Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Smug Chickens

A Skinner Box is any setup rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior. One imagines laboratory rats, but our world is nothing but Skinner Boxes, running entirely on positive and negative reinforcement. If full bladders weren't uncomfortable, human beings would never get out of bed. If reproduction were a duty rather than a thrill, the species would die out within a century.

But there's a weird thing about positive reinforcement. Even if we haven't done anything remarkable to earn the reward - even if we've just rotely hit some button in a lab experiment to propel a dumb sugary yumyum into our expectant gullets - we will experience a profound shift in our sense of self. It’s hard-wired into us. 


I wrote in "A Tale of Two Chickens":
When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
Smug chickens are absolutely everywhere. The following are a few examples.

Day Traders

Whenever the stock market has a long climb, day traders feel really smart, because their number goes up, and up is good. They quickly conclude that they've got quite a flair for this whole investment thing. The smartest ones might recognize, intellectually, that they're benefitting from a powerful tail wind from market inertia boosting all stocks. They may even recognize that their success is still below market averages - i.e. a vanilla index fund would have been more profitable than all their feverish machinations. But when a human enters a powerful reward loop, it's impossible to maintain perspective. There's no doubt that you're a genius investor.

Then, inevitably, the market tanks and the geniuses lose all their money.


In a posting last year titled "The Cambrian Implosion" I analyzed why some restaurants would survive the pandemic while others won't, explaining that the restaurant business is so inherently profitable (your $3 slice of pizza cost pennies to produce) that even imbeciles quickly come to feel like geniuses. When you're pulling in a high six figure income running a crummy diner selling crummy food following rote formulas, no one can convince you that you're anything but a lofty culinary titan.

But then a pandemic arrives and you're forced to innovate to survive. You must add delivery, online ordering, and curbside pickup, and find ways to let customers know about new hours and new policies. Less than half my favorite restaurants ever managed to do even the very minimum - to keep people informed via web sites and social media pages. Fewer still modified business practices to adapt. It was too high a hurdle. Grinding out insipid rice pudding every morning, keeping thieving busboys away from the cash register, and not poisoning patrons with shoddy food handling absorbed 100% of their capabilities, so hordes of restaurateur geniuses, who'd grabbed easy money for years, were wiped off the map (along with a few diligent operators who, alas, failed despite smart heroic efforts).

Internet Visionary

For years I was proud of the smarts I'd poured into building and running Chowhound. I managed to invest it with a unique image, tone, and credo to appeal to a savvy audience which normally can't be gathered en masse (because they're righteous holdouts from conventional marketing). It connected with the optimal crowd for populating a really savvy online community, I devised procedures to stave off subterfuge and vandalism, and my unique take on food - which echoed as users adopted a similar tone - seemed irresistible.

While those things may (or may not!) have been true, the site succeeded because of timing. In 1997, websites were cool. That's it. That's why it worked. It was that dumb (also: I didn't do anything to mess it up too badly). Chowhound might have been as successful had it sucked. Or perhaps more successful. Consider Yelp!

My smartphone app is as indispensable as Chowhound. And this Slog is much higher value than either (I don't see much original thinking out there). But blogs weren't cool in 2008 and smartphone apps weren't cool in 2017. So...nada.

I've done proud work in eight fields, but only one single venture was commercially successful. Thanks to market timing and trend cycles, it passively floated to success upon a grand wave. But, man, I sure did feel like I was killin' it!

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