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.
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 (and even oats, because of cross-contamination in silos and grain elevators) was instantly and permanently ended. I’ve been gluten-free for 6 years, 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.