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Operant conditioning and the creative artist

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Robert Genn is a painter who hosts the website www.thepainterskeys.com and sends out a semi-weekly e-newsletter on various art-related topics. I've been a subscriber for a few months now. When I received a newsletter on the connection between operant conditioning and creativity, I chuckled. I think you'll enjoy it. The letter is reprinted below, with Robert Genn's permission.

In case you haven't heard, "operant conditioning" is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of otherwise voluntary behavior.

For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more likely to repeat successfully if they're rewarded quickly after the behavior. Sitting at my easel this morning, I was wondering how operant conditioning might apply to creative folks.

Activities of the easel variety have built-in consequences, some subtle, some obvious, some immediate and some delayed—and, admit it, some are negative as well as positive.

Most of us will agree that the consequences often take the form of satisfaction. It's satisfying to do something well, to work things out, and to be appreciated for the performance. Some of us also get satisfaction in the outright pleasing of others--and being financially rewarded to boot.

Curiously, in the research of psychologist E.L. Thorndike, positive consequences given for every performance were not as effective a motivator as intermittent or infrequent rewards.

Apparently, satisfaction by reward wears off when it happens too often. Rats can take only so much sugar. That thought caused my brush to pause.

Consequences are of three main types: "Reinforcement" is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency. "Punishment" causes a behavior to occur with less frequency. "Extinction," or lack of consequence, also causes behavior to occur with less frequency. Thorndike found behaviors and their consequences to be measurable.

Here's where the fun begins. Even though a lousy performance is a form of punishment in itself, the rat can fool himself into thinking he did okay. Humans, much more sophisticated than rats, cats or dogs, can really do a job on themselves. However, self-foolery, with all its nuances, may still be the key to persistence and even happiness. Yep, we artists depend on our illusions. The illusion of potential perfection, riding as it does on our fragile egos, is the juice that keeps us running our mazes. That being said, one of my more successful dealers recently doubled his business by paying his artists every week.

Best regards,


PS: "Everything exists in some quantity and can therefore be measured." (E.L. Thorndike, 1874-1949)

Esoterica: No reaction at all—extinction—wears away on the individual until eventually the behavior grinds to a halt. This is a danger for artists who struggle in a vacuum. Joining clubs, exhibiting online, sending work away to distant galleries, inviting trusted friends to come over and crit goes part of the way, but it doesn't always ring the bell. Art is a rare pursuit where participants have to learn to ring their own bells.


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