100 days of 'Create Not Consume'

You’re a dog

Yes you! In Australia, calling a person a “dog” is the ultimate insult (even worse than the C word.) Despite wanting to insult you, what I really mean is that we can be trained like dogs. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Debate-able. If a dog is given a good incentive to learn, it will learn. Just like humans. If there is the possibility of a reward, we will learn, quickly. Similarly if there’s a risk of punishment it’s less likely we will repeat a behaviour (if the punishment is worse than the crime.)

When trying to figure out why you do what you do, we can look to psychology for suggestions. Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner studied how animals respond to external cues and how their responses can be modified though conditioning; classical and operant.

Classical conditioning is learning through association. This style of conditioning is related to involuntary behaviours such as physiological reflexes and emotional responses. If you’ve ever had an incredible hangover after drinking too much Tequila, you’ll know how even the mention of the word Tequila brings back nightmares of that hangover and the sensation of vomit. This is a physiological reflex (feeling sick) associated with a thought (tequila.)

Pavlov was able to examine this in this experiment. The sound of a metronome was played when a dog saw food (a scenario where the dog would naturally salivate.) In a new instance, when the food was removed but the sound of the metronome remained, the dog would salivate with only the sound of a metronome (this is an abridged version of the experiment, for a more detailed explanation click here.)

The unconditioned stimulus/response was the dog seeing food and salivating. If it’s “unconditioned” it hasn’t required any learning. Think of how you automatically get hungry when you smell fresh brownies, you didn’t have to learn this. The conditioned stimulus/response was the dog hearing the metronome and salivating. Phobias, anger and sexual arousal are all examples of how we have been classically conditioned in some way. You’re the same as a dog! All jokes aside, I thought you mentioned getting a reward? Well that’s where we have the Skinner B0x.

Operant conditioning affects voluntary behaviours where reward or punishment makes a behaviour more or less likely.   BF Skinner, another leading psychologist in the school of Behaviourism was know for his “Skinner Box” and work with rats. When the rats stood on a lever, they were given food. Thus learning that engaging in a certain behaviour (pressing the lever) would result in getting a reward (food.) We are no different, we go to work and we get rewarded with our pay-cheque at the end of the month so we keep going to work. We make our bed and we get showered with compliments from our partner (I’m looking at you fellas.) You’re the same as a rat too!

Behaviour that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and behaviour followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated – BF Skinner

Skinner repeated the same experiment to examine negative reinforcement. He charged the box with electric current that was turned off when the rats pressed the lever. This trained the rats to immediately press the level in order to remove the unwanted stimulus. Here we have negative reinforcement. Think of your Mum yelling at you until you clean your room.

Punishment can quite often be confused with negative reinforcement. It’s designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than encourage it. In the case of the Skinner Box and electric current, the rats were being encouraged to press the level but the result (electricity being turned off) was that it was removing the negative stimulus (electric shock). A punishment would be hitting the rat every time it pressed the lever, eliminating the desire to press. Reinforcement tells you what to do whereas punishment only tells you what not to do. Imagine if your Mum hit you if your room wasn’t clean, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will keep your room clean, it may just mean that you find ways to prevent your Mum from finding out that it’s dirty, sneaky human!

Why have I dragged you though these classic psychological experiments of rats and dogs? To help you examine behaviour you might want to change.

Behaviourists are only concerned with observable behaviours because they can be objectively and scientifically measured. Whilst writing this I noticed I was often opening up a new tab and getting distracted. I decided to punish myself by closing my laptop and taking 10 deep breaths every time I checked social media. The problem here being self-governance, a practice I’m notoriously bad at. The more I thought about it, this probably wasn’t a severe enough punishment to deter me for long. This then made me think of what might be creating the desire for me to open social media in the first place. I’ll get to a stage in writing where it becomes difficult and instead of working through the difficulty I open social media as a “break.” At some point I must have began associating scrolling as relaxing. Do the smallest bit of work = get reward. Good doggie. Now I have a punishment in place (of sorts) and I have a rough understanding of why I do this, but will it help? Only time will tell.

So yes, you’re a dog. Luckily people love dogs. The C word I was talking about at the start? Conditioning. See, people hate it!