Psychology in My Life ~ Reflections on Conditioning, including a cautionary tale to parents about christmas.

This is another, well, chronologically speaking by publishing date, second, in my posts that are working toward a hopefully good mark for my intro to psych.  Read, learn, enjoy and feel free to ask questions or comment.  The best way to learn is to have to explain something.  so feel free to make me explain something.

When I looked back on my life I saw lots of events, some good, some bad. But after a course in introductory psychology, looking back on my life is different. In fact I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

Conditioning?  You say. Isn’t that the thing where that Russian animal researcher got dogs to drool by ringing a bell?  You ask.

Well yes, in short. It’s not really the conditioning I had in mind when I started – but let’s touch on that briefly.
Pavlov, a researcher in biology and endocrinology was researching salivation reflex in dogs. NOT Psychology of any kind. He stumbled across the idea that the dogs became conditioned to an unrelated stimuli by repeatedly associating that stimuli and the natural stimuli. Then he discovered you could even take away the native stimuli and the dogs would still salivate to the unrelated stimuli (eg bells ringing). Thus the dogs salivate when the bells ring, food or no food.

This theory was quickly snapped up by psychology researchers, and tested on people.

How many of you have heard of the Little Albert experiment?
Ok ok, you can put your hands down now, it’s embarrassing both of us. …. That’s not entirely true, it’s embarrassing you, and amusing me!

So back on track. Little Albert, a boy with the misfortune of having been born to a psychology researcher. Was given white rats to play with as an infant. He liked them well enough, so after a little while every time he was given a white rat, cymbals were crashed behind him, scaring the living daylights out of the poor sap. Pretty quickly he associated the rat – well actually he associated anything small white and furry, that’s stimulus generalization for you – with the fear he felt when the cymbals crashed. And so much as showing him a white rat, or rabbit or ferret or anything small fury and white would send him into fits of screaming and terror.
For more information, READ HERE, and WATCH HERE

Wasn’t it fun before we had to get ethics approval for experiments? And isn’t that a great use for one’s offspring?
Yeah yeah, ok, Jokes aside. Meddling with toddlers heads is bad Mmmkay kiddies!? Get ethics board approval before scarring your children for life.

So how does this apply to my life you ask? Aside from displaying your twisted humour about child experimentation?
Well, it goes like this you see. These days I see almost everything in the light of conditioning. Why? A little thing called availability heuristics. That is to say I have just recently learned all about conditioning, so I see it everywhere.

Let’s take an example:- I was talking about looking back on my life.
Growing up we always had cats, but it wasn’t until we moved to a country town that we got dogs. It was about that time my kid sister was born. My father decided that he was a dog man, and he got himself the ugliest bulldog ever. It looked like it had been chasing a truck that stopped suddenly.
That was the first in a series of dogs that we had to get rid of for assorted reasons or that killed themselves through some kind of brainless missadventure.

The one thing that remained constant in all of this however, was that every single one of them pooped.

Colour me surprised.

Of course living on a decent plot of land (about 6.5 acres) sooner or later the minefield of bio-hazard had to be cleaned up.

Now in an attempt to be objective since this time, I have often re-thought the logic behind this. Somehow every time it came time to get out the bucket and shovel to clean up the dog droppings, it was my turn.

I was steadily but firmly associating living in a household with someone who wanted dogs to mean that I spent my weekends lugging a shovel and bucket of dog shit that had a smell that would strip paint.

I also learned to associate dog ownership with a few other things. Having your kittens ripped apart in front of your eyes, and having to clean up and repeatedly bury the remains of chickens ripped apart by dogs.

I want to take a moment to make it clear. I don’t hate all dogs for this. I do have a fear and loathing of anything that people claim to be a dog that stands under 1 foot tall. But THAT is a different story about classical conditioning. I do however, have no wish, desire or want to ever live in a house with dogs.

