July 2008 Brian Thomas, a retired steelworker from South Wales called the authorities in order to report an emergency, and to report a crime:
“What have I done? I’ve been trying to wake her. I think I’ve killed my wife. Oh my God. I thought someone had broken in. I was fighting with those boys but it was Christine. I must have been dreaming or something. What have I done?…“¹
The police arrive minutes later and find Brian Thomas crying next to his camper van which he and his wife rented earlier for their west-coast vacation.
He explained that in the previous night, he and his beloved wife were sleeping when he woke up to the picture of a man in jeans and black fleece lying on top of his wife.
He screamed his lungs out and grabbed the intruder by the throat to throw him off his wife.
The harder the intruder struggled the harder Brian squeezed.
The intruder fought back with all he had, scratched him, kicked him, screamed at him, but Thomas choked harder and harder until he stopped moving.
At that moment Thomas came back to his senses and realized his hands weren’t around the neck of an intruder, it was the neck of his wife that he was holding in his hands.
In horror, he immediately let go of her fragile body, trying to wake her gently, repeatedly asking her if she was alright.
She would never move again, Brian Thomas realized that he killed his wife with his own hands.
At first, the police were skeptical and it all sounded like cold-blooded murder, but friends and relatives told the authorities that they were a loving couple.
Thomas spent the next 10 months in prison, waiting for his murder trial.
It later turned out that Thomas had a long history of sleepwalking, as a child Thomas would wake up, get out of bad, and play with toys, cooking himself dinner.
Sometimes he would even get out of the house in the middle of the night and wander around his neighbor’s yard.
His mother described his behavior as automatic and habitual.
One time he even swam in a canal without waking up, once married his wife became weary and she regularly would lock the door and sleep with the keys under her pillow.
At a certain point, the two of them agreed that Thomas needed his own bed so that his wife can sleep in peace while Thomas has his nightly adventures.
Brian Thomas is not a unique case, his form of sleepwalking is called night terrors.
Experts assume that about 2% of the population in the Uk suffers from this condition.
Sleepwalking is a scary, but powerful example that habits are very real.
In the course of Brian Thomas’s trial sleep expert, Chris Idzikowski was called as a witness.
Dr. Idzikowski, was allowed to monitor Thomas’ sleep behavior in prison.
After measuring his breathing rhythm, his brain waves, eye movement, and limb movement it was clear that Brian Thomas was indeed a sleepwalker and he was acquitted because he was acting out of automatism.
The fact that some habits are so deeply burned into the anatomy of our brain that we act them out even if we sleep opens up an important question about whether or not free will actually exist.
In the last years our understanding of behavior and cognitive psychology has grown exponentially, and it reveals major problems with the world that we live in today.
In the face of new neurological discoveries, we have collectively agreed as a society that some habits are so powerful that they have the strength to overwrite our logical thinking and draw us to horrible decisions that we under normal circumstances would never make.
In the case of Brian Thomas it seems obvious that he is not responsible for his behavior…but what about other behavioral hijackings of the brain such as alcoholism, gambling, social media compulsion, substance abuse, or avoidant depressive patterns?
One question arises:
Do We Choose Our Habits?
At first glance this might seem like a no-brainer, yes, of course, otherwise, people wouldn’t be responsible for their behavior right?
Well, it’s complicated, let me tell you another more personal story…
1992 was a tough year for my father. He was let go of his job, was diagnosed with diabetes, and the marriage that he had with my mother ended in an extremely dirty way.
In the course of a year, he lost his health, his job, and his family.
Studies have shown that just one of those big guns is enough to take a man out.
In order to cope with the suffering of his existence, he visited a local gambling hell and he got extremely unlucky: the first time he went gambling we won big time.
Although divorced my Dad still had a room in our little 2 bedroom apartment, after playing all night in the casino he came home with pockets full of cash, about 1700 Mark (the German currency at that time).
For us this was a fortune, my dad immediately went downstairs to pay the landlord the rent which was late, took us all to dinner, and replaced our old broken fridge with a new one.
I still remember that fridge vividly, it had an ice cube dispenser, we loved it.
Since he couldn’t tell us where the money was from he lied and told us that his business had a new customer.
Since my dad was only away during the nights, nobody was suspicious.
For a brief period of time, my father reconquered the role of the provider, a role that was very important to him.
The episode was indeed short, a couple of months later my dad became addicted to a degree to which he started to gamble with money that wasn’t his, from that point on things started to spiral down fast.
