Easier Said Than Done.

Comments periodically circulate in the blogosphere about the poor willpower of people who keep checking their blog posts and social media for Likes and comments, or who keep looking at reviews and sales statistics for the books they’ve written. “Behave yourselves!” is the message, but however well-meaning, it’s not helpful, because willpower has nothing to do with it. 

What’s at work here is something called operant conditioning. In this area of behavioral psychology, as demonstrated by B. F. Skinner’s famous pigeon-in-a-box, rewarding a behavior tends to reinforce it, while punishing a behavior tends to extinguish it. Also, intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful reward of all.

Our brains are wired to find the rewards of intermittent reinforcement most compelling. It’s what drives the response to the pleasurable stimuli that fuel survival: think of hunter-gatherers in search of sustenance and sex. So the rewarding intermittent reinforcement of spikes in Likes, comments, reviews and sales is what keeps people coming back to those pages.

Organic_Honey_(1)Drosophila_melanogaster_-_side_(aka)Operant conditioning is what’s behind the ancient adage, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” However, there’s a catch: whether or not something is a reinforcement or a punishment can also depend on other variables. There’s a species of fruit fly that’s drawn to vinegar; in fact, it’s called a “vinegar fly.” (I used to make vinegar at home.)

This kind of behavioral psychology is why the parental advice about playground bullies, “Just ignore him, and he’ll stop,” rarely works, in the short term. When there is daily contact, the least bit of a rewarding response to a bully’s baiting is enough to keep the bad behavior going. Extinguishing childhood bullying by ignoring it usually works only when a fairly long period of reward deprivation intervenes (such as during the long summer break), and that, only because children’s brains are constantly developing in response to active stimuli. During the interval, the bully finds a different victim, or else just “grows out of it,” and forgets to engage in bullying, because a more compelling kind of rewarded behavior has arisen to supplant it.

Breaking habits in adults can be very difficult. Now and then, someone does succeed with going cold turkey. For example, I became quite good at making delicious bread from scratch, but once I discovered that gluten was the cause of some of my health problems, my relationship with wheat, rye, and barley was instantly and permanently ended. I’ve been gluten-free for many years, now, and I’ve never looked back. I just don’t feel any temptation to “cheat”: My gut reacts painfully to very small amounts of gluten, so the consequences would be too severe.

Effectively breaking a conditioned response usually takes the consistent application of a stronger reward than the one that established the undesirable behavior. This has important meaning for the choices that characters make in novels. Sometimes they’re aware of what’s going on, as in this passage from Irish Firebrands:

Resist! She recalled the cognitive-behavioural therapy that in the past had helped her gain control of her runaway emotions: Your feelings for each other resist extinction because they’re getting intermittent reinforcement. So, until you stop reinforcing them, you’ll get spontaneous recovery of those feelings. Keep him focussed on the baby, and when it’s born – when he’s got his own child to love – those feelings won’t be reinforced – and then they’ll go extinct

But most of the time, fictional characters are clueless about the tangled wiring inside their heads; nevertheless, although most readers will not be clinicians, they do have the instinct to easily identify characters who behave unrealistically, whether they are heroes or villains. This usually results in charges of cardboard characterization. As Authors who translate Life into Written Art, our challenge is to tell stories about characters whose actions are consistent with behavioral psychology.

So what can be done, if we do want to break the habits engendered by the intermittent reinforcement provided by social media and other rewarding stimuli? We could try putting ourselves into a virtual operant conditioning chamber, perhaps by using chocolate chips as food pellets, to reward behavior that doesn’t entail compulsive Internet surfing … such as getting that work-in-progress novel finished.


Some important final notes:

Adult bullying responds to the same kinds of reward stimuli (think: appeasing Hitler), but there’s little chance for adult brains to grow out of it. Incarceration can become necessary, but it rarely results in a cure, for reasons which are beyond the scope of a blog post about the psychology behind fictional character behavior.

Operant conditioning is also why, as frustrating, frightening or infuriating it may feel to see someone remain in an abusive relationship, we must not be judgmental of such victims, and we must never give up trying to help them. You might think that the conditioned response called “learned helplessness” is in operation in this case (and in very severe circumstances, that is possible), but most of the time, for a victim of domestic abuse it’s a matter of intermittent reinforcement, provided by the reward of the perpetrator’s “honeymoon phase.”

It is imperative for persons with debilitating psychological issues to receive competent professional mental health care.

Text © 2014 by Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.



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8 responses to “Easier Said Than Done.

  1. This is very interesting Christine. The few days my internet was totally off, I still found myself automatically clicking on the Chrome emblem. I only noticed how often I did it because it didn’t work. It’s like some sort of addiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jo. Authors don’t need to be shrinks, but it does help to know a few things about normal and abnormal psychology, to help with writing fictional characters.

      But I have seen some downright snarky comments about willpower, as well as some unhappiness expressed by bloggers who took that kind of criticism to heart. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just operant conditioning. In most cases, it’s no more harmful than the tendency one has to flip a light switch when entering a dark room during a power outage, even when one is holding a lighted candle in the other hand.

      If it has become a minor time-waster, an individual can usually successfully apply some combination of punishment for the undesirable habit, plus a reward to establish a new habit. But people do need to be patient with themselves, while they’re re-training. And, of course, any behavior that disrupts quality of life needs professional assessment.


  2. Hey! Everybody, look at me! Why is everybody looking at me?


  3. I’m currently suffering a major sinus infection, so I have a bit of “medicine head” right now. That said, perhaps under other circumstances I might not be confused But are you saying that writers need to break the habit of checking on other internet sites and focus on their writing and that is the learned behavior that needs to change? Or are you saying that the characters we write about need to follow a mainstream psychology? (Or maybe you’re saying both?)

    I love your flies/honey analogy. My Grandma always used to tell me, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” until once day I told her “Flies are also attracted to poop!” Of course, I didn’t know about your “vinegar fly.”

    Now, where do I sign up to get those chocolate chips?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have two things going on in this post. One has to do with the remarks I’d run across about compulsive stats-checking, some of which verged on the snarky, and some that came from folks who were feeling badly about their own behavior. I wanted people to know that this is a normal response, and not a matter for guilt trips. I do not mean to say that they need do anything about it, but only that if anyone does want to stop it, they can use the same operant conditioning that created the habit, although they should be aware of the special tenacity of behavior learned through intermittent reinforcement.

      The other thing I wrote about concerns the creation of characters who demonstrate believable behavioral psychology. Writers can’t just simply decree that a character is a skunk, nor can they arbitrarily make leopards change their spots, without their risking the readers’ losing suspension of disbelief. Operant conditioning can be what underpins the motivation that drives behavior in black sheep, white sheep, and the iron-gray variety, too. This has particular importance for thrillers and romances, but it applies to characters in all genres.

      PS: Get well, soon!

      Liked by 1 person

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