How does a persistent problem get started and what keeps it going? Why does it seem to be immune to your attempts to defeat it? Let me explain how it gets so hard and how problems manipulate you into feeding them.
In another article, I recommended that you starve the Problem and feed the person. Starving a Problem is a brave thing to do, even if you’re careful to not starve the person. Your partner certainly won’t give you any credit for doing it. He, after all, has already been overcome by the Problem and is thinking like it does. When he’s suicidal, he’s going to say he feels betrayed because you called 911. No Problem likes it when the guys in the white coats come; but, when he’s in his right, true mind, he’s going to be glad that you made that call.
You also should not expect to see any changes right away. Before anything sinks in, you’ll get caught in the snags of an intermittent reinforcement schedule.
Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule
A lot of psychological studies are just plain silly. Do we really need experimental data to tell us that power corrupts, or that pain and sickness are depressing, or that people like to hear things that confirm their biases? However, there is one bit of experimental psychology called operant conditioning, that, when I tell people about it, causes their faces to light up. It informs them of something that ought to be obvious, but isn’t. It can explain how you get caught up in the madness of doing what you have always done despite mostly getting the crappy outcome you’ve always got.What is this result of experimental psychology that has so much explanatory power? We call it the intermittent reinforcement schedule.
It’s easy to train a pigeon to peck at a lever. All you need to do is give it a piece of birdseed whenever it does. It takes just a few times before they get the hang of it. It’s nearly as easy to train a pigeon, once they have learned to peck at a lever, to stop. All you need to do is stop giving them the birdseed. They’ll keep pecking at the lever for a few times, but eventually they’ll learn that no birdseed is forthcoming, and they’ll go on to do other things, whatever it is that pigeons do when they’re not pecking at levers.
But what happens if, when you are teaching the pigeon to peck at the lever, you only give them birdseed once in a while? That’s what experimental psychologist, BF Skinner, discovered when he ran low on birdseed in the middle of training his pigeons. In an effort to conserve the birdseed, he tried rewarding them intermittently. Skinner found that it took the birds a bit longer to learn that he wanted them to peck the lever; but, once they caught on, they were lever-pecking machines, obsessed with pecking levers, pecking them whenever they could, pecking them till the cows came home. Then, when he tried to get them to stop by withholding birdseed entirely whenever they pecked at the lever, they kept right on pecking. Skinner discovered that rewarding behavior intermittently was more powerful than doing it consistently.
You know what was going on in those pigeons’ minds when Skinner was trying to teach them that no birdseed was forthcoming when they pecked the lever; they were thinking, maybe this time I’ll get lucky. It’s the same thing that’s going on in your mind when you feed quarters into a slot machine for the zillionth time. It’s the same thing going through the mind of any addict when he shoots up, walks into a bar, clicks on porn, or cruises the personal ads on Craigslist. They’re all looking for the big payout. The fact that they more frequently come up empty, or worse, have adverse experiences, is insignificant compared to the fact that occasionally they’re rewarded.
It’s also the same thing that’s going through the mind of a partner of those addicts, or the battered spouse, or the abused child when he seeks love and affection from a person who mistreats him. Some of the time, they get what they’re looking for, sometimes they get love and affection; but sometimes they don’t. They are on an intermittent reinforcement schedule from hell, unable to escape because of their own expectations.
So, where does this leave you, or anyone who’s trying to help a person change? It leaves you having to endure your partner testing your limits to see if you’re serious. It leaves you saying she’s incapable of change. But, she’s not incapable of change. She’s actually in the middle of the process of change. It leaves you with having to be consistent and persistent.
Eventually, Skinner’s pigeons did stop pecking at the lever, but it took a while. If Skinner ever messed up and gave his pigeons birdseed when they pecked at a lever, he got them going all over again. They were thinking they were still on that intermittent reinforcement schedule and would go on pecking. That’s what you do when you mess up and feed the Problem, even just once.
