Natural Selections

by Ryan Sain

I’ve been singing along to Garth since I worked at Corral West Ranchwear all those years ago. One of my favorites was Rodeo – catchy, dark, fun, real.  Mr. Brooks (written by Larry Bastian) was onto something back in ’91 when Rodeo was released.

It’s the bulls and the blood
the dust and the mud
it’s the roar of a Sunday crowd.

We all know about sayings like “different strokes for different folks” – or “whatever floats your boat” – but did you know that these things are actually rooted in some solid science? And just like the person in Rodeo – those things are what drive us. They motivate us. They make us work. The term for these things? Reinforcers (things that strengthen a behavior). They are the core of motivation – the absence of them, makes us work for them. They are why we do the things we do. It’s the other half of how we learn – it’s what we call operant conditioning (last time I wrote about classical conditioning). When we speak of voluntary behavior – choices, free will, etc. we are speaking about operant behavior – the things you do day to day that you choose to do, that you’ve learned to do.

The science of behavior can be traced back more than a 100 years, and we’ve learned a lot since then. Let’s look at the bull rider – 8 seconds (the time it took to read this paragraph so far). That’s all it takes; 8 seconds of twisting, pulling, squeezing, leaning, balancing, anticipating, hoping. And you don’t make the buzzer each time. Hardly. So why keep doing it? What keeps you climbing onto the back of Bodacious, an 1896-pound beast trying desperately to get you off? Why not give up? Because for whatever reason, being successful (and still getting your bum kicked) is a reinforcer. The real kicker though – is that you don’t have to be successful every time to keep being driven to jump back on that bull. In fact, we know that being intermittently reinforced actually makes the desire to do that particular behavior even stronger. You’ll do more of it, more often, if you aren’t perfect every time.

Reinforcers are powerful. More powerful than punishers (things that weaken behavior). Many behaviors are punished and reinforced at the same time. Reinforcers will win (almost always).

And he’ll sell of everything thing he owns
Just to pay to play the game
And a broken home and some broken bones
Is all he’ll have to show

The lesson here? The value of a reinforcer is strong. And can override something as serious as broken bones, etc. There are some serious implications in that stanza – ones again backed by science. Can’t figure out why you keep doing  something you don’t want to do? Keep trying to reduce a behavior (punishment) but not having success? Then it’s probably still being reinforced. Find the reinforcer, remove it and boom – you’ll get your success you’re after.

And not all reinforcers are created equal – for many reasons they take on different values. I assume that cowboy’s lady in the song is a strong reinforcer (he’ll work to see her, spend time with her, etc.) but the rodeo is stronger.

And she’d give half of Texas
Just to change the way he feels
She knows his love’s in Tulsa
And She knows he’s gonna go
Well it ain’t no woman’s flesh and blood
It’s that damned old rodeo

We can’t discuss today how reinforcers are created and developed in an individual – but know that they do develop and not all are innate (most aren’t). And the result of the sum of all our experiences is what creates these reinforcers and their value. Maybe he just needs more rodeos. Funny thing about reinforcers – once you get lots of a particular one – then you don’t tend to work so hard for that one anymore (for a while anyway). So, too much of a good thing might just be a bad thing (at least in terms of motivation).  

  So enjoy the individual differences that exist out there. Know that we all are working for different reinforcers and what may motivate you may not motivate someone else. Know that if you want a behavior to continue then it MUST be reinforced at least intermittently – if it’s not then the behavior will disappear, it’s on “extinction”. Enjoy the rodeo season, enjoy the smells that elicit great feelings and emotions (classical conditioning) and enjoy watching those great athletes work hard for something that they can’t always get. It’s a great dance.

Posted in