I took a required psychology class in college and remember a lecture on B.F. Skinner, who introduced the theory of operant conditioning, proving his theory with a contraption now known as the Skinner Box.
You put a hungry mouse in a Skinner box, which comes equipped with a lever, and in short order the mouse figures out that pushing the lever produces a pellet, so it learns to hit the lever to feed itself. Or you put the mouse in a Skinner box equipped with a lever and a painful electric current. The mouse learns quickly to hit the lever to stop the current.
Pandora has conditioned me using the exact same technique. If I give a song a thumbs up, I get more songs I like. If I give a song a thumbs down, it ceases immediately. It took about an hour. I thought about all of the other ways I’ve been conditioned. I go to work to get paid. I make cookies for hugs. I don’t eat them to avoid weight gain. Or I eat them to feel happy. Could go either way.
Anyways, It all sounds so simple in theory, this conditioning trick. Why, then, can’t I condition my own children? Honestly, I can’t get them to do anything and I’ve been a parent for 30 years. I may just be the world’s worst parent. Don’t let me watch your kid. I’ll break them.
The secret to the Skinner box (and Pandora) is consistency. I lack consistency. In the Skinner box, it’s like Southern California, sunshine every day. Hit a lever get a pellet, hit it again, get a pellet, every single time. In the Chicken box, it’s less predictable. It starts out with a lever that produces a pellet, but then the next day, the pellet might have become a strawberry because that seemed healthy and diverse and a good idea at the time. However, the strawberries got all mushed together in the feeder tube, and what came out when the lever was pushed was a strawberry-ish smelling goop that no one would touch. So then the Chicken reverts back to the pellets, but decides to paint the lever bright yellow to brighten up the box, but it doesn’t matter because no one will push the lever anyways. Who knows wha might come out? Everyone is starving. The Chicken feels bad for not providing like a boss, so she opens the door to the Chicken box and throws in a pepperoni pizza, some fries and some Hershey bars, and everyone is happy. They never ever touch the yellow lever again, conditioning the chicken to repeat the pizza/fry/Hershey bar behaviour over and over again. Forever.
Or, in the second scenario, the Chicken decides that bed-time should take place at 9 pm and that the consequence of not doing so should result in the loss of story time, and she explains this new program in detail on the first night. The second night she gets caught up in a documentary on television about a haunted mansion in Telluride, which reminds her of John Denver, and she knows she has a CD of his biggest hits around somewhere which she suddenly, desperately, wants to listen to, so she tears the house apart looking for the CD, and she forgets about the new bed-time rule. The next day she remembers, but everyone else has forgotten and looks at Chicken like she might have three heads, causing her to feel like maybe she does indeed have three heads, and so she offers an extra 10 minutes of story time as compensation for having a mother with three heads, a tactical error on her part, because she has now conditioned the entire family to look at her as though she has three heads, which results in her running around like a Chicken without any heads at all in an effort to keep up with all the compensatory demands.
Still with me?
So now I’m trying to order a Skinner Box or a Skinner Box kit-maybe IKEA has one-so that I can train myself to be consistent, and if that doesn’t work, at least I’ll have a nice quiet place to escape my children. I’m going to put it out in the garden. It will have a hammock, a pile of books, Internet service, and two levers. One will dispense chardonnay and the other chocolate and savoury snacks. If you need me, I’ll be in the garden. Don’t tell the kids.