Salience and Suggestion

William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the ...Read More

Man is a credulous animal and must believe something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones. – Bertrand Russell


We are all condemned to the limitations of subjective reality and so our perceptions and appraisals are creations of the Psyche and not unbiased representations of objective reality. Our understanding of reality is always distorted in one way or another, as different stimuli capture attention, elicit emotional reactions, and thereby bias state-dependent phenomena. When you become angry your perceptions and response tendencies change. The anger that produced these changes does not exist in the objective world; it is a subjective experience that was created by and exists solely within you. The truth when you are angry is different than the truth when you are contrite.

One client, who was working on an anger problem, reported that during a chaotic situation at an airport ticket counter someone kicked him in the back of the leg. When he turned around to “confront the asshole” he confronted a handicapped girl in a wheelchair, which had rolled, out of control, down a ramp and hit him. He reports that she was terrified by the rage on his face when he turned around. His subjective reality changed instantaneously as a result of the new information, although objective reality now included an apologetic adult and a terrified little girl.

Your motivational state is, to a large extent, determined by the stimulus that captures your attention. Some stimuli are more attention grabbing than others. Stimuli that are particularly salient can elicit a state change without your conscious intention. Stimulus Salience refers to how bright or attention grabbing a stimulus is, not necessarily how meaningful it is. The picture of one child suffering as a result of an earth quake may be more salient and elicit a greater emotional reaction than statistics of thousands killed

If there were a rattlesnake by your feet, you would be in a different emotional state (fight-or-flight) than you are in now, and it would be hard to pay attention to this text. This adaptive response results from our descent from organisms that noticed threatening stimuli; those who did not react quickly and powerfully are not our ancestors. A rattlesnake in the room with you is both salient and meaningful. But for an individual with snake phobia, even the idea of a snake-which is not objectively dangerous-can elicit a state change that is not adaptive.

Reward refers to the pleasurable effects of using an incentive. Reinforcement refers to the effect using the incentive has on future behavior. Reinforcement not only strengthens the behavioral sequence that lead to the incentive, but also enhances the salience of stimuli associated with it. The Karma of repeatedly experiencing powerful reinforcement is not only the creation of autonomous paths to relapse, but that stimuli associated with getting or using the incentive become increasingly capable of capturing your attention and eliciting unintended state changes-or trance formations. As a result of their association with the incentive, certain stimuli-persons, places or things-become salient. If you allow them to capture your attention they can elicit trances that will distort your perception, motivation and other state-dependent phenomena in ways that are counter to your interests.

Your biology, past reinforcement history, and current social environment determines what is salient. Your rational processing system gets to determine what is meaningful. To follow your path of greatest advantage you will have to know what it is, and develop the competence to resist the pull of highly salient stimuli and willfully select the target of your attention.

Will’s Question

For some people, merely thinking about the incentive or, perversely, trying not to think about it, increases the urge to use it. Moreover, arguing with yourself about whether or not to use the incentive keeps your attention on it, making you more vulnerable to falling into its trance. Any thought or image of the incentive is a clear warning signal that you are in a high-risk situation and now is the time to exercise will. One coping tactic is to pose Will’s Question: “What is the best use of my attention right now?” The answer to this question identifies the path of greatest advantage.

Whenever you ask Will’s Question, you force a decision: To continue to follow the path of least resistance or to exercise will by purposely shifting your attention in a way that changes your motivational state. The exercise of will refers to the effort required to change the focus of your attention for a sufficient period to elicit the intended state change. For example, when H craves a drink he forces himself to visualize the consequences of the next DWI. There are many possible answers to Will’s Question. H could choose to shift his focus from craving a drink to how good he would feel after 6 months of sobriety. Which is better? H is in the best position to select and evaluate among the contenders, just as you are the best one to choose the intended state and the best way to get yourself there.

Intentional Trance Formation

A change in the focus of attention evokes trance formation. The change may occur as a result of the appearance of a highly salient stimulus or because you intentionally changed it by asking Will’s Question.

The method of Intentional Trance Formation has two parts: The intentional part-that is, deciding what trance is intended-is determined by asking Will’s Question; the trance formation part requires continually re-directing your attention back to the answer and willfully helping the process through suggestion.

Intentional Trance Formation is one approach to escaping traps that result from the Soul Illusion. The method is simple to describe: To escape motivational states that may promote relapse or to elicit motivational states that promote behaviors consistent with your core motivation, dissociate from what is going on in the here and now and ask, “What is the best use of my attention right now?” Then focus on the answer and use your imagination and cognitive resources to help the trance formation.

We want your core motivation-rather than the most salient feature of the local environment-to influence your motivation and appraisals during high-risk situations. Intentional Trance Formation is the method of willfully changing your motivational state by shifting your attention from the salient stimulus that has captured it to the answer to Will’s Question.

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