February 18, 2009
I’m learning to train my dog. According to the experts, it all comes down to food. Nothing works as well as food rewards when it comes to getting an animal to do a trick. I assume that’s because food is closely associated with survival, so over time you can create an association in the animal’s brain between doing a trick and survival itself.
This made me wonder if humans can be similarly trained with food rewards. And it made me wonder if we do it inadvertently all the time. It seems to me that human brains must associate food with survival the same way a dog does. And like most other animals, we don’t need to be starving to want a food treat.
When I grew up, my family ate dinner at 5:00 pm every night. If a kid was late, there was some risk that the best stuff was gone. So there was a food reward every day of my life that was associated with punctuality. My hypothesis predicts that I would be a punctual person, and that is very much the case. When I feel even the possibility of being late for any event or deadline, I experience an intensely unpleasant physical reaction. It is as if my very survival is at risk and I want the feeling to stop. My brother and sister, who are in other ways very different from me, are just as punctual. Were we all trained by food?
I start work earlier than most people and always have. But I didn’t always like it. I grew to enjoy it over time. I realized recently that I developed a habit long ago of eating something within minutes of waking, such as a banana. Did I train myself with food to become a morning person?
If my hypothesis about training humans holds true, it has huge implications. You could easily mold human behavior over time by associating good habits with food. And you wouldn’t have to starve a person to make the plan work, any more than you need to starve a dog to make him do tricks for tasty treats. It’s a bit frightening to think about the power this method might hold.
This hypothesis might explain why movie theaters are popular even though most movies are bad. I will drive across town and watch a movie with bad reviews if there is some popcorn in the deal, even though I have a home theater and all the food I want at home. I tell myself that some movies are better with the crowd experience, or that it feels good to get out of the house. But I can’t rule out the possibility that I am simply trained by food treats to go to the movie theater.
Is there anything to the hypothesis that humans are easily trained by food? Let’s do an unscientific survey right here. Think of your own eating habits and consider when there has been a consistent pattern of a specific activity followed by a food reward. Then ask yourself if you are addicted to the activity that generally preceded the reward.
For example, if you have a habit of reading a physical newspaper every morning, do you generally eat something or have coffee while doing it? If so, my hypothesis predicts that it’s the treats that make you love the routine more than the newspaper itself.
Any other examples from your life?