May 20, 2016
(Yes, this post is about anime, so stick with me.)
May I introduce B.F. Skinner? He did critical work in understanding conditioning. Everyone has heard of Pavlov's Dogs, but that had to do with low level neural circuits and its practical application is extremely limited.
Not so Skinner's work. He was studying processes which happen at the highest levels of the brain. It's known as "operant conditioning" and it's extremely powerful. It has to do with reinforcement: the person who is training you is trying to achieve certain results, and he uses rewards to make you comply.
It's more complex than that, however. How does the operator get across what he wants the subject to do? You start by rewarding behavior which is close to what you want, and get more and more specific as time goes on.
You want the pigeon to peck the keyboard of a toy piano. So the first thing you do is to starve the pigeon so it's voraciously hungry. The pigeon wanders close to the piano, and you dump some food in a hopper which the pigeon immediately eats. But it wants more, so it wanders back to the piano and when it gets a lot closer, you reward it with more food. It goes like that; eventually you reward it when it puts its head near the keyboard, and you reward it for pecking the keyboard, and so on.
Quite complex behaviors can be induced this way. And they can be reinforced really very strongly. He also studied "schedules of reinforcement" and came up with some surprising results. "Continuous reinforcement" is what you use when first teaching the desired behavior but it isn't very effective at maintaining it.
The most effective schedule of reinforcement is to reward randomly, with varying amounts of reward. Small rewards more commonly, and bigger rewards more rarely. If the reward schedule is consistent, the subject knows each time whether there will be a reward. But if the schedule is random, then he thinks, "Well, maybe this time it'll hit."
Skinner's work was anticipated by tinkerers a hundred years before him, when they invented the slot machine. It turns out to be a nearly perfect device for teaching people to stick coins in the machine.
So what has this got to do with anime? Wonderduck asks, "Why are we watching?" when really excellent shows come around so rarely and unexpectedly?
The answer is that we've been conditioned. Smaller rewards more often (shows which are good but not great) and an occasional masterpiece without warning -- isn't that exactly like a slot machine?
Which makes us think, "Well, one more try; maybe this one will turn out to hit the jackpot!"
Enclose all spoilers in spoiler tags:
[spoiler]your spoiler here[/spoiler]
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Also, I hate unsolicited suggestions and advice. (Even when you think you're being funny.)
At Chizumatic, we take pride in being incomplete, incorrect, inconsistent, and unfair. We do all of them deliberately.
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