Sunday, December 04, 2005

Learning From Emptiness

Intuition is one of the most important elements of survival. Intuition expressed as fear- the tingling in the back of your neck or the feeling of vague disquiet- can keep you alive if you heed and act. However it is difficult to practice, difficult to train.

In Operant Conditioning terms, an intuitive warning is reinforced by a 'negative reward'. Quick explanation of terms:
Positive Reward (PR): Something good happens. Puppy gets a treat.
Negative Reward (NR): Something bad DOESN'T happen. Puppy doesn't get kicked.
Positive Punishment (PP): Something bad happens. Puppy gets kicked.
Negative Punishment (NP): Something good is withheld. Puppy gets ignored.

Positive and Negative are not value judgements but only indicate presence or absence. Reward and Punish are the value holders.

A few more examples- grounding is NP, denying contact with other kids. Spanking is PP, adding pain. Going out for ice cream is PR, adding a treat. Giving a day off from homework is NR, removing something unpleasant. The Operant Conditioning concept is a good tool. Once you realize that something as simple as a smile can be used as PR or a blank stare as NP you can modify behaviors even in a short conversation.

There are some rules for this- PP and PR should follow the action you want modified as soon as possible. If the result is delayed, it will be tied to the behavior that immediately preceded it. Example, criminals almost never associate their sentence with their crimes, but with their trials. You will hear, "I got 72 months because my attorney was a dick." You will not hear, "I got 72 months because I robbed and beat a guy almost to death."

One of the rules is that NR is one of the weakest ways to change behavior, and NR is the operating factor in training intuition.

Think about that: you get a bad feeling so you don't go to the stranger's car or open the door to the smiling delivery man or walk down that dark alley and consequently you AREN'T raped or murdered or robbed. But you'll never know for sure if it was going to happen, so you'll never be sure what, if anything, you prevented.

Several years ago, I got a bad feeling about the kitchen. Our kitchen has 25 inmates, three civilians and one unarmed officer along with all the knives, tools and machines you expect in an industrial kitchen. Earlier in the day we had inmates refusing to go to work, then inmates getting in trouble for stupid stuff almost like they wanted to go to 'the hole'... it seemed like they wanted to be out of there. My internal alarms were going off. I talked to the lieutenant and he authorized me one deputy to try to prevent whatever was (or wasn't) going to happen. I picked Craig, one of my tactical team members, former marine, good officer and a good man and we spent the rest of the shift in the kitchen, talking to everyone, being everywhere.

Nothing happened. I'll never know if we prevented a hostage situation, a riot, a planned fight or nothing at all. Nothing happened. It's hard to learn from nothing.

Last night, I was priveleged to watch an old friend work. Andy was my predecessor as Tactical Team leader. He had a problem in reception- a huge, violent con who was refusing to process into the jail. I listened as Andy laid out his detailed, spur-of-the-moment tactical plan with the easy authority that I've always admired. This was the man who had taught me to plan and I didn't realize it before. The plan went off without a hitch, the positions of the deputies, the tools present, the verbal commands, the timing and contingencies all laid out in advance and the inmate never had an opportunity to succeed so he didn't get violent. No force was necessary, no force was used. Nothing happened.

Afterwards, Andy asked me if he handled it right, if he should have authorized force during the few times it would have been within policy. First off, it's weird being asked for a critique from someone you consider your teacher. But the core is that even with his experience and his certain knowledge that a use of force avoided is better than one won, the fact that nothing happened felt wrong. Incomplete. No closure.

Some of the greatest successes are empty and invisible. It's hard to celebrate that.

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