Learning Theory and PTSD

A little paper I wrote for school.

Before you begin the paper, I want you to consider something. I am joe schmo off the block, I have some college education but I am not smarter than the next guy. I more or less bs’ed my way through this paper. When you get to the part about the experiment, it sounds eerily like the abstract from a psychologist’s paper. So if one thing means another then, psychologists BS their way through papers too, just not with as much style as me, haha. Also, I started the paper with the post the “room assessment’ but figured it was on here and it didn’t need to be reposted. Beyond all that, the Professor, had me cite myself, that was kind of strange, lol.

PTSD as it is now commonly known is one of the most prolific ailments that is coming out of the global war on terrorism. Combat PTSD, is a very difficult emotional and behavioral problem to overcome due to the high level of stress and emotional response associated with the actions. A large population of veterans are given medication and simply told to give it time and they will overcome it, time is not always on their side as evidenced by the climbing suicide rates. However, there is another school of thought among the veterans that focuses on behavior modification through a combination of operant conditioning and immersion therapy. We will begin by examining two learning theories concerned with the behavior modification before attempting to apply one of them towards behavior modification. B.F. Skinner’s learning theory of behaviorism and Albert Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory are the two theories with which we will be primarily concerned.

B.F. Skinner introduced the learning theory of behaviorism early in his career but it continued to develop throughout his life. He states that it is through reinforcement both negative and positive that the desired behavior is learned or reinforced. An action followed by a reward is more likely to occur again rather than if it were followed by a punishment. He states that punishment is for suppressing behavior rather than reinforcing it. This introduction of either a positive of negative stimuli in response to a behavior is called Operant Conditioning. Skinner understood that this did not completely explain human learning however he stated that the rest was immeasurable and should be avoided. (Maisto, 2004, p. 184). Albert Bandura’s theory of social cognitive learning involves modeling. Modeling is where something is learned by watching others perform the action, it is also known as observational learning. The process involves three components: the behavior, the person, and the environment. These 3 components operate interconnected to a summed result. Cognitive learning is a more complicated theory considering more of the intricacies of the human brain. (Santrock, 2010, p.26).  It holds that a person can learn something without ever performing the task and then recall it a later time. One example that was given in Dr. Schoger’s lecture was that of a person seeing how to use a gun on TV and then when their life depended on it they were able to operate the weapon without ever having touched one before, this would be impossible through Skinner’s theory. These theories seem to have several things in common on the surface but as you delve deeper into the theory the divergence becomes more and more clear.

These theories are both learning theories and are both based in the scientific method. They both search for quantative information within the realm of learning. Both rely heavily on the environment as a factor in the learning and development process. However, Skinner’s theory does not contain the concepts of free-will, cognition, feeling, and motivation, they were thought of us unobservable. He once referred to these attributes as “psychology’s black box’ meaning that once it had been opened it could never be closed or fully measured. Bandura’s theory embraced these attributes as necessary and essential to learning (Dr. Schoger, Learning Theory Lecture, 2010). Bandura focused more on cognition and the internal thought processes that would be necessary to learn from observation. Bandura however doesn’t focus on any form of reinforcement or punishment but simply the cognition of learning. Both theories receive criticism for failing to focus on developmental stages (Santrock, 2010, p.26).

To understand how to change a behavior, the cause and method of instruction must first be understood. PTSD is defined by the Veteran Affairs Office PTSD Department (2010) as, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others’ lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening.” A soldier is trained to kill this is a known fact. Soldiers have their social norms and preconceptions about right and wrong removed during basic training and become more able to take a human life. In combat a soldier’s survival skills are pushed to the limits, they become more alert and vigilant. The constant strain and dependency on their senses lead to a state of heightened awareness. After several years in combat a soldier’s mind and body are in over-drive, processing information and seeing warning signs that most people are completely oblivious too. Chemical precursors to the body’s stress chemicals are present in their bodies at much higher rates than in a normal well-adjusted person. (Mount Sinai Psychiatry, 2010) This helps the soldier to survive, but what happens when they come home. They are aggressive, angry, depressed by the loss of friends, guilty because they survived, and overall unable to fit back into society. The trauma that is witnessed goes beyond what most can imagine. Either through personal fear for life and limb or through the trauma of watching friends die or become wounded. These wounds are buried deep and leave a strictly regimented system of responses in their wake. Responses like adrenaline rushes, panic attacks, involuntary physical strikes, trained reactions with weapons, physical actions in response to loud noises e.g. taking cover, involuntary eye fixation e.g. scanning the road while driving, and the myriad of other symptoms continues uniquely defined to a soldier’s personal experience. These are simple yet deeply ingrained responses making them very difficult to retrain and remove.

