As You Think, Thus You Shall Be


Several years ago a social experiment was devised to demonstrate the power of thought.  The setting was a work/office environment.  Researchers briefed all of the employees at this particular office, except for one - the target of the experiment - we’ll call her Sue.


Everyone in the office, except for Sue, was in on the experiment.  Researchers asked each of the employees to complete one simple task involving Sue.  When they greeted Sue, or passed Sue in the hallway, they were to ask Sue ‘how she was feeling’ and comment that she ‘did not look like she was feeling too well.’


As each staff member took part in this ruse, it went something like this.  “Sue, are you feeling okay?  You look like you are a little under the weather?”  At first the responses from Sue were something like: “I am feeling great.  I’m not sure why I don’t look that way to you.”   But as the day wore on, with each successive encounter, Sue’s response changed.  “I’m feeling okay…” “I guess I am feeling a little tired…”  Eventually, Sue went home sick.


The researchers had proved their point.  Sue had been duped into believing that she really did look as though she was ill.  Believing this affected her thinking, her feeling (both emotional and physiological) and her behavior.  What we think about ourselves has a profound affect on how we feel and ultimately who we are.  If we believe we have no will-power, we will think, feel and behave as someone with no will-power.  If we believe we are destined to be over-weight our whole lives, we will think, feel and behave as someone who is destined to be over-weight.  Our experience of being over-weight will support our belief that it is fate or destiny, and our belief will support staying that way –  a never-ending circular cycle.


In the early 1950’s, several prominent figures emerged in the field of psychology; Donald Meichenbaum, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.  What these men had in common was a fundamental shift in how they believed the “change process” occurs in human beings.  This new way of thinking about change came to be known as Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT).


Up until this time, most psychology was rooted in Psychoanalysis, which Sigmund Freud developed in the early 1900’s.  Psycho-analysis introduced the term “subconscious” which is still widely used today. 


The goal of Freudian therapy, or psychoanalysis, was to bring to consciousness repressed thoughts and feelings which were buried in the subconscious.  The process of therapy was to allow the client to develop a stronger ego and to lead the client  to a full acknowledgment of his or her inability to satisfy his or her most basic desires.


The bringing of unconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness was accomplished by encouraging the patient to talk in free association and to talk about dreams. Another important element of psychoanalysis was a relative lack of direct involvement on the part of the analyst, which was meant to encourage the patient to project thoughts and feelings onto the therapist. Through this process, called transference, the patient could reenact and resolve repressed conflicts, especially childhood conflicts with (or about) parents.


Cognitive-Behavioral Theorists were dissatisfied with the limits of psychoanalysis. They found it to be slow and ineffective, and were frustrated with the passive role assigned to the therapist. CBT was based on the idea that psychological problems are caused by self-defeating thoughts, which are driven by irrational beliefs (such as "I must be loved or approved by everyone" and "If I don't find the perfect solution to this problem, a catastrophe will result"). Once such thoughts are changed, emotional and behavioral changes will follow. The therapist's task is to help the client recognize illogical and self-destructive ways of thinking and replace them with healthier, more positive ones.


Much like the researchers proved with Sue, CBT theorists recognized the connection between thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors.  CBT proponents understood that attempting to change a behavior without looking at the underlying belief and thinking was simply not effective.


Cognitive-Behavioral theory is not to be confused with “behavioral” theory, the latter of which is based on the work of B. F. Skinner.  Behavioral theory targets behavior alone.  The underlying construct for behavioral theory is the idea of contingency or reward.  Behaviorists believe that behaviors are directly related to reward.  In order to extinguish a behavior, the reward for such behavior needs to be eliminated.  Logical in theory, but it breaks down when applied to many human problems.  Many folks dearly desire the “reward” of looking and feeling good and find no real reward for continuing to eat too much.  Yet the behavior persists.  Simply knowing that an alternative behavior will likely lead to a desired outcome is not enough.


To borrow an analogy from the legal world, if behavioral concepts held up, most criminals would be changed by the experience of going to jail.  By experiencing such a highly negative “reward” for behavior, such behavior would simply be extinguished.  I have personally dealt with many folks who have lost their freedom, pride and integrity due to behaviors that have landed them in legal trouble.  These folks swear up and down that their “lesson” has been learned.  I watch them walk out the door and go right back to the same behavior.  Why??  Because raising the consequence (negative reward) for behavior does not necessarily change the belief system that created the behavior in the first place.  As long as the belief system is left intact, the behavior is not likely to change.


Furthermore, the term “behavioral therapy” has been loosely applied to any type of program or set of skills that someone might learn or be taught.  Programs such as Weight Watchers teach techniques for monitoring and reducing calorie intake.  Such techniques are certainly aimed at helping someone to achieve a change in behavior, but technically they are not even behavioral therapy, they are simply education.


If it has not become apparent to you by now, in this writer’s opinion, CBT holds the most promise and potential for actually changing behavior and maintaining any permanence to desired changes.  CBT has shown much efficacy for use with problems ranging from depression to addiction.  As the research continues to mount, the results become more and more impressive.


Like Sue, each one of us can be the victim of believing something that has absolutely no basis in reality.  Conversely, however, each one of us also has great potential to alter what we believe and tap into a powerful mechanism for becoming who we think we would like to be.


“As you think, thus you shall be.”