The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Ubiquity and Importance of Operant Conditioning

As you may know, dogs salivate when presented with food.

A man named Pavlov used to ring a bell when he fed his dogs.

Then he stopped presenting food, and just rang the bell: the dogs salivated, even though no food was present.

The dogs had been conditioned.

Behavioralism, the psychology of operant conditioning, famously did not deal with the contents of our minds: only with behavior.

This was a mistake, not just because the content of our minds matter, but because operant conditioning can explain a lot of mental activity.

In my childhood there was an advertising jingle which ran as follows “butter tastes better, naturally.”

Almost 40 years later, when I see butter or even think about butter, odds are high that jingle will run through my mind.

Conditioning can be very mild, and work.  Simply repeat the same two words together often enough, and most people will think the second word when they hear the first one.  Give people story scripts “the princess, the square jawed hero, the dark hero, the sage” and they will fill in the lines without you having to tell them, which is why most of us are so very good at figuring out the plots of stories.

To this day, certain smells remind me of my grandmother.  Because I loved my grandmother, and because she gave me the best couple years of my childhood in her house on the beach, those smells are good ones for me, even if “dry old lady wearing rose-water” isn’t a good smell for other people, it is for me.

Call these triggers: upon seeing something, thinking about something, smelling something,  hearing a word or phrase used, or sme we are likely to trigger some specific responses ourselves.  We need not even necessarily remember the original operant conditioning: mental patients who have lost all long term memory, still form associations.  Likewise events in our childhood, long forgotten, can leave triggers.

Some conditining is mild: the jingle with pleasing music, the constant repitition of words together to create associations, the standard tropes of the heroes journey tapping into the universal human need to fit the world into story structures.

Others are primal, they become attached to fear or terror; to pain or lust; to love or hate; to a sense of belonging or to the human horror of being outcast from the group and the shame which comes with it.

Whatever causes your first strong sexual arousal will condition you strongly; the first time that you have fear that makes the world turn into a tunnel and your ears roar will brand you.  But day to day fears can do you in, too: scurrying around to avoid the feral neighbourhood dog-pack.  Words you can’t say without mom or dad getting angry, or sad, or drinking.  Words that if your parents say them mean you’re in for it.  Acting gay, or nerdy, or whatever else will get you ostracized from your peer group.  You can gain these conditions without even consciously realizing it, avoiding what you see causes others to get ostracized or beaten up.

This conditioning extends right down to the level of thought.  When I need to move quickly, I think certain predetermined thoughts “ass-gear-go”.  When I need to clean up, others “Shit/shower/shave”, when I listen to certain songs I start writing stories about certain characters in my head.  When I see an oak tree, I think of a story my father told me about oak trees.  And once the thoughts start flowing, certain throughts trigger other thoughts in very conditioned rotes. This is especially noticeable to me in fields I’m familiar with: start me on what money is, say, and the journey is tediously familiar: but start me anywhere on various economic subjects and I’ll loop to the others in time and in predicable ways.

Much of what we think we are has been conditioned, often by events we don’t manage or in ways we don’t consider conditioning.  Most of our complex of assocations, of triggers, or positive and negative attachments was not consciously chosen, but is state dependent on our start position (who our parents were, where we born) and to what amounts to random chance. Combined with our genetic endowment, this determines our personality.

When you think of it this way, or experience it (through meditation or certain types of psychotherapy), you start to disconnect from your thoughts, your habits, even your personality as who you are, because you can see that there are millions of different “yous” that could have occurred with different events.  And you ask, “if I’m not my thoughts, who am I?’

There are a few great mysteries of life.  “Why is there anything?”  “If anything, why this?  And, “what is consciousness.”  Do thoughts make us conscious?  Or is it that which apprehends the thoughts which is consciousness?


Some Lessons of Meditation


A Transcript of Abu Bakr’s Speech


  1. Celsius 233

    Interesting. And somewhere in there is naming. Naming fixes or solidifies one’s view of reality. It can be a trap because it can/does hinder understanding…

  2. George Hart

    Nothingness unseamed itself for me too.
    It turned itself wrong side out.
    How on earth did I end up here—
    head to toe among the planets,
    without a clue how I used not to be.

    Wisława Szymborska

  3. stirling

    I and truthfully sorry this, Ian.

  4. Trixie

    I’ve always been into self-conditioning. When I was a kid, I was told it’s a doggy-dog world. Not understanding the context, I concluded a doggy-dog was like a kitty-cat. And since I liked cats better than dogs, for me then, it was thus a kitty-cat world. Whatever that meant. I still reference it to this day.

