Never “Reward” Yourself For Good Behavior
You’re Not A Dog
The “cheat day” is probably the most well known example of a psychological phenomena called “conditioning”. I am going to have a potentially controversial take here. I do not encourage you to use conditioning to improve your behavior. I am not saying this cannot work. And if it does work for you, then by all means stay with it (but beware and read on). If you have tried classical conditioning already and it hasn’t been effective, I want you to understand why.
First, I should briefly explain what conditioning is. There are two, closely related, forms of conditioning. Classical conditioning (Pavlovian) and Operant conditioning (Skinnerian). The significant difference between these two is that Operant conditioning is considered “voluntary” and classical conditioning is “involuntary”. If you have ever taken an Intro to Psychology course, you may be familiar with these.
Classical conditioning is sometimes referred to as “Pavlovian” conditioning. Named for physiologist Ivan Pavlov, you may already be vaguely familiar with the experiments he conducted. In these experiments, he kept dogs in cages and would ring a bell (it was actually a metronome but a bell has made its way into the popular story), followed by the dogs receiving their food. After repeating this pairing numerous times, Pavlov found that just by ringing the bell, the dogs would begin salivating, expecting the forthcoming food. Even if no food actually followed the bell anymore.
Operant conditioning is sometimes referred to as “Skinnerian” conditioning. Named for psychologist B.F. Skinner. Unlike classical conditioning, where everything is happening TO the subject, in Operant conditioning, the subject is making a CHOICE and is then either rewarded if they select the desired outcome or punished if they select the undesired outcomes. Though sometimes, it may just be one or the other—a reward but no punishment or a punishment but no reward. For example, if a lab rat presses on a lever labeled “A” they receive a treat. If they press a level labeled “B” they receive a mild electrical shock. Eventually the rat will only choose the desired outcome (pressing A) and never choose the undesired outcomes (pressing B).
Think of some everyday examples in which people use conditioning. Health and fitness is a category that makes these easy to see. As I mentioned in the opening, the “cheat day” is probably the most common use of conditioning. You hit the gym every day and stick to your diet six days of the week. Then, on the seventh day you have your chest day. You reward yourself with whatever you reward yourself with. Ice cream, junk food, Big Macs, etc.
In this example, you are following Operating conditioning. The junk food is obviously the same as the treat the rat received. Your working out 6 days a week and sticking to your diet is the equivalent of the rat pressing the lever labeled “A”. You may have had to do more work than the rat for your treat, but the principle is the same.
And, of course, if you do NOT go to the gym or do NOT stick to your diet six days of the week, you do NOT still have your cheat day, right?
There are also more insidious examples of conditioning that we should be aware of. Do you go out every Friday night? Drinking with your friends until you pass out and then suffer being hungover the next day? Do you tell yourself every time that this behavior was your “reward” for “working hard all week”? Or worse, do you tell yourself that this is your reward for “putting up with my horrible boss and coworkers for the whole week”? You are implicitly trying to use the guise and perceived respectability of conditioning to rationalize your self-destructive behaviors. It is actually conditioning in reverse. You think you are reinforcing working hard all week when in fact you are reinforcing getting piss-ass drunk.
But, as the old adage says, what goes up must come down.
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