Conducting behavioural experiments

Sometimes a negative thought remains convincing even though we have examined it for cognitive distortions or looked for alternative perspectives. In some cases there is not enough hard evidence for us to be sure whether the thought is accurate or not. In these cases you can generate evidence by conducting behavioural experiments. Use the Behavioural Experiment Record to help you with these steps.

  1. Identity the everyday situation where the negative thought gets activated.
  2. Plan an experiment that will enable you to obtain evidence with regard to the accuracy of the thought.
  3. Predict what will happen if the thought is true.
  4. Conduct the experiment and collect relevant information by observing closely what happens.
  5. Examine whether the information you have collected supports your prediction or not.

Here are four examples from real life of people who conducted experiments which disconfirmed their negative predictions.

  • Simon was feeling depressed. He thought, “My friends won’t like to speak to me or be with me when I’m like this”. He tested this thought by calling one or two friends and suggesting they go out somewhere together. He predicted that (1) the friends would not want to talk to him and would cut the conversation short, (2) they would not want to go out with him, (3) if they did go out together the friends would not enjoy his company.
  • The result was that he became involved in a conversation with the first friend he called that lasted over half an hour. The friend welcomed the idea that they go out for tea in town. When they went out for tea, the two conversed comfortably and when they parted the friend spontaneously said how much he had enjoyed seeing Simon again. Simon concluded that his original thought had been an example of mind-reading and fortune-telling and had been coloured by his depressed mood. He accepted that the evidence had contradicted all his negative predictions.
  • Samantha believed that when she went out for a drink her hand would shake while she was holding the glass, that people would notice this, think she was odd and laugh at her. As an experiment, Samantha went to a bar with two other people, Freda and David. Freda ordered some mineral water, poured it into a glass and held it, with her hand shaking visibly, for ten minutes. During this time Samantha and David observed the people around them to see if Samantha’s predictions were true. They found that although some people did look in their direction, this appeared to be part of their normal looking around, not because they noticed the shaking hand. No one stared, commented or laughed (example from David Clark, a British expert on the treatment of anxiety).
  • Mandy went away for a weekend with friends and found herself eating much more than she wanted to. She had the thought that this eating had caused her to put on weight and that everybody would notice. Mandy’s simple experiment was to weigh herself. Her prediction was that she would be two kilograms heavier than the last time she weighed herself. To her surprise she was actually half a kilogram lighter than that. Her prediction was disconfirmed.

Of course if you do an experiment and your negative prediction is confirmed, that means you need to understand the problem better and make a plan about it – perhaps with the help of your therapist.

Next: Can medication help me?


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