Body language and Psychology Part 3 - Behaviorism and Classical Conditioning

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Part 1 & Part 2 (Neuropsychology) | Part 3 & Part 4 (Behaviorism) |  Part 5 & Part 6 (Emotional Psychology)

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:

  1. What is the theory of learning in psychology, and what is ‘simple learning’. It’s not really the same thing as you may expect it to be. 

  2. What can you learn, and what you can’t.

  3. The heart of the matter - what is classical and operant conditioning, and how they affect your life?

  4. Learn to forget - In case you want to change bad habits, what mental obstacles you need to overcome?

  5. Lastly we’ll talk about the strength of different habits and how you can use such knowledge to create a change. 

All right, let’s start:

Learning - Not (exactly) what you think it is

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. 

Note: In this series I focus on “simple learning”, which is unintentional, it doesn't require active thought or effort. There’s also the other type called “high-learning” which involves memory - declarative and non-declarative, and they’re more of what you expect of “learning” to be - the processing of acquiring new skills and semantic information.

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. 

Not everything needs to be learned

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.

Classical 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 basic way classical conditioning works is that you teach a certain animal to react biologically to an “unnatural” new stimulus.

If we take dogs for example, we know that they salivate to the smell and sight of food, it’s a natural reaction and thus called unconditioned reaction (UR).

The food in this case is the unconditioned stimulus (US), because you don’t need to tell the dog that steak is tasty and he should eat it, he understands that quite well on his own.

Pavlov rang a bell every time he served food to the dogs, and he observed, that after such several trials - it was enough for him to ring the bell - and the dogs would salivate anyway! Without any actual food present.

This process called conditioning, and in this process the dog learns to respond to the new stimulus - the bell ringing (the conditioned stimulus - CS) with his natural biological reaction - the salvation (this time it’s called the conditioned reaction - CR).

Why does it work? Because the ringing of the bell in this case is informative, we taught the dog to associate bell ringing to the arrival of food. It’s only a natural reaction - if something worked many times in the past, why shouldn’t it work again?

The unconditioned stimulus (US)

Salivation - the unconditioned response (UR)

The conditioned stimulus (CS)

Salivation - the conditioned response (CR)

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. 

Moving On

We still have 2 major issues to cover:

  1. Now that we know it’s quite easy to instill new habits, we need some tools to get rid of them too, right?

  2. So far, we saw that the power of classical conditioning is quite limited, so how for example, we train dogs to fetch? 

These issues of course, will be covered in this next part

You can return to the first parts on Nueropsychology here

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