The Cognitive Perspective

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The strong cognitive traits of the compulsive personality were recognized and written about by analytic theorists long before the cognitive perspective was ever popular. Whereas contemporary information-processing accounts are concerned with flowcharting the architecture and processes of cognition, analytic accounts were more concerned with cognitive style and the close connection between character and cognition. W. Reich (1933, p. 211) regarded compulsives as indecisive and doubting, and "just as ill disposed toward affects as [they are] acutely inaccessible to them."

Other psychoanalytic theorists noted compulsives' intolerance of ambiguity. Compulsives treat their mental contents as they treat their work: They like to have things specified concretely; everything should fit neatly into some system of classification; anything not easily organized becomes either a source of anxiety or an object of contempt. Devoted to the classical concept of the anal character, Rado (1959, p. 326) described these persons as concrete, factually oriented, and contemptuous of fancy and imagination. Such cognitive traits can perhaps be traced back to the family environment: When your parents are harsh, punitive, and righteous, you naturally prefer the concrete because it's easier to judge and it keeps you out of trouble, especially if you're a child and, therefore, without a mature cognitive apparatus.

Realizing that attention is an essential aspect of information processing, Shapiro (1965) emphasized that whereas most people have the capacity to move their attention about freely, the attention of compulsives is sharp yet acutely restricted, principled, and always concentrated. Shapiro was thus able to link level of attention to the intrusive-ness of irrelevancies that plague compulsives' mental life. Their focus on detail never flags, so it must seize on something; rather than relax when nothing of urgency exists to occupy it, it moves from some small detail of their work to a piece of dirt on the floor or to a minor personal foible. As we saw with the indecisive dean, in anxious situations a preference for a high level of detail becomes maladaptive; he keeps reviewing old lecture notes but never feels ready.

Anything at the farthest edges of the compulsive personality's attention has the potential to be transported directly to the center of awareness and put under the person's exquisite magnifying glass. These individuals are not only typically incapable of grasping the "big picture" but also generally unable to sense the overall emotional tone of interpersonal situations, contributing to the interpersonal impression that they are reserved or cold. Because compulsives focus on detail in communications and fail to adequately judge the interpersonal atmosphere, they cannot relax or be spontaneous or empathic. Shapiro also connected compulsives' level of attention to their lack of intuition, noting that they rarely get hunches. Finally, for this same reason, compulsives are largely hardened against aesthetic appreciation of art or literature. The level of attention works in conjunction with the defense of emotional isolation, for example, to make them insensitive to tragedy or any other human drama. If Elsa could just gauge the atmosphere of her classroom, she would have responded to student feedback and wouldn't be sitting in the counseling center.

In fact, unaware of their insensitivity to emotional nuance, it is likely that compulsives fail to realize that the emotional lives of others are far richer than their own. Whereas most people would pity the compulsive's immersion in detail as being foreign to the immediacy and vividness of feeling truly alive, most compulsives have no insight into the impoverishment of their lives. Instead, they sterilize and dehumanize their existence by organizing their thinking rigidly in terms of conventional rules and regulations, formal schedules, and social hierarchies. Some do so with condescension and contempt, regarding others as disorganized, ineffective, and primitive. Such types flourish in bureaucratic settings, where their desire for specificity and detail can be used as a weapon against anyone who crosses them, pays them inadequate respect, or just seems a little too carefree, as with the indecisive dean. By complicating the lives of others, compulsives vent their inner anger while justifying their behavior as required by organizational codes.

Moreover, because compulsives analyze the emotion out of experience, the sadistic quality of their actions is usually not accessible for conscious reflection. Those who shred the lives of others on some technicality may rationalize their actions by asserting that life requires someone to filter out those who are unworthy, to eliminate those unable to make the grade, as with Elsa. Here, the cognitive, interpersonal, and psycho-dynamic domains shade more closely together than for most personalities. Such compulsives are bent on following the rules, but deeply resent being bound by them and resent even more the idea that someone might "get away" with something. The idea of others laughing about getting away with something fills them with rage. Some actively seek omissions or foibles on the part of others, whom they victimize with regulations, red tape, endless forms and applications, the "fine print," and intolerance for the slightest error or transgression, however human. They have no pity for those they injure. By doing so, they seek revenge against the strictures of their own condemning superego by displacing their hostility onto others, frustrating others' wishes, and sabotaging others' attempts at self-actualization. There are no shortcuts. Here, Holden provides the best example.

