Beyond Good, Evil, Freedom, and Dignity

BF.NA comparison of concepts from B.F Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”.

 

There was something about these two books that piqued my interest, and it was not until reading them again, together, that I saw that the similarities went beyond the titles. For those who have not been introduced to these individuals and their contributions; Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th-century philosopher known for dealing with topics of existentialism and nihilism, and Burrhus Frederic (B.F) Skinner was a 20th-century psychologist and behaviorist interested in the natural science of behavior. Aside from the similarities in their names, and the names of the titles of their two works, few parallels have been drawn between these figures. I think there is a great deal of overlap, conceptually, between these two books, and although the conclusions of both authors diverge quite differently, the path and observations on the world and history are strikingly alike.

When it comes to B.F Skinner, I have been interested in the academic and philosophic lineage of his work, and existentialist philosophers have never been a reference or topic I’ve noticed before. Pragmatism, yes, and Roy A. Moxley (2004) did an amazing piece on the influences of Charles Sanders Pierce & John Dewey on Skinner’s conceptualization of the three-term contingency and broader behavioral selectionist theory. No Nietzsche. Not even once as far as I could tell. It raises some questions with me, then, in how these two books are so similarly constructed. Both seem to tackle a very similar topic, broad as it is, the actions of people, and their morality (which comes very close to dignity, in Skinner’s usage, in my estimation). They start with Western history and philosophy and even reference the same ancient Greek precepts as foundations to build their arguments and points from. Both appear to lead up to their current history and take into account their contemporary issues when presenting their philosophical conclusions. I am not a professional book reviewer or a literary scholar, so this process of literature exploration is outside of my wheelhouse, but I would like to lay out some pieces from both of these works to open the door comparatively. Both of these authors picked the right word “Beyond”. Both works present a series of presuppositions in their contemporary times and aim to progress past them rationally.

Skinner and Nietzsche: The Problems of Their Times

Context is important when reading and interpreting both of these authors. They were both big thinkers. Brilliant. Both wildly controversial. That tends to mean they had opinions, unpopular ones, but ones that they put out into the world rigorously supported by the assertions in their work.

Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Germany, and served in the Franco-Prussian war where he received grievous injuries that he never recovered from. “Beyond Good and Evil” was written after that. After the war, he wrote on the contemporary topics that he believed were essential to human progress and critiqued entrenched falsehoods that he believed were subverting people’s potential and lives. Morality was a big subject for him. Unlike other existentialist philosophers of his time, he was not so backseat and uncertain about it. He proposed that morality was separate from the Western religious belief systems and structures that were entrenched in society, and believed that willpower had the power to transcend these societal limitations. Traditional morality (societal and religious), to him, was making people weak. They needed to improve themselves, with their own morality and their own will, to be strong. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Nietzsche suggests that the words “Good” and “Evil” were malleable concepts that change over time, and were not fixed. Fear was a motivator for morality, he proposed, and that there was a mistake in believing that “mass morality” or the moral beliefs of the groups/society had any higher importance than an individual’s personal morality. Hold onto that thought.

Skinner’s work in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1972) came from a very different time historically. In the 1970’s, the Cold War raised probabilities of worldwide escalation and catastrophe. In the first chapter alone, Skinner broached the topics of overpopulation, global starvation, nuclear war, and disease. Skinner did some philosophical work himself, but his main focus was as a psychologist and behaviorist interested in focusing on psychology as a natural science, to see human behavior as measurable and observable, and aim scientific pursuit as a “technology of behavior” to solve the problems of our time. In many ways, it was a utopian idea, and he expands on that vision in his fictional work “Walden Two”. Engineering society with this science was within humanity’s grasp. Skinner looked broadly at the ills of the world, and believed that there were some pieces of cultural and societal misunderstanding that was holding it back. Like Nietzsche, his observations strayed away from metaphysical interpretation. Skinner believed that natural sciences like physics and biology had made the leaps that psychology had not. People were still hung up on antiquated interpretations of human behavior. To Skinner, it was the environment and history of reinforcement/punishment that could be used to describe human action. He believed that mentalistic concepts such as “inner capacities” were circular, and lead to no useful distinction of a phenomenon or process that could benefit scientific discovery. Human behavior could be shaped by environment, and act on the environment as an operant. His work aimed to remove the ideas of absolute human freedom, and dignity in the sense of viewing the human being as the “fully autonomous man”; these were not practical representations of human behavior to Skinner. Full autonomy, free choice, with no input from the environment was nonsensical, which begged the question as to how free will was actually free when it was under the control of environmental stimuli, to begin with. Conceptualizing human behavior under the contingencies that Skinner proposed, including reinforcement and punishment, removes those antiquated and pre-scientific distinctions, and by removing them, people would no longer be under any false illusions and could take control of their behavior.

 

Where They Come Together, and Where They Differ

Both Nietzsche and Skinner’s line of thought come from a disagreement with the broader idea of humanity by contemporary society. For Nietzsche, it was a societal and religious misunderstanding of morality. For Skinner, it was a societal and historical pre-scientific misunderstanding of human behavior. Both “Beyond Good and Evil” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” do touch on similar points by their end: human behavior and morality. Both authors hit the same nail in two very different ways, both using historical context to do so and their own interpretation and findings from their own work and lives. There are some interesting divergences too, mainly on the topic of science and empirical materialism. B.F Skinner was very much interested in the material world and observable findings, which nearly 100 years prior, Nietzsche also had to deal with. In Nietzsche’s time, the late 19th century, these concepts were still budding, but rational observation of the world and the field of psychology was relatively recent in the form of psychoanalysis. He describes some of his ideas on the topic of science and the metaphysical soul in “Beyond Good and Evil”:

“Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul of subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,” want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science. In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust—it is possible that the older psychologists had a merrier and more comfortable time of it; eventually, however, he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.

Psychologists should bethink themselves before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to DISCHARGE its strength—life itself is WILL TO POWER; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent RESULTS thereof. “- Nietzsche (1886)

You can see here that Nietzsche is still strongly proposing that even in the area of science, psychology, and the soul, that willpower is an overlooked and undeniably important factor. I do find an interesting subpoint in there, in the process of invention and discovery by new psychologists, which nearly a century later would include Skinner himself. Although Nietzsche was strongly against the idea of science reducing everything to material reality, and I believe would take strong opposition to Skinner’s ideas on mentalistic representations of “soul” and morality, there is a great deal they share in their ways of tackling broader problems of their time, and interpretations of humanity as open to the future and unfixed. Humanity, to them, was not something that is and always will be the same. For very different reasons, Skinner and Nietzsche had a strange optimism of humanity in the wide and open possibility that either willpower, for Nietzsche, or contingencies for Skinner, could do for humanity as a whole.

B.F Skinner took a look at human morality himself in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” when exploring the concept of cultural control, or behavioral control from the contingencies of a broader group, which included cultural, or rule-governed behavior and walked the line of evolution in both cultural and biological aspects both effecting one another to form a morality that was also “created” in a sense by evolution and sensitivity to cultural factors of control. Biological evolution making us sensitive to the evolution of cultural contingency. It’s a point that packs a punch.

“The practical question, which we have already considered, is how remote consequences can be made effective. Without help a person acquires very little moral or ethical behaviour under either natural or social contingencies. The group supplies supporting contingencies when it describes its practices in codes or rules which tell the individual how to behave and when it enforces those rules with supplementary contingencies. Maxims, proverbs, and other forms of folk wisdom give a person reasons for obeying rules. Governments and religions formulate the contingencies they maintain somewhat more explicitly, and education imparts rules which make it possible to satisfy both natural and social contingencies without being directly exposed to them.

This is all part of the social environment called a culture, and the main effect, as we have seen, is to bring the individual under the control of the remoter consequences of his behaviour. The effect has had survival value in the process of cultural evolution, since practices evolve because those who practise them are as a result better off. There is a kind of natural morality in both biological and cultural evolution. Biological evolution has made the human species more sensitive to its environment and more skilful in dealing with it. Cultural evolution was made possible by biological evolution, and it has brought the human organism under a much more sweeping control of the environment.”-Skinner (1972)

Two very different views, both denying a common cultural interpretation or framework for psychology, human behavior, and morality, but leaving a wide berth for future change, that in a sense is within humanity’s realm of control. I found those two shades of interpretation to be incredibly interesting, especially in morality. Remember that Nietzsche was well aware of the impact of “group morality”, and advised against its importance over the individual’s morality. Skinner also makes a nod to group forms of morality and seems to believe we are uniquely and biologically sensitive to it. I would love to have heard a conversation between the two of them on that. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. I suggest anyone who found their interest piqued to read both works and come to conclusions of your own.

By Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

 

References:

Moxley, R. A. (2004). Pragmatic selectionism: The philosophy of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5(1), 108-125.

Nietzsche, F. N. (2007). Beyond good and evil. Place of publication not identified: Filiquarian Pub.

Ozmon, H. (2012). Philosophical foundations of education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia

Behavioral Therapy (ABA): Beyond Ethical

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This is an opinion piece which was inspired by a few sources recently, which I believe although anecdotal, has some insight from 10+ years of doing therapy, both behavior analytic and counseling. I was reading an article that came up online, one of those anti-ABA groups that search the internet selectively, for studies that support their views on this specific type of therapy. This article in specific was called “Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis”, and it seemed independently researched and not peer reviewed, whose findings were based off of subjective surveys, with questions worded negatively suggesting inherent bias. I am not here to review it. Suffice to say, I found it unconvincing, but it did raise questions. What if there were practitioners out there that were causing harm? Subscribing to a set of ethics is not too difficult, but if you don’t know why, you might lose sight of the principle of it being there; to do the right thing.

In Applied Behavior Analysis, there are rigorous codes of ethics. Codes that have to be studied and make up a large portion of the board examination, and beyond that, ever re-certification cycle requires hours of continuing education on the topic. However, I find, that it’s still hypothetically possible to meet all of that ethical rigor, and still fall short of doing a proper job of maintaining a positive and supportive relationship with clients. Nothing inherently dangerous, or harmful, per say, but still leave a neutral or negative view of the experience down the line. I don’t think any practitioner, BCBA or not, would want something like that if they could help it.

A famous humanist psychologist named Carl Rogers came up with one of the best precepts for therapy I’ve ever heard of. He called it ; Unconditional positive regard. It is exactly as it sounds; acceptance and respect from the clinician towards the client, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be continuous genuine joy, or merriment for every second of each session, but it does require the clinician to have one thing if they want to keep this therapeutic relationship going, and expect it to work well; positive regard for that individual no matter what happens in that session. Mainly, because all therapy, even ABA, is a relationship. It requires two people, or even more, and those interactions are in a sense what we model for our clients. It’s important that they know that they are respected, and the door will be open every time for them, unconditionally, and it has to be genuine.

There are situations that can cause some friction in any therapeutic relationship. Every single therapeutic field has it. With ABA it takes on a more difficult form, I think, especially when some of our clients do not have language, or any interest in forming a rapport, or even interest in any other person at all, therapist included. Sometimes clients can get aggressive; both verbally and physically, and sometimes therapists take on both kinds of scars. It’s not easy work. Sometimes that unconditional positive regard takes some effort. Behaviorally, you could call that all of the operants in your “positive regard” repertoire. Maybe it’s how you look at the client, or how you speak, or the tone you use, or even the direction of how you present your session. If it’s not aiming for the betterment of your client, then that’s the wrong direction.

Another concept from Carl Rogers is, the client has to want to change, or engage in therapy for it to work. B.F Skinner also talks about this type of engagement in his book “Science and Human Behavior”, but from a behavioral standpoint it all comes down to the same thing: positive reinforcement. There has to be something there that the client wants, for this change to take place. Don’t punish when you can teach instead. With non-verbal clients, sometimes they might not know why they are there, or understand what exactly is going on; we can’t say. It’s unspoken, and we can’t guess at it, but what we can do is make sure that their process is one that leads them towards that independent and socially significant lifestyle without harm, interpersonal or otherwise. Behavior change is hard. The targets we introduce, even if we aim them for exactly their level of proficiency, will challenge our clients, and we can not underestimate the effort in that challenge. We have to use positive reinforcement that works, and is strong enough to make the client “happy” to keep trying. That is ethical, but more than that, is the right thing to do. In ABA we are taught to avoid “default technologies”; unnecessary punitive procedures of disciplining, or appeals to authority. I can not imagine a condition where we would need to make a target where a client does something solely “because __ says so”. Would we accept that kind of contingency without questioning it? Of course not. As practitioners, we have to look beyond the short term and away from the older forms of discipline to help individuals go as far as they can in their lives. Long term strategies kept in mind while working on the short term, and while all that is going on… unconditional positive regard, positive reinforcement, respect for our clients and respect for what we are doing.

I believe this form of therapy is a force of good, and progress, in this world. It is evidence based, and supported tirelessly by decades of researchers, for the purpose of getting it right. When we use a therapeutic technique, we back it up. Every time. And always for the betterment of the client. That’s the point of removing the guesswork and ambiguity of the techniques; so we can shape it to work for that individual. We make it applied. Practitioners are trained endlessly on single subject designs for the purpose of avoiding the rut of comparing one person to another statistically. That puts the blinders on. The individual client comes to us for their progress, not in regard to their cohort. From that perspective, every individual does deserve that level of respect and regard for their future, and their life. As a practitioner, that’s a large responsibility, and it takes going beyond just ethics. It’s not just following a guideline. It takes doing the right thing, and knowing why.

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON

Rogers, Carl (1995). A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin; 1 edition (1980)

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Image Credits:

Clark Tibbs- unsplash.com

Extra Life Case Study: Massed vs. Spaced Trials in the Acquisition of Skilled Motor (Video Game) Tasks

For this article, we have a special purpose; to bring awareness to a fantastic non-profit organization called Extra Life, whose goal is to raise donations for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which gives much needed funding to families who need it. (Donation links at the bottom of the page!)

Today, the topic is video games; which is the main focus of Extra Life’s audience. To bring some psychological expertise, and applied behavior analytic focus to this topic, we had two volunteers come up to test their mettle on (arguably) one of the most difficult video games to master and beat: “I Wanna Be The Boshy”. On the surface, a very simple looking game. Move a character with a keyboard or analog stick, along treacherous environments without touching obstacles, enemies, or projectiles. That is, until you realize how impressive the reaction time needs to be in order to progress through the levels; upwards of 2-5 responses per second. Each mistake, has a punishing restart to the beginning of the level or section, relying on the player’s skill to not only learn the pattern of motor responses to complete each section, but enter them reliably with perfect timing and order.

5
I WANNA BE THE BOSHY!

In many cases, this game requires months to beat (rare cases excluded). With this time frame, we were able to watch recordings of our two players (etanPSI & LonestarF1) via a streaming service named Twitch, which provided the video of game-play that could be reliably studied and analyzed for the target behavior skills necessary to master and beat this game.

For this particular study, we chose the target behavior of successive correct responses, and used frequency data as our metric to gauge progress through the levels. For example, one correct response may navigate a particular jump, a second may require maneuvering for a landing, and a third for another jump to a moving obstacle, all within 1.5 seconds, totaling 3 successive correct responses for that particular challenge. On average, during our tracked trials, a particular level or challenge requires a minimum of 43 successive correct responses in one minute of play, order to continue.

3
Analyzing the Players Behavior

If we want to understand the game from a behavior analytic, and psychological point of view, we need to discuss some terms:

Reinforcement: Think of reinforcement as a rewarding stimuli, that has the benefit of increasing the target behavior in the future. A reward which is successful in making a response (game playing, etc) happen more often, is called a reinforcer.

  • In this specific case, success following a trial serves as a conditioned reinforcer for the player, where beating a section, or a boss, is reported as the goal and achievement to be earned.

Responses: This is what the person does. Any behavior that follows a specific target stimulus, is considered a response.

Punishment: These are the opposites of reinforcement. They are consequences that decrease the likelihood of a behavior of occurring in the future.

Frequency (and Rate): Frequency and rate respond to behavior that occurs over a set amount of time. For example, if our general target is 43 correct responses in 1 minute of time, then we would want our rate of successive correct responses to near that amount to give us the greatest chance of success.

Discrete Trials: A discrete trial is often used in a clinical condition where a discriminative stimulus (SD) precedes a response, which is then reinforced when that response is the target behavior. The good thing about video games, is that each level, or screen, can be considered a discrete trial; as correct responses are reinforced with continuing the game, while failures (and punishing stimuli) cause it to be repeated.

Massed Trials: Massed trials refers to the use of discrete trials in close proximity after each other, so that no interrupting behavior occurs between them. In other words, repetition. For our gaming example, this would be restarting immediately after each failure to continue to the original starting point of the previously failed trial.

Spaced Trials: Spaced trials refer to a training condition where each discrete trial is separated by a pause, where various behaviors and stimuli unrelated to the next discrete trial may be engaged with. Think of this like a break condition. The player can take a breather, talk to the fans, take a drink of water. All of these things occur between trials, so that there is a gap between them.