This is ironic, considering current circumstances, and that irony is not lost on me.
So – I came to associate spending what little free time I had with lugging around utterly noxious buckets of waste from someone else’s hobby.
It conditioned in me a hatred of the idea of dog ownership.
And an utter loathing intolerance of lazy dog owners who don’t care enough to clean up after their own dogs.

The idea of classical conditioning is the beginning of understanding learning.

But learning moved on from classical conditioning to operant conditioning.

So what makes operant conditioning different from classical conditioning?

Well I mentioned Pavlov and his dogs. They were conditioned to respond to an unrelated trigger, to generate the behavior after the trigger.

Operant conditioning is more post-hoc. Once something has been done, that behavior is rewarded or punished.

This need not be something deliberate or intentional, but it is still effective.

Let’s take for example, my cautionary tale of christmas for parents.

Some background, to fully appreciate this tale of misbegotten woe, it needs to be understood that the subject of this story, namely myself, has a problem with fine motor co-ordination. That is to say that I was diagnosed with a disability that if I remember correctly was called something like gross motor co-ordination disorder. What this means is that I have problems with hand-eye co-ordination of fine detail. And thus I will never have neat writing. No matter how much I practice, or try or get smacked across the knuckles for it, true story, I have the experimental results of all of this. Atrocious handwriting.

So, what import does this have for my childhood christmases?

Let me explain.

As far back as I can remember, the family christmas ritual went thusly.

No matter what time I awoke christmas morning, I was not to wake my parents, especially my father. I was not, under any circumstances, to so much as touch a single present. (NB:- this changed once my kid sister was old enough, we were given our stockings in our rooms and allowed to do what we wanted with that until he awoke, as long as we were not the cause of the awakening.)

Once my father woke up, my mother would be expected to provide a cooked breakfast or brunch. Still any presents were off limits on pain of punishment and lectures which always included much shouting and banishing.

After the meal had been eaten and cleaned away, I was allowed to bring people presents, one at a time, me last. Each present was unwrapped before the next was to be got. None of mine were to be un-packaged. Each of mine was to be carefully catalogued along with the sender or gifter. and nature of gift.

Once all of the presents had been opened, and more importantly to me at the time, before I was allowed to un-package or play with any of them. I was required to sit at the table and hand-write thankyou letters for each and every gift. These letters were to be a minimum of 2 pages, and were to be re-written if they did not meet his standards. This included people that were present for the gift unwrapping who had been thanked in person. It also included family members that I had never in my life so much as seen a photo of.

The effects of this punishment – because that is indeed what this is to a 3 year old – or even a 10 year old – was that I have not, in spite of my decades away from this environment, actually been excited or looking forward to christmas. And far from learning the value of thankyou letters, I learned the value of no gifts.

So what happened here? What was the method or cognitive path for this nugget of family gold?

The conditioning was generated by both negative and positive punishment.

  • Unable to jump right into gifts
    • Behaviour – express or experience joy or excitement related to christmas morning
    • Punishment – negative, pleasure was stopped, breach of behaviour resulted in loss of gifts.
    • Punishment – positive, breaches of behaviour resulted in yelled lectures and verbal abuse
  • Unable to play with gifts immediately
    • Behaviour – express or experience joy or fun, play with toys given as christmas gifts.
    • Punishment – negative, Fun was stopped, breach of behaviour resulted in loss of gifts
    • Punishment – positive, breaches of behaviour resulted in yelled lectures and verbal abuse.
  • Must write letters
    • Behaviour – write and re-write letters of thanks for gifts.
    • Punishment – negative, fun or happiness stopped, social interaction with any guests cut off.
    • Punishment – Positive, I was made to sit for hours on end writing and re-writing letters to people I had already personally thanked and people I had never met for things I had not been allowed to play with.
    • Punishment – positive enhanced. What was being expected was actually beyond my capabilities.

Thus, I learned my lessons well, christmas is a miserable time for me.


~ by scawalrus on November 28, 2011.

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