals who continued their previous pattern of harmful behavior, which we call ‘compulsive’”.

Compulsive individuals who do not learn from their mistakes

Real life is much more complex, and compulsive behavior is different, but while the experiment doesn’t exactly explain why compulsive individuals engaged in self-destructive behavior after learning their mistake, Professor Gavan McNallya behavioral neuroscientist at the UNSW School of Psychology, says the study reveals new clues about what is happening at the cognitive level.

Professor McNally explains that self-destructive behaviors that are difficult to change are often attributed to two reasons. One is that the individual values ​​his main objective, as in the case of addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling (gambling). The other, that his compulsions are beyond his control or awareness.

“What we show is that there is a cognitive path that does not arise from differences in value or awareness, but from not correctly understanding or appreciating that their own actions are leading to harm. Our ‘compulsives’, in fact, are learning, they just learn badly”.

Researchers have explained that part of the problem is that adverse consequences of acts, or punishment, are infrequent or occur long-term, causing the individual to continue with the behavior. risk behavior. This is not just limited to people with some type of addiction, but all of us can engage in reckless or compulsive behavior at any given time.

One example is exceeding the speed limits when we drive because we evade the penalties, a behavior that we would correct if we received a ticket every time we did it. Just as we would avoid alcohol if every time we drink we suffer from a digestive problem or if we were absolutely certain that we were going to develop a serious illness in the short term. “When the negative consequences of certain behaviors are rare, a large proportion of people will not change their behavior even when you show them the link,” says Professor McNally.

The link between our behavior and its results

Dr. Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel assures that “It is not a matter of motivation, it is not a matter of impulsiveness, or of not having control over one’s own behavior. The problem really seems to be the ability to cognitively form an accurate model of how your actions lead to certain outcomes that you want and don’t want.”

The authors of the work intend to continue investigating to find out why certain people have more difficulty learning from their mistakes and thus be able to adapt therapies to each individual. “This year we will see if this research can be used in settings of treatment for alcohol problems to see how far you are differences in decision making they capture individual differences in responses to treatment,” says Professor McNally.

Dr. Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel hopes this research will help advance understanding of what leads a person to what he defines as a tipping point: recognize that you need to change your behavior. “When someone is dealing with, say, a substance use disorder, the tipping point can be when they start to recognize the harmful side of their behavior and start to become more open to making beneficial changes, like seeking treatment.”

“We believe that the cognitive component of being aware of the link between behaviors and outcomes is often overlooked. So if we can find the best way to inform them about that relationship, they can actually make better decisions for themselves,” he concludes.


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