2
The Experiment

Our friendly experiment required our players, etanPSI and LonestarF1 to attempt to engage in 30 trials in both conditions. The first condition would be Massed Trial, which involved 30 complete repeats without any interruption between trials. Successes could continue on to the next section, but repeats would require the trial to begin again without any (controllable) pause or break. The second condition would be Spaced Trials, where our players would be required to take at least a few seconds between trials, to chat, breathe, take a drink of water, or any other free-operant behavior in that gap. We did not limit our players to a specific time limit on these, but on average, they ranged between 10-30 seconds. We would then compare the two to see which appeared to give the players the best improvement benefit.

Our players reported themselves to be motivated to beat the game, and the challenge of proceeding through the game served as conditioned reinforcers. This free-operant preference assessment appeared to have some validity, as these players put themselves through over 60-270 trials per recorded play period, well above our 30 (60 with both conditions) trial requirement for the experiment. The players were free to agree to the conditions of the experiment, or deny them as they felt appropriate. Tracked periods that did not meet the criterion for the experiment were discarded, and the next session which did was counted. We called it “Science Mode”, when the players were agreeing to the experiment terms. Over all, 80% of Massed Trials tracked fit the experimental criterion, and 62% of Spaced Trials tracked fit the criterion. This provided us with a breadth of data to work with in getting a general idea of the factors which may be in play which attribute to their specific learning styles and abilities in completing the game itself. By the end of the tracked periods, both players had successfully completed the game, and beaten the final boss.

During this period, both players went through high rates of failure conditions, where successive conditions of failure within 10 responses were common when they impacted enemy projectiles, environmental hazards, or incorrect landings. This was a common function of the game’s difficulty, which had a degree of punishment effect on responding. In more cases than not, these conditions did not cause either etanPSI or LonestarFI to quit the game completely, but instead lead to a naturally chosen pause between situations to either breathe, react with a verbalization, or take a moment to process. In the conditions where Massed Trials were being tracked, these series of 30 responses were discarded, but when Spaced Trials were being tracked, these series were kept if they held to the same spaced pattern for following responses.

Our target goal for this experiment was to see how they remained within the average number of successive responses (43) per minute, that had been tracked from successful win conditions previously. Our range for their responses were tracked between 20 and 60, on a Standard Celeration Chart. By tracking the average of 30 tracked responses, (some as low as 1, others as high as 77 per minute), we were able to place the average within these intervals on to a chart and compare them to same, or close-proximity day responses from both conditions.

Previous research by Fadler, et al., and others they referenced (Foos, et al (1974), Rea et al, (1987), suggests that Spaced Trial is the superior method of skill acquisition, but it was noticed during etanPSI and LonestarFI‘s play styles that Massed Trials were preferred. Cursory investigations of other players showed the same. Faster restarts appeared to give higher rates of reinforcement, which in turn lead to success within a single day’s time that might not have been possible if play had been delayed or discontinued. It did appear that during this period, higher rates of repetition of these pattern based motor behaviors, did effect the end result of success.

In their article “The acquisition of skilled motor performance: Fast and slow experience-driven changes in primary motor cortex” Karni, et al (1998), suggests that there are different types of learning stages, and that experience driven changes to the brain effect two different types of learners in different ways; “We propose that skilled motor performance is acquired in several stages: “fast” learning, an initial, within-session improvement phase, followed by a period of consolidation of several hours duration, and then “slow” learning, consisting of delayed, incremental gains in performance emerging after continued practice. This time course may reflect basic mechanisms of neuronal plasticity in the adult brain that subserve the acquisition and retention of many different skills.” which they demonstrated in their study as well. We will not go too deeply in to biological factors in this article (since we did no MRI’s on our players), but if you have interest the article is cited below. However, this “fast learning” does appear to coincide with our conceptual Massed Trial format of learning, and the within-session improvement phase may be a factor in what we are seeing in the results of etanPSI and LonestarF1.

7
The Results

The results from our experiment was astounding. We found a clear favor in both the player’s preferred style of trial, and the ability for their skills to improve with it. Both players ranged in similar failure (0-1) and win (~43) successful responses per minute, and both in cases leading to successes against particularly difficult bosses exceeded these by going over 70 successive correct responses per minute!

With etanPSI we were also able to see some situations where both spaced and massed trials, interspersed, had a greater degree of success than when they were split by 30 consecutive trials each. When he was able to engage in repetitive environment/platform based difficulties, Massed Trial was more successful, but when dealing with alternating projectile challenges from game bosses, Spaced Trials were useful to mitigate the punishing effects of failure conditions. Higher volume vocalizations, high intensity percussive maintenance to gaming instruments, and broader vocabulary, appeared to lend a restorative effect to attentiveness and responding rates to the following massed trial conditions.

Capture

A Dpmin-11EC Standard Celeration Chart from our experiment.

In both conditions, we were able to see consistent Acceleration of gained successive correct responses per minute, from Massed Trials, which may have also been in part to the increase in difficulty as the players progressed, requiring higher outputs of responses. Nevertheless, the players did rise to the occasion and appear to hold to improvement in responding and pattern recognition & responding, over the course of 30+ trials per day. Where many had failed and given up, these two players had not only succeeded, but excelled at an incredibly difficult game.

4
The Fun!

Now that you know the story of our fun experiment, here’s where you can donate and thank our amazing players for their time and skill, as well as help the lives of countless children receiving medical services through a hospital on the Children’s Miracle Hospital Network! 100% of all donations go directly to charity, and are tax deductible! Help our player’s team to exceed their goal and change lives!

Donate to our amazing experiment volunteers!

etanPSI’s Extra Life Page

LonestarFI’s Extra Life Page

Like the science? Donate to the behaviorist!

Chris S’s Extra Life Page

References:

  1. Karni, A., Meyer, G., Rey-Hipolito, C., Jezzard, P., Adams, M. M., Turner, R., & Ungerleider, L. G. (1998). The acquisition of skilled motor performance: Fast and slow experience-driven changes in primary motor cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95(3)
  2. Wimmer, G. E., & Poldrack, R. A. (2017). Reinforcement learning over time: spaced versus massed training establishes stronger value associations
  3. The Precision Teaching Learning Center.- http://www.precisiontlc.com/ridiculus-lorem/

Photo Credits: etanPSI & Lonestar F1 http://www.twitch.tv

Illusory Superiority Bias- Is everyone else actually a “sheep” or “asleep”?

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As surprising as this may seem, research has shown that people tend to have a high opinion of themselves and their own intelligence when comparing themselves to others. You may have heard phrases like:

  • I’m actually smarter than most people.
  • Everyone else can’t understand this like I do.
  • I know so much more more about this than that group.
  • Everyone is brainwashed but me and a few others.
  • My group is always smarter and better at making decisions than the other one.
  • Those people are asleep! They need to get “woke” like me.

This type of interpretation is called a “bias”, and more specifically, an “Illusory Superiority Bias”, coined in 1991 by Van Yperen and Buunk. You may see these types of biases come in to play when an individual looks out on the broader group, and perceives them as less intelligent or less able to comprehend a specific point or idea that is familiar or important to the individual. This effect even applies between broader groups of people where an “in-group” is comparing themselves favorably to a supposedly ignorant “out-group”.  The problem is- a bias is an interpretation, a cognitive lens for viewing information which distorts it to fit a self-serving narrative. It is self-affirming, and to some people that superiority is very desirable and reinforcing.

The Illusory Superiorty Bias is not a person’s representation of other people, or other groups based on information, but rather a “a self-other asymmetry effect”, a substantial shift in how positive and negative factors are attributed to themselves and others. It is a cognitive filter for information, a prejudice, and distorts the interpretation of information that does not fit the narrative. Why do people exhibit it? We will dive in to some research that can help us explain this outspoken phenomenon. [1][4][5]

 

Two factors; Egocentrism and Focalism

To look at this bias (or biases) for what they are; researchers Windschitl et al. have devised a series of scenarios, level playing fields, in order to gauge the phenomena of people over-estimating their intelligence and ability compared to others. Given a “Shared Circumstance”; Person A and the “Others” having the exact same information or exact difficult situation, how likely would Person A expect themselves to deserve or perform better?

What Windschitl et al, predicted, and showed evidence of, were two different factors that effected these perceptions; Egocentrism, and Focalism. 

They described Egocentrism as “the notion that the self figures more prominently in decision making than do others“, in other words, decision making is decided more on factors being related to the person themselves. If Person A experiences _____, then it has a larger impact on their decisions than if they see Group B experiencing ____. [2][5]

Windschitl et al, described Focalism as “the tendency of people to focus on information relevant to one outcome and fail to adequately consider evidence or consequences relevant to other possible outcomes”. If Person A is dealing with _____ in relation to an objective, they focus much more heavily on those factors than external factors that may be playing a role with others relating to that same objective. [2][5]

Let’s run with some hypothetical examples of these to show just how an Illusory Superiority bias might look under these influences:

Egocentric-Influenced Superiority Bias“Why am I on hold? My issue is so frustrating. They should answer me first!”

