YANSS Podcast 034 – After This, Therefore Because of This: Your Weird Relationship with Cause and Effect

The Topic: The Post Hoc Fallacy

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

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When I was a boy, I spent my summers with my grandparents. They, like many Southerners, had a farm populated with animals to eat and animals to help. It was everywhere alive with edible plants – fields of corn and cucumbers and peas and butterbeans and peanuts, and throngs of mysterious life from stumps claimed by beds of ants to mushroom fairy rings, living things tending to business without our influence.

Remembering it now, I can see the symmetry of the rows, and the order of the barns, the arrangement of tools, the stockpiles of feed. I remember the care my grandmother took with tomatoes, nudging them along from the soil to the Ball jars she boiled, sealing up the red, seedy swirls under lids surrounded by brass-colored shrink bands. I remember my grandfather erecting dried and gutted gourds on polls so Martins would come and create families above us and we wouldn’t suffer as many mosquito bites when shelling peas under the giant pecan tree we all used for shade.

For me, the wonder of that life, even then, was in how so much was understood about cause and effect, about what was to come if you prepared, took care, made a particular kind of effort. It was as if they borrowed the momentum of the natural world instead of trying to force it one way or the other, like grabbing a passing trolley and hoisting yourself on the back.

This relationship with cause and effect was not perfect, not that I knew that then. In fact, my grandparents had a collection of books about cause and effect that I adored called Foxfire. They looked like encyclopedias, and they were numbered. Foxfire 1, 2, 3, etc. Looking them up just before writing this, I discovered they were actually anthologies of an old Appalachian magazine. An article in the Christian Science Monitor from 1983 and an entry at the Georgia Encyclopedia website both say the contents of the magazines came from interviews with people who were already old in the 1960s, people from around the South who shared folktales and folk knowledge and folk remedies and methods of borrowing that same momentum that my grandparents busied themselves pursuing.

My grandparents considered the Foxfire books correct and accurate and worthy of study, reference, and reverence. They were second only to the Bibles resting beside the beds in several rooms. They only had one worn copy of each of the Foxfire books, but as a whole they had their own shelf, just outside the kitchen. What could you find inside them? Rural tips and tricks to tackle the harsh wilderness. What you would call life hacks today, except concerning moonshine and planting crops. Some advice was great, passed down for generations and finally captured in an interview for the magazine right at the end of other people’s grandparents’ lives. A lot of the advice wasn’t so great, though as a boy I never noticed any suspicion or skepticism among my family. A hacking cough, said one Foxfire book, could be cured by swallowing a wad of local spiderwebs. That one I remembered. Others I didn’t, but they came hurtling back to me once I looked at the contents on Amazon today. I saw entries on “Snake Lore” and faith healing but also sections on how to make soap and butter, and how to build sturdy log cabins. It’s a mix of things that seemed to work. Some of it true wisdom, and a lot of it completely wrong. Those Foxfire books, and the life my grandparents led, was prescientific and irrational, but most of the time it produced results. The bits that are wrong, and downright bizarre, make me smirk while I push up my glasses from behind this computer, but then I remember that the only time my grandparents visited the grocery store was to buy things like milk, beef, and cheese since they no longer had the energy to deal with cattle. Other than that, well until their 70s, they very nearly lived completely off the land, which is something I couldn’t do today.

The Foxfire books, and the lives of the sort of people whose knowledge is captured within, are another testament to how we have always depended on good-enough solutions to the complexities of decisions, judgments, and reasoning. Whether or not the people practicing these techniques for decades and longer knew for sure they had pinpointed the causes to the effects they were seeking, things tended to work out anyway. Do spider webs cure coughs? No. Does your cough get better after you eat them? Yes. It’s no different than the zillions of remedies I see floating on the web right now from wine to chocolate to gluten abstinence and paleolithic dining. We mess up all the time when it comes to cause and effect, but it usually doesn’t lead to enough harm to notice. In general, over many generations, we’ve gotten by because more often than not the system works well. It might not get you to the moon, but it will keep you alive and full of butterbeans. Also, you might be burned as a witch.

In modern times, when the system hasn’t worked out well, it once led to one of my favorite mental pratfalls of all time. A few years ago, Bill Clinton bought and wore in public a magical amulet.