It all came crashing down when on a certain morning the light switch in our apartment wouldn’t work anymore because the electricity bills were not paid.
By 1993 my dad was going to the casino every day.
Where before we were a family with little resources, we now found ourselves in a full-fletched financial crisis.
How did something that started as a coping ritual mutated into a full fletched gambling addiction?
One night, I was worried because my dad wasn’t sleeping on the couch, as usual, I went out in order to look for him.
We had a local billiard pub where he would often take me to play, and I knew he liked to smoke cigars there so this was the first place I went.
Across the street of that pub was a gambling hell, and on that day the door was slightly open and I saw my dad in front of a shining slot machine.
He was just sitting there, numb, detached from the world, pushing buttons that had flashy lights.
The image confused me to no ends.
I didn’t understand how my strong father could stuff our last 10$ bill into this noisy box knowing that we didn’t have food at home.
I didn’t know much about behavior psychology back then, but I realized that this box contributed in some strange manner to my father becoming a zombie.
Up to that point, I viewed addicts as weak people who had not enough will power and failed because of it.
I felt as if this hypothesis had to be wrong, my dad was many things but he wasn’t a person who had a weak mind.
My dad is a former commando who worked 18 hours a day for the majority of his life, so I wouldn’t think of him as a person who doesn’t have the mental fortitude to say no to something, something was up…
About 10 years later I found a puzzle piece that helped me to understand the behavioral pathology of my dad’s gambling compulsion…
Pavlov’s Dogs – The Power of Classical Conditioning
During the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physician, studied the secretory activity of digestion.
Pavlov first performed a small operation on the dogs to relocate their salivary to the outside of their cheeks, where the drops of saliva could be measured.
The dogs who were deprived of food were then put into an apparatus that you are going to see in the video below.
Periodically, Pavlov rang a bell, followed shortly by the meat being placed in front of the dog’s hungry mouth.
Everybody knows that when dogs see a delicious piece of meat they produce saliva.
But the ring of the bell by itself didn’t.
The dog’s salvation to meat was an unconditioned reflex, it’s in-born, they didn’t have to learn this behavior.
After some time, hearing the bell alone, even without seeing the meat was enough for the dog to salivate.
This phenomenon is known as Pavlovian conditioning or classical conditioning.
In 1904 Pavlov received the Nobel Prize for physiology for his work on digestive secretion.
Can Pigeons Read? – Reinforcement Schedules
44 years later in 1948, Professor Skinner from Harvard University conducted an experiment that would change our understanding of behavior forever: The Skinner Box, which was also known as the operant conditioning chamber.
Skinner would put rats or pigeons who were starved down to 75% of their capacity into a box that contained one button which the animal could press, if they did so an automatic food dispenser in the box would drop a little bit of food.
Once the animal hit the lever by accident, they were rewarded with food. The rats learned quickly that the consequence of pushing the lever would result in food.
This learning phenomenon is called positive reinforcement and Skinner used it to teach his animals all sort of shenanigans (He even taught his Pigeons to operate a rocket launching system).
What do rats and pigeons have to do with anything?
Think of a routine that you want to form right now that isn’t sticky yet, let’s say going to the gym.
Now imagine that someone would give you 1000 $ every time you go lifting weights, don’t you think that this external reward would help you to form a habit rather quickly?
Of course, it would, and knowing that – you just understand one of the major principles of Behavior Architecture which is:
Behavior that is reinforced will be repeated.
Skinner’s Box showed that with a stimulus (light) and a positive consequence you could make almost any behavior stick, or in simpler words – add pleasure to a neutral behavior and it has the potential to become a habit.
Skinner could get his animals to do almost everything, he even trained pigeons to read to some extent.
But this is only one half of the coin, what about the ultimate antagonist of pleasure — Pain?
In order to test the effects of pain on behavior formation, Skinner equipped his Box with a metal floor that was capable of delivering electroshocks to the animals ( yeah, he was dick like Pavlov).
Imagine you are a somebody who likes going to the gym, now imagine that every time you want to go to the gym somebody awaits you and kicks you in the balls/ovaries, what would happen to your gym routine?
Right, it would cease to exist!
The second lesson of Behavior Architecture is, therefore:
Behavior that is punished will be suppressed.
We all had an experience like that where something that we formerly associated with pleasure was transformed into a punishment overnight…
Maybe you had food poisoning and you can’t eat certain fish anymore, or you had the worst hangover of your life and just the smell of Tequila gives you nightmares…(that’s me right here).
