March 9, 2007

Reciprocal Determinism And Why Punching People Out Is Way Cool

And stay away from my man! 


A quick addendum to my previous post on the "Psychological Uncertainty Principle."

A reader pointed out that some of this is explained by "reciprocal determinism", which basically means that you respond to your environment, but then force a change in your environment which further changes your behavior.  For example:

  1. "Girls don't like me. Girls don't like me.   Girls don't like me."  Repeat x 100.
  2. So a girl thought she liked you, but then met you, and now decided you're a nutter. So she bolts.
  3. Now you have proof girls don't like you.

It sounds like reciprocal determinism says who you are affects your environment, which then affects you.  

That's wrong.  In the above example, it wasn't ever true that girls didn't like you.  You made it true.  You changed your behavior, somehow, that made it so that girls don't like you.  You received some gain from making it true that girls didn't like you-- perhaps it helps you avoid intimacy, etc, etc.  

So your identity never enters the equation.  Reciprocal determinism is about behavior, not identity.  Albert Bandura (the originator of this concept) was responding to Skinner's behaviorism.

Wikipedia's article on reciprocal determinism is a perfect example of this exactly wrong use of the concept.  They describe how low MAOA enzyme can cause you to be antisocial.  In fact, it is the opposite:  having low MAO-A does nothing, but having high MAO-A seems to be protective.  The reason people became antisocial (synonymous with criminal) in those studies was that they were abused-- in essence, they imitated the behavior. 

The experiment Bandura is famous for speaks to my point about the absoluteness of your responsibility for your identity:  kids watched adults beat up a bobo doll, and were then put in a room with a bobo doll, and, surprise, the majority then imitated this behavior, even using the same hitting techniques and repeating the same phrases the adults did.  Nothing genetic or even environmental affected this outcome-- almost all the kids did it (and almost none of the control kids who didn't watch the adults beat up the doll).

So watching the Matrix causes kids to go Columbine?  Bandura would have said yes.  But oddly no one ever wonders why then the cooking channel doesn't result in more pies, or why porn hasn't prompted rampant depilation.  Bandura's theory of reciprocal determinism required a key element: reinforcement.  There has to be a gain in the imitation, in the identification.  You may have "learned" the violence by watching it, but you won't display the violence unless there is some reward-- it isn't just a reflex, some part of your core identity.   You decide to imitate it, because it rewards you.  How?  "I want to be just like my Dad" (except he beats Mom.)  "Neo is so cool." (Didn't he kill all the human security guards?)  "Thug life!"  Etc. Note that no one ever imitates the violence of, say, Gollum. Want to know why?  Because Gollum never scores any chicks. 

So once again, you pick who you are.  Or: you picked who you are, how you behave, whether you know this or not. So now ask: why did you pick this person, this identity?  And what is preventing you from changing any or all of it?