March 4, 2013
Of Dogs, Men, and Stolen Bases
This is one of the nerdiest pictures of myself that I have. It's me in 2006 in Moscow, Russia, at Universitet Lomonosov (aka Moscow State University) standing next to a statue of Ivan Pavlov, the man who discovered the stimulus-responses conditioning reaction in his famous experiments with dogs. Every time I look at this picture, I still salivate. How d'you like that?
Pavlov's big idea, which seems obvious now (all the big ones do), was that dogs (and eventually, people) can form associations between a stimulus and a response that have nothing to do with one another. At the time, it was assumed that animals and people reacted to their immediate surroundings. So, when Pavlov, whose real aim was to collect saliva samples from dogs for work on understanding the digestive system (work for which he won a Nobel Prize!), saw that the dogs were salivating "too early", he wondered why. What he figured out was that the dogs were learning that hearing the footsteps of his assistant coming down the hall meant mealtime. And so the dogs started to salivate. Pavlov eventually replicated the experiment with his famous bell (and other noises).
Thus was born the field of classical conditioning. The theory was eventually extended. Reward a behavior, and dogs (and humans) will do it more often. Punish the behavior, and dogs (and humans) will do it less. The more times you do it, the more ingrained the pattern becomes.
Managers have a funny job description, when you think about it. They don't hit or pitch or field, but they do get to make all of the strategic decisions, including whether the runner on first should stay put or try to steal. Often the runner gets the blame or the credit for being safe or out, but everyone knows who gives the sign.
It must feel nice when the steal succeeds. I'm generalizing from when I hit the "steal" button in a sim game and it works, but there's every reason to believe that it feels good in real life too. And it must be painful to realize that your decision just cost your team a baserunner and an out. So, I got to wondering whether managers were a little less likely to hit the "steal" button if earlier in the game, they had been punished for this behavior by suffering a caught stealing.