Learned behaviour & the potential fallout

Today I want to talk about learned behaviour and the potential fallout or negative experience we can have from it and how therapy can help.


One particular example of which there are many springs to mind. I was out on the road the other day when I passed by a cyclist who spat on the ground as I was travelling past. This was the initial inspiration for this article as in the countryside (Yorkshire) we don't typically see this sort of behaviour nor is it something we need to do as a species to satisfy some biological need. It can serve a purpose of course but have you given any thought to where it might come from or why people do it etc?

Take the town I grew up in. An old coal mining town somewhere in the East Midlands. When I was a child you had to become very good at that old game 'hopscotch' because it was like that game whenever you wanted to walk anywhere. To the shops, to the park, to town with friends, anywhere at all. You had to hop and weave and dodge the various spit marks on the ground. It was extreme.

When I reached secondary school, it was so bad that there was a TB (Tuberculosis) outbreak in the town. The NHS came into the school, tested all the school kids and then vaccinated us all against TB anyway. Why? because it's a Victorian illness and no one had any antibodies for something like this in the first place let alone for an outbreak as it was eradicated years ago. I remember my friend's mother caught it before they vaccinated everyone and she was so bad she had to take tablets for it for over 6 months and was very ill with it. 

For the town, it was a wake-up call and fortunately, there wasn't another outbreak thereafter but not from any behaviour change, simply because they vaccinated everyone in the town. Whenever I go back to visit grandparents or family, the pavements are still the same as they were when I was a child.

Why did the youth of this old coal mining town in the east midlands have this behaviour to begin with you might ask?... The clue is in what the town was built for...to house the coal miners of yesteryear who would then go to the coal mines (pit) just outside the city and mine coal for the power stations, hospitals, schools, prisons and more boiler houses which all ran on coal and so much more. At that time everyone had coal fires in their houses too. The work at this time was also all done by hand, by pick axe and shovel by hard-working men, on their knees doing back-breaking work to keep the country running.

This work was damp, dark and dusty, with so much coal dust that the air was thick with it, you could taste the dust in the air as you breathed. This of course got on the miner's lungs and affected their breathing when they were in the mine and when they were not in the mine, causing lung problems, coughing and more. One of the ways they could get the coal dust up was coughing and one of the ways they would get it out was spitting which would get the coal dust out so they wouldn't swallow it again.

Of course, this would mean a whole generation of kids growing up in this time would see this, not have the tools to understand what was happening or why it was happening and simply copy their dad's and granddad's behaviour through copying. How does one then tell their children not to do it if they are doing it and their children see them doing it? It becomes a 'do as I say, not as I do' situation, which can be very confusing for a child and so depending on if this message was passed on or not means then that the child will grow up spitting in this fashion to be a normalised behaviour.

This leads to them doing the same thing because whenever they get spit in their mouth, they believe they must spit it out, even though this was not the case. The fallout is generations of normalised, learned behaviour, TB breakouts and quite frankly it's not very nice to walk the street in town, to say the least.

This is a rather disgusting example and I do apologise for that but it does feel best to explain what learned behaviour is or looks like and the reasons why it can be detrimental. Think about some of the things you have seen people do or that you might even do yourself and see if you can reflect on where those might come from.

Remember this is but one example of a learned behaviour there are lots more.

In the world of therapy, the above example is no different to any other learned behaviour in that it is something we have learned to do but the behaviour and or the situation will be the thing that differs.

If you do something or think or feel something in response to a situation or event but maybe you are not really sure where this comes from or how it occurs, therapy can unlock this for you, it can provide you with the tools you might need to employ instead of a learned behaviour and it can also provide awareness around what might be going on for you.

Reach out to discuss your needs and see if we can bring some awareness to your learned behaviours so the next time they come up you have a choice from your newfound awareness on if that behaviour works for you anymore.

I look forward to hearing from you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leeds LS1 & York YO23
Written by Kai Manchester, BA (Hons) Integrative Counsellor MNCPS (Acc).
Leeds LS1 & York YO23

Kai is a fully qualified Integrative Counsellor, Anxiety Specialist and Supervisor working with individuals & couples in private practice. Kai did his degree in Integrative Counselling at Coventry University, did further training in Equine Therapy at Athena Herd in Kent. Kai specialises in anxiety and runs The Viking Therapist in Leeds.

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