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Entries in behavior modification (3)


When positive is a bad thing


We sometimes create unnecessary confusion when we mix terms of art with everyday language. Take the word "positive." Those of us who shelter under the wide umbrella of "positive training" mean "positive" in the way that most people do: we like to exchange good stuff for good behavior. Unfortunately, we get tripped up when we then try to explain the principles of operant conditioning that buttress our methods: "Well, positive punishment isn't actually part of positive training..." Aargh.

We might have an easier time if we substituted "addition" and "subtraction" for "positive" and "negative" in our description of the consequences that condition behavior. As awkward and ungrammatical as "addition punishment" might be, it would at least have the advantage of common sense. But for now we have "positive punishment," and I want to examine some of the fundamental reasons that it's bad not only in the moment for the trainee but in the long term for the trainer.

Sad to say, there are people who get a charge from punishing other creatures; we can define a sadist as someone who finds punishment (colloquially here, the infliction of suffering) reinforcing. These are often people whose insecurity runs so deep that they require cringing submission from dogs or children or spouses to reassure them of their power. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article by Charles Siebert describing a shift in the attitude of police and others in law enforcement toward animal abuse: as they have come to recognize its strong correlation with other, human-directed forms of violence, they have begun to take it more seriously.

The fact that many serial killers begin by torturing animals is well enough established to have become something of a cliché in film and fiction, but I hadn't known how often animals are used as the levers of pressure in abusive family dynamics. According to Siebert, abusers will often threaten violence against a pet in order to bend other family members to their will. This kind of emotional blackmail has the horrible side effect of eroding empathy in the victim: a child who is helpless to protect a beloved dog or cat can only defend himself against the pain of identification by numbing himself to the animal's suffering, even to the extent of participating in the abuse.

Many (I want to think most) of us with pets use punishment more "judiciously," and yet it's difficult to make an indelible distinction between abusive and "constructive" punishment. On the question of what motivates abuse, Siebert quotes Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's senior vice-president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects: "I've spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime."

All social engagement requires negotiation. When we share our lives with other creatures, we often find that our desires clash. When compromise seems impossible, we may resort to force to impose our will. If we are not sadists, if our sense of compassion is strong enough that we feel the pain we inflict ("this hurts me more than it hurts you"), we punish because we're convinced that nothing else will work-- we don't know how else to interrupt or eliminate behavior we find unacceptable. In the heat of frustration or anger, we're often unable even to imagine other possible responses, let alone consider their relative efficacy.

Regardless of the soundness of our reasons and the resilience of our capacity for empathy, we punish because we can. We are only able to use pain as an "instructive tool" if we're at least momentarily in a position of superior power (real or credible): we either don't expect retaliation or are prepared to escalate our force if the other party fights back.
Committed positive trainers reject that contract. They recognize the fundamental imbalance of power that exists when one creature is dependent on another for its sustenance and many of its pleasures, but refuse in principle to exaggerate that advantage through the use of force. Indeed, many of our methods were developed in situations where coercion wasn't practicable, with wild animals in open spaces.

We reject punishment in principle, but as impulsive animals with many bad habits (maybe I should speak only for myself here!) we may sometimes find it difficult in practice to eliminate it from our training. Fidelity to positive reinforcement requires self-discipline, and so in the process of training other animals, we discover that our first, most important (and most challenging) task is to train ourselves.

Photo by Bob Pearson.



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.

photo credit: texascooking via photopin cc