In this clinical study (Le Boeuf, 1974), a 49-year-old man who had been suffering from compulsive handwashing behavior (a form of OCD) for 25 years, was treated with small electric jolts to help control this undesired behavior.
He had developed this compulsive behavior shortly after joining the army at age 24, and it persisted through a fear of contamination.
Hand washing now occupied 90% of his time at home and had virtually eliminated his social life. Additionally, due to his condition, he was forced to wake up at an unreasonably early hour to prepare for work.
During an initial round of treatment, the participant was given a timer to carry throughout the day. The timer would sound an alarm every 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes, the participant was asked to refrain from washing his hands using willpower alone. This approach did not have much of an effect.
For the next phase, the participant’s willpower was reinforced by using a device that would deliver an electric jolt to his forearm every time he dipped his hands in water. The only time he was allowed to immerse his hands in water was when the timer went off.
The man was then instructed to gradually increase the time limit restricting him from washing his hands. By week 6, he had increased this time limit to 2 hours.
After just 7 weeks, the man’s hand washing frequency had decreased to normal limits, while 6-month and 12-month follow-ups found he was completely free of his hand washing rituals.
While the case illustrated above might be an extreme one, it is not uncommon. In fact, data shows 3.3 million Americans aged 18 – 54, and an additional 1 million children and adolescents, suffer from OCD.
In reality, a behavior doesn’t need to be a full blown OCD to become an inconvenience. It could be a small thing, such as nail biting that’s getting slightly out of control. Or maybe using too many swear words.
The treatment via electric jolts as mentioned earlier, isn’t exclusive to this case. There is almost a century of research showing the effectiveness of this method against all sorts of habits, including smoking, alcoholism, overeating, and gambling.
One particular clinical study (Lubetkin, 1974) showed how electric jolts helped a young man break free of a 3-year heroin addiction.
With such an amazing track record, this method promises to be an effective solution for a wide range of habits that keep plaguing the 21st century.
Boeuf, A. L. (1974, 12). An automated aversion device in the treatment of a compulsive handwashing ritual. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 5(3-4), 267-270. doi:10.1016/0005-7916(74)90076-7
Lubetkin, B. S., & Fishman, S. T. (1974, 12). Electrical aversion therapy with a chronic heroin user. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 5(2), 193-195. doi:10.1016/0005-7916(74)90113-X
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2015, from https://www.lef.org/protocols/emotional-health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder/page-01
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