You know what he’s like when he drinks too much, but you bought a beer for him. She gets paranoid when you keep secrets from her and starts to imagine all kinds of wild things, but you withheld information. His doctor has told him that, at this point, it’s detrimental to his recovery from back surgery for him to lay in bed all day, but you brought him breakfast in bed. She’s been feeling sorry for herself ever since she lost her legs in that accident, but you pushed her wheelchair.
Now the Problem happily thinks that nothing has changed and will go on doing what it was doing before you tried to starve it. You’re back to square one and it’s not entirely your loved one’s fault. You gave some mixed signals and reactivated an intermittent reinforcement schedule.
If you’re really clever, you may have already thought of something. If Skinner really wanted to make his pigeons stop pecking at levers, you might be saying, he was going about it the hard way.
All he had to do was to reward his pigeons whenever they pecked at something else. They would naturally stop pecking at levers if they got their birdseed from another source.
You learned that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement. Therefore, you reason, all you have to do is reward your loved one when he does well. Give him love and praise when he spends time with his family, when he takes out the garbage, when he saves for a rainy day, when he racks up the clean time; then he’ll naturally stop doing drugs, gambling at the casino, running up the credit card bill, and getting hammered every time you turn around. Honey catches more flies than vinegar.
That might work for the easy things; positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement most of the time. But, if you’ve got a real Problem on your hands, your praise, your rewards, your love, your kindness, your convincing rationale, your unconditional positive regard, is never, ever going to be enough. You’re competing with crack cocaine, with crystal meth, with heroin, with hitting it big at the blackjack table, with a big sale at the shoe store, with passionate sex with a new conquest, with a good buzz. Do you know what you’re up against? Do you think gold stars are better than that?
So, how about pain? Can pain challenge the reinforcement that problems provide?
What if Skinner had hooked up an electric current to those levers so that the pigeons got zapped every time they pecked at them? That would make them stop. Similarly, if your loved one suffered enough negative reinforcement as a result of the Problem, she would stop, too, you’d think.
If it worked, there would be lots of ways you could use negative reinforcement to end your loved one’s dependence on the problem. You could yell, scream, and carry on whenever you catch him doing whatever he does. You could leave him and get all his friends and family to reject him, too. If all those methods seem too mean, you don’t have to provide the pain, yourself. You could just step aside and stop taking the natural consequences of the Problem yourself. If the kids are too noisy for him when he’s hung over; then too bad, there’s a negative consequence that will make him stop.
Wrong again, problems already provide plenty of pain and continue their merry way, despite it all. First, there’s the withdrawal, the hangover, the remorse, the shame. Then, there are the consequences of having poor judgment when problems make decisions. The money problems, work problems, legal problems, and health problems that often arise. Keep a Problem long enough and there will be plenty of pain. Keep it a little longer, the Problem will use the pain as an excuse to keep doing what it was doing.
Think about it from the pigeon’s point of view. If he thinks that lever is his only source of birdseed, he’ll continue pecking, despite the zap, rather than starve. Hey, it’s a living. You probably put up with a lot, too, for the sake of making your living.
Playing the Problem’s game
BF Skinner, and other experimental psychologists like him, have often been criticized for confusing pigeons with people. The critics are partly right. Of course, you and your loved ones aren’t pigeons. Normally you’re a whole lot brighter than that; but the Problem isn’t. Problems think like pigeons; and, anyone who’s under the influence of a Problem thinks like a pigeon, too.
Problems are like pool hustlers when it comes to operant conditioning. You’re never going to get anywhere as long as you play the Problem’s game. They’ve got you coming and going. A Problem will outlast you. It’ll dismiss your negative consequences, laugh at your positive ones, and make your loved one think there’s an intermittent reinforcement schedule long after you give up and go back home. That’s how it lures you in and takes your lunch.
The key to escaping this situation, for both you and your loved one, is as easy and as hard as thinking about what you’re doing. Exercise your freedom of choice. Don’t be a bird brain, recognize when you’re the chump in this game, and play something different.
Keith R Wilson is a mental health counselor in private practice and the author of The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad, from which this article is adapted.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
Photo credit: iStockPhoto.com
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