Emotion Research: Clinical Psychology

Emotions play no adaptive role but rather represent a learned response. Maladaptive emotions represent a maladaptive learned response and can be treated by extinguishing the maladaptive response and substituting an adaptive one.

The focus of behavioral psychology is learning. Emotions, to the extent that they are of interest at all, are considered to be another form of learned behavior, acquired through classical or operant conditioning, and not requiring cognitive involvement. Observable emotional behavior, such as sweating, rapid heart beat, or blushing, can become associated with a stimulus through operant conditioning; i.e., seeing a dangerous stimulus may cause us to run, which increases the heartbeat, and eventually seeing the stimulus may be adequate to increase the heartbeat without the running behavior. Psychopathology results from faulty learning (e.g., inappropriate fearful response) and treatment consists of eliminating the inappropriate learned response through some form of extinction or deconditioning. These can be implemented in treatment via a number of specific techniques, including systematic desensitization (e.g., an anxiety response is eliminated through relaxation and graduated exposure to the feared stimulus), flooding (e.g., an anxiety response is habituated), and specific behavior training (e.g., anxiety is handled through modeling of appropriate (non-anxiety producing) behaviors and assertion training). Radical behaviorists assume the organism begins as a tabula rasa and emotions, like other behavior, are learned. Emotions are considered epiphenomanal, are not thought to be involved in motivation of behavior, and in any case cannot be the object of serious study because they are largely unobservable. More recent behaviorist theories take a broader view and acknowledge that emotional responses are in part instinctive and may have an adaptive value. These theorists view emotions as drives, linked to results of goal-directed behavior (Mowrer, 1960); basic drives are: fear, hope, relief, and disappointment, each linked to specific situations. Neurosis in this view can be reformulated in terms of fear and fear avoidance strategies for anxiety reduction, not in terms of unacceptable emotions, as it is in psychoanalytic theories.

A current incranation of behavioral theories in clinical practice is Linehan's work in the treatment of borderline personality disorders (1993). Linehan's theoretical perspective is consistent with the experiential theories (primary and secondary emotions), and as such does not fall within the radical behaviorist tradition. However, its clinical principles are fundamentally behaviorist and consist of teaching more adaptive skills, including the skills of observation and regulation of affect. "Much of the borderline individual's emotional distress is a result of secondary responses (e.g., intense shame, anxiety, or rage) to primary emotions. Often the primary emotions are adaptive and appropriate to the context. The reduction of this secondary distress requires exposure to the primary emotion in a nonjudgmental atmosphere." (Linehan, 1993, p. 84). One of the key methods in treatment is the use of Zen-inspired mindfulness skills, that is, refined skills of observations of internal emotional, cognitive, and physical states.

Greenberg and Safran, 1987.

Editor: Eva Hudlicka [psychometrixassociates.com]

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