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Enhancing Your Therapy with Gestalt Approaches
Gestalt Therapy continuing education psychology CEUs

Section 24
Examining Gestalt Consistency Principles
in Objective Self-Awareness Theory

CEU Question 24
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| Gestalt
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The original statement of OSA theory (Duval & Wicklund, 1972) employed only a few constructs, relations, and processes. The theory assumed that the orientation of conscious attention was the essence of self-evaluation. Focusing attention on the self brought about objective self-awareness, which initiated an automatic comparison of the self against standards. The self was defined very broadly as the person's knowledge of the person. A standard was "defined as a mental representation of correct behavior, attitudes, and traits ... All of the standards of correctness taken together define what a 'correct' person is" (Duval & Wicklund, 1972, pp. 3, 4). This simple system consisting of self, standards, and attentional focus was assumed to operate according to gestalt consistency principles (Heider, 1960). If a discrepancy was found between self and standards, negative affect was said to arise. This aversive state then motivated the restoration of consistency. Two behavioral routes were proposed. People could either actively change their actions, attitudes, or traits to be more congruent with the representations of the standard or could avoid the self-focusing stimuli and circumstances. Avoidance effectively terminates the comparison process and hence all self-evaluation. Early research found solid support for these basic ideas (Carver, 1975; Gibbons & Wicklund, 1976; Wicklund & Duval, 1971). Duval and Wicklund (1972) also assumed that objective self-awareness would generally be an aversive state--the probability that at least one self-standard discrepancy exists is quite high. This was the first assumption to be revised. Later work found that self-awareness can be a positive state when people are congruent with their standards (Greenberg & Musham, 1981; Ickes, Wicklund, & Ferris, 1973).

Functions of Affect in Self-Awareness Processes: An unresolved theoretical issue concerns the role of affect in self-awareness processes. Three general positions can be found. The first position, which is found in the original OSA theory (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Wicklund, 1975), assumes that the negative affect created by self-standard discrepancies has a motivational character. Consistent with its roots in gestalt views of motivation (Heider, 1960) and past consistency theories (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958), the proposition of the model is that affect provided the energy and the incentive for the restoration of the preferred state of self-standard identity. A second position assumes that affect has an informational or monitoring function (Carver & Scheier, 1998). This view has its roots in cybernetic models of how action is controlled by online performance feedback (Miller et al., 1960). Affect serves this feedback function by indexing the velocity of goal progress. A third position is simply the view that discrepancies create affect but that the affect has no stated implications for later discrepancy reduction. In self-discrepancy theory, for example, it is unclear what functions anxiety, dejection, and so on serve in subsequent regulation (Higgins, 1987).

As before, the conflict within the broader area of inquiry implicates self-awareness theory. Emotion psychologists have always argued over the functions of affect. The prevailing position, proposed by Darwin (1872/1998) and promulgated primarily by Tomkins (1962,1981,1991) and his students (Izard, 1971, 1977), is that emotions motivate action. This broad notion is not very controversial: Ekman and Davidson (1994) listed "emotions have motivational properties" as one of the few things that "most students of emotion agree about" (p. 412), but it is not always clear what is meant by "motivation." Some theories assume that the motivating character of affect lies in its prioritizing effects (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1996; Tomkins, 1991). By adding incentive to one of many possible actions, emotions enable important adaptive activity in the face of other attractive possibilities. Other theories assume that emotions provide the energetic "oomph" toward a single action (Frijda, 1986). Emotions, in this view, are motivational because they direct and energize single adaptive actions. In addition, of course, there are theories that eschew motivation and instead argue for informational functions of affect. Carver and Scheier (1990,1998), for example, argued that affect is the output function of a system that monitors that rate of progress toward a goal. Affect thus indicates rather than motivates the intensity of activity. Batson, Shaw, and Oleson (1992) also argued that emotions are capable of amplifying motivational states, but they primarily give information about what is valued and preferred.

From this variety of perspectives, we are inclined toward the motivational position. There are certainly merits to the informational position advanced by Carver and Scheier (1990,1998). Affect processes dovetail seamlessly into their broader model of feedback and action control and can thus provide an internally consistent account of how emotions organize activity. Yet a considerable body of data supports the general view that emotions motivate activity, particularly the appearance of emotions before advanced cognition in infancy (Izard, 1978), the obvious motivating effects of emotions in cognitively simple animals (Darwin, 1872/1998), the links between emotional processes and incentive systems in the brain (Panksepp, 1998), and broad relations between emotions and autonomic activity (Levenson, 1992). With regard to self-awareness processes more specifically, there is a lot of support for the gestalt model of consistency motivation (Heider, 1960). The motivating character of cognitive dissonance, for example, is pretty well established (Elliot & Devine, 1994; Wicklund & Brehm, 1976). It seems reasonable that essentially similar self-standard consistency processes would have similar dynamic underpinnings. We thus view the informational model as serving a useful heuristic function within the cybernetic metaphor and the motivation model as more reflective of actual affect dynamics.

