Sunday, June 27, 2010

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

Sorry, been a while since I had something to say here, since I've been out of town. I thought Taz would take over for me, but apparently he got lazy.

So here's what I was thinking about, last I thought I might write something here....I was listening to the radio about retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan, or maybe it was Pakistan, and it just occurred to me to wonder what would happen if one simply didn't respond. I mean, Palestine and Israel have been retaliating on one another for generations. We, mystifyingly, responded to the 9/11 attacks by going to war on an unrelated country. Everyone knows how well that turned out. But what would happen if someone did something rotten and unacceptable and you just didn't do anything about it?

One of the things that we know from behavior science is that there are some behaviors you can make go away simply by ignoring them. Those of us with kids have surely gotten the information that the best way to handle a temper tantrum is to walk away. If you plead or punish or yell or console, the tantrum becomes endless. If you give in you plaster "SUCKER" across your forehead in large letters, and can pretty much guarantee that your kid will fall to the ground screaming the next time they don't get what they want. But if you walk away (or just stand there, on the unbearable occasions that said tantrum happens in a public place) then the tantrum will just kind of burn itself out, like a fire with insufficient fuel. If a behavior doesn't buy you anything, eventually you just stop doing it.

Of course, this doesn't work for all kinds of behavior. If doing something is self-reinforcing (you get something out of it), then ignoring the behavior doesn't help. If a kid (just some kid, mind you, not necessarily MY kid) makes a habit if dumping her backpack on the couch and leaving it there every time she comes home from school, ignoring this annoying habit is not going to change it. It is marginally easier to offload your backpack on the couch than to take it to your room, so the behavior rewards itself. Ignoring it won't help. Apparently, repeated requests to move the backpack also won't help. Removing the couch might, but probably not. But I digress.

What I'm wondering is whether bombing people is an intrinsically rewarding behavior. I mean, it doesn't really strike me as good fun, but I guess I've never tried it. And if the people who are actually doing the bombing die in the process, I suppose those folks aren't going to go back and bomb some more people because they had a good time. But if you bomb people because you have decided they are evil and cruel, and then if they bomb you back, it's kind of proof that you were right. If nothing changed because of your attacks, wouldn't that make the whole thing less exciting? Maybe you'd try harder for a while to up the ante to get a reaction (technically, this is called an extinction burst), but you might find that it would be harder to convince your folks that they wanted to blow themselves up in order to bomb people who didn't really respond.

Of course, I'm no expert on military strategy. But the people who ARE experts on military strategy have spent hundreds of billions of dollars not accomplishing very much. Not responding is, at least,a whole heck of a lot cheaper. And unless people are actually working on taking over your country, it's probably a good deal safer as well. I could be out and out wrong about this, but I suspect that, although leaders always promise a swift and decisive response to aggression, sometimes the best response might be no response at all. As those of us who are veterans of the child tantrum wars can attest, not responding is counter to all instincts. Mostly it's not the kind of thing that occurs to you in the moment as the right thing to do. But sometimes it really is best to heed the classic advice "Don't just do something, stand there."

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