Conditioning explained and it is not (just) what you think

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Last night I had a long and interesting conversation with a behavioral scientist. We spoke about bias and the influence on our actions. We didn’t always share the same views on the influence of preference on bias but we did agree on the influence of conditioning. And that was the moment when I got a very pleasant surprise.

Minutes before our scheduled 30 minutes talk would end, he mentioned research by my school time friend and I even remembered discussing his research many years ago. “Yes, I know that research and I know the researcher, we wend to school together” was the beginning of a 4-hour talk about bias, conditioning, what we can do about it and how to explain it best.

My friend was a devoted researcher and therapist. I remember him already knowing this was what he wanted to do when the rest of us were still pursuing childish goals which changed at least once per month. “I want to understand people so I can help people”. Not something you will hear from a lot of preteens. My friend said that, I think when he was 8. He did the required studies, got his degree and started to do what he felt as his calling.

We had a ritual since we were kids. Whenever the weather would permit it, we would climb on the roof of his parents house and watch the sunset over the North Sea. And talk, talk about everything. Or in sad times just sit there and feel the strength of our friendship. We kept doing that, whenever we could.

While he was doing his research into conditioning of behavior and responses, he was searching for ways to help people, like he always did. And later we transformed his research into a business leadership program. We had many discussions about it. like we always did. He liked how my curiosity drove me to asking questions and trying to understand the answers. I liked how his drive to help people always made him find ways to explain his theories and findings in a way that I would understand and trigger more questions.

His first explanation of conditioning he gave me was by using our ritual to climb on the roof of his parents house. It was a very pleasant experience. Something very personal between 2 friends who have known each other since kindergarten days. Something good. Something we needed whenever we needed comfort. Something we enjoyed in good times. The jokes. The stories. The whiskey and the cigars when we were adults. It all contributed to our experience. And with each experience we conditioned ourselves and each other that this was our special ritual, our moment where nothing else existed, only our friendship.

The recurrence of the moment and the confirmation of the experience by which we condition ourselves is much more common than we realize. We condition ourselves on behavior without being aware of it. By always getting ready for bed at a certain time of the day, we condition ourselves to feel tired around that time. By always eating at the same time of the day, we condition ourselves to start feeling hungry around that time.

At the same time, when we do not condition ourselves on a sleeping pattern or an eating pattern, these activities become fully randomized and there is a lot of science suggesting that this is very unhealthy. At the same time, there is science suggesting that we have conditioned ourselves on the wrong sleeping pattern. Instead of sleeping once per day, we should apparently sleep at least twice a day for shorter periods. We could of course argue if this is true or not, but it is a fact that as soon as someone starts to take daily mid-day naps, over 90% of get conditioned on mid-day naps within a week! And it takes much more time to uncondition this behavior than it takes to condition it…

Changing behavior and habits we conditioned ourselves on can be quite challenging because in most cases we are not even aware of how we conditioned ourselves. Far more challenging is changing behavior based on conditioning by others. By our surroundings. By our upbringing. By our education. By our beliefs. By our society. That kind of conditioning is all around us and really sticks.

Such conditioning comes in many ways. We are conditioned on sirens and flashing blue lights as sign of urgency, of danger. “Get out of the way!”. We are conditioned on uniforms as sign of authority, at least most of us. During the cold war, the west was conditioned on the danger from the east and visa versa. We were and are constantly conditioned on who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy” based in which side of the narrative we are on.

China? Bad because we are told they are bad. Russia? Same deal, different keywords. Favorite brand of a product? Works in the same way. Conditioning can be positive and negative. We are conditioned to behave in a curtain way and to judge everything that doesn’t comply.

Conditioning can also have other impacts when you are at the other side of the narrative. Placing people together in a ghetto based on their ethnicity will permanently confirm that they are not only different but most of all that they don’t belong to the others. Do it long enough and they will believe it and will influence their lives and the decisions they make.

When the police only arrives in your neighborhood in full riot gear and large numbers, that will condition you on danger and a threat. When that goes on long enough, you will start acting accordingly. When a certain action inflicts pain, you will eventually start avoiding that action. When an action provokes the same response every single time, you will start to link the reaction to the action, and ignore that the reaction itself is also the result of a decision. That is one of the reasons why bullies can continue for so long. By conditioning their victims.

These kinds of conditioning and conditioned behavior are all around us and although most people are not ware of it, they start to understand it the moment you explain it. Because there is always an interaction we can relate to. Something that helps us understand the bigger picture. There is however a level of conditioning which is all around and very difficult to explain.

Very difficult for most of us, but not for my friend Debra Ruh from Ruh Global Impact ( Debra is an advocate for accessibility and inclusion and she made me aware of a very complicated form of conditioning with far reaching consequences. Conditioning of people with special needs. Conditioning in a way that this is somehow their problem.

Imagine for example that you are blind. That means a lot of things with huge impact on your life. Seeing the people you love will no longer be possible. Reading a book will only be possible with technical aids or in braille version which you need to learn first. The list of influences is long, too long for us to discuss and understand.

Something as common to us as using the internet and the gadgets we enjoy, suddenly becomes a challenge. A challenge which in too many cases is so huge that we can no longer do that without help from others. And that is where the negative conditioning kicks in. Besides and on top of all the challenges, every time you need someone to help you to do something, you are conditioned on the fact that you can not do them without the help of someone. Each and every time! That stamp on your forehead as Debra explained it. “You are different.”, “You can not do this.”, “You are not good enough!”. Again and again and again!

As society, we have a lot of negative conditioning with far reaching consequences. And that negative conditioning is a confirmation of being different, being less, being unwanted, being not part of it, for everyone at the other side of the equation. That is where our society has failed. That is where we have conditioned ourselves to think it is completely acceptable to only accept those who are like we are, and exclude everyone who isn’t.

Thank you Debra, for this important lesson!

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Written by

Dad, consultant, coach, speaker, author. Mainly Cyber Security, leadership, responsible tech and organizational change.

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