Focalism-Influenced Superiority Bias“I’m actually the one that is going to get this job over the other 100 people, because my resume has this accomplishment, and I did this too.”

In both scenarios, the phone call for help, and the job interview; those situations were equally relevant to others going through the same thing, but these biases interpreted the situations, and the outcomes of those situations, favoring the individual. The individual’s perspective is what is deeming “importance” to themselves over others, and not a quantifiable factor. It is also important to note that in both of these  situations of biases; looking at the issue or situation from the other people’s perspective was not considered a first option. [2][5]

Let’s apply this to situations where this bias could have an impact on engaging with others on broader or social issues. If an individual viewing the world through the lens of illusory superiority, dialogue depending on seeing another’s view point is already off the table. Cognitively speaking, an egocentric influence would make seeing this issue from the other side as less important, and a focalism influence would only see the point through a non-objective evaluation on the self’s relation to the topic. The danger here would be getting entrenched in a view point where no others would be considered, because they would instantly be of less value to the individual.

 

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Group Dynamics; it’s not just an individual.

It may not just be situations where a person perceives themselves as superior over others; there is also evidence that a hierarchy based on similar view-points and “in-groups” can emerge from this bias. The person may perceive themselves as highly favorable in a positive trait (like intelligence, or ironically empathy), and others that agree with them also are perceived as higher in these positive attributes. The “out-groups” and people who do not agree, however, are seen as lesser in these qualities, regardless of any actual measure. It is a prejudice. This kind of hierarchy looks something like this:

Person A- “I am very very intelligent and important”

In-Group Agreeing with Person A- “We are very intelligent and important”

Out-Group Disagreeing with Person A- “These people are unintelligent and not worth my time.”

Horsney, et al. showed with their piece of research on the topic that superiority bias also plays a role in interpersonal groups and inter-group domains. When this bias was exhibited, people tended to evaluate themselves with higher positive traits than others, but also gave similarly evaluated positive traits to people within their familiar group. This effect tends to explain how the Egocentric bias view stated above can be extended to other people that the person is familiar with or is associated with. [3]

In the author’s words; “that self-concept consists of not only one’s personal self but also the social groups to which one belongs and that people are motivated to view both levels of self in a relatively positive fashion. When evaluating the self relative to others, people demonstrate a wide range of self-serving biases. People consider themselves to be less likely than others to experience negative events in the future. People believe themselves to be less influenced than others by negative media messages but more influenced by pro-social messages . Finally, people attribute positive personality traits more to themselves than to other people in general.  Illusory superiority exists on dimensions as diverse as honesty, attractiveness, persistence, independence, and sincerity, and the bias gets larger as the trait is seen to be more desirable.” [3]

In other words, this bias can take place in groups as well, and the more favorable or desirable that trait is, the more the bias can take place. A person, or people, exhibiting this bias feels that they are not susceptible to misinformation, they are more honest, aware, hard-working, genuine, truthful, than others. Think of a positive trait. They would feel more likely to have it than the others outside of their group. That is what a bias is capable of, and how it can shape someone’s decision making. [3][5]

 

Breaking the Bias

The Illusory Superiority bias is a hindrance to the person or persons exhibiting it. It cuts them off from others, and paints “out-groups” as lesser than themselves. That judgement interferes with both learning and dialogue. The first step to breaking a bias, is of course, knowing it exists. Recognition of those biases taking place in the mind can lead a person to take steps to break them. Identifying those thoughts that perceive others as lesser, and challenging them.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

References:

  1. Hoorens, V. (1995) . Self-Favoring Biases, Self-Presentation, and the Self-Other Asymmetry in Social Comparison. Journal of Personality, 63, 793-812.
  2. Windschitl, P. D., Kruger, J., & Simms, E. (2003). The Influence of Egocentrism and Focalism on People’s Optimism in Competitions: When What Affects Us Equally Affects Me More. Journal of Attitudes and Social Cognition.
  3. Hornsey, M. J. (2003). Linking Superiority Bias in the Interpersonal and Intergroup Domains. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(4), 479-491.
  4. Hoorens, V. , & Buunk, B. P. (1993). Social comparison of health risks: Locus of control, the person-positivity bias, and unrealistic optimism. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 291302
  5. Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1986). Psychology of intergroup relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Image Credits: http://www.pexels.com

The Subtle Cues of Flirting Behavior

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Flirting is interesting, complicated, exciting, and has had almost everyone guessing at one point in their lives. It’s used to spark interest in new acquaintances, keep flames going in long-term relationships, and has its own unique language. We have touched on some of the body language of attraction before in Love, Psychologically , but here we will go deeper. Looked at from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, researchers Alberts and Trost in 2006 could not find a universal behavior that contained all of the “signals of attraction”  used by every group of peoples, every where on Earth. No one thing contains how everyone does it, but there are patterns to be seen. There seem to be collections of behaviors that seem to aggregate in certain “styles” of flirting when people are attracted and interested. In 2014 two researchers, Hall and Xing, narrowed these down to 5 specific types of “Flirting Styles”. [1], [2]

Hall and Xing were able to compile a list of behavioral indicators of flirting we can look at below. Each style of flirting takes from these indicators on the list and presents them in very unique ways. Here are the common indicators they they had found:

Behavioral Indicators What they look like
Affirmation (nodding) Nodding yes during partner’s interactions.
Arms open An “open posture”:
Asking questions Asking questions about the partner.
Breast presentation Lifting or expanding the presentation of the chest during interactions.
Complimenting Giving compliments to the partner.
Conversational fluency Smooth conversation which is not choppy, short, or overlapping. (1-5 scale).
Disclosure Presenting information about oneself.
Expressiveness Animated or expressive tone or facial movements.
Falling into the chair Leaning or falling back in to the chair during interactions.
Flirtatious glances Eyebrow flashing, half smiles/lowered eyes, winking, sideways looks/smiles during interactions.
Gazing (direct/away) Looking steadily or intently at the other person (1-5 scale).
Joyful smiling/laughter Animated smiling or laughter in response to partner’s interactions.
Leaning forward/back Leaning forward in proximity to the partner, or away.
Leg crossing Legs either open in posture, or crossed (on thigh, at ankle, or at knee).
Lips- self bite, self licking Bringing the lips into the mouth, biting one of the lips, or licking of the lips.
Moving closer Closing proximity to the partner during interactions.
Palming Revealing the inside of the palm and wrist (instinctive vulnerability).
Pitch Raising or lowering of the voice’s pitch during interactions (1-5 scale)
Playing with objects Playing with objects in hand during interactions with partner (1-5 scale)
Self-depreciating comments Presenting information about oneself in self-depreciating way.
Self-touching Running fingers though their own hair, touching of the cheeks/face/neck, during interactions.
Shoulder shrugging Lifting of the shoulders in a shrug during interactions with their partner.
Teasing tone A tone of voice that is teasing or playful during interactions.

Do any of these seem familiar? Many of these were tracked by “count”; the more the behaviors occurred, the more likely they showed a style of active flirtation. You may have also noticed that a few of these behavioral indicators were tracked on a 1-5 scale by the researchers. These were studied within a range of how much of the behavior was exhibited, versus the opposite (leaning in vs. leaning away, etc). To further the example; leaning in may be a sign of attraction, while leaning away may be a sign of disapproval. Playing with an object in hand may be a sign of nervousness or shyness at lower rates, but a sign of disinterest and distraction at higher rates. Almost all flirting styles used the collection of these behaviors. We are going to focus on the differences between these styles below.[2]

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The Five Styles:

The five styles of flirting that Hall and Xing discovered were: The Physical Flirt style, the Traditional Flirt style, the Sincere Flirt style, the Polite Flirt style, and the Playful Flirt style. They discovered that while these styles are good predictors for what behavioral indicators are used together, these styles are not entrenched in stone. A person may use more than one style depending on context. Playful might work in a public situation, while Sincere might work in private. Context, sex, and even culture, matters. Men tended to rely on different behavioral indicators than their female partners during experiments. People, overall, tend to rely on a single style for the most part, but are able to exhibit more than one style when context demands it. Each participant studied reported high physical attraction to the partner prior to interactions. Here is an overview and summary of what they found out about each style. [2]

