Conditioning makes the customer the key stimulus for predatory behavior
The effect of key stimuli is very mechanistic, but depends on the animal’s current “predisposition”. If it is very hungry, then it reacts less strongly then usual to other key stimuli that signalize danger or a distressed member of the pack, for example. It would be hard to argue that the situation is any different in humans.
As noted earlier, animals capable of learning can “improve” on the key stimuli that set their drive-related behavior in motion. The responsible mechanism in the brain – known in ethology as the IRM – can be so strongly altered by positive or negative experiences that the brain considers new factors before triggering the reaction24. Humans exhibit a very highly differentiated system of key stimuli that are broadly innate and then variously altered through upbringing, experience, morals and moods. A series of highly refined, expanded key stimuli are at work inducing us to order a particular meal – whether it be a grilled trout, a roast chicken or a cream pie – at that particular time or place. Together with other factors such as price and dining partners, they help determine our objectives, our will. The same holds true when a girl falls in love with a particular boy, or vice versa: regardless of how complex the stimulus combination may be that awakens our drives and seeks to dominate us, our brains, not our hearts, house the complex network of ganglia that exert ultimate control. This network nonchalantly overrides our “free will” and goads us into making decisions that we later often look back on with incredulity. If a large object rapidly approaches us and we step aside in fright, then this does not involve reflection. Rather, instinctive commands from our evolutionary past prompt us to take the evasive action. A whole range of drives continues to exert its influence on us, just as it does on our relatives among the higher animals: the drive for food, the drive to protect ourselves or to find a sexual partner. Certain key stimuli, which can be highly modified, continue to trigger our decisions. Many of our actions are still driven by deeper decision-making levels that are inaccessible to conscious reason and that are often at odds with our insight and intelligence (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: Components that determine human will. The innate drives
all have different meanings and complexities. The comparison between the
drive for food and for sleep is a perfect example. Additional key drives
include those governing sex, security, brooding, curiosity, and communality.
Acquired drives (“urges”, “motivations”) are a product of upbringing, habits,
religion, and ideology. Moreover, every stronger desire, like the innate
drives, is characterized by special “appetitive behavior” and is terminated
by a “consummatory” or “end” act. Our strongest acquired drive is that
for money (see Fig. 9). In formulating our will, we must deal with these
forces with reasonable planning and with “insight”. Modified after H. Hass
1978. See also Remark 10.
(Willensbildung...forming will, Erworbene Triebe...acquired drives, Einsicht...insight, Angeborene Triebe...innate drives)
Within this highly complex mechanism, which is the domain of psychology, an additional phenomenon – conditioning – triggers actions. Conditioning does more than merely alter and improve key stimuli (characterizing relevant environmental conditions), but actually incorporates new, completely neutral stimuli. Stimuli that often preceded the satisfaction of a drive take on a “power” equal to that of the original key stimulus; they become “associated” with that stimulus and are then equally capable of setting the basic components of a particular drive or appetitive behavior into motion. The Russian physiologist I. Pavlov, who received the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his investigations on digestive processes in animals, discovered this rather serendipitously as a side effect of his studies.
He studied salivation in dogs, a process which begins when they are hungry and detect food. In Pavlov’s experiments the dogs were immobilized in a restraining frame so that their saliva production could be accurately measured when food was offered. For some reason, the experiment had always been initiated by ringing a bell, and the researchers soon recognized that the sound of the bell alone was sufficient to activate saliva flow, even when no piece of meat was dangled before the dogs’ mouth. An entirely new stimulus, one which had nothing to do with feeding itself (the sound of the bell), had become the key stimulus and set off precisely the same reaction as the innate trigger25.
Pavlov’s subsequent experiments, like those of later researchers, showed that virtually any stimulus – if regularly preceding a behavior that successfully satisfied the drive – had the same effect as the innate key stimulus.
This process is highly functional. If an animal learns to recognize prey, a predator, or an approaching sexual partner based on supplementary sensory input registered prior to the actual key stimulus, then this new stimulus becomes so firmly engrained in the sensory apparatus that it also activates the drive behavior. The term “association” has been coined to describe how a new perception is coupled with the nervous system.