There are many behaviors associated with combat PTSD, we will focus on one simple symptom for modification. The constant desire of a veteran suffering from PTSD to monitor his surroundings in public places is the behavior we will attempt to modify. This is not a typical glance around the room, but a focused and driven mental process that has become so habitual and ritualized that it must be constantly maintained to prevent a panic attack. Combat PTSD suffers tend to look for weapons, methods of egress and ingress, they will role play combat actions to escape a room, and some go as far as to try to find weapons sub-consciously. It is common for these veterans to find their steak knife in their right hand under the table with no idea how they got it. Through the use of a simple rewards and punishment system, behavior modification will be attempted on the subject. The veteran will be placed in a compromised position with his back to the room and to the door. This will make the veteran subject very uncomfortable and the desire to turn and survey his surroundings will be immense and at first nearly impossible to deny. These lessons to constantly monitor their surroundings have been written into their habitual system in blood and pain. They are not mere suggestions to a soldier but some of the most basic survival skills in combat. Through the use of operant condition the veteran’s behavior will hopefully undergo modification. The positive stimuli that will be used will be a reward, the veteran’s beverage of choice e.g. beer. The negative stimuli will be a rubber band smack across the wrist. The veteran will wear this rubber band during the training session and the accompanying person will deliver a negative stimulus for each time the veteran subject turns their head to either look at the door or the room. A fix-ratio schedule of reward will be implemented to prevent fast extinction of the learned behavior. For every fifteen minutes that the veteran is able to maintain eye contact with the accompanying person he will be rewarded with his beverage of choice. As the veteran’s ability to maintain the eye contact improves the schedule for reward will continue to be prolonged in increments of 15 minutes. This is an example of a fixed rate schedule of reward, B.F. Skinner describes this in, A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior, “If a response is reinforced when a given number of responses has been emitted, the rat responds more and more rapidly as the required number is approached.  (That is a fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement.)  The number can be increased by easy stages up to a very high value; the rat will continue to respond even though a response is only very rarely reinforced.  “Piece-rate pay” in industry is an example of a fixed-ratio schedule, and employers are sometimes tempted to “stretch” it by increasing the amount of work required for each unit of payment.”As an added negative stimulus, if the veteran looks away for a prolonged period of time some of his beverage will be removed from his glass until he returns his focus to the proper alignment. This will ensure that the subject will pay the proper attention to the negative stimuli. This is necessary due to combat veteran’s commonly high threshold for pain to prevent actual injury. The end state goal is for the veteran to be able to maintain eye contact for the duration of a meal or conversation without the reinforcement of either the positive stimulus or the suppression of incorrect behavior through the use of negative stimuli.

Skinner and Bandura are both considered the father’s of their respective fields. Skinner’s behaviorism and the more popular social cognitive learning theory of Bandura have both been increasingly influential on the entire field of human development and learning. Their theories have contributed greatly to the progression of understanding learning. PTSD is an incredibly complicated disorder, which I have very much over simplified for the purposes of this paper. It is a daily struggle for many veterans and trauma survivors. I know because I fight it every day and face it every night in my sleep. I tongue in cheek poke fun at it, but with such a daunting disorder what else is there to do but laugh at it and with it.

Maisto, Albert A., and Charles G. Morris. “Learning.”Psychology: An Introduction (12th Edition). 12 ed. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2004. 184-186. Print.

“Mount Sinai – Department of Psychiatry.” Mount Sinai Medical School – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2010. http://www.mymsonsitehealth.net/psychiatry/tssp/studiesandfindings.shtml

Santrock, John. “Theories of Development.” A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development. 5 ed. New York City: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2009. 25-26. Print.

Dr. Schoger, Kimberly. Lecture, “Learning Theories”. 3 June 2010.

Skinner, B.F.. “B.F. Skinner Foundation – A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior.” B.F. Skinner Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2010. <http://www.bfskinner.org/BFSkinner&gt;

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2010, May 18). What is PTSD?. National Center for PTSD. (2010, Jun 8). http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/what-is-ptsd.asp

Wilden, Daniel. ” The Room Assessment.” The Jolly Roger | Ensuring that no Veteran is left behind . N.p., 14 Feb. 2010. Web. 9 June 2010. <https://jollyrogertoolbox.wordpress.com&gt;


2 responses to “Learning Theory and PTSD

  • Mike Orban

    some things I would like to know first about these experiments.
    First, did B.F. Skinners rats go through an assesment/evaluation for PTSD, were they seen by a ‘comp and pen’
    evaluation board? Did B.F. Skinners rats suffer military PTSD or victim PTSD, were they victims of rape, car accidents
    or robbery at gun point? How do we know Skinners rats weren’t faking it? Was there a stigma in being a “Skinner rat’?
    Secondly, when a veteran is subjected to this behavior modification and ‘operant condition’ will the
    ‘accompanying person’ be a veteran or civilian, trust is important ? With the anger component most vets have would they even consider subjecting themselves to any punishment by anyone?, or simply remark , ‘I’ll buy my own F*&^**’ beer?
    If we veterans instinctively look for weapons in our surroundings
    and if you snapped the rubber band on a veterans wrist causing a startle response
    and angry outburst, would the veteran now recognize his beer mug as a weapon and cruch it over the
    ‘accompanying persons’ head?
    Seriously , I think you make some good points that I feel are important. PTSD is a very complicated mind game (for me).
    I don’t believe it is a disorder, I believe it is a reaction to extraordinary experiences. A disorder to me would be the
    veteran who has no reaction at all, that’s a scary person! I was simply overwhelmed by the volume and intensity
    of the components that made up my experience. It took time, thought and communication to resolve many of these.
    The cruelty for me was that we are turned loose to solve these experiences on our own. Very Difficult to do, but
    certainly possible.
    You remark that you may not be well educated…….! Not certain this has anything to do with it. Very well educated
    professionals have had 30 years to develope strategies to resolve PRSD and for the most part have failed.
    War (for me) brought out the most basic GENETIC survival instincts. I believe they are in most humans, we have
    simply ‘socialized’ ourselves out of recognizing and understanding our survival instincts, we are ‘civilized’. We, as soldiers, were reconnected with that instinct and through simple thought can recognize this as NORMAL, human history is the greatest proof of this. We as veterans are simply in a small group of people who can understand this instinct as real and
    not fluffy psychological theory.
    I believe it is we veterans who have the answer to our experiences and should do what we can to take control
    of this PTSD thing as ours and not the realm of the unannointed psychologists.
    I also believe that educated or not, this blog is an excellant example of two vets taking the lead for the rest of us
    in providing a place to speak out and I am honored to be allowed to participate. We need more of this.
    Sorry to rattle on, I hope this makes sense and I am not ‘booted’ from the blog!


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