Thursday, March 29, 2018


Most of the “skills” we possess are merely patterns of behavior to which we have intentionally conditioned ourselves.   We learn that a given behavior is connected to a given outcome, and this becomes part of our mental programming.  It is not always intentional: connections are formed based on experiences, whether or not we mean to make associations, they are made.

Consider the Razran experiment, which a group of students was treated to a series of luncheons.  For the test group, the same music was played each time.   Later, the students were asked to evaluate a number of pieces of music and indicate what the music made them think of – naturally, the group associated the music that had been played at the luncheons with food or eating.  No such association was made by a control group.   It is simply because the two coincided that the connection was made.

However, conditioned reflexes are a temporary adjustment that requires reinforcement.   Once Pavlov’s dog had been conditioned to associate a bell and food, it would salivate at the sound of the bell even if no food was presented.  But if the bell was sounded and no food was presented, the association would in time be broken.     It is not a matter of a coincidence always/never occurring, but an assessment of the possibility of a coincidence.  The probability is not consciously calculated, but unconsciously assessed according to the recentness, frequency, and intensity of the association and related stimuli.

In more complex behavior patterns, a person develops skill at a task my learning a pattern of activities and behaviors that lead to success.   He continues to follow the same pattern in the past, expecting the same outcome in the future.   If he fails to receive that outcome, he tries the same activity again, assuming he did something wrong.   It takes a few attempts for it to dawn on him that the procedure that worked in the past is no longer working (generally because of a change in the conditions) and to consider a different approach to achieving his goals.  The more complex the pattern or the more protracted the process, the sooner the individual will recognize the problem, hence it is harder to train and harder to break training.

And so, conditioned behavior is natural part of human life, and is often used in obvious and beneficial ways.   We develop good habits and learn skills by conditioning ourselves – and when we raise a child, teach a student, habituate a customer, or train an employee we are leveraging the exact same mechanisms to condition them.   

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