Is the kind of thing that makes me very uncomfortable about my subjection to gravity. I want no contact with any surface where this guy could be.

My question is: why?

It can’t be the bite – dogs and cats have bigger jaws. And it can’t really be the venom, because my cleaning cupboard stocks potentially lethal chemicals that would have a similar effect. Also – there are venomous insects and jellyfish that don’t cause nearly the same levels of revulsion. The legs, maybe? But I quite like lobsters – and those have 10.

It’s all seemingly irrational and deep-seated in the psyche.

So we’re reduced to the nature-nurture argument.

The Nature Argument

To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper: my fear of spiders is both prudent and evolutionary.

In which case, evolution clearly wants me dead. Because it would also be prudent and evolutionary to hold snakes in the same regard. Only I’m alright with snakes. Even though the rest of my family mostly isn’t – so unless the genes skipped a generation…

Which Leaves Us With Pavlov’s Dog

So sure, a dog might be trained to salivate when a bell is rung. But does it apply to humans?

Meet Albert

It seems that the 1920s did not have an ethical problem with applying classical conditioning techniques to babies. In what has to be one of the most outrageous studies ever undertaken in the field of psychology, John Watson and Rosalie Rayner set out to condition phobias into an emotionally stable child. That child’s name was Albert, the son of an employee at Johns Hopkins University where the experiment was being conducted.

The experiment went something like this:

  1. Take an 8 month old baby.
  2. Let him play with a dog, a monkey, a rat, and a burning newspaper to see if he reacts badly to these new stimuli.
  3. If he doesn’t react, then he’s emotionally stable (and/or an evolutionary failure – but let’s not confuse the issue).
  4. Place a mattress in the centre of a room, and suspend a steel bar behind it for later ringing.
  5. Place the baby on the mattress and let him play with the white rat.
  6. Every time he touches the rat, strike the steel bar with a hammer until he cries.
  7. Repeat as necessary.
  8. After some time, stop striking the bar, and just introduce the rat into the vicinity.
  9. If the baby tries to flee in terror: conditioning accomplished.

It worked.

A little too well, in fact – because the fear response also occurred when other furry objects that were brought near him; including a dog, a seal-skin coat, and Watson dressed as a white-bearded Santa Claus.

And then the child went home.

It seems that the 1920s was also not afraid to leave emotional scars.

Back To The Present

I think that we intuitively tend to self-condition. When we offer ourselves a little reward or treat for doing something that we really don’t like doing – then we eventually start to get that good feeling from doing the stuff that we dislike. At least – that’s the hope. And it does happen occasionally.

But that’s not really where I see the conditioning used to its fullest impact. It’s in the workplace, and it’s in the supervisor-subordinate relationship.

Supervisors/management have a few styles from which to operate:

The Guy From The Office – Who is generally useless. And annoying.

The Miranda Priestly – Who is a bitch. But, at least, consistently.

The Borderline Personality Disorder – Who shouts and screams, then feels guilt and remorse, then gets slavishly complimentary.

The Doctor Phil – Who thinks it’s important to talk everything through. And exercise compassion. And then occasionally feels the need to step up and take a firm stand, at which point, everyone is surprised.

The Friend – Manipulates through social favours and generally blurs the line between paid service and emotional obligation.

The Harsh-But-Fair – who shouts in a carefully-controlled manner in consistent reaction to specific circumstances. An employee always knows, well, exactly where they stand.

If you’re The Guy From The Office, then you’re conditioning your employees to ignore you and treat you with disdain. Even when your suggestions are reasonable, the disdain is conditioned.

If you’re any of the next four, then you’ve conditioned fear. Because either your employees are confused, or they’re terrified – none of which result in clear-thinking behaviours.

But as for the last – it requires a great deal of emotional consistency. However, at least one’s subordinates are conditioned for something other than fear. Not quite sure what it is, but it seems more healthy.

Just an observation.