In July 2008, Brian Thomas, a retired steelworker from South Wales, called the authorities to report an emergency, and to report a crime:
“What have I done? I’ve been trying to wake her. I think I’ve killed my wife. Oh, my God. I thought someone had broken in. I was fighting with those boys, but it was Christine. I must have been dreaming or something. What have I done?…“¹
The police arrived minutes later and found Brian Thomas crying next to his camper van, which he and his wife had rented earlier for their west-coast vacation.
He explained that the previous night, he and his beloved wife were sleeping when he woke up to the picture of a man in jeans and a black fleece lying on top of his wife.
He screamed his lungs out and grabbed the intruder by the throat to throw him off his wife.
The harder the intruder struggled; the harder Brian squeezed.
The intruder fought back with all they had, scratched him, kicked him, screamed at him, but Thomas choked harder and harder until they stopped moving.
At that moment, Thomas came back to his senses and realised his hands were not around the neck of an intruder; it was the neck of his wife that he was holding in his hands.
In horror, he immediately let go of her fragile body, trying to wake her gently, repeatedly asking her if she was all right.
She would never move again. Brian Thomas realised that he had killed his wife with his own hands.
At first, the police were sceptical, and it all sounded like cold-blooded murder. However, friends and relatives told the authorities that they were a loving couple.
Thomas spent the next ten months in prison, waiting for his murder trial.
It later turned out that Thomas had a long history of sleepwalking; as a child, Thomas would wake up, get out of bed, and play with toys, and when he was older, he cooked himself dinners.
Sometimes, he would even get out of the house in the middle of the night and wander around his neighbour’s yard.
His mother described his behaviour as automatic and habitual.
One time, he even swam in a canal without waking up. Once married, his wife became weary, and she would regularly lock the door and sleep with the keys under her pillow.
At a certain point, the two of them agreed that Thomas needed his own bed so that his wife could sleep in peace while Thomas had his nightly adventures.
Brian Thomas is not a unique case; his form of sleepwalking is called night terrors.
Experts assume that about 2% of the population in the UK suffers from this condition.
Sleepwalking is a scary but also powerful example that habits are very real.
In the course of Brian Thomas’s trial, sleep expert Chris Idzikowski was called as a witness.
Dr Idzikowski was allowed to monitor Thomas’ sleep behaviour in prison.
After measuring his breathing rhythm, brain waves, eye movements, and limb movements, it was clear that Brian Thomas was indeed a sleepwalker, and he was acquitted because he was acting out of automatism.
The fact that some habits are so deeply burned into the anatomy of our brain that we act them out even if we sleep, opens up an important question about whether or not free will actually exist.
In the last few years, our understanding of behaviour and cognitive psychology has grown exponentially, and it has revealed significant problems with the world that we live in today.
In the face of new neurological discoveries, we have collectively agreed, as a society, that some habits are so powerful that they have the strength to overwrite our logical thinking and draw us into horrible decisions that we, under normal circumstances, would never make.
In the case of Brian Thomas, it seems apparent that he is not responsible for his behaviour… but what about other behavioural hijackings of the brain, such as alcoholism, gambling, social media compulsion, substance abuse, or avoidant depressive patterns?
One question arises:
Do We Choose Our Habits?
At first glance, this might seem like a no-brainer, yes, of course, we do; otherwise, people would not be responsible for their behaviour, right?
Well, it is complicated, let me tell you another more personal story…
1992 was a challenging year for my father. He was let go of his job, diagnosed with diabetes, and the marriage that he had with my mother ended in an extremely dirty way.
Over the course of a year, he had lost his health, his job, and his family.
Studies have shown that just one of those big guns is enough to take a man out.
To cope with the suffering of his existence, he visited a local gambling hall, and he became extremely unlucky: The first time he went gambling, he won big time.
Although divorced, my dad still had a room in our little two-bedroom apartment. After playing all night in the casino, he would come home with pockets full of cash, about 1700 Mark (the German currency at that time).
For us, this was a fortune. My dad immediately went downstairs to pay the landlord the late rent, took us all to dinner, and replaced our old broken fridge with a new one.
I still remember that fridge vividly, it had an ice cube dispenser, we loved it.
Since he could not tell us where the money came from, he lied and said to us that his business had a new customer.
Since my dad was only away during the nights, nobody was suspicious.
For a brief period, my father reconquered the role of the provider, a role that was very important to him.
Unfortunately, the episode was short-lived, and a couple of months later, my dad became addicted to the degree by which he started to gamble with money that was not his. From that point on, things began to spiral down fast.
