Life is like a bag of M&Ms

Allie Vergotz

I was used. And I enjoyed it. I even learned a lot from it. Please allow me to clarify.

Last week, in my psychology discussion section, my TA explained that we were going to review conditioning. For those of you unfamiliar with psychology, think Pavlov’s dogs: Ring a bell and they salivate. We were focusing on a different kind of conditioning, operant conditioning, in this class. Merriam-Webster defines this simply as “conditioning in which the desired behavior or increasingly closer approximations to it are followed by a rewarding or reinforcing stimulus.”

My TA began by asking who would rate themself a 10 on a scale from one to 10 (one being “I’m on a diet and don’t like M&M’s anyway” and 10 being “They’re, like, the best candy ever”). My hand shot up. I happen to thoroughly enjoy plain M&M’s.

So, I was sent out into the hall as my TA explained to the class the activity she had planned. I was quite confident that I was about to be humiliated.

I walked back into the room to find a classmate standing at the ready. “Would you like an M&M?” Well, yes, in fact, I would.

My class was instructed to get me to perform some sort of behavior (I had no idea what) by rewarding me with M&M’s and cheers when I did something right, like travel in the correct direction, or discourage me with jeers (and at one point, by even taking my M&M’s away) when I did something wrong.

I had no idea what was going on. I walked backwards and forwards, left and right, I jumped, I spun, I sat, I stood. But when I moved in the correct direction across the classroom, I received cheers and M&M’s; when I picked up the green dry-erase marker, I received more cheers and more M&M’s; and when I finally wrote “Allison” on the board (as was the goal), I received even more cheers and even more M&M’s. Basically, it was the best discussion section ever.

I walked back home with a smile on my face.

But then I started thinking about what I’d just done. I, a rather shy young woman, just stood in front of a class of 25 people and jumped up and down for M&M’s. It gave new meaning to the “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” advertisements of old.

And then I felt the need to turn this entire event into an extended metaphor for Duke life. So bear with me.

What is your bag of M&M’s? Is it grades, friends, significant others, job opportunities, graduate schools or medical schools?

We’re all getting through our years here driven by something, whether it is the dream of living a successful life or the dream of never having to look at another problem set again. Something’s pushing us.

We endure the jeers and criticisms, intended only to push us back on the right path, as we mess up along the way.

And when we do something right, we get our cheers and M&M’s in the form of internships, first dates, whatever.

A lot of the time, we don’t even know what it is that we’re trying to do. I could not have guessed that I was supposed to write my name on the board in green marker until I actually tried it.

So maybe, just maybe, getting through Duke — and, by extension, life — is just one big example of operant conditioning. We’re blindly going about our daily lives, driven by what is important or rewarding to us.

Sometimes, we’ll go that extra mile or take that extra risk (or spin in circles in front of a class) for something we deem worth it.

And, maybe, that’s not altogether a bad thing.

The above column by Allie Vergotz appeared in The Chronicle (Duke) Friday.