You think it’s finally decided. And then…
Are you familiar with the idea of the “Variable Interval Ratio”? If not, then you’re in for a treat. Unless I misunderstand the concept myself, in which case, my apologies for inadvertently leading you astray.
The way I understand it, the “Variable Interval Ratio” involves a conditioning arrangement where, for example, a rat performs a task; they get a reward. They perform it again; they are rewarded again. They perform it a third time; and again, there’s the reward.
The rat starts to think,
“This is a pretty good life.”
They perform the task yet again…
And receive an excruciating shock.
“Wait a second. And, by the way, Ow!”
The rat thinks there must have been a mistake. For their overall mental wellbeing, they feel the need to understand what’s what. They perform the task – a little warily this time – again…
And they get a reward.
Things are relievedly back to normal… after some apparent “aberrant glitch.” Predictability has now happily been restored. All’s right with the world.
In celebration, they perform the task again.
Say hello to the “Variable Interval Ratio.”
Leaving the rat wandering helplessly around their cage, a dazed expression on their face, a touching tableau of rat-like confusion.
“The world makes no sense anymore. I may as well throw in the towel.”
As many rats, in fact, do.
Unable to handle the buffeting randomness of everyday existence.
So… (and my apologies for returning to this well a possibly unwelcome subsequent time)…
I walk into Groundwork Coffee Co., where I was once – for a succession of weeks – treated like a king, but then, inexplicably, fell out of favor, and had now returned to being treated like everyone else.
Not a “jolting shock”, perhaps, but it sure felt like one, due to a positive expectation I believed to be permanently entrenched. (You see the analogy there? Wait. It gets better.)
I step inside the emporium on my most recent excursion, at the restorative halfway point of my morning “Thursday Walk”, and before I reach the back of the ”Service Line”, the Captain Picard-domed store manager swoops into view and says to me,
And “just like that”,
(The “reward” returned, after several weeks of punishing indifference.)
How do I respond to this startling return to favor?
I may be startled, but I am painstakingly polite, throughout my queue-jumping elevation, ending with a (possibly overly) sincere “Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.” I was really “laying it on.” As if I had a say in this sudden reversal, which I most certainly did not.
I just didn’t want it to go away.
“What’s going on?” I exited, wondering. “Am I in, or am I out?”
For weeks, I had lived in a muted state of accepting resignation. “The good times are gone. So be it.”
How am I supposed to feel now?
It had been suggested – in a submitted comment I seem no longer able to receive – that the preferred treatment I experienced was the result of the store manager confusing me with someone who mattered, and then, discovering I wasn’t, it stopped.
Which I accepted as a reasonable explanation.
But why now had the specialized treatment suddenly returned?
A flurry of rationales floated to mind, none of them instigated by me because I’m only the rat.
It is all Captain Picard.
He thought I was big and when he found out I wasn’t,
“Turn off the ‘Gravy Train.’”
Then he looked himself in the mirror and thought,
“How snobbish of me. I cut him off ‘cause he’s a nobody. But should I really blame him? It’s not hisfault he’s a nobody. I shall now reinstitute the specialized treatment, even though he’s a nobody, because, ‘Hey, Everyone’s a somebody.’ Besides, now it won’t look like I’d treated him better before I found out he’s a nobody.”
Either it’s that, or I have entered a world where I try to determine a pattern and it turns out the prevailing pattern is a disorienting “No pattern.”
Trouble is, another Thursday morning will soon be upon us.
And I have no idea what to expect.
LAB RAT: “Welcome to my world. A helpful hint? Try not to defecate in frustration. They get mad when they have to clean up your cage.”