Friday, May 02, 2014

The Consequences of Self-Reinforcing Bad Behavior

From an earlier post entitled The Radical Notion of Consequences:
Imagine if, when you were sixteen years old, you had been shocked just as you reached out to touch that first can of purloined beer.

Would you have reached for a second? A third? Would you have ever drunk a six pack?

And if you had not, would you have done better in school? Would you have married a different girl or gotten a different job?

Would three or four well-timed shocks have changed the entire trajectory of your life?


But, of course, that's not what happened, is it?

Instead, you drank the first beer, and the first beer drank the second beer, and before you can say "Bob's your Uncle" you had downed a six pack and discovered the joys of being drunk with members of the opposite sex.

Of course, when people drink, bad things eventually happen. People get sick, they say or do something they shouldn't, they embarrass themselves.

And yet, people still drink. We humans are slow learners and quick forgetters.

Why? Why are we slow learners when it comes to things like booze?

Well, to put it bluntly, beer, fate and society are not very good animal trainers.

All three elements allow for long periods of self-reinforcing pleasure punctuated by episodic (and sometimes apparently random) negative outcomes.

Often these negative outcomes are not all that painful. We survive hangovers, clean up the vomit, make our apologies, and we do not change our behavior too much.

Of course, alcohol intoxication is only one form of self-reinforcing behavior. Others include driving too fast, coming to work late, leaving work early, and spending more money than we actually have.

Provided nothing really bad happens, these bad behaviors will not go away.

Only when we "feel the heat" do we "see the light." Even then, the heat must be consistent and far enough outside our comfort zone to counter-balance the reward implicit to any self-reinforcing behavior.

The good news is that if a well-timed and consistent aversive experience is delivered, we learn quickly.

In fact, if we were all given a mild shock every time we went over the speed limit (rather than a random ticket we pay later), I think most of us would stop speeding in short order, and thousands of lives a year might be saved. Lesson learned, and it would not take a long time to learn it!

Of course, positive reinforcement can also work on self-reinforcing behaviorsprovided the subject wants to change the way they are doing business, and provided that the reinforcement does not fade off.

Alcoholics Anonymous works provided you go to meetings, because it reinforces the decision not to drink.

But self-reinforcing behaviors are, to quote AA -- "cunning, powerful, and patient".

 If alcoholics stop going to meetings, they lose positive reinforcement and they will tend to slip back into an "old way of thinking," i.e. when depression, anxiety, exhilaration, or boredom rear their head, the response may be to turn to a single beer or glass of wine.

That may be all that it takes to end i

As the Japanese say: "The first drink drinks the second drink, the second drink drinks the third, and the third drink drinks the man."

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