Candlelight and Praise
what Witches can learn from Behavioral Psychology

by Judy Harrow

You might think that behavioral psychology has nothing at all to do with magic, and less than nothing to do with mysticism. It's about cold-eyed scientists in white coats who focus on measurable trivia, willfully ignoring any consideration of consciousness or soul. That's the stereotype.

It ain't so. Witches use behavioral psychology all the time, although many of us don't know it and some would truly hate to admit it.

Behavioral psychology is the study of what people actually do, of observable behavior. It's largely about understanding how we change what we do, how we learn. In fact, behaviorists define learning as "a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from experience." Notice that the this definition says nothing at all about just what kind of change is being made. That, rather than the methodology of change, is what makes Witches and other spiritual types different from most other people.

It's important to understand that the behavioral model of learning is not the only possible model. Cognitive psychologists define learning quite differently, as a change in the way we mentally represent our environment, a change in our understanding. These might just be two different ways of describing the same learning process, but I don't think so. I think behavioral learning and cognitive learning are actually two very different activities, which we might call training and education.

Education, cognitive learning, creates understanding. Training, behavioral learning, builds skill. Although these are different, each nurtures the other. Both are important, but for different purposes. Understanding the biological processes of yeast is not the same as being able to perceive when the kneaded dough in your hands is ready to form loaves. You need the sensory, experiential knowledge to bake good bread. You need both kinds of knowledge to create new recipes.

Our religious practice involves specific behavioral skills: trance, dream recall, ritual skills and more. In tribal cultures, such skills are routinely taught to children, but the children of western industrial society receive very different inputs. So, for most of us, Wiccan development has to begin with actual training, the acquisition of skills neglected in our upbringing. Still, it need not, and should not, end there. Although education follows training, it is just as necessary for the continued life and growth of our traditions.

Here's another very mundane example: I'm what the computer jocks call a "dumb end user," pretty good at word processing, but clueless about circuits or computer code. I am trained to use the computer, but not educated in computer science. Within limits, I can do what I want. I could write this article. But if I ever want to do something new or unusual, I ask my resident programmer to write a program for me. Without him, I'd be limited to existing software.

On the other hand, someone without practical experience working with software packages is unlikely to write a very user friendly - or useful - program. Without education, we are limited to rote repetition of what has worked in the past. Without training, we can't even do that much.

Behavioral psychology has nothing to do with education, but it has everything to do with training, with learning in the sense of changing, improving, what we actually do. So the paradox here is that to learn about behaviorism is to obtain education about training. We know some ways of training people. If we can understand the process of training better, perhaps we can design even more effective training systems.

Behaviorists talk in terms of "conditioning." Two generations of behaviorists developed two different models, called "classical conditioning" and "operant conditioning." Wiccan training can benefit from both of these models.

  1. Classical Conditioning:

  2. Remember the old joke about the mad Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, who was so well-trained by his dogs that, whenever they salivated, he would ring a bell and feed them?

    Here's how it really went: Salivating at the sight of food is a normal response for a dog. So the food is called the unconditioned stimulus and the salivation is called the unconditioned response. Pavlov rang a bell whenever he fed his dogs. After a while, the dogs came to associate the sound of the bell with food. Eventually, they would salivate whenever they heard the bell, even if there was no food around. Once this response was firmly established, the bell tone would be described as a conditioned stimulus. Salivation in response to the bell tone alone would be called a conditioned response.

    What classical conditioning techniques do is to link experiences such as tasting food and hearing bells. By careful attention to the conditions under which certain responses naturally occur, and by carefully created and maintained associations, we can gain voluntary control over behaviors that are otherwise spontaneous or erratic. This means that we can turn some easily repeatable experiences into cues to enter magical states of consciousness.

    Candlelight, incense smoke, the tactile sensation of robes or of nudity, particular patterned words, any or all of these, and much more, can become conditioned stimuli. We in fact have two sets of carefully orchestrated conditioned stimuli for a two-stepped transition, one into the state of consciousness appropriate for being in Circle at all, and the second for entering deep trance. (Using stimuli in groups this way, rather than singly, is a safeguard against unintentionally eliciting the response outside of its proper context. You will very rarely want to go into trance during a romantic candlelit dinner for two, so you don't want candlelight alone to be your stimulus.)

    This is what it means when we say the power is in the mind, not the things. Ordinary objects, things like knives and cups, can by carefully created and maintained associations, become conditioned stimuli. These things have no intrinsic power, only the power we invest in them, power that comes through us. By our own will and skill, we come to perceive consecrated objects as taking on a magical "charge."

    To turn some sight or sound or smell into a conditioned stimulus, use it every single time you want that response and no other time. To take another secular example, insomniacs are well-advised not to read, eat, chat on the phone or watch television in bed, in order to establish a firm association of bed with sleep.The more you can keep the use both consistent and exclusive, the more firmly the habit will form. 

    To consecrate something is to set it apart for sacred use. To profane it is to handle it as though it were secular, to weaken its association with the Sacred. Our inhibition against using consecrated objects or ritual words or gestures outside of their sacred context is rooted in sound, scientifically based behavioral psychology. What we call profanation, Pavlov called extinction, the erosion of a conditioned response. When he rang his bells just ten times without feeding them, his dogs stopped salivating at the sound.