The story becomes a bit simpler when we realize that this phenomenon was well known far before Pavlov. It was self-evident long before it ignited scientific investigation. When a farmer’s wife enters the yard with a feeding bowl and calls “cheep cheep” before strewing the feed, the chickens quickly grasp the connection: they react to the sight of the farmer’s wife opening the gate with the bowl in her hands just as they would to seeing actual grains of food on the ground. The new, entirely neutral “cheep cheep” stimulus even prompts chickens that have already eaten their fill – and that are either following the events in the garden from afar or have gone to roost – to bolt toward the farmer’s wife, ready to enter the competitive fray. The reaction is the same even if she absentmindedly forgets to put feed in the bowl. This fully parallels salivation in Pavlov’s dogs, who responded to the bell without actually being offered food26.
Astoundingly, an analogous “association” has had veritably tragic consequences for humans over the last 10,000 years. A conditioning process has hindered every affected person from applying his/her ability and resources as effectively and successfully as possible in business life. The connection between their unfortunate situation and that of Pavlov’s dogs or the farmer’s wife requires a more detailed explanation.
What happened once humans settled down and began to specialize in producing required goods or in providing required services?
Obtaining food (basic “energy gain”) became a very indirect process. Instead of hunting game or planting vegetables, the shoemaker obtained his meat and veggies by producing shoes. This apparent banality is anything but. The shoemaker cobbles his shoes, sells them, earns a certain amount of money in a transaction, and uses this money – in a 2nd transaction – to buy food. Two entirely independent processes become coupled: making shoes is totally unrelated to procuring food. Each task is fundamentally different and the respective tools have nothing in common. Nonetheless, this person obtains food by making shoes. Indirectly. This two-tiered exchange simplifies putting food on the table: the focus has switched to selling the shoes and making a financial profit. Making and saving money is the new maxim. This completely new form of energy gain can only function when two preconditions are fulfilled. The first is a demand for a particular service. The second is a customer willing to pay enough money to make it worth the effort and to guarantee that money is put into the bank.
This new phenomenon at the threshold from hunting-and-gathering to transactional strategies found mention in my Energon theory27, but at the time the full implications had not yet been elaborated. Namely, every new energy gain was preceded by an encounter with a potential customer. This customer had become the main problem, making him/her the new key stimulus, no different than the bell for Pavlov’s dogs, the “cheep cheep” call for the farmer’s chickens, or simply entering the garden with a feed bowl. In this new line of business the appearance of a potential customer automatically triggered the innate controls for predatory behavior, which, as detailed in the last chapter, is by no means optimal for the new transactional strategy.
Rather than obtaining food, the new task was to fulfill the wishes and desires of others. “Conditioning” therefore turned the interested party (the customer or the employer) into the de facto prey. The objective was to snatch more money from that prey than the effort expended. Once this phase was completed, the second phase (exchanging money for food) was almost an afterthought. Because humans lacked innate strategies for earning money, the drive for food along with all its innate controls (which had been continuously refined over a billion years) automatically filled the breach. Much like human intelligence supported our ancestors’ instinct-driven predatory activities, our predatory instincts colluded with our human intelligence to put food on the table using the new strategy. In this case, however, the collaboration was less harmonious. While our intellect adapted to the demands of our innate hunting instincts and continuously improved the process, the advice our hunting instincts offer in business transactions prove to be of limited value at best. More often than not, this advice is antiquated, useless, and obsolete. Even worse, it tends to be obstructive, damaging, and reduces both opportunities and efficiency.