That’s right, magical amulet. There isn’t a single entry in those Foxfire books, not a solitary nugget of folk wisdom my grandparents could have offered up that is any less wacky than the Power Balance Bracelet. A band of silicone with a tiny hologram affixed to the side that, according to the manufacturer, enhances natural energy fields and provides balance to the wearer as he or she comes into resonance with the hologram. The result? Better athletic performance. Well, that’s what the company used to claim, but that was before they lost a $67 million lawsuit and had to publicly state, “We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct…” Now the company makes ambiguous claims about “Eastern philosophies.” You can find Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints endorsing the enchanted bracelets of power at the company’s website right now. He prefers the black collection made with “surgical grade silicone.”

The Power Balance bracelets were debunked thanks to scientific research, much of it conducted in Australia and Wales. The results showed that they had no more power than any other bracelet charged with meaning and supported by belief. No doubt, most of the contents of the Foxfire collection have yet to receive a similar level of scrutiny.

Who wore the power bracelets in their heyday? At least one former president, a slew of professional athletes, and one third of my uncles. Enough people to make the company more than $30 million in 2011, according to the Associated Press. Presumably, all of them intelligent, reasonable people who had no problem with the idea of a factory that employs wizards.

Still, the Power Balance bracelet is just another in a long line of magical items and alternative cures that people have fallen for since there have been people, and there will be many more thanks to the post hoc fallacy. After this, therefore because of this – that’s the fallacy. It’s a rule of thumb, a heuristic, that guided my grandparent’s farm, filled the Foxfire books, and for the most part got human beings out of the nomadic lifestyle and into yoga, but it isn’t perfect. Whether you go to the doctor for your cold, or you decide to eat a ball of cobwebs, or eat nothing but grapefruit for a week, your cold will get better. Which one then is the true cure? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. That’s our predicament. We are stuck with this weird brain that’s so bad at pinpointing cause and effect that one of us can run an entire country, give rousing speeches that change the world, yet not possess the skepticism required to prevent him from handing over $30 for a hologram with a magic spell inside.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, you’ll learn a lot more about the Power Balance Bracelet as we explore the post hoc fallacy, and how it leads to all sorts of things from pressing disconnected crosswalk buttons to rubbing your nipples with frozen cabbage.

At the end of the episode we discuss a recent study that suggests men drink so that their smiles become contagious.

NOTE: Some of this content is material researched for and written about in a chapter in my second book You Are Now Less Dumb.

Links 

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Alcohol Makes Smiles More “Contagious,” but Only for Men

Sources

• Arabe, Katrina C. “”Dummy” Thermostats Cool Down Tempers, Not Temperatures.” ThomasNet News. Thomas Publishing Company, 11 Apr. 2003. Web. Sept. 2012.

•Associated Press. “Power Balance: Bracelets Don’t Work.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures., 04 Jan. 2011. Web. Sept. 2012. Bathe, Carrlyn. “The Ice Crew’s Lucky Charms.” FOX Sports West. FOX Sports Interactive Media, LLC., 08 Mar. 2012. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Brice, S. R., B. S. Jarosz, R. A. Ames, J. Baglin, and C. Da Costa. “The Effect of Close Proximity Holographic Wristbands on Human Balance and Limits of Stability: A Randomised, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 15.3 (2011): 298-303. Print.

• Callahan, Gerry. “Cheers Wade’s World Back in Town.” Boston Herald 21 May 1993, Sports sec.: 112. Print. Damisch, L., B. Stoberock, and T. Mussweiler. “Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance.” Psychological Science 21.7 (2010): 1014-020. Print.

• “Goran Ivanisevic Quotes.” Goran Online. Web. Sept. 2012. Hutson, Matthew. “In Defense of Superstition.” The New York Times 08 Apr. 2012: SR5. NYTimes. The New York Times Company, 06 Apr. 2012 Web.

•Kaptchuk, Ted J., Elizabeth Friedlander, John M. Kelley, M. Norma Sanchez, Efi Kokkotou, Joyce P. Singer, Magda Kowalczykowski, Franklin G. Miller, Irving Kirsch, and Anthony J. Lembo. “Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” PLoS One 5.12 (2010): E15591. Print.

