Sensitive issues like self-destructive behaviours are often difficult to handle, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to change. The truth is, everybody has engaged in self-destructive behaviours once in their life, and most of the time it’s not intentional.
What are self-destructive behaviours? These are actions that are bound to harm a person physically or mentally. These actions may be done intentionally or unintentionally. When a person knows exactly what they’re doing but can’t stop, perhaps the urge is too strong to control.
Some examples of self-destructive behaviours include the following: suicide attempts, binge-eating, gambling, shopping, gaming, risky and impulsive sexual behaviour, alcohol and drug overuse, and self-injury such as cutting, hair-pulling, and burning.
There are also more subtle forms of being self-destructive, including being self-derogatory, clinging to someone who is not interested in you, changing yourself to please others, engaging in aggressive or alienating behaviour that pushes people away, passive-aggressiveness, procrastination, chronic avoidance, and wallowing in self-pity.
A new study revealed that people who continuously engage in self-destructive behaviours may not be suffering so much from an unwillingness to change, but a learning problem where they think of logical but ultimately wrong explanations for why they have suffered.
The findings of the study, which were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could be important in tailoring therapy for people with self-destructive behaviours leading to addiction and other dangerous outcomes.
A team of psychologists from UNSW Sydney and Western Sydney University created an experiment where young adult volunteers played a video game with an intergalactic space trade theme. The volunteers clicked on two planets to collect points which could eventually lead them to win a monetary prize.
The volunteers didn’t know that clicking either planet led to a similar amount of reward, but also resulted in the emergence of different spaceships. When they clicked one planet, a pirate ship that would steal large chunks of their winnings would emerge, whereas the ships triggered by the other planet were harmless.
There were some volunteers who figured out the link between choosing the bad planet and the pirate ship, and they adjusted their behaviour to avoid clicking this bad planet. However, there was still a significant portion of volunteers who had not yet made the link between the bad planet and the pirate ship. Once it was revealed to them, most of the volunteers adjusted their behaviour to avoid losing what they collected.
Amazingly, some people, whom the researchers called “compulsives”, continued to choose the planet that triggered the pirate ship, despite being warned of the consequences.
Professor Gavan McNally, one of the study co-authors, said the study shouldn’t be viewed as a microcosm of real-life compulsive behaviour because “real life is a lot more stochastic and I don’t believe people are that inflexible.”
Still, although the study may not explain why the compulsives engaged in self-defeating behaviour, Prof. McNally said the data highlights new ideas about what is going on at the cognitive level.
“What we show is there is a cognitive pathway that emerges not from differences in value or awareness, but from failing to understand or appreciate correctly that their own actions are leading them to harm,” Prof. McNally said. “Our ‘compulsives’ are indeed learning, it’s just that they learn the wrong thing.”