UNBEARABLE UNCERTAINTY

Pubblicato: novembre 20, 2012 in behaviour, Teaching

A few days ago I was walking with my dogs. When we are in the county my feet follow the path and my mind takes trips. So I think a lot and “chew” a lot. Pay attention, not every time there are large and deep thoughts, indeed. Almost every time my thoughts are tuned to “generic”, but sometimes I have some good flash.

A few days ago, I had one of these thoughts and I’ve decided to share it with you. Since when I’m working in education and teaching I’ve always found nasty what scientific books wrote about  punishment and reinforcement [1]. I do like the main definition of reinforcement (it is “an event that increases the frequency of a given behavior”) the definition of punishment just pissed me: “it is an event that decreases the likelihood of a given behavior to reoccur”. The “Likelihood” bothered me, leaving some doubt that, some time, in some way, it could work. Like leaving a door slighlty, almost an invitation or justification. “Look, if you want to try … it might just work.”

Parentheses. I have the proof that punishment does not work. Never. A month ago I experienced something “heavy”. I’ve teached as substitute, for two weeks in our middle school (children aged 10-14). With the older ones I succumbed to temptation, that small opening that “decreases the likelihood…” I wrote a couple of reprimands. Obviously the boys have quietly ignored my “punishment”, so I found myself with no more weapons for control their behaviors. When you shoot the bigger nuke than you have, or you have won the war or you have  lost.it.  I have lost my war, and the sense of helplessness that this defeat gave me was a bad load to carry on for few days.

A few days ago I realized that, sometimes, what works in punisment (hence the “reduce the likelihood …”), it isnot the event itself, but the effectst it leaves later.

Let me explain.

When we take a fine for over-speeding, we are punished for exceeding the speed- limit. What makes us go slowly, after the fine, it is not the fine itself, but it is the memory of the fine which negatively reinforces our going slow (negative reinforcement = give something you do not like to increase the likelihood of a behavior). That is. as long as I have in mind the memory of the fine I will respect the limits. As memory begins to loosen its grip, and my rushing through the streets gets stronger day by day, since, at least statistically,I  will not meet other  patrols, the punishment has no longer any effect. In practice I have not learned.

I’m not sure, but my suspicion is this: that the “collateral” effects, that we all know, arising from the use of punishment (anxiety, stress, behavior problems etc etc) are derived from this after-effect during which the punishment, while no longer existing, continues to exert its influence and the subject is torn between the desire to do something, and the memory of the punishment itself. The problem may be that the negative reinforcement is only a mental image, while the rushing with the car  is a true Reinforcement, tangibly present in my “here and now”? Let me clarify. One thing is to use negative reinforcement to increase the frequency of a behavior, such as pulling  the reins to turn horse’s head. But, in this case, there is contingency between the two physical actions “pull” and “turn”. There is, in fact, a direct flow of information. At every moment the horse may decide to turn her heads and stop the pulling. The receiver has an active role [2].

In the case of punishment, the receiver has no active role. Those who suffer the punishment can not do anything to avoid it. The fine unlike the rein does not give me anything to do but … pay. The next effect is that until I’ll remember the fine,I’ll slow down for a while my speed. In the case of punishment, there is no information flowing, and I’m alone,  fighting between increasing my speed (positive reinforcement) and the risk of taking a second fine (negative reinforcement). The concomitant presence of the two types of reinforcements leads to confusion, stress and uncertainty. From my point of view, uncertainty, or the lack of clear information is the worst thing that can happen to someone who is-or should be-learning something. In the presence of a stimulus, the  learning how to handle it it is an absolute priority.

Back for a moment to my experience in school. This lack of information in the punishment becomes even more evident. Pupils’s life has not changed after my reprimands: my enforcement , late behavior had since long lost its effectiveness when there are no left  “negative reinforcement ghost” to regulate pupils’ behavior. In other words, if the punishment is not scary  for the receiver there is no more chance for any kind behavioral  change [3].

Bacteria: they still have to learn…

I am a supporter of the concept of homeostasis, as theorized by Antonio Damasio. Homeostasis is nothing more than the ideal balance (ideal, because it is never reached) towards which all functions and settings of body [4] go: body glucose levels, indoor and outdoor temperature, blood oxygenation, heart rate etc etc. For each stimulus, external or internal, which reaches and affects our body, our regulatory mechanisms work so that the parameters of homeostasis remain within the limits where life is still possible. Enlarging this concept, even the brain mechanisms, aimed at learning, fit within available tools homeostasis management. When an external stimulus unbalances my homeostasis (for example,during  a diner someone who   asks me to pass the salt [5]), my body tries to regain his balance by using the appropriate strategies (passing the salt, for example). In this process of imbalance I had the opportunity to respond with a precise action and, therefore, to learn.

Learning is a must of evolution: the more I learn, the more I can manage the environment and increase the chances of passing my genes to future generations. In nature, the punishment does not exist, all the behaviors even the most coercive are expressions of negative reinforcement.

The use of punishment does not allow us to learn and, to a stimulus that unbalances my balance, I have no possibility to answer: we are, in fact, powerless. From here all the deleterious effects that result from the use of punishment.

An alternative to fines? Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iynzHWwJXaA

The fun-really-can change the behavior!

[1] My opinion of Reinforcement and Punishment are described in the post “Teaching”

[2] I’m not a fan of negative reinforcement used as only tool for education or training. I know that positive reinforcement allows me to get better results, faster, and longer. That said, correctly applied the negative reinforcement can be an effective aid to the positive reinforcement, as brilliantly demonstrates, for example, the work of Alexandra Kurland (http://www.theclickercenter.com/ if you are interested in

[3] Karen Pryor in “Do not shoot the dog!” Writes that there is only one type of punishment, that, absolutely and scientifically, works: extinction. For example, the extinction (killing or abandonment) of the barking  dog certainly solves the problem of barking.

[4] I use the word “body” as indicating the unity of mind, internal control mechanisms and the actula physical body.

[5] I still used the example “of the pass the salt” in the post: “Teaching”, which contains some complementary concepts to this post. So, if you want to know more …

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