Behaviorism is one of the most well-known paradigms of psychology throughout history, being characteristic its almost exclusive focus on human behavior based on the principles of learning through the association between stimuli. Born as the opposite of psychoanalysis, it proposed the need to focus only on the observable aspects, and without considering the participation of the mind as something scientifically studyable.

It would not be until the arrival of cognitivism that cognition and other mental capacities would make their appearance in scientific and empirical models of our mind and behaviour, although before their appearance there was already an opening on the part of the behavioural current to the exploration and incorporation of less directly observable aspects.

Thus, both paradigms are closely related, and there are even some theoretical models and therapeutic modalities that work from an intermediate point between both paradigms. A clear example of this is the so-called covert conditioning .

Covert Conditioning

We understand by covert conditioning one of the best known psychological models based on the conditioning of behaviors. Like the rest of conditioning, the model considers that our behaviours can be understood based on the association made between stimuli, responses and consequences of the latter (more stimuli) , generating new associations when their appearance is coordinated, and that it is possible to alter the frequency of a specific response from its consequences. Applied in therapy, this would allow us to modify a dysfunctional response or learn a specific behaviour.

However, unlike in the non-undercover models, the elements that would be used to modify behavior would be cognitive and not physical. In fact, we observe the existence of factors that are not directly observable or hidden (such as thinking) which are the basis of behaviour modification and which serve as the basis for covert conditioning. Specifically, one of the most relevant factors is the use of imagination as a fundamental variable.

It is considered that the main father and promoter of covert conditioning was Joseph Cautela , who would begin to apply the main principles of conditioning to cognitive elements such as symbolization, language and imagination. However, it is also worth noting the important role of other authors such as Wolpe and Homme, who would serve as precursors by creating the first systematic desensitization (of which a considerable proportion of the covert techniques were based) and the second by demonstrating that elements such as language could be controlled at an experimental level.

Your theory

This model does not start from nothing, but is based on different assumptions or basic principles.

In the first place we start from the principle of homogeneity between manifest and covert behaviours , that is to say, we assume that the conclusions that can be drawn from manifest phenomena can also be applied to covert ones.

The second principle is that of interaction between both : the manifested and the covert processes interact (for example to relax physically we think about concrete situations). The third and last one proposes that both the observable and the manifest as well as the covert follow the same laws of learning.

The research carried out seems to reflect these assumptions, and the same techniques can be used in imagination as in live and it is seen that there is a palpable effect of the interaction between covert and manifest elements.

Basic procedure: phases

Covert conditioning can be applied through different techniques, which we will see later. However, regardless of the technique used a specific process divided into different phases is usually employed .

1. Educational phase

At first, the professional explains the model and the technique to be used to the patient, clearing up the patient’s doubts and justifying the reason for the use of this technique .

2. Evaluation and imagination training phase

The use of techniques based on covert conditioning requires a certain capacity for imagination and visualization, these aspects being something in which different patients can differ greatly. Thus, it will be necessary to assess the patient’s capacity to form mental images and put themselves in different situations through imagination , and in cases where it is necessary to train them in this.

3. Application phase of covert conditioning in consultation

Throughout this phase, covert conditioning will be applied in a controlled situation. Initially, conditioning will be generated by associating mental images of behaviors and consequences, making a large number of pairings. About twenty trials are recommended. Little by little the patient will reduce the level of help obtained from the professional as the technique is mastered.

4. Consolidation and generalization phase

This last phase focuses on making the patient capable of doing the conditioning on his own and making him increasingly autonomous, also programming tasks for home.

Techniques based on this model

We have previously reflected the basic phases of techniques based on covert conditioning. However, there are a large number of techniques that can be used in the treatment of the problems presented by the patient. Some of the most relevant are the following.

1. Positive reinforcement/ covert negative reinforcement

Covert reinforcement, whether positive or negative, is based on the fact of generating some type of stimulation or consequence that causes an increase in the probability of repetition of the behaviour that one wants to generate or increase , but in imagination.

It seeks to bring the patient closer to the realization of the behavior, often used in conjunction with systematic desensitization to reduce reactions such as anxiety. In the case of positive reinforcement we would use some kind of appetite stimulation for the subject, while in the case of negative reinforcement we would use the withdrawal of an aversive stimulus. It is used in situations such as exposure to phobias, inhibited or avoided behaviour in other disorders or for learning skills.

2. Covert awareness

Covert awareness is based on reducing the probability of emitting a behavior by presenting a contingent aversive stimulus to that behavior. It seeks to inhibit or reduce the response by generating negative responses such as anxiety at the onset of the behavior. It is used in addictions and paraphilias, for example .

It would be equivalent to positive punishment, in which a behavior (punishment) is reduced by adding (positive) an undesirable and annoying stimulus. By being covert, one would be able to imagine the problematic behaviour to be reduced or eliminated associated with aversive situations.

There is a modality, the assisted covert one, in which in reality a real stimulation is applied despite the fact that aversiveness is imaginary . In cases where there is a lot of anxiety or difficulty in imagining oneself, it can be done in a vicarious manner: imagining another person doing the behaviour and suffering the negative consequences.

3. Covert response cost

Equivalent to the negative punishment or response cost, it is based on the decrease in the probability of carrying out a behaviour through the withdrawal of an appetite stimulus . The subject is made to associate the performance of a behaviour with the withdrawal of some reinforcer. It is used, for example, in paraphilias or other types of maladaptive responses.

4. Covert modeling

Modeling is a technique that seeks the observation and subsequent repetition of a behavior through the visualization of a model that performs it. In the case of covert modelling, the model in question would not exist physically but the subject would have to imagine a subject different from himself carrying out the activity he wants to train . Little by little and through repetitions, the imagined model becomes more and more like the subject.

It is recommended that first the model is hesitant and that it presents some difficulty, and then perform the action with great mastery. Finally, the patient is asked to imagine himself performing the action without difficulty and mastering the situation. The main goal is to learn new behaviors, similar to positive reinforcement.

5. Covert assertion

Based on self-control, this technique is based on the reduction of negative emotions and cognitions towards oneself that make it difficult to achieve success in meeting objectives or coping with or overcoming a situation through the use of positive verbalizations. Thus, the aim is to reduce self-criticism through the generation of positive assertions that generate well-being.

6. Self-control triad

Technique designed by Cautela himself, which includes elements such as thought detention (which is itself another technique of concealed conditioning) or behaviour in which the subject is subvocally ordered to cease the behaviour or thought to be reduced , in order to later perform relaxation exercises such as breathing and then visualising positive scenes.

Bibliographic references

  • Dahab, J.; Rivadeneira, C. and Minici, A. (2005). The techniques of covert conditioning. Journal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 9. CETECIC.
  • Almendro, M.T.; Díaz, M. and Jiménez, G. (2012). Psychotherapies. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 06.