 

physical-flirt

The Physical Flirts-

The Physical Flirts use their body language to present their “solicitation signals” and attraction to their partner. They let their body do the talking. They rely on physical closeness and touching to get their points across and are more likely to engage in physical touching and closing proximity during interactions. Both males and females had a higher level of conversational fluency with their partners than other styles, and asked fewer questions to their partners during the interactions. Females  used affirmative nods more often at the start of interactions, used breast presentation higher in the beginning and ends of interactions, and exposed their palms more throughout. Males tended to move closer to their partners, complimented their partners less than other Flirt Styles, and used flirtatious glances less than other styles. [2]

 

traditional-flirt

The Traditional Flirts-

The Traditional Flirts tend to follow cultural gender roles for romantic interactions to a high degree. They rely more on male lead presentations of attractions, and female receptiveness to those interactions. These flirts tend to follow a “cultural script” and both have expectations of how the “solicitation signals” and signs of attraction are supposed to take place. Both males and females engaged high rates of affirmation nodding during the start of interactions, and are more likely to expose their palms and hands during the end of the interaction. Females were more likely to expose their palms and hands throughout the entire interaction, and more likely to tease in the beginning of the interaction. Males leaned forward more often for the full duration of their interactions, and raised their voice pitch higher during the first half of their interactions. Males also engaged in higher rates of crossing their legs during the interaction. [2]

sincere-flirt

The Sincere Flirts-

The Sincere Flirts are looking to build an emotional connection first and foremost. Unlike “Physical Flirts”, sexual chemistry through touch is not their first objective. Both males and females were less likely to tease during interactions (especially during the end), and self-touch (hair flip, touching their own face). Their hands were nearer to their partner but were not touching. They also engaged in higher rates of flirtatious gazing than other styles. Females were more likely to exhibit flirtatious gazing across the entire interaction, and exposed their palms and wrists through the entire interaction. Males used a higher pitched voice throughout their interaction and crossed their arms and legs more often. Males also leaned in towards their partners during the end of their interactions. [2]

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The Polite Flirts-

Polite Flirts adhere to strict social and cultural rules during interactions, but unlike Traditional Flirts, these are not strictly sex/gender based. Modesty and manners are held in high regard during exchanges. They appear to be slower to interact during the beginning of interactions, but showed strong conversational fluency throughout. Both males and females engage in less self-touching for the entire interaction, and use lower pitched voices. They also ask fewer questions of their partner in the first half of their interactions. Males used affirmative nodding during the middle of interactions more, and also moved closer during the middle of interactions. They also tended to fall into their chairs, and play with items (briefly) during interactions. Females followed similar patterns, and tended to tease less during the end of interactions. [2]

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The Playful Flirts-

Playful Flirts tend to not seek out interactions for the sake of relationships, but report their interactions are more for self-interest (self esteem boosts, etc), and the fun of it. Both males and females tend to protrude or present their chests during the initial parts of interacting, self-touch less, and both tease and compliment higher during the start of interacting. Females tend to ask fewer questions, but use more flirtatious gazing during the first half of their interactions. Females also shrugged more throughout. Males tended to use an open leg posture (opposite of crossing legs) during interactions. [2]

 

Examining the Flirting Styles and Behavioral Profiles.

What do you think? Do you fall into one of these categories? Have you used any of these behavioral indicators yourself? Hall and Xing (2014) had some more to say on the profiles of the types of people who used each style.

They observed that the people who used the Physical Flirt style were more willing to flirt, had greater abilities in getting their flirting noticed, and showed higher confidence while flirting. They did note some areas that were “conceptually inconsistent” with this behavioral profile. Mainly, why did they compliment and flirtatiously gaze less? It’s a question for further research. [2]

They observed that the people who used the Traditional Flirt style were heavily influenced by a “sexual script”. Men were to be the aggressors, and women should be more passive during the interactions. Opening palms and wrists by females appeared to show greater interest during the interactions and signaled an invitation for courtship that could not be expressed verbally without breaking the social contract that both partners adhered to. [2]

The Sincere Flirt style users tended to focus on genuine interests, high self-discloser on both sides, and judged their interaction based on focused attention from their partners. This was a strong feature of their interactions. They appeared to use one behavioral indicator throughout interactions and stick to it as a sign of interest in their partner. [2]

The Polite Flirt style users were more rule-governed in how they conducted their interactions. Time played a role in how they engaged. They were slow during the start of interactions, used behavioral indicators more during the middle, and less as the interaction was closing. Affirmative nodding was a common behavior for both males and females. Both appear “distant” or “reserved” during their interactions, but they reported high attraction to each other afterwards on disclosure forms. [2]

The Playful Flirt style users often used both direct and indirect behavioral indicators throughout. Both males and females frequently presented their chests and used subtle coy gazes throughout, and contrasted each other during interactions when two Playful Flirts would engage. It was speculated by Hall and Xing that a Playful flirt would start coy to attract another Playful flirt before the more overt behavior indicators were exhibited. [2]

Do these profiles remind you of anything you might have experienced before? Leave questions and comments below!

 

References:

  1. Trost, M. R., & Alberts, J. K. (2006). How men and women communicate attraction: An evolutionary view. In K. Dindia & D. J. Canary (Eds.), Sex differences and similarities in communication (2nd ed., pp. 317–336). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Hall, J. A., & Xing, C. (2014). The Verbal and Nonverbal Correlates of the Five Flirting Styles. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39(1)

 

Image Credits: Stokpic.com, Leah Kelley Photography, Inna Lesyk Photography,  Pixabay.com

 

 

“Natural Selection” and Human Behavior

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Let’s talk about evolution. Or better yet, let’s talk about human behavior, and how our understanding of it was influenced by evolutionary theory. For context, we will want to mention B.F Skinner, a researcher at Harvard in the 1950’s, who had far reaching impacts in the field of psychology, and an emerging practice of it called behaviorism, especially in its terminology and future usage. Most of his work is still held in great regard today, and although not taken as holy writ, has been the foundation of future research and adaptations of the original work. Skinner viewed behavior in a novel way, one influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

“Reflexes are intimately concerned with the well-being of the organism. Reflex behavior which involves the external environment is important in the same way. If a dog’s foot is injured when it steps on a sharp object, it is important that the leg should be flexed rapidly so that the foot is withdrawn… Such biological advantages “explain” reflexes in an evolutionary sense: individuals who are most likely to behave in these ways are presumably most likely to survive and pass on the adaptive characteristics to their offspring.” (Skinner, 1953).

His work on conditioning was different than that of Ivan Pavlov’s. While Pavlov worked with reflexes and stimulus pairing, specifically,  Skinner worked with learned (or operant) behavior and used the philosophical lenses of adaptation to do so.

“The process of conditioning also has a survival value. Since the environment changes from generation to generation, particularly the external rather than the internal, appropriate reflex responses cannot always develop as inherited mechanisms… Since nature cannot foresee, so to speak, that an object with a particular appearance will be edible, the evolutionary process can only provide a mechanism by which the individual will acquire responses to particular features of a given environment after they have been encountered. Where inherited behavior leaves off, the inherited modifiability of the process of conditioning takes over.” (Skinner, 1953).

B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950

Selection by Consequences

In Skinner’s theoretical framework for the analysis of behavior, he sets reflexes apart from behaviors omitted as a modifiable response to reoccurring conditions. Operant behavior that had been altered in some way by past consequences. Or, in layman’s terms; experience.

A behavior which occurs following an event with similar conditions to one experienced before, would either have taken on adaptive features to better access/avoid that stimulus, or, if the original behavior failed, would not be likely to omit again in those similar conditions. This is the foundation of behavioral learning theory, and what Skinner called “selection by consequences”.  This form of selection focuses on the consequences of their behavior in order to predict and describe the rate by which they occur in the future. Behaviors, in this sense, can either be strengthened or weakened via selection. We can see this in some of the terminology still used in behavioral science today:

Reinforcement- Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. (ie. When a behavior is “rewarded”, it happens more often).

Punishment- Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated (ie. When a behavior is “punished”, it happens less often).

Extinction- When a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Or, if the learned (operant) behavior is no longer reinforced; leading to a decrease in future usage of that behavior. (ie. When there is no more “reward”, the behavior has no purpose to reoccur).

 

In each of these terms above we can see the impact of environmental conditions, and the usefulness of behavior, to describe and predict how it is used, and why. This had vast philosophical repercussions for psychology at the time. Viewing learning and experience in an evolutionary sense had wide reaching advantages in the field of psychology. During this period (1950’s), psychoanalysis was still the mainstay of many professionals, but had glaring weaknesses in treating habitual disorders, or even features within disorders. The Freudian “talking-cure” was adept at having individuals speak about their internal events, their past, and conceptualizing the Id, Ego, and Superego as explanatory factors for their behaviors and interpretations on their dreams and thoughts; but there was no direct observable translation to healthy action following this treatment. It also gave many professionals with similar training, wild variation in interpreting.

