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February 16th, 2008


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01:36 pm - Musing about positive and negative reinforcement
A few days ago, teaotter and I were talking about convincing people to do what you wanted them to. I mentioned Aaron's comment about Becca that he made within the first six months of knowing her well (which is a surprisingly long time ago), where he said that what he found mildly disturbing about Becca wasn't that she was good at getting people to do what she wanted them to, but that she was good at getting them to want to do what she wanted them to do. Becca, of course considers this methodology to be exceptionally sensible, and I'm inclined to agree.

We went on from there to discuss how she gets me to do things she wants, much of which rests on her discovery that not only is positive motivation (in the form of various sorts of minor rewards and praise) the most effective motivation for me (as is true for everthing from humans to mice, a fact that policy makers and moralists all too often neglect or forget). In my particular case, it's also the only remotely reliable or useful way to get me to change my behavior.

I considered this for a while and was exceptionally pleased that this was true, since getting a reward is obviously far better than avoiding punishment or an argument. However, this is not actually a facet of my personality that I put any conscious decision into making true. I suspect that it's largely an indirect result of the rules that I live by.

From my PoV, gaining the praise of someone I care about is worth a great deal, and gaining praise from anyone I do not dislike is pleasant and more tangible rewards range from pleasant to exceptionally enjoyable. As a result, when offered a reward to change my behavior, I always consider the relative values of what I want and the potentially reward given for not obtaining it, or for obtaining it in different manner. Obviously, getting both what I want and the reward is best of all, but not if doing so removes the likelihood of gaining future rewards. Therefore, because I attempt to keep medium, and often long-term consequences firmly in mind, I avoid using trickery or deception to obtain both a reward to not do something and then do that thing, because it's quite obvious to me that doing this is an excellent way to cease being offered rewards to not do something.

In vivid contrast, yelling at me, arguing, or threatening various punishments if I perform certain actions produces entirely different reactions. Since I dislike being yelled at, punished, or threatened, I tend to look less positively on anyone who does any of this, and so their wishes automatically matter less to me than they otherwise might. Also, because the result of not doing what I want gives me literally nothing (in that I receive neither punishment nor the goal I have been thwarted from obtaining), I consider this situation to be vastly sub-obtimal and am never inclined to accept it. As a result, if trickery or deception seems likely to be a way to get what I want and also avoid punishment, then I am inclined to utilize trickery or deception, unless the punishments are both exceptionally harsh and the action I would otherwise is sufficiently tricky to perform of conceal having done that the likelihood of either failure or getting caught is relatively high.

I suspect that much of my response to punishment can be explained by my utter lack of guilt. I quite literally never believe that I deserve to be punished. The closest I ever come to this is being upset at myself because I was sufficiently foolish or clumsy that I got myself caught. To me, praise and similar rewards are fair payment for my actions, while all forms of punishment is nothing more or less than someone being cruel to me. Since anyone who is willing to be cruel to me clearly does not have my best intentions in mine, their opinions and desires are inherently suspect.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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From:aekiy
Date:February 16th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
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I don't have the utter lack of guilt you have, but I generally find the same things to be true for me. Anyone who sticks to negative reinforcement is only likely to get negative results from me. It is very saddening just how many people will not even attempt positive reinforcement.
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From:primaldog
Date:February 17th, 2008 04:21 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure I agree with this. I believe that negative reinforcement, when properly applied, has its uses. As does guilt. But then again, my views, I've noticed, seem to be more conservative than yours.

EDIT: To elaborate: I would feel guilt and regret if I hurt someone I cared about, or otherwise committed what I felt to be a wrongful offense against someone based on my moral boundaries. These emotions allow me to reflect on the wrong, modify my behavior, and learn from the experience.

As for punishment...sometimes people do something that deserves punishment. I think people should be made accountable for their actions. Sometimes, no amount of positive reinforcement will modify a behavior in a person. I still walk away bitter that some abusive people in my past have gotten away scott free, while I get to struggle with the scars.

On the other hand...I am much like you in that I seriously resent being punished, yelled at, etc. In fact, it only makes me more aggressive, and more likely to lash out in response--in which case, it would be one of those situations were I wouldn't feel in the least bit regretful over my actions, unless of course they landed me in jail or something.

Edited at 2008-02-17 04:34 am (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2008 07:47 am (UTC)
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Sometimes, no amount of positive reinforcement will modify a behavior in a person.