It all came crashing down when on a particular morning, the light switch in our apartment would not work anymore because the electricity bills were not paid.
By 1993, my dad was going to the casino every day.
Where, before, we were a family with little resources, we now found ourselves in a full-fletched financial crisis.
How did something that started as a coping ritual mutate into a fully-fletched gambling addiction?
One night, I was worried because my dad was not sleeping on the couch as usual, and so I went out to look for him.
We had a local billiard pub where he would often take me to play, and I knew he liked to smoke cigars there so this was the first place I went.
Across the street of that pub was a gambling hall, and on that day, the door was slightly open, and I saw my dad sitting in front of a shining slot machine.
He was just sitting there, numb, detached from the world, pushing buttons that had flashy lights.
The image confused me to no end.
I did not understand how my strong father could stuff our last $10 bill into this noisy box, knowing that we did not have food at home.
I did not know much about behaviour psychology back then. However, I realised that this box contributed, in some strange manner, to my father becoming a zombie.
Up until to that point, I viewed addicts as weak people who did not have enough will power and failed because of it.
I felt as if this hypothesis had to be wrong; my dad was many things, but he was not a person who had a weak mind.
My dad is a former commando, who worked 18 hours a day for the majority of his life, so I would not think of him as a person who did not have the mental fortitude to say no to something, something was up…
About ten years later, I found a puzzle piece that helped me to understand the behavioural pathology of my dad’s gambling compulsion…
Pavlov’s Dogs – The Power Of Classical Conditioning
During the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physician, studied the secretory activity of the digestion.
Pavlov first performed a small operation on the dogs to relocate their salivary glands to the outside of their cheeks, where the drops of saliva could be measured.
The dogs, who were deprived of food, were then put into an apparatus that you are going to see in the video below.
After some time, hearing the bell alone, even without seeing the meat was enough for the dog to salivate.
Periodically, Pavlov rang a bell, followed shortly by the meat being placed in front of the dog’s hungry mouth.
Everybody knows that when dogs see a delicious piece of meat, they produce saliva.
But the ringing of the bell by itself did not.
The dog’s salvation to meat was an unconditioned reflex. It is in-born; they did not have to learn this behaviour.
After some time, hearing the bell alone, even without seeing the meat was enough for the dog to salivate.
This phenomenon is known as Pavlovian conditioning or classical conditioning.
In 1904, Pavlov received the Nobel Prize for physiology for his work on digestive secretions.
Can Pigeons Read? – Reinforcement Schedules
Forty-four years later in 1948, Professor Skinner from Harvard University conducted an experiment that would change our understanding of behaviour forever: The Skinner Box, which was also known as the Operant Conditioning Chamber.
Skinner would put rats or pigeons, who were starved down to 75% of their capacity, into a box that contained one button which the animal could press. If they did so, an automatic food dispenser in the box would drop a little bit of food.
Once the animal hit the lever by accident, they were rewarded with food. The rats quickly learned that the consequence of pushing the lever would result in food.
This learning phenomenon is called positive reinforcement, and Skinner used it to teach his animals all sorts of shenanigans (He even taught his pigeons to operate a rocket launching system).
What do rats and pigeons have to do with anything?
Think of a routine that you want to form right now that is not sticking yet; let us say going to the gym.
Now, imagine that someone was to give you $1,000 every time you went lifting weights. Do you not think that this external reward is going to help you to form a habit rather quickly?
Of course, it would, and knowing that – you now understand one of the major principles of Behaviour Architecture, which is:
Behaviour that is reinforced will be repeated.
Skinner’s Box showed that with a stimulus (light) and a positive consequence, you could make almost any behaviour stick, or in simpler words – add pleasure to a neutral behaviour, and it has the potential to become a habit.
Skinner could get his animals to do almost anything; he even trained pigeons to read to some extent.
But this is only one half of the coin, what about the ultimate antagonist of pleasure — Pain?
To test the effects of pain on behaviour formation, Skinner equipped his box with a metal floor, which was capable of delivering electroshocks to the animals.
Imagine you are somebody who likes going to the gym, now imagine that every time you want to go to the gym, somebody waits for you and kicks you in the balls/ovaries, what would happen to your gym routine?
Right, it would cease to exist!
The second lesson of Behaviour Architecture is, therefore:
Behaviour that is punished will be suppressed.
