Monday, September 10, 2007

Control by Temper Tantrum

Let's pretend you're a steer and I'm a cowboy. I am peaceable enough when you're doing what I want. That is, mainly, when your behavior is in the direction I want. Due north, toward Kansas.

But when you get out of line, I throw a temper tantrum. That is, I ride my big horse at you, waving that big, attention-getting thing (otherwise on my head) at you, yipping and yelling and making other loud, sharp, threatening noises and whistles at you. I may even brandish my lasso at you. If necessary, I will cut you off. But usually that isn't necessary, because the moment you see me start to act up, you just veer back into the right direction. Due north, toward Kansas.

The fancy name for that trick is "behavior modification," through "negative reinforcement."

It's what you housebreak your puppy with. It works like this: if the trainee does something other than what is wanted, make him miserable. You know, loud noises, scowls, nasty tone, antic and threatening gestures — a temper tantrum. Just make his whole little world totally obnoxious.

When, by chance he happens to do what you want, give "positive reinforcement" by making his existence pure bliss.

When training Mamma, point at a candy bar in the grocery store. The moment she starts to say "No" erupt into screaming and bawling as loud as you can so Mamma fears that everyone in the store thinks she's beating you.

Then the instant she hands you that candy bar, break off mid-"WAAAAAH!" and burst into the biggest, cutest, sweetest smile she ever saw.

She may be slow, but she'll learn.

Note that the temper tantrum in each case is a put-on. Yes, Cowboy may be a little ticked off at Steer, and you may be a little ticked off at Puppy, but not that ticked off. Your act is just a grossly exaggerated and menacing display of displeasure that unnerves the object and makes him anxious to turn it off and avoid triggering future replays.

Even a spoiled three-year-old child's temper tantrums are put-ons. For, they occur exactly as I described the one above. The spoiled brat switches the temper tantrum on and off in the blink of an eye, with no warm up or cool down. Which means that he isn't that upset over the candy bar: he's just mask switching.

He uses the temper tantrum as a stick to regulate Mother's behavior. The sweet, adorable smile he breaks into when she conforms to his specifications is just a carrot (positive reinforcement) to reward her for being a good Mommy by doing what he wants.

Even infants catch on! They sometimes throw a temper tantrum, not because they're suffering with hunger or a soiled diaper or for any other conceivable reason. They just do it to get attention:

I do not remember my first lie, it is too far back; but I remember my second one very well. I was nine days old at the time, and had noticed that if a pin was sticking in me and I advertised it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted and coddled and pitied in a most agreeable way and got a ration between meals besides. It was human nature to want to get these riches, and I fell. I lied about the pin — advertising one when there wasn't any. You would have done it; George Washington did it, anybody would have done it. During the first half of my life I never knew a child that was able to rise above that temptation and keep from telling that lie. — Mark Twain

Throwing temper tantrums to manipulate your behavior is but an aspect of narcissists doing everything for effect, an aspect of them going through life playing to mirrors so as to get the wanted looks and behaviors in reaction. In other words, remember that this is what he's doing the whole time...

Kathleen Krajco