A Question of Choice
In previous Newsletters the impact of the emotional memories on the decision – an action coupling was examined and how this powerful affect excludes a cognitive response in a threatening situation. To address this problem the best approach was to manipulate the environment. However there is another critical factor that must be considered when considering a cognitive approach in an attempt to modify the behaviour of others and that is at the time of the decision –action process there is no real choice.
To examine these phenomena we have to address a more cogent issue that is disregarded in most literature concerning behaviour modification in educational settings. That is the faulty assumption that when ‘choosing’ to react to a situation the child is capable of making a thoughtful choice. They are not!
This brings us directly to the concept of free will, the belief that we make complex decisions by consciously processing information to make that decision. On the surface this seems to be logical but it assumes that it is when we are conscious we are in the process of deciding. The evidence is that we make a decision before we are conscious of what that decision is. The feeling of being in control of our cognition is more a factor of confabulation, creating a memory of how we reached that decision. The idea that we do not make conscious decisions at the very time of action threatens our sense of self but I will argue that understanding this empowers us to take a more realistic view of the process required to successfully help these children take control of their actions.
Back in the 1980’s Benjamin Lebit of the University of California demonstrated that there was a time difference between a decision being made and the person being ‘conscious’ of that decision. That is he demonstrated that the brain had made a choice on how to act 0.03 seconds before the person ‘thought’ they had made that choice.
This work has been successfully reproduced albeit with some variations in the size of the time gap and not without some criticism. There is some who argue about whether or not a decision could be vetoed if the person did not want to carry out the action.
The inference is that when a situation presents itself the person makes the decision at the unconscious level then that decision becomes available to the conscious mind. The conscious thought is the delayed representation of the entire decision making process carried out at an unconscious level.
Unconscious decision-making is easily demonstrated when we face an immediate threat and the stimulated amygdala produces an immediate flight/fight response. This is an efficient often life saving process that does not cause any dissent. The idea that we also have this same ‘efficient process’ in all our decisions is threatening as it infers we are almost robotic in our life choices and helplessly tied to our unconscious mind.
Another consideration is that these experiments have largely focused on body movements over a short period of time. Whether or not this has any bearing on this phenomena is unclear however it must be remembered that the only thing the brain can actually do is initiate some type of movement.
I will make that point; at the very time of the decision actually being made I am not conscious of the process. When discussing this I will always point out that when you are making a point about any issue the sentences you use are constructed unconsciously. Even now I start this sentence with no conscious thought about how it will end but inevitably it does. Hopefully this is in a coherent manner (I’m very tempted to end that sentence with some illogical nonsense but then I would sound like a politician carefully constructing ‘safe’ responses to the press gallery).
The point is decisions are made following this process:
The body tells the brain how things are. This is always in reference to our homeostatic status, our state of comfort. This is an analysis of the environment via the sensory receptors.
The body then tells the brain how it should be. This is the crux part of the process. The brain examines how in the past our actions allowed us to return to the state of homeostatic equilibrium. That examination is of all the past memories, genetic, biological, every past experience and thought. The choice that will be arrived at is that which has the believed maximum chance of success in achieving the desired result.
The brain tells the body what it should do. When this process that is complex is completed then the conscious mind is informed.
It would be really inefficient if every time we had to make a decision we consciously made a ‘mind map’ and considered what would be the best action to take. Life flows too quickly for that to be practical. For students with severe behaviours the unconscious decision that has the perceived best chance of success will be complete disobedience or defiance. This is because when the child was building his/her collection of behaviours the ones that had the most success become the ones that dominate the unconscious mind.
Rather than feeling disempowered by this revelation this gives us the clue for dealing with the child’s behaviour.
The problem is with the existing memories, emotional and cognitive; our ‘mind maps’ have been formed in response to the environment if we want to make a change we must change the environment. When we change the environment we can introduce alternative memories and therefore change the unconscious decision-making.
This really is the way to modify behaviour when dealing with these kids but it is extremely challenging and time consuming. As teachers we have to understand that every time we place the child in a situation that reminds them of previous instances of threat they will call up their preferred reaction and reinforce that action relative to the classroom environment. The challenge is to still deliver consequences for their inevitable mistakes in such a way as to strengthen memories of a more resilient sense of self. That is we always accept the child but reject the behaviour through consequences.
It takes patience, persistence and a range of abilities that are demanding on the teacher but can be achieved over a significant period of time. These are skills that are rarely covered in modern teacher training.