Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Conditioning of Man

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.

There was an experiment (Razran) in 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.  It is because the two coincided that the connection was made, even though there was no intent or overt awareness.

However, it’s noted that 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 over time 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 probability of a coincidence.   While it is highly unlikely that dogs can consciously calculate probabilities, they may be unconsciously estimated 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 (under new conditions) and to consider a different approach to achieving his goals.  The more complex the pattern or the more protracted the process, the more difficult it is for the individual will recognize the connection, hence it is harder to train and harder to break training for complex tasks.

And so, conditioned behavior is 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, or train an employee we are leveraging the exact same mechanisms to condition them.   It is even being leveraged when we attempt to learn something by trial and error: the natural consequences of action being the reward or punishment that reinforces or discourages behavioral patterns.

On an ethical note, there is some argument to be made whether this conditioning should be considered education or brainwashing – but the difference is entirely political: it depends on whether we agree to the end to which these techniques are used.  Parents and teachers “trick” children into developing good habits and the “treatment” given by therapists can be intentionally done without informing the patient of their intentions. 

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