Conditioning Or Freedom?

When I first saw the quote in the picture I had the strongest feeling of cognitive dissonance that I can remember in a really long time. All at once I found myself in strong agreement, and strong disagreement at the same time. The part of me that loves positive and performance psychology really felt good. Then the Skinnerian, behaviourist side of me came out to play “Did someone say stimulus?” it whispered. And there was my seed of doubt.

How much of a gap do we really have between the stimulus until a response happens? Technically, none. If something happens and we react, a response has occurred. As I thought on this, I have to think that the gap really isn’t big enough to make a decision, especially if we are in fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our responses are the sum of our knowledge and experience, and if we have been in a similar situation with a successful outcome, we will do the same thing again. Sometimes we won’t even question whether there is a better option, and we get stuck on the Calf Path. So is Frankl wrong, or do we need to just examine the quote a little more?

Well, I’ll answer by saying that if Frankl is wrong, I hardly feel qualified to be the one to challenge him. That doesn’t mean we can’t unpack this a little and learn from it.

There used to be a phrase in coaching that said “Practice makes perfect.” More recently, and more accurately, the phrase has become “Practice makes permanent.” When we practice, we create experiences that our brain remembers and when the experiences have favourable outcomes our brain responds by repeating those actions when a similar situation arises. However, when those experiences have unfavourable outcomes, typically, we will try not to repeat them. At least this is the case if we don’t struggle with learned-helplessness and we recognise and that we have some role to play in those outcomes.

The truth behind Frankl’s quote is that we often don’t have much time to choose our response, our response has already been determined as a result of our actions and experiences. However, this doesn’t mean we don’t have any control – we are simply looking at the wrong place. Instead of allowing the stimulus to dictate our response, we can practice our response before the stimulus happens. If I usually swear at the person who cuts me off while I am driving, I can make the decision that I will drive more defensively, reducing the chances of being cut off, and also choosing a different response before the stimulus even happens.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – Practice makes permanent. We don’t have to wait for a stimulus to determine our behaviour. We are able to decide our response to a specific stimulus before it happens. This is why athletes practice, they are rehearing responses to a stimulus yet to happen.

2 – Sometimes we wander down the calf-path, not knowing why, but this too has a reason. We do it because we were shown it, we followed it, and we never questioned it. You can take a different path.

3 – Who is training who? It could be argued that the pigeon was creating the stimulus for the researcher to press the food button.

If we accept that we have some influence over our environment and train ourselves to respond in a way where there is a positive outcome, we won’t need to make a decision in the miniscule gap between stimulus and response, our response will already be practiced and made permanent, if not perfect.

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