 

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The Unconscious Mind vs. Selection By Consequences

One psychoanalyst might attribute excessive smoking to a childhood event, while another might attribute it to a symbol of the cigarette/flame itself. The explanation did not come from the event, or any clue from the environment around the individual; it was all estimation of events that could not be seen. When the past was used as a descriptor, it was often speaking of formative childhood and adolescent experiences, not the direct past or future. In a strict behavioral sense; these are explanatory fictions. Circular definitions that cannot be proven or disproven.

Comparing this to Skinner’s fledgling analysis of behavior, you can see the drastic differences in a hypothetical example of cigarette smoking:

Freudian- Psychoanalytic Interpretation (“The Unconscious Mind”) The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a cauldron, of primitive wishes and impulses… The making of a fire and everything connected therewith is filled through and through with sex symbolism. (Freud,  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  1935)
Skinnerian- Behavior Analytic Interpretation (“Selection by Consequences”) The first time a cigarette was lit and smoked, that behavior was reinforced by the consequence (reinforcement). The probability of future smoking behavior was increased by which ever stimulus acted as a reinforcer (taste, chemical interaction, social, etc).

 

You will notice under the behavior analytic interpretation; the behavior is adaptive. If smoking that cigarette was pleasing to the individual, they would seek it more in the future. If it was aversive, they would be more likely to avoid it. It is adaptation within the lifetime of the individual. It requires no intergenerational passing of information or traits. It adapts because it serves a function.

Applications of the classifying of behaviors by function, complex social phenomena, and even verbal behavior itself have been conducted using this evolutionary-minded theory of why behaviors occur, and asking the question “for what reason?”. But this is not limited to direct experience. With this explanation, a behavior would not even need direct influence from a specific condition. This is where “rule-governed” behavior is explained. Let’s take a look at a rule governed behavior that might effect the smoking behavior above:

  • SURGEON GENERAL WARNING: Tobacco Smoke Increases The Risk Of Lung Cancer And Heart Disease, Even In Nonsmokers.

According to Skinner, the “rule” serves as a contingency specifying stimulus. Humans are able to learn from the experiences of others, and can adapt our behavior based on observation and instruction. Those stimuli serve as the consequences that either reinforce, or punish, behavior which in turn effects future probability of those behaviors being omitted.

One could either smoke a cigarette and find it displeasing, or they could be given a warning. Supposing that the cigarette, and the instruction, carried enough punishing value, the smoking behavior would decrease. Both are viable consequence events that can effect rates of future behavior.

This topic focused specifically on changes of behavior of an individual, but can also be used in much broader scope as well (especially with rule-governed behaviors). There is growing interest in the field researching was is called meta-contingencies. This theoretical framework does not exclude “thoughts” either, and labels them as “private events”, behaviors in their own right. While we may not touch on that today, keep these theories in mind. They might be adaptive for you.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

 

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Skinner, B. F (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 270-277.
  3. Skinner, B. (1960). Science and human behavior. New York: Mc Millan Company.
  4. Darwin, C. (1872). The origin of species. New York: D. Appleton.
  5. Freud, S. (1935). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press.

 

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com, Getty Images, North American Energy Advisory (2017)

 

How the Media uses Motivating Operations on Viewers

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Let’s talk about a topic in behavioral science that is often overlooked called Motivating Operations. They happen all the time, and create a need for a behavior to occur which accesses or avoids something. In televised and internet media, organizations use these stimuli to get people to view these programs (and generate ad revenue for the media organization), or become hooked to a continuous chain of watching/viewing/consuming behaviors.

Motivating Operations are useful to this topic because they are a special type of stimuli that momentarily alters the value of the consequences, leading to behaviors seeking those consequences (reinforcers) to increase drastically. In other words, Motivating Operations have a great deal of control over behaviors that seek something out. They are triggers that make seeking out the consequences (in this case, dangerous/fearful or consummatory-related information) much more desirable. Let’s take a moment to break it down and find out how, in this theoretical example.

 

Value Altering Effects and Behavior Altering Effects

Before we get in too deeply in to how certain media organizations use these Motivating Operations; let’s talk about some of the aspects in play simultaneously that change the viewers/listeners/readers behavior.

Antecedent Stimulus (the Motivating Operation) The  Respondent’s (reader/listener/viewer) Behavior The Consequence
 

“Are there flammable liquids falling from the sky nearby? Find out in 10 minutes.”

 

 

Observing the media for the next 10 minutes, and then some.

 

The story is eventually delivered to the respondent.

 

Take this Motivating Operation for example. Note that it serves as an antecedent stimulus, meaning it happens before the behavior we are looking at, and that behavior is likely the behavior they are targeting to take place. This type of antecedent stimulus does not provide the information itself that would satiate the respondent. In fact, it provides a situation where we very much want to see resolution to, and that resolution is promised to us if we continue to watch/listen/read their interim programming (generating them ad money in the process). So before we even get to this behavior, or the consequence of that behavior, we have two things going on with this Motivating Operation that we track in behavioral science and applied behavior analysis;

A Value-Altering Effect: Where that motivating operation establishes a situation where that reinforcer we are looking at becomes extremely valuable to us. In our example, flammable liquids in the sky are extremely dangerous, and we have a vested interest in knowing about that danger. The Consequence (ie, the news story) is incredibly valuable to us at this point. They hold information we want.

And a Behavior-Altering Effect: This Motivating Operation is evoking a behavior that the responding has in their repertoire. Assuming they have watched/listened/read this type of media before, they are prime to exhibit that behavior in this instance, cued by this Motivating Operation. Maybe it’s clicking to get to the right part of the story, or the right link. Maybe it’s watching/listening 4 commercials before the story comes on. We (the respondents) demonstrate the exact behavior they are targeting.

 

Creating the Need and Sating It

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The reinforcement, the consequence stimulus, we are looking for may outright be terrifying. They could be telling us about a scenario that would be incredibly dangerous; but we are still very curious, because that information would be able to cue behaviors that would benefit our survival. If, however, this information does not contain pertinent information to us, and we (as the respondents) are not in danger, we then escape a potential aversive stimulus and are reinforced by this as well. In either preparation for survival, or news of our safety, we are for the most part seeking either types of these reinforcers once we are presented with that Motivating Operation stimulus. Uncertainty is a common stimulus that humans are wired to want to avoid.

So now we have a situation following the presentation of their Motivating Operations, which we can see some more fictitious examples below:

  • Tune in at 9 to see why your home might not be safe!
  • 10 security weaknesses the new briefing revealed that will shock you!
  • Dangerous neighbors moving in? What could that mean to your family?
  • You will not believe what Unstable Government Official A said about… Find out more here.
  • 5 ways this Billionaire made more money than you, but first, chicken disease in our cities?

In all of these types of scenarios, they set up the respondents, their viewers/readers to interpret the value of that information in a few ways.

Condition A:  Positive Reinforcement Condition B: Negative Reinforcement Condition C: Punishment
They give you information you can use.

It may even be bad news, but it satisfies that curiosity and may also lead you to engage in additional behaviors to adapt, vent publicly, etc. It may even be a schadenfreude situation where the person is reinforced by another’s misfortune.

 

The information removes a potential aversive stimulus.

You find out you are safe, or even that the threat or problem is not what you may have thought it was.

You avoid the potential problem. The question they posed created a condition where you may have interpreted threat or danger, and this information has (both created and) removed it.

The information you receive is aversive enough to punish future watching/reading.

 

In this scenario, you are given something so averse that it does not sate your curiosity, and also decreases the likelihood you will follow through on it again in a similar position.

 

In Condition A: Both the respondent and the media mrganization get something out of it. Assuming reinforcement took place, the respondent got something they needed from it and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. That respondent might even return to watch again some time.

In Condition B: Both the respondent and the media organization get something too. Assuming that reinforcement took place, the respondent “feels safer”, they avoided something they did not want and the media organization got the revenue from the prolonged engagement in that media. This respondent might also return to watch/read again.

In Condition C: The media organization may have misjudged the audience, but they still came out on top. The presentation of the Motivating Operation did in fact create that value-altering and behavior-altering effect, they got their views or their clicks. The respondent, however, was not reinforced. They were put off. They are less likely to engage in viewing behavior. A returning consumer is not as likely.

