Classically Conditioned

I wish I had studied more psychology throughout my education. I always managed to use my newly acquired knowledge in delightful ways against my friends.

When I was a high school student, I was fascinated by Pavlov. Pavlov is famous for conducting an experiment with hungry dogs. Noticing that the dogs salivated at the sight of food, Pavlov decided to test whether they would also salivate over something they associated with food. He began ringing a bell just before serving the food each time, so the dogs would connect the bell with eating. After repeating the bell with food multiple times, Pavlov rang the bell without bringing food and found that the dogs did indeed salivate in anticipation anyway. This idea that living subjects could learn to respond to one thing in place of another when trained is called Classical Conditioning.

After learning about classical conditioning, I wanted to enact it. First, I needed a bell. Actually, I had a bell, the school bell, but there was already an immediate response to that in the way of leaving for the next class. The one exception was during fifth period, which contained three lunch shifts. Since my calculus class ate first lunch, later during our class, the bell would ring twice more in the middle to indicate to other students to leave to eat, though it meant nothing to us. Normally, these bells were ignored by us, but what if I

And now I needed a subject... Grace. I chose Grace as my subject for a few reasons: she was good-natured, she sat immediately in front of me during class allowing me easy access, and we weren't so close that she'd call me out on my actions and put the experiment in jeopardy.

The experiment went like this: cach time the bell would ring, I'd whisper Grace's name, prompting her to turn her head and ask, "What?" I'd simply respond, "Hi." Grace would say a dismissive "Hi," back before turning back around to pay attention to class again. My goal was that after a few months of calling her name each time the bell rang, she'd naturally learn to turn her head and greet me when she heard the bell on her own.

When I've explained this story in the past, people question how I could get her to keep saying "Hi" twice a day for three months in the middle of class, but Grace was really just that nice. That's not to say her "Hi"s didn't become increasingly agitated as time wore on, but she was far too nice to not respond at all. The other question friends ask is why Grace didn't ask me why I kept doing that or find the whole thing suspicious in the first place. Well the answer to that is that I had a reputation for being pretty weird. My quick, pointless interactions with her were somewhat strange, for sure, but that in itself was not strange, so apparently she never gave it a second thought as soon as each incident happened. In that manner, my experiment was working ideally.

After more than three months of greeting Grace, I decided it was time to put it to the test. I wasn't sure whether she had been successfully conditioned, but I had managed to condition myself: I was a slave to the bell, reacting immediately to pester Grace whether I felt like it or not. It almost felt wrong to not say anything when it came time to test the experiment, but I had to see the response. It was greatly disheartening to discover that the first time the bell rang without me doing anything, Grace didn't even flinch. No response whatsoever. At the next bell, however, Grace glanced back at me. I was hoping for a "hi," but she didn't say anything, so I had said "Hi" and she responded reciprocally. Still, maybe the turn in my direction was a positive sign? I decided to do my part for the next two weeks to condition her further to see if that would help reinforce her response.

Again, when I stopped doing my part, the results were mixed. Often, Grace would do nothing when the bell rang, but other times she would noticeably tense up or glance in my direction. Finally, one of our mutual friends blew my cover because she didn't think it was right to make Grace the unwitting subject of a psychological experiment. I saw her point, but I didn't think I was being unethical and subjecting her to shock treatment or anything.

Grace was thoroughly surprised by the revelation. I had been concerned that maybe she figured out what I was doing, but she admitted that she had never been conscious of the fact that my interruptions corresponded with the bell. From that point forward, however, even though the experiment was "finished" it continued. Each time the bell would ring, I felt compelled to say Grace's name and Grace felt compelled to turn around - often times she'd beat me to the punch before I said her name. It was stupid, but it was a routine we had practiced for so long that it became really difficult to quit.

Even though I controlled the experiment and wanted to emulate Pavlov, I ended up being the drooling dog.


KirstB said...

at a first read, i was rather confused and wierded out by this, i thought you were doing this experiment as a teacher.
why you were at the back of the classroom, really trying to figure that one out.

Kevin said...

Admittedly this was not one of my better written posts. I got bored with writing it several times and posted it anyway.

I never did "experiments" with my students, though I messed with them in other ways.

And to answer your question, though you might have only asked that because you thought I was the teacher, I was in the middle of the classroom. I think Grace was in the second row. I couldn't sit in the back or I wouldn't be able to see. I didn't confront my need for glasses until last summer... and I'm still not wearing them.