Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Random Reinforcement

gambling, prayer, christian, psychology, random reinforcement
The Thinking Christian wrote a rather elaborate defense of prayer, in which he attempts to distinguish prayer from wishing, the reading of which caused me to have a revelation: I now understand the psychological forces behind prayer. It's called random reinforcement.

The easiest way to explain random reinforcement is gambling, particularly with slot machines. When you play a slot machine, you aren't guaranteed a payout. Sometimes you get something, sometimes you get a whole lot, most times you get nothing. There's no predicting which it's going to be this particular time. This is random reinforcement. The thing is, random reinforcement is a far more powerful force than regular reinforcement. It's not just more powerful for humans, either. Dogs are also far more motivated by random reinforcement than regular reinforcement. (Think about it. You might only drop food while cooking once a month, but that's enough to keep the dog on your ass every single time you cook, without fail.)

Prayer works in exactly the same way. Now, there are only three results of prayers: the situation (or whatever) works out as you want it to, it does not work out as you want it to, it stays exactly the same. Suppose your mother is in the hospital in a coma. You pray for her to get better. One of three things is going to happen irrespective of prayer: she'll get better, she'll get worse, she'll stay the same.

If you prayed, and she gets better, you attribute this to prayer. Wow! God's great. Next week, however, dad ends up in the hospital in a coma. You pray to god again, only this time, dad dies. The week after that, your spouse ends up in the hospital, in a coma. (S)he stays in a coma, getting neither better nor worse.

So, looking at this logically, it's totally unpredictable as to which prayer will be answered, and prayers are "answered" with the same frequency as random chance, but that doesn't matter. It's random reinforcement, and you're as hooked as the blue-haired old lady in stirrup pants at the slot machine.


  1. Ah, ah, ah, but you forget that God does answer every prayer. It’s just that sometimes, he says, “fuck off and stop whining to me for fuck’s sakes!!! Can’t you do anything by yourselves already?!”. (Or something like that.)

    Really, the ratio between the prayers that seem to be answered (specifically with a “yes”) and those not answered (or said “no” to) seems a wee bit random. Odd how Christians don’t seem to notice that.

    It’s as Harlan Ellison said:

    « The Universe will one day give you the lottery for $16 million, and next day, colon cancer. The Universe doesn’t know; the Universe doesn’t care. »

  2. There was a study on confirmation bias, where the researches randomly gave birds food pellets. The birds had levers, buttons, and other things in their cage. By the end of the study the birds were doing all sorts of crazy things to get the food to come out. I believe one would pull the lever, then bob his head three times, then push the button, or something like that.

    I can't find the study right now though.

  3. Y'know, just yesterday I came across this post on Best of Craigslist and couldn't get over how strikingly similar it looked to my life as a Christian...

    Beamstalk, your study reminds me of an episode of Malcolm In The Middle, where the dad is attempting to bowl a perfect game, and goes through an elaborate, ever-growing series of rituals each turn. Can't find a video clip, alas.

  4. Reminds me of this video 'The Greatest Optical Illusion in the world'

  5. I have heard the expression that "There Are No Atheists In Foxholes".

    Having been one, I can tell you that like most slogans, it keeps people from thinking.

    I have noticed something, though. When we were in a very bad situation I did, indeed, hear people call upon their deity. I also heard about as many call upon their mothers.

    I know it isn't scientific, I observed about as much evidence of the presence of one as the other.

    Which answered the petition? A deity or a mother?

  6. Sarge;

    "Which answered the petition? A deity or a mother?"

    well, many of us pagans think the answer to that question is "both"

    don't mind me... lol

  7. Wouldn't have been my mother. When I got wounded she told my wife that it served me right. ;-)

    And I'm SERIOUS about it!

  8. erm - sorry, that was a joke about the fact that we worship the Goddess, who is the Mother of God, the Great Mother, etc.


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