Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool.  His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.

His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
  2. Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
  3. Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.

Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct.  While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.

I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.

That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards.  When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement.  It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.

Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true.  In fact, it seems trivially true.  Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood.  That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.

Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments.  This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea.  If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.

On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.

Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true.  Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.

When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read.  This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.

And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult.  It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working.  What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.

Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.

I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.

I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.

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The Wisdom of Logan


Logan is probably not a film that will be remembered forever by historians as a profound exposition of the human condition with deep philosophical and anthropological implications.

But that’s a good description of it.  What I just wrote is not a spoiler, but much of what follows is in fact, a spoiler for those who have not seen the Wolverine films or read a detailed synopsis of the plot.  So if you’re concerned about spoilers, avert your eyes already.

In the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s revealed that Logan (birth name James Howlett) chose to accept the Weapon X project’s offer to make him indestructible, which they accomplished by bonding adamantium to his skeleton.  He accepted this offer in order to get revenge on the man who killed his lover.

One of the things we learn in Logan, which is loosely based on the Old Man Logan comic series, is that Logan suspects that he knows why his healing factor is starting to fail him.  His theory (a very plausible one) is that the metal bonded to his skeleton is poisoning him from the inside.  Perhaps his famous healing factor is overwhelmed by the task of constantly healing from the huge amount of internal toxins.

This touches on a deeper truth of the human experience, that when we take actions with permanent consequences in the pursuit of vengeance, it generally poisons our lives.  Whether we kill someone, or merely ruin their reputation, or simply hold on to our grudge against another person for a lifetime, we inevitably drink a poison for our hearts, and one that leaves us with a bitter taste for as long we have committed to drinking it.

Whatever the explanation, emotional or medical, Logan is increasingly susceptible to dying.  And, just as in The Wolverine, Logan seems to want to die.  He’s had enough.  His heart is worn out after a couple hundred years of violence and emotional trauma.  And who can blame him for his world-weariness?

I was world-weary and wanting to die after only 20 years, so I certainly can’t cast any stones at Logan for the same desire after over 200 years.

Another spot of wisdom in the film is the protagonist Laura (X-23), who is genetically the daughter of Logan.  Like all daughters, she needs and wants more from him than biological paternity, more even than mere protection from physical dangers, though he provides that reluctantly.

His reluctance to do this stems from his long experience with death, specifically, that those who are close to him often die violently.  This long experience with death has given him a kind of wisdom, the wisdom to know that to grow close to people is to suffer a broken heart, in one way or another.

This is part of what makes Logan reluctant to stay very long with the family of farmers who offered them dinner in return for helping them recover their horses.  He knows that every moment that they spend with the family, the more likely it is that the violence following him and Laura will catch up to these kind-hearted folks and kill them.

Charles Xavier’s wisdom is of a different kind.  He encourages Logan to relish the moment of serenity with newfound friends, the simple beauty of the communal meal and the pastoral environs.  He knows that life is made worth living by experiencing these beautiful moments as fully as possible, by allowing ourselves to connect with others profoundly through those moments.

Both, of course, are right.  Logan’s worries are well-founded, as we learn when the Transigen Project‘s strike force shows up in the night when all should be calm.  This strike force is headed up by a clone of Logan, a younger man with the healing powers of Logan’s youth and his adamantium claws as well.  The clone kills Charles Xavier in his bed, captures Laura, and then begins killing the family.

In the films, Logan has often seemed to be haunted by the constant deaths of those he loves and the many people who just happened to be nearby him.  He is a constant danger to everyone around him, and he knows it to his pain.

Any man who is a living weapon, as many of us are, knows something of this pain.  My own greatest fear in life is that I become a constant danger to those around me, that my strength and my cunning would somehow be lost from my control and put in the service of chaotic evil, that I would become the instrument of destruction for all those I love.

This is a terrible fear for me, but it is a reality for the Logan of this film.  The Transigen project’s emissaries have successfully manipulated Logan into leading them to those he fears will die because of him, to those he wishes to care for, to those he sometimes succeeds in caring for.

What’s worse, they have made his clone their executioner, using his DNA to bring into being his younger self, and point this living weapon at everyone he holds dear.  My greatest fear is here combined with fears common to many men, the fear of being bested by men who are like us, but younger and stronger, and the fear of the weakening that comes with age.

