The rats who hoped and hoped.

In the first chapter of her book, Opening Skinners’ Box, Lauren Slater wrote about B.F. Skinner and his experiments operant conditioning rats and pigeons. He trained them to press a lever (a wholly un-rat-like act) to obtain food. That was easy enough! Rats are pretty smart, after all– and food is a powerful motivator. Then! He experimented varying the intervals with which he gave the rats the food to see the corresponding response in their behaviour. For example, he stopped giving the rats food when they pressed the lever and they (quite naturally) stopped pressing it. He gave some rats food every 5th press of the lever, and they quickly learnt to press it 5 times in a row when they wanted food.

Finally, he tried something pretty interesting– and herein lies his greatest discovery and where humans come in.

He tried intermittently rewarding the animals with food when they pressed the level, so that most of the times the animals came away empty, but every once in a while,after say, the fortieth bar press, or the sixtieth, they’d get a treat. Intuition tells us that random and far-flung rewards would lead to hopelessness and extinction of behaviour; they didn’t. … Skinner found that irregularly rewarded behaviour was the hardest of all to eradicate.

The rats pressed and pressed and pressed the lever like saw-toothed junkies– hoping in their little pinkie-sized brain, beneath their furry whiskers, that food would drop. Quite similarly, our best friend may hang over the phone, foxtrotting in place, waiting for that mean boyfriend with an occasional streak of kindness to call, just call. Oh please call!

Human folly too, it seems, can be explained with the principle of intermittent reinforcement… Why we do the stupidest things even though we’re not consistently rewarded– perhaps because we are not consistently rewarded.

But this intense contingencies of compulsion produces a slightly worrying trend, doesn’t it?

… It explains why perfectly normal people empty their coffers in smoky casinos and wind up in terrible trouble. Why women love too much and men stock-trade on margin.

The phenomenon is easy enough to describe, but its implications on our actions are ironically complex. Should we give up then? What if the next press yields something? Or the next? What a waste it’d be, to give up when the end is so near– there, just round that corner, don’t you see it?! And besides, is not perseverance a virtue?

But if we keep pressing– more than that, if we keep hoping… when do we draw The Line? The line that separates us from rats. The line to symbolise the triumph of our minds over our hearts, to symbolise the triumph of rational thinking over wishful dreaming.

i wish i knew. there is a line i need to draw.


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