Hi and welcome to the third part in the series on psychology and body language. This time we start a whole new topic:
In the first part we talked about key concepts in neuropsychology - how the brain controls our body and how the nervous system works.
Today we’ll take a different view, it’s time to introduce behaviorism - the branch in psychology that is all about actions and reactions. Behaviorism treats the brain as a black box - we don’t know or attempt to understand the processes that happen inside the brain. Instead, behaviorism focuses on the input and the output - which stimuli lead to which behavior, action and reaction.
The focus in this 2 part series will be on the concept of ‘learning’ (or if you want to be more specific - simple learning, because there are different kinds). I want to show you how this branch in psychology explains the way we acquire behaviors and habits.
So a quick rundown of what we’re going to talk about:
All right, let’s start:
I guess that when I say “learning” the image that pops to your mind is that of reading a book or mastering a new skill like playing a piano. But in psychology, learning has a much broader sense - it’s defined as a change originating from experience.
It means that any experience, or observation, that leads to a change in your behavior or understanding can be contributed to learning.
It also means that learning doesn't necessarily improves you. You can easily learn to be lazier, nervous or being less productive about things, it depends on what and how exactly did you learn it. For example, you might believe that you inherently bad at calculations and math, and it might have a biological factor, but very often it’s the result of an early experience with the subject. This is why your teachers have a very critical role in your education, not just because they teach you the technical terms, but because they influence how you’ll treat the whole subject in the future.
Another good example for acquiring bad learning is phobias - they’re not the most rational or useful fears, but nevertheless they are the result of a specific learning from the past.
As you might already guessed, simple learning can be used to explain a lot of our body language and your behavior in general - it’s the manifestation of our life experience through our actions. If you'll understand the underlying mechanism to how we associate different stimuli and react to them - you'll be able to see how certain behaviors and habits are formed.
For example, suppose you're trying to quit smoking, I bet you will times it's extremely difficult to resist the urge to smoke. Perhaps it’s when you sit at the bar and having drink with friends, or when you feel anxious. You learned to associate between smoking and a certain setting or feeling, and when you find yourself in such a scenario you want to retain the old familiar feeling of smoking. What I'm saying is that it's not only the action of smoking that makes you feel the way it does, but also the context of it and how you associate them in your head.
After reading the last paragraph I bet you’re thinking that’s pretty much everything is a result of some previous experience that shaped who you are.
But that’s not true. Many of your actions, expressions and gestures are genetically encoded in you, you are born with them and they’re very hard to change. Even personal traits have often genetic predisposition, an inclination towards a certain type of personality.
There are universal traits that are shared by everyone, so we are quite similar in our (general) behavior and able to understand it intuitively.
There are reflexes and instincts - patterns of actions that fire automatically without any intention or discretion from our part.
One level above instincts there’s a special kind of learning called “imprinting”. This is a very specific and basic system to acquire skills or behaviors essential to our survival when we’re very young. It occurs during a critical period, and like its name suggests, it’s a very important time in our development, when the brain has more plasticity - meaning it is more flexible and adaptive.
You can think about imprinting as the initial “setup” for our behavior, like learning who are our parents and which language type of language we speak. When imprinting is set - it is set for life.
So all in all, just keep in mind that no matter how hard you try, some things aren’t meant to be changed. We can’t reprogram everything in our behavior, much like we can’t spontaneously replace our genes.
Now let’s get to the real business - conditioning.
I’m sure you heard about Pavlov and his dogs experiment, but if you didn't, here’s a quick summary (if you’re familiar with it, you can skip the highlighted part):
The process is training, the pairing of stimulus and reaction, and it must follow a certain pattern in order to work. The new stimulus, the trigger you try to associate with, must have some informative value in order for the condition to work.
The important thing to understand about classical conditioning, is that we apply an arbitrary external stimulus to a specific biological reaction (which remains the same reaction, basically). Therefore it’s very limited in that way - you cannot teach an entirely new behavior if there isn't some biological basis to work with. You can’t teach your dog to make you a coffee every time you return home, because it doesn't have a default “making coffee” reaction.
It might sound a bit odd, but we all acquire such conditions throughout our lives, without any conscious will or thought. For example, almost anyone who saw enough TV - could associate a flashing red light with danger - you need to escape or to be on alert!
Another more devious example is how advertisements exploit such mechanism in order to instill certain allure or attraction to their products by using sex or other common desires. We all know that by drinking “Pepsi” - we won’t get suddenly super attractive, it's irrational to think so. But, in your mind, subconsciously you associated the drink with sex. When you see that product at the store, it instills that feeling of attraction and it causes you to act upon that impulse from the visual image in your head.
So, if you see enough ads - and most of them about sex or attraction, you will learn to associate those specific brands with the feeling of attraction.
And if we look at body language, conditioning is, at least in part, responsible in establishing many of our expressions or gestures, for example - thumb sucking.
Many psychologist relate this behavior as a reminiscence to suckling. When you were a baby, your mother held you and fed you, you felt comfortable and safe in her arms. Therefore the action of suckling is associated with nutrition and pleasure.
But later in life, when babies are weaned of suckling, many transfer this behavior to the thumb, which serves as a substitute because the action of sucking retains its association with the emotions of security and warmth.
This is also what we call a “comforting gesture” - action that help us relieve stress, usually by self-touching, and many of them are a reminisce to our infancy.