Not Just Once, but a Chain of Motivating Operations

Let’s think about Condition A and Condition B right now. The situation above looks very linear, but you have to keep in mind that during that behavior period, there could have been many additional stimuli that served as  Motivating Operations or Discriminative Stimuli* for other behaviors that the media organization tacked on. The viewers did their initial clicks, reads, ad listening, what have you. But there is a chance to create more opportunities.

  • Are the flammable chemicals coming for you? Tune in at 10:00… Breaking News! Tsunami’s may be coming to places you never expected!
  • You won’t believe what Government Official A said, but first our commercial break. INCREDIBLE PIZZA FOR LESS!

Once the initial story is over, several other Motivating Operations could have been put in place while the respondent was viewing to create a need to resolve other unknowns, gain access to something new, avoid other potential dangers, and answer new questions which have undergone value-altering effects to that respondent (viewer). By creating scenarios of concurrent Motivating Operations, operating at the same time, it potentially creates an ongoing need to consume this programming on a regular basis and as continuously as the consumer can.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

*Footnote:

To those that are very interested in the topics of antecedent stimuli, like Motivating Operations, you might have heard of another type called a Discriminative Stimulus (Sd). They share very many attributes, and are sometimes hard to tell apart. For the sake of this example, this particular antecedent stimulus, keep in mind that it’s presentation establishes its (the question it asks) removal as a reinforcer. It is not a cue that provides the viewer with the opportunity to engage in a behavior to get reinforcer; it creates that reinforcer by its own presentation. There may be an additional factor/antecedent event of the scenario that creates a discriminative stimulus for a specific type of responding, but that does not exhibit the whole over-arching phenomenon we are talking about here.

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Langthorne, P., & Mcgill, P. (2009). A Tutorial on the Concept of the Motivating Operation and its Importance to Application. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2(2), 22-31.
  3. Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
  4. Kim, M. J., Shin, J., Taylor, J. M., Mattek, A. M., Chavez, S. J., & Whalen, P. J. (2017). Intolerance of Uncertainty Predicts Increased Striatal Volume. Emotion.

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos (Kaboompics // Karolina)

Click-Bait Psychology- How To Beat Misinformation

The world of Psychology has a vast appeal to public interest. We all want to know the inner workings of our minds, and the minds of others. We also like that information in a form that is easily accessible, and quick to understand. For better or worse, there is a great deal of psychological information at our fingertips on the internet; but the kicker is that there is also a disproportionate amount of misinformation. I am going to talk about how to get the right information, how you know whether that information you are consuming is supported (founded) or not, and the tricks being used to grab viewers towards misinformation for the sake of monetization (clicks which generate advertisement revenue). We risk taking these assertions and titles as fact, when in truth there may be little evidence to support it.

 

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What Psychology is, and what it is not.

Psychology is a field of study. People who undertake psychological research often have years of coursework under their belt, and when they publish it is often in the form of academic journals which are peer reviewed. That peer review is the important part. It means that other people with the same amount of skill and experience went over the study and found that the methods and findings were acceptable for publication, and (hopefully) replication. This does not mean the study is true, necessarily, but it does mean that the methods and findings pass the rigor that you would expect from empirical findings.

What Psychology is not; unfounded hypotheses based on invented constructs that have not been tested or platitudes. Let’s look at the difference of a few statements that are either founded or unfounded. Founded is based in fact, or at least the seeking of it. Unfounded is speculative, or unsupported by research into real phenomena, and usually entices readers by a reaction. Usually, the unfounded “click-bait” article is created to gather broad interest by using concrete claims that have very little evidence behind them. If you were to compare any peer-reviewed research article to the “click-bait”, you would see a huge difference in how these are written and how the findings are presented. One attempts to explain something by supporting it, the other takes an assumption as fact and generalizes it to get max appeal/shock.

Example Time!

“Based on a 2003 study, Researcher A and Researcher B found a correlation between the color red and aggression levels in teens.”– This is something we could begin to consider founded. We have three big hints:

  • Reference to an actual study. You could read it yourself and come to your own conclusions.
  • The names of the authors/researchers. The reader could look them up, or even contact them for better understanding or replication.
  • The word correlation and not “causes”. This is a big hint that it was actual research with a sample of people. Research often infers, it does not conclude broadly.

 

“10 Things Men or Women Do Differently! Women/Men ALWAYS…”– This seems unfounded. We have some hints.

  • The click-bait style title. Lists are commonly used to draw in interest to a website or article.
  • The word “Always”. Empirically designed research works on philosophic doubt and evidence in a subject. When something is studied, it is usually done with a sample; a small group of people to represent larger groups. These do not mean that it is a perfect causal effect to be applied to all humanity across time or the entire world.

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“Pop-Psych Platitudes” and Title Hooks:

Here are some tricks that are used by “bad”-psychology to get your interest. Hooks. One liners. These are titles and phrases that throw out a topic you could easily agree with, but do not lead you to the “meat” of the matter. That kind of article would not tell you what research it referenced, or even worse, it could misinterpret research to fit a broader and more appealing finding that never existed. A good rule of thumb is; If they can condense 40 pages of research into one statement, you’re probably missing out on the actual findings. They use things called “Pop-Psych Platitudes”; things that appeal to what appears to be a truism and avoid actual empirical findings. Look at some of these examples:

  • Why Your Dog Is Always Right About Your Mate- They Have Senses.
  • Women/Men Choose Better- It’s In The Genes!
  • Read Lies In the Eyes- 5 Big Tips To Liars.
  • If You’re Not Happy, You’re Not Using Mindfulness.
  • Smart People Get Hurt More Easily By Rejection.
  • Every Time You Forgive, Your Brain Becomes Happier.
  • Trust Is Earned, Not Free.
  • 10 Things Anxious People Know.

The titles above have some appealing points to them, don’t they? You could apply them to an experience you may have had before, or a belief you have on a topic. You might really want to affirm that by clicking on it and reading a few persuasive paragraphs on the personal experiences of the writer (these are called anecdotal statements, not research). They appeal to the reader’s biases or personal experiences by using broad language and big claims they want to read. They may reference a single research article to support their claims, but fail to mention the techniques in the article, the sample used in the article, and the actual conclusion of the article itself. They may also have cherry picked a single article (line or paragraph) that had not been replicated by other researchers to support a broad claim. These give the semblance of academic research, but fail several benchmarks of being empirical and trusted as a true representation of a discovered or explored phenomena.

Another big trick is a Title Hook. You remember the trick of putting a number in the title? “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety!”. Just 8? Sure. Why not. We all have time to read 8 statements. Right? Sometimes they will employ a stronger hook to get you to read. “8 Things You Won’t Know About Anxiety! Number 5 Will SHOCK you!”. See what they did there? You are tempted to look at number 5, which leads you through over half of their statements separated by clicks to different pages. Those pages are probably monetized, and most likely have very little in the way of actual facts or research supported claims.

 

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The Risks of Being Misinformed

There are risks to misinformation. It gives you, the reader, the experience of feeling as though you have learned something, or reaffirmed a belief you had, without the benefit of using real scientific methods and without the benefit of knowing that this topic was rigorously studied. When researchers take a topic, more often than not, they come away with what is called a Null Hypothesis. A Null Hypothesis is the condition in which the researcher could not prove what they set out to prove. That is what real research runs the risk of every time. Not every hypothesis that’s put to the test works out. Many times, a hypothesis has to be refined several times, with multiple caveats. “No, we couldn’t prove that Disorder A coincides with candy bar eating, but we were able to show that Food Additive B might have an effect on a symptom of Disorder A, based on…”. This is the type of wording you would find in the conclusion section of many research based and peer reviewed articles. See how different it is from the click-bait?

Many times research is not instantly easy to interpret, has a conclusion that is not always completely confirmed , and raises more questions than it was set out to answer. But it is the spirit of science. You find correlation, links or connections between factors, but never the always.

If you would like to further your knowledge in psychology, read some articles with true empirical weight, I suggest you take a look at the National Institute of Mental Health’s webpage (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/) . It has articles free of cost on almost any topic you could have an interest in. I implore you to take a look and see what a truly rigorous study looks like. Much like a good story, it has a beginning, middle, and end that beats out a click-bait unfounded affirmation any day.

 

Questions? Comments? Reply Below!

