Conditioned Behavior



TIME:   5:38 am (CST)


I had my hand on the phone, poised to mash those little buttons that I knew by rote.  But I didn’t.   I was battling two entities within.  The old, needy Laurie was resurfacing and that’s what motivated my reach; what fueled my obsession that morning.   But it was the new Laurie who ultimately stopped my nimble fingers from punching the ten digit number that would quell so many fears, but create new ones at the same time.

He’s there and picked up the phone.   Joy.

But he doesn’t sound happy to be talking to me.   Doubt.

And the two cancel each other out. And in the end, you end up with nothing.  

Thank God the New Laurie isn’t going to take that.   I mean, I’m not…..right???

I taught myself how to behave; how to respond.  Damn my infernal ability to self teach!!!!!

I drove back to Houston deep in thought. I don’t remember most of  the drive. I passed by a million random farmhouses and anonymous pasture land. I drove through nondescript towns and when I finally got to Houston, I looked down at the dashboard and realized I had been in a vacuum for the past several hours.  I had just logged well over 200 miles of abject nothingness.  All I had was my odometer to prove that I had been anywhere at all.

I walked in my house, dropped my purse and luggage in the living room floor and kept walking. I went straight to my computer and sat down. I had no idea what I was looking for or what I was hoping to find. Sometimes, I need to believe that answers appear out of nowhere when we really need them.  Well, that and  maybe my Life’s Instruction booklet will finally manifest and show me something of merit.   Maybe enlightenment will come in the form of some anonymous e-mail attachment.

I sat at my computer and went straight to email.  After opening up six missives from some Nigerian lawyer needing the PIN number to my account at the First National Bank of Chad, a feduciary institution of whch I’m decidedly NOT a customer; eight emails about some nasty old cartoon character named Maxine; five asking me if I can see water flowing in a painting by Winslow Homer and three warning me about some new virus or worm thing that if I open it or feed it bread or something, it will give my computer the hi-tech equivalent of human Chlamydia, I decided that email would not be the source of inspiration that I so desperately needed.

I then started Googling things and read whatever popped up.  Lo and behold, I actually found a little gem that struck a chord with me.  And on that day,  I needed something with which to connect.

This woman had written that the circus was in her town and she was driving by and saw several elephants in a parking lot. She noticed that these huge creatures were still and for the most part docile.  All they had keeping them “in line” was an industrial width rope that was haphazardly looped around their feet. There they were, these four huge beasts just standing there tethered together.  Roughly five tons of pachyderm. They could’ve broken free easily, but they didn’t.

Curiosity got the best of her, so she parked her car, got out and asked the trainer how in the world this flimsy rope was keeping these elephants from running away. He told her that these elephants had been raised in a circus environment since birth and had been tied together since they were very young. In the first part of their training, the young elephants tried to break free, but the rope was tied securely to their feet and they were too small and not yet strong enough to break free. So, then the rope just became part of their conditioning.


In short (and in the most clinical terms I could find on ye olde Intrawebsphere), it is the following:

  • Linking neutral stimulus with pleasant event/feeling –> positive preference
  • Linking neutral stimulus with upsetting event/feeling –> aversion or bias
  • I know a little bit about conditioning.   I am going through a varied form of it now.   Additionally, I have decided at this ripe old age that I currently find myself enduring, that I live my life in two different ways almost simultaneously.   I suffer with ICPS or Incessant Pavlovian/Capravian  Syndrome, which often strikes at Christmas and oddly enough, at dinner time. 

    For example:  every time I hear a bell ring, I am on one hand, salivating profusely and absolutely JONESIN’  for some kibble.

    I know…odd, right?

    Then at the same time, a the sound of a bell makes me think that somehow, somewhere, an angel is getting his wings!


    Or is it…everytime an angel orders chicken wings, a bell rings???

    I never can remember which axiom is which.

    But the point is, we’re creatures of conditioning.  We exhibit trained responses and it doesn’t take much to make us associate certain sounds or tastes or sensations with positive or negative responses.

    Here’s a prime example from one enterprising Freshman psych student at Bowling Green.

    And then if my mother’s conditioning efforts to  turn me into a quivering heap o’human  flotsam with a touch  of neurosis thrown in for good measure, weren’t bad enough, check out what the Stanford Prison Experiment was all about.

    So, then is it safe to assume that hierarchy allows the inherent evil in man to spew forth? 

