Archive for March, 2009

Reinforcing and Punishing Consequences

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

In an earlier article I wrote about the basics of Applied Behavior Analysis so I don’t propose to cover them again here. What I would like to talk about is how one identifies a consequence as either a reinforcer or a punisher.


First, remember that in order to really affect a behavior the stimulus delivered or removed must be both contingent upon and contiguous with the behavior. Contingency is the if/then relationship of behavior and consequence. If the bird does this (behavior) then this (stimulus) is delivered/removed. Contiguity describes the tight relationship in time between the behavior and the contingent consequence. The closer in time these two events the stronger the effect of the consequence (stimulus) on the future behavior.


The labeling of a stimulus as a reinforcer or punisher is contingent upon the effect that the stimulus has upon the behavior. Since to date we have no method of knowing what an animal thinks we must rely upon observing the effect of the stimulus on the behavior, then and only then do we know whether the stimulus presented (+) or removed (-) is a reinforcer (R) or punisher (P).


Therefore one can not discuss if a consequence is R+, R-, P+, or P- without FIRST defining the behavior. This is why one must operationalize (write down the ABC) the behavior, then we can identify clearly the nature of the stimulus.


This was demonstrated in the last few days with an online discussion of the use of jesses with raptors. Jesses are the leather straps attached to the legs of raptors to restrict their movement. One writer identified the strategy as punishment, the other as reinforcement. How can that be? As I wrote above these consequences do not exist in isolation from the behavior and if we operationalize the behavior we can see that BOTH writers were to some degree correct. Assuming that the hawk is standing on the gloved hand and something occurs that startles the bird.

1A.    To be deterinined

1B.     Hawk flies from the gloved hand

1C.     The leash and jesses become taut 

Probable Future Behavior (PFB) The hawk will fly less often from the gloved hand.

Thus we have punishment (the likelihood of the hawk flying from the gloved hand is reduced) and the stimulus was added (the taut equipment placing restraint on the legs), therefore with THIS behavior we have a Positive Punishment (P+) strategy.  

2A.    The leash and jesses become taut 

2B.     Hawk returns to gloved hand

2C.     The leash and jesses become slack

Probable Future Behavior (PFB) The hawk will remain on the gloved hand more often.

Thus we have reinforcement (increased staying on the gloved hand) and the stimulus was a removal (the leash and jesses become slack and restraint is taken off legs), with THIS behavior we have a Negative Reinforcement strategy (R-).

From this example we can hopefully see that before one can know what the strategy being used is one must start by identifying the behavior. Are we talking about reducing the likelihood of flying from the gloved hand (punishment) or are we talking about increasing the bird remaining on the gloved hand (reinforcement).

This example also demonstrates that in order for our negative reinforcement strategy to work an aversive (restraint) had to be present as an antecedent. This need for an aversive in this situation should lead us to seek a different strategy for training the bird to remain on the gloved hand. The preferred approach would be to heavily reinforce the hawk for standing calmly on the gloved hand and, in a controlled environment, not to be holding the restraints, but to allow the bird to move freely off the hand to a nearby perch when it so chooses. When it returns to the hand it is once again reinforced.


It is worth noting that the original discussion was not really about initial training but the continued use of jesses for restraint. When working with raptors in public situations it is a matter of public safety to have this level of control of the bird, regardless of the training level. The best a trainer can do is to build a strong history of reinforcement on the gloved hand with the bird to minimize attempts to fly away. However, again in the interests of public safety, it is necessary to have the backup restraint of the equipment available.


In summary, talking about consequences in isolation from the behavior they are contingent upon has no meaning. The important word here is “contingent” and in order to be contingent there must be a specific behavior that is being discussed. Simply by operationalizing the behavior as was done above will reveal the nature of the consequence.


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