Other compulsives, however, seem to cling to order and detail almost as a cognitive defense against uncertainty and ambiguity. Unlike the preceding sadistic variety, they are more submissive and fearful of condemnation, possessing an intense need to be sure. Such compulsives deeply dread making mistakes, restricting themselves to situations that are familiar and approved. They avoid the dangerous unknown by maintaining a tight and well-organized approach to life. The same dull routines allow them to play it safe but prevent them from developing new perceptions or approaches to problem solving.

Such individuals are naturally indecisive, endlessly seeking out every source of information, advice, and authoritative opinion before making even minor decisions. Often, their quest leaves their judgment overwhelmed by hundreds of details they feel helpless to integrate conclusively. Thus stuck and forever fearful of error, they may become mired in a paralysis of analysis that prevents them from making any decision at all. In effect, they are caught in an information-processing vicious circle: The more detail they gather, the more the facts fail to converge on a single course of action or conclusion, and the more their anxiety increases. The solution is to redouble their efforts and gather even more detail (see Figure 7.2).

Beck et al. (1990) have written extensively about the cognitive perspective on personality and its disorders. These theorists hold that beliefs about the world, self, and others are critical in determining behavior. Although traits may indeed refer to consistencies in behavior, cognitive theorists would argue that behind every behavioral consistency lies a cognitive consistency. Characteristic ways of construing the world are, therefore, even more fundamental than traits themselves, which give only a surface view. Core beliefs, which may be either conscious or unconscious, are held to be true regardless of time, place, or circumstance. Conditional beliefs express the interactive role between person and situation: If such-and-such occurs, then such-and-such will result. In turn, conditional beliefs feed into instrumental beliefs, which concern what persons can or can't do to affect the world around them.

Given their developmental history and superego formation, the most fundamental core belief of the compulsive personality is, "I should" (Beck et al., 1990). Schemata

The Vicious Cycle Beck Alcohol
FIGURE 7.2 The Vicious Circle of the Compulsive's Information Processing.

for control, responsibility, and systematization, these authors state, become overdeveloped, and those related to spontaneity and playfulness are neglected and, therefore, weak. If a "should" cannot be identified, compulsives begin to feel uncomfortable, as if drowning in ambiguity. Whereas many would occasionally reflect deeply before making a decision, compulsives are always focused on justifying their actions and how candidate actions might be criticized or evaluated by an observer, especially an authority figure. As such, their minds are forever entangled in a web of, "I should . . ." and "I fear. . . ." Cognitively, then, they need the structure of scripted situations, because known scripts tell you what to do, as well as how and when to do it. Donald, for example, fell apart in the clinical interview but rebounded nicely when told to describe his average day. For most compulsives, structure is their total reality. Most know nothing else, which often leads them into paradox. When compulsives go to a party, for example, they work at enjoying themselves, for that is the purpose of a party. The absurdity never dawns on them.

In turn, the moral imperatives that rule their existence are reinforced and perpetuated by several key cognitive errors (Beck et al., 1990). Perhaps most notably, compulsives view the world in black-and-white terms. Their "should" statements constitute absolutes unqualified in terms of situation, personal ability, or the availability of resources. Instead, compulsives are governed by commandments dispensed from an almighty Superego: "Thou shalt not fail. Thou shalt be always in control. Thou shalt not be caught in a mistake, however small," and so on. Given their dichotomous, moralistic view of the world, it is not surprising that the consequences of violating even one of these commandments are grim, even catastrophic. Compulsives cannot do what they desire; they must do what they should, in every case. As a result, life has but little potential for small joys and a large potential for anxiety. We see some of this in the case of Donald, who is overflowing with anxiety but who can neither afford to consciously acknowledge it nor surrender any measure of control. Much of compulsives' lives are spent in the past or future, lost in rumination about what they should do about a certain person or situation or how what they have already done might fall short. Sometimes their intense deliberation can make them seem distracted. Only rarely are they centered in the present moment, home to most of the joys and intimacies of life.

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