 

References:

  1. Wood, S. E., Wood, E. R., & Wood, E. R. (1996). The world of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  3. NIMH » Home. (n.d.).  https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

Photo Credits:

  1. pexels.com Pexels Stock Photos

 

The Modern Behaviorism

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This is going to be a broader piece, and take in to account some of my personal experiences in the field of psychology, at this time. This topic was inspired from a few posts online, and various questions that interns and therapists I supervise have asked me based on their learning in undergraduate Psychology coursework. What it comes down to is: “Isn’t behaviorism outdated? I thought it died out in the 50’s. We’re more than stimulus-response machines.”.  As you might be aware, psychology as a whole has moved in a different direction from the 1950’s, and they are absolutely correct that the modern consensus in all fields view beyond the simple relations of reinforcement and punishment. [1,3,5]

Cognitivism, for example, was born as a kind of backlash to those kinds of simplistic Behaviorist philosophies. Since then, Cognitive-Behavioral theories to therapy, a combination of the two, have taken the greatest root in providing mental health services. So is that the end of it? Is that the extent? Not quite. In my opinion, I believe both far ends of the spectrum will lead to entrenched and nonviable theories. Behaviorists that stick to the Thorndike era mindset are bound to miss out on what usefulness came from the following decades, and on the same hand strict Cogntivists would find themselves battling with the dreaded circular reasoning, unnecessary dualism, hypothetical constructs, and  explanatory fictions. There are two very strong cases for missing the forest for the trees in both of these conditions. One ignores too much, the other risks oversight of what is there by looking for what might not actually be. [1,5,6]

Let’s take some words from B. F Skinner’s own mouth, one of the renown Behaviorist researchers and writers:

“When a person has been subjected to mildly punishing consequences in walking on a slippery surface, he may walk in a manner we describe as cautious. It is then easy to say that he walks with caution or that he shows caution. There is no harm in this until we begin to say that the walks carefully because of his caution. … The extraordinary appeal of inner causes and the accompanying neglect of environmental histories and current setting must be due to more than a linguistic practice. I suggest that it has the appeal of the arcane, the occult, the hermitic, the magical-those mysteries which have held so important a position in the history of human thought. It is the appeal of an apparently inexplicable power, in a world which seems to lie beyond the senses and the reach of reason.”- B.F Skinner (1974). [2]

The concern is clear, as to what might happen if we fall in to traps of circular reasoning and the invention of non-existent causes of behavior and conditions of an individual based on constructs that might not exist. Especially if their definition is circular enough to “explain” itself. But what about the constructs that do exist? What about the biological structures of the brain? What about hormones and neurotransmitters? What about advancements in medicine that has shown viable benefits to mental health? Research has come a long way, and you would be hard pressed in my opinion to find a Behaviorist (Methodological, Radical, or otherwise) that would fully ignore these advancements. [1,3,6]

In light of this, it would be a good time to introduce some more modern concepts and theories in Behavioral psychology, Applied Behavior Analysis, and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. These are by no means exhaustive, but are rather a few insights in to what Behaviorism is today, and what concepts are used in practice and in the field, beyond stimulus-relations and the ignoring the organism and focusing on the behavior.  There have been vast advancements, many outside of the pop-psychological lime light. It would take entire books to describe each of these concepts to their fullest, so I invite you to research them further to your satisfaction.  Here, are a few of my favorites that might stun old Behaviorists, and shock new Cognitivists alike.

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Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): This is a strictly behavioral (observable, measurable) approach to treatment, but it goes far beyond pigeons in boxes pecking at levers. This approach has shown great empirical and clinical effect with non-verbal and intellectually disabled individuals, as well as a broad scope of learning disorders in children. Not to mention effectiveness in treatment of anxiety disorders and some personality disorders. Focusing on behavioral topics such as reinforcement, shaping, prompting, and motivating/establishing operations, it does have the feel of older behavioral approaches with due regard for medical/physiological processes, and advancements in mental health. [1]

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

Relational Frame Theory (RFT): You might have heard of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” (whose theoretical framework is still used in Applied Behavior Analysis practice), and perhaps the cutting response by Noam Chomsky. Relational Frame Theory was the Behaviorist response to that, decades later. Where Skinner’s approach may not have satisfied Chomsky’s insights in to the human generativity of language, RFT tackles it from a different angle: verbal behavior as a special type of operant behavior; derived relational responding. It bridges a gap in cognitive aspects of the original operant-behavior theory of language, and has growing empirical evidence behind it. [4]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  2. Hayes, S. C. (2010). Relational frame theory: a post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Acad., Plenum Publ.

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM): This is a growing field where Behavioral theory is extended to the business and larger molar views of behavior, and meta-contingencies across larger groups of people working together. It takes an Applied Behavior Analytic approach to many problems that businesses face, and functional alternatives to success based on observable outcomes. [7]

Suggested Reading:

  1. Geller, E. S. (2003). Organizational Behavior Management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.
  2. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Skinner, B. F (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 270-277.
  3. Baum, W. M. (n.d.). Behaviorism, Private Events, and the Molar View of Behavior(Vol. 34, The Behavior Analyst).
  4. Blackledge, J.T. (2003). “An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory: Basics and Applications”. The Behavior Analyst Today.
  5. L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach
  6. Shettleworth, Sara J.(2010)Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior (2nd edn) Oxford Univ. Press
  7. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. (2006). Journal of Organizational Behavior Management

Image Credits: http://www.pixabay.com, Getty Images

 

Ghostbusters and Behavior Reinforcement

Ready for some Pop Psych?

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Let’s take a look at Reinforcement and Ghostbusters, and by Ghostbusters, I mean the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. In the start of the film we are introduced to the character Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the process of a humorous experiment with two subjects in which he says the phrase: “I’m studying the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” This is a scene shown in more than a few Psych 101 courses, where it is lambasted for scientific inaccuracy and ethical violation, but there is actually a great deal we could learn about foundational concepts from it.

In the starting scene, Dr. Venkman holds up cards to both individuals, and they are asked to guess what the symbol hidden on the other side might be. When the male subject responds incorrectly, he is given a mild electric shock, and becomes more and more irritated and averse to the experiment. The other female subject, named Jennifer, is never shown the cards true symbols. She giggles, laughs, and gives her best guess and is reported to be correct by Dr. Venkman five times in a row (even though she is not), thus avoiding the shock, and given copious attention and praise for it. The key term here we are going to look at is called Negative Reinforcement, and in the context of the electric shock, is used incorrectly. However, the audience is clearly aware of Dr. Venkman’s true aims, and deception to the subjects, which is where the humor comes in. [1,2]

So what does negative reinforcement mean? A common misconception is that “negative” means painful or averse, when in fact the term relates more to the removal of a stimulus. Let’s compare it to positive reinforcement. [1,2]

Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like a reward. You work a full shift, and you get a paycheck. You’re more likely to work a full shift again. [1,2]

Negative Reinforcement: This is the removal of a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like avoidance. If you ask for no onions on your burger, and you’re given a burger without onions, you have avoided the aversive stimulus. You’re more likely to ask for no onions again.  [1,2]

Both positive and negative reinforcement aim to increase the behavior that they follow. Reinforcement is an effect that strengthens behavior. Think of it this way: “Positive” means add a stimulus or stimuli. “Negative” means subtract or remove a stimulus or stimuli. [1,2]

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Returning to our example, Dr. Venkman is not interested in demonstrating the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP. He is not accurately tracking any real variables associated with “ESP”, but he is using Negative Reinforcement to some degree. [2]

Remember Jennifer? What behavior might she be exhibiting to avoid the electric shock? Clearly, the target behavior is not guessing the symbol correctly.  Instead, Jennifer is engaging socially with Dr. Venkman, she is giggling, guessing confidently, displaying attention to him, and responding eagerly to his comments and expressions. She avoids electric shock in each of those conditions, so it could be said that her attention is the true target of the experiment. Negative Reinforcement is, in a sense, in effect for the shocks for Jennifer, but so is Positive Reinforcement; her attention, giggling, and eager guesses are reinforced by Dr. Venkman’s added encouragement to continue the experiment. [1,2]

Let’s circle back to his other subject, the male who is being shocked repeatedly following incorrect guesses. Dr. Venkman gives him false encouragement by telling him “you have only 75 more to go!”, following the complaints and visible increase in irritation. Here, Dr. Venkman is using what is called Positive Punishment, which is the addition of a stimulus, the electric shock, following the incorrect guess. It could be said from this limited experiment, that using Positive Punishment was the actual independent variable controlled by Dr.Venkman, and that it’s effect was used to fluster the male subject into leaving. The subject’s attention and responses were punished, leading to a decrease in that behavior and the male subject leaving the experiment early. [1,2]

Ethically, very dubious experiment, but its comedic effects do demonstrate some actual psychological (and behavioral) phenomena.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

 

References:

  1. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
  2. Murray B., Aykroyd, D., Weaver S., Ramis H., Moranis R., Columbia Pictures Industries (Film). (1984). Ghostbusters. Burbank, CA. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.

Photo Credits: http://ghostbusters.wikia.com