Though I’m only 32 years old, I already feel it.  My knees ache, my shoulder won’t stay in the proper alignment, and I don’t heal quite so quickly anymore.  My workout schedule and active life, along with my healthy diet, cannot stop the march of aging as it advances on my body.

Nor, it seems, can Logan’s healing factor stop the march of aging completely.  He aches.  His scars no longer heal quickly.  He is much more easily winded, and much more easily wounded.  This has become apparent throughout the film, and reaches a climax near the end when he is trying to keep Transigen’s strike force from killing or capturing all the young mutants seeking refuge via crossing into Canada.

Even with advanced chemical assistance and incredible persistence, he is not up to the task of facing the strike force and defeating his clone.  Nonetheless, the advanced chemical assistance does allow him to experience something close to the powers of his youth for a short time, the powers of reckless rage that we who have high testosterone levels and an adrenaline rush know from experience.

As always, reckless rage and the powers of youth are not enough to conquer all challenges, and Logan is left reeling, relying on his cunning to help him stave off his clone as long as possible, hoping that he can save his daughter’s life this day.  His daughter takes the life of his clone, but not before the clone has mortally wounded Logan.

Laura will be as Logan was: fatherless.  Had Logan been willing to step outside of his tough guy loner mode of operating and developed a relationship with Laura, as well as worked with the other mutants, not to mention being willing to hope in Eden, things may well have turned out better.

But he died for her without ever having loved her as a daughter, without having given her the gift of knowing a father’s love through many years of trials.  Like all fathers, he gave the gift of life, and like many fathers, he spent his life so that hers could continue.  And yet there was so much more he could have given, but instead he withheld it.

And is this not a poignant allegory?  How many men have made the mistake of operating like tough loners, thinking that it made them strong, when it fact they would have been much stronger had they opened their hearts to love, to trust, and to hope?

How many men have missed out on many deeply fulfilling life experiences in the quest to have a lesser strength rooted in reckless rage?  How many men have given the lesser gift of laying down their lives without fully loving rather than the greater gift of laying down their lives by fully loving?

I have.  Many men still do.  Our wisdom is not enough to free us completely of the chains of our reliance on our own strength, our insistence that we must bear the burden alone, that we must pick up the heavy, killing yoke rather than the easy and light burden of those who practice love and compassion.

Like all of us, Logan’s wisdom was not enough to keep him alive and thriving despite the struggles he faced.  And yet the wisdom he received from Charles Xavier, his ailing father-figure, was enough to allow him to die well, to finally reach out in love and receive joy and peace from doing so in his last moments.

Perhaps the final bit of wisdom in Logan is that, like all literary figures which are fully-formed and interesting, he is a mirror in which many of us can see our own flaws, our own struggles, our own virtues, and our own potential greatness.

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Simon, Mike, and I discuss our beers, the sudden prevalence of claims about the Deep State, why the opponents of Milo Yiannopolous keep failing, and the theological implications of AI.

Episode 3.3: Do you want Cylons?

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The Meme-Based Implicit Bias Test

The joys of memes are many, and so are their uses.  But it didn’t occur to me until recently that at least some memes could be used as implicit bias tests.  In fact, this meme shared repeatedly over the past couple days seems better than any implicit bias test I’ve taken.


The meme shows an image of what looks like a BlackLivesMatter protest.  The people pictured are holding signs and riding in a car that’s been decorated with slogans associated with the protest.  Based on the positions of the people on the outside of the car, it’s probably moving very slowly.  It looks like they’re surrounded by smoke or fog.

The written critique isn’t the problem here.  There really were people who were protesting recently who destroyed the property of businesses that were actually friendly to their cause.  It wasn’t a majority or a plurality, as far as I can tell, but it’s fair to critique that behavior.

The problem is that this picture doesn’t show that kind of behavior.  None of them are throwing rocks, or attacking anyone, or being even remotely threatening to anyone.  It’s possible that they did do something like that prior to this moment or after this moment, but there’s no evidence of that based on the picture of them protesting peacefully.

