Saturday, July 18, 2009

Behavior is Maintained by Its Consequences

I’ve no idea why I was compelled to write the following, but I did, and here it is.

Written 16 July, 2009

Behavior is Maintained by Its Consequences

I once knew a woman who had a stalker, a real one, one who was smitten with her and did all the things stalkers usually do. He wasn’t the really scary sort of stalker, more an Elmer Fudd sort of stalker (which, come to think of it, might be the scariest stalker-type of all!). He would sit in front of her house some nights, all night long.

One cold night she went outside and gave him a blanket and a thermos of hot coffee.


A blanket and a cuppa? No WONDER he kept stalking her!

I’m a behaviorist. I understand that behavior is maintained by its consequences. When stalking someone gets you hot coffee and a blanket, your stalking behavior is reinforced. And guess what? You’ll continue stalking.

That man stalked that woman for years. And why? Because she was unable to persistently ignore him. Eventually she would break down and reinforce him with a word, with a look, with a blanket. That put him on a variable schedule of reinforcement, which is almost impossible to extinguish. And so she was stuck with him for years.

The schedules of reinforcement were discovered in the laboratories of psychologist B.F. Skinner more than half a century ago. They’re empirical, meaning they were discovered through thousands of hours of observation of all sorts of animals, human and otherwise. Here’s a good short discussion.
For a more detailed description, see here.

Knowing the schedules of reinforcement, and, more so, understanding that they work with humans as well as pigeons and rats, has stood me in good stead in this life—and I’ve known people who set themselves up for a lot of grief because they couldn’t quite make themselves believe the laws of behavior apply to humans. Or even to nonhuman animals.

Here’s an example: Back in the 80s, I had a friend with a cat problem. She had made the mistake of feeding a stray of two, and now she had a dozen or so cats showing up at her back stoop every morning, yowling and demanding to be fed.

“They’re driving me crazy!” She said. “Please do something about them.”

They really WERE driving her crazy. Four times in as many months, she had started her Chevy Nova and a cat had fallen to the ground, dead. Some had died of broken necks; others had been disemboweled (see the note below for an explanation). She had begun to leave the hood open all night and she would yell and beat on the fenders with a broom before starting the car, but it wasn’t helping. Cats were still falling from under the hood, dead. Now she had four dead cats on her conscience and a dozen live ones on her stoop.

For a week or so I watched my friend’s behavior toward the cats on her doorstep. She would scream at them and chase them and refuse to feed them, but by the third or fourth day she would feel sorry for them and give them food.

“Okay, I said. “I know how to get rid of your cats.”

“How?” she asked suspiciously. “I’m not calling animal control. They’ll gas them.”

I said, “If you were to stop feeding those cats today, they would still be on your stoop a month from now. That’s because they never know when food will show up—but they know if they wait long enough, it eventually will. They’ve learned that persistence pays. So if you stopped feeding them they wouldn’t realize it for a long time. It will take them a long time to realize it’s no longer working. You have those cats on a variable interval/variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, and that means their behavior will be difficult to extinguish unless you change the schedule.

“So here’s what you do. Start feeding the cats every day, and at the same time. Be consistent. Feed them for three weeks. Then just stop. They’ll show up on your stoop and yowl and fuss, but by the end of a week they’ll be gone.”

“I don’t think I could last a week listening to them,” she said. “I’m sure I would break down and feed them.”

“Okay, then,” I said. “Feed them for three days on your stoop. Then keep right on feeding them, at the same time a day— but every day move the bowl another 15 or so feet from your house. In two weeks the bowl will be far away. Feed them a couple more days, then stop, cold turkey. The cats will show up where they were last fed. They’ll yowl, but you won’t hear them. One or two might come back to your stoop, but if no food is forthcoming, they’ll soon go away.”

She didn’t do what I suggested. And, years later, guess what? She still had yowling cats on her doorstoop.

It’s because of all this that I avoid reinforcing bad behavior of all sorts in Second Life. I don’t give griefers the satisfaction of knowing they’re bothering me; that’s what they live for. It’s the opposite of getting an obscene phone call and saying, “Hello? HELLO? Who IS THIS? You stop calling here! What’s wrong with you? Don’t you DARE call here again.” They live for that stuff. I mute them and file an abuse report.

I don’t give money to beggars; I mute them. If begging never paid off, they would soon stop.

When people try to manipulate or use me, I don’t reinforce them by playing their head games. I mute them.

And you can bet I don’t bring my stalkers blankets and hot coffee.


Note: I liked my friend’s Nova so much I eventually bought one of my own. I, too, adopted a cat, a kitten who had come up to me at my new home and rubbed against my leg. I’m not much of a cat person, but this one charmed me. I had begun to feed it and we were well on our way to being cat-and-human. And then one morning I started my car and felt a thump. I got out and there the cat was on the sidewalk, stone dead, its insides mostly outside. It was an emotional disaster—and that was just ONE cat. Imagine my friend, who had bagged four!

My theory is the cats were nestling in the engine compartment of my Nova, and my friend’s, as a nice and sometimes warm hiding space. Wherever they lay, they must have put themselves in the path of the metal fan and the fan belt. When the starter turned the fan...

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