June 17, 2009

smallest possible treat

During the same conversation with the Gardener and Stupendous Fish that brought us the piece about self-control, Stupendous Fish recommended Don't Shoot the Dog, which is about obedience training. I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing so. In any case. The book apparently describes some of the results of operant conditioning studies on rats. It turns out that, while you can train a rat to press a lever for a treat, the rat eventually gets bored if it gets a treat every time. I would to. If you want the rat to keep pushing the lever, the trick is to give it a treat at random intervals, the longer the better. You want to give it a small treat - the smallest possible treat that still feels like a treat - because you don't want the rat to get full or feel satisfied: if it feels satisfied, it might stop pushing the lever. So: smallest possible treat, longest possible interval.1 If you time this right, the lever-pushing habit gets nearly impossible to break. It works for humans, too, and is one of the reasons it's so hard to get kids to break bad habits. Stupendous Fish described a pre-schooler who's whining a lot; attention itself is a reward, so if you even look at her for a second when you hear her start whining, you're reinforcing the behavior. But not very much. Smallest possible treat. Keeps her coming back for more forever.

But this post isn't just about operant conditioning! No, no, it's actually about gay politics. Because I can't leave it alone. Obama's reaction to the indignation over the DOMA brief isn't to explain that it was a mistake, it isn't to introduce legislation to repeal don't ask don't tell (which, did I mention, would be a popular thing to do? large majorities of conservatives support repealing don't ask don't tell), it isn't to do anything substantive: instead, Obama plans to sign a presidential memorandum (which expires when he leaves office; not even an executive order) giving partner benefits to same-sex couples employed by the federal government. Some partner benefits. Not health insurance.

Oh, and the administration flat-out admits that they only did it because there's been so much fuss, and because there's a GLBT fundraiser for the DNC coming up next week.

I think Obama's thought process in this was, give them the smallest possible treat so they'll shut up and go to the fundraiser. But I think he miscalculated. He's not reinforcing support for his presidency among queers. He's reinforcing making a fuss. Because this treat exists - so we know it's worth pushing that lever - but it's nothing. It barely whets the appetite. It's not even health insurance for the .06% of Americans who are gay partners of federal employees. Perpetual fuss, here we come.

I think, by the way, that there was a time for putting queer issues off to the side, and not worrying about them temporarily. But I think that time is over. Policy is actually lagging public opinion in some places. Time to expect better, and then demand it.

1. As an aside, this is creepily similar to slot machines; they probably both invoke what Temple Grandin calls the SEEKING system.

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