Entering the Matrix

There’s something about this job. Sometimes it feels like entering The Matrix and seeing the base code that dictates what’s happening. Reinforcement, habit, and behavior are everywhere and entangled in everything.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to not let it interfere with my close relationships – that would feel creepy and manipulative. But for everyday, casual acquaintances, I find myself observing behavior and acting, at least a little bit, on my training.

It’s not just me, either; my co-workers and I frequently commiserate on work habits leaching into our everyday lives. Here are a few of my favorite stories, for your amusement:

Okay, so just as I was starting out in ABA I had it drilled into my head to immediately mentally flag any inappropriate behaviors and as a second nature take data on it (what happened just before, what the behavior looked like, and what happened afterward.)

This became such second nature that I found myself unconsciously taking data on some of my friends and acquaintances. At first it started with The Geek’s sister, let’s call her The Princess.

I noticed very quickly that The Princess would respond to any request, no matter how minor, with “No! I don’t want to!” and similar protests sounding exactly like the non-compliance of the three year olds I deal with.

Then The Princess went off to college and I didn’t see her for quite some time. And before I describe what happened next, I have to explain that I always have an enthusiasm reserve for times when kids do something that they have particular trouble with (the term for this is “differential reinforcement”). I usually end up doing a big gasp, huge smile, and a massive bunch of swings/hugs/tickles and social praise (i.e. “Whoa, you did it! Amazing, awesome job!”)

So The Princess comes back from college, and I overheard someone call and ask her to do something. She responded with “Ok, just wait a minute”. I wasn’t fully paying attention, but I felt my differential reinforcement systems booting up: sucking in air for a happy-gasp, getting ready to throw my arms up for the “whoooo! and a huge smile dawning on my face.

No, Rachel! the coherent part of my brain screams, this is a college student that probably already doesn’t think highly of you. ABORT PROGRAM! And, as an afterthought, besides, do you really think that would be reinforcing to her? I’m pretty sure the easiest way to make sure this happens again is to shut. the hell. up.

And then I deflated like a depressed, embarrassed balloon.

As a more recent example, I have to admit I’ve been a bit cold to a bro I work with at Target.

This is a frat boy that loves to talk about how awesome and cool it is to be in a frat, with their chants, parties, and rush week, with it being clear that he’s trying to impress coworkers and make us jealous of his awesome life. Now I’m sure those things all sound badass when you’re drunk with your frat friends at a 2 am house party, but at 7 pm under the sober lights of Target it just sounds ridiculous.

I’ve found myself having a mental motto recently of “Don’t reinforce shit I don’t want to happen more often”, but I’ve ended up shortening it to the simpler “Don’t reinforce shit.”

I was sitting in the break room when frat boy walks in and immediately starts talking about how he needs to get meaner for the pledges coming in for rush week. Normally, social niceties would cause me to nod politely and at least try to make small talk with him, but…

Don’t reinforce shit.

With that scrolling across my mental marquee, I switched into clinical mode. Look up, make eye contact, give a neutral “Mm-hmm,” and return to playing on my iPad.

Frat boy looks a little confused, and tries again with a brag about how he gets away with not meeting the base requirements of his job.

Hmmm. Not frat-related, but still shit. Repeat nod and neutral response. I notice that the other person in the room is mirroring me; me being semi-rude seems to have allowed the other person to do the same. Frat boy is looking increasingly distressed.

Finally, he hits on an approved topic: his college’s gym and their water fountain designed so that water bottles can be filled all the way up. Not particularly stimulating, but I’ll take it. I give him more of a response and a smile, and he continues to try to talk to me on my way out the door.

I have two thoughts as I leave. First, I’ll save my adult-version of an enthusiasm reserve, a conversation and lots of smiles and eye contact, for him talking about class or anything positive about working or other people.

And after a moment, Damn, I’m kind of a bitch aren’t I?

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