    And don’t even get me started on the goat that escaped. I spent years worrying about that goat. Isn’t it hungry? Does it know how to cross a busy street? Was it a NICE goat? No one had any answers because no one had any idea what I was talking about. And you probably don’t either. Major PTSD.

    There are a few great mysteries of life.“Why is there anything?” “If anything, why this? And, “what is consciousness.” Do thoughts make us conscious? Or is it that which apprehends the thoughts which is consciousness?

    No. Just no. Because WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE GOAT?

    Answer that, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, never speak to me again.

  5. …And you ask, “if I’m not my thoughts, who am I?’

    You alluded to this notion – that one is not one’s thoughts – in the last post. While it’s certainly a reasonable “as if true” working hypothesis, and it certainly appears to be so when thought-watching, I question its certainty.

    My “as if true” working hypothesis when doing this work is that there is no “I” or self (or “soul”) at all, only a perspective that thought is taking counter to the rest of the content of the mind. So that it appears that one is in the center looking “out” at a “sphere” of thought activity, but actually one is still on the skin of the sphere, looking across a circumference rather than a radius.

    I hope my off-the-cuff metaphor doesn’t obfuscate my point too much.

    I would like to mention that this is a great post, and your self-observations are remarkably similar to what I have observed in myself.

  6. Lee

    Good post Ian. We musn’t forget — consciously –the unconscious. Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) has this great metaphor of how recent science has turned the Enlightenment (rational) world on its head: the rider (rational mind — I think therefore I am) is actually –we now know — driven by the elephant (the unconscious mind: fast (vs slow) thinking, autonomic nervous system). Here we children of the Enlightenment always thought the rider drove the elephant!

    Cheers from here,


  7. Rhymes with Blakan

    Classical. You’re thinking of classical conditioning, when you talk about Pavlovian or paired stimuli, where one stimulus immediately invokes as if it were the other stimulus. Operant conditioning is Skinnerian, or ‘rewards increase response’ conditioning.

  8. Rhymes with Balkan

    Typo in my name in above post, sorry.

  9. Jeff W

    I’m glad you wrote that, Rhymes with Balkan—I was about to.

    Behavioralism, the psychology of operant conditioning, famously did not deal with the contents of our minds: only with behavior.

    That account of behaviorism (not behavioralism, which is an approach in political science) is close to 70 years out of date. Behaviorism—or, specifically, radical behaviorism—does deal with “the contents of our minds” but treats that as covert behavior, not as some special “mind stuff.” What makes the radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner “radical” (in part) is that it includes such covert behavior, behavior that, because it was unobservable, methodological behaviorism before it had excluded. In About Behaviorism (1974), Skinner wrote

    A science of behavior must consider the place of private stimuli as physical things, and in doing so it provides an alternative account of mental life. The question, then is this: What is inside the skin, and how do we know about it? The answer is, I believe, the heart of radical behaviorism.

    (p. 233)

    In fact, Skinner’s account of how you might prompt yourself covertly to do such things as move quickly or clean up would be identical to yours (except that he would refer to that behavior correctly as a case of operant conditioning).

    There are enough misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding behaviorism (most notably, Noam Chomsky’s inane review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) or perhaps his review of Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)) out there—please do your best, Ian, not to add to them, especially when your views are, in fact, so closely aligned with it.

  10. Jeff W

    (except that he would refer to that behavior correctly as a case of operant conditioning)

    To clarify: Skinner would distinguish between classical and operant conditioning and refer to that behavior correctly as a case of operant conditioning.

  11. Compound F

    Interestingly, when you posted the interesting article on meditation referring to the ubiquity of mental automatisms, I immediately thought of this article on behaviorism before you had even written it. Apparently, we share some important triggers, as you put it.

    The conflation of Pavlovian and operant conditioning, while theoretically critical and obviously grating to sensitive ears, pales in significance compared to general insight of the ubiquitous springs, pulleys, levers, loops, and triggers of mental activities and their evocation by conditioned stimuli.

  12. thump

    To paraphrase an old question (koan), “Who is wondering who or what he is?” Exist in the space opened by that question without trying to pin down an answer.

  13. Lurker the Third


    Your point would seem to be that conditioning may not always go as intended, as demonstrated by your youthful confusion about the “escaped goat.”

    My answer to your puzzler is that the scapegoat is thriving, as evidenced by the fact that there’s usually a scapegoat around when the powers that be need one.

    Ian, as always, great job on the article and on helping to create an excellent comment section.

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