From my PoV, this usually means that no one has figured out what the appropriate sort of positive reinforcement would be. As a culture, we excel at thinking about and working out punishments, but rewards are often little considered beyond monetary ones, and money is often a relatively poor motivation.
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From:primaldog
Date:February 17th, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC)
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What would you say about the child molester that was given a 'second chance', got out of jail and went to the nearest schoolyard and did it again? And what would you say to the victim's family? Or the victims themselves? That they just needed some positive reinforcement to be good?
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
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Simply letting someone go free w/o helping them deal with their problem is merely gross negligence. It's vividly clear from all statistics that imprisonment does nothing to stop people from molesting children. So, unless you simply want to lock people up and throw away the key, other solutions are needed. Given how poorly punishment works in that situation, positive reinforcement seems a likely thing to try.
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From:kinkyturtle
Date:February 17th, 2008 04:38 am (UTC)
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At first I read that as "utter lack of quilt", and I wondered what being cold had to do with anything.
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From:xi_o_teaz
Date:February 17th, 2008 08:24 am (UTC)
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You and I think a lot alike. In particular, I always laugh off the whole meme of "Guilt" as "a waste of emotional energy & time".

I posted something on Positive & Negative ReInForcement & Punishment a while back, but it doesn't look to be the article I'm searching for. One thing this post brought up for me is how I've constantly tried to prove an old Psychology adage that basically states:

"People will do more to avoid Pain than to gain Pleasure", which seems to lead to people thinking that "Pain is a more powerful motivator than Pleasure".

One of the traits of most Success, IMHO, is in getting other people to want to help you. Although some people spin this behavior into the "maliciously manipulative" category, I'd reframe it to point out how the most efficient way to get others to want to help you involves looking at situations as "Win/Win", non-Zero-sum Games, and that's generally a "good" thing.
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From:pompe
Date:February 17th, 2008 12:56 pm (UTC)
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Hmm. But you say there are people you care about more than others. Why do you care about them, and how do you know that you do care about them?
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
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*blinks* It may be simply a result of being a Meyers Briggs ENFP (or more particularly of being and F rather than a T) but my feelings are always vividly clear about people, and my general wants and desires are equally clear. I know this is not true for everyone (perhaps even for most people) and that completely puzzles me, I simply do not understand how someone can not know what they want.

In any case, as a safeguard against misplaced feelings, I regularly (every two or three weeks) evaluate all my closest relationships (generally between 1 & 5 or 6, and including both my closest friends and my romantic partners) to see if they are giving me more than they cost. In most cases, this effort merely requires only a seconds' thought, since the conclusion is instantly obvious. In other cases, the balance between cost and benefit is less clear and requires a bit of thought. In such cases, I consider how to change this. On rare and extreme cases, I end the relationship.

I am curious though as to how your question relates to my initial post, I don't see any obvious connection.
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From:pompe
Date:February 17th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
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Heh. I would actually have thought you as more of a T-person from reading the initial post, but I'm not at all good with MBTI tests, so I guess that just shows my dubious competence. ,-)

I'm sorry if my question was strange. What my question was meant to do, is to emphasize how we empathize with other people, and that we empathize better with people we care about. So the reward, the happiness you feel when someone you care about confirms you, might not be a purely rational-conscious choice but an "i'm happy because you are happy" response mechanism. Reciprocal action reinforced.

I think part of guilt, at least the healthy part of guilt, is to be able to emotionally experience the hurt we all at times cause others and from that negative experience want to avoid that feeling again - even if we didn't do something harmful intentionally. Especially when it comes to people we care about. It is a emotional response to reciprocity just as other positive emotions are. A social pain reaction, so to speak, which then has been used for far more insidious and lousy purposes in human civilization but which fundamentally is part of who most of us are.

However, if we don't really empathize with others, if we don't feel their happiness and pain (and are able to feel ourselves as causes of either), how do we know we _really_ care about them and not just about the services they provide?
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From:primaldog
Date:February 17th, 2008 09:14 pm (UTC)
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However, if we don't really empathize with others, if we don't feel their happiness and pain (and are able to feel ourselves as causes of either), how do we know we _really_ care about them and not just about the services they provide?

IAWTC.

The thought of boiling down relationships with others into how they benefit you is, I feel, highly selfish, damaging, and self-serving.
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
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From what I've seen, at least on an unconscious level, that's what everyone does.

If someone does not in some way reinforce desirable feelings, then an individual is usually not motivated by a desire to care about or spend time around that person. In many cases, the benefit someone provides is purely emotional, but given that I highly value emotions, I consider that a highly rational motivation to spend time with someone. In any case, there have been a wealth of psychological studies that clearly show that people spend time around (and care about) people who benefit them (most often in various emotional ways) and do not spend time with or care about people who do not provide benefits to them. That sort of behavior can be seen in pretty much any living being that is not completely solitary.

