Marriage and Our Fear of the Robot Takeover

My wife says I’m manipulative. She says it like it’s a bad thing. She’s right, though. I am trying to manipulate her.

But is it a bad thing?

Here’s something that I do that readers can try at home without supervision.

When my wife is being the totally excellent, kind and intelligent human being that I married, I refer to her as “Sweet Heart” or “Sweetie.” That’s a standard for comparison. Now, if my wife is being the wonderful person I married, but seems a little happier than usual, I will refer to her as my “my Little Wife.” However, I also refer to her as “my Little Wife” if I’ve done something stupid — it happens more often than I care to admit. When I do this, I hope that her body will unconsciously generate happy chemicals. I can apologize, suffer few negative consequences, and our marriage can happily continue.

(Readers at home should note that there is a risk of generating unhappy chemicals by this process. If your wife spends most of the time telling you that you’re being a jerk, this conditioning strategy will probably result in a vicious spiral ending in divorce.)

Anyway, my wife says I’m manipulative and, being an honest person, I can admit that it’s true. But is it such a bad thing?

Some call this sort of manipulation “conditioning.” Conditioning can seem threatening because it emphasizes our programmable robot nature, which reminds us of our mortality as a biological species.

Although it’s natural to fear the future, it does not follow that it is right to act out of that fear.

And I think robots are pretty cool anyway.

Conditioning also has a bad rep because Pavlov famously programmed a bunch of dogs to salivate whenever they heard a bell. To do this, he created an association between the sound of a bell ringing and food. Eventually, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard the bell. Some people might also associate conditioning with BF Skinner’s terrarium for infants. So in addition to building on the terror of robots in our collective unconscious, we can argue that conditioning also gets a bad name because it seems dehumanizing.

However, we also do this sort of thing for good.

Without any mustaches being twisted, I suspect that every parent engages in some form of conditioning when raising their children (though perhaps only a few go as far as BF Skinner). Sports rely on chants and music to generate an unconscious response. Teachers regularly instill classroom routines to create a safe learning environment. I would not be surprised to learn that doctors use color and sound to treat patients of both medicine and psychology.

So while I will confess to trying to condition my wife into remembering that she loves me even though I do stupid things, I don’t think this is necessarily a fault.

However, what if it is wrong to manipulate others through indirect means?


I guess I’d point out that I know my wife is trying to condition me as well.

Two wrongs make a right.

Having said that, I’ve heard my wife whisper to her friends that she’s trying to “domesticate” me, a description that I find offensive.

I’m being programmed.


One Response to “Marriage and Our Fear of the Robot Takeover”

  1. For some reason, I can’t get the image of a borg in an apron, scrubbing the toilet on his knees, out of my head.

    Good post. Conditioning does make things easier. For example, I normally don’t laugh at a joke, even if I think it’s pretty hilarious. My wife, though, gets upset if she spends effort into making entertainment for me, and I don’t respond. I feel the only solution is to condition myself to laugh whenever I feel even mildly entertained. I might have to take a look at Skinner, and do to myself whatever he’d do to make his class laugh at his jokes.

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