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?
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Feb 18, 2009
Last week I gave blood, and was given beverages and cookies aftrerwards. They don't say that it's to replenish some of what was taken, or it's an excuse to keep you around for another 10 minutes to make sure you're OK. They just say, "Help yourself to some snacks".

It wasn't the first time that someone stuck a large needle in my arm and left it there for 20 minutes, while I was literally having my lifeblood draining away.

It won't be the last time, ether. Score another one for your hypothesis.

Feb 18, 2009
We're all the subjects of one Pavlovian experiment or another.

Whenever I hear the default AT&T ringtone (which also happens to be my alarm in the morning), my first instinct is to throw my phone against the wall.
Feb 18, 2009
The bottom line: You get more of what you reward for.

Think about:

Food stamps
Tax credits
Low income housing
Free emergency rooms (for illegals as well)
Free housing - bank prohibited from foreclosing.

Goodbye country.
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Feb 18, 2009
Well, I do tend to read your blog while eating my lunch.

Man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the keyboard of Scott Adams.
Feb 18, 2009
I eat breakfast and I still hate mornings. I realize that this doesn't disprove your theory in a general sense, or in your particular case, but it doesn't seem to apply to me.

Also, I'm a very punctual person, but I was never expected to show up to supper on time. Actually, it was expected, but I was never denied food if I didn't get there on time.

Of course, I've never been especialy interested in food, especially as a small child. I've always had certain food I like and certain food I dislike, but I could always miss a meal often without noticing. Perhaps this has something to do with it.
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Feb 18, 2009
How about a good Readers Digest and sitting on the throne? It's not the content of the magazine that satisfies...
Feb 18, 2009
I don't eat anything at home in the morning. Instead, I get a cup of coffee at the gas station on my way to work, then have a five-hour energy shot once I get there AND handle all my email.

So when I get up in the morning, my first thought is to leave for work as soon as possible. When I get to the gas station to get my cup of coffee, I may as well get gas while I'm there, and therefore I always have a full tank. When I get to work, I hammer through all my email (and RSS feeds) first thing, so I can get to my energy shot.

I started doing this when I began contracting at Microsoft, which I love, and on consideration it may have more to do with the food routine than it does with any qualities of the job itself. When I worked on contracts that made it difficult to get to my energy shot (email took longer to handle), I was less happy than I was on contracts where I could handle my morning email rapidly. Contracts which made it easy to get over to the cafeteria for lunch were better than those where the cafeteria was inconveniently located. Contracts where dinner was provided for those working late encouraged me to work more hours.

In retrospect, it may also have been bad food habits that spelled the doom of my independent software development company. Correlation is not causation, but the data points seem to match up: I would skip breakfast and proceeed straight to new business development; during lunch, I would do my project planning and management while eating at my desk, and then I'd hammer out code for a couple hours before turning to general business management. Only the project management and coding tasks were performed well; general management was merely adequate, and new business development usually went badly. The clients I actually landed were usually those with whom I scheduled a lunch meeting.

There's potentially a lot of power in this. I'm going to play with it a little and see how it works out.
Feb 18, 2009
I am the popcorn example and have since stopped going to the theatre to watch a movie since the popcorn has become more expensive than the ticket (or a restaurant meal for that matter).
Feb 18, 2009
You may be right. As for movies, we share that behavior, but i think the huge screen and the total immersion is the key to that experience. When i watch a movie at home, there is always a dog barking or a snack to be made or an email to write. In the theater, there are (no) (fewer) distractions.
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Feb 18, 2009
The two obvious ones that come to mind are:
1) Hot dogs and beer at a base ball game.
2) Donuts at meetings.

The insanely genius part of #1 (and the movie/popcorn one) is that they get you to pay an exhorbitantly high price for the very food that is training you to keep coming back.

"Why yes Tom Sawyer, I'll gladly pay you any sum for the pleasure of whitewashing the fence for you"...
Feb 18, 2009
You might want to read up on Pavlovian conditioning, Scott. :)
Feb 18, 2009
Two things off the top of my head.

First, at the elementary school where my niece attends, students used to be rewarded for good grades with coupons for free fries from the local clown-based fast food restaurant. Used to be, because some parents started kicking up a fuss. It seemed to provide some incentive. According to my niece, some of kids, because their family wouldn't eat fast food, would collect the coupons, trade them for other things, or glue them to their folders for the other kids to see.

Second, the only reason I'll ever attend church is because there's food available. There are quite a few people trying to save my soul, so I get invited to different churches alot. I've ranked them in order, from my least favorite to my most favorite. The Catholics are my least favorite, because they might offer coffee and cookies afterward, but they're not homemade cookies (I don't mind the wine and Jesus flavored cracker, but they only give you one and it's not very substantial). The Methodists come next, because their cookies are generally homemade, and available before services (an added bonus, because it gives me something to snack on during the show). But the best are the Pentecostals, because at the local church, at least once a month, they'll have a full-on dinner, and everything is homemade. Enjoying a pot of chicken and dumplins is almost enough to make me find God. Almost. As I tell the church members, throw in a slice of that pie and we'll talk.
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Feb 18, 2009
I love going to the movie theater although I rarely ever eat (or drink) anything there. For me it's really just going out, meeting people. It's just a different feeling than at home.

On the other hand - I never eat breakfast and I hate getting up in the morning. Maybe I should give this a try ;)
Feb 18, 2009
Isn't this what dating is? Come to dinner with me... said the spider to the fly. Ok, bad ref, but you get the idea. Isn't the idea of a dinner date just positive reinforement for future behavior? If you don't go out with me (etc) I won't feed you.

(That sounds much more cynical than I intend, however....)
Feb 18, 2009
This reminds me of your post on sugar equaling free will. I actually tried your dating advice about food deprivation and shopping and it worked like a charm.
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Feb 18, 2009
I couldn't agree more, another example is when we attend a work reunion when we know there are going to be free snacks or pizza even though we don't like the people attending lol :0)
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