Secret consciousness: what it is and how is it used in therapy

Hidden conditioning consists of a type of imaginary conditioning, developed by Cautela. It is based on the fact that cognitive activity follows the same laws as observable responses, the only difference being the degree of accessibility.

In this article we will know the secret consciousnessA technique typical of this type of conditioning, where the goal is to develop an averse response to a stimulus that was previously a source of attraction.

    Secret consciousness: characteristics

    Secret consciousness is a type of technique typical of secret conditioning. It is an intervention strategy belonging to behavioral and cognitive models, and consists of imagined repetitions of problem behavior associated with aversive symbolic events.

    The purpose of secret consciousness is to cause the patient to have a certain degree of inhibition of potentially harmful behaviors that the patient does not want, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, some kind of sexual deviation such as pedophilia or compulsive eating.

    So, secret consciousness is analogous to positive punishment, because it aims to decrease the probability of occurrence of the behavior, By presenting an imagined aversive stimulus, immediately after the occurrence (also imagined) of this behavior that we want to eliminate. In other words, it is indicated to modify maladaptive or dysfunctional behaviors.

    How it works?

    It is a procedure which would consist in the “opposite” of the systematic desensitization (DS), that is to say it would act in the opposite direction, because what it tries precisely is that the person experiences some degree of anxiety or discomfort (vs. DS relaxation) with unwanted or pathological behaviors, so their occurrence is inhibited.

    But how exactly does the technique work? Secret consciousness focuses on modify symbolic representations or mediators of undesirable activities or behaviorsIts effectiveness therefore depends on whether this behavior has such symbolic representations; that is, it is important that we are not faced with automatic behavior.

    Thus, the individual imagines himself performing the behavior the frequency of which seeks to reduce, by imagining, in a contingent and abrupt manner, an aversive event that this behavior could produce, or an event, although unlikely, is very aversive to the person. topic.


    If we break down the term, we find that consciousness, as the name suggests, it is about becoming aware of certain stimuli or situations (That is, they end up generating aversion), and covert means that the technique is developed in the imagination of the patient, which implies that the patient will have to imagine scenes or situations “X “coupled with an unpleasant feeling, disgust, shame aversion, etc.

    aversive stimulus

    It is important to choose the aversive stimuli correctly, and that they really are aversive for the subject. You can even query the subject directly on situations or images that you find unpleasant.

    Macià and Méndez described 3 particularly repulsive scenes:

    • The mouth of an old expectorant.
    • A dead animal in an advanced state of decomposition.
    • An infected wound.

    On the other hand, another author, Costa, in a change of sexual tendency, used a homosexual person who was discovered with another by the girl who attracted him. For his part, Leitenberg believes that the problems of pedophilia must be chosen this image that is most effective for the client.

    Prudence uses the sensation of vomiting adorned with all sensory modalities as aversive stimulus, and Mckay offers a list of repulsive and terrifying thoughts.


    Secret consciousness it is used in particular in the field of addictions, More precisely towards the last phase of the treatment, when one tries that the patient acquires a good degree of self-control in front of the environment, the conditioning or the people which can lead him to a relapse.

    For example, a patient who suffers from alcoholism and who follows a secret awareness procedure is led to imagine situations where there are people who drink followed by others whom he experiences as aversives, who disgust him, degrade him. a lot or make them feel ashamed.

    If you apply it consistently and systematically (along with other psychological techniques if necessary for treatment), you may be able to weaken your appetite for alcohol in settings similar to those you imagined.


    Secret consciousness has two variants:

    1. Assisted secret awareness

    In this case, the aversion to the stimulus is reinforced by the use of an electric shock or an unpleasant odorous substance. In other words, some kind of real stimulation is applied.

    2. Indirect consciousness by proxy

    Here the subject imagines another person performing the behavior and receive aversive punishment or encouragement for it.


    The problem of secret consciousness (as well as other aversive techniques) is hostility, rejection, aggression or lack of cooperation that the patient may show. That is why it will always be necessary to reinforce the adaptive aspects of the behavior that we want to increase.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Dahab, J., Rivadeneira, C. and Minici, A. (2005). Hidden conditioning techniques. CETECIC Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Journal.
    • Vallejo, MA (2012). Handbook of Behavioral Therapy. Tomo I. Madrid: Dykinson (Temas 6-12).

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