Jun 21, 2012
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
Also see: Basics of Animal Reinforcement, Basics of Human Reinforcement, Physical and Mental Behavior, Wanting vs. Liking Revisited, Approving reinforces low-effort behaviors, Applying Behavioral Psychology on Myself.
On Skype with Eliezer, I said: "Eliezer, you've been unusually pleasant these past three weeks. I'm really happy to see that, and moreover, it increases my probability than an Eliezer-led FAI research team will work. What caused this change, do you think?"
Eliezer replied: "Well, three weeks ago I was working with Anna and Alicorn, and every time I said something nice they fed me an M&M."
I once witnessed a worker who hated keeping a work log because it was only used "against" him. His supervisor would call to say "Why did you spend so much time on that?" or "Why isn't this done yet?" but never "I saw you handled X, great job!" Not surprisingly, he often "forgot" to fill out his worklog.
Ever since I got everyone at the Singularity Institute to keep work logs, I've tried to avoid connections between "concerned" feedback and staff work logs, and instead take time to comment positively on things I see in those work logs.
Chatting with Eliezer, I said, "Eliezer, I get the sense that I've inadvertently caused you to be slightly averse to talking to me. Maybe because we disagree on so many things, or something?"
Eliezer's reply was: "No, it's much simpler. Our conversations usually run longer than our previously set deadline, so whenever I finish talking with you I feel drained and slightly cranky."
Now I finish our conversations on time.
A major Singularity Institute donor recently said to me: "By the way, I decided that every time I donate to the Singularity Institute, I'll set aside an additional 5% for myself to do fun things with, as a motivation to donate."
It's amazing to me how consistently we fail to take advantage of the power of reinforcement.
Maybe it's because behaviorist techniques like reinforcement feel like they don't respect human agency enough. But if you aren't treating humans more like animals than most people are, then you're modeling humans poorly.
You are not an agenty homunculus "corrupted" by heuristics and biases. You just are heuristics and biases. And you respond to reinforcement, because most of your motivation systems still work like the motivation systems of other animals.
I close with Story 5, from Amy Sutherland:
For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.
I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.
Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.
I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior...
Once I started thinking this way, I couldn't stop. At the school in California, I'd be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I'd be thinking, "I can't wait to try this on Scott."
...After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love.
Next post: Rational Romantic Relationships Part 1
Previous post: The Good News of Situationist Psychology
My thanks to Erica Edelman for doing much of the research for this post.