Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Hey, Who's In Charge Here?"

"This rogue elephant scenario is what Dr. Haidt thinks happens to us from time to time.  Our rider (the conscious part of us) wants us to do something, but the elephant part of us doesn’t want to, and so the rider just hangs on for the ride while the elephant goes wherever it wants to go.  We can put this in dieting terms.  Our rider decides that the elephant needs to go on a diet.  As long as the elephant is up for it, the diet hums along.  But if the elephant has other ideas, the rider becomes an ornament.  If things are going well, the rider has the appearance of control; if things aren’t going well, i.e., we had to put Mom in the hospital, then the elephant takes over.  And the rider accepts it.  He says, hey, I couldn’t control this beast because we had to put Mom in the hospital, and you know how he gets when we have to put Mom in the hospital.  He wants to eat, and I, the rider, have to go along with him.
"Yale psychologist Paul Bloom presents another way of looking at this situation in an enlightening article in the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic.  He puts forward the idea that we all have multiple selves that we’re constantly dealing with, arguing with and trying to fool.
"Let’s say that we’ve dined large late at night and are headed for bed.  As we crawl into the sack with belly distended from a carb overindulgence and lie flat, we start getting the ol’ acid reflux feeling.  We sit up, burp, drink some water, rub our chest and grab for the Tums.  The self that is suffering says, ‘That’s it, I’m dieting tomorrow.  I can’t stand feeling like this, not for one more night.’  The next morning the self that wakes up is a different person who isn’t experiencing reflux, doesn’t have a distended belly and is hungry.  And, by God, hungry for some waffles, at that.  The feel-good morning self may not abide by the rules laid down by the refluxing self the night before."
This model of human behavior fits my experience of human behavior very closely.  The human animal is subject to much more unconscious control that we'd like to admit - why we don't like to admit that, I don't know.  Mike Eades does a nice job of delving into the topic and how it relates to changing one's eating patterns.  
As I have seen these patterns play out in more and more folks, I have been surprised to find that I keep seeing a few basic models from my college psychology courses:
1.  Approach avoidance conflict - you see something you want, you move towards it, as you get closer, some element of the encounter become fear producing (think of a squirrel taking a peanut from you hand).  You and/or the squirrel cycle back and forth through the zone between fear/attraction.  You want the cookie (beer, chips, whatever the high reward food is for you), you fear the obesity/sickness/death that you also associate to eating that food.  It may be at a party or the office, you resist mightily but have to keep struggling to stay away from the food, and it's tiring.  Eventually, approach wins out over avoidance, you eat the thing.  It doesn't even taste that good - you wonder why you put yourself through this stupid shit over a worthless piece of crap like a cookie/chip/beer - but over a lifetime, you've rewarded yourself with this food so many times, and the UCM's association to pleasure and that food is so strong, that it doesn't matter.  Like the folks pulling the arms of slot machines (no pleasure there, why do they keep doing it?), the pleasure experience of having won previously is great enough that you'll pull the damned arm 100 times with no reward, all the while driven by your unconscious mind's focus on getting the next dose of pleasure.  
2.  Learned helplessness - at some point, you have tried so many times to change that you think you cannot change; so why fight it?  
3.  The gambler's reward percentage - in this battle of your will (the rider) against the unconscious mind's associations (the elephant), there's a combination of rewards and pain.  IOW - the UCM's attraction to something, once it is strong, it isn't erased by one or even by ten negative experiences.  The gambling houses had it figured out long before the psychologists did.  There're a certain number of painful transactions you will go through (feeding quarters into a machine and pulling the arm only to not get anything), if the original pleasure reward was strong enough.  From memory, it seems like the ratio was around 40% of the time, if you get a reward, you'll keep pulling the slot machine arm.
In other words, the basic mechanism of the unconscious mind is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Anyone who's had to do serious battle with their unconscious mind knows the difficulty of head to head battles; you can win, but only when it's the foremost thing in your mind.  Eventually, not eating the crappy food isn't that, and you revert to the old crap eating self.

The question for an adult who wants to take charge of their behavior then is - how do I train the "elephant"?  To have success you have to treat your unconscious mind like a dog or child and provide it with pleasure when you do the things you want to do more often, and no reward or pain as close in time as possible to the behaviors you don't want.  The former is much easier to do than the later.   
Everything you do or want or feel is a result of this internal pas de deux between your conscious and unconscious mind.  Getting your kids to do what you think is best for them is a "simple" matter of getting them to associate more pain to not doing it, and more pleasure to doing it - which is why we say "good job" when they pick up their clothes.  It's also why we interrupt them when they are doing something fun, and make them pick up their clothes, so they think "crap, wish I'd have just put this junk in the hamper in the first place."  Likewise, if you say "good dog" every time your dog sits and holds the posture with food in their face, the dog will associate the pleasure of "I'm about to eat!" with the sound "good dog".  Then, you can use "good dog" as a reward for anything the dog does that you like. 
If you can learn to train yourself in this way, you can get yourself to do anything, probably right up to the point of drowning yourself by sticking your head into a bucket and holding it there (not that I'm an advocate for that).  I'm not saying that learning how to train your elephant is easy or particularly fun, but like many things in life, it is a necessary pursuit, for which the rewards are high.  
I hope you have associated some pleasure to this idea.

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