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Entries in animal cognition (3)


Just pretend!

There are many people from many fields now exploring the roots of the common (it appears biological) compulsion to play, and speculating on the adaptive advantages it may confer in the broad evolutionary sense and in the individual life. A coherent but inclusive definition of "play" is difficult to pin down, but I want to focus for now on play that includes an element of pretend, the magical "as if" that spreads a safety net under behavior that would otherwise be intolerably risky. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and author of Inside of a Dog, has spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours viewing and reviewing video of dogs at play, seeking to determine among other things how dogs effectively contract with each other to "fight" for fun.

The play bow-- head dipped and front legs outstretched while butt and tail are raised-- appears to be dog Esperanto for "I didn't mean that, and I don't mean this either! Ha!" An exchange of bows, deep or hieroglyphically sketched, typically initiates a friendly bout of wrestling or chasing, and the socially hep dog will repeat the gesture anytime the play contract seems to be fraying. As is the case with people, some dogs have a harder time than others remembering the rules of the game and honoring the agreed-upon distinction between "real" and "pretend." Indeed, play wouldn't be so compelling if that line were perfectly clear, if the safety net weren't a little patchy and the thrill of risk were entirely banished. But that's cold philosophical comfort when you're taking one dog to the vet because another never really got the hang of bite inhibition.


Behaviorism and Desire

We want what we want and we want it now. (Humans are better than most animals at deferring gratification, but not always and not by much.) Any deliberate manipulation of another creature's behavior requires that we become attuned to that creature's desires, and these may be almost as idiosyncratic among dogs or dolphins as among people. To paraphrase Sam the Eagle (of Muppet Caper fame), we are all weirdos. This is where behaviorism goes productively amok.

In operant conditioning, one doesn't create behavior per se, one merely increases or decreases the likelihood that a given behavior will be performed, and one does this by controlling the behavior's consequence.

Consequences fall into four categories, defined by two binary oppositions (positive/negative, reinforcement/punishment): positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. "Positive" in this context refers to the addition of some thing or force, "negative" to the removal of some thing or force. "Reinforcement" names anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated; "punishment" names anything that decreases that likelihood. More simply, reinforcement tends to the yummy and pleasing, punishment to the nasty and fearsome ("aversive" in behaviorist lingo).

So "positive reinforcement" is the introduction of something good (chocolate cake, a belly rub, a game of tug, a shoulder massage), "negative reinforcement" the removal of something bad (pressure on the bit, a parent's screaming, a scary dog or mailman): whatever I did to create either consequence, I'm more likely to repeat it. "Positive punishment," which sounds like a contradiction in terms, is the introduction of something nasty (leash jerk, skunk spray, burned fingers), while "negative punishment" is the removal of something we like (attention, bones, freedom): whatever I did to earn these consequences, I'd like to avoid repeating it.

There's a wealth of complications buried in this simple schema, but the most significant concerns the vagaries of desire. We all (human and non-human animals) like different things, and we like them with varying degrees of intensity. Our desires are fluid and changeable, shifting with experience, mood, and context. Once upon a time, I loved bananas and (very briefly) the voice of Suzanne Vega, but both now make me queasy. Conditioning wouldn't be possible if our preferences were forever fixed, but our fickleness makes us slippery subjects. And that seems very much to the good. I have learned to love Skinner only because his account of behavior remains forever incomplete; the "laws" of behaviorism, while they are powerfully, empirically predictive in the aggregate, get wonderfully complicated when they tangle with the rebelliously singular individual.

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Learning to love Skinner

What I found most remarkable in Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind is how seamlessly and matter-of-factly she enlists the insights of behaviorism in a project of creative collaboration between species. Once they are taken out of the laboratory and into the world at large, the conditioning techniques that B. F. Skinner and others developed for scientific purposes become powerful tools for the achievement of warmer, fuzzier ends. They can help elucidate animals' integrity as individuals, and (not coincidentally) foster positive emotional bonds within and across species. Pryor's subtitle-- What Clicker Training Teaches Us About All Animals-- hints at her (sadly radical) proposition that humans can and should be in dialogue with other animals. Trainers may be more strongly inclined to listen (though many are not), but we all have as much to learn as to teach. More.

In order to describe Pryor's neat sleight of hand clearly, I first need to travel back to Behaviorist Psychology 101 for a quick primer in classical and operant conditioning. All conditioning involves the establishment of novel associations, and the two types are not in every situation distinct, but for simplicity's sake let's say that classical conditioning promotes reflexive, involuntary responses to a given stimulus, whereas operant conditioning engages a creature's will.

If I say "Pavlov," does the image of a drooling dog spring immediately to mind? Is it still there if I tell you "Don't think of a drooling dog"? If so, you are well conditioned to associate both "Pavlov" and "dog" with more or less specific representations of domestic canines, though the dog you imagine when I say "Pavlov" may be more slack-jowled and blank of expression than the one that "dog" conjures in another context. My point here is that there exists no intrinsic relationship between the word "Pavlov" or "dog" and any actual dog (or even the category of dogs), but if you are an English speaker with some knowledge of psychology, these unlike things have been paired often enough in your experience that one invokes the other without any deliberate effort on your part. That's a form of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning asks a little more from you: intent and action. In this case the salient association is created between a behavior and a consequence. If it becomes strong enough (if the consequence follows consistently from the behavior), it takes on the flavor of a causal relationship, though the connection may be an arbitrary one. Pavlov's dog is the icon for classical conditioning; Skinner's lever-pressing rats embody operant conditioning at its most basic. Rat pushes lever, and out pops kibble. Far out. If you want to preserve the association but don't want fat rats, you can add a cue. Green light on, push lever: kibble. Green light off, push lever: nada, niente, SOL. As with the example given for classical conditioning, there's no ready-made relationship between lights, levers, and kibble. It's dreamt up by the scientist and taught to the rat, simply through temporally close, predictable association.

However little we might like to believe that we resemble rats, humans are subject to the same tendency to perceive causal relationships where none may exist. Like all animals, we seek coherence and control in a stubbornly chaotic world. Nothing undermines our well being more disastrously than a sense of helplessness, so we are apt to exaggerate our agency and influence. Sports fans seem especially susceptible to delusions of this kind: when I am watching my beloved San Diego Chargers on television, a thousand or more miles from the field of action, I become temporarily (absurdly) convinced that my shouted "Come on, D!" or my failure to wear my Quentin Jammer jersey could make or break my team's chances at victory. Athletes themselves take superstitious behavior to comical extremes, baseball pitchers to an art. This is where the line between classical and operant conditioning begins to blur: when a stimulus (or set of stimuli) triggers us to act automatically, even compulsively, will and intent disappear from the mix.

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