Behavioral Psychology

End On A High Note

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Good animal trainers know to end sessions on a high note. The way they accomplish this trick is by cuing the animal to perform a behavior that has already been mastered and therefore usually doesn’t garner a positive reinforcement, but this time it does receive praise and a treat. In this way, no matter how difficult the session was and how many times the animal failed, it leaves the session feeling good about itself and the progress it has made.

Whether you are teaching yourself or someone else you can use this same principle to get better results because the strategy works just as well on humans. When you think about an experience you have had, say a float down the river with friends, what you are left with is an overall impression of the event, a feeling. Our brains don’t produce memories like movies, they work more like snapshots.

Now the interesting thing from a cognitive psychology point of view is that we tend to weight the last ‘thing’ that happens to us in an experience more heavily than all the previous ‘things’, and this affects our overall perception of the experience. There are many clever studies that have borne this premise out. The one I like the best is that people who are first subjected to putting their hand in freezing cold water for sixty seconds, then on the next trial freezing cold water for ninety seconds but with the last thirty seconds slightly warmer, almost always choose the ninety second option when asked which one they would prefer to undergo for the third round. Keep in mind that they don’t have access to a clock, but what this means is that of their own free-will they choose to subject themselves to a longer period of discomfort, solely because the last thing their brains remember is a little less discomfort.

When you are learning something new it’s always challenging because you’re outside of your zone of proximal development, and this usually produces feelings of frustration and anxiety. These feelings can compel you to come up with a plausible excuse for why you are going to quit. You don’t necessarily realize how much better you’re getting because you’re focused on the negative. In effect you can trick your brain by ending on a high note because when you go back over a sequence you already know well and nail it, it makes you feel like you are skilled. If this is the last thing that happens in a session you’ll weight the feeling of being skilled more heavily than anything else, retroactively looking back on the whole session in a more positive light regardless of the failures and setbacks.