Automatic and Controlled Activity: Contemporary research commonly distinguishes different forms of thinking and acting, such as automatic versus controlled (Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977), mindless and mindful (Langer, 1978), and so forth. This distinction is central to recent theories of automatic activity (e.g., Bargh & Chartrand, 1999), which assume that behavior will be automatically guided by primed stereotypes and associations unless it is interrupted or otherwise regulated (Macrae & Johnston, 1998). Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg (2000) extended this reasoning to objective self-awareness. They suggested that focusing attention on the self can break automatic links between priming and behavior because highly self-aware people consciously consider different action possibilities instead automatically following primed associations. Two studies found that persons low in self-focus showed the usual automaticity effects--for example, writing more garrulous essays after a "politician prime"--whereas highly self-aware persons were unaffected by priming manipulations (Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 2000).

Yet we suggest that the correspondence between automatic versus controlled processing and subjective versus objective self-awareness is not as tidy as some might think. Although much activity in the subjective state is probably habitual and conducted without concern for one's standards, the objective state itself displays important aspects of automaticity. Objective self-awareness is not a dispassionate, reflective state in which people appraise the situation and then select a course of action. Focusing attention on the self is assumed to initiate an automatic process that compares the self against one or more standards. By automatic we mean that the comparison process occurs spontaneously and is not easily controlled or regulated by conscious, deliberate thought processes. Indeed, these comparisons need not occur consciously or involve standards that are themselves accessible to conscious awareness. This comparison process is assumed to follow gestalt consistency principles (Heider, 1960). The self-organizing nature of the comparison system is thus inherent in the system and might potentially be impervious to conscious circumvention (cf. Koffka, 1935; Wertheimer, 1945).

Research on self-awareness in clinical disorders shows how impenetrable this automatic evaluation process can be. Self-awareness is implicated in a broad range of clinical problems (see Wells & Matthews, 1994), many of which involve unfavorable self-evaluations. People suffering from depression and social anxiety, for example, often experience automatic negative thoughts about the self. Intensive therapy is needed to regulate these spontaneous evaluations and attributions. It is noteworthy that successful therapies cope with this problem by changing the unrealistic standards involved in the comparison process or by regulating the self-evaluation after the fact, as in reframing (e.g., Beck, 1967; Wells & Matthews, 1994). Actually inhibiting or preventing the comparison process appears to be difficult.

We suggest that different forms of information processing are relevant to objective self-awareness, but that the processes described by OSA theory do not neatly assimilate into these categories. OSA might derail automatic effects on behavior, though not because it invokes a conscious, reflective mode of processing. Instead, it changes what is important to people by diverting attention to an unresolved discrepancy and arousing motivation to do something about it (Silvia & Gendolla, in press). Certainly the automatic effects observed thus far have been emotionally neutral and self-irrelevant--and hence less important--than typical self-standard discrepancies. We have yet to see, for instance, automatic rejection of one's ambitions or interpersonal ostracization as a result of priming. Yet the intersections to date are intriguing, and more thought should be devoted to how automaticity and self-standard comparison interlock.
- Silvia, Paul J.; Duval, T. Shelley; Objective Self-Awareness Theory: Recent Progress and Enduring Problems; Personality & Social Psychology Review, 2001, Vol. 5 Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about examining Gestalt consistency principles in Objective Self-Awareness theory.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carsky, M., & Rand, S. N. (2018). Conflict between fantasy and reality: A patient and therapist talk about psychotherapy and schizophrenia. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 35(4), 401–409.

Furley, P., Kohlhaas, S., Englert, C., Nieuwenhuys, A., & Bertrams, A. (2019). The expression of ego depletion: Thin slices of nonverbal behavior as cues to momentary self-control capacity. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 305–321.

Kellogg, S., & Garcia Torres, A. (2021). Toward a chairwork psychotherapy: Using the four dialogues for healing and transformation. Practice Innovations, 6(3), 171–180.

Zoubaa, S., Dure, S., & Yanos, P. T. (2020). Is there evidence for defensive projection? The impact of subclinical mental disorder and self-identification on endorsement of stigma. Stigma and Health. Advance online publication.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 24
According to OSA Theory and Gestalt views of motivation, how is negative affect created by self-standard discrepancies motivational? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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