Pavlov’s dog.

I never cease to be amazed at how we humans fall into a pattern. We are no better than rats who have the tendency to avoid empty spaces and who like to run besides walls. It is probably a matter of security and so the rat and the human brain love to repeat things that have worked in the past, never mind the fact that when conditions change we too should change and yet, we have a hard time doing just that.

I was going home last Sunday and was on a bus and about to get off. I rang the buzzer as I always do and waited at the back to exit. Now normally this is a mundane operation; the bus driver sees a green light flashing on a screen and this alerts it that someone wants to get off at the next stop. Once the bus stops at the proper area I must just touch the doors and they open. They always do, except not this time. For some reason, the doors did not open and I was stuck waiting for the next stop. I mildly uttered a profanity but then rang again, expecting the bus to stop at the next stop. It did not.

I was at that point in a state of confusion. I thought that maybe the bus driver was simply distracted, or perhaps she was going postal on me. You know what I mean. I had visions of a crazy bus driver not stopping anymore and driving all of us to who knows where. I did the next obvious thing and rang again when I saw that she was not stopping except that this time I advanced towards the front to exit from there. I was not taking chances anymore.

She had stopped two stops late for me and as I passed by her I mentioned that I had rang the bell twice. “No you did not”, she responded matter of fact. I was dumbfounded. I know that I am 53 but still at that age my hearing is still more than adequate and my fingers are still in working order. In short, I knew that I had rang the buzzer twice. I insisted to her that indeed I had rang twice. She responded by saying that if I had rung the buzzer the green light would have appeared, and since it did not I had not rung it!

I tried to continue my story about how the back door did not open but she talked to me like Apu in the Simpsons talks to the customer,” Thank-you, come again”. What she really said was thanks and good-bye twice because I wanted to explain to her the door not opening. She did not want to listen to my explanation. For her the equation was simple; no green light therefore no one rang.

I thought to myself that maybe all this was a dream and that I was still in my bed, dreaming that the door would not open. After all, if no one rang the buzzer maybe I was not really in that bus. It is like the old Zen story about a tree that falls in a forest and there is no one to hear the sound, does it make a sound when it touches the ground? At least for the bus driver, I did not really exist. All this was mildly disconcerting to me.

The attitude of the bus driver reminded me of Pavlov’s dog. In this experiment, a dog hears a bell ringing and food is given. Eventually, the bell is rung but no food is given and yet the dog salivates because the bell has been rung. The dog had been conditioned to salivate only by hearing the bell.

The driver’s reaction was similar in nature; no green light appeared therefore no one rang the buzzer. It did not occur to her that maybe there was a faulty connection between the buzzer and the screen or that maybe the buzzer had been rung but that there was a malfunction of her screen. No. I did not ring that buzzer, never mind that everyone on the bus who had ears heard that buzzer except it seems the bus driver. She did not entertain the thought that maybe I was right. No, the green light did not flash then that is it, I never rang that buzzer.

This little incident drives home the point that once we fall into the habit of seeing the same things and doing the same things at the same moment we too become like Pavlov’s dog. We do not question what we see and what we hear. Force of habit becomes so strong that we think that it is the other person that is in the wrong.


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