Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

August 2014

When did you first hear of Pavlov’s dog? You know, he rang a bell and gave the dog a treat. In time, the dog salivated (slobbered) at the sound of the bell. A conditioned reflex, it was (is) called, and 1901 was when Pavlov recorded his experiment. I think I was in elementary school, what grade escapes me and what class I can’t imagine, but I had always identified with Pavlov, not the dog.

I was wrong.

I (and you, too, I bet) have forever been responding to bells, whistles, dials, charts, and who knows what other cues I can only imagine.

Not to say that Skinner — B.F. Skinner, that is, in his time, the best known psychologist in the world and inspired by Pavlov — had it all right. When I hear thunder I leave the golf course, not because I have been hit by lightning while on a golf course but because I know thunder follows lightning.

Skinner explained superstition as a learned behavior. Pigeons received treats (rewards) on a random basis. Over time the dumb pigeons (bird-brains) associated their own actions with the presentation of the treat. A pigeon might credit spinning wing flips as the cause of the reward — like me knocking on wood to guard against a thought coming true.

Two examples. My brother was the chief pilot on the old high-wing commuter plane flown by Mohawk Airlines. One of Mohawk’s directors was Edwin Link, famous for the Link trainer — a forerunner of the sophisticated flight simulators used to train and test pilots. At Mohawk’s headquarters in Utica, N.Y., the company’s training center had a terrific simulator that my brother demonstrated for me and my then four-year-old son.

He could simulate all sorts of conditions. He could have set it to simulate Logan Airport, then asked a pilot to do an instrument approach on one engine. Because I wasn’t a pilot he gave me a hundred-square-mile flat runway and talked me “down” from 3,000 feet. I reduced the power, trimmed the flaps, watched the horizon instrument, noted the altimeter, maintained the speed keeping the nose up, and landed with a satisfying and realistic sounding plunk and rumble as I taxied to a stop.

He reset the simulator and offered Paul, my kiddo, a chance at the yoke. Without hesitation, Paul stood in the right seat (he was just my copilot, you know), braced his butt against the backrest, and pushed the stick as far forward as it could go. The simulator tilted a bit, a bell went off, and my brother, standing behind us, flipped a kill switch.

I turned to see my brother pale-faced, grim, clearly in distress. His appearance was so alarming I asked if he was OK. He said, “No one alive has ever seen the instruments do what they just did.”

I thought that pretty weird until years later when I saw a graph in a magazine showing the relationship of health care spending in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP. My eyes watered, my pulse raced, I became light-headed.

I know little of aerodynamics but I know what happens when you get behind the power curve economically.

Pull up! Pull up!