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.”