Incidental Conditioning

by: Michael J. Lincoln Ph.D. on

All of us have little personal idiosyncrasies that mark us as unique individuals. These can arise from a number of sources, such as culture, genetics and living environments over an extended period of time.

I want to talk about perhaps the most pervasive and little noted source of such “peculiarities.” What is being referred to here is the fact that more than anything else, we are “learning machines.”

In other words, we have a few residual “instincts.” They are genetically and intra-uterine environment-acquired mechanisms that, in effect, build into our functioning “hard-wired” patterns. The vast majority of our “automatic pilot” functioning is learned.

A good example of this is our food preferences. Some of these are built-in by our hard wiring, some come from culture, some from long term living environments.

Most of them are the resultant of the family meal table, accidents of life, and other embeddednesses that result in our incidentally picking up on a pattern. Because they are so directly and frequently associated with the massively inherently rewarding (or occasionally repulsive) biological experiences, they become “artificially hard-wired.” The same can be said of our little habits of eating.

Food-related incidental conditioning isn’t the only way it happens, but it is the most common one. A couple of examples here: My ex-wife had a little ritual she did with soup spoons involving shaking it around and rubbing it on the edge of the bowl before taking it to her mouth.

It was the resultant of being born in the early thirties, when clothes washers and dryers didn’t exist. Therefore, keeping clothes clean was a HUGE issue for people of that time, and she was trained with intense consequences never to soil her clothes - Hence the little ritual. We had to dig deep to find the origin of that one, and that is typical of these idiosyncrasies.

Another is one we discovered recently that results in a consistent pattern of food-staining myself with tomato sauce or anything with red in it. It turned out that my mother had a lot of hostility towards males, and she went into rage and shame-induction whenever I spilled or splattered - particularly red stains, which activated her massive hatred of males.

The result was that I acquired a lot of self-hatred, with a resulting need for self-punishment, and I ended up learning to splatter myself and to get the “atoning” punishment for “what I was” and any red food will almost unstoppably result in spillage, even now.

Other examples of how these incidental conditionings can happen are: traveling in the family car, visiting particular relatives, schoolroom-related patterns, traumatic incidents, lessons learned in the armed forces, roommate influences, work environment acquired habits, etc.

They are usually very difficult to find the source of, and they are even more difficult to “unlearn” because of the years and years and years of multi-setting and multi-circumstance reinforcements of the patterns.

To make matters even more obscure, once they get started, incidental conditionings build up a baroque set of subsequent additional conditionings onto the original one. Just try and trace it down!

The value of this little “factoid” is two-fold. One is that things do make sense if you can trace them down. The other is a kind of “compassionate comprehension” that results when you understand the “quasi-hard-wired” nature of the phenomenon and the fact that life is extremely complex, and “automatic pilot” functioning, even of this kind, is in effect essential to our viability.

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