You are reading Wanterfall at
Starting the book at the beginning is strongly recommended
You can download the whole book HERE (it's free)


The Ramifications of Emotions

Conditioning, Beliefs and Basic Attitudes

Not all the effects of emotions are immediate and direct. In this section, I want to look at some delayed and indirect effects. These phenomena involve thoughts as well as emotions, but it is the emotions that give them their very considerable power.

The things discussed in this section need to be understood before we study the healing of emotional pain, in Section 4. Otherwise, they could interfere with both the understanding and the use of the techniques described there. They are also capable of causing a great deal of suffering in their own right.

The four problems discussed in this section are conditioning, conflict, duality and subjective time. Rather than defining these terms here, I will define each one as it is introduced. Conditioning, together with its inevitable results, beliefs and underlying attitudes, is discussed below. Conflict, Duality and Subjective Time are the topics of other articles in this series. These four topics go to the very heart of human suffering, and make their presence most unpleasantly felt in every aspect of the life of the individual and of society itself.

There is no single solution to these problems, but I think they have a reciprocal relationship with the Wanterfall work described earlier in this series. By this, I mean that an understanding of these problems can improve the quality of Wanterfall work, and Wanterfall work can improve the understanding of these problems. This is potentially very helpful, because understanding these problems is usually only a short step away from being free of their adverse effects.



By the time they reach adulthood, most people have developed their own style of responding to life's various challenges – and have also acquired quite a number of individual beliefs and attitudes. Different people develop different responses, beliefs and attitudes, so that no two personalities are identical.

The reasons for these differences are presumably multifactorial. However, they can be divided into two broad groups of influences, often referred to as "nature" and "nurture". The "nature" element, which refers to influences already determined, though not necessarily active, at birth, is outside the scope of this book. However, that is no reflection on its potential significance. The "nurture" element, as we shall see, includes the "conditioning" which is our current topic.


The word "conditioning" has more than one meaning, but the different meanings share a number of common factors. I will look briefly at a number of these meanings, partly to avoid confusion, and partly to demonstrate similarities. As we will see, the common factors are external action, resultant change and significant persistence.

I will work through these various meanings, towards the conditioning of the human mind which is the first "ramification of emotions" in this section. I could simply start with a definition of the latter, but I think an understanding of every sort of conditioning makes it easier to see how the mind itself becomes conditioned – and how important that phenomenon is.

Conditioning an athlete, or for that matter a racehorse, means providing the best possible training, so that the condition of the subject is improved – with the improvement lasting at least long enough to benefit performance in a forthcoming race.

Conditioning hair or skin – usually by applying expensive cosmetics – also implies an improvement with at least some degree of persistence. However, while the familiar examples just mentioned have an improvement as their intended change, some uses of conditioning include change in either direction.

Conditioning a reflex – which is also referred to as classical or Pavlovian[40] conditioning – means repeatedly applying some stimulus at about the time of a natural physiological event, until the applied stimulus itself can trigger that physiological event. I will digress a little here, because classical conditioning is a very interesting analogue of conditioning of the mind.

The discovery that reflexes could be "conditioned"[41] had a profound influence on contemporary experiments in the field of human behaviour. Even a simple reflex (like salivation in response to the presence of food) involves a number of physiological and biochemical steps. If these steps could be modified by deliberate interventions, perhaps more complex behaviours could be trained in an analogous fashion.

An associated discovery, that previously conditioned reflexes could later be extinguished by frequent artificial stimulation in the absence of the natural stimulus, seemed even more promising. This discovery in fact formed the basis of early behavioural therapies such as desensitisation therapy.

Operant conditioning, a more ambitious form of behaviour modification inspired by Pavlov's work, encouraged desired behaviours by means of both positive and negative reinforcement, i.e. reward and punishment – the former being some sort of pleasure, and the latter something unpleasant or painful. Though its role in therapy is limited, operant conditioning clearly demonstrates that behaviour can be influenced by the consequences that follow it.