Some benefits can be exceedingly indirect, such as someone caring for and spending time with a close relative who is consistently mean to them because caring about and spending time with close relatives is something the person values more than spending time with people whose are kind to them.

That particular relative isn't going anything (other than simply being a close relative) to warrant the caring and attention, but they nevertheless provide an obvious benefit to the individual, in the form of making that individual feel better about themself, because caring about and spending time with relatives is obviously a very important value for that individual.

People always have motivations for their actions, and ultimately all motivations are selfish, in the sense that these motivations serve some internal need or desire. Typically, this process is largely unconscious. I find it much more enjoyable and useful to make this process largely conscious. YMMV.
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From:pompe
Date:February 17th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)
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...and I probably also should relate the guilt issue to the punishment issue in some way, right? I don't think they are connected in the way society think they are, and in that I actually do agree with you.

If a person feels guilty, she is probably more efficient at punishing herself than society will be by issuing various forms of institutionalized punishment. So it is better to make the criminal see the results of her actions and let her mind punish herself, and give her the support needed to make that guilt into useful change of behaviour. Like "I won't drive drunk again because seeing that kid in the wheelchair sure made me feel very bad". In short, the other punishment is redundant.

If a person doesn't feel guilty even if exposed to the results of her harmful activities ("I drove drunk, that kid got in a wheelchair, but I don't care"), the behavioural modification the punishment attempts to emphasize ("You are being locked up so you will realize what a bad thing you did") isn't going to work, so in short, the punishment is ineffective. That's not to say we should let violent psychopaths run free, but we should be clear about why we have to lock them up.
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
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Heh. I would actually have thought you as more of a T-person from reading the initial post, but I'm not at all good with MBTI tests, so I guess that just shows my dubious competence. ,-)

In most tests I've taken I am around 50/50 E & I, incredibly strongly N, very strongly F, and with a slight preference to P. However, unlike many people who show up as F, I'm willing to accept my feelings as data points and to analyze them just as I would any other data points.

I'm sorry if my question was strange. What my question was meant to do, is to emphasize how we empathize with other people, and that we empathize better with people we care about. So the reward, the happiness you feel when someone you care about confirms you, might not be a purely rational-conscious choice but an "i'm happy because you are happy" response mechanism. Reciprocal action reinforced.

Most definitely. I completely agree.

I think part of guilt, at least the healthy part of guilt, is to be able to emotionally experience the hurt we all at times cause others and from that negative experience want to avoid that feeling again - even if we didn't do something harmful intentionally.

I definitely feel unhappy when others feel bad. However, in my own case, this (for reasons not entirely clear to me, but which I'm very happy for) this never translates into blaming myself or being unhappy with myself or my actions. I may decide to never act in a particular way again, but I simply don't hold onto any negative feelings. This extends well beyond feelings of guilt - if someone I truly care about does something I don't like (or even that makes me very angry), as long as the emotional balance I mentioned in my previous response remains strongly in their favor, I forgive them easily and rapidly, at least for singular incidents. A long term pattern of actions that annoy me start impacting my overall view of the relationship and certainly needs changing. However, I will forgive and completely cease being angry about almost any single incident that is not utterly horrible very rapidly indeed, at least with someone who I (overall) find to be highly enjoyable to be around (finding someone enjoyable to be around and caring about someone are to me effectively interchangeable statements).

In any case, without continued strong external provocation, emotions like anger, regret, and frustration all fade far more rapidly in me than in most people I've met. My guess is that this is also the reason I that I have absolutely no tendency to become depressed, and in fact in the absence of truly horrid external circumstances, depression is essentially impossible for me, I suspect that the reasons for all this are at the level where individual psychology and idiosyncratic neurochemistry intersect, but whatever the reason, I'm very happy for my own neurochemical makeup.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 18th, 2008 02:03 am (UTC)
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I recognize that punishment is sometimes effective, sometimes even the most effective way to correct behavior. While I prefer not to punish my children, having four of them running around has eliminated any romance I might have had about avoiding punishment entirely. And hence, recognizing its value, I try to be tolerant of punishments applied to me. I rarely feel that a valuable lesson is being taught to me, but I practice patience, recognizing that the person acting me is also engaging in an educational process. It is a fair assessment that I laugh at most punishments, ignore the greater part of the rest, and regard a minority of punishments as criminal assaults (and react with fierce anger and resistance).

I never dwell on punishment, my own or someone else's. It is better to focus on improvement. I do not view punishment as a good, but simply as a tool, with proper uses. A good punishment is rational, corrects the behavior, deters repeats of the behavior, and communicates the extent to which the corrected behavior has affected other people. A good punishment is consistent in purpose, but unpredictable in form and intensity.

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