This is a response to Can You Condition Yourself? on Slate Star Codex. Upon hearing about the “Propagating Urges” technique taught by CFAR, Scott was doubtful that humans could indeed successfully train themselves using operant conditioning. This is my response, which was also posted as a comment. I agree with him for some things but note that the technique has still been personally valuable to me and could be much more so.
I don’t know about big complex tasks, but I tried this once for a bad habit, and it worked impressively well. I used to pick my nose as a kid… and then I didn’t stop when I grew up. When I heard about the inner pigeon idea, I thought I’d give it a shot. Every time I noticed an inclination to reach my hand up, or that I was anywhere in the process of nose-picking, I would pump my fist and go “YES!” (this is my happy gesture-button).
You can’t stop a habit you don’t notice
The idea was to reinforce my own noticing. Since this action is generally considered gross and/or shameful, my brain generally tried to avoid thinking about it, which meant I definitely would never notice I’d done it until it was too late. By rewarding myself for noticing (whenever it happened) I taught my brain that it was a good thing to think about. When doing the opposite (cringing when noticing) we train our brain not to notice because it produces discomfort. This is likely punitive justice: it teaches people not to get caught.
I think perhaps this functions in a slightly different way than Skinner’s pigeons though. It’s almost like I’ve made a game out of noticing my brain’s urge, and I get an (uncounted) point every time I successfully do so. Regardless, this made me more aware of these urges, which meant I started noticing more and more when it was just my nose feeling itchy or my hand moving up. I would then reward myself and not bother actually doing it.
Within the first day, this almost completely eliminated the habit, although I forgot to go back for vaccines 2 and 3 so I confess that it’s not quite gone. However, during this comment I noticed once during the act, and YES’d. Then, not a minute later I noticed beforehand and YES’d again.
I believe this could work for a number of these sorts of impulses, although I haven’t yet tried (upon reflection, this would be really valuable; adding near top of queue)
- the urge to open Facebook/Twitter/HN/reddit/etc in a new tab
- the urge to go on the internet if not already on
- the urge to switch away from this tab where I’m writing a blog comment and go check my email (has happened
twice thricefour times so far)
- the urge to grab a snack when I’m already full
- the urge to click on a link that is linkbaity but that I don’t anticipate actually being valuable.
In addition to helping notice these urges, it could also be valuable for noticing thoughts to the effect of “this may not be a valuable use of my time” or “I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing”. Normally, my brain shies away from those, because if that’s true, it means I’ve been wasting my time. However, like being wrong, the only way to fix that is to admit it (to yourself, at least). This ranges from:
- “Why am I still reading this site?”
- “I’m not really sure what I’m getting out of this video…”
- “This conversation/person-I’m-talking-to isn’t really very interesting…”
- “Gah, I was going to submit that form this morning and I forgot…”
… and of course any ugh field or thought about a belief that’s generally aversive.
How to actually use this
Since there can be a fair bit of cognitive overhead to this at the start, I would recommend starting by focusing on only one type of thought or urge at a time, but it’s fun to do. I had to leave for a few hours in the middle of typing this and my attention to it while writing made it really easy to apply it to both the original unhygenic habit mentioned and also to the email-checking impulse when I came back.
Writing this post has made me realize that there’s a lot of really low-hanging fruit for me here, and so I’m going to try adding a new noticing every few days for the next while. Will report back in later this summer with results. I suspect this can work with positive urges too but I’ll look into that later.