Perhaps the enthusiastic adoption of Pavlovian principles by the advertising industry the world over has led to the best demonstration of their significance. Anything that can make a high proportion of the population feel warm, happy, safe or sexy upon encountering the name, logo or other images of whatever products an industry wishes them to buy at the time, surely needs to be taken seriously.

As almost all industries wish us to buy almost all products at almost all times, the effect of advertising is inevitably somewhat diluted. It is still significant, though. And it is not limited to marketing. The last politician you voted for, or whether you approved of this or that war or power plant, was probably also the subject of expensive advertising expertise. While you were making your carefully considered, completely independent decision, the influence experts were – helping you.

Indeed, there would seem to be no end to the ways in which sophisticated derivatives of simple Pavlovian conditioning can be employed to influence the minds of individuals – or even the behaviour of whole populations. And there is no reason to assume that every case is deliberate – many instances of influence might occur by chance.

Such a broad spectrum of possible influence suggests a very broad definition for conditioning affecting the mind – which is, of course, our current topic. The broadest possible definition might be every residue of the past which influences a person's being and behaviour in the present, or plans and expectations for the future. However, I think that would be a bit too broad.

It would include things like factual memory and cognitive development – which probably do have indirect influences on personality and behaviour. However, I think beliefs, stored emotions and attitudes are the main things that keep past mental influences alive over time.

Therefore, a more practical definition of conditioning as it affects the human mind might be the residual effects of all past influences on a person's beliefs, stored emotions, attitudes and consequent reactions. I am sure that definition is not perfect, either, but I think it will do for our current purpose.

If such residual effects were created deliberately, it would be called brainwashing. Brainwashing is generally defined as the deliberate modification of beliefs and attitudes by the application of psychological pressure, often aided by physical discomfort or exhaustion (and occasionally by torture). What a good thing it is, that children are not subjected to such pressures while they are growing and developing!

Or are they? In one way or another, reward and punishment are never very far removed from the behaviour of a child. I am not referring to severe corporal punishment here – though that is not unknown. A smile, a frown, or more subtle instances of non-verbal communication, can easily reward or punish. This is especially so for a young child, whose very survival may appear to depend on the actions of the parents.

A little further up this page, you may remember reading about the effects of reward or punishment, when applied following a given behaviour. That was the paragraph about operant conditioning. And as you can see, a great deal of the upbringing received by many children fits that model perfectly.

Combine operant conditioning with saturation exposure of the young mind to the beliefs and attitudes of the parents and other family members, and what do you get? You get the beginnings of conditioning of the child's mind – for some of the influences are sure to persist, and to affect the child's beliefs, stored emotions, attitudes and consequent reactions in the future.

Throughout a child's life at home, these things will be further reinforced. Should the child voice a belief, or exhibit an attitude, which is acceptable to senior family members, some sort of reward will often follow. It is usually not a material reward, indeed it is more likely to be something very subtle, perhaps a slight change of expression. But the child will notice.

On the other hand, if beliefs held by the senior family members are questioned, or if opposing ideas are stated or implied, a subtle punishment may follow. The same applies to other behaviours. Occasionally, the punishment is harsh rather than subtle – but, either way, the responses are likely to reinforce the existing conditioning.

Now, I am not suggesting that parents are brainwashing their children – nor that they are knowingly unkind to them in any other way. On the contrary, I think the vast majority of parents have the child's best interests always in mind. However, as my psychodrama teacher used to say (very often) "Parents do the best they can – they just don't always do the best".

The sum total of the cumulative conditioning of the past might well be looked upon as the training which has prepared us for the life we are now living. It probably affects many of our reactions, in all sorts of situations. It is, for example, the reason that other people can "push our buttons" and elicit "knee-jerk responses" – which vary from person to person.

