Tangen’s Theory (con’t)

February 2, 2009 by  


Counseling is simply the application of personality theory to specific problems. It is the practical side of personality theory, and it comes down to three questions: (a) why are people the way they are; (b) can people change; and (c) how do they change?

Why we are the way we are is clearly delineated by your theory of personality. If you are Freudian, our behavior is the result of conscious drives and processes. If you are Rogerian, our behavior is the result of a natural trend toward growth. If you are existential, our behavior is a product of dealing with our existential angst. If you are Tangenian, behavior is the result of being animalsPLUS.

Whether people can change is also reflected in your personality theory. If you are a trait theorist, behavior might be the result of the stars and moon, bumps on your head, or biologically determined. If you are Freudian, behavior can’t change without changing the entire personality structure. If you believe attachment theory or object relations, you believe people can change but only if they have a corrective emotional experience. If you are Tangenian, people can change at any time but they would rather distort their perceptions than change their behavior.

As to how people change, Freudians say it is through the analysis of defense mechanisms, object relations says it’s through reattachment, and classical conditioning says behavior changes by changing the stimuli. Operant conditioning says to change the rewards, humanism says to make a safe environment, and cognitive theories say that changing thinking changes behavior.

In my view, therapy is primarily the utilization of functional analysis. The content of the conversation is less important than the pattern. I ask myself what behaviors are being displayed in the session, what rewards seem to work for this person, and what punishments are they trying to avoid. What is the pattern of behavior?

Pattern recognition is essential to good therapy. The primary difference between talking to your friends or Aunt Lucy is that they are trained to look for patterns. Aunt Lucy will be friendly, supportive, and keep your confidence. She won’t look at how what you’re doing now is similar to what you’ve done in prior relationships. She’s a terrific person but she’s not trained to look for patterns.

I think the same is true of relational counseling. My basic premise is that the key to understanding relationships is the same as for understanding the individual: look at behavioral patterns. What do we do in reaction to our spouse? How do we act when we want something or try to avoid something? What rewards do we seek; what punishments can’t we endure? What filters are we using and what script are we playing out?

I have a simple, nontechnical model of counseling. When clients talk, I categorize what they say as being an indication of the screens they are using, something that triggers them, an action they’ve taken, or a reaction they’ve had. I could do more categories but I’d get lost. It’s okay if the client is lost; not so good if the therapist is lost. So I stick to four factors. I call it STAR, which stands for Screens, Triggers, Actions and Reactions. Have you noticed that I like acrostics?

Screens are all of the PLUS components of humans. The term includes perceptions, logic (including logic errors), universals (schemas, beliefs, and values) and scripts. While listening to the story, I try to understand the filters being used. I spend a lot of time in this area: identifying values, discovering beliefs, and reframing how they see the world. In restating a problem, I often say things like “Your challenge is to…” I want clients to know that they have to work at change but to view it in a positive way.

Triggers are the stimuli that set off a chain reaction. Although much of our input is filtered by our perceptual and cognitive systems, some stimuli are not filtered. Classical conditioning, for example, requires no thinking. It’s an automatic response to an unfiltered stimulus. Similarly, habits and mental sets are subroutines that get triggered by particular circumstances. Skinner showed that punishment shuts down behavior, so when I see people emotionally shut down, I know they’ve been punished. I look to see what shut them down. Was it an environment, something their spouse did, or something I just stupidly said? I look for things that set you off, calm you down, or bring a tear to your eye.

Actions are all of the behaviors you do. I actually start here. I look for patterns of behavior (including attitudes). How do you typically cope with stress? What do you do in an ambiguous setting? What is maintaining that behavior? What punishers are in operation? One way to discover values and beliefs is to look at what people do.

Reactions are environmental, behavioral and emotional. Environmental reactions are, of course, the basis of operant conditioning. According to Skinner, what happens after a behavior determines what will happen next time. Clients sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what will happen in the environment as a result of their actions. They underestimate their power (learned helplessness) or overestimate their power (perfectionism or mania).

Behavioral reactions are follow-up actions. You do something, followed by doing something else. Behaviors are just actions; they also are chains of actions. Think of all the things you do to get out of a speeding ticket: smiling, flirting, pleading, arguing… It can be quite a long chain.

Emotional reactions are natural too. Emotions are like the lights on the dashboard of your car. The lights can be happiness and joy, like having the radio light up. Or you can have lights of warning or trouble. Sometimes you know what they mean; it’s clear to you what you’re feeling and why. But often our emotional lights flash, and the brain has to figure out what’s going on. Your hands are sweating. You’re tapping your foot, and sighing. You’re waiting impatiently or you’re unusually happy. Although dogs live in the moment of the emotion, sometimes humans have to figure out why we feel the way we do.