    In every scenario, there are good and bad scenarios; good and bad apples found in the same barrel.    We hear about sadistic prison guards; there are the good ones, too.   We’re read stories about kind, compassionate army corporals who feed a starving enemy combatant with a war waging a few miles away.  We hear about evil, angry pimps who rule with an iron fist…and cane,  and hold dominion over their human merchandise, the proverbial whores with the hearts of gold.   Well, the hypothesis deduced in the Stanford study basically stated the apples were good and the barrel was bad.   Good people turned bad because they were given a little bit of power over a powerless few.

    And look what happened.  Conditioning  occurred on both sides of the psychological fence.   Dare I say it even teetered on the evil.    Yes, evil.  It’s in the world, you know.

    From where does it stem?  How does it emerge to prominence?

    • mindlessly making the first strike; acting first
    • dehumanizing others in an attempt to ascend to the top of the hierarchy
    • diffusion of responsibility
    • blind obedience

    But let’s get something straight – understanding evil is not excusing it.  We want and need to understand why people are evil so we can avoid designing and maintaining systems that create and promote it.   We want to build societal models that make it easier  for people to demonstrate heroism.

    Ultimately, in the Stanford Prison Experiment, there was only one “hero”.  It was a woman who repeatedly begged coordinator Zimbrano to stop the experiment.  He didn’t, but he considered her to be his hero for at least trying to stop that madness.  They married  a year later.

    Heroes are different things to different people.  I guess heroism is too.   A few years ago, New Yorker, Wesley Autrey  became known as the “Subway Samaritan” for saving the life of a 20-year-old film student who suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks.   Autrey jumped down and pulled the man to safety.   And this happened in a city that produced socialized apathy that was allegedly in the Kitty Genovese murder case.  Remember that?  A young girl was murdered in her Queens neighborhood and a countless number of people saw and heard the attack , supposedly, did nothing to stop it.   The case soon became known as the definition of apathy. 

    There’s been plenty of speculation that the Genovese murder didn’t exactly go down as the spectator sport the media inferred that it was.  Frankly, I have no doubt that the case was sensationalized…even the The Times needs sell papers,  but it’s still hard to shake that mindset that (especially before 9/11) NYC was comprised of a cold, aloof citizenry that could turn a blind ear and eye to a young woman being stabbed repeatedly in the streets below. 

    But Autrey’s actions drew applause, even from a jaded populace.  When asked why he did it, he replied,  “I did what anyone could do, and what everyone ought to do.”  He was taught (read: conditioned)  by solid parents who taught him right from wrong and instilled in him decent values.

    After the story broke, media attention rapidly spread. By the end of the next day, Autrey received a flood of gifts and phone calls of praise from complete strangers. He received $5,000 cash and $5,000 in scholarships for his daughters; $10,000 from Donald Trump. He was interviewed for several national morning news programs and was invited to be a guest on Letterman and Charlie Rose among others.   He received a trip to Walt Disney World and on Ellen’s Show, he was given a $5,000 Gap gift card, tickets and backstage passes to a Beyoncé concert in New York, season tickets to the New Jersey Nets,  a signed jersey from Jason Kidd, a brand new Jeep Patriot, two years’ of car insurance from Progressive and a one-year free parking pass for use anywhere in NYC. His daughters were given new computers .

    On January 4, 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented Autrey with the Bronze Medallion, the city’s’ highest award for exceptional citizenship and outstanding achievement.  He was also the focus of part of President Bush’s State of The Union Address in which he received a standing ovation.  

    But sadly, warm, fuzzy stories have a shelf life.    A few months later Autrey hired a Hollywood agent….who he eventually sued for breach of contract or some typically tawdry Tinsel Town nonsense.   Autrey went Hollywood and ultimately, Hollywood didn’t want him.  

    Not even a real, by God hero.  

    Yet Jared from Subway is heralded for eating sandwiches and Angelina Jolie is deemed a spectacular mother, even though her only claim to cooking dinner is dispensing week old toaster shakins on paper towels for little Maddox, Zahara, Pillsbury BirdsEye Boyardee, Fort Sumter Jr.,  Electro Magnet Lou,  Liberiana Tankerella TzeTze Anne (nicknamed “Hank”), Stillwell Clovenhoof and the rest of the crazy ass melanin mismatch she calls her family.

    Fame.  Ain’t it a bitch?  


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