It is probably also responsible for many influences within our minds that we are not aware of at all. However, I think the most important aspects of conditioning are those which have been introduced above. They will be discussed further under the next three headings, which are Beliefs, Stored Emotions and Attitudes. Laid down in the past, and especially during childhood, all these things still influence our way of living today – as well as our plans and expectations for the future.


A belief is a conviction of the truth of something. I didn't invent that definition – you can find it, or something like it, in any dictionary. Notice that the actual truth of the thing believed did not get a mention. Why? Because it doesn't have to be true. You just have to be convinced that it is true. Of course, if the thing believed is false, the believer is making a mistake. But the belief is unaffected – until or unless the believer alters it.

This absence of any connection between belief and truth is very important – and very easily forgotten. If we believe whatever we are told without testing its veracity, we are surely asking for trouble. Most of us probably think we are much more sensible than that. But, if you watch your own mind carefully, I think you will sometimes notice a belief you cannot account for.

Actually, before I removed my Philosophical Musings[42] from this book, I had included a supporting opinion here, from an ancient but well known source. Perhaps I will leave it in.

"Do not believe in anything simply because you've heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." [43]

I suppose we should add to that list, do not believe anything simply because Buddha – or, for that matter, Simon – says.[44] I guess that makes it fairly comprehensive. It does not, however, bring my remarks about belief to an end. I still have a few more things to say about that sometimes thorny subject.

If a belief is clearly false, but is not shaken by evidence to that effect, it is commonly called a delusion. In a person who is not mentally ill, such a delusion might be the result of self-deception, or deception by a third party, or sometimes a combination of the two.

The definition of a delusion used by psychiatrists is similar, but more precise. Here is the American Psychiatric Association's definition of a delusion.

"A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g. it is not an article of religious faith)".[45]

That definition, or a similar one, is used by doctors whenever delusions are of significance in the diagnosis of an illness. And, as delusions can be an important feature of a number of illnesses, both physical and mental, that is not a particularly unusual situation.

Delusions which are very bizarre, cause significant distress or are multiple, almost always reflect serious illness. But the illness cannot be identified by the type of delusion – as always, the diagnosis must be based on all the symptoms and signs, together with the results of appropriate investigations. However, this does not necessarily suggest a leisurely approach. Some delusions require very urgent assessment.

For example, a young man with a fixed belief that a radio transmitter has been placed in his brain, and that it constantly transmits his thoughts to an archangel, from whom it then relays orders regarding various necessary executions, needs very urgent intervention. This young man may well suffer from paranoid schizophrenia[46], and if treatment is delayed, the archangel's orders might be carried out – to the letter.

But why am I talking about psychiatry? Well, I just want to put delusions and other false beliefs in context. Illnesses account for some delusions – but not all. Delusions, in turn, account for some false beliefs – but not all. And that leaves some other false beliefs unaccounted for. So what accounts for them?

I think learning accounts for them. Because, just as a belief does not need to be true, to be believed, the things we learn do not need to be true, to be learned. This applies especially (though not exclusively) when we are young, when it may not be easy, or even possible, to confirm veracity before remembering something.

Indeed, we remember many things without trying to. And we start learning very early indeed – probably from soon after birth, or perhaps even before. Some beliefs are probably acquired by a sort of mental osmosis – which could include non-verbal receptivity as well as verbal – while very young.

Religious beliefs are among those often learned very early in life. So are beliefs about the family in relation to other families. And the village, state or nation in relation to other villages, states or nations. If these beliefs are ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture, they will not qualify as delusions, whether they are right or wrong. They will just be cultural and religious beliefs. However, that will not stop them from having very powerful effects.

Of course, some beliefs might arise as the result of careful analysis of all the available evidence, performed by entirely objective individuals who are possessed of scintillating discernment, a complete understanding of logic, and rigorous intellectual honesty. Naturally, they are not influenced by a single preconception. I think many of us harbour the fond hope that our own beliefs have that sort of pedigree.

