Academic journal article The Psychological Record

A Functional Analysis of Schizophrenia

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

A Functional Analysis of Schizophrenia

Article excerpt

Recently, there has been a renaissance in research on psychosocial risk factors for the development of schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders that has led to a number of "startling" findings (McGrath, 2007, p. 14). Moreover, in part because of these findings, McGrath noted that there is an urgent need to understand the role of the environment in the development of schizophrenia as well as a need to move beyond traditional genetic versus environmental divisions in the field. The purpose of this article is to review recent data on psychosocial risk factors in schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders and to explain, from a Skinnerian functional analytic perspective, how those factors, in conjunction with biological factors, may be associated with the development and maintenance of these difficulties, as well as to show how a functional analysis may aid in advancing the clinical treatment of these complex and disabling psychological disorders.

The Functional Analysis of Behavior

The functional analysis of human behavior examines behavior via its consequences (see, for example, Skinner, 1953). When the consequences are favorable, behaviors are likely to be repeated again in the future. When the consequences are unfavorable, however, behaviors become less likely to recur. Functional consequences operate on an individual as natural selection operates on a species. In both cases, adaptation to the environment is the key end result (Skinner, 1981).

The goals of a functional analysis are different from the goals of other analyses of behavior. Palmer and Donahoe (1992, p. 1345), for example, point out that genetic, biological, and cognitive analyses of behavior tend to be rooted in an essentialist paradigm, defined as "the tendency to view categorical phenomena in nature as reflections of universal, enduring qualities intrinsic to each class or unit." Within this paradigm, the goal of the scientist is to identify these essential properties. Thus, the essential properties of schizophrenia may include genetic factors (such as a defect in the COMT gene), neurological factors (such as the size of the one's hypothalamus), or cognitive factors (such as a defect in episodic memory or executive functioning).

The selectionist paradigm, by contrast, attempts to provide a functional account of behavior by examining how the environment selects for specific behaviors in specific situations. The goal of the scientist within this paradigm is to identify the environmental factors that select for such behaviors dud to show how that behavior is adaptive within that environment. Thus, a selectionist interested in schizophrenia might examine, for example, how natural selection might have led to the development of certain schizophrenia behaviors (e.g., the tendency to hear voices when none are present may be selected for and advantageous when the environment is hostile; Kelleher, Jenner, & Cannon, 2010) or a selectionist might examine how the current environment selects for certain behaviors (e.g., paranoid ideation, thought disorder, or negative symptoms may prevent further social defeat).

Although both essentialist and selectionist paradigms are necessary (we need to understand both the structure of schizophrenia as well as how schizophrenic behavior allows us to adapt to certain environments), the essentialist paradigm has dominated American psychiatry and clinical psychology in recent years. Most vulnerability-stress models of schizophrenia, for example, tend to be essentialist in that they tend to examine how stress (understood generically) changes different biological structures within the individual. While such models are critically important to our understanding of schizophrenia, vulnerability-stress models do not tend to explore the function of specific behaviors within different environments. This article, in contrast, will examine how environmental factors lead to social isolation and defeat in individuals who later develop schizophrenia, how isolation and defeat lead to the development of specific schizophrenia behaviors, and how the effects of specific schizophrenia behaviors on the environment lead to their continued use. …

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