Self-punitive behavior in humans: Effects of a self-fulfilling prophecy


Journal Article

Human subjects were exposed to contingencies which programmed aversive tones (100 db). Two types of contingencies were employed: self-confirming (i.e., self-fulfilling prophecies), in which the aversive tone was occasioned by the prediction it was about to occur; and self-disconfirming, in which the tone was probable when subjects predicted it would not occur. Experiments 1 and 2 used a modified classical conditioning paradigm, and demonstrated that a self-confirming contingency maintained reliable self-punitive responding, i.e., subjects consistently predicted and therefore obtained tones on every trial. Subjects in Experiment 3 were instructed to express predictions continuously throughout four sessions to ensure adequate sampling of the various predictions. Subjects exposed to a self-disconfirming contnngency reliably evidenced awareness of the contingency in effect (judged by answers on a postexperimental questionnaire), whereas subjects exposed to a self-confirming contingency failed to show effective avoidance behavior or contingency awareness. Experiment 4 investigated free-operant self-punitive behavior, utilizing a single prediction response button, which subjects depressed repeatedly. Subjects were exposed to either periodic or aperiodic punishment schedules over as many as four sessions. In general, more persistent self-punitive responding was found in the groups receiving periodic punishment. The results from the four experiments show that self-confirming contingencies can effectively prolong self-punitive responding in human subjects. The findings are consistent with a blocking interpretation of self-punitive behavior, which asserts that when an aversive event is already predicted by stimuli in the situation (including temporal cues), the association between a response and punishment is impaired, and self-punitive responding is likely to be maintained. An integration of human and animal self-punitive research is proposed. © 1981.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Rose, JE; Fantino, E

Published Date

  • January 1, 1981

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 12 / 2

Start / End Page

  • 212 - 238

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0023-9690

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1016/0023-9690(81)90019-9

Citation Source

  • Scopus