Today’s column is online here. The doozy-of-a-question is from a woman–no, seriously, a woman–who doesn’t understand why her adult daughter gets offended when the LW asks her if she’s being emotional because she’s having her period. Miss Conduct does her best to clear this one up.
However, the question I had the most fun with was the more mundane one about saleclerks who take business calls or answer an interrupting patron while they are helping you. I point out that responding to interruptions is an ingrained habit, practically an instinct, at least in the 21st-century United States (surely the place and time in which the LW conducts most of her shopping):
Clerks who take phone calls while waiting on customers haven’t been adequately trained, and one annoyed customer isn’t going to make a difference. They need to know that it matters to the bosses. Responding to an interruption is a strongly ingrained habit in most people, and getting someone to overcome such habits requires regular reinforcement. (Behaviorists call this “instinctive drift.” You can teach a raccoon to put a penny in a piggy bank, but without continual coaching, the raccoon will eventually revert to its natural behavior of “washing” the coin in its paws.)
Within psychology, behaviorism has always lacked a certain glamour. Cognitive science and neurobiology whirl across the dance floor, glittering and making promises, and the stately edifices of Jung and Freud warm themselves by the fire, casting shadows and refracting light in the most unexpected places. Meanwhile, at the edges of the room, behaviorism tirelessly, humbly empties ashtrays and refills wine glasses.
In a recent column, I wrote “Advice columnists, psychologists, and the like are fond of pointing out that ‘you can’t change another person’s behavior.’ True, but sometimes you can change that person’s environment so that the objectionable behavior is less rewarding or harder to engage in.” I sometimes describe the column as “ethics, etiquette, and engineering”–this is the engineering bit. My thinking was strongly influenced by Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” ran in the NYT’s “Modern Love” segment a year or two before I started writing the MC column. While researching the techniques of exotic-animal trainers, Sutherland began applying their behaviorist principles to her marriage, with excellent results:
After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.
I adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.
Sutherland’s deliberately provocative “my husband is an exotic animal and I am training him” schtick is unfortunate, because the behaviorist model of handling marital conflict that she describes is practical and respectful of both parties. Instead of getting annoyed when her husband hovered over her in the kitchen, for example, Sutherland would put bowls of chips and salsa a good distance from her workspace. Problem solved! This is called creating “incompatible behaviors”–husband cannot simultaneously eat chips at one end of the kitchen and hover over wife in another–and I recommend this technique a lot in my column. Instead of trying to extinguish a behavior you don’t like, figure out what else you’d like the person to do, and nudge them in that direction instead.
Creating incompatible behaviors effectively–using operant conditioning in general–requires empathy. The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.
And thus we come back to instinctual drift, or the idea that if you want someone to break a deeply ingrained, perhaps innate, behavior–like washing small objects for a raccoon, or responding to interruptions for an American millennial–you can’t just explain it to them once and assume you’ve done your bit.
And finally, on the topic of raccoons:
Rocket is everything.
Rocket kills me. Here’s the thing: He’s Milo. Our beloved dog died of cancer this past spring, and I swear Rocket is like seeing him on the big screen. Same muzzle, same eyes. And the same charisma, sense of humor, and fear aggression. Look at that face! That’s exactly the soft eyes and half-smile you’d see on Milo’s face if he got his paws on a machine gun, too. Apparently Rocket’s friend Groot was heavily inspired by the director’s dog, so you’re not crazy if you were thinking, “Funny, my dog reminded me more of the tree …” Fascinating that two of this summer’s most vivid and emotionally complex movie characters aren’t human, isn’t it?