Psychological learning theory

I briefly covered behavior modification in a prior post. In this post I’ll explain classical and operant conditioning in more detail, with examples to illustrate the concepts. The principles of behaviorism, or learning theory, are fundamental to the science of psychology. Two of the names most commonly associated with behavioral psychology are J. B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. Two key words in learning theory are stimulus and response.

Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning, based on Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments with drooling dogs. Salivation is what behaviorists call an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus – the presentation of food. In other words, neither dogs nor humans have to be taught to salivate when we see and smell food that appeals to us. A bell is initially a neutral stimulus, having nothing to do with food or salivation. But when a bell is rung every time food is presented, it becomes a conditioning stimulus, as the brain learns to associate it with mealtime. Eventually the ringing of the bell alone, without the presentation of food, will stimulate salivation – a conditioned response.

Classical conditioning is one of the most powerful tools used by marketers and advertisers to condition behavior on a mass scale, through the popular media. They systematically condition consumers to associate pleasant or desirable things with symbols such as McDonalds’ golden arches, logos, slogans, jingles, and attractive people giving sales pitches. They use it because it works. You see bikini-clad babes posing at car and boat shows because it increases the sales of the cars and boats  they’re posing in front of.

Where classical conditioning is a passive mode of learning, involving the creation of unconscious associations, operant conditioning involves systematic responses that shape a target behavior, making it occur either more frequently or less frequently. The process starts with recording the baseline frequency of the target behavior, i.e. how frequently it naturally occurs without systematic reinforcements being applied. Things that happen consistently as a consequence of the target behavior will tend to make it occur more frequently, if followed by a rewarding – or positively reinforcing – response (e.g. praise, money, candy, affection, etc.). If an expected reward is withheld – negative reinforcement – or the behavior is somehow punished – aversive reinforcement – the behavior tends to occur less frequently. Negative reinforcement is also used to increase the frequency of the behavior, when an aversive consequence (e.g. pain, shaming) is removed/avoided.

We might go to work even if we don’t really want to, because we know that our behavior will be reinforced by a paycheck. We know that if we stop going to work, the reinforcer will be withheld. Operant conditioning is the way we shape the behavior of our children, and train animals to obey our commands or to learn tricks. It explains the motivation athletes have to spend long hours exercising and practicing their skills.

The other principle to understand about operant conditioning is ratios of reinforcement, which can determine how lasting a conditioned behavior is. A hungry, caged rat can be taught to press a lever relatively quickly, if it’s rewarded with a food pellet every time the lever is pressed – a 1:1 ratio of reinforcement. But if you stop reinforcing the learned behavior with food, it won’t persist. In order to make the new behavior more persistent, you gradually “thin out” the frequency of reinforcement, perhaps starting with a 1:2 ratio. Now the rat only gets food every second time it presses the lever. Then you can go to other fixed ratios (1:3, 1:4); but if the ratio becomes too thin or if the food pellets stop coming, the learned behavior ceases, or in behavioral terms is extinguished.

If you really want a target behavior to persist without reinforcing it at a fixed interval, you move to a variable ratio: you vary the ratio, so the rat doesn’t know how many times it will have to press the lever (1:2, then 1:5, then 1:3, then 1:6, then 1:2, etc.) in order to get the food pellet. A hungry rat will keep pressing the bar, having learned that it will eventually get rewarded with a pellet. A well-fed rat will find better things to do with its time.

To take this to the level of human conditioning, think of the difference between a vending machine (with a 1:1 ratio of reinforcement) and a slot machine (with a variable rate of reinforcement). Every time you feed the required amount of money into a soda machine and press a button, you expect to get a soda. If you don’t and you’re very thirsty, you might try a second time. But if your behavior isn’t reinforced the second time, you certainly won’t keep feeding money to the machine.

But if you’re sitting at a slot machine, you don’t expect to be reinforced every time you put in a quarter and pull the lever. You might  get a sequence like this: nothing, $2, nothing, nothing, $5, nothing, nothing, nothing, $3, nothing, nothing, etc.. The behavior of feeding money to the machine and pulling the lever might persist until you’re out of money. Gambling machines have been called “addictive” because when we get money back from the machine, we get a jolt of the neurotransmitter serotonin ( a positive reinforcer) and persist, anticipating the next jolt – much like a hungry rat conditioned to persist in pressing a lever, knowing it will eventually get a food pellet.