    At the beginning of my pre-initiatory training, I was asked to obtain a Circle necklace, one that was not to be worn at any other time. I remember with embarrassment hunting for the cheapest necklace I could find, not wanting to "waste money" on something that would have only limited use. Today, there's no way I would consider wearing my precious amber-and-jet mundanely.

    When I put that special necklace on, and expose myself to a whole variety of other conditioned stimuli which address all the various sensory channels, I am telling myself in very powerful ways, far deeper than words alone could reach, that magical and mystical behaviors are now in order. The vocabulary is very different, but the process is the same as the one that Pavlov demonstrated with his dogs.

  3. Operant Conditioning:

  4. Not to be left out, operant conditioning has its own tired old joke. B.F. Skinner, it seems, liked to pace the platform while lecturing. One semester, the students in the first couple of rows conspired. Whenever Skinner came close to the edge, they would look real interested and write in their notebooks. Within a week, they say, Skinner fell off the platform.

    This is the difference: classical conditioning is directed toward the stimuli, toward what happens before the behavior we would like to establish or change, operant conditioning is directed toward what happens after, toward the feedback that the behavior calls forth. So classical conditioning works best for evoking a response, while operant conditioning works best for developing a skill.

    The story about Skinner pacing is either a fable or an illustration of baneful use. Either way, it illustrates the two most important things Witches can learn from operant conditioning: successive approximation and positive reinforcement.

    Skinner did a lot of his own research with pigeons, and the pigeon lab is still the popular image of his work. It's also the source of a good illustration of how we can teach new skills by reinforcing successive approximations. Suppose you want to train a pigeon to peck at the center of a target on his cage wall. At first, you give the pigeon a pellet if he even faces toward that particular wall. When he's doing that regularly, you wait till he takes a step toward the wall before feeding him. Then you increase the number of steps required to earn a pellet. Eventually, the reward comes when he actually touches any part of the wall. Next, you wait till he touches the outer ring of the target, then the next ring and so on. Finally, bull's eye!

    Incidentally, another technical term for training by reinforcing successive approximations of the goal is "shaping" behavior. To shape, to bend -- root meanings of the word "Witch." Interesting, yes?

    Positive reinforcement for a pigeon may be a food pellet, but notice that the front row students did not offer Skinner a cookie as he paced a little closer to the platform's edge each day. Most of the people we're likely to be training, like Skinner, already get enough to eat, but still hunger for attention and approval. For a lecturer, this might well take the form of students taking note of what he says.

    One of the major applications of operant conditioning is biofeedback. The only reinforcement those machines provide is information. Just by giving people a way to see how they are doing, biofeedback allows people to assume control of bodily functions such as blood pressure that, until recently, were thought of as entirely involuntary. These subtle changes in the body certainly facilitate changes in consciousness, with obvious relevance for mystics and magicians.

    Initiations and elevations are certainly a form of attention and approval, major positive reinforcement. They are, however, very big rewards, spaced far apart and requiring a great deal of work and major personal learning and change. If those are the only reinforcements available, it's something like withholding the pellet till the pigeon actually pecks at the bull's eye. The odds of success are much greater if we provide smaller and far more achievable rewards in between.

    Put that way, it sounds like common sense, but it goes against the habits of mainstream Euro-American culture. We tend to take note of problem behavior - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" - or of extraordinary achievement. Quiet success, everyday competence, gets ignored. When somebody is "just" doing their job, this is not even considered noteworthy, let alone praiseworthy. But, in the view of operant conditioning, behavioral extinction results from the repeated performance of any behavior in the absence of reinforcers. Or, in plain English, ignore it, and it will go away.

    From Skinner and his pigeons, we learn that behavior can be most effectively changed -- that new skills can best be taught -- if we divide the grand goal into many small incremental steps, and warmly acknowledge each small achievement, even the ones we fully expected.

So, back to poor old B.F. Skinner, falling off the platform. Behavioral techniques are fairly easy to use. All they really require is some consistency. They are also very effective. Whether or not they actually were used to play a stupid, cruel joke on Skinner, they certainly could have been. They can also be used coercively, as they are in some workplaces, to make somebody do what you want for your own selfish reasons. Or they can be used manipulatively, as they are in some social programs, to alter someone's behavior without their consent in ways that you may believe are "for their own good." Well, so can our magic, and bread knives can murder. Does this potential for unethical usage make the tools or techniques themselves unethical? Hardly.

As with all magical workings intended to change someone, ethical use hinges on that person's consent.

You don't need to sneak behavioral techniques in. They work every bit as well, if not better, when openly used. Understanding them does not detract from their effectiveness. A willing recipient can cooperate with the conditioned stimuli, and even apply them herself. A willing recipient can learn to give himself "strokes," small positive reinforcements when he achieves small goals. 

Furthermore, it seems to me that permission in inherent in any freely chosen student/teacher relationship. When I ask someone to teach me, or sign up for their class -- whether I'm learning carpentry or Witchcraft -- I am asking them to teach me as skillfully as they know how. When I agree to teach someone, I make a commitment to teach them as well as I can. From that perspective, a teacher ethically can and should acquire and apply any skills, including those of behavioral psychology, that will help her students learn better.

In other words, behaviorism is perfectly OK -- as long as it is practiced between consenting adults, dogs, or pigeons!

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    Copyright © 1997 by Judith Harrow