• Lockton, Dan. “Placebo Buttons, False Affordances and Habit-forming.” Design with Intent. WordPress, 10 Jan. 2008. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Luo, Michael. “For Exercise in New York Futility, Push Button.” NYTimes. The New York Times Company, 27 Feb. 2004. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Murdoch, Jason. “Superstitious Athletes.” CBC Sports. CBC, 10 May 2005. Web. Sept. 2012. “Power Balance Band Is Placebo, Say Experts.” BBC News Wales. BBC, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. Sept. 2012.

• “Power Balance Endorsers, Athletes Who Wear Power Balance Bands.” Athlete Promotions. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Sandberg, Jared. “Employees Only Think They Control Thermostat.” WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 15 Jan. 2003. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Stech, Katy. “Power Balance Sold to Chinese Manufacturer.” WSJ Blogs Bankruptcy Beat. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 11 Jan. 2012. Web. Sept. 2012.

• Tritrakarn, Thara, Jariya Lertakyamanee, Pisamorn Koompong, Suchai Soontrapa, Pradit Somprakit, Anupan Tantiwong, and Sunee Jittapapai.”Both EMLA and Placebo Cream Reduced Pain during Extracorporeal Piezoelectric Shock Wave Lithotripsy with the Piezolith 2300.” Anesthesiology 92.4 (2000): 1049-054. Print.

• “Wade Boggs.” Baseball Library. Ed. Richard Lally. The Idea Logical Company, Inc. Web. Sept. 2012.

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YANSS Podcast 029 – How labels affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with Adam Alter

The Topic: Labels

The Guest: Adam Alter

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Unsweet

I did something this week that I’m sure many people secretly do every day. I stopped, talked to myself for a moment, and checked to see how much slack was in the leash I keep on my tongue.

I was reminded that I need to do that from time to time, or at least I believe that I do, by a bit of news that was passed around for a few days this week. The reports said that one of the government’s most prestigious energy laboratories was working to eradicate the Southern accent – not from the planet, mind you, just from employees who had requested the service.

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YANSS Podcast 021 – Christina Draganich explains how anyone can use science as a tool to understand nature, human and otherwise

The Topic(s): Placebo Sleep and Science

The Guest: Christina Draganich

The Episode: Download iTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons,  http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

Photo by Matteo Ianeselli, via Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/1fAKROj

In 1998, The Journal of the American Medical Association published research that debunked therapeutic touch and moved the well-meaning mystical practice out of the kingdom of medicine and into the abandoned strip mall of quackery.

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YANSS Podcast 014 – Melanie C. Green and how stories can change beliefs and behaviors

The Topic: Narratives

The Guest: Melanie C. Green

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Falcor the Luck Dragon from the Universal Pictures film, The Neverending Story

Falcor the Luck Dragon from the Universal Pictures film, The Neverending Story

In this episode we discuss the power narratives have to affect our beliefs and behaviors with Melanie C. Green, a psychologist who studies the persuasive power of fiction.

According to Nielsen, the TV ratings company, the average person in the United States watches about 34 hours of television a week. That’s 73 days a year. Over the course of a lifetime, the average American can expect to spend a full decade lost in the trance spell that only powerful narratives can cast over the human mind.

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New York City’s Placebo Buttons and The Post Hoc Fallacy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpYP7tfqr8g&feature=youtu.be

I’m so excited to reveal the latest book trailer for my new book, You Are Now Less Dumb. Here is a link to learn more about the book.

Once again, the fantastic production crew at Plus3 Video created this wonderful video. You can learn more about them at this link.

You can see all the videos we’ve made together right here on the YANSS Youtube Channel: link to videos.

The video is inspired by a chapter in the book which mentions placebo buttons, a topic covered here on YANSS a few years back which you can read about at this link.

YANSS Podcast 11 – Hazel Markus and The Influence of Where You Live on How You Think

The Topic: Culture

The Guest: Hazel Rose Markus

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Tombstone Honor Latin

Is your state of mind from one situation to the next drastically altered by the state in which you live? According to cultural psychologists, yes it is.

Studies show that your thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors in response to a particular setting will reliably differ from those of others in that same setting depending on where you spent your childhood or even where you spent six years or more of your adult life.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, we explore cultural cognition and the psychological effects of the region you call home on the brain you call yours.

