Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Size Matters

Is more always better?

It is conventional in operant conditioning to distinguish between aversive and appetitive procedures. A variable-interval schedule of reinforcement, an appetitive procedure that involves positive reinforcement, gives the subject a reward for making a response after a time since the previous reward that is determined randomly. On a VI 60 s, for example a subject – rat, pigeon or undergraduate – who responds every second or so will get rewarded on average once a minute.

A much-studied aversive procedure is shock-postponement. The subject, a rat rather than an undergraduate, receives a brief electric shock every 10 s (say). But if he makes the required response, the next shock is postponed for (say) 20 s.

Subjects are not normally allowed to choose which procedure they would prefer. But if they were, there is no doubt they would prefer the appetitive one.

Both these procedures are very effective. Both maintain behavior that can persist for quite a while even after the reinforcement is withdrawn. But the aversive procedure works better than the appetitive one. Behavior can persist indefinitely in extinction because responding is maintained by the absence of the shock. When the shock machine is turned off, a well-trained animal notices no change. Unless he experiments a bit by withholding his response, he has no way to know that the schedule is no longer in effect. In other words, aversive procedures can be dangerous because they can produce persistent maladaptive behavior.

In the real world the distinction between appetitive and aversive is not fixed. The same schedule may change from appetitive to aversive because of a change in context. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, very few social scientists got any research support other than modest allowances from their home institution – college or university. To get a grant from an external source was a bonus, a positive reinforcement – not essential, but nice.

Time passed. By the dawn of the new century, things were very different. The amount of grant money had much increased, but the number of scientists competing for it had increased even more. Now almost everyone either had a grant or was trying to get one. Writing a grant proposal had changed from a response that might be rewarded, like the lever-pressing rat on a VI schedule, to a response aimed at preventing punishment, like shock postponement – punishment being just loss of grant support. Scientists were now working not to get something good – additional research support – but rather to avoid something bad – loss of money for research as well as some or all of their salary. The effects of this change on the type, quality and originality of research have not been good.

Grant-getting may seem a rather specialized issue, of interest only to impecunious scientists. But the same process operates in any domain. Federal support of any kind almost invariably begins small. It is a bonus that allows new projects to be done or ongoing ones to be completed. But usually, following the Willie Sutton principle (“It’s where the money is”) federal cash increases and takes up a larger and larger fraction of the budget of various programs from education to environment. Eventually, loss of federal funding changes from being almost unnoticed – because not expected and not vital – to an essential part of an agency’s budget. Loss of federal funds has gone from being barely noticeable to potentially disastrous.

As the schedule changes, so does the control. As long as little depended on federal money, the preferences of the money-givers were not expressed and could in any case be ignored. But as dependence grew, control by federal functionaries – bureaucrats in the Education Department, for example – became a determining factor.

Friendly ‘Dear Colleague’ letters from the Education Department are now more accurately labeled ‘Directives.’ If the college or university does not agree with a suggestion from the educrats, it must either submit or risk the loss of federal cash – or engage in costly litigation.

Acquiescence has been the response to a controversial ‘Dear Colleague’ letter of April 4, 2011.

This is a complicated topic, so let me simplify. Here is the essential bit of Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972: “Section 1681. Sex (a) Prohibition against discrimination; exceptions. No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance except that [followed by a list of exceptions].” Seems simple enough: men and women should have equal access to any education program (one-sex colleges excepted). Then, in 2011, 38 years after the original act, a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter discovered a hitherto unknown implication of this simple anti-discrimination provision: “Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX...”

Really? Obviously sexual violence, like theft and assault, is prohibited by law. Rape is illegal. So why call it ‘discrimination’? If one student assaults another is that also ‘discrimination’? Or does it become discrimination only when one student is male or white and the other female or black? Assault is always a crime. Calling it ‘discrimination’ just muddles the issue. Almost any behavior disliked by someone then becomes an instance of ‘discrimination.’

It is not clear why the university or college has any special duty to control sexual violence, any more than it has a special duty to punish theft or fraud. These are surely all matters for the police and the legal system. Unless, that is, the university is in effect in loco parentis, a status universities and colleges held until the 1960s. After that time, though, ILP fell apart. Students were no longer regarded as children with the university as parent.

Yet the April 4 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter in effect reinstated ILP by fiat. Universities were now to be held responsible for all ‘sexual violence’ on campus: policing it and punishing those found guilty of it. Which allowed the Education Department unilaterally to reduce the standard of proof for rape accusations from ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ to ‘preponderance of the evidence’, a highly controversial move that put many innocent males at risk. Fearing loss of funds (and in any case generally sympathetic to the feminist cause), no universities objected. Once again, ‘free’ money changed from being a good thing when it was delivered in quantities small enough to be of no consequence, to a very mixed bag when its loss would be a major cost.

A final example is college education. Once the prerogative of the few, it is now required for almost everyone. In 1940, for example, barely 5% adults had gone to college. But by the year 2000, almost 30% had done so. In 1940, college education was a bonus. You didn’t need a degree for most jobs and people recognized that not everyone was suited to, or could really benefit from, real higher education. Many kids would do much better learning something more practical or less academic, such as trade school, apprenticeship – or just quitting after K-12. But by the year 2000, a college degree had become almost essential – even for jobs that could perfectly well be done without it.

In response to increasing demand, many struggling colleges slowly dumbed down their offerings to allow them to cope with the nonacademic majority. Millions of students accumulated huge debts, incurred under pressure to go to college and aided by federal loan programs. In other words, the product on offer, and the circumstances of students, deteriorated. The schedule had shifted from appetitive to aversive. Not so much college as a bonus but its absence as a punishment.

Context matters. The value of a grant or degree is different when almost no one has one as opposed to when almost everyone does. Even ‘free’ cash, a pure benefit when it isn’t really needed, soon carries a cost when an institution depends on it.

Amount matters. This principle applies very widely. Growth, of the economy of a city or a company, is universally acclaimed. But Sao Paulo, with 20 million people is not a better place to live than, say Durham North Carolina, with 250,000. Yet Durham, along with most other American towns always wants to get bigger. Many bemoan the current low growth rate of the US economy. But growth must eventually cease, mustn’t it? Will we then be better off in every way than ever before? I doubt it.

We should rethink the growth imperative.

Size matters and more is not always better.

More from John Staddon, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today