Chicken Man

This is a story about the power of positive reinforcement. I no longer remember who told me the story — possibly it was my friend Aishala, whose brother knew the participants. In any event, it has the ring of truth.

Two young men, freshmen or sophomores in college, were taking a psychology class in which the instructor emphasized the importance of positive reinforcement. (Possibly he was discussing Pavlov’s dogs.) The two young men lived in a dorm. Another young man in their dorm had an odd habit: Occasionally he would flap his elbows and say, “Awk-pawk-pawk — Chicken Man!”

The two psychology students decided to perform an experiment. It was a secret experiment, of course — they didn’t tell the subject that he was being experimented on. First they counted the number of times per day that their friend flapped his elbows and said, “Awk-pawk-pawk — Chicken Man!” Then, having established a base line, they started giving him positive reinforcement. Every time he did his little routine, they would smile at him, applaud, or even laugh appreciatively.

Sure enough, the frequency of the behavior increased dramatically. Within a couple of weeks, the poor fellow (who had no clue that he was the subject of an undergraduate experiment) was up on the roof of the dorm in the middle of the night, flapping his elbows energetically and crying, “Awk-pawk-pawk — Chicken Man!” at the top of his lungs.

The conspirators then reversed the experiment. Whenever their friend exhibited the behavior, they would stare at him silently, or turn away without reacting at all. Within days, the frequency of “Awk-pawk-pawk — Chicken Man!” had dropped to zero.

I got to thinking about Chicken Man recently because I’ve been searching for sources of positive reinforcement in my life. There are behaviors whose frequency I would like to increase. Specifically, I’d like to be composing and recording a lot more music in my home studio. But finding a way to get regular, reliable reinforcement for this activity turns out to be surprisingly difficult.

I live alone, and have for most of my adult life. So I don’t have a spouse to wander into the studio, smile and nod appreciatively, and wander out again. (Not that spouses are always reliable as sources of positive reinforcement, but that’s a different topic altogether.) I have to turn to outside sources — what we sometimes refer to as “the real world.”

In the real world, there’s way too much music and not nearly enough listeners. The competition for earlobes is unremitting. I’m not opposed to the idea of putting my music out there (on YouTube, MySpace, and various forums, or even in live venues) and competing for listeners, because I think my stuff is pretty decent. I don’t even insist on getting paid. But ramping up to engage in that type of activity is a huge job in itself. I would need to receive some positive reinforcement during the ramping-up phase — and I don’t have it.

Then, once you’re putting your music out there, it takes a long, long time and lots of sustained effort before you start to see positive returns. It doesn’t happen in a few weeks. I would need to be getting some regular positive reinforcement during the period of time (which might last months or years) during which I wait for positive reinforcement to arrive.

My tongue-in-cheek name for this condition is Affection Deficit Disorder. It’s real. It’s a problem. I have no solutions.

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