My guest this week:

Hazel Rose MarkusHazel Rose Markus is a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies the effects of culture, class, ethnicity, region, society, and gender on the concept of self and human psychology in general. She is the author of “Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are.” You can learn more about her at her website here.

After the interview I try out a cinnamon chocolate cookie and read a bit of psychology news about how reading good books can make you more adept at reading faces.

In every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Tamar Levanoni who submitted a recipe for cinnamon chocolate cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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Links and Sources:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

The Website of Hazel Markus

Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are

Tombstone Latin

The Southern Hallway Bump Study

The Good Books and Empathy Study

YANSS Podcast – Episode Eight – The Psychology of Video Games

The Topic: Video Games

The Guest: Jamie Madigan

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Last of Us Friend or Foe

A scene from “The Last of Us”

“The Last of Us” is a video game, a work of interactive art, and a question will arise in the back of your mind while playing, “What would I do in this situation?” and the answer will make you feel emotions no other art form can elicit.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, 20 years after the fall of mankind, in a world nature has mostly reclaimed, where resources are few and trust is scarce. Hope is the commodity in shortest supply. Most everyone has given up on rebuilding the old world. This is just how it is now. Every encounter with strangers pings that most primal of judgments under uncertainty: “Is this a potential friend or foe?”

Familiar? Sure, it’s a theme being explored all over in fiction. Something in the zeitgeist has us fretting over these things again, but in a game you have the opportunity to actually test yourself in a virtual reality, to see what you would do when the stakes are as high as possible. Would you trust others? Would you help strangers? Would you kill to survive?

In addition, “The Last of Us” explores something the gaming world calls ludonarrative dissonance. Many modern games have detailed stories with great writing and well-acted scenes interspersed between what amounts to bursts of mass murder. It can make a player feel like his or her agency in the world has been stolen by the storyteller, that the characters you are asked to portray live in two realities, one you control and one you do not. This can feel really off-putting when the characters are jaunty, smarmy, and noble in the cutscenes, but then you are asked to use those people to do terrible things. In an effort to solve this problem, Naughty Dog, the developers of “The Last of Us”, crafted an experience where you and the character feel justified when pushed to do harm, but afterward you, the gamer, feel disgusted with yourself and horrified by the power of the situation to change your behavior and shift your moral center. You find yourself quickly learning to avoid violence – a behavior I was astonished to see evoked in myself inside a game world, and was thrilled to experience. That’s something you won’t get watching “Breaking Bad.”

Watch a teaser trailer showing a friend-or-foe scenario here: Link

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In this episode of the YANSS podcast, we explore games and their potential to reveal our self delusions. I interview Jamie Madigan, the curator of psychologyofgames.com, who writes about the behaviors and cognitions that games both exploit and uncover. It’s a great interview. We discuss everything from the motivational nudging in “Candy Crush Saga” to the power of endowed progress when endorsing people on LinkedIn. Please forgive us for geeking out so hard during it. I promise, non-gamers will learn plenty in this episode. Links to the things mentioned in the episode are at the bottom of this post.

After the interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Violet Sinnarkar who submitted a recipe for white chocolate oatmeal cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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White Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Links:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

Psychology of Games

Papers, Please

Spent

Newsgaming

Underground Railroad Game

The Walking Dead 

Narco Guerilla 

The Last of Us

Candy Crush Youtube Video 1

Candy Crush Youtube Video 2

Candy Crush Youtube Video 3

Candy Crush Youtube Video 4

The study concerning the cognitive load of poverty

The Overjustification Effect

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

Office Space – Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t live someone else’s dream. Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid doing it.

Maxims like these often find their way into your social media; they arrive in your electronic mailbox at the ends of dense chains of forwards. They bubble up from the collective sighs of well-paid boredom around the world and get routinely polished for presentation in graduation speeches and church sermons.

Money, fame, and prestige – they dangle just outside your reach it seems, encouraging you to lean farther and farther over the edge, to study longer and longer, to work harder and harder. When someone reminds you that acquiring currency while ignoring all else shouldn’t be your primary goal in life, it feels good. You retweet it. You post it on your wall. You forward it, and then you go back to work.

