What would you do for a thousand bucks? Would you work extra hard? Would you network with lots of people, even if it made you initially uncomfortable? Would you try new job roles and throw caution to the wind?
What would you do for love and acceptance? Would you suppress your own opinions and desires? Would you lower your freak flag, choosing to do what it takes to receive that acceptance? Would you lie to yourself or others?
This is the important question: How do those past rewards affect the choices you make today?
My beloved readers, I’m talking about something called conditioning, specifically operant conditioning, a phenomenon you might have learned about (and swiftly discarded) in Psych 101.
Why We Do The Shit We Do
Let’s say that, as a kid, you got a lot of positive response from being goofy. Let’s also say, for argument’s sake, that your name is Ian.
It started with mimicry. You’d repeat a line that you heard on Family Matters, and you’d get a chuckle out of someone. “Did I do that?” you’d say in your most nasal and grating voice. Your mom laughed, even if it was just to humor you.
Eventually, you figured out why those things were funny, and started coming up with your own goofy little routines. These were received even more positively, with people asking, “did you make that up?” and then inviting you over to play video games.
Your family laughed, your teachers laughed, your classmates laughed, and people smiled at you and talked to you more. Eventually, you became known as the funny kid. For us primates, this is cash money. We humans are incredibly social creatures, and anything that indicates approval or acceptance can be potent rewards for behavior.
Something happens to us when we get rewarded in a way that tickles our brains just right: We become more likely to repeat those behavors in the future, or perhaps to intensify them in some way.
You, young Ian, became a bit of a class clown, and you thrived on getting attention. Sometimes you were a bit obnoxious, which segued perfectly into getting involved in musical theater.
While that dark period of your life is at an end, you still find yourself performing in front of crowds, and you generally enjoy having eyes on you. That slow progression of rewarding experiences at a young age still influences your behavior to this day, and it’s become part of your personality. You goofball.
Operant conditioning works through two opposing mechanisms: reinforcement and punishment.
Reinforcement is any response that increases the frequency or intensity of a given behavior. We usually think of this in terms of reward: Your kid engages in a behavior you like, so you let her play a video game for a while. Maybe she cleaned her room, and you’d like her to do it more often. It works, a little, kind of.
Most reinforcement is less obvious. It’s usually not a matter of “desired behavior leads to someone rewarding you”; instead, we find multiple sources of reinforcement in our environment. Debbie (that’s your daughter’s name, by the way) kind of enjoyed cleaning her room with music on, and it almost felt like a game. Thus, whether you had rewarded her or not, two behaviors were reinforced: room cleaning, and the use of music during chores.
Let’s think complex: You’re at work, and you spend a little extra time cleaning up your inbox before you get started with your other duties. Those duties go well, and you get kudos from your manager. From that day forward, you find yourself engaging not only in inbox cleanup, but also other preparatory organizational behaviors, as well as interacting with your manager more. Because of self-reinforcement (stuff was easier) and social reinforcement (kudos!) you end up living a more organized life. When conditioning affects behaviors other than the one engaged in, this is called generalization.
Now let’s think simple: Your commute is more enjoyable when you take the scenic route, so the frequency of that behavior increases. Your partner compliments your gams when you wear high heels, so you bear that discomfort a little more often. Your brain gets flooded with pleasant neurotransmitters when you smoke crack, so you start smoking a bunch of crack.
A quick aside on "positive reinforcement" and "negative reinforcement": I love you, but you're using them wrong. Just say "reinforcement." Thank you.
Punishment is any response that reduces the frequency or intensity of a behavior. Again, this can come from the outside: Debbie does not clean her room, so she gets denied video game privileges. This works, kind of, a little.
Most punishment, like most reinforcement, happens organically as you interact with your environment. When Debbie fails to clean her room for a week, she can’t find her jump rope, and she ends up feeling shitty. This reduces her “failing to do chores” behavior, as well as her “leaving stuff wherever” behavior.