Herein lies the tragedy that prompted me to write this book. When people apply predatory methods in the modern business world, they are neither “evil” nor “bad”, merely bunglers. These people are insufficiently informed about our inner workings. While our intellect may tell us that something is terribly amiss here, our inner voice, with which we identify and which we perceive as an essential component of our “self”, leads us astray. Our innate control mechanisms, obsolete for quite some time now, refuse to be gagged and continue unabatedly to offer entirely antiquated, damaging advice. The result: probably 80% of all working people are “handicapped from within” because they follow that advice. As Konrad Lorenz so aptly put it, our amazing technical advances have put us on the moon, but our “intraspecific behavior” has miserably failed to keep pace. Here, little has changed despite millennia of religious and ideological admonition, despite every conceivable ethical and moral effort, no matter how much this frustrates or baffles us. And underlying it all is the previously unrecognized, chronic conflict that automatically arose when the predator put on a business suit. Much like Pavlov’s dogs became accustomed to the fact that the sounding bell meant food – and began to salivate when the bell rang – we grew accustomed to the fact that customers mean food, triggering our predatory instincts.
First counterargument: If the sight of a customer
really triggered innate predatory instincts, then the “seller” would do
doubt still view that person as food and would attack.– Answer: Pavlov’s
dogs didn’t bite the bell either. Neither did the chickens attempt to eat
the farmer’s wife. In fact, it usually takes a succession of key stimuli
to show the animal the way. For example, sharks are attracted over great
distances by the thrashing of distressed fishes (e.g. those being attacked
by others or hooked by a fisherman). Rather than simply reacting to every
pressure wave spreading out in the water, the sharks react only to those
emitted by distressed fishes (easy prey). If the shark rapidly approaches
the site and the fish is injured, then the smell of blood is an additional
key stimulus that directs it onward (especially at night or in murky water).
Once the prey is in sight the shark begins the predatory act itself, sizing
up every case individually. If the prey is firmly clamped in its jaws and
the shark’s sense of taste indicates poisonous or unpalatable food
(such experiments have been conducted and captured on film), then the shark
will quickly spit it out again. Thus, sharks by no means bite into the
water whenever they register thrashing motions or smell blood. Rather,
each of the attracting stimuli takes the predatory behavior one step further,
promotes the appetitive behavior of predation, and activates the innate
ground rules for useful actions or reactions. Depending on the type of
prey, these can differ considerably, particularly in specialists, although
the basic guidelines remain the same:
a) Show no mercy to your prey and fully utilize each opportunity.
b) Maximize your profit by acting as quickly and precisely as possible while minimizing your own energy expenditure.
c) Keep an eye out for the competition – steal their prey and make sure they don’t steal yours.
d) Watch out for other predators and make sure you don’t end up becoming a meal yourself.
Second counterargument: Accepting that the above
is true, before shoemakers can display their shoes, they must actually
produce them first. They must purchase the leather, know how to use the
appropriate tools, and complete countless tasks before opening their doors
to the customers. All this differs so greatly from predatory feeding that
it is hard to envision how such a learned trade could in any way be influenced
by innate animal instincts. Business is guided by totally different rules
– one simply has nothing to do with the other.–
Answer: This can be refuted by a visit to the circus. The elephants enter the arena in tight formation, each grasping the tail of the preceding animal with its trunk. At the keeper’s signal (or when the background music changes) they stop, let one another go, step onto pedestals arranged in a circle, and rear up on their hind legs after a further signal … or turn about on their own axis … or perform other complicated tricks. All this was achieved through conditioning. The human trainer painstakingly created associations or, in the psychologist’s terms, “conditioned actions”. Every elephant learned that entering the arena after a certain signal meant food. In a next step it learned that in order to receive food it had to enter the arena with a second elephant and hold that elephant’s tail. Failure to do so meant rebuke and certainly no food. The entire complex series of events is thus built up piece by piece. The food reward as the final key stimulus is the ultimate motivation, and an increasing number of actions – signaled by an expanding number of commands (key stimuli) – are “associated” with this feeding activity. Although this “job” comprises a large number of individual actions (operant learning), even the animal brain can be taught to grasp it. When earning money is involved, we can master this much better. Every form of job training teaches us – through instruction, demonstration, and carrot-and-stick techniques – how to earn money by fulfilling some need. During this learning period we are typically fed by our parents or by others. After we have completed our education and mastered some task, we can be released to “earn our own way”. Once the earnings are sufficient to cover the bare necessities (which include paying for clothes and shelter), we can afford “luxuries” or concentrate on starting a family, pursue our dreams and desires, and “lead the good life”. With experience, our abilities grow and we learn to react better to environmental stimuli, i.e. to an ever larger number of key stimuli that guide our activities. Although this is only very indirectly related to acquiring food, that particular drive continues to be the primary motivation. Our customer becomes the focus, much like the trainer is for the circus elephants. The customers ultimately decide how much we can earn and automatically trigger our innate settings for predatory behavior, despite all our learning experience.
