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The Power of Conditioned Stimuli: Bossed Around by My Teakettle

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Tea for two

Years ago Kay Laurence was visiting Boston and staying at my apartment. Kay and I both like a cup of tea in the morning. I boiled water in an old stainless steel Revere Ware kettle I inherited from my stepmother about a million years ago. Kay made me a present of an electric teakettle. The electric teakettle looked a lot like my old stainless steel teakettle and was the same size, but it had a built-in plastic base that plugged into the wall. It boiled much faster and was a whole lot easier to clean. I threw the ancient Revere Ware kettle away.

tea kettle

Danger ahead

We used the new kettle during Kay's visit and I went on using it very happily for a month or so. Then one sleepy morning I filled the new kettle with water, but instead of attaching the cord and plugging it in, I absentmindedly put the kettle on the stove, turned on the flame, and…oops. The plastic base immediately made flames halfway to the ceiling. I doused it in the sink, but of course the kettle was done for.

However, I had now learned that an electric kettle was much more convenient—Kay was right about that—so I went out and got another just like it. Another sleepy morning, I again put the kettle on the stove and again turned on the flame. Again, oops.

A more-than-subtle change

I thought there must be a way to own an electric kettle without triggering the responses built into my brain by the shape, size, and color of the kettle I'd been using for decades. I went to the appliance store and looked for something different. Yes! They had electric teakettles. Some of them were shaped like "real" teakettles. But others were shaped like coffee pots. And the coffee pot kinds were mostly vertical, like a jug, and black, not stainless steel.

I bought a nice black electric jug. The alteration of the conditioned stimuli of shape and color did indeed prove sufficient to protect the new pot from being placed, and burned, on the stove.

I liked that pot. I used it every day. It had its drawbacks, of course; what appliance doesn't? Toasters are worse—at least this pot boiled water while no modern toaster actually makes good toast. One nuisance I found with the electric kettle was that to pour the water you had to hold down a button, and right next to that button was a hot spot in the pot's plastic side, invisible but hot enough to hurt.

Another irritation was that the kettle took quite some time to heat the water. Also, there was no way to tell when it was done except to look to see if the red light was out. And, it made a great tangle of cord on the counter, which was messy and confusing because of the tangle of cord from the little chopping thing that also lives on the kitchen counter. It was hard to put the pot back on the plastic base; it only went a certain way, so you had to fiddle with it. And you couldn't tell if the kettle was full or empty except by lifting it.

Here we go again

Early this fall, the electric kettle started being unreliable about turning on at all. You had to kind of slam it in a certain way. I decided to replace it. I went to Target and looked at a jillion coffee makers and a few simple jugs. There were none, I noted, that looked like traditional kettles. Perhaps I wasn't the only person who had been conditioned to burn up electric kettles.

I bought an Oster, which looked like a silver coffee pot, and was marked down from $35 to $25, always a good thing. I took it out of its box, washed it, filled it with water, plugged it in, and made tea. Wow! Unlike the toasters, which get even more expensive and even worse at making toast, this kettle actually shows improvement over the previous black jug. The wire coils up inside the bottom so it doesn't lie all over the counter. It is amazingly fast to boil. Really fast. There's a water depth indicator, and a heat indicator, and a friendly ping to tell you when it's done boiling. The pot connects to the center of the base, and it swivels with ease so it goes on its base just right no matter how carelessly you set it down.

I think I'll have a cup of tea right now.

Then I started looking thoughtfully at the microwave oven. "For maybe ten years I have put up with YOU." The inscrutable guide book. The weight/time knob that doesn't work anymore. The 10-step directions for setting the clock. You have to change the clock any time the power goes out, plus twice a year for daylight savings time. But the directions are totally counterintuitive, and I can never remember how to do it, so I have to keep the instructions on the fridge door where I feel a twinge of annoyance every time I notice them. Above all, I hate the irritating "I'm done" beep that will repeat every five minutes FOREVER if you don't come and turn it off.

I am tired of being bossed around by this oven. It's like riding a surly horse. Yes, you get some use out of it, but it's a struggle all the way. Maybe Oster makes microwave ovens, too…

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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