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Becoming sensitive to contingency

writer: TANI, Shinji(College of Comprehensive Psychology, Professor) published: 2018-06

The environment that influences your thoughts and behavior

We learn to respond to various stimuli in our environment from the time we are born. There are physical stimuli like light, sound, and smell, and verbal stimuli such as the words of others and even our own thoughts. There are also stimuli that combine physical sensations such as anxiety, fear, and tension with verbal stimuli. The responses to these stimuli are various and differ from person to person. Over long periods of time people’s behaviors are shaped by environments.
My behavior is the result of several decades of interaction with the environment (in other words, stimuli in the environment, my reactions to them, and the resulting changes in the environment).

Tracing contingency

This flow of interactions is called “contingency.” What kinds of stimuli he responded to? What kinds of responses he emerged? What happened in the environments as the results of his responses? When he becomes sensitive to it, he can trace the stream of interactions that gives rise to his behavior. What kinds of reactions do you have to what kinds of stimuli? This reflects your learning history. Tracing this flow sometimes helps him notice that he is repeating behaviors that doesn’t work out well for him.

Choosing your own behavior

When we are repeating a behavior that doesn’t work out for us, we can choose a different behavior. If we do the same thing as before, the same result is likely to occur. By responding to a different stimulus, by engaging in a different behavior, we may be able to encounter a different contingency. This may lead to a preferable result, but it may not. When this happens, we should once again examine the contingency. We should try different things and look for an approach that works.

What is important to you

What’s matters to you? To act toward what is important is a very happy thing. But doing so isn’t easy. You will encounter various obstacles. When this happens, what sorts of contingencies do you find? If you try becoming sensitive to them, even if obstacles arise you may be able to “smoothly” sidestep them and move toward what is important. Fighting an obstacle is not the only way of dealing with it. We should learn how to utilize this kind of flexible response.

What happened to me

I was in Ireland, spending a year conducting research outside of the university. Every day when I opened the door, outside it lay a world of contingency quite different from what I had experienced in the past. There was no one who could speak Japanese. People’s daily routines and customs were different. Every day, many behaviors I had learned over a long period of time “didn’t go well.” I constantly felt anxious and tense. “What should I talk about today?” I would ask myself on the way to the University. “What should I say in English?” These sorts of thoughts (behaviors) made me feel tense and anxious.
When I carefully traced back this tension and anxiety, I was able to take note of the things that were important to me. One was “to keep trying.” Every day when I opened the door, I was acting toward something that was important to me: continuing to take on this challenge. Anxiety and tension are part of taking on a challenge, and it is natural for failures and the unexpected to occur. A challenge without anxiety, tension, and failure, a challenge that was guaranteed to go well – that would be quite dull, wouldn’t it?


Ritsumeikan Journal of Human Sciences


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Institute of Ars Vivendi. Ritsumeikan Univ.