So why did the creator of the meme choose that image when there was imagery of actual rock-throwing property destruction available?  Well, it might be that the creator of the meme genuinely believes that the BlackLivesMatter movement is destroying America.  It might be that the image captures what the meme creator sees as whiny Millenial protestors.

It might be that the creator of the meme also has an implicit bias, that he or she sees young black folks protesting as destroying America regardless of context or facts.  That seems very likely, and the creator of the meme would be well-served to consider that idea.  But what does it mean when someone shares the meme?

It’s no secret that people don’t share memes to communicate nuanced perspectives or make effective evidence-based arguments.  They may well think it makes a good point within limits, though, or that it’s just funny.

It’s probable that those who shared the meme didn’t think through what they were trying to communicate.  And that they weren’t intending to communicate that black folks protesting peacefully are destroying America.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this meme communicates.

The meme associates a picture of peaceful black protestors with actually destroying America, even when there’s no indication that they’re destroying anything.  If associating those words with that image isn’t sending the message you want to send, then not sharing it seems like a good idea.

When we share memes, we’re communicating with people.  No less so than when we send professional or personal emails, or when we call a family member, or when we hug a friend who’s sad.

Whether by meme or by hug, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it is we intend to communicate and whether or not we are communicating what we intended.  I find that I make fewer mistakes that way.

P.S. It’s also worth thinking about why we might associate peaceful black protestors with the destruction of America, or at the very least why it didn’t occur to some of us that there was a problem with that association.

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Fair Questions: Why do progressives insist that Trump must be generally a bigot?

As has been documented before, there’s not good evidence that Trump is generally a bigot.  He doesn’t appear to hold overtly racist views, though he certainly seems to have an incorrect perspective on what life is like for most black folks.  He doesn’t seem to really care about gay marriage on way or the other, and he isn’t afraid to be seen holding up a giant rainbow flag from his LGBT supporters.

He’s not, as far as I can tell, running scared of transgender folks because they might be using the same bathroom as cisgender folks.  His misogyny, on the other hand, is well-documented and flagrant.  So why are progressives asserting, in many cases, that he’s a serious problem for transgender, gay, or black folks?  That his personal racism is obvious?

Well, that has to do with how progressives generally define racism and how they see racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and even capitalism as parts of a whole set of systems of oppression.  For most progressives who are basing their understanding on contemporary academic theories (largely influenced by the meta-philosophical framework of Critical Theory), these issues are inherently connected.

In their heads, sexism, heterosexism, racism, transphobia, and capitalism are all of a piece; they are all cogs in the machinery of oppression, if you will.  In the heads of other people, those issues are sometimes quite separate.  Compartmentalized, even.  There are people who want gay folks to be able to get married who also shudder at the idea of sharing a bathroom with a transgender person.

There are people who care about and vote for policies that will address racial injustice who don’t think that two men having consensual sex is the correct moral decision.  There are flagrant sexists who think it’s perfectly fine if a man wants to become a woman because that’s what he’s always wanted.  People are complicated, and they can separate these issues out.

Either they can do this because they’re not concerned about being intellectually coherent (and most people aren’t) or because they have an alternative intellectually coherent framework for understanding these issues.  In Trump’s case, it appears to be due to his lack of concern for being intellectually coherent.

He’s not an ideologue worried about the right answer, but rather a 70 year-old rich man who’s fairly clueless about recent trends in academic thought and trying to drum up support from anyone and everyone he can get it from.  He’s careless and reckless in his statements, and that’s a serious problem, but it isn’t good evidence of his generally being intolerant or hateful or indifferent to the concerns of the marginalized.

We’ll find out more as time goes on, but I suspect based on his behavior that Trump is generally not principled enough to be a white supremacist, or anything else ideological.

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The Ghost of Confederates Future

Editorial Note: I started writing this quite a long time ago, which will become obvious because some of the references I make will be to things that have happened in the past.

Over at National Review, Charles C. W. Cook points out that his fellow conservatives tend to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to excessive use of force or the inappropriate use of lethal force by police officers.  It’s a bit of a strange admission coming from the flagship conservative magazine in the U.S.  Speaking of strange admissions…

TIME Magazine reports that Newt Gingrich, purportedly on the short list to be a Vice Presidential candidate alongside a soon-to-be Presidential candidate Donald Trump, said that white folks don’t understand being black in America and the additional discrimination and risk that entails.  That’s certainly true in my experience, and I’ve never been black in America.

