Compulsive checking, perfectionism, and aversive control
Robert C. Mellon, Ph.D., BCBA
Laboratory of Experimental and Applied Behavior Analysis, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens
Behavior patterns described by clinicians as obsessive, compulsive, or perfectionistic are characterized by a level of watchfulness concerning warning signals for aversive events that problematically displaces the pursuit of significant positive reinforcers. Such hyperbolic vigilance is operant behavior—its frequency of occurrence in a given context is determined by events that have differentially followed upon its emission in similar contexts in the past. By definition, acts such as scrutinizing and double-checking one’s own work or comportment for inexactitude or impropriety occur at a time when potential errors or improprieties are not yet perceived; so what events occasion them? And what might be the reinforcing events that maintain the extraordinary emission frequency of such behavior patterns, despite the pernicious effects of excessive prudence?
In evaluative environments such as schools or places of work, we frequently judge whether or not the stimulus products of our own behavior conform to the prevailing contingencies of reinforcement and punishment before exposing the results of our efforts to public scrutiny. In the familiar form of an operant chain, the stimuli automatically produced by the act of checking for errors can provide a differential context for the reinforcement or punishment of the terminal act of submitting or exposing the products of our behavior. To the extent that submissions occurring after checking for errors in the products of previous links of the chain tend to be reinforced, while unevaluated submissions tend to be punished, the stimuli differentially produced by the act of checking would acquire conditional positive reinforcing potency as SDs for reinforced submission. At the same time, stimulus events differentially associated with unchecked or hasty submission would acquire conditional negative reinforcing potency as well as the power to evoke (as SDs) the emission of behaviors that have terminated such self-produced threats of punishment in the past—namely, the power to evoke checking for unsuitable productions.
This presentation will provide experimental support for this interpretation of the determination of problematically high (as well as problematically low) levels of vigilance for errors, missteps and improprieties in our own behavior, as well as its implications for clinical case formulation and the effective design of therapeutic and prophylactic interventions for these and related conditions.