Behavioral Learning

In my earlier discussion of perceptions (click here), I argued that we learn to respond behaviorally a long time before any rational decisions are made. Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner. In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

Following this line of thinking, the existence of conflicting patterns of rewards and punishments create ethical dilemmas in decisions focusing exclusively on behavioral responses.

For example, the example of short-term benefits followed by long-term costs arises in the case of smoking. The pleasure of smoking a cigarette poses no immediate health risk, while a lifetime of smoking can lead to cancer and early death. In the case of smoking, the short pleasure of cigarettes leads one into a pattern of addiction that would not be chosen, if the entire pattern came into view at the outset. Smoking therefore poses an ethical dilemma because hypothetical future costs must be compared with tangible present benefits, which poses a problem for many people.

A counter example arises when short-term costs are followed by long-term benefits. The classical example is the student who hates to study (a short-term cost) and drops out of school losing a lifetime of additional income. Investment decisions more generally have the characteristic of a short-term cost followed by a long-term benefit.

In both examples, smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning.

While trap avoidance motivates ethical teaching, teaching self-discipline (a kind of rational learning) has its own benefits. In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel ran an experiment with pre-schoolers (4 year olds) focused on delayed gratification. The children were given a choice: eat one marshmallow now or, if you wait about twenty minutes, you can have two. Mischel then tracked the performance of the children over time, reporting:

“The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped adaptively with frustration and stress.” (Mischel 2014, 4-5).

In other words, self-discipline is at the heart of achievement as we know it (and predictable even in preschool) and impulsive (behavioral) responses lead to under-achievement. The good news in Mischel’s research concerned how self-discipline could be taught, thereby avoiding a lifetime of under-achievement.

If self-discipline is important in worldly success, then why do so many people continue to live a hedonistic lifestyle, pursuing only happiness and pleasure? The short answer is that we become addicted to dysfunctional behaviors much like we get addicted to cigarettes—knowledge about the likelihood of cancer and an early death is normally insufficient to giving up cigarettes. Worse, industries have profited and grown from encouraging people to indulge their addictions—why else would bootleggers and drug dealers be so popular?

The Good News is that Christ died for our sins so that we don’t have to.

References

Cross,John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

 

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