If only science had something concrete to say about the whole thing, you know? All these living greeting cards dispensing wisdom are great and all, but what about really putting money to the test? Does money buy happiness? In 2010, scientists published the results of a study looking into that very question.

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Catharsis

The Misconception: Venting your anger is an effective way to reduce stress and prevent lashing out at friends and family.

The Truth: Venting increases aggressive behavior over time.

Source: chrislomasphotography.com

Let it out.

Don’t hold it all in.

Left inside you, the anger will fester and spread, grow like a tumor, boil up until you punch holes in the wall or slam your car door so hard the windows shatter.

Those dark thoughts shouldn’t be tamped down inside your heart where they can condense and strengthen, where they form a concentrated stockpile of negativity which could reach critical mass at any moment.

Go get yourself one of those squishy balls and work it over with death grips. Use both hands and choke the imaginary life out of it.

Head to the gym and assault a punching bag. Shoot some people in a video game. Scream into a pillow.

Feel better?

Sure you do. Venting feels great.

The problem is, it accomplishes little else. Actually, it makes matters worse and primes your future behavior by fogging your mind.

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Extinction Burst

The Misconception: If you stop engaging in a bad habit, the habit will gradually diminish until it disappears from your life.

The Truth: Any time you quit something cold turkey, your brain will make a last-ditch effort to return you to your old ways.

Source: Corie Howell

You’ve been there.

You get serious about losing weight and start to mind every calorie. You read labels work out the math for a serving size. You stock up on fruit and vegetables and look up how to properly cut onions and bell peppers. You hit the gym and get an app to track your progress.

Everything is going fine. You feel great. You feel like a champion. You think, “This is easy.”

Then one day you give in to temptation and eat a piece of chocolate, or a cake doughnut, or bag of chips. Maybe you go a bit further and grab a beer or maybe a cheeseburger. Perhaps you are out to lunch, and say, “What the hell,” and order the fettuccine alfredo. It seems like you can handle one transgression, but that afternoon, since you’ve already cheated a little, you think maybe tonight you can you eat whatever you want. To celebrate the occasion you eat a pint of ice cream or a whole pizza. The diet ends in a catastrophic binge, and among the ruins you look at the empty containers knowing that what was once in them is now in you and you you ask, “what the hell?” How did my smooth transition from comfort food to human Dumpster happen?

You just experienced an extinction burst – a predictable and common blast of defiance from the recesses of a brain denied familiar rewards.

Food, of course, is one of the most powerful rewards. It keeps you alive. Your brain didn’t evolve in an environment where there was an abundance of food, so whenever you find a high-calorie, high fat, high sodium source, your natural inclination is to eat a lot of it and then go back to it over and over again. If you take away a reward like that, especially if you’ve become accustomed to indulging, especially if you abruptly turn off the flow of pleasure, you can expect to eventually throw an internal tantrum.

Much of your behavior is the result of conditioning. It is among the most basic factors shaping the way any organism reacts to the world. If your actions lead to positive outcomes, you are more likely to continue them. Your brain doles out pleasant emotions through chemical gifts whenever you do something that benefits the organism it pilots. If your actions lead to a negative outcome, you are more likely to avoid that behavior in the future. Over time, you begin to predict reward and punishment by linking longer and longer series of events to their eventual outcomes.

Say you want some chicken nuggets. You know you can’t just snap your fingers and wait for them to appear. You must engage in a long sequence of actions – walk to closet, put on shirt, find shoes, apply to feet, find keys, find car, drive to nuggets, use language, exchange money, etc… This string of behaviors could be sliced up into smaller and smaller components if we wanted to really dig down into the conditioning you have endured in order to be able to get nuggets in your mouth. Just driving the car from point A to point B is a complex performance with thousands of steps, all of which become automatic after hundreds of hours of practice.

Millions of tiny behaviors, each one a single step in a process, all add up to a single operation you have learned will payoff in reward. Think of rats in a maze, learning a complicated series of steps – turn left two times, turn right once, turn left, right, left, get cheese. Even microorganisms can be conditioned to react to stimuli and predict outcomes.

