The Science of Self-Destructive Behaviors

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
June 17, 2019 - June 28, 20196/17 - 6/28M-F 8:30A-11:20AOpenKenneth Allen
Noah Emery

Course Description

Have you ever wondered why people behave in ways that are potentially dangerous, or even directly harmful to their health? Or why certain individuals are prone to take risks, while others are more cautious? Why some find temptation difficult to resist, while others can “take it or leave it”? Or why it can be hard to stop doing things we find pleasurable in the moment, even when we know these things are “bad” for us in the long run?

People are evolutionarily “hardwired” for survival, yet self-defeating behaviors are a universal part of the human experience. This paradox has existed throughout history. However, scientists have only recently begun to explore the most maladaptive forms of acting against our own best interests, termed self-destructive or self-injurious behaviors. We are only beginning to understand why individuals might hurt themselves on purpose without wanting to die, eat to excess or starve themselves, or use substances despite medical, legal, and interpersonal consequences. This area of study is critical, given that the ultimate self-destructive behavior – suicide – has increased 24% in this country over the past decade.

This course will use the tools of empirical inquiry to examine the nature of self-destructive behaviors; their biological, psychological, and social causes; and evidence-based methods of treatment. Throughout, we will dispel myths associated with these behaviors, critically challenge definitions of what is considered “normal”, as well as discuss both individual differences and commonalities in our proneness to act in ways that conflict with our drive for self-preservation.

Self-defeating behaviors are a universal part of the human experience. We occasionally delay unpleasant situations at the expense of increased anxiety, pursue exciting activities with potentially harmful consequences, and favor short-term pleasures over long-term positive outcomes. The most maladaptive of these behaviors may qualify as indirect forms of self-injury: clinically significant, repetitive or persistent self-destructive acts that confer risk for serious physical and/or psychological damage, such as substance misuse, disordered eating, and involvement in abusive relationships. These self-destructive behaviors are considered "indirect" because bodily harm is an unintended consequence rather than their goal. This course will cover these topics as well as direct forms of self-injury: deliberate self-harm without lethal intent (known as "nonsuicidal self-injury" or NSSI) as well as suicide.

We will take a biopsychosocial perspective to the analysis of self-destructive behaviors, examined primarily through the lens of clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Students in this course will learn basic research approaches to the study of these phenomena, review foundational and recent findings across disciplines, and consider their relevance to the broader field of psychological science and intersections with related areas (e.g., psychiatry, social work, public health). Through lectures, class discussions, group presentations, students will develop a thorough understanding of the "contemporary state of the science" regarding the definition, causes, and treatments of indirect and direct self-injury.

This course will be co-taught by two clinically-trained research psychologists from the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the Alpert Medical School of Brown University (research fellows Kenneth Allen, Ph.D., from the Center for Research in Suicide Prevention at Butler Hospital and Noah Emery, Ph.D., from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies in the Brown School of Public Health). Dr. Allen received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, specializing in the neuropsychology of self-injury and suicide. Dr. Emery is an expert in the cognitive psychology of alcohol and marijuana use who received his Ph.D. from the University of South Dakota. These instructors will leverage their unique background in experimental psychopathology, using examples from their own research as well as their extensive clinical work in mood, personality, substance use, and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders.

1. Develop an understanding of the biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors that play a role in the onset or etiology of self-destructive behaviors, and how they manifest at the neural and cognitive level.

2. Learn the basics of diagnostic classification as applied to self-destructive behaviors.

3. Gain familiarity with empirically-supported treatments.

Prerequisites: Biology (High School)
Introduction to Psychology (High School) or AP Psychology
Previous coursework in neuroscience preferred but not required


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPY0962
  • Length: weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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