CFI Blog

Conditioner for Monkey Brain

“The reward of a thing well done is having done it.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I like wine. When we lived in Virginia and didn’t have something already planned to do, our default choice for a weekend was to go hang out at a winery or two tasting and drinking wines. While the primary motivator of me going to Southern Africa or Chile was seeing friends, the thought of visiting a lot of awesome wineries and sampling their wares certainly nipped on the heels of seeing friends as the leading cause of my visits to those areas.

That doesn’t mean I’m refined enough to be able to greatly appreciate the differences between a $10 wine and a $100 wine. My palette has two speeds: good and not good. The $100 wine is another article for another day.

My Monkey Brain likes wine too. Sometimes this can be a problem, as if I gave in to Monkey Brain, I’d be drinking wine all of the time. I’d look like Bacchus, one of the few deities I wouldn’t want to look like.

I have to make a compromise with Monkey Brain. I only drink wine on days after I’ve worked out. That way, I can have a glass of wine as a reward for working out and I have two days for the wine to work its way out of my system before I have to work out again. Everyone wins.

What I’m using on Monkey Brain to get myself to work out is something called operant conditioning.

When you think of the term conditioning, then the first image that probably comes to mind is of Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the ringing of a dinner bell. That type of conditioning, though, is called classical conditioning. It has to do with involuntary responses. Pavlov trained the dogs through the ringing of the bell to drool. They had no choice in the matter. Bell rings, drool emerges, and no thought intervenes.

Operant conditioning, in comparison, is the conditioning of voluntary actions as opposed to involuntary actions. I can’t make myself drool on command, but I can certainly go to the gym or drink a glass of wine as a result of my own free will.

Operant conditioning was first described by B.F. Skinner. There are three main outcomes for behavior:

  • Reinforcement. This is what happens when you wind up doing something more than you previously did.
  • Punishment. BAD MONKEY BRAIN! NO TOUCH BANANA! In this instance, that’s not what punishment means. It’s actually something which causes you to do an action less than you previously did.
  • Extinction. This is when you never do an action again. An example of an extinction of a behavior is the first time you ever put your hand on a hot stove. I bet you never voluntarily did that again!

There are, according to Skinner, four ways of changing your behavior.

  • Positive reinforcement. This is the one most of us think about when we want to increase a good behavior. We reward it. I’m using positive reinforcement with Monkey Brain by offering bribing him with wine as a reward for working out.
  • Negative reinforcement. This is where we take away something bad when we get a behavior that we want. I always think of the story about the prisoner who bangs his head against the wall. The guard runs over because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for the prisoner banging his head against the wall. The prisoner asks for something and the guard says no. The prisoner declares that he’ll just keep banging his head against the wall. Naturally, the guard gives in, and the prisoner stops banging his head against the wall. Negative reinforcement at work.
  • Positive punishment. This is when we take an action to punish a behavior that we don’t like. When my dog begs, I tell him “NO!” in a very stern voice. He doesn’t like being growled at by the alpha in his pack, so he stops begging.
  • Negative punishment. This is when you remove a desired object or reward to decrease a negative behavior. If you’ve ever taken away a child’s toy because he threw a temper tantrum, then you’ve used negative punishment to try to reduce temper tantrums. If the child was two years old, then you may as well have been banging your head against the wall (see: negative reinforcement).

Now we’re armed with ways to make Monkey Brain behave, or, at least, make him behave a little more in the way that we want him to behave. We can’t just use this knowledge willy nilly, though. There has to be a process. Skinner lays out a four step process for modifying behavior:

  1. State the goal. If you don’t have something that you’re working towards, then you’ll never get anywhere. This goal can be to spend within a budget, save more for retirement, or – my favorite one – earn more money this year.
  2. Monitor the behavior. If you don’t measure what you’re doing, you’ll never know if you make progress. Tim Ferriss tells a story in his book The 4 Hour Body (#aff) about a person who lost weight over time simply because, every day, he logged his weight in a spreadsheet. He lost weight because he monitored it and then took steps to reduce his weight. In personal finance, this could be logging how much over or under your budget you were each month, how much you’re making in your side gig, or tracking, monthly, how much you’ve set aside for retirement.
  3. Reinforcement. I prefer positive reinforcement here, because negative reinforcement seems, to me, to be very stressful, and a general downer in life. Who wants to intentionally introduce something negative just to be able to take it away in the future? No thanks. Have you noticed that some people never seem to be able to stay on a diet? Why not? It’s because getting down to the target weight is a long, hard slog. It’s the same reason some people have trouble getting out of debt. They let debt creep up on them until (apparently) suddenly, it seems to be this huge, insurmountable number. What these people fail to do is reward themselves intermittently. Are you trying to knock out $10,000 in debt? Every time you reduce it by $2,500 reward yourself with a fun night out (not at the expensive restaurant drinking Cristal, mind you, or you’ll be right back where you started). When you give yourself rewards, you give yourself motivation to keep moving forward. No carrot and all stick rarely works to get the donkey to pull the cart.
  4. Reduce incentives for undesirable behavior. If you’ve ever had a night where you drank too much, you’ve felt this in action. The incentive for drinking was that you’d have a good time, be the life of the party, and make yourself much better-looking. However, drinking too much too often will have very negative effects on your health, and there’s nothing like a little cirrhosis to ruin your day and your life. However, there is one very strong incentive reduction mechanism – the hangover. It doesn’t take many hangovers for you to swear that you are never, ever, ever going to do that again. You also monitor your intake (measuring behavior) in the future and drink a lot more water to ensure that you don’t experience the hangover again.

It is possible to train Monkey Brain to help you achieve your financial and your personal goals. Using operant conditioning, understanding ways to change behavior, and implementing a process for adapting your behavior to help you work towards your goals will help you achieve what you want, whether it’s to save more, be more mindful of your spending, lose weight, go to the gym, or have the occasional glass of wine.

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John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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