Archive for the ‘ operant conditioning ’ Category


A friend recently sent me an article on why self-disciplined people are happier than and not as deprived as some people think.

Psychologically speaking, the immediacy of a short-term (small) reinforcement is infinitely more powerful and reinforcing than a long-term (enormous) negative consequence.  Hence the reason why smokers don’t quit smoking, at least not very easily: the immediacy of the (relatively small) “fix” from the cigarette is much more powerful than the (enormous) long-term negative consequence of poor health, lung cancer, etc.

“Discipline,” the way I have always defined it, is being able to place higher value on the long-term reinforcement (e.g. living a long, healthy life with clear lungs) and lower value on the “pain” of forgoing the immediate reinforcement.  I am thankful that I am “disciplined,” as it were, because like the article said, I think in the long run I am happier and healthier and avoid certain problems.  I feel like this is just the way God wired me, it isn’t something I make an effort to do, per se.  That’s why it is a bit strange when people tell me that I am disciplined as if it is a compliment, because to me, it’s just the way I am wired and it comes naturally to me.

In contrast, while there is debate as to whether there is truly an “addictive personality,” in my mind, the characteristically defining feature of an addictive personality is the inability or at least the extreme difficulty of weighing the future consequence into the equation at all.  The power of the immediate reinforcement is even greater than for the average person, and the long-term negative consequence just doesn’t exist.  I have read that an addict has a different concept of time than the average person, that for the addict, nearly all thinking is about the present or very near future.  Delays and the distant future have no place in an addict’s mind.  There is a great misunderstanding about addiction: addiction has little to do with substance abuse (the behavior) and nearly everything to do with thinking and psychology.  Thus, someone can be clean from drug use but still an addict, because of his/her pattern of thinking.

Some people say I am disciplined because I eat very healthy and I exercise every day.  In part, it is because I place a higher value on the long-term positive benefits, but there are also short-term and more immediate benefits, as well.  If there weren’t, I don’t think I would stick with it.  For instance, it’s just simpler to eat the same thing every day, it’s less of a hassle.  I enjoy the feeling of having my endorphins kicking around in my body when I exercise, I like being able to sleep more soundly and restfully, I like the feeling of being physically active after a long day in front of my computer.

Incidentally, I have heard it said, and now I truly believe that there is such a thing as a sugar addiction.  For a few months, my husband brought home a lot of sweets (apple pie, brownies), and I started eating some of those sweets in the evenings.  I’m not even sure why I ate them, just because they were there, I guess.  He finally said he wanted to cut back, so he stopped bringing home these types of sweets.  For a week or two, I experienced a sugar craving each evening.  Eventually, the craving subsided, but it was weird because I don’t even like sweets all that much, but I saw how I became addicted to the sugar.


Table Scraps

Reinforcing behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, if you tell a dog to sit, and it does, and you give it a treat, the dog will be more likely to sit on command in the future. So it is with humans, as well. If a child is learning to ride a bicycle, and you reinforce the child’s behavior with praise as he learns to ride it, he will be more likely to continue the behaviors that preceded the praise.

Once a behavior is learned, constant reinforcement is unnecessary. Once the dog learns to sit on command, you need not give it a treat every time. And once the child has learned to ride the bicycle, there is no need for constant praise. Indeed, it sounds strange to tell a child, “Great job keeping the bicycle upright,” when he has been riding easily for a long time.

But variable reinforcement can be very powerful. This entails reinforcing behavior unpredictably, and not every single time. For instance, if you have taught a dog to jump on command, you may begin only reinforcing the highest jumps. With humans, gambling is the quintessential example of variable reinforcement. You do not know when you will hit the jackpot, but you keep trying because you know eventually a payoff will come.

That being said, I spend a lot of time thinking about reinforcement in human interaction. I am re-reading a book on operant conditioning, the use of reinforcers to shape behavior, and I came across the following text:

From “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” by Karen Pryor
We have all seen people who inexplicably stick with spouses or lovers who mistreat them. Customarily, we think of this as happening to a woman – she falls for someone who is harsh, inconsiderate, selfish, even cruel, and yet she loves him – but it happens to men, too. Everyone knows such people, who, if divorced or otherwise bereft of the nasty one, go right out and find someone else just like him or her.
Are these people, for deep psychological reasons, perpetual victims? Possibly. But may they not also be victims of long duration variable schedules? If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and fun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained.

I wish I could explain to others, even to myself, why I stayed in an emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship for far too long. There was some extremely powerful emotional hook that pulled me back into the relationship just when I began to feel I had had enough.

If he had been cruel all the time, it would have been easy to leave. But inconsistently, he was fascinating, charming, and attentive. And so I put up with the cruelty, the lies, the manipulation, and the jealousy in the hopes that next time he would be his old charming self, and I would feel that all was right with the world.

I told him at times that I felt like a dog waiting for table scraps. I would do what he wanted me to do, waiting for him to finally give me the attention that I wanted from him. It was a difficult and very painful relationship.

Sadly, so many of the women in my life have experienced emotionally (and even physically) abusive relationships. But we are so overcome with shame and guilt over having “let” a guy treat us poorly that we do not talk about it. Most people would have no idea that these women had suffered so at the hands of someone cruel and abusive, because we hide our experiences out of shame that there is something wrong with us. It is unfortunate that our society is so quick to judge these women, labeling them perpetual victims or martyrs. And some of them may be, but most of them are strong, intelligent, compassionate women who are looking for the best in others. And they are stuck in the powerful hook of variable reinforcement.

I do not mean to make abusive relationships sound trite or like a cold, unemotional psychological process. There are many issues involved: identity, societal expectations about roles, childhood trauma, grief, brokenness, self-esteem, and so on. It is tragic to me that so many of us suffer in silence and shame rather than dialoguing about these issues in order to promote healing and understanding.