Ever wonder why confident people get more confident? Why the kids a little better at sports become the athletes way better than all of us? Human beings tend to pick up velocity in whatever they do. Behaviorists like B. F. Skinner tell us that when people reward one of your personality traits, they reinforce the personality trait. It takes great mental power to undo their influences. We can use a statistical model to also understand this phenomenon. Abstractly, human behavior follows a Polya Process. Economists often use this statistical model to explain why the rich get richer. But we can apply it to all sorts of behavior as well.
Quick refresher in statistical models!
In the Polya Process, there’s an urn with a red marble and a green marble. A clear 50/50 split. The rules are that 1) you pick up a marble at random, 2) put it back, and 3) insert another marble with the same color you picked. After picking up 100 marbles, look into the urn. You will see that now there is nowhere near a 50/50 split anymore between red marbles and green marbles. One color will wildly dominate the urn (most likely the first color you picked). Let’s see why.
If you picked up a green marble on your first turn (which is a 50/50 chance), you will add another green marble. Suddenly your odds of picking up a green marble on the second turn are no longer 1/2. They’re 2/3. It jumped because the current outcomes depend on the past. The Polya Process is an example of past-dependent behavior.
Now let’s see how this applies to human nature. Remember the psychological theory of behaviorism teaches that our current behavior depends on how our past behavior was punished or rewarded. Therefore, behaviorism is also an example of past-dependent behavior. I’ll use a personal example to illustrate an idea of how behaviorism and the Polya Process shape our choices, personality, and identity.
Back in college, I was stuck between pursuing data analytics and something more creative like marketing. I wasn’t sure which one I could pull off, so I took an internship in a neuroscience marketing company where I could do both.
Early in my internship, perhaps out of pure chance, I made a helpful point in a data analysis project the psychologists were working on. Nothing fancy. I happened to remember something about multicollinnearity from my statistics class, and I pointed it out in a regression problem. Something most kids in my class could do. However, my regression-checking behavior was reinforced. The cognitive scientist down the hall started calling me a statistician just for fun. I heard the Director of Analytics whisper to someone, “We should offer her a job once she graduates.” (They did. I turned them down. It got awkward. Different story.) According to the Polya Process, when people affirmed my analytical thinking, another data analysis marble fell into the Polya urn. Thoughts of data analysis begin to fill my head. When working on a neuromarketing project, it was more likely the data analysis side of me would come out rather than the creative marketing side. Each time it got rewarded, a data analysis marble fell into the urn.
Needless to say, I decided to major in statistics, and I’ve worked in data analytics for the past five years. Honestly, I don’t think I’m inherently more gifted in statistics than the average person. Maybe the only thing that sets me apart is that I find stats really fun. But I think a lot of things are fun that I’m really bad at. Singing Broadway style. Paddle boarding. Making pancakes (They always taste like biscuits instead of pancakes.) Anyhow.
Now we want to ask ourselves two follow-up questions:
1) In my upbringing, relationships, and career start, which Polya marble was picked up first?
2) Do I have the ability to intentionally choose the Polya marble of my choice and reinforce that one?
I can’t answer the first one for you. As for the second, I think you do have the choice to rig your Polya Process. I wouldn’t have become a therapist if I believed we were sole victim of reinforcers in our environments. Yes, though my career urn was largely filled with data analyst marbles, one day I intentionally picked up clinical counseling marbles and started reinforcing that. Now I just write a weird mix of data analytics and psychology in a blog. It’s like Princess Aurora’s dress becoming a tie-dyed mess of pink and blue, but I like it.
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