Imperfect Access to Internal Attitudes

It is generally assumed that people have direct, accurate access to their own attitudes, evaluations, and emotions. When we ask a student how she feels about school or if she likes a certain activity, we assume that she is able to answer accurately. However, some adolescents are not able to access their mental states easily or accurately. To add further complications, a student’s belief about an internal state is not always in sync with his behavior, even if the belief is accurate.

There are certain conditions that influence this imperfect access to internal states:

  1. To reduce anxiety, fear, or threat, an adolescent might deny that the state exists (motivated self-deception). (E.g., “I don’t have a problem.”)
  2. Adolescents sometimes become convinced that they feel something that they do not. The inaccurate verbalizing (e.g., “I hate school”) may actually be independent of their actual feelings. To fit in with a certain peer group or appear “cool,” a student may say something that she doesn’t really feel. An adolescent might also be verbalizing with a limited vocabulary or limited understanding of the situation (e.g., “English sucks.”)
  3. Adolescents may have processing or accessibility difficulties. For example, the more processing an adolescent has to do to form an attitude, the more apt he will be to lose track of what the attitude is. Also, the more negative the attitude, the more accessible it usually is (e.g., “I used to like my teacher last year when he was my soccer coach but I’m not doing well now in his math class and he must hate me so he won’t play me this year and so I won’t bother working in math because he doesn’t care about me anymore”).

If the reasons for one’s feelings are actually analyzed through self-reflection, the consistency or correspondence between reported feelings and behaviors may be reduced. A teacher can help a student learn to gain better access to internal feelings. In the case of motivated self-deception, a teacher can ask probing questions like “If you don’t have a problem, why is it that your performance at school is not acceptable now?” A student can be asked to justify an inaccurate verbalization with a request for clarification or specification such as, “You say you hate school, but you seem to enjoy playing on the soccer team and you said that science was fun. Is it that you hate school, or is there something specific about school you don’t like?” A student may need help distinguishing between feelings and thoughts. If the teacher feels that a student is resorting too often to the same vague or ambiguous descriptors (i.e., something “sucks”), a student can be asked to explain the term in other words. If a student has processing or accessibility difficulties, a teacher can help by working with the student to break down convoluted thinking (as in the soccer/math example above) into smaller steps such as “Let’s try to keep math and soccer separate for now. Why don’t we talk first about your math class?”

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