Today I was late for work. I was late yesterday. I am late everyday. I was 30 minutes late on Wednesday.
As I drove to work this morning, realising I would be at least 10 minutes late (the reason being I had to scrape the ice off my car) I mused on the topic. Why don’t I get stressed out when I’m late, again?
My musings led me to think about operant conditioning, and Pavlov’s dogs.
Now, for those of you who were fortunate enough not to study psychology at some point in your life, here is a little introduction to Pavlov and his dogs. (I say fortunate because even though I love it, psychology has fucked me up irreparably. I know too much and too little about the internal workings of the mind. It drives me mad. I analyse myself, badly, and come to unsettling conclusions. I think about stuff like classical conditioning when I drive to work. Who does that!?)
Back to the point. Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist who originally intended to study dogs drooling. I don’t know how that went, but in the process he discovered a phenomenon now called operant conditioning.
I’m not sure if Pavlov was a nice man, he was not nice to dogs (they say serial killers start off torturing animals…). He rigged up several different experiments the involved tricking, fooling and electrocuting dogs in some way. The famous study I will describe involved electrocution.
Pavlov constructed a box, in which he put a dog. One half of the floor of the box was conductive, the other half wasn’t. He stood the dog on the conductive half and flipped the switch. The dog jumped off the conductive side onto the non conductive side to avoid the shock. Result: dog learns to move to avoid shock.
As I said, Pavlov did not like dogs, so next he put a wall in the box separating the conductive and non conductive halves. He put the dog on the conductive side and flipped the switch. The dog panics, I imagine it yelped in pain, it tries to get off the conductive surface – but can’t because of the wall.
Pavlov does this a couple of few times cause he’s a sadist.
He then takes the wall away.
Pavlov again puts the dog on the conductive half. He flips the switch. The dog doesn’t move. It stays there, even though it can stop the shock by moving onto the non conductive side. The dog has given up. It has been conditioned not to try and escape because it was shocked so many times in the box with the wall stopping him moving.
Sad story, poor dog, but what’s the point?
The point is, have I been conditioned to stop trying to get to work on time because I never get to work on time? Have I given up hope of this ever happening because no matter what I do it just doesn’t work?
Will that excuse fly at (an inevitable) formal review of my tardiness?
For the real story on Pavlov, and not just what I can remember having done bugger all research, please do not google operant conditioning and find nothing about this study so making it look like I made it up.