start your mornings with b. f. skinner

Every Psychology 101 course will spend a week or two on the principles of learning. The larger question being addressed is: How can a person’s thoughts or behaviors be changed in an enduring way? In discussing how this question has been studied by psychologists, the lesson invariably starts with the example of Pavlov’s famous drooling dogs and ends with B. F. Skinner and his quirky pigeons. How quirky were they, you ask? Skinner successfully trained his birds to play ping-pong, and even secured military funding to see if he could train them to act as bomb guidance systems. Project Pigeon, as it was called, actually worked, to an extent. True story.

Students don’t have much trouble with the drooling dogs and bombardiering birds. Nor do they have much difficulty mastering the concepts of positive reinforcement, in which you are given something desirable (food, money, etc)to reinforce a target behavior, and punishment, in which you experience something unpleasant whenever you perform an undesired behavior. Confusion doesn’t set in until_negative_ reinforcement is brought up. Negative reinforcement, just like positive reinforcement, increases the likelihood that a target behavior will occur (in contrast, punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring, and isn’t very good at creating long-term behavior change). The difference is that while positive reinforcement introduces something pleasant to reinforce behavior, negative reinforcement works by removing something unpleasant.It’s a tricky concept to teach because it’s difficult to think of examples in which you’re removing something unpleasant without also introducing something pleasant. As it happens, I’m living just such an example right now.

I am not a morning person. I never have been, and I probably never will be. I am not one for whom the dawn is its own reward. It takes a supreme effort and an elaborate system of alarms to wrench myself out of bed every morning. During holidays my circadian rhythms inevitably slide toward the nocturnal. I eventually find myself falling asleep at 4:00AM and waking up at the crack of noon. Nevertheless, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve overslept for an early appointment. If I absolutely have to be somewhere at 7:00AM, I’ll be there. It’s just how I was raised.

For the past two weeks I’ve been arriving at the lab by 7:30AM. Initially I did this because I had to; a subject in an experiment I’m running could only come in at 8:00AM. But the subject in question finished up last week, and now I’m coming in early by choice. You may be wondering how I’ve managed to sustain such a miraculous change in my behavior, and believe me, “miraculous” is definitely the word here.

It has everything to do with the B Line. Anyone who lives in Boston knows what I’m talking about. The B Line is by far the slowest, most crowded, and least reliable subway line in the city. That it serves the most densely residential sections of the city but runs the fewest trains is a topic for another day. The end result is that rush hour on the B Line is a nightmare. Moreover, the B Line remains crowded for huge swathes of the day, even as the ridership on other branches of the Green Line thins to almost nothing. The thought of having to stuff myself into a B Line car for what is, all things considered, a short commute fills me with dread.

It turns out that if I can get myself onto the train by, say, 7:00AM, all of these problems go away. The trains haven’t had the chance to get backed up, seating is plentiful, and the ride is quantifiably faster. The whole experience is far less aversive, so much so that I’m actually willing to push against twenty-seven years of night owl habits to change my behavior. Negative reinforcement in action, ladies and gentlemen.

There are positive reinforcers as well, of course. There are more hours in my day and I’m more productive (the only other time in my life where I managed to maintain this schedule also happens to be the time I wrote daily). Since I’m in so early, I don’t feel bad about dodging the evening rush hour by leaving at 4:00. The positive reinforcers are obvious, but it’s the negative reinforcement of avoiding a horrible commute that gets me up in the morning. Skinner tends to get a bad rap these days, but there’s no denying that the man was on to something.