Welcome to stren #95, Behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Understanding what motivates us is practical knowledge to help make our life joyous and meaningful. This stren explains the special opportunity to assume responsibility for our life’s experience that other species lack. With this knowledge, we position ourselves to make our wishes and prayers a reality. We become our own genie.
Scientists have shown that behaviors can be predicted and controlled by managing the rewards and punishments available in the subject’s environment. The more accurate our conscious awareness of the relationship of cause and effect, the greater our power to effect control. I am in awe when I see a chicken trained to play ping pong, basketball, or golf by manipulating the conditions that lead to reward or disappointment. I am appalled that fellow humans can be readily influenced to violate nature’s most powerful instinct by becoming a kamikaze pilot or a suicide bomber. Laboratory observations of animals and humans help us understand the way fate and circumstance influence behavior. Our growing knowledge of cause and effect empowers us to influence the behavior of others as well as our self – and resist the self-defeating behaviors that get us into trouble. Most everyone prefers to be master of their own behavior rather than controlled by other masters.
In animals and humans alike, behavior that is rewarded is repeated, and behavior that is punished is avoided. When we make mistakes we experience unpleasant consequences. When mistakes are not fatal, we learn to avoid that mistake in the future, and that leads to a repertoire of effective behaviors. With repetition the adaptive behaviors become hardwired, and are passed forward in the genes of survivors and by education in the tribe’s established culture. A benefit of habit is that action pathways become increasingly automatic and less mental preparation is required; instant response to emergency situations is a basic requirement for survival. A disadvantage of preprogrammed action pathways is that they are inflexible and lack the common sense problem solving required to create new solutions to new challenges.
The power of knowledge may be directed for both constructive and destructive outcomes. The directors of our behavior include our animal brain, our nurturer’s rules, and our intelligent cerebral cortex. Additional names for these three controllers are instinct (nature’s genetic action paths), culture (the traditions of our nurturers), and common sense wisdom (the newer way of thinking that leads to self-mastery). Instinct initially rules alone until joined by culture and thereafter common sense wisdom. Instinct has been designed for survival in primitive and hostile environments. Culture is a combination of instinct’s predetermined behaviors and the common sense action pathways based on knowledge of cause and effect. Common sense wisdom is the outcome of intelligence applied to knowledge. A significant distinguishing factor is that while instinct and culture address yesterday’s problems using yesterday’s knowledge, common sense applies new technology to create wiser solutions to current problems. Instinct emphasizes survival through confrontation to attain dominance for one side. Common sense supports cooperation and collaboration to benefit all tribes. The culture of any tribe is some combination of instinct and common sense; the greater the tribe’s skill in civilization, the greater the common sense. The persistence of destructive aggression tells us common sense is still uncommon.
Historically, collectively, and individually, it is our nature to progress from mental slavery to stupidity before we act with common sense wisdom. We are all born into mental slavery – to serve the whims of our early masters. Stupidity is continued mindless obedience to fate and circumstance when we are equipped with wisdom. Wisdom is applying knowledge of cause and effect to elevate ourselves above the animals by popularizing the civil skills that make us humane. During our formative years our animal brain rules our intelligent but immature cerebral cortex. We are headed for catastrophe because we deceive ourselves into believing that we are acting with common sense wisdom, when our intelligent cerebral cortex remains more servant to instinct and our culture than their master.
Emancipating our will from the demands of our early masters, instinct and culture, requires an understanding of the positive and negative rewards that sustain them. What is experienced as satisfying or disappointing is different for instinct, culture, and common sense. As we acquire maturity and common sense wisdom, the rewards that “work” change. Words provide the power of imagination. We become sensitive to past experience and future consequences of action. Local allegiances and craving for immediate satisfaction give way to awareness of global priorities and investing energy now for greater future benefits. The marvelous benefits attainable by our use of common sense are ours to create IF we can get our will unstuck from instinct and tradition.
We must make ourselves consciously aware of our self-deception before we can consistently engage in wise action and unite to further our collective well-being. Our knowledge of weapons of ultimate destruction is spreading so rapidly that the doomsday clock is ticking dangerously close to midnight. This ominous reality requires urgent collective action, beginning with recognizing our own stupidity. Knowledge of our animal brain brings us the realization of what we can and must do. The wonderful news is that we are so close to the tipping point that we can effect a dramatic change with limited effort.
The animal portion of our brain is the end product of a software program finely tuned over hundreds of millions of years for survival at all costs. Reaching back far beyond the nine months preceding birth, our genes express the trial and error learning that has enabled us to persist as a species in the savage environment of our distant ancestors. The most important reward was survival. “Might is right.” Kill or be killed. We are hardwired to protect ourselves, our family, and our tribe. The rules of civility in effect for one’s own tribe don’t apply to “sub-humans,” a label which includes not only animals but also members of other tribes. Making sub-humans servant to our tribe is among the highest rewards.
