Covert conditioning

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Covert conditioning ( English covert conditioning ) is a procedure from the behavior therapy . These are learning processes of operant conditioning , classical conditioning and model learning that take place exclusively on the level of ideas. This means that the client imagines the triggering situation (or the discriminative stimulus), his reaction to it (problem behavior or desired behavior) and the positive and negative consequences ( imagination ). The aim is that what has been learned has an effect on the actual behavior of the person concerned through generalization . The process was first described by JR Cautela in the 1960s.

Forms of covert conditioning are:

In a broader sense, the following methods of hidden conditioning can also be counted:

Implementation and areas of application


First, a detailed behavior and problem analysis is carried out, typical problem situations are analyzed and (depending on the method) reinforcing or aversive stimuli are identified. The person concerned is asked to mentally (preferably with eyes closed) put themselves in the concrete position of the situation in which the problem behavior typically occurs. The aim is for the person concerned to feel as if he is currently in the situation (i.e. a distanced view is not the aim in this case). A precise description of the situation (visual and acoustic impressions, smells, body sensations, etc.) intensify the experience.

Covert awareness

In the case of covert sensitization , a relaxation instruction is given before the start . At the moment in which the problem behavior (e.g. alcohol consumption, binge eating, sexual performance) begins, there is an abrupt interruption and the person concerned imagines something terribly unpleasant and / or embarrassing happening instead (e.g. Vomiting in public, worms in food, swarm of wasps). This means that it is a punishment for approaching behavior i. S. operant conditioning. The person concerned should also imagine this in detail and T. also exaggerate. In the end, a sudden escape from the unpleasant situation is imagined, through which the person concerned gets into a wonderfully pleasant situation ( negative reinforcement of the abstinence behavior).

The covert sensitization was used as an alternative to aversion therapy v. a. used for alcoholism , smoking , obesity and sexual deviations . In empirical studies, the greatest and lasting successes were found in the treatment of sexual deviations (e.g. pedophilia , sadistic fantasies , exhibitionism ) and in an ego-dystonic sexual orientation . In the case of problems with alcohol and smoking, however, the method does not seem to be very successful; in the case of overweight, the results are contradicting. Its use in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder has hardly been reviewed . The treatment can be used, for. B. also in trichotillomania , in which the patient is covertly punished if she tries to pull her hair out. If the action is neglected, on the other hand, there may be concealed positive reinforcement (e.g. introduction of an attractive man who strokes through her full hair).

Covert positive reinforcement

With hidden positive reinforcement , prior relaxation is not necessary. The person concerned first imagines how he is coping with a problem situation (e.g. exposing himself to a fearful situation, resisting a temptation situation). This scene is immediately followed by an idea that is pleasant for the person concerned (e.g. praise to an important person, lying on the beach).

This method is used frequently, but rarely as a stand-alone procedure. It is therefore difficult to evaluate, but the results seem to tend to be positive.

Concealed negative reinforcement

This includes the idea that an uncomfortable state is ended (for example, see covert sensitization) or a feared unpleasant consequence does not occur (e.g. no fear occurs in usually frightening situations).

This procedure has hardly been tested (as the only procedure); rather negative results have been shown.

Covert deletion

Here, when imagining the problem behavior, one should imagine that the hoped-for positive consequences do not materialize (e.g. pralines do not taste like anything, dissolve when swallowed).

The process has hardly been reviewed and has so far proven to be ineffective. It should therefore only be used in combination with other methods.

Covert model learning

Here, the person concerned imagines in detail how another person successfully copes with behavior that is difficult for the person concerned or causes fear. This method is introduced with a relaxation process and the procedure is hierarchical (first the easiest situation, then gradually increasing the degree of difficulty).

This method has proven to be very effective and can be used as an alternative to systematic desensitization and self-confidence training. According to a study by Cautela et al. (1974), the mere presentation of a model leads to the same results as the actual presentation of a model. The mechanisms are still unclear, however.


  • Steffen Fliegel and others: Standard behavior therapy methods. 4th edition. Beltz, Weinheim 1998, ISBN 3-621-27208-9 , pp. 79-85.
  • WL Roth: Concealed Conditioning. In: Michael Linden, Martin Hautzinger: Behavioral Therapy Manual. 5th edition. Springer, Heidelberg 2005, ISBN 3-540-40678-6 , pp. 303-308.

Individual evidence

  1. Joseph R. Cautela; RA Kastenbaum (1967): Reinforcement Survey Schedure for use in therapy, training and research. Psychological Reports 20, pp. 1115-1130.
  2. a b c d e Steffen Fliegel et al: Behavioral therapeutic standard methods.