Again, let’s think complex: You get drunk one night and get in a fight with your best friend, Darryl, while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Darryl’s half-elf, Sylverwynd, refuses to help you during a battle, and you get slain by an orc. A shitty night all around. Perhaps without realizing quite why, you find yourself getting drunk less often. Oddly, you also feel less inclined to see your friend (even though you were the one being a jerk!), you play tabletop games less often, and you stop reading Lord of the Rings halfway through because the names all suddenly seem unbearably ridiculous. That one crappy night led to an array of behaviors being punished.
Now, simple: You get a headache when you read, so you read less often. You think you hear someone making fun of your shirt, so it sits in your closet for a few years. You eat a ghost chili and experience the ring of fire phenomenon, so you subsist solely on saltines until you die of malnourishment.
Seeing the World with Operant Eyes
Think about all of the little behavioral changes you’ve made in response to others supporting you, or failing to do so (which is a powerful punisher). Maybe you’ve found yourself dressing in new ways, working out more intensely, getting more interested in photography, practicing your karate less often, writing more poetry… Any behavior is subject to operant conditioning.
Any of these increases or decreases in behavioral frequency and intensity may have happened due to reinforcers or punishers, or both. I write in my blog about twice a week; each time I do, I get some nice reinforcement from readers, from the numbers on my social networks going up, and from my mom (hi mom!). Any time I fail to do so, I get punished by feelings of laziness, by a reduced amount of social interaction, and by my numbers going down.
We are constantly being reinforced and punished. This is natural, and is a consequence of being social animals with certain needs. Are you guys manipulating me by only commenting when I post something? Of course not, it’s just a natural consequence of how writing works. It’s built in.
Now, my dear readers, is when the manipulation comes in. What are you doing to reinforce and punish behaviors?
How to Win Friends and Manipulate People
Think about how you act when an introverted friend finally calls you on the phone. Do you say, “I’m glad to hear from you!” or is it more, “Damn, it’s about time!” One is a reinforcer, one is a punisher. Even if said in jest, the second is likely to make your friend less inclined to call in the future.
How about when your husband (you have a husband now, by the way; his name is Harold) gets drunk after work for the third night in a row. Do you laugh at his antics, despite the fact that they bug you? Or do you go off and do something else until he stops being a douchebag? One is a reinforcer, the other is a punisher. You don’t mean to reinforce his incipient alcohol abuse when you smile and roll your eyes at him; you’re just trying to be an understanding wife (you’re female, by the way). He’s being reinforced nonetheless.
Think about how you respond when a co-worker won’t stop bugging you with trivial shit, or a guy is coming on too strong, or a stranger is making vaguely racist jokes. Any non-negative response is likely to be reinforcing, even if you’re just being polite.
Please keep in mind that I’m not advocating active, purposeful punishment. Lack of reinforcement is usually enough. Ignoring people, excusing yourself from a situation, or offering a neutral response are all perfectly okay things to do to jerkwads. Don’t want your friend being such a misogynist? Withhold that polite laugh that you otherwise would have given.
Now, think about how you react when a friend makes positive changes in their life, or your kid is actively not destroying the house, or someone is being less annoying than usual: Remember that a lack of response can be a punisher.
Enjoy Your Curse
So, now that you know how reinforcement works, you should have a better idea of how you’re influencing your peeps. Next time you politely laugh at an antisocial joke and realize that you’re increasing the frequency and intensity of that behavior, I’d like you to shake a fist at the sky and scream, “Damn you, Ian!”
Just… don’t go overboard. I’ve been immersed in psychology for years because of my graduate work, and I’ve seen people become too aware of the effects that they have on others. In the end, you are only responsible for you; I just want you to have a little extra awareness of the power you have. You can help people succeed, you can strengthen your friendships, and you can increase your own positive behaviors, all with a little well-placed kindness.
To close, I do want to acknowledge that, while operant conditioning definitely plays a role in how we act, we are thinking creatures. We can decide to abstain from behaviors without needing to face consequences one way or the other. We can choose to push through punishers like boredom and frustration and keep doing homework, or practicing that guitar.
Let me know what you think. Just realize that every word you say influences my behavior.