Third counterargument: All the above may be valid for the transaction itself. I produce an axe and get food in exchange. I work for the community as a guard and the community feeds me in return. But the business world operates differently. The self-employed, employees, and businesspeople receive money, not food for their services. And they can’t eat money. Putting food on the table is therefore not directly related to work.– Answer: Psychologists and ethologists have conducted countless studies and experiments on humans and animals to better understand learning mechanisms in the brain. These included investigations in which monkeys were required to operate mechanical devices or do other activities to acquire money. They quickly understand that this money can be used to obtain food, for example by throwing it into a vending machine. This research showed that the apes were able to distinguish variously sized or colored coins, recognize their respective values, to hoard, steal, and to fight over money28. The brain of a monkey is therefore principally capable of understanding the underlying interrelationships, even if only under human guidance. At the next level, our self-awareness enabled us to comprehend cause and effect and to create the necessary organizational framework for the new requirements of the business world: first earning money for goods or services, and then spending the money to obtain food. It is very exciting to observe the precise moment in which children begin to grasp these interrelationships and their significance. No matter what our occupation or profession, our customers continue to induce the same drive and the same fundamental mechanisms that prey triggers in predators. Although nothing forces us to submit to these maxims, their influence is omnipresent.
We will deal with other potential counterarguements later, but let it suffice to say that the information provided above on the conditioning process and its consequences is basic knowledge to psychologists and is in full agreement with modern schools of thought. The new aspect here is that such well-known “conditioned reflexes” and “conditioning actions” have taken on such a fateful significance in human evolution. The new insight is that these processes have hamstrung modern humans into being considerably less efficient than they could be. Not because of some diabolic metaphysical power, but because an antiquated instinct is hard at work proffering well-meant but incorrect advice and directing our thoughts (at critical moments) into incorrect, dramatically disadvantageous, and unprofitable directions.
One additional counterargument is worth deflating at this point. It states that, if all this were true and obsolete instinct control mechanisms so seriously hamper us, then why have they not been reduced over the course of evolution? After all, many other no longer required organs in plants and animals have degenerated.
This is no doubt true. Evolution is replete with examples
in which once important organs or behavior patterns lost their significance,
for example due to a shift in diet, climate changes, or dispersal into
a new environment. Such reductions, however, usually took hundreds of thousands,
if not millions, of years. Just like new structures or improvements evolve
gradually because they require corresponding changes in the genetic makeup
(via mutations), the elimination of superfluous, no longer functional elements
requires lengthier timeframes. We know that the superfluous eyes in cave-dwelling
fishes atrophied over millions of years. The fishes that conquered land
350 million years ago lost their gills so slowly that most modern terrestrial
animals – lungfishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (including
humans) – continue to develop gill slits as embryos. These gill slits are
the final remnants of the evolutionary calling card dealt by our marine
ancestors. From this perspective, we cannot expect deeply rooted predatory
mechanisms to even be dented within a mere 10,000 year timeframe. Especially
when there were no pressing need for eliminating them. After all, our business
transactions can be conducted with some success using predatory tactics,
although this is certainly not the optimal solution.
The following chapters will show that we have reached a critical crossroads in our development. Over a period of two million years, our intellect and our instincts were wonderfully matched. Then, with the advent of transactional exchanges, our innate control mechanisms became our worst enemy. Business was pursued with poor, inappropriate strategies, turning us into “semi-predators”29. We became only “half-evolved” for our new line of business, living with one foot in the past by using predatory methods in our daily transactions, to our own detriment and to that of the environment. This led to the conflict in our control mechanisms that I have termed the “psychosplit”, which describes the split into two fundamentally different behavioral strategies.
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