Ever noticed the strange things some Major League pitchers do in the moments just before hurtling a fastball toward home plate?

At a pitcher's opulent best, it can look something like this: adjust hat, over-the-shoulder glance toward third base, left foot shuffle in dirt, pound glove with ball, re-check third, arm stretch, pound glove again, deep breath, manly and self-indulgent scratching at . . .

Well, you get the point.

The pitching mound dance, and displays like them, may seem silly. But the truth is, we all perform similar behavioral ceremonies.

As a novice trainer, I once inadvertently choreographed in a dolphin the opening steps of a similar dance.

Luther was learning to participate in a scientific study that would eventually "ask" him a series of questions, one-by-one. To answer each question, he would be expected to provide a simple, behavioral response by touching the tip of his beak-like rostrum to one of two paddles.

Luther found the task confusing at first. Sometimes, in frustration, he would sink just below the surface and release two or three sizable bubbles of breath - the dolphin equivalent of a cartoon character's bubble of question marks.

One day, Luther provided a correct answer to a sample question, and I rewarded him with a quick tweet of my training whistle to signal the impending delivery of a fish snack. After having endured many fruitless efforts, Luther was so excited he could hardly contain himself. In fact, he emitted a high-pitched squeal of delight and darted off for a victory lap around his pen.

When he returned, I promptly fed him several fish without a thought as to what behavior I was actually reinforcing. Good trainers know that desired associations are largely established on the basis of how immediately a reward follows a behavior. I thought I was reinforcing his correct response, while I was actually rewarding his excited squeal and fast swim.

The elaborate pre-windup routines of many Major League pitchers are established in much the same way.

Each link in the behavioral chain they perform on the mound was, at some point, immediately followed by reward: a pick-off at first, a double-play grounder, or a game-saving strikeout. Subconsciously - and superstitiously - they devalue their own skill and come to regard good fortune as the outcome of the last behavioral hiccup they just happened to have performed before the big payoff.

Behavioral tics may seem odd, or they may fly under the radar since they are often the product of subconscious associations. Either way, they tend to show up in our daily lives in all sorts of ways. Some people put on a sock and a sock, then a shoe and a shoe. Others put on a sock and a shoe and sock and a shoe. Who among us doesn't enjoy a well-worn routine of one sort or another?

And probably, nature intended it just that way.

Routines, after all, are the bread-and-butter energy-savers of our daily existence. They help us perform automatically a whole host of - well, routine tasks that might otherwise drain brainpower needed to deal with life's more pressing perplexities. The next time you notice yourself rolling the toilet paper over, instead of under, or adjusting the rearview mirror before, not after, buckling the seatbelt, you might just consider whether it's really too late for a future in the Big Leagues. 

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

You are reading

The Dolphin Divide

Why We Choose the Words We Use

Can psychology restore your linguistic options?

Does Mood Shift Depend on Cognition...or Behavior?

Thinking versus doing: A study indicates effects on mood control.

How to Keep Calm, Carry On, and Still Get Your Way

Diffusing negative energy before it goes rodeo.