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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    The Book of James

    One of the most fundamental questions regarding psychotherapy today is one that has plagued the field for decades: do we, as individuals, have the capacity to better our behavior through shifting our attitudes, or do we need to build the behavioral skills in order to change our demeanor?’ Starting with Freud, many therapists for many years believed the former, working on the thoughts, attitudes, and feelings of patients in order to affect behavioral changes.’ They follow the Disease Model of mental illness – by fixing the underlying problem a patient has, his behavior will change for the better.’ This was the paradigm of therapy, until Behaviorism.

    Men like Skinner argued that in order to correct problem behavior, the therapist needs to work on problem behavior.’ Period.’ The brain is a black box, Skinner said on many occasions.’ As the years progressed and more accessible behaviorists began to take the podium, they explained that by changing a patient’s behavior, you are affecting his attitudes and belief structures as well.’ This is akin to the current medical model of mental illness – you control ADHD by regulating the levels of certain chemicals in the brain.’ Changes in attitude will then follow changes in behavior.

    It always interested me how both sides could be so correct.’ As a student, I have had the opportunity on numerous occasions to watch professors attempt and fail at effectively educating students.’ I imagined what it would take to help these professors.’ We could do an item analysis of good education, objectively defining it and breaking it down into its component parts.’ We could compile a list of the behaviors and actions that the professor would need to engage in to teach effectively.’ By 1- knowing what good education looks like, 2- creating a list of behavioral changes that the professor needs to adapt to, and 3- monitoring and adjusting as necessary, we could transform a lousy professor into a teaching celebrity.’ This method works incredibly well – there are many thousands of people who have made it their careers to do just this, and with wild success.

    Despite the fact that this technique works, I am also of the belief that we can achieve the same goal by completely different means.’ If we really looked at the interaction between a lousy professor and his students, we might be able to see some communications between the two groups that are purely emotional in nature.’ A professor who routinely fails students in an introductory course out of principle is likely operating out of an insecure base.’ Professors who do not have the confidence, security, and calm to teach effectively often do not.’ By putting these people at ease, by changing certain things about the environment that would facilitate a stronger feeling of confidence for an educator, we can change his behavior.’ We can change a poor professor into a stellar professor by simply focusing on his attitudes and feelings.’ This presupposes that people know, on some level, which behaviors are appropriate and which behaviors are not.

    The behavioral viewpoint suggests that people will utilize those behaviors that produce the greatest rewards, and that people who do not engage in productive behaviors either do not know how to or are not sure that they will reap benefits.’ A more nuanced approach recognizes that people already have all the skills they need to accomplish a task effectively, but insecurity and conflict prevent them from operating at their full potential.

    So which way is better to deal with poor performance?’ Either one will do.’ If you focus only on fixing a person’s maladaptive behaviors, then he will experience greater confidence and have good feelings about performing well, which will lead to long term attitude changes.’ If you focus only on his feelings and comfort, then this will allow him to grow as an individual and engage in adaptive behaviors as a consequence. The fact that two entirely different treatments can have the same effect only illustrates that they are both tackling the same fundamental process.’ Consider this food for thought.

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