We have all had an experience like that, where something that we formerly associated with pleasure was transformed into a punishment overnight…
Maybe you had food poisoning, and you cannot eat certain foods anymore, or you had the worst hangover of your life, and just the smell of Tequila gives you nightmares… (that is me right there).
The harder the punishment, the more likely it is that the behavioural framework gets obliterated out of existence. So, if you want to decrease a habit, the quickest (and most painful way) is it to add a strong negative consequence to your undesired behaviour.
Little Albert – The Power Of Punishment
To give you a visual example of how our mind works, let us look at the curious case of little Albert, arguably the cruellest experiment in the history of behavioural psychology.
In the year 1920, John Watson, along with his future wife, Rosalind Rayner, deliberately attempted to instil certain phobias into a young baby.
Watson assumed that fear was learnable.
The experiments began by placing ‘little Albert’ on a mattress and encouraging him to play with neutral objects (such as cotton wool or a white bunny rabbit).
The experimenter would then hit a metal bar with a hammer every time the baby touched the play object.
Little Albert showed stress and started to cry and attempted to crawl away at the sudden loud noise.
Very quickly, anything white and fluffy would put fear into the heart of little Albert, even if Watson did not slam the hammer on the metal.
This proved that phobias could be instilled with conditioning.
Watson had planned to remove Albert’s phobias but reportedly did not have time to do so. (Like Skinner and Pavlov, Watson was also an asshole).
Skinner, however, assumed that we do not forget behaviour, we just suppress it.
So, it is entirely possible that Little Albert had this form of trauma stored in his brain for life…
Slot Machines: Addiction By Design?
Our brain is continually trying to guide us away from fear, and towards pleasure, and we must take control of this process because otherwise, it will take control of us.
Read that sentence again, please.
But what have some starving rats, hungry dogs, and fat babies got to do with my father and slot machines?
Skinner discovered something very interesting:
The most potent way of conditioning is NOT always to reward the subject, but only sometimes.
When the ratio of reinforcement was randomised, the rats went nuts. They pushed the lever over and over again like maniacs.
I think you see where this is going…
My father was not sitting in front of a slot machine, my father was sitting in front of a Skinner Box, and he was the fucking rat doing what the box asked him to do.
Everyone knows rationally that when you play a slot machine, the odds are stacked against you; all machines are designed to pay out less than they take it in, yet my dad’s reasoning was overwritten.
My dad and the starved down rats in Skinners Box were not so different either; both had their human needs unmet.
The slot machine sold my old man the dream of always being one pull away from solving all of his fucking problems and getting his life back together.
Another factor that made gambling so compelling for my father was that he was in a significant life crisis; meaning that every time he played, he was on a little holiday from all of his problems. One of the commonalities of all addictions is that the addicts are stuck in lives that are too painful to bear for the user.
Skinner called this negative punishment; taking the pain away is just as motivating as it is to add pleasure.
Below, you will find all forms of conditioning:
But gambling is even more complex…
Every time my dad put his last dollar into a slot machine, he was not only buying a ticket to numbing himself, but he was also buying hope.
Having a 0.1% chance at winning a million dollars feels a hell of a lot better than having a 0% chance, right?
Next time you pass a casino, take a good look at a slot machine. The colourful lights, the music, the celebrations of people who win, but what you actually are seeing is the shameless exploitation of a bug in our mental software.
A bug we all have. A bug to which the weakest members of our society are particularly vulnerable too because they do not have anything to combat the pathological promise of a better future.
Slot machines and Skinner Boxes prove that devices are capable of teaching starved animals (and depressed humans) new behaviours.
We, as a society, have become too good at pushing our own buttons. Alcohol addiction, compulsive gambling, smartphone addiction, and excessive shopping are all phenomena that can be explained with the two basic rules of Behaviour Architecture, do not forget them:
1. We repeat what is rewarded.
2. We avoid what is punished.
Moral Of This Article
Knowing that we are susceptible to external behavioural control does not make us immune against habit-forming technologies, but acknowledging our own vulnerability empowers us to act and always to investigate our behaviour for potential pathological patterns that are corrupting our well-being.
One habit can ruin your life and the life of your loved ones, so, if you are going to suffer in the future (and believe me you will) make sure that you bear your burden wisely and remember:
The quality of your life comes down to the quality of your coping habits.
I sometimes wonder how very different my upbringing would have been if somebody had taught my dad anatomy behaviour so that he could have protected himself better against himself.
It is too late for my old man, but it is not too late for you.
Thank you for reading.
I have added some homework to the end of this article. Working on those exercises will help you to align your behaviour with your current goals.