Psychology of Body Language: Operant Conditioning & Body Language

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Hi, and welcome back to the series on the psychology of body language. This is the second article on Behaviorism, and specifically – the theory of learning in psychology.

In the first part, I discussed classical conditioning and how it can affect our behavior and even our view of the world.

But, we had a “problem” in our method of training, and that’s the fact that classical conditioning must have a biological compound in its base to work – we must use a natural physical reaction to a certain stimulus like food, sex, pain, stress or some other natural stimulus.

So how do we acquire behaviors that don’t involve a natural tendency? 

If we look at dogs again, how exactly can we teach them to walk by our side? Or to jump through a hoop? There’s no basic pattern in a dog’s “default” behavior that tells him that he should jump on command – because it doesn’t serve any purpose for him!

Unless… unless we teach him that it does – and now we enter the field of operant conditioning,  which is much more flexible, and with it, we can start to explain the more complex patterns of behaviors.

What is Operant Conditioning?

In contrast to classical conditioning, where we exploit natural physiological reactions and attach them to something “unnatural” we also have the Operant Conditioning, the more “advanced’ type of conditioning.

What’s unique about it is the fact that such conditioning allows us to attach 2 seemingly unrelated actions. We don’t have to start with something biologically natural.

For example, you know that if you push a button near the entrance of the door – you expect the light in the room to go “on” or “off.” You learned to associate the action and expect a certain result.

This is exactly how operant conditioning works: it’s learning from experience. If a certain action raises the possibility of a certain outcome – it can be conditioned to it.

Now I know it sounds vague, but it’s really simple: if you do something and it leads to a certain result, you’ll assume they’re related if they are consistent. If you observe that studying hard before a test leads to a good score on the test – you’ll associate studying hard with good results.

Of course, in this specific example, it sounds rational because you’re already familiar with this convention. But suppose the tests you’re taking are extremely hard, and despite your valiant efforts you fail to pass them. If that happens constantly – you’ll despair and probably drop the notion of studying hard, because now studying appears useless anyway, you’ll no longer associate studying hard and good results in the tests. It all depends on what action you take and which result you get.

Note: It’s important to understand that the source of the condition doesn’t have to be from your own experience – you can see it happen to someone else or just read about it.

So we can pretty much try to explain every behavior that way – and it was the dominant thought in psychology not too long ago in the branch of behaviorism.

I won’t go deep, but suffice to say that in time it was realized it cannot be the whole truth, not every behavior can be explained by action and response, and it lacks in explaining many other aspects of human understanding.

So no, we cannot train people like dogs, but we also cannot neglect the fact that we do have a pattern and quite predictable way of doing things.

After all, our brain works on utility, the whole point of learning is to refine our reactions when we’re familiar with the situation. Learning is making shortcuts, that most of the time – do work.

kid solving a problem on the board while holding a chalk

How to Use Operant Conditioning?

This type of unconscious learning is evident in many different behaviors and naturally shapes our body language and our demeanor in general.

We cannot fully control it, but we can be more aware and adjust our system of reinforcements and punishments accordingly.

So, when you want to change a certain behavior, either your own or that of another, it’s a good idea to use reinforcements and punishments to support actions.

Power of will has limited capacity for time – you can have the greatest ambitions now, but it’s impossible to sustain the same passion for very long.

So instead focus on the little things and plan, learn to associate desired actions with good results – even a word of encouragement (occasionally) can have a great effect on motivation and lasting good habits.

Learn to Forget

a man running through aligator's mouth

So far we talked about how we acquire behavior, but sometimes we want or need to reverse it. If you ever had a bad habit you want to get rid of, it’s time to learn extinction:

If we talk about phobias, such as the fear of dogs, snakes, or any other animal you might fear – the basic method is called extinction by exposure.

Extinction works very similarly to the way we apply conditioning. But instead of attaching a new stimulus you separate it from the original one by applying them separately.

In the case of phobia – we expose the person to his source of fear, and because no real danger is present in such scenarios, the person learns to disassociate the object and the danger = the fear becomes manageable.

It’s the physiological equivalent to the story about the kid who cried wolf. If you learn that nothing truly bad happens when you’re near the source of your fear – you’ll pay less heed to the alarms your emotions raise.

Note: It’s important to mention that you don’t forget the fear. Even if you overcome it, it’s still in your brain and mind, but your will to suppress it grew stronger and now you can control it. There’s strong evidence for that, even in the wiring of the brain itself, which I’ll speak more about when we get to the emotion of fear.

It can also mean that if you had a previous conditioning that got extinct, it can be relapsed faster the next time. 

Let’s review extinction the of Pavlov’s dog experiment: 

ivan pavlov with his assistant experimenting on the dog while he sits at his chair

If we ring the bell on enough occasions without actually giving the dogs any food – the result will be the extinction of the bell ring, because the sound of the bell no longer provides any informative value regarding the arrival of food!

And how do we extinct (or establish, for that matter) operant conditioning? With the good ol’ stick and carrot method: 

If you want to increase a certain behavior – you give a reward or lower the punishment.

If you want to decrease the likelihood of a certain behavior you increase the punishment or decrease the reward.

Note: There are technical terms for these specific methods, but I don’t want to confuse you, just get the main idea – it’s very intuitive after all.

Controlling Addictions

Habits die hard, we all know that, but their strength of attachment can be modified. It’s a fascinating study because it shows how some habits are harder to get rid of, and how timing and consistency are critical factors in forming them.

I talk about schedules of reinforcements – meaning how often and how frequent the reward or punishment for a certain behavior appears.

There are 4 types of such scenarios, and each has its characteristics of expected behavior, I’ll focus on 2 of them:

Variable Ratio – this is the strongest type of attachment, but it takes a while to acquire. This is how gambling works – you get a reward only after several tries randomly (if any at all) but your anticipation drives you to try and try again. “This time I’ll get it, I’m sure”.

Another excellent example of this type of behavior can be found in bothersome children. Such kids learn to nag their parents because they know, that after several attempts, their parents would give in and give them what they want.

If, on the other hand, the parent won’t surrender to his child’s nagging, the child will start to learn that his behavior doesn’t get results and he eventually will cease to nag. It can be hard to resist the child caprices at first, but it has a much bigger payoff later.

Variable interval – this time we speak about a variable time frame, not several attempts. This also leads to a type of consistent behavior, only in weaker magnitude. A good example is sudden exams, a teacher who applies such a method forces his students to study and be ready all the time.

How to Reprogram Yourself

I want to finish the section on learning in psychology with a practical tip:

The main thing I want you to take from this article, which you can apply to your body language or some other habit – is that if you want to change something about yourself – you need to get a grasp of its source and have the will to be consistent with your change.

Once you identify when and perhaps why you act as you do, you become aware of it and automatically have more conscious control over it.

The second hard part is being consistent, it’s not enough to do it right once, but to keep doing it until you get it “reprogrammed” – to another, more useful habit. This is why it’s almost a must to start small and to increase gradually, very gradually.

Changing behavior and body language is quite a long and perhaps tedious process, it requires self-awareness and fine adjustment. But it can be done, the key is to start small and stick to it.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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