However, considering the age at which many of them were originally accepted, our beliefs are very unlikely to be as accurate as we might hope. This surely means that some of our beliefs might be incorrect – and, in some cases, we might not even realise that we hold them! I hope this is beginning to sound a little disconcerting.

Just in case it is not, here's another thought. What if some of our beliefs were modified deliberately? Surely not – who on earth would do that? Who knows? But we certainly have some words in the language to describe deliberate conditioning, such as propaganda, indoctrination and brainwashing. Not to mention advertising, and the closely related public relations. So this possibility has evidently occurred to others, too.

Whatever the reason, there may be times when you notice that you hold a belief, and also notice that it is not correct. On some occasions, this may cause conflict, which, as mentioned above, is discussed in another article in this series. On other occasions, your own preference for reality might prove rapidly fatal to the false belief. However, it is not easy to let go of beliefs, especially those which you have held for a long time. They are a part of you – and they hang on tight.

If you ever find yourself in conflict over a belief which you are beginning to doubt, perhaps the following ideas might help. If something is true, then there is no need to believe it – it will still be true, whether you believe it or not. It is not belief that makes the truth true. Belief has no effect at all on the truth. Nothing has any effect at all on the truth. It just is.

But belief has a very powerful effect on anything which is false – it makes it seem true. Therein lies the terrible danger of belief. Belief is a tool for making something seem true – whether it is, or not. And a false belief can mask what really is true – perhaps hiding the very truth that the believer is seeking.

Of course, not everyone shares my rather jaundiced views about belief. In fact, as far back as history can probe, we human beings have been busily collecting and disseminating beliefs as though no better thing could possibly be found, or for that matter faked, anywhere in the world.

We have been fed some beliefs from birth. We probably accepted many or all of those. Later in life, some people have been very strongly advised to accept certain beliefs, or else be consigned to eternal torture in an unspeakably evil afterlife. And throughout history, there have been examples of the simple ultimatum – accept our beliefs, or die.

We have also clung to beliefs as defences against our anxieties and fears. We have sometimes developed new beliefs of our own – and later forced them on others. And, perhaps most tragically of all, we have fought "holy" wars – because our beliefs are right, so different ones must definitely be wrong.

People who hold onto their rigid beliefs very strongly, often feel that those beliefs resolve questions about life, which would otherwise be distressing to them. Some beliefs may also partially relieve the fears that most people have about death. Also, very tempting rewards for accepting a set of beliefs are often built into the belief system itself. (If not, they are sometimes added later – by a committee.)

Over a number of generations, almost any belief system can come to be accepted as being necessary to the wellbeing of the individual and society alike. If such a belief system is then threatened – which might only require the existence of something different – the natural tendency is to resist the threat. Because, if the sacred beliefs were found to be incorrect, then all the benefits assumed to flow from them would be lost. Fear of a deep and wide-ranging nature attends this possibility.

Theoretically, a re-examination of the threatened beliefs would be one possible response. More often, however, the actual response is the demonisation of whatever threatens the sacred beliefs. Sometimes, this demonisation has been followed by devastating reactions against the perceived problem, in the form of crusades, inquisitions, jihads, pogroms, genocides, and countless other atrocities with less dramatic names but equally horrible characteristics.

When such mass crimes are perpetrated, it is often with a tremendous sense of righteousness – and usually without a single drop of mercy. In many cases, the attackers have been followers of great religions which embody ideals such as kindness, forgiveness and respect for all human beings.

Yet those ideals did not prevent a maelstrom of merciless and unspeakable cruelty, driven by – what? Probably, a number of driving forces existed, including the powerful emotions fear, hatred and greed. (The root causes of all human emotions are discussed earlier in this series, in The Origin of Emotions.) But the essential ingredient, which tipped the scales in favour of such unbelievable cruelty, was neither more nor less than the difference between two beliefs.

