What is conditioning, and how does it affect our lives?

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written a post on the likes of Ron Weasley.  Where is the fire and brimstone?  Where are the charging hordes?  Where are the Kirbys, the Spocks, and the Sonic and Tales?  We all need a little bit of Patton in our lives, and I’ve been remiss in going astray.  So I want to talk first about a very important psychological phenomenon, and second about it’s implications for contemporary lives.

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Everyone and their grandma has heard of Ivan Pavlov.  But he was such an important man, and his ideas so profoundly impacted psychology, that he merits a recap.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist in the late 1800s.  He was a medical researcher, and he made important strides both in organ physiology and in the functioning of the nervous system.  He was particularly interested in the idea of “reflexes,” which is what brought him to his most famous works.

Pavlov was investigating the salivary response to foods when he happened upon a phenomenon now known as classical conditioning. What he found was that dogs salivated not just at the sight of food, but also at the occurrence of “food is coming” signals.  First, the dogs responded only to the food itself.  Then, after having food delivered with the sound of a bell for a certain period of time, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell.  Even without food present, the dogs salivated.  They had been conditioned to salivate, and no amount of mental “no no no” would stop the saliva from coming.

What does this mean for human beings?

This means that we can condition responses to just about anything.  Repeat a certain event with a stimuli for a certain amount of time– say, dinner (the event) at six o’clock (the stimuli) or food (again, the event) when I see a Starbucks (again, the stimuli)– we come to expect these things.   Naps in the afternoon, workouts in the morning, the same drinks every time we hang out with the same friends…

Moreover, it is not just a psychological expectation, but a physiological expectation.  I had a professor in college prove this to us.   For two months he would ring a bell then submerge his arm under hot water.  His arm would turn red.   At the end of two months, he rang the bell, without submerging his arm, and his blood vessels opened up, and his arm turned red.  Make no mistakes about it.  Classical conditioning is a very, very real thing.

We also have things called “habits” which are very similar to conditioned responses, only less specific and less strong.   Both are inherent parts of our every day lives.  Both are powerful, and both are hard things to break.

A lot of what we do in life is ruled by habit.  Habit makes things easier.  I always sit in the same seat in class, I eat a lot of the same foods, and I often eat at the same times.  Cool.  These are all helpful things.  But I also have some nasty habits.  I eat every time I come home.  Sometimes this act is so ingrained and subconscious that I have consumed an entire chicken leg before I even know I have food in my mouth.  Yikes.   Some other bad habits I have had in my life are eating while I talk to my mom, walking down the “bad” aisles of grocery stores, and pulling over every time I see a sweet potato cart.  These were subconscious, powerful, and–don’t forget–physiological compulsions.  They ruled my behavior.

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It’s not all BAD NEWS BEARS for team humanity, however.  And why not?

Because as easily as we are conditioned to bad habits, we are broken of them. Without the hot water my professor’s arm still turned red, but each day afterwards, when the stimuli of the bell was rung, but the result of the hot water was absent, his arm got a little bit less red.  Within two weeks it didn’t happen at all, and he felt no difference.   He was, by then, conditioned to the new order of things, which was: ring bell, have nothing happen.  Cool!   We can be programmed to respond, but we can also be re-programmed, or de-programmed, to have different responses.

So if I forcibly stop myself from walking to the refrigerator the next time I go home, I will be de-facto starting the de-conditioning process.  Each time I do that it takes me further down that road.  This process is difficult as hell, especially at first, but each time gets easier and easier.  I can build up momentum in this way.  The more and more time we spend actively denying a bad habit, the easier and easier it becomes to let go.

How does this relate to Mr. Weasley?

Well.   It’s about being the hero of your own life. It’s about recognizing your bad habits, and about owning up to them, and facing them dead on.  It’s about being honest with yourself, and determined, and about taking action.  In a lot of ways, it boils down to bravery.  Here, we have the science to back us up.  We know what the road is going to be like.  We know it’s tough, but we also know that it gets easier over time.  We know that we have conditioned ourselves to act a certain way, but we also know that we can de-condition that behavior.   The first time you get yourself past the McDonald’s without pulling over, it’s an enormous struggle, but it’s also a momentous victory.  Huzzah!  And the second time, it’s still a struggle, but it’s yet another victory.  Bad habits suck.  Let’s be real.  But letting them rule your life and perpetuate disordered eating is even more horrific.  Be a Ron Weasley.  Be an Odysseus.  Be Mufasa.  Whatever.  Whoever.  Use every tool you have at your disposal to improve your life, then commit, and do it, god damnit.

Easy Peasy.  Pavlov says so, and he was the man.

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06 2011

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  1. 1

    Holy Crap this is a good post! Some how I had never connected the two together. Palm face! Habits and conditioning. I wished your post was longer. I would like to see you turn over some more rocks. You would have thought that studying NLP and other self-help stuff would have lead me to realize the link between habits and conditioning. I guess it was the physiologic aspect I wasn’t connecting. It is kind of scary stuff when you realize how important ever action you take, or don’t take is in developing habits.



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