Treatment is reflected in the four categories too. Fear is classically conditioned; there is a trigger and an action. So systematic desensitization and Guthrie’s four ways of breaking habits is helpful here. Cognitive distortions in one’s screens can be countered with reality testing.

The four components are not meant to be strictly linear. I’m suggesting that human behavior is a complex interplay of these four elements. Each might well occur more than once. Emotions are good example: they can be a trigger or a reaction, or both.

What you think might determine what you do or feel. For example, Albert Ellis suggests that emotions are the result of thinking. You hear a sound which activates a belief, and the consequence is an emotion. If the belief is someone is trying to break into your house, the emotion is fear. If the belief is someone fell out of bed, your emotion might be worry. If the belief is your friend has finally arrived for a visit, the emotion might be joy. Same stimulus but different emotions.  Because beliefs trigger emotions. The screening occurs before the emotion.

On the other hand, William James maintains that emotion follows behavior. You see a bear, run away and then feel fear. On a smaller scale, you hear a sound, the adrenal system kicks in and you jump. Then the brain tries to figure out what emotion that was. According to this approach, emotions are reactions.

I think of emotions as hardware: something you can’t directly change. Sometimes you can override the system or work around it but all in all, you’re stuck with having emotions, some of which you’ll like and some which you won’t like.


Things I Accept From Others

I accept data from everyone. I believe Piaget’s observations but not his interpretations. If you say you saw a blue light hovering in the sky, I believe you experienced it. I might not accept your explanation of its being a spaceship but I believe what people report.

Trait theory emphasizes the consistency of human behavior. I like that. I understand that people want to feel that life in under control. And I understand how appealing simple solutions can be. But I take very little from trait theory. I believe people are introverted or extroverted based on circumstances and not personality traits. Similarly, I accept the Big Five as temporary states but not as independent dimensions. I think of the Big Five as being two dimensions: are people easy to get along with (open, agreeable, extrovert) and can you trust them (conscientious, non-neurotic). I reject body types, proprium, projective tests, and needs and presses (though I like the terms). I don’t think trait theory explains personality well. It simply labels general predispositions or patterns of behavior. It’s not predictive, and it doesn’t explain how or why individual differences develop.

As for Freud, I reject unconscious motivation; being unaware is not the same as being pushed by internal warring forces. I reject the structural explanation of personality (id, ego and superego) but I keep (and tweak) defense mechanisms. I accept Freud’s description of children at certain ages (infants sticking things in their mouths, toddlers learning toilet skills, and kindergarteners mimicking parents) but I don’t ascribe any psychosexual significance to the events or rely on fixation as an explanatory device.

I see denial as a natural state of shock or as a rule (it’s not true if I don’t say it). Similarly, I see displacement as stimulus overload, not as unconscious motivation. Projection (seeing your faults in others) shows that external perception is easier than reflection. Schemas about self are very hard to change. I think rationalization proves that we use a rule system. We might use really stupid or illogical reasons for failure (I’m a good dancer but the floor was sticky, and I had on the wrong shoes). The illogic comes from trying to reach multiple goals at once. We want to do well, we want feel good about ourselves, and we don’t want to look foolish or have people laugh at us.

I reject repression. I believe it is supported by memory research. For general memories, we have a Pollyanna Effect (tendency to remember good things) but for overwhelming memories, people have a great deal of trouble forgetting them. Combined with the research on how easy it is to induce false memories, I reject repressed memories (particularly those acquired under hypnosis or suggested by a therapist).

 I like Adler’s observation that people compensate as a normal process, and that over-compensation is an ineffective coping strategy. I like his emphasis on the family constellation because I think personality theories in general don’t include a social or interpersonal component. I’m more family-systems oriented than Adler but I appreciate this attempt to highlight this area. Although I agree that pampering a child can be bad parenting, there so many other ways to screw up as parents that I wouldn’t want to limit it to one. I reject Adler’s three gates to mental life (birth order, early memories and dreams). Birth order is not a good predictor, infantile amnesia prevents early memories from forming (there’s no storage area before 2 years old), and dreams are simply screensavers for your brain.

