reinforce the habit you want instead of the habit you have

A Classical Re-Education

Operant Conditioning used in an experiment to change behavior
It’s easy to change the behavior of mice. And, it turns out, humans. Just ask the Slot Machine Industry.

Pavlov’s Dogs. Skinner Boxes. The world of classical and operant conditioning is often cold and pretty scary, not only because of the methods used on cute and fuzzy animals to learn about them but also because they work. I made the mistake of taking some advanced psychology classes in high school. That meant that when I went through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot I understood completely the ways the Drill Instructors were re-shaping my brain to suit their ends. Just because you understand that the symbol of the eagle globe and anchor is a secondary reinforcer doesn’t make it any less effective in making you want to stand straighter, run faster, snap salutes more crisply to “earn” the right to wear it.

No, it actually makes it more horrifying. On the other hand, with a good understanding of things like operant conditioning you can get an idea of why things like Twitter are addictive and take steps to moderate the effects. And since it does, in fact, work, you can even use it on yourself.

The Strange Case of the Glasses

Here’s an example of using conditioning to change personal behavior: I have a tendency, entirely subconscious, to take off my glasses at any given moment and set it down wherever. The back of the couch, the top of my dresser, the stereo speaker, the kitchen counter…there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I have a little artisan glass dish that I could place them on – but somehow I can’t seem to get in the habit of using it.

Instead I tend to rely on my partner to help me find them. “Have you seen my glasses?” is a phrase that I really don’t even have to finish before she will be picking them up from whatever random place I put them. In fact, much like associative conditioning, I believe there is a certain posture I have which communicates to her Gray is looking for his glasses because she will sometimes appear with them in her hand before a word has left my lips.

Wonderfully helpful, right? I smile and thank her and praise her for her prescient fulfillment of my needs.

What kind of behavior is that reinforcing? I enjoy getting help; she likes me smiling; there is no motivation for either of us to change the behavior of laying down the glasses in various places. I suspect she thinks it’s adorably absent-minded or some such.

So how could I use conditioning to change my own behavior?

Creative Conditioning

If your first answer was “Have something unpleasant happen every time you can’t find your glasses, Gray!” then gee, thanks for thinking the answer is to make my life more unpleasant! Just kidding – I know it was rooted in an honest desire to help, and not in any kind of latent sadism on your part.

But unfortunately research shows that negative reinforcement and punishment (two different things, by the way) are not as useful as positive reinforcement when it comes to changing behavior. Not that it can’t be done – it just tends to be less predictable and much less permanent.

Instead, we might do things a bit differently. I could ask my partner to put my glasses, any time she saw them not on my face, onto that glass tray. She wouldn’t hand them to me, she wouldn’t even mention it to me. Meanwhile, I would make sure that if I couldn’t find my glasses that the first place I looked was the glass tray. Odds are that either she would have already put them there, or she would see me looking, do her little magic divination and find them, and place them there.

One way or another, I would be rewarded for looking in the dish by the glasses being there. Even better, it would probably (at first) be an intermittent reward, which is amazingly effective to trigger behavior. Want proof? Try not checking email for 24 hours. Heck, just changing to checking twice a day is pretty difficult.

Pretty soon my brain would connect the tray and the glasses, and my tendency would be to take off my glasses and just place them there. My partner would, theoretically, find the glasses outside of the tray less and less. Which would, of course, free her up to go and find my keys…

Bear in mind, it’s a theory. But it’s worth a try, and there might be some behaviors you can find in yourself (or that you might gently suggest to your loved ones) that could benefit from some good old-fashioned conditioning. One suggestion, though, which we’ll go into more thoroughly on Wednesday’s Life Post: take the time to find the behaviors that actually need changing, rather than looking to the media to find what they want you to change (usually with the help of products they’d like to sell you).

This is your brain; apply conditioning, rinse, repeat. And let me know how it goes in the comments!

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