This concept, conditioning, for a good long while was the cat’s pajamas in psychology. In the 1960s and ’70s, Burrhus Frederic Skinner became a scientist celebrity by scaring the shit out of America with an invention called the operant conditioning chamber – the Skinner Box. The box is an enclosure which can have any combination of levers, food dispensers, an electric floor, lights and loudspeakers. Scientists place animals in the box and either reward them or punish them to either encourage or discourage their behaviors. Rats, for example, can be taught to push a lever when a green light appears to get a food pellet.

Skinner once demonstrated how he could teach a pigeon to spin in circles at his command by offering food only when it turned in one direction. Gradually, he withheld the food until the pigeon had turned a little farther and farther until he had it going round and round. He could even get the pigeon to distinguish between the word “peck” and “turn” and get them to perform the corresponding behavior just by showing them a sign. Yes, in a sense, he taught a bird to read.

Skinner discovered you could get pigeons and rats to do complicated tasks by slowly building up chains of behaviors through handing out pellets of food. For example, if you want to teach a squirrel to water ski, you just need to start small and work your way up. Other researchers added punishment to these routines and discovered it too could be used like the pellets to encourage and discourage behavior.

Skinner became convinced conditioning was the root of all behavior and didn’t believe rational thinking had anything to do with your personal life. He considered introspection to be a “collateral product” of conditioning. Like Freud and Einstein, Skinner was a celebrity in his day, and his belief we were all robots was unsettling. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1971. “My book,” said Skinner in the interview, ”is an effort to demonstrate how things go bad when you make a fetish out of individual freedom and dignity. If you insist that individual rights are the summum bonum, then the whole structure of society falls down.”

Some psychologists and philosophers still hold to the idea you are nothing but a sophisticated automaton, like a spider or a fish. You have no freedom, no free will. Your brain is made of atoms and molecules which must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, so some say your mind is locked into service of the rules of the universe like a clock. Everything you have thought, felt and done in your life was the natural mathematical aftermath of the Big Bang.

You may take comfort knowing this is a hotly contested idea, but whether or not you have free will, conditioning is real, and the impact of conditioning can’t be ignored.

There are two kinds of conditioning – classical and operant. In classical conditioning, something which normally doesn’t have any influence over you becomes a trigger for an involuntary response. Normally, flushing the toilet doesn’t produce fear in your heart, but if you are taking a shower and someone flushes the toilet and then the water becomes a scalding torrent, you become conditioned to recoil in terror while in shower the next time you hear the toilet flush. That’s classical conditioning. Something neutral – the toilet flushing – becomes charged with meaning and expectation. You have no control over it. If you have ever been sick after eating or drinking something you love, you will avoid it in the future. The smell of it, or even the thought of it, can make you ill. For me, it’s tequila. Ugh, gross. Classical conditioning keeps you alive. You learn quickly to avoid that which may harm you and seek out that which makes you happy, like an amoeba.

The sort of complex behavior Skinner was able to shape was the result of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning modifies existing behaviors, making them more or less frequent following certain outcomes. Inclinations become greater through reinforcement, or diminish through punishment. You arrive early to the theater, you get a better seat. You frequently wash your hands, you don’t get sick. You pay the rent on time, you don’t get wet when it rains. You don’t rob banks, you don’t go to jail. You play the slot machine and sometimes, every once in a while, you get some money.

It’s all operant conditioning, punishment and reward. Adding and subtracting pain or gaining or losing out on pleasure.

Which finally brings us back to the third factor – extinction.

When you are under the spell of operant conditioning and expect to receive a reward or a punishment after a certain behavior but nothing happens, your conditioned response starts to fade away. If you stop letting your cat in the bedroom after he meows and scratches at the door, he will eventually stop begging to be let in. His behavior will go extinct.

Right as the behavior is breathing its final breath, that’s when you can expect an extinction burst. Your cat will begin meowing like crazy, pawing at the door for what seems like hours.

Parents are very familiar with this pattern, and if you’ve ever seen an episode of The Supernanny, then you’ve probably seen an extinction burst. In one episode, a toddler refused to go to bed in his crib when it was bedtime, and the parents would fight him all night long until he finally went unconscious from exhaustion. The Supernanny suggested they put him in his crib and just sit in the room and ignore him. The extinction burst would come and go, and if he attempted to escape the crib, she told him they should just put him back in and go back to ignoring. They followed her advice, and the extinction burst was massive – screaming, crying, saying all sorts of whimpering, heart imploding things. His little brain was trying every conceivable strategy to avoid extinction. It was a miserable experience for the mother, which was, of course, what the burst was trying to create. The mother cried, but she kept looking at the wall, and after about 20 minutes, the child stopped, lied down, and went to sleep.

