Effortful inhibition

Suppressing habits is hard but there are practical ways to go about it. Effortful inhibition is all about self-control, the ability to alter and regulate behaviour in order to avoid undesirable actions. This requires a certain amount of metaawareness, the stopping for a moment to examine what we have done or are about to do. Pauses are good and silences shouldn't be awkward; they give us time to collect our thoughts, think about our behaviour and react in more constructive ways. I spend a great deal of time on social media, especially Twitter, and over the years I have developed the habit of pausing for a few moments before hitting that send button. I'll read my Tweet and think, 'Do I really want this to enter the public domain? Will it upset or embarrass others, make me appear unkind or have the potential to come back and bite me in the future?'

A less effortful way to inhibit those negative habits is to outsource them. This is particularly effective when we are trying to prevent triggering habits that are linked to technology, such as checking social media updates, texts or emails. If your habit involves checking your phone, for example, you can turn off all notifications so that you aren't constantly glancing at the blank screen in the hope that someone has liked your recent Tweet. On a more serious note, notifications continually popping up on our phones does little for our anxiety levels and general wellbeing. A magazine editor I know uses an automated reply for emails, informing people that she only checks them twice a day and just because she hasn't immediately replied, it doesn't mean she's ignoring your recent pitch. Many phones now have a function that stops all incoming calls, texts and notifications when it senses you are driving.

Phones are certainly a hot topic in education at the moment and guaranteed to divide opinion. While some advocate a total ban on them in school, others argue that a school's behaviour policy and wider guidelines should be enough to prevent them from becoming problematic. Phones on silent won't prevent notifications and I have witnessed students strategically placing their devices in positions where they can keep an eye on them. This constant glancing over to check can impact attention. Bill Thornton and his co-researchers from the University of Southern Maine found that the 'mere presence' of a mobile phone can distract (Thornton, Faires, Robbins & Rollins, 2014). All things to bear in mind when deciding how best to approach technology.

We can also use effortful inhibition to help students deal more successfully with their fear of failure, by making them more aware of their verbal responses. Students low in academic buoyancy tend to display high levels of fear of failure. We can identify such behaviours by identifying their attributional style (Chapter 10). A familiar habit displayed by these students is to ruminate on tasks for which they have received disappointing results. This rumination becomes a habit, and we can observe this in their verbal and sometimes non-verbal responses, responses that might include:

'I'm stupid/unintelligent/thick/etc.'

'The teacher didn't explain it properly'

'The teacher hates me'

T hate this subject'

'I'm going to fail everything'

These responses place the cause of failure (the attribution) both externally and globally of the student (and I'll discuss these differences in detail in Chapter 10). For now, however, I want to discuss them as a form of habit, a conditioned response to a disappointing outcome.

What our student needs is time to recognise the response and its habitual nature. Our student could simply inhibit the response but this is more likely to result in compliance rather than internalisation (our student still believes that he or she is stupid, it's just not vocalised). However, this does give us time to replace this rumination with a more adaptive response in the form of questions. Positive responses might include:

'Did I understand the task?'

'Did I give myself enough time?'

'Did a put in enough effort?'

'How can I improve?'

As our student inhibits the maladaptive responses and repeats the adaptive ones, a new habit gradually forms. If this new habit then results in positive outcomes (higher grade on an essay or test, for example) and moves the student towards a goal (e.g. higher predicted end-of-year grade) then this new behaviour is reinforced through motivated activation, that is, success acts as a reward.

But there may also be more going on here, something that is specifically tied to academic achievement. Negative rumination, the constant verbal selfabuse, can also be a sign of learned helplessness, a symptom of depression. Certain so-called talking therapies encourage this same change to verbal responses in an attempt to encourage a more adaptive thinking style. Positive responses, once habitual, are often then applied to all situations, rather than the one they were specifically meant for, that is, we have been encouraged to change our global attributional style or the way in which we attribute the causes of what happens to us - rather than a setback being seen as something that is internal and unchangeable, it becomes something that is within our own control and, therefore, can be changed. In other words, it becomes easier to bounce back.

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