More self deception:
Gamblers are difficult to understand.  Of course one can do it on a lark, but there are those who take it seriously, and they have serious misunderstandings.  (Hot to Trot ECONOMIST vol. 411 no.8886 May 10 page 79) What has been found is that gamblers do get “hot.”  A winning streak tends to prolong itself.  This, it is now seen, is because winners try to prolong their winning streak by making less and less risky bets.  On the other hand, losers tend to take the – non rational – attitude that their luck is bound to change, and that they will make up their losses eventually.  Rationally one would expect that not to happen; they ought to return to the steady state of slowly leaking resources that the average better faces.  But in fact it turns out to be worse than that.  They tend to prolong their losing streak.  And this is attributed, on current data, to the fact that they make riskier and riskier bets.  The delusion that their luck must turn leads them further astray.

We are masters at deluding ourselves.  Back in the day when B. F. Skinner, with his ideas about operant conditioning, was world guru on human behavior the basic assumption was that behavior that resulted in a good outcome was likely to be repeated, while that that resulted in a bad outcome was likely to be avoided.  This obviously flies in the face of the kind of data mentioned in the previous paragraph.  And even at the height of operant conditioning enthusiasm, the “good outcome” idea was abandoned.  Researchers began to use the term “reinforcer” rather than “reward.” 

The iconic experiment, probably illegal now, was to restrain a monkey and place near the monkey a chain than would, if pulled, cause a harmless but irritating electrical shock to be delivered.  But there was a delay before the mechanism was activated.  They showed us the thing in action.  The monkey was not a happy camper, but they got him into the machine and turned on a light that indicated that the game was on.  For a while the monkey sat quietly.  But eventually it reached over and gave the chain a tug.  After a bit there was another tug.  Eventually the monkey was pulling on the chain as rapidly is it could.  Then the latent period expired.  The next tug caused the shock and the monkey’s expression of unhappiness was extreme.

I was a little skeptical, and asked just what would happen if the monkey sat tight and never touched the chain.  The answer was that eventually the shock would be given anyway.  So the outcome for the monkey was not totally negative.  At the cost of an earlier shock, the monkey pulling the chain got a degree of control over its own fate.  I could sympathize with that.

In a far less disagreeable embodiment of the operant conditioning phenomenon a bird was placed next a button.  When the light came on, the game was again afoot.  The proposition that the bird faced was that if it pecked the button it got a bit of grain.  But again there was a delay.  Then the bird would start pecking faster and faster until the time was up and it got its treat. 

When, and this was not demonstrated, a human was given the same choice, there was a difference.  To begin with, the human learned as the bird did.  There was a longer delay before he or she started working the button.  There were many fewer wasted button mashings.  But the general pattern was about the same.  Then eventually the time would come when the human figured out the game.  Then he or she simply waited until the time was accomplished and got a reward after one and only one stroke.

(There was an unrelated demonstration that has haunted me ever since.  A bird was shown a light.  This time the signal meant that it would take say a hundred key strokes to get the grain.  The bird made a long delay, eventually took a peck, paused, took a couple more and then plunged into pecking away like a thing gone mad until the counts were sufficient.  This I find in myself.  If the task will be long I make long delay, but once started I continue doggedly through to the end.) 

The relevant question regards the human who has leaned just enough to be able to respond like the trained bird but has not yet figured the game out.  When quizzed, he would invent some sort of explanation, like there was a certain sequence that he had to get right.  Different people came up with different explanations for the same behavior.

And of course they were all deluding themselves.

So when I say the fertility is due to kinship patterns and nothing else, others of course say, “On no.  It’s choice.  Who can afford children?”  And I say, “Exactly the ones who are not having them.”  There is then a verbal disconnect.  The next time the issue arises the person has learned nothing. 

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