How our mind is conditioned

Understanding our behavior and reactions and having tools to alter them can significantly alter our everyday experience.  Very often our immediate reactions are not a carefully considered logical response but an automatic sub conscious response. 

It is important to have some idea on what determines or programs our response. While this might seem like deep psychology, I will steer clear of all psycho babble and try to put across some useful ideas that you can use practically.

Association

The associative nature our minds leads to a lot of conditioning especially in childhood or in periods of stress.

When two things repeatedly happen together,  and one of them draws out significant emotion, over a period of time the second one draws out the same emotion as the first one. The association could be both positive or negative.

 Some examples will make this clear.

  1. A poorly performing child is scolded every time when he takes the report card home, very soon the report card will generate anxiety feelings in him long before he shows it to his parents. The association can also become general and show up whenever there is a performance evaluation later in his life  as well, resulting in anxiety during an appraisal, losing in a game etc.

  2. A person is learning to drive a manual car and his car stops in front of the red light and he could not start it properly when the light turns green. The traffic behind him goes wild and there is a lot of honking and shouting to get moving. If that event disturbed him significantly, it is quite likely that every time the car stops due to an error, he will become anxious even if there is no crowd around and will have trouble getting the car to start properly. Over time he will learn and get over it, but his anxious reactions will affect his learning curve.  I am saying this from personal experience :).

  3. If happy occasions involve particular food like sweets or pizza or ice cream, then the food item gets associated with happiness. A future happy occasion will have you looking for that food :). It also works the other way - when you are down or bored or anxious, you tend to indulge in those foods as they provide 'happiness'.  

Unexamined assumptions

Sometimes the roots of our responses are more straight forward, in the form of direct and indirect teaching from our society, peers and authority figures. What we learn become 'personal truths' or 'beliefs'. These beliefs then automatically encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.

  1. A child grows up in a family/society that smoking is or drinking is an absolute sin (outside of the context of health concerns or additive behavior). A lot of ruckus is raised every time a kid in that society is found smoking, they are labelled as lacking in character, parents scold them etc. When the 'good' child grows up, he will have anxiety responses when he sees a colleague smoking or drinking. The 'bad' child will often feel the anxiety too, but he will smoke anyways as an act of rebellion :).

  2. Children who grow up in families with difficult financial situations or in times of depression are often exposed to the anxiety that parents go through when they have to spend whatever limited money is available.  This often sets up a anxiety response to spending or letting money go and that continues even if the child grows up to become a rich person. This response often results in them trading off their time, effort, comfort or well being for money when clearly is no such need.

  3. In many circles, children who perform well become the center of attraction and adulation when they perform well. This often creates the belief that their worth is dependent on their performance or rating or approval of others. This and similar beliefs can act both in positive and negative ways after they grow up.

    On the positive side, they often produce people who care for their work and produce good results. These tend to be the usual top performing employees and managers in routine organizations. 

    On the negative side, the same beliefs  tend to result in people with small comfort zones where they hope to do well. They rarely try new things or take risks because of the fear of not performing well, or for fear of not getting the approval of others. 

    At the extreme we get people who are compulsive workaholics who struggle all the time to stay at the top irrespective of their health or relationships.  They will feel threatened by people who do better than them. It is devastating for them to get a bad performance review! 

Interpreting personal reactions

It is unfortunate that most often we identify too strongly in positive and negative ways with our responses. 

A person who panics at the thought of giving a talk to a group people may think that he lacks courage or character or that something is deficient in his make up and that he has to live with it. 

Similarly a person who feels strong emotions on seeing someone smoke may think that his strong emotion is nothing but a message from his conscience or from his personal god and that the reaction validates his opinion.

Both the above responses limit personal growth and understanding.  The examples above should make it clear that we are better off considering our default reactions as nothing more than programmed responses based on earlier teaching or experiences. 

Seeing them as a programmed responses opens up the possibility of  deprogramming them and changing our experience.

Are we prisoners of our reactions?

Nothing I have said above is intended to mean that we are slaves of our default reactions or beliefs. 

We can use will power and initiative to override our default reactions and act anyways - we can still learn to drive the car, the miser can consciously spend money, the speaker can give that talk etc.

But this path is stressful, takes a lot of effort and results in sub-optimal performance. Many people won't bother with the fight :).

Methods to deprogram our conditioned responses and beliefs makes it much more easy to act easily and with ease. It allows us to use our will power to initiate useful action instead of fighting our programmed reactions.

Does this apply to you?

It is a good idea to consider your own personal behavior and reactions in a few situations and see if you can root cause them. Once you develop the basic attitude of treating your reactions as programmed responses and build some skill in altering them, many difficult situations become fun and challenging puzzles to crack!

Further Reading

  1. Biology of belief
  2. Techniques  for changing conditioned responses

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