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Nerf gun demo: An unconventional cognitive behavioral therapy tool

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In Intro Psych, during coverage of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the therapy chapter, give your students this one-page summary provided by Division 12 of the American Psychological Association: Society of Clinical Psychology. Walk your students through some of the highlights.

Next, share with your students this Tumblr post as it appeared on Fail Blog. Clearly the client had been seeing this therapist for some time. The client knew the basics of CBT – CBT is about changing how one thinks. The client had had some practice in doing this, but during this particular session, the client was not using what he’d learned.

The therapist had very likely seen this behavior from the client before and had been thinking about ways to call the client’s attention to his negative thinking without interrupting the client’s train of thought. At the therapy session described in the Tumblr post, the therapist unveiled his new CBT tool: a Nerf gun. For the rest of the therapy session, every time the client voiced “unhelpful ways of thinking,” his therapist shot him with a Nerf gun. The client stopped, thought about what he said, and revised it. Saying “what a stupid issue, I’m an idiot” was revised to this issue is “frustrating me and I don’t want it to be a problem I’m having.”

If you’d like to expand this coverage, you can add information about attribution. Making global (vs. specific), stable (vs. unstable), and internal (vs. external) attributions about negative events is associated with depression.

For example, after a relationships ends, a person may make the following attributions.

Global: “I can’t do anything right.”

Stable: “I’ll never have a successful relationship.”

Internal: “I’m not good enough to have a successful relationship.”

In CBT, the client is encouraged to make different attributions, attributions that are specific (vs. global), unstable (vs. stable), and external (vs. internal).

Specific: “This relationship wasn’t good.”

Unstable: “While this relationship didn’t work out, the next one could.”

External: “It takes two people to have a relationship. My boyfriend bears some responsibility.”

Interestingly, the reverse is true for positive events. Making specific, unstable, and external attributions for positive events is associated with depression. People who are not depressed are more likely to make global, stable, and internal attributions for positive events.

Class demonstration

If you’ve been waiting all term for an opportunity to peg your students with Nerf balls, here’s the demonstration for you.

Ask your students to imagine that they have received a poor grade on an exam. Ask student volunteers to give a global attribution for the failing grade. Hit them with a Nerf ball (aim low, you don’t want anyone to lose an eye!), and then ask for a specific attribution instead. After students have given several global attributions, ask for stable attributions – and for those to be changed to unstable attributions. Lastly, ask for internal attributions – and for those to be changed to external attributions.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.