Recursive Traps

There is a lot of suffering in life.
But the only suffering that can be avoided
is the suffering that results from trying to avoid suffering

- R. D. Laing

Psychology is the discipline by which the Psyche seeks to understand the Psyche.  While the study of the cause-and-effect principles that pertain to subjective experience and individual's reactions to it is interesting in its own right, an additional motivation for researching the Psyche is to relieve unnecessary suffering.  Paradoxically, Incentive Use Disorders, which is the cause of much suffering is maintained by the Psyche's desire to relieve its own suffering.

Even though negative emotional states such as anger and fear are implicated in many relapses and other forms of suffering, they are not intrinsically bad for you, and are, in fact, adaptive in some situations. We are, after all, descended from the survivors of a long evolutionary history.  Those who were free of anger and fear are not our ancestors.  To survive in a real world, suffering and the negative emotional states it evokes often motivate and direct actions that turn out to be adaptive.

However, some suffering is avoidable! The behaviors and perceptual biases that produce unnecessary suffering are typically driven by emotional reactions to the things that happen. To appreciate the difference between adaptive and maladaptive emotional reactions, consider the fear elicited by a nearby poisonous snake, and the anxiety elicited by worrying. In the former case, your fear would motivate you to run away [an adaptive reaction] and sometime after you got away the emotional arousal would subside. However, the physiological arousal produced by the neurotic rumination does not dissipate with time because anxious people worry whenever they have the chance.  Rather than energizing adaptive behavior, the reactions elicited by worrying deplete the very resources needed to deal with objective threats that you might actually encounter.

Individuals with anxiety disorders tend to see the world through filters that are overly sensitive to threat.  It is considered a disorder when the anxiety interferes with occupational or social functioning.  Depressed individuals have a different set of biases and response tendencies, but their state-dependent filters also impair their ability to cope with the challenges they encounter. 

Recursive Cognitive Structures

Some of life’s problems are self-correcting. You catch a cold, and the body’s immune system learns to recognize the pathogen and eventually defeat it. A child learning to ride a bicycle may fall a few times but will ultimately get it. People who have developed a pattern of self-sabotage may never self-correct, because their pathogenic beliefs cause them to act in ways that confirm the pathogenic beliefs [see Thinking Errors].  For example, the belief that you will not be able to cope with a challenge tends to impair performance and make the unwanted outcome more likely, and hence can be called a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.  

Recursive cognitive structures have a profound and long-lasting effect on how an individual's subjective reality can influence objective reality. Suicide bombers and corporate executives are made of the same biological material, but are biased by different beliefs and hence experience different subjective realities.

There are many ways to misperceive, but some distortions are special: They have a recursive structure and so can maintain themselves indefinitely. Blushing is an example of a recursive structure. If blushing is embarrassing for me, then any feedback that I am blushing enhances the physiological reaction. The more obvious the blush, the more embarrassed I feel, and the more embarrassed I feel, the more I blush, and so on.

Recursion, Self-Reference, and Reciprocal Feedback

Recursion, in mathematics and computer science, is a method of defining functions in which the function being defined is applied within its own definition. The term is more generally used to describe a process of reciprocal feedback; for example, when two mirrors face each other a recurring sequence of nested images appears in each.

Positive Feedback

When the mirrors are parallel, the nested reflections do not go on forever, because real mirrors are not perfectly reflective. Pathogenic structures have no such limitation. In fact, some produce amplification or positive feedback—analogous to a microphone that has gotten too close to a speaker causing a rapid and relentless magnification of the sound to the extreme.

  • Panic attacks are produced by positive feedback of the fight-or-flight response: Specifically, the symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, are perceived as threatening, which results in the secretion of more fight-or-flight hormones, which increase heart rate, and so on.

  • Binge eating is another example of positive feedback. In the example below, the payoff—absorption in the pleasurable activity of eating—is used to help the individual escape unpleasant experience. The suffering produced by this trap amplifies the motivation to escape it, which strengthens the entrapment mechanism.

Desiree hates being fat. Whenever she thinks about her obesity or sees herself in the mirror, she thinks self-critical thoughts and experiences shame. She can escape the negative emotional state by becoming absorbed in the pleasurable experience of mindless eating. The self-loathing caused by her failure to restrain her eating amplifies the bad feelings, which increases her motivation to escape into the warm comfort of mindless eating. In this case, her emotional reaction to the failure is the amplification mechanism: The worse she feels, the more she is driven to seek relief from eating, and the more she eats the worse she feels, and so it goes again and again.

As you may have already guessed, recursive traps tend to be embedded in any attempt to improve the self – this is especially true for individuals who are judgmental toward themselves or who become emotionally attached to outcomes.  

If you have a history of being hard on yourself, understand this: The passage ahead is much more difficult than it seems, and you are bound to make errors of all kinds, some of which will look particularly stupid or heinous in hindsight. To benefit from the lessons nature is trying to teach you, you will have to open to the truth and never use it as a weapon to demean yourself or to evoke emotional states that would weaken you.

Choice Point: Emotion-Focused Coping

At some point, most people who have an Incentive Use Disorder will have to master their emotional reactions to the things that happen. This fork gives you the opportunity to use what you know about yourself and the challenge you face to choose which of the paths listed below will be most advantageous to you now:

  1. Follow the default path below to go back to the list of Traps
  2. If you have a Mood Disorder  —  e.g., anxiety, depression, or chronic anger/irritability — the section on Cognitive Therapy will help you appreciate how these self-sabotaging traps work and how to extricate yourself.
  3. Some ancient precursors to Cognitive Therapy are described in the Taming the Beast section. These exercises and philosophical perspectives can enhance your ability to act mindfully — even during crises of stress and temptation.

* Volitional Mediators of  Cognition-behavior consistency:  self-regulatory processes and action versus state orientation, Julius Kuhl Chapt 6.  In: The Psychology of  Action. 1996 The Guilford Press: New York - P. Gollwitzer and J Bargh Eds.

** Distinct Modes of  Ruminative Self-Focus: Impact of  Abstract Versus Concrete Rumination on Problem Solving in Depression Ed Watkins & Michelle Moulds -Emotion © 2005 by the American Psychological Association September 2005 Vol. 5, No. 3, 319-328


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