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded. As Matt Webb explains at Interconnected.org – if you use the same elevator every day to get to avoid climbing 10 flights of stairs, and one day you press the button and nothing happens, you don’t just immediately take the stairs. You start jamming all the buttons over and over again, you get mad, you ask around for help, you talk to other people, you go back and press the buttons again, and then, finally, you take the stairs.

You lock your keys in your apartment, but your roommate is asleep. You ring the doorbell and knock, but they don’t come. You ring the doorbell over and over and over. You start pounding on the door. If your computer freezes up you don’t just walk away, you start clicking all over the place and maybe go so far as to bang your fists on the keyboard. Trying, like the cat at the door and child in the crib, every thing you can think of to bring back the expected results.

These are all extinction bursts. The burst is a temporary increase in a behavior that usually precedes a reward, a plea from the recesses of your psyche as soon as the conditioned response is no longer yielding results.

Here is some great advice from Canine University magazine: “The worst thing you could ever do is give in to a temper tantrum. This goes for adults too, because if you spend enough time observing other people you will notice that people who are used to getting their way will start a temper tantrum immediately after you have refused their request. If you patiently restate your position and stay calm you will see the person eventually give up. Depending upon how long he carries on will tell you how other people have responded to the person in the past. If he has been rewarded for having a fit often enough the extinction burst will be spectacular, enjoy! If it’s short lived, it will be over as quick as it started and you can feel good that you haven’t encouraged it. The best way to eliminate a tantrum is to not give in, wait out the extinction burst (walking away works wonders) and reinforce the absence of the tantrum with your attention as soon as the person stops.”

So, back to that diet.

If you eliminate a reward from your life like awesome and delicious high-calorie foods. Right as you are ready to give it up forever, an extinction burst will threaten to demolish your willpower. You become like a two-year-old in a conniption fit, and like the child, if you give in to the demands, the behavior will be strengthened. The next time you try, the burst will come sooner and it will be stronger. Compulsive overeating is a frenzied state of mind, food addiction under pressure until it bursts.

Diets fail for many reasons, much of them associated with your body trying to survive in a situation where surviving starvation is much less of an issue. To give up overeating, or smoking, lying around watching Netflix as your biceps atrophy, or any bad habit which was formed through conditioning, you must be prepared to weather the secret weapon of your unconscious – the extinction burst.

Become your own Supernanny, your own Dog Whisperer. Look for alternative rewards and positive reinforcement. Set goals, and when you achieve them, shower yourself with garlands of your choosing.

Don’t freak out when it turns out to be difficult. Habits form because you are not so smart, and they cease under the same conditions. If you are ready for the extinction burst and prepared, you can weather the storm and watch it pass. You can watch the bad behavior go extinct, forever, and only see again as a fossil in photographs from previous epochs in your life, part of a previous you. 

Sources

  • “Behavior: Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?” Time. Time Inc., 20 Sept. 1971. Web. 26 July 2010.
  • Biederman, Jim. “Conditioning Examples with Answers.” Conditioning Examples with Answers. Anoka-Ramsey Community College. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXe1O)
  • “Classical Conditioning.” Classical Conditioning. Changing Minds. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXa2n)
  • “Extinction.” Extinction. Changing Minds. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPWVEg)
  • “Operant Conditioning Chamber.” Operant Conditioning Chamber. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 26 July. 2010. (http://bit.ly/YWJ0i6)
  • “Three Dogs and Two Babies: So You’re Having a Baby…is Your Dog Prepared? – Canine University.” Three Dogs and Two Babies: So You’re Having a Baby…is Your Dog Prepared? – Canine University. Canine University. Web. 26 July 2010. (http://bit.ly/VPXA8T)
  • Webb, Matt. “Interconnected.” Two Kinds of Training ( 3 Jul., 2008, at ). Interconnected. Web. 26 Aug. 2014. (http://bit.ly/YWJ3dK)