Shaping Thinking and Behaviours?

Graphic depicting thought processOr, to be a little more specific… why do people do what they do?

It’s one of those troubling and difficult questions that I’ve spent a lifetime asking myself. Often the question has no apparent or logical answer and often, leaves me with my face firmly implanted in the palm of my hand.

Like others I suspect, I’m often dismayed and frustrated about the almost constant proliferation of adversarial and pugilistic arguments that seem to fill much of today’s public discourse. I’m not opposed to healthy debate and productive conversations, even when those discussions revolve around personal opinion (see example). That’s fine, that’s what life is all about, that’s how we learn from others… or should be.  So, how/when did this inherent trait for vitriolic argument become so prevalent?

Similar questions are often a common subject for discussion on the web. An example of this is Quora – the “place to share knowledge and better understand the world” – Why is the internet full of trolls and keyboard warriors?

The internet is full of trolls and keyboard warriors because too many people refuse to do their duty and drown them out.

Geoff Fellows, a former Australian University lecturer in IT issues, responded to the Quora post by saying: – 

I’ve been using online social media since the late 1970s. The social media part of the internet is just like a high school but with millions of people, many of whom act like school children. Some are bullies and others are victims. (Geoff Fellows)

I suspect the myriad of individuals with, often uninformed, irrational, illogical personal views don’t like to have their personal thoughts and beliefs challenged. It’s possibly way so many of these people also hide their ‘opinion’ under cloaks of anonymity. But worse, often what is secretively dressed as ‘opinion’ is actually little more than hatred and abuse. The keyboard warriors, who inhabit most social-media platforms, have a great deal to answer for, when we start looking for the causal factors behind community and social breakdown. And sadly, they are often ably assisted by the plethora of those insidious and divisive revenue harvesting click-bait posts, so favoured by the commercial interests of the MSM.

Life-Long Learning Process

I have always subscribed to the proverbial observation – Every Day is a School Day!

That phrase is undoubtedly applicable in life, when you start to consider and hopefully understand, how we assimilate information and gain the knowledge we hold. I have always found cognitive function and behavioral psychology interesting. I don’t aspire to and am unlikely to ever achieve professorial status in this field however; I find looking for and finding (some) answers or reasons behind this constant question – why do people do what they do – is often cathartic. Or it is for me at least.

Having spent a life-time working within the criminal justice system, the addictions treatment sector, and social-care in general, I find the above subjects almost as frustrating as I do fascinating. Especially when parties to common debates, like the ‘conditioning’ elements of human learning and development process, are involved. How does learning take shape over time?

Shaping: the process of reinforcing successively closer and closer approximations to a desired terminal behavior. For example, a child learns to pull itself up, to stand, to walk and to finally move about through reinforcement of slightly exceptional instances of behaviors.

Shaping is a conditioning paradigm used primarily in the experimental analysis of behavior. The method used is differential reinforcement of successive approximations.

Back in the 1950s the American Psychologist B.F. Skinner espoused that most human action was dependent on on the consequences of previous actions. A theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement: If the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. (See more)

Operant conditioning: also known as instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning normally attributed to B.F. Skinner, where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated. Skinner considered that; our ‘free-will‘ is only an “illusion.”

Despite some of Skinner’s conclusions around Operant Conditioning being contested over the years – which is what often happens with scientists – in effect, Skinner was suggesting that our free-will is merely a figment of our imagination. Which I can agree with, at least in part.

Operant conditioning (Skinner, 1938), or instrumental conditioning, are about the learning and development pathways that occur as a result of any teaching process. These are based upon reward and punishment, for any subsequent behaviour. Through operant conditioning, individuals can and do make associations between a particular behavior and a consequence. 

This proverbial Carrot & Stick methodology, despite being  polar opposites, are often the binary foundations for our education and a great deal of social policy. But, what action or behavioral response is deemed right or wrong for one person, is not necessarily viewed in the same manner by a different individual. The personal use of controlled substances and/or consumption of alcohol for example are a prime example.

Perspective & Context

Perspective and context are important factors within all discourse, especially when considering statistical data. However, possessing the capability to adopt and apply a similar mindset of expectations – some critical thinking, – when considering the opinion(s) of other people, is almost always appropriate

Without those elements in place, we tend to see issues with constrained vision and with a purely binary focus. Opinion(s), along with subsequent response or conclusions, are delivered as being either right or wrong, black or white, helpful or unhelpful. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the debate, my latter adjective often turns out to be the most succinct description of resulting outcome(s) – Unhelpful.

Binary thinking, based upon uninformed personal perspective and belief can sometimes be OK, at least in part. We are all entitled to formulate our own opinion. But, how confident are you that the opinion, which you are shouting about from rooftops of your preferred digital media platform, is actually ‘owned’ by you, let alone correct? Was it actually constructed by you, under your very own steam, along a timeline of experience and/or knowledge acquisition? Observing the content of my social-media feeds, my assumption would have to be… Probably not very often.

But take heart. We all develop our thinking from what we hear, see and experience as we age. It’s part of a lifelong learning process. Assuming the individual isn’t fixated upon any past and immovable tenets or bigoted constraints to their personal beliefs. Our ability to change our opinion is (hopefully), something that serves to help us develop, change and grow. In reality, our personal beliefs (and/or opinions) tend to alter as we mature, or should do. And probably more often than reality tends to suggest.

By continually only ever searching for simplistic Yes/No answers, or some additional confirmation about our preconceived or fixed ideas, usually within our preferred social-media echo chambers, we actually create barriers for our own individual self-efficacy and personal growth.

We miss out on those personal and helpful beliefs around our own personal capacity. The thoughts and behaviours that we actually need to help us change and improve. These necessary thoughts and behaviours are a requirement, to produce the specific actions to realise the performance outcomes that we aspire to… perhaps even more so within the process of recovery from addictions.

We also dilute our possible enjoyment of exploring all the ‘what if’ questions in our life. We miss out on self-satisfaction and sense of personal achievement. Something that is available to be experienced by everyone, when they find the solutions to their issues and problems. Keep learning and take control of your choices and the changes you want to see in your life!

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