The Ubiquity and Importance of Operant Conditioning

Posted on Friday, 1st August 2014 @ 12:48 AM by Text Size A | A | A

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by Ian Welsh

As you may know, dogs salivate when presented with food.

A man named Pavlov used to ring a bell when he fed his dogs.

Then he stopped presenting food, and just rang the bell: the dogs salivated, even though no food was present.

The dogs had been conditioned.

Behavioralism, the psychology of operant conditioning, famously did not deal with the contents of our minds: only with behavior.

This was a mistake, not just because the content of our minds matter, but because operant conditioning can explain a lot of mental activity.

In my childhood there was an advertising jingle which ran as follows “butter tastes better, naturally.”

Almost 40 years later, when I see butter or even think about butter, odds are high that jingle will run through my mind.

Conditioning can be very mild, and work.  Simply repeat the same two words together often enough, and most people will think the second word when they hear the first one.  Give people story scripts “the princess, the square jawed hero, the dark hero, the sage” and they will fill in the lines without you having to tell them, which is why most of us are so very good at figuring out the plots of stories.

To this day, certain smells remind me of my grandmother.  Because I loved my grandmother, and because she gave me the best couple years of my childhood in her house on the beach, those smells are good ones for me, even if “dry old lady wearing rose-water” isn’t a good smell for other people, it is for me.

Call these triggers: upon seeing something, thinking about something, smelling something,  hearing a word or phrase used, or sme we are likely to trigger some specific responses ourselves.  We need not even necessarily remember the original operant conditioning: mental patients who have lost all long term memory, still form associations.  Likewise events in our childhood, long forgotten, can leave triggers.

Some conditining is mild: the jingle with pleasing music, the constant repitition of words together to create associations, the standard tropes of the heroes journey tapping into the universal human need to fit the world into story structures.

Others are primal, they become attached to fear or terror; to pain or lust; to love or hate; to a sense of belonging or to the human horror of being outcast from the group and the shame which comes with it.

Whatever causes your first strong sexual arousal will condition you strongly; the first time that you have fear that makes the world turn into a tunnel and your ears roar will brand you.  But day to day fears can do you in, too: scurrying around to avoid the feral neighbourhood dog-pack.  Words you can’t say without mom or dad getting angry, or sad, or drinking.  Words that if your parents say them mean you’re in for it.  Acting gay, or nerdy, or whatever else will get you ostracized from your peer group.  You can gain these conditions without even consciously realizing it, avoiding what you see causes others to get ostracized or beaten up.

This conditioning extends right down to the level of thought.  When I need to move quickly, I think certain predetermined thoughts “ass-gear-go”.  When I need to clean up, others “Shit/shower/shave”, when I listen to certain songs I start writing stories about certain characters in my head.  When I see an oak tree, I think of a story my father told me about oak trees.  And once the thoughts start flowing, certain throughts trigger other thoughts in very conditioned rotes. This is especially noticeable to me in fields I’m familiar with: start me on what money is, say, and the journey is tediously familiar: but start me anywhere on various economic subjects and I’ll loop to the others in time and in predicable ways.

Much of what we think we are has been conditioned, often by events we don’t manage or in ways we don’t consider conditioning.  Most of our complex of assocations, of triggers, or positive and negative attachments was not consciously chosen, but is state dependent on our start position (who our parents were, where we born) and to what amounts to random chance. Combined with our genetic endowment, this determines our personality.

When you think of it this way, or experience it (through meditation or certain types of psychotherapy), you start to disconnect from your thoughts, your habits, even your personality as who you are, because you can see that there are millions of different “yous” that could have occurred with different events.  And you ask, “if I’m not my thoughts, who am I?’

There are a few great mysteries of life.  “Why is there anything?”  “If anything, why this?  And, “what is consciousness.”  Do thoughts make us conscious?  Or is it that which apprehends the thoughts which is consciousness?

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