Our animal brain lacks the wisdom to manage the power of intelligence. Power without common sense will insatiably pursue the survival of the fittest perspective. Security to the animal brain is the use of power to accumulate as much material wealth as possible and dominate others. Most people remain passively dependent on the hardwired action pathways of instinct and culture. We obey the “rules” we inherit from our genes and the traditions we acquire from our nurturers. We accept the programming of nature and our nurturers as our own. We still believe wars “work” to reward us when common sense shows us clearly that the next war will result in mutual destruction. The action pathways of our animal brain will persist until we choose to actively free our will from fate and circumstance and assume responsibility for our well-being. “Normality” to the animal brain includes what most of humanity now calls “murder,” “rape,” and “terrorism.” Only consciously aware people actively intervene to assume personal responsibility for our collective well-being. They apply common sense wisdom based on today’s knowledge to create better solutions to current issues.
The prize of successful destructive aggression is dominating any perceived competitor. In my visit to the Galapagos Islands I observed a common practice among the Blue-footed Booby species – only one sibling survives because the strongest pushes the weaker from the nest. In contemporary society, we call this “murder.” We have only recently passed laws to make minorities and women “equal” to white males, but still maintain significant obstacles to equality in gender and race. In civilized society we consider fighting and rape immoral and do our best to curtail it with our most severe punishments. Fighting for mating rights is a common practice among animals – “spoils to the victor” is expected and normal. We still reward with homage and adulation those with the greatest material wealth, physical “beauty,” and cunning. The most powerful get to be “dictator” and others submit their common sense wisdom to the authority of power, irrespective of the degree of irrationality. Would you agree that most of our world’s population engages in stupid actions when we are well enough equipped with common sense to act wisely? The problem persists because we widely and uncritically accept the biased perception that the world is divided into two categories and that our side is “all good, just, and right” and others are “evil, unreasonable, wrong” and deserving of harm. Good and evil addiction is epidemic in our society; this way of thinking justifies bigotry, prejudice, harmful confrontation, and war.
Our animal brain contains the pleasure centers that are intermingled with centers for aggression; they compel us to procreate and compete to preserve the species. In a civilized society, pleasure-seeking requires constraints – this has become a function of the cerebral cortex. We each experience the inner confrontation where our older emotional brain says “yes” to immediate satisfaction and our intelligent cerebral cortex, equipped to apply common sense and anticipate longer term consequences of action, says “no.” This is why alcohol, which selectively dulls the cerebral cortex, releases sexual and aggressive behavior such as the “bar fight.”
Nature distinguishes male from female by the design of our bodies and the allocation of chemical messengers such as androgenic and estrogenic hormones. The concentration of pleasure receptors in the glands penis (tip) preconditions the male for easy orgasm and a proclivity to service many females. The erect penis displays unmistakable intention compared to the diminutive clitoris. The female dedication to nurture her offspring to maturity and the satisfaction from breast feeding is unmatched by men save in unusual circumstances. Males, compelled to seek orgasm, rarely declare intercourse to be lacking pleasure, while many women say that they have sex more “for love” and “to be loved” than to satisfy a craving for orgasm. How would behavior change if babies were born during intercourse and orgasm occurred nine months later? How would the education of our children be different without extraordinary maternal enthusiasm? These features lead me to conclude that women are likely to be the dominant force in avoiding human catastrophe and creating world peace.
The preprogrammed action pathways of our animal brain are our first master. Instinct cannot maintain exclusivity because after our birth, nurturers are ready and willing to take over the dominate role of determining behavior. For the first years of our lives, we are “takers,” helpless and dependent on others for our survival. We don’t ask – we are compelled by our prolonged immaturity to accept whatever fate and circumstance make of us. The labels that trigger our thoughts are designed by nature and our nurturers to emphasize their perspectives. We first rent them and in time we will passively own them until we invest in our own independence. Most people go through life remaining a “love junkie,” craving approval for their self-worth and addicted to material wealth.
Physical pleasure and pain powerfully influence behavior until our cerebral cortex is taught a second signaling system – the power of symbols to “turn on” our primary signaling system. Words are a source of mental energy to influence how we think, feel, and act. By linking emotion to symbols, our mental activity becomes sufficiently powerful to selectively restrain the action pathways of our animal brain. The culture of our nurturers, as they define it, gradually assumes a dominant role in the way we think, feel, and act. The sources of reward and punishment are beyond our control; our behavior is determined by fate and circumstance, nature and nurture – “the luck of the draw.”
Our animal brain is characterized by its uninhibited desires, while our nurturer’s traditions are generally known for their advocacy of restraint. “No” is the most common word of nurturers, and punishment is more common than positive rewards. Nurturers even use language to condition our thoughts, for example, teaching the uniquely human self-punishment we call “guilt.” We learn to “guilt” and punish ourselves merely for thinking about “evil” or forbidden acts. Guilt may stick with us throughout a lifetime! The power of interpretation extends to yelling (unpleasant sounds ), gestures, posture, “the look,” and voice tones. With the addition of language, our nurturers add symbolic rewards to the physical rewards – greed, insatiable pursuit of physical wealth, beauty, titles, “adult toys,” power over others, and guarantee of a reward in the hereafter. Punishment may include withholding love, endorsement, attention, food, and whatever additional symbolic rewards have been established in our culture.