I just grew up in the same neighborhood as people who were, and it was obvious enough from that experience once I moved to a city that was overwhelmingly white and saw the difference.  It is perhaps an irony that it wasn’t until I left the big-city South and moved to the Midwest that I heard the word “nigger” used casually in a derogatory way by a white person.

It’s not that there aren’t folks in the South who do that too, of course.  There certainly are.  Nonetheless, what I’ve noticed after venturing into the land of the Yankee Northerners is that they seem to be in general unaware of how very much like Southerners they are when it comes to racism.  Except perhaps in the sense that Southerners are slightly more likely to be honest about racism (whether they see it as a good thing or a bad thing).

By and large, racism is seen as a matter of individual choice by both those in the South and in the North (rather than as an institutional or structural problem).  This was pointed out very effectively in Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic about the Southern Baptist convention (which has its origins in upholding racism) making a continued push to include justice for racial minorities and immigrants an important part of its official stances both on paper and in practice.

Russell Moore, a critical figure within the Southern Baptist organization, has called for listening to our African-American brothers and sisters when they say they are experiencing a problem and having compassion for those penned up in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.  But his calls are not always greeted positively by other Southern Baptists, suggesting that racial tensions may not healed in the way that he would prefer.

There seems to be a contemporary pattern of a minority of white conservative political pundits, politicians, and high-profile religious leaders recognizing that we are facing the ghost of confederates future: an unwillingness to even listen to the concerns of those who claim that they are discriminated against unfairly, a reflexive dismissal of them because their political tribe is not our own, and a failure to consider that their values may be different because they face different problems.

This ghost is revealed to us by the prophets in the midst of the land of white conservative and religious men, themselves the descendants of the men whose ancestors were willing to exclude their fellow men from political and civic life and unwilling to face down the bigotry that kept them chained and treated as inferiors.  Even when they did not approve of it personally, they may have thought it too risky to use their position and power to address it.

Will these men learn the lessons of the ghosts of confederates past?  Will they learn the lessons of the ghosts of confederates present?  Will they listen to the prophets in their midst who advise them that they are missing something important?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sincerely hope that I’m wrong about the ghosts of the Confederacy that will haunt the future, a future that won’t listen to black folks, a future that will dismiss their views, and a future that doesn’t see how their values are shaped by a history of oppression…a future that gets worse before it gets better.

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Fair Questions: How should I punch a punching bag?

Recently, a friend of mine asked me for some tips on starting to use a punching bag.  As someone who has done many things wrong while punching a heavy bag and learned from those mistakes, I can provide 3 quick tips based on that experience.

  1. Wrap your hands for a while.  Maybe for always.  Eventually, your hands probably will toughen up a bit from regular use.  But it’s still probably safer to keep them wrapped to avoid blood blisters (I learned this the hard way), and it should help a bit to cushion against broken fingers and other problems.  These days I usually punch a heavy bag with minimal covering or without any hand covering, but I don’t recommend it as the way to start.  Also, using a punching bag too often can cause problems from the repeated impact, and those are more severe without wrapping around the hands.
  2. Clench your fist tightly, but not quite so hard that it’s perfectly immobile, because you don’t want your fist to absorb the full force of the impact if it’s unable to adjust to an uneven surface.  Also, keep your thumb outside your fist and below the first two knuckles to avoid breaking it.  Your wrist should be held in perfect alignment with your fist to avoid spraining your wrist when you strike the bag (or any other surface).  Strike so that you hit the bag primarily with the knuckles of your index and middle finger because they’re less likely to break.
  3. Don’t punch as if your target were the surface of the bag in front of you. For best results, punch as if you were hitting a target on the other side of the bag and put your weight into it.  This way of punching through a target is how you would punch an actual assailant if you wanted to be effective, and so you should train to that.  Don’t stop at punching, though.  You can use elbows and knees to strike the bag. They don’t need quite as much padding, but when you’re first starting out, a little padding may be necessary depending on how calloused you are in those areas.

Kicking the bag is a slightly different process, and I may write a few tips on that later.  I hope this was a helpful brief guide.  Until next time!

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