I am such a child….

16 May

How hard is it to not kill a kitten?

During some channel surfing last night, probably to miss somebody cutting open someone else, I exposed myself to 5 minutes of Derren Brown. I’m not too familiar with his work and figured he was a sleight of hand illusionist chappie. Well apparently he’s a behavioural psychologist too, though I seriously doubt that the “experiment” I caught last night would have passed BPS scrutiny with its babble-pop debrief. I hope he did a better job of it off camera.

KittenHe took a young woman, showed her a cute little kitten in a box wired to a big red button, told her if she pushed the button the kitten would fry and that all she had to do was not push the button for 5 minutes, not kill the kitten and she would receive a prize of £500. How hard is that? With 1 second to go, and left alone in the room for the final 2 minutes she fried the kitten’s brains (well obviously not, that would have really been unethical, she just thought she had). This was, according to Mr Brown, a demonstration of negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement as I understand it is the removal of an adverse stimulus to increase the future frequency of a behaviour, and having racked my brains I can’t see how this experiment fits into that model. It struck me as a demonstration of the power of suggestion, altogether more complex than basic conditioning and tied up with language and imagination and self-awareness and identity and loads of human stuff behavioural psychologists would tend to negate as confounding variables.

Before leaving her to kill the kitty, he gave her a drink of orange squash when she asked for tea, asked her to draw crayon pictures and put her name at the bottom, encouraged her to remember her childhood toys and something naughty she did when she was young, describe it and remember how excited she had felt at the time. In 180 seconds he regressed her to a child state where breaking the rules, having been repeatedly told not to, is exactly what children do. His last words before he left were “Now remember, do not press the button”.

Whilst watching her completely break-down in 2 minutes and push the button I was utterly convinced that she would not do it. Based on my conviction that no way, no how, I would press the button (and I can’t stand cats) I could not believe that any adult would do this. I was a battle, but she lost it.

If a young woman in her twenties can’t cope with such a simple instruction what a wasting of breath I have been doing for the past 13 years! I have spent a third of my life in confused despair as everything I told my various aged children NOT to do was promptly performed in front of my very eyes as if I were an appreciative audience. I figured they just wanted me to have a stroke.

But that wasn’t the revelation, oh no, I soon wiped the smug well-I-wouldn’t-kill-a-kitten grin off my face when despite all attempts to close my mind to the obvious I recognised this very behaviour in myself. I have spent the last 18 years trying to get back to my pre-baby, pre-wine-having-calories and pre-not-dancing-4-nights-a-week weight and have failed at every single attempt. Do I spend so much time obsessing over what I cannot, should not, indeed WILL NOT eat, that I eat it anyway? Yesiree, no matter how much I try to characterise each new eating regime as healthier, deep down I still quantify it by what I don’t eat rather than what I do eat. I’m not a daft person, I know that positive reinforcement, in the classical sense and neuro-linguistically programmed is altogether more successful in encouraging positive behaviour….. so how do I get my son to stop poking the plasma TV with his drumsticks? eh?


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2 Responses to “I am such a child….”

  1. LindaH May 16, 2008 at 3:39 pm #

    Yep I watched that in horror too last night. Never seen his stuff before but something about it seems too much like a trick. I just can’t quite believe it’s all about negative reinforcement and I’ve never been that convinced by NLP.
    I’m thinking maybe some sort of bolder trickery – like something appeared on the wall that we couldn’t see that told her the kitten would be fine and she’d get an extra £500 if she pushed the button at exactly 0.01? Maybe I’ve watched too many Jonathan Creeks!

  2. MrsW May 16, 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    NLP has always seemed to me to be a fancy way of saying “I am a life coach now give me all your money”. I described this kitten scenario to my 11 year old son this evening, the one most likely to give me a stroke, and he looked at me as if I was stupid, “£500 to NOT kill a kitten? Well DUH Mum”. So whilst he may never keep his feet of the walls or stop running in the hall I can sleep soundly knowing that he isn’t some psychopath who would torture defenceless baby animals – not fluffy ones anyway.

    I bet you’re right and someone told her to push the button… I eat chocolate because I enjoy it… maybe the choices we make are our own – dang! lol

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