Psychological Conditioning in the Real World
February 2, 2011 8:50 PM   Subscribe

What are some practical ways to implement classical and operant conditioning in the real world to change people's behaviour?

I would like to find practical techniques of conditioning behaviour. Have you used or know of methods that work well in the real life and common situations?

For instance,

Giving children treats after good behaviour or correct answers and then pairing it with pen clicking.


Spraying a significant other with cold water while repeating the word "bad" after you catch them nude and in bed with your once best friend.
posted by Knigel to Education (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Bunge at 8:52 PM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis does this. Your question is pretty broad, because a large number of different techniques can be used to teach a wide variety of behaviors in a wide variety of situations.
posted by puritycontrol at 8:57 PM on February 2, 2011

Did you just watch last week's House?

You might be interested in What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.
posted by phunniemee at 9:08 PM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage?
posted by BoscosMom at 9:11 PM on February 2, 2011

If you ever some of those experiments that have been implemented in real life (e.g. treats after completing an answer or for a behavior), there is a lot of evidence that people catch on to the test and stop complying (I will let you do the googling, pubmed can be your friend).

I'd also like to point out something that could potentially improve results in terms of keeping the desired behavior present for a longer time, whether the subject is an animal or a person: intermittent reinforcement. An example: gambling. You drop in coins. At an unpredictable interval, coins are spit out back at you, along with shiny lights and whistles. There are people who persist in this behavior for their entire lives.

Anywho, I would attach that word to your search (the type of reinforcement).
posted by Wolfster at 9:11 PM on February 2, 2011

Take a read through Don't Shoot the Dog! Yes, it is primarily about dog training, but it gives specific and actual ways to incorporate this into social interaction.

Now, who want's a treat?
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:26 PM on February 2, 2011

Since we're posting vids: Positive Reinforcement - The Big Bang Theory
posted by Knigel at 9:58 PM on February 2, 2011

Paying employees a sales commission would be an example of a fixed ratio schedule of reinforcement.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:17 PM on February 2, 2011

A slot machine is a virtually perfect operant conditioning device to teach people to feed it coins. There's a reason people get hooked on them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:51 PM on February 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here's something.
posted by zoinks at 11:54 PM on February 2, 2011

Giving children treats after good behaviour or correct answers and then pairing it with pen clicking.

I'm not sure you reward children for giving a correct answer --- it's not like children purposely give wrong answers, and in some cases, you want to encourage them to give any answer they think is correct because you want them to be engaged in the activity and you want to know how they're thinking about it. They're also social -- reward a kid for content and the kids who are struggling to learn the content will recognize how shitty it is to reward the kid who has an easy time answering the question, and disengage.

Which is to say, take care if you're considering enacting some kind of conditioning.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:49 AM on February 3, 2011

Other People's Habits

Negative reinforcement, punishments and penalties are problematic for many reasons. For example, spraying a cheating SO with cold water might simply teach them to be more careful to conceal such activities. It's easier to encourage particular behaviors you do want (using positive reinforcement) than to discourage behaviors you don't want.

The book linked above suggests the Pet Rock Test; if the behavior you want is something your pet rock could do -- e.g., don't cheat, don't micromanage, don't leave the toilet seat up -- then you need to rethink your goal because it's almost impossible to shape that behavior. Behaviors that your pet rock could never do, e.g. spending quality time with you, seeking your input before making decisions, putting the toilet seat down -- these can be effectively encouraged.
posted by jon1270 at 4:29 AM on February 3, 2011

To put vitabellosi's point into an example:
There was a great story on This American Life or Fresh Air a little before december about an inscentive-based economist with two little kids. He potty trained his daughter, the oldest, by giving her M&Ms after she used the potty. What she learned was, the longer it took her to get it consistently, the longer she got M&Ms. Semi-success, but delayed by the unintended consiquence.

His second child, his son, he rewarded differently. To make things easier - and thinking that he was providing a teaching experience to his daughter - he rewarded his daughter again with M&Ms when she took his son to the potty. As such, she pumped her little brother full of water so that he had to pee constantly. Once again, the reward system broke down and had an additional unintended consiquence of his reward system.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:25 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was spray-training my cat away from some bad behavior (I forget what, he had a lot of them at first) and two of my friends started wrestling in my living room, so I grabbed my spray bottle and sprayed them without thinking.

What I mostly learned from this is that it's a good way to make your friends really, really, really, really angry and put you at serious risk of losing said friends. Though everyone who hadn't just been sprayed thought it was HILARIOUS.

They did not wrestle in my living room again, although I think that's because they refused to come over for weeks afterwards.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:25 AM on February 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

I dated a psychologist once.
He decided to try some conditioning shit on me.
Whenever he said, "I'll go get it," he would punch me in the shoulder. Not hard, but hard enough.
It has been five years since we broke up, and I still cringe occasionally when someone offers to get the remote or the door rings.
This is why you never. date. psychologists.

I am a psychologist
posted by quiet coyote at 7:21 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nanukthedog, while sometimes it's not a possibility, pairing the reward with another stimulus prevents that kind of problem. Even something like saying "Good job!"
posted by Knigel at 8:09 AM on February 3, 2011

I trained my cat to like getting his claws clipped. It took two years of treat reinforcement (at about one clip a month).

During the early part of their marriage, my mother used to stick her finger in my dad's mouth whenever he started to yawn. He wasn't able to complete a yawn for years. I have no idea how that marriage lasted as long as it did.
posted by freshwater at 8:10 AM on February 3, 2011

There are all kinds of movies, magazine articles and books that talk about training your husband using dog training techniques, with various results. Here's a Sandra Dee movie from the 60's. Google that phrase "dog training husband" and you'll get lots of hits.
posted by CathyG at 8:40 AM on February 3, 2011

Anecdote: In 6th grade, when I learned about conditioning, a friend and I decided to try to condition our other friend to stop being annoying. I had these little clicker from a Jeopardy! board game, and I carried one and my friend carried one. Any time our other friend did something we deemed annoying, we clicked at her. She caught on really quickly and we stopped being friends. Which, I guess in its own way, ended her annoying behavior, or at least ended my exposure to it.

Maybe a clicker was too obvious.
posted by millipede at 9:54 AM on February 3, 2011

This is why you never. date. psychologists.

Sounds more like why you should never date abusive fucks.
posted by endless_forms at 12:07 PM on February 3, 2011

At the risk of being deemed an abusive fuck, here's my contribution.

I was a psych minor in college (the first time around), when I was inspired to conduct a field study in conditioning. I explained the plan to my fellow students in a class and got their assistance. The plan was simple; when the teacher stood on the left side of the classroom, the students were all attentive, made eye contact and nodded along with the lecture. When the teacher stood on the right side of the classroom, we stopped looking up, doodled in out notebooks and appeared less attentive. After a couple of weeks, we narrowed the "attentive zone" to the left-most third of the classroom. After another week, we narrowed the zone even further. By the end of the term, the poor prof was practically standing in the corner of the classroom, for the entire hour. And was seemingly unaware that there was anything unusual about his behavior.
posted by browse at 2:39 PM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't personally know of specific ways, but there is a book written by B.F. Skinner (founder of operant conditioning). It's called Walden 2 and it represents a utopian society where individuals' behavior have been modeled after the ideal using operant conditioning. You might be able to find your answers throughout the book.
posted by meta.mark at 10:03 AM on February 4, 2011

Ding Training
posted by cardioid at 8:20 PM on February 7, 2011

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