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Operant Conditioning

Last week I watched the newly released documentary “Kedicik” about the Adnan Oktar cult. The film skillfully depicts how the cult thoroughly analyzes human behavior and motivation in order to gradually entrap young women, called “kittens,” into their goals. While I had suspected that their bizarre and inappropriate behavior involved some form of deception or persuasion, I was surprised to learn just how organized and calculated it is, with a keen understanding of human psychology. It is like Pavlov discovering that ringing a bell will make dogs salivate after conditioning them, or a snake charmer knowing that playing the flute will make the cobra sway—they know exactly what actions will make these girls recoil in fear or go down the path that leads to entrapment.

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I was deeply saddened to see how easily the souls of these young women could be captured in this way. It made me think about why humans, the noblest of creatures, have this vulnerability.

As humans, we have many different weaknesses. Our animal nature makes us want to avoid pain, satisfy basic urges like food and sexuality, and experience unlimited pleasure. Because we believe resources are limited, we believe we must outperform others in order to gain opportunities. So we strive to meet the socially dictated criteria for success and happiness—formal and informal conditioning imposed on us since childhood. For a young woman, especially one from an upper-middle or upper-class Turkish family, not marrying a wealthy, successful man is often portrayed by society as a shortcoming. Although this pressure is informal, it is extremely powerful and pervasive.

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This exemplifies Skinner’s concept of “operant conditioning”—rewarding desired behaviors in mice with treats, while deterring unwanted actions with punishment. He proposed that this conditioning could also be used to shape human behavior. From childhood, through school, family, mosque, political parties, media, and government, we have been conditioned—not always for our own benefit, but for profit, ideology, ratings, or other agendas. Never for a true understanding of our innate needs.

Imagine a girl who has been conditioned in this way for 17-18 years suddenly being given a chance to fulfill her dreams…

In capitalist America, the “American Dream” defined the markers of social success: a beautiful home, an attractive, faithful wife, popular, intelligent children, a lucrative and satisfying career. Those who failed to achieve this were subject to formal and informal pressures and stigmas from an early age—a form of punishment. While achieving such success is not inherently negative, people should desire the right things for the right reasons and use ethical means to achieve them. But this is often difficult because of ego and social conditioning.

Renowned psychologist Erich Fromm said: “Man is a freak of nature. Because, at the same time he is an animal, and at the same time he is the only case of life having awareness of himself. This in itself, this situation of having awareness of himself and yet being in the body of an animal would create a tremendous sense of separateness and fright. Therefore man has to look for some union and he can do it in two ways: He can either regress or he can progress. By regress, I mean he can try to be an animal again to do away with awareness and reason; or he can try to develop his human powers to such an extent that he finds new unity.”

According to Erich Fromm, humans are freaks of nature because they differ from other creatures. In Islamic belief, this unique human quality is precisely the reason why Allah calls humans the noblest of creatures. If we condition ourselves according to our animal drives or the animal drives of others, it means failing to utilize the privileged human faculties. This is a “regression” for humans.

Then, how should we condition ourselves for “progression”?

As a Muslim, the answer is clear to me: Conditioning based on Allah’s will for humans. The Almighty is the One who best understands our nature and what is good/bad for us—the limits set by our Creator. We need to condition ourselves based on His will and limits. Lifelong conditioning is hard to overcome, but it is a duty for humans to rewire their neural connections, reconnect with nature, and reconnect with the Divine. We humans should condition ourselves to see life as a miracle, with the core goals of understanding divine wisdom, loving Allah, admiring His power, and marveling at His creation.

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