Category Archives: Premack principle

"Climb Every (effing) Mountain"

Did you know that the actor who starred in the movie version of The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer, found it so insufferably mawkish and goody-two-shoes, that he referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus”? Fact. The “mountain” depicted in this picture is really just a hill on our daily woodland walk; but, even though I do 50 minutes of aerobic training at home each morning before tackling this “ascent,” it always leaves me dizzy and gasping for air. [Humiliation in addition to a brief bout of pain & suffering.] So, why do I do it? That’s an Existential question, for another post. How do I do it? I apply the Premack Principle.

This is one of those robust, game-changing, life-enhancing concepts I learned about in grad school [back in the day], that has been completely watered down, in modern textbooks. Here is Ray Corsini’s definition, in The Dictionary of Psychology (2002 edition): “David Premack’s contention that given two behaviors with differing likelihoods of occurring, the behavior more likely to occur may be used to reinforce the less likely behavior.” [Yawn]

Here’s how we learned it: “Faced with two tasks, one of which is short & simple, and the other of which is long & complex, an individual is more likely to choose to do the short, simple task.” Our example for teaching this to our Intro Psych students @ USNA was to ask them, “During which two weeks in the academic year are Midshipmen’s belt buckles the shiniest?” Answer: “During the Pre-exam Reading Periods of 1st & 2nd semester.” Why? Because, faced with the tasks of Brasso-ing one’s belt buckle or studying for an Electrical Engineering exam, one will choose the simple but gratifying task of banishing tarnish from a belt buckle (and any other other metal surface) first. (Then, polishing one’s shoes…)

So, here’s the power of this principle. In order to increase the likelihood of tackling a long & complex task, you should “Premack” it into short(er), simple(r) little steps. If a grown-up says to a kid, “Pick up your room,” (and it’s not a scene from a Disney movie), the likely result will be…not a picked up room, I’m tellin’ ya. If the grown-up says, “First, gather up all the used towels in your room,” it will be (more likely to be) done.

When faced with that most onerous and complex of tasks, “Finish your doctoral dissertation,” my classmates & I resorted to all manner of short & simple tasks, such as finishing the NYTimes crossword puzzle, or at least filling in all the S’s for the plural clues. This was mid-70s, mind you, when a search of the relevant literature meant hunting down journal articles by pawing through tomes of indices, and then reading the articles on microfische…oh, it exhausts me even to tell you. So, I would Premack it: “I’ll sit in the library, scribbling on my little index cards, until I have filled 10 of them, and then I’ll rest from my labors (for the day). I’ll come back tomorrow and do 10 more.”

That’s how I get up the hill each day. I Premack it: by keeping my eyes steadfastly fixed on each day-glow-orange-painted tree root, like the rungs of a ladder, just a short distance apart; and avoiding looking up the hill, to see how many, many more “rungs” are left ahead of me. [Also, to distract me from the agony of so many expended Therbligs, in my head I “sing” a song of non-lexical vocables, such as “Nana Window” or the “Ying Tong” song.]

So, do ya see, this could be a strategy to keep from being consumed by the Zeigarnik effect. “I’ll think of 3 new places to look for those missing forage balls. I’ll look, and then I’ll rest from my labors.” (That is, I’ll move on to something completely different, also on my list of self-assigned tasks.) Between the push-me-pull-you of Premack & Zeigarnik, I get a surprising number of things done each day, especially considering that I am a cognitive Kangaroo. Not everything, mind you. But there’s always tomorrow…


Leave a comment

Filed under Premack principle, therbligs, Zeigarnik effect