Mental pollution, Part 2

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything I wrote, “As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of behavior in the service of commerce.” Propaganda, which I wrote about in my last post, is only one psychotechnology  of influence used by the propaganda industries – advertising, public relations and political consultancy. Behavior modification is another. According to psychological learning theory (behaviorism) there are two means of systematically conditioning behavior: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is exemplified by Pavlov’s experiments with dogs and is a passive mode of conditioning. Knowing that dogs reflexively salivate when presented with food, Pavlov conditioned his dogs to have the same reaction to the ringing of a bell, ringing it whenever food was presented. Over time, the dogs came to associate the two previously unrelated stimuli, learning to salivate whenever the bell was rung. This kind of associative learning is routinely used by advertisers and marketers to get consumers to associate their product or brand with something they already like or want.

Operant conditioning is an active mode of conditioning, in which a targeted behavior is systematically reinforced. If you expect from experience to be rewarded for what you do, it increases the odds that you’ll do it. This is the method used to teach rats to press a lever in their cage to get food, and to train dolphins to jump through hoops. An example of this in TV advertising is, “Call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.”

As promised in my last post, here are some of the techniques used by propagandists to influence and persuade. Probably the most frequently used techniques in the media is assertion – either an outright lie, or stating an opinion as if it were a fact, without first saying “I think” or “in my opinion.” Any ad that says “We’re the best/least expensive” without providing factual evidence falls in this category. I think that the second most frequently used propaganda technique is ad nauseam. A lie repeated and repeated and repeated can come to be perceived as the truth. Three other, related, techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message and any contrary facts are left out or misrepresented. Sometimes the message mixes facts and lies or half-truths; sometimes facts are blended with unsubstantiated opinions (assertions) in a manner designed to obscure the objective truth.

With transfer, a classical conditioning technique, an attempt is made to create an association (positive or negative) between two unrelated things. Using an American flag as a backdrop for a political message is an example of positive transfer. Showing a picture of the opposition candidate with a Hitler mustache superimposed is an example of negative transfer. Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the in-crowd, join the winning side, avoid being left behind with the losers. (Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?) Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally loaded generalities that have no objective basis for definition, such as “freedom lover,” “perfect gift for all occasions,” or “best country in the world.”

Name calling can take the form of sarcasm and ridicule, or can employ the assertion technique, such as calling a political candidate a closet Communist, or a secret ISIS supporter, or “weak on crime.” With ad hominem, instead of dealing with the message, the messenger is attacked: “Don’t believe anything he says,” or “fake news.” Simplification offers simple solutions for complex problems, and is often seen in the form of slogans. Pinpointing the enemy and  stereotyping were used by the Nazi propaganda machine to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism and to justify Hitler’s genocidal “final solution.”

Appeal to authority attempts to create a positive association. Examples are celebrity endorsements, a politician invoking the name of an icon such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or an actor in a commercial wearing a white lab coat to suggest that she’s a doctor or a scientific expert. “Nine-out-of-ten dentists recommend _______” is another example.

There are other propaganda techniques that you can read about in my book, but these are some of the most commonly used by professional persuaders. Some commercials and political messages use several, to disguise the fact that what they deliver is not information. These classic propaganda techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA), a non-partisan educational organization that, unfortunately, only existed from 1937-42. The IPA distributed information about propaganda analysis to schools and civic organizations. One reason we’ve become a Propaganda Society is that we don’t have anything like the IPA to educate the public at large, and propaganda analysis isn’t taught in our public schools.

In my next post I’ll return to my usual subject matter and look into the pathological condition commonly known as “multiple personalities.”

Programming your brain

The human brain is wired to be adaptive. We humans are “the magic animal” because we can imagine things that don’t exist and create them, and see things not only as they are, but as they could be. Our limitations as individuals are often determined by our limited thinking. As a therapist I sometimes had the privilege of working with people whose goal in therapy was personal growth, and of seeing them grow. Two fundamental questions for such clients are, “How do you want to change?” and “What do you see as hindering you from making that change?” Insight may play a role in the process of choosing to change your behavior, but it often requires learning and practicing new skills. One of the psycho-educational groups I used to teach was “Skills for Growth.”

One apt metaphor for growth psychology is upgrading your mental programming. A good therapist can help people to identify outdated or defective programs in their operating system, and to upgrade them with new “software.” There’s growing evidence of the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is to say that behavioral changes can actually “re-wire” synaptic connections in the brain, making it easier to maintain the new behavior.

