When I did my Psychology degree I learned about Conditioning – the likes of Pavlov’s Dogs – where you can train an animal to come for food when they hear a bell. Quite useful stuff. There was also an experiment I read about involving pigeons that were rewarded with grain when they hit a certain symbol. Initially they were rewarded everytime they hit it, then the rewards became more spaced out – so every two times, every three, every 10, every 100 and so on. In the end the pigeons would hit the symbol thousands of times in order to get the reward. Thew knew it would come so they didn’t get bored or give up.
We see this kind of behaviour in gambling. Gamblers will keep betting because of their occasional wins. I saw this when I used to sell scratchcards. Those who were addicted to them would buy £50 worth but not win, then another £30 worth and they might get £5-£10 worth back. This would reinforce their behaviour. It didn’t need to be large wins, just something every now and then.
I see a lot of similarities with my checking. To try and save me from having to do it, or from staying up after the last person has gone to bed, my family will say ‘I’ve checked everything’. However, I still need to check for myself. This is because over the years, I have done it, every now and then I’ve found a window unlocked, or the TV mains still left switched on. It doesn’t happen every time, most of the time everything is absolutely fine. For most people they’d build up a trust and reassurance that if someone has told them everything is okay, then it is. But my OCD brain is different. I’ve now got to the stage, like the pigeons, that I could check 1000 times and only find a problem once, and that solo event will set me back to square one and will be enough to keep me checking every night no matter what anyone says.
I suppose I should reassure myself that there are times when I’m ill or so exhausted that my checklist goes awry and the next day I find that windows are unlocked. But it’s difficult for me to do this. It’s even difficult to say it, just in case I jink things and the next time they are left unlocked something bad happens. I know a lot of people have their windows wide open during the summer – even people in my house – because it’s too hot; but I find even this fairly stressful. I am trying to convince myself that it’s okay. Windows can be left unlocked – or even open. It’s been done before and will be done again.
However, it’s the probably abnormal level of responsibility for others that I’ve taken on for myself (or rather my OCD has given me) that makes this conditioning all the more powerful.
As yet I haven’t figured out a way of overcoming the conditioning – after all it’s been going on over 10 years now – and quite frankly I can’t see a way out of it. For the time being as long as I’m allowed to do my checking and do it in a certain way, I only need to do it once and it doesn’t take up too much time. It’s a small price to pay to get rid of the anxiety I’d feel not doing it.
If anyone’s got any good ideas of how to get over conditioning or have had the same experiences – I’d love to hear them.