The harder the punishment the more likely it is that the behavioral framework gets obliterated out of existence, so if you want to decrease a habit, the quickest (and most painful way) is it to add a strong negative consequence to your undesired behavior.
Little Albert – The Power of Punishment
To give you a visual example of how our mind works let’s look at the curious case of little Albert, arguably the cruelest experiment in the history of behavior psychology.
In the year 1920, John Watson, along with his future wife, Rosalind Rayner, deliberately attempted to instill certain phobias into a young baby.
Watson assumed that fear is learnable.
Experiments began by placing ‘little Albert’ on a mattress and encouraging him to play with neutral objects (such as cotton wool or a white bunny rabbit).
The experimenter would hit a metal bar with a hammer every time the baby touched the play object.
Little Albert showed stress and started to cry and attempted to crawl away at the sudden loud noise.
Very quickly, anything white and fluffy would put fear into the heart of little Albert, even if Watson didn’t slam the hammer on the metal.
This proved that phobias could be instilled with conditioning.
Watson had planned to remove Albert’s Phobias but reportedly did not have time to do so. ( Like Skinner and Pavlov, Watson was also an asshole).
Skinner however assumed that we don’t forget behavior, we just suppress it.
So it’s entirely possible that Little Albert had this form of trauma stored in his brain for life…
Slot machines: Addiction By Design?
Our brain is constantly trying to guide us away from fear, and towards pleasure, and it’s crucial that we take control of this process, because otherwise, it will take control of us.
Read that sentence again, please.
But what have some starving rats, hungry dogs, and fat babies to do with my father and slot machines?
Skinner discovered something very interesting:
The most powerful way of conditioning is to NOT always reward the subject, but only sometimes.
When the ratio of reinforcement was randomized the rats went nuts and pushed the lever over and over again like maniacs.
I think you see were this going…
My father was not sitting in front of a slot machine, my father was sitting in front of a Skinner box, and he was the fucking rat doing what the box asked him to do.
Everyone knows rationally that when you play a slot machine the odds are stacked against you, all machines are designed to pay out less than they take it in, yet, my dad’s reason was overwritten.
My dad and the starved down rats in Skinners Box weren’t so different either, both had their human needs unmet.
The slot machine sold my old man the dream of being always one pull away from solving all his fucking problems and getting his life back together.
Another factor that made gambling so compelling for my father was that he was in a major life crisis, meaning that every time he played he was on a tiny holiday from all his problems, one of the commonalities of all addictions is that the addicts are stuck in lives that are too painful to bear for the user.
Skinner called this negative punishment, taking the pain away is just as motivating as it is to add pleasure.
Below you will find all forms of conditioning:
But gambling is even more complex…
Every time my dad put his last dollar into a slot machine he wasn’t only buying a ticket to numbing himself, he was also buying hope.
Having a 0.1% chance at winning a million-dollar feels a hell of a lot better than having a 0 % chance right?
Next time you pass a casino, take a good look at a slot machine. The colorful lights, the music, the celebrations of people who win, what you see is shameless exploitation of a bug in our mental software.
A bug we all have, a bug to which the weakest members of our society are particularly vulnerable too because they don’t have anything to combat the pathological promise of a better future.
Slot machines and Skinner boxes prove that machines are capable of teaching starved animals (and depressed humans) new behaviors.
We as a society have become too good at pushing our own buttons, alcohol addiction, compulsive gambling, smartphone addiction, excessive shopping are all phenomena that can be explained with the two basic rules of Behavior Architecture, don’t forget them:
1. We repeat what is rewarded.
2. We avoid what is punished.
Moral Of This Article
Knowing that we are susceptible to external behavioral control doesn’t make us immune against habit-forming technologies but acknowledging our own vulnerability empowers us to act and to always investigate our behavior for potential pathological patterns that are corrupting our well-being.
One habit can ruin your life and the life of your loved ones, so, if you are going to suffer in the future (and believe me you will) make sure that you bear your burden wisely and remember:
The quality of your life comes down to the quality of your coping habits.
I sometimes wonder how very different my upbringing would have been if somebody taught my dad the anatomy behavior so that he could have protected himself better against himself.
It’s too late for my old man, but it’s not too late for you.
Thank you for reading.
I’ve added some homework to the end of this article, working on those exercises will help you to align your behavior with your current goals.