Symbols also introduce pleasures that are prominent in our species, for example – values, peace, philanthropy, reading, and solving puzzles. When my dad was growing up in Russia, they had no toys. A popular game was pitching broken shards of pottery or glass against the wall to win the valued “prize” – the loser’s shard. As an expert pitcher, he felt very wealthy from his accumulation of shards. What were the common forms of reward and punishment in your formative years? Which were most important? Which do you most pursue now?
Self-mastery is becoming our own person. Through our formative first decades, our cerebral cortex attains maturity and knowledge of cause and effect – the universal order of nature’s creative force. The secret of self-mastery is the intelligent use of symbols to become self-programmers of reward and punishment. We store knowledge and create symbols, usually words, by which we call forth and manipulate knowledge in our imagination to reveal common sense wisdom. Through this process we free our will from fate and circumstance to direct our own life experience. Our freed will can redirect the energy of instinct and our culture to design original action pathways to reach our own preferred outcomes. Self-mastery enables us to pursue our own good in our own way.
We remain “mental slaves” to our early dictators, instinct and culture, until our specialized freedom organ is sufficiently mature and our language is equipped to exceed the rewards and counteract the punishments established by our first masters. Children can be motivated, like the game-playing chicken, by food or treats; and our biological motivation to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort is powerful but our special ability to attach meaning (emotion) to symbols has even greater power. Symbols create beliefs that make it possible to override nature’s most powerful instinct – survival. To many species, killing, robbing, and forced sex means “reward, reward, reward”, whereas the assigning of symbols such as “murder, rape, and theft” can call forth a vision of morality characteristic of our species.
As we expand our collection of labels that accurately reflect cause and effect, we grow our power to influence our self and all that is about us. Words that switch on pleasure and turn off pain empower us to modify established behavior and initiate new action patterns. Through education in self-endorsement we attain self-mastery and apply knowledge to make ourselves powerful creators. Common sense wisdom using current knowledge to solve current problems has far more survival value than hardwired solutions to yesterday’s challenges based on yesterday’s knowledge.
Mental skill in self-endorsement is essential if we are to free our will from dictators and become our own person. There are many techniques to endorse ourselves, which are easy to teach and readily learned. The early strens in the newer way of thinking curriculum consist of a collection of the most powerful self-endorsement skills, beginning with emotional self-endorsement and secondary endorsement.
Most people go through life lacking adequate self-endorsement skills and instead become their own worst enemy. We act stupidly because we are not consciously aware of our self-deception. We actually believe we are acting appropriately when common sense would show we are simply marching to the tune of fate and circumstance. We are unaware of our mental slavery to other masters and will continue with our faulty assumptions as long as we remain addicted to “others” approval. This may be O.K. if our environment is nurturing and benevolent; it’s not O.K. when our source of sustenance is self-serving; it is a catastrophe when we are dehumanized and considered dispensable.
Freed from the need to serve other masters for our minimum daily requirement of mental nourishment, we position ourselves to pursue the humane values that consistently support our well-being. Common sense enables us to recognize the value of cooperation and collaboration for mutual gain. Common sense is the basis of universal values such as “the golden rule,” love, forgiveness, peace, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and all behaviors that elevate us to humanity. We are not born with wisdom; we acquire it by applying common sense to knowledge. It took our ancestors many years before we found non-violent ways to face difficult issues. For example, humor and laughter not only detoxify fear and anxiety; they are among our favorite pleasures. Wisdom can be taught and readily learned. Understanding the principles of reward and punishment are instrumental in changing the way we think, feel, and act.
If you are like most people, you won’t take action to change a belief, no matter how false, as long as you label it as “true.” The secret of mental freedom and sustained well-being is knowledge of cause and effect. You have available to you all the word power you require to free your energy to become your own genie. I urge you to make your wishes and prayers your reality because I know you share my passion for world peace. World peace needs you! When you teach yourself a newer way of thinking and wake up to your mental slavery you will want to join Einstein’s army to make our planet a safer gentler home - this labor of love that will bring you your greatest rewards.
1 Film of pigeons “playing golf”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGazyH6fQQ4; find others on youtube.com
2 See stren 91, The Common Sense Test of common sense.
3 Good and Evil Addiction, e-book, by Jun Togo; http://www.peace-picturebook.org/GoodEvil/index.html
4 Stren #90 describes the “Little Albert” conditioning experiments of J.B. Watson and others to control behavior by unpleasant sounds and multiple stimuli including words.
5 See stren #94, Learning Starts with Labeling, to better understand the importance of symbols.
6 John Stuart Mill, in definition of “freedom,” The American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin pub.