I like Jung’s archetypes as social patterns. Plays, movies and books often have a specific flow and pattern to them. Play are in three acts (or four segments if there is an intermission), movies have turning points at 15, 30, 45 and 90 minutes, etc. I think this is evidence of our love of ritual, tradition and order. I like the idea of synchronicity (meaningful coincidences) but I prefer a mystical God as explanation for such events. I reject amplification, persona-shadow, primordial images and the collective unconscious. I also reject the test based (or loosely based) on Jung’s theory: TAT, Rorschach, Myers-Briggs and the use of sand trays (unless it’s big enough for dump trucks or 4-wheeling).

I accept Karen Horney’s warning about should. I think they are part of the screens people use to restrict their lives. I reject Erikson, Fromm and all of object relations (including attachment theory), at least in terms of the causal reasoning. I like any theory that emphasizes patterns. So to extent that developmental theories describe how people act (“You’re acting like a four-year-old”), I accept it too. The same is true of object relations and attachment theory. I accept the idea that adults display patterns of behavior that they’ve practiced since childhood. And I observe people who are overly attached to their pets but I see that as faulty logic, not childhood trauma. While I agree that ineffective pattern be replaced with more effective patterns, I reject the proposed underlying causations of past hurts (suppression, repression, etc.), so I don’t see the necessity to replace a childhood hurt with a corrective emotional experience. But I track childhood patterns of thought and action.

Although I reject the mechanistic explanations, I accept and use all of the techniques of classical and operant conditioning. In particular, I think phobias, fears and anxiety are caused by classical conditioning, and best deal with by gradually increasing the strength of the stimulus (not by talk therapy). And I accept the strong impact rewards and punishments have on people but I think our expectations and cognitions play a role in determining which rewards work for us.

I also accept all of the techniques of social learning theory (modeling, expectations, and frustration-aggression hypothesis). Counseling is, to me, a way for people to practice more effective behavioral patterns. I believe counselors model what they want their clients to do, say and feel. I use Dollard & Miller’s frustration-aggression hypothesis to suggest topics for counseling. If a client is aggressive or angry, I assume they are frustrated, and try to get them to figure out why they are acting that way.

I’m also a fan of Rogers goal (making people comfortable) and active listening techniques. But I reject the assumptions of Maslow and Rogers about how change occurs. I prefer the emphasis on finding meaning and living in the moment that the existentialists provide. And I accept nearly all of cognitive theory, though I tend to favor Beck over Ellis. Beck suggests differential treatment of clients. The problem with cognitive therapists is that they typically emphasize rationalism, and de-emphasize the animal side. They don’t seem to think that rewards play much of a role in behavior. And they tend to ignore emotion. Emotion for me is key indicator of performance. In my view, healthy people are not consistently negative, angry, depressed or anxious.

I’m not eclectic. I accept certain premises and reject others. Although I seek to make a safe, supportive Rogerian environment, I keep Skinner in mind during this process. In my view, humans are like dogs with computers in their heads. So I reward certain responses (shaping) and extinguish others. I’m essentially a learning theorist with an overlay of cognitive-existentialism.



Given what you’ve read of my theory, how do you think I’d answer the questions at the beginning? Here they are again for your consideration:

  • Why do people stay in bad relationships?
  • Why do people keep picking the same kind of people to fall in love with?
  • How would you help someone who has a fear of flying?
  • Why to people try to be perfect?
  • How do you break a habit?
  • How do you help people with marriage problems?
  • Why would a woman leave her husband yet hope that he will pursue her?
  • Why would a man be afraid of his wife?
  • What is your opinion on repressed memories, projective tests and dream analysis?



I suspect that counselors pick their model based on the struggles they’ve had in life. If you have father figure problems, you probably will gravitate to a Freudian perspective. If you have abandonment issues, you’ll love object relations and attachment theory. If you dislike structure and tradition, you’ll turn to existentialism. And, of course, if you’re well-adjusted, you’ll pick my theory.  🙂

Joking aside, I believe the best theory for you will be your own. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ideas but I’ll be even more pleased if you write your own theory of personality. As I’ve shown, you don’t have to be completely original. Read everybody and steal from the best.

    Tangen’s Theory of Personality Intro
    Tangen”s Theoryof Personality (Part 1)
    Tangen’s Theory of Personality (Part 2)


2 Responses to “Tangen’s Theory (con’t)”

  1. You Deserve Your Own Theory : PsychNut on July 11th, 2010 8:09 pm

    […] And here is a copy of My Theory of Personality. […]

  2. 18 If You Know Nothing About Personality: Your Theory : PsychNut: Personality on July 11th, 2010 9:42 pm

    […] already looked at all of theories on this site. So take a look at  My Theory of Personality. Jot down some ideas of your own. And take a look at this video on what to include in Your Theory. […]

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