How we are like pigeons and monkeys

I love studies in animal behavior. So much can be learned by seeing how animals behave in certain situations and under certain conditions. What we can infer from these studies about human behavior is very interesting. Take into account two studies:

The first is a study of monkeys placed in a cage with a set of stairs. If any monkey stepped on the top stair the entire floor surface was given an electrical shock (minor, but uncomfortable). The monkeys started to think communally and punish any other monkey who attempted to climb the stairs, even if they did not reach the top. The offending chimp was pulled to the ground and physically punished.  When some of the chimps were replaced, the remaining monkeys were quick to “teach” the new inmates about the repercussions of the top stair. Over time the trigger was then deactivated. Still no one was allowed to reach the top step. When all of the original monkeys were rotated out, the beatings still continued because the remaining monkeys, who had learned the lesson from other monkeys though  never experienced the shock personally, felt compelled to teach the new simians.

The lesson learned is that a culture, once developed, maintains itself. The monkeys were showing us how we blindly follow, as if to say “I don’t know why I am pulling you down and beating you, but this is what we do here.”  Humans, like apes (sorry), tend to be followers. Some call it tradition, but the question is why is it a tradition? I am not a big Christmas person, but as a child my family embraced all that the holiday was about. Why a tree? Why Santa? Who was he? Why lights in the windows?  Why candy canes? Why hanging stockings? Who is St. Nick? Why do we give gifts? How does any of this tie into our family’s belief? (Find some interesting answers here)

The second study is a study of pigeons. Two cages with red and green buttons, the red button doing nothing, but the green button giving a dose of food: one cage had sporadic food payout when the button was hit, the other got food every time they triggered the switch.

The first lesson is tangential to my point, but for clarity sake I will mention it. We saw how the birds learned to ignore the red button because they realized that it had no payout and pecking it was unproductive. They quickly learned that green was the source and red was nothing. Aside from learning that pigeons are NOT colorblind, we see how our behavior, and pigeons, is to move past the red button because it had to value to it. We will peck at anything if we think it will give us our pay out, but if there is no meaning to an activity we will cease to do it.

The more important  finding is when the birds from the “pay every time you peck” cage were placed in the “pay only sometimes” cage they flapped about and pecked wildly at everything including other cage-mates. They could not adapt to having to hit the button a few times before getting seed. Some were so panicked that they refused to eat at all and had to be removed and force-fed to keep them alive. Rather than adapt they would rather die. As I see the application of this experiment, it shows that when an animal is spoiled to the point of developing a mentality of entitlement, they have difficulty adapting to new circumstances that may involve effort, persistence, understanding or patience.

When our little holiday loving children get 10 to 20 gifts from grandparents, aunts/uncles, brothers, parents, friends, classmates and more,  they develop an understanding that the pay out of the holidays is AWESOME!  Our 6-year-old , I counted, is getting about 15 gifts this year, and though I appreciate everyone’s generosity, it becomes my job to figure out a system of developing my kids’ appreciation for each and every gift.  We require that old toys be donated when new toys are received. That was my first step. The second step is to do something for each person who gives them a gift; something from the heart. Maybe it’s getting/making the original giver a present, maybe it’s writing a nice note, or sending a picture, but it will be something to show appreciation.

We all heard or have seen the stories of children who get their holiday haul and play with the box instead of the toy that came in it. That’s because the toy has no value.  I commend parents who allow only a few small gifts for their children each year, this is difficult to do. Everything is so attractive and the ads are so directed at children. My son told me he would be happy with the pound puppy that walks and poops and I had to remind him that we have 2 dogs that oddly enough do the same tricks, without batteries, but the ad still hits it’s target.  We need to teach and moderate our children during this time of year, from gifts, to cookies, to time off of school it is easy for them to take these things for granted and expect more with each entitlement.  The difference between us and pigeons is that we have the ability to teach, adapt and grow. I really don’t want my boys flailing around and pecking at each other because they didn’t get the pooping puppy that they so rightly thought they deserved.



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