Rudy the pigeon in a Skinner box making the wrong choices again and again- Seu bul Jae

For someone intimately familiar with Seu bul jae, I’m intrigued when people make the same mistakes over and over, despite having a rational understanding of the negative consequences. I think of the Psychology of Learning Class that I took at Carleton College that demanded I teach a slow-witted pigeon named Lola, the Skinner method of learning by applying a series of positive and negative reinforcements. How I disliked having to reach my hand into her cage every class and bear her indignant screech and battling wings long enough to place her in the metal learning box. Lola, I quickly discovered, was a bit of a clod, slow to learn from her mistakes. If she did peck the right button inside her cage wall, leading to a tray with bird seed, she would indulge happily—only to shortly thereafter peck at the wrong buttons-jack hammer style—and stare blankly at the empty trays of food. I did, however, feel some affection for the idiot fowl. (She was at least pretty with white feathers and shiny black eyes like a dove).

I have less sympathy for Lola’s human counterparts like Rudy Guiliani whose gradual descent from popular mayor to the alarming Zombie with the black goo dripping off his face/supporter of Trump was inevitable. His repeated pie -in-the- sky allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election— blatant lies–have resulted in the suspension of his law license and his widely acknowledged villain status. He had to know that his repeated, outrageous incitement would lead to negative consequences (or maybe Trump followers gave him adequate positive enforcement).  Let’s not forget Jeffrey Toobin, formerly respected scholar of the U.S. Supreme Court etc who is forever etched in our minds as the delinquent Zoom masturbator–regardless of his recent re-emergence on t.v.  

For some, embarrassment, shame, an empty tray of seeds and/or pecuniary loss are not enough deterrence for wrong behavior. Perhaps, Rudy, Jeffrey, Lola and many of us need one of those bracelets I once saw featured on Shark Tank, that shock your wrist to inhibit negative behaviors. Perhaps gut crunching, searing physical pain rather than embarrassment and shame is in order for certain segment of society—celebrities and people with ADHD.

Similarly for me, shame/self- flagellation, embarrassment and pecuniary loss from messing up dates in my calendar are seemingly not enough to alter my ADHD behavior.  Most recently last Friday, leisurely picking up my phone, I heard my friend on the other line saying “I hear there’s bad traffic coming here. You stuck?”

Utterly confused, I was silent.

“You and the kids are on the Jitney to me right?”

The answer was no. I had thought my friend had invited me to her country house the following day, her young children now disappointed and a round of inconvenience for everyone. Perhaps my friend would have liked to administer a jolt of electricity to me that day and I don’t blame her.

My therapist once suggested I get positive reinforcement for being flakey at times (I am capable of having my head on my shoulders it should be noted). Could it be that I somehow think this behavior-losing my crap and irritating friends, is somehow charming? Perhaps this blog where I document and connect with others over my mishaps is positive reinforcement. (Then you readers are complicit so avert your eyes!) I’m a little at a loss how you can program a bracelet to track your misdeeds but I may have to invest in this shock therapy. So If I  fail to double check each date in my calendar one day and it leads to chaos, BUZZ.

With such a bracelet, if I buy a white linen couch/a white tablecloth during my kids’ formative years or deign to purchase anything style-forward or anything not covered in protective vinyl like my grandmother’s furniture, my bracelet will shock some sense into me and remind me that my kids are mess tyrants who delight in using non water soluble art supplies and Hansel and Gretel-ing through my apartment–snacks in tow. I must resign myself to having an apartment that is known for aesthetically displeasing choices like my glass coffee table that was for years encircled by a gray protective padding (causing a stylish friend who used to work at Chanel to comically comment “your furniture has a diaper.”

Finally, I think of friends I may have admittedly judged when they have stayed in ruinous relationships with men who lie, cheat and do other irritating things like gamble their savings away or leave the bad eggs for similar rot. (Of course, this author has only made pristine decisions in all my relationships). Ho, Ho, Ho. Bracelets for everyone!

In my own life, I once shoplifted at age 19 in Minnesota and was caught and arrested. (For years, I told no one this in my life. When I started dating anyone seriously, I’d tell them this as a litmus test: would they run when they heard this confession? I thought they might but they were never that impressed). I was the saddest shoplifter, trembling and afraid-all 112 pounds of me. I’ll never forget the store owner calling the police as she clutched her baby to her chest–miraculously cowered by me. Fortunately, utter humiliation and a misdemeanor on my record were enough to cure me of any shoplifting inclination. Or maybe the reaction of the 10 year old Northfield girl with whom I volunteered as a mentor was the panacea. She had been told of my arrest by the mentorship program, Project Friendship, and, accordingly, I could no longer be her mentor. In the middle of my college’s main lounge surrounded by classmates, the two of us sat at a table across from each other after she had been told the news by someone else. Her sweet freckled face in tears. “I can’t believe YOU could do this,” she’d said—suggesting some degree of respect for me. I never forgot that. That negative reinforcement, I believe, was my salvation. No shock treatment needed.

What works best to alter your negative behaviors–positive reinforcement (praise, rewards) or negative (embarassment, physical pain, pecuniary loss)?

2 thoughts on “Seu bul jae-Korean expression meaning self imposed disaster

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