Of course, those are examples of belief at its worst – and I think most readers would agree, that the worst of belief is well worth avoiding. But, as you may have guessed, I actually think that all of belief is well worth avoiding. Belief is the enemy of truth, because, far from enshrining the truth, it enshrines something which may be either true or false, but is henceforth required to be true.

In my opinion, that makes belief the best defence against truth that has ever been invented – as well as one of the most potent reasons, apparently, for killing people. So, if you ever ponder the concept of conditioning as a phenomenon which may account for some at least of what you have become during your lifetime, don't forget to include your learned beliefs, whether true or false, as an important ingredient in the overall picture.

Stored Emotions

Because they often influence us very powerfully, stored emotions are important aspects of our conditioning. Although the origin of these particular emotions lies in the past, emotions really know no time zone – when they are being experienced, their time of origin is not part of that experience at all.

Many memories have an emotional component, and that component is bound to add its force to whatever other elements are included in the memory. And some memories may be almost entirely emotional. The prospect of relinquishing a belief or an attitude can also give rise to an emotional response – often fear. This means that emotions can, in a sense, protect conditioning, as well as contribute to it.

However, I will not discuss the emotional aspects of conditioning further here, because they are covered in Section 4, under Unfinished Business. They are needed there, and I think they are also best understood there. For now, it is enough to say that both our stored emotions, and our emotional reactions when our beliefs or attitudes are threatened, contribute very considerably to our conditioning.


A mental attitude, which is the only sort of attitude we are concerned with here, is an outlook, a way of viewing something, and is therefore likely to be the product of many influences. Among these influences, beliefs and emotions relating to the "target" of the attitude would almost certainly be the most important, in most cases.

To whatever extent our attitudes are the result of our conditioning, they are potentially influenced by the whole of it – which probably makes them the most complex expressions of conditioning. And because attitudes inevitably play a role in decision making, they can be very powerful in their effects.

It is often possible to discern some attitudes which have a recurring influence and seem to underpin a number of other attitudes. These underlying attitudes are sometimes called basic attitudes, and they appear to be formed quite early in life, either before or during the early primary school years.

It is difficult to assess the exact significance of these attitudes. Nevertheless, it certainly does seem plausible that early conditioning could determine our attitudes to many aspects of life. And we may not even realise we have these attitudes – let alone think of questioning them. In some cases, the beliefs and feelings which underpin them could have been formed non-verbally, and could predate conscious memory.

For example, if a person feels absolutely no sympathy for those who are out of work, or homeless, or poorly clothed, where does this attitude come from? Did the person just work it out on the spot? Did they have to work it out at all? If not, where did it come from? Early childhood learning is certainly a possible source for such an attitude.

For example, a young child could hear, and accept, that people can always find work if they want to. This would make sympathy for the jobless completely redundant, as they clearly choose their state. Or, perhaps, a collection of notions could work together. First, that only "savages" live out in the open. Second, that "savages" are poorly clothed. And third, that "savages" are inferior beings.

The young child would not use the same words that I have used – perhaps not any words – but if the ideas became buried in the child's mind, their influence might remain throughout life. And they might underpin basic attitudes which would horrify many people. They might also horrify the person with those attitudes, if they were seen and understood clearly.


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[40] Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a Russian medical scientist, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1904 for demonstrating that natural reflexes in the digestive system of dogs could be trained to respond to artificial stimuli.

[41] Pavlov actually called them conditional reflexes, but it was mistranslated into English as conditioned. The verb "to condition" a reflex is derived from that mistranslation, and the whole world has become conditioned to using it!

[42] Philosophical Musings, a free e-booklet (in preparation) from

[43] Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya III, 65.

[44] Simon Says is a children's game which involves following simple instructions – but only when they are preceded by "Simon says".

[45] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, text revised. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2004.

[46] Schizophrenia and other common mental illnesses are described in the draft publication An Introduction to Mental Illness, but work on this draft has been delayed and may not proceed.

(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)


Light confined by prison bars, depicting conditioning


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License


contact Webmaster                  Sitemap                  contact Secretary