We all inherit beliefs from our social environments as we grow up, whether those beliefs shape our behavior in a functional or dysfunctional manner. Clusters of beliefs about this or that aspect of life are known as schemas, and they guide our behavior for better or worse. For instance, Fred grew up in a family where his father dominated his mother, sometimes yelling at her and slapping her around. His father taught him that the husband “wears the pants in the family” and that sometimes husbands have to hit their wives, to remind them who’s boss. This is Fred’s schema – mental model – for marriage until he falls in love with Susie, who believes (like her parents) that husbands and wives should be equal partners in marriage. So Fred goes to pre-marital counseling with Susie, at her insistence, and realizes that she’ll never be a submissive wife like his mother. He comes to realize that his  “marriage programming” is outdated and needs an upgrade, if he wants to marry Susie. So he listens and learns, upgrading his schema regarding marriage.

Similarly, Angela may decide that she needs to replace her stress relief schema and stop relying on alcohol and other drugs to chill out. And Paul may decide that he doesn’t like being programmed for dependency, and install new programming for increased autonomy and initiative-taking. Upgrading your programming doesn’t necessarily require the help of a therapist, if you’re a self-starter. Once you become aware that there are upgrades for obsolete or ineffective programs, you can re-program on your own. New possibilities become visible when we change our thinking and examine our attitudes.

We can use mnemonic devices – memory aids – to change bad habits, setting rules and keeping score to systematically reinforce desired behavior changes. As an example, I decided to establish a zero-tolerance policy regarding my occasional failure to turn off stove burners or the oven after cooking. I chose as my mnemonic device turning on the stove light whenever I’m cooking. Ideally, I don’t leave the kitchen to eat until I’ve turned off the light, and I don’t turn the light off until I’ve made sure that all the burners and the oven are turned off. This works most of the time. The consequence for leaving a burner or the oven on after I’ve finished cooking is that I record it on a calendar that hangs near the stove. I don’t like having to record failures, so in the language of behavior modification this is a mildly aversive consequence. But it’s enough to shape my behavior in the desired direction, and I have an accurate record of my rate of behavior change. It’s been over six months since my last transgression, and I intend to keep on with my protocol until I’ve “extinguished the target behavior” entirely, and go for a whole year without a slip. By then I will have created a new reflex behavior and, perhaps, a new synaptic connection in my brain.

Behavior modification is all about targeted and systematic behavior change, but you don’t have to be in therapy to use the principles to re-shape your behavior. You can set goals and create your own plan. Announcing your goal to friends and loved ones, and establishing meaningful consequences for not making measurable progress toward your goals, can help. Consequences can include positive reinforcers (rewards, tangible or intangible), negative reinforcers (withholding positive reinforcers), and/or aversive consequences, like marking your calendar every time you fail to achieve your target behavior, or having to admit to your friends that you didn’t meet your goal.

Mental rehearsal is part of programming ourselves – positively or negatively – for the achievement of goals. We rehearse for upcoming events in our minds, sometimes encountering anticipatory anxiety. Sometimes we reflexively rehearse for failure, ruminating about everything that could go wrong in our upcoming performance, whether on the stage, in the bedroom, or in the conference room. Sometimes we give up and stop trying because we convince ourselves that we can’t succeed. Rule number one in rehearsing for success is not to ruminate on failure scenarios, or to focus on your doubts and insecurities. Rule number two is to actively rehearse for success, behaviorally and attitudinally. If it’s a public performance of some kind, practice, practice, practice until you’ve got it down to a reflex. And then harness the power of your imagination to rehearse for success. If it’s a public speaking engagement you’re nervous about, perform it in front of a mirror repeatedly and imagine the enthusiastic applause you’ll get – or even a standing ovation!

Teaching psycho-educational groups, I used to cite a psychological experiment I’d heard about in which two groups of ten people with average basketball free throw skills were to have ten free throws for record, to see whether Team A or Team B would score more baskets. Team A got to have ten practice throws before throwing for record. Team B was told to relax and visualize ten perfect throws in front of a cheering crowd. Obviously, Team B scored higher. While the members of Team A sunk some baskets and missed others while practicing, the members of Team B had a mental set of 100% success. I can’t give you a reference to this particular experiment in motivational psychology, but I can tell you that visualization of optimal performance and success is an important element in sports psychology. Visualizing positive outcomes – rehearsing for success – can help anyone to perform at their best, if they’re well-prepared.

If we discover that one of our mental programs/schemas is obsolete and limits our potentials, we can upgrade to an improved program that allows for new possibilities. Our past is not our potential.