Archive for the ‘punishment’ Category

Punishment and missed opportunities

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

I have to admit it is very encouraging to see the growing number of people talking about training these days who are becoming more and more familiar with the science of behavior change. Just every now and then however I am having a conversation or sitting in a meeting and I hear something that makes me think … really? That happened recently and I thought that maybe a short blog telling the story might help people understand this valuable science a little better and also to really think about places in everyday life where we can apply our most positive, least intrusive strategies to behavior change.

The story begins with our “hero” walking in a park behind a group of several young women. The young women are deep in chatter and generally having a great time. They, and our hero, continue through the park in the same direction, at one point one of the young women finishes the candy bar she had been eating. Don’t you hate how young people can eat anything and not gain weight? Anyway, I digress. With the candy bar finished she purposefully throws the wrapper onto the beautifully kept grass alongside the path. Now our hero, who considers herself a good trainer, formulates a plan to attempt to change this behavior. She walks over and picks up the wrapper, taps the young lady on the shoulder, and tells her she dropped something. The young lady sheepishly walks over to a trash can and while being teased by her friends she drops the wrapper into the trash. Feeling pleased to have applied her training knowledge our hero happily sets off home.

In relating this story our hero tells us that as she walked away the teasing of the friends continued and she can imagine that the friends would continue the teasing as their walk continued. She tells us this would lead to reducing the wrapper throwing behavior in the future.

So, do you see what made me think to myself … really?

Here we have an example of focusing ONLY on reducing, or punishing the unwanted behavior with no attempt to build the acceptable behavior. Because of the focus on reducing the wrapper dropping behavior our hero missed a golden opportunity to use the most powerful strategy in our trainers’ toolbox. The power of positive reinforcement. The moment the wrapper was dropped into the trash she could have heavily reinforced that behavior, instead she walked away pleased that the aversives would continue to flow from the friends.

While this is a simple story it nicely illustrates the approach that says rather than focusing on the behavior you don’t want, focus on the behavior that you do want to see and use positive reinforcement to build that desired behavior. It almost makes you want to have a candy bar in your pocket, ready to reinforce the wrapper going into the trash … but not eating the candy bar oneself is a whole other behavioral issue ;o)
Keep soaring,

What is a Stimulus?

Monday, November 7th, 2011

In this short article I would like to address the definition of the behavior science term “stimulus.”

The term is defined in Webster’s as:

“… [S]omething that rouses or incites to activity … an agent (as an environmental change) that directly influences the activity of a living organism or one of its parts (as by exciting a sensory organ or evoking muscular contraction or glandular secretion)”

Not the easiest of definitions to understand, so let’s try the “student” definition, also from Webster’s Online:

1.       Something that rouses or stirs to action : INCENTIVE

2.       Something (as an environmental change) that acts to partly change bodily activity (as by exciting a sensory organ) <heat, light, and sound are common physical stimuli>

Basically a stimulus is some event or thing in the environment that elicits behavior or an event or thing that follows and has some effect upon behavior; something an animal reacts to.

I will limit the discussion in this article to those stimuli that occur immediately after a behavior and serve to either increase, maintain, or decrease the strength of the behavior.

A stimulus that follows a behavior and serves to increase or maintain the strength of that behavior is called a reinforcer. They are things that the animal/bird will work to gain.

A stimulus that follows a behavior and serves to reduce its strength is called a punisher. These stimuli are things the animal/bird will work to avoid.

The procedures of Reinforcement and Punishment will be covered in a future article.


Training and Behavior Terms – Punishment

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Welcome to the second in this series of short articles about training terminology. If you missed the first installment you can find it here.

All of the definitions used in this series are taken from “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. Anyone who is interested in getting good solid information about behavior science should seriously consider purchasing a copy of this book.

Let’s take a look at one of the most emotive of all the behavior science terms and one that is probably the most misunderstood and sadly among the most common of strategies used for behavior change in our society.


The procedure of  providing consequences for a behavior that reduce the strength of that  behavior.
Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance.

Once again, like reinforcement, punishment is a procedure and not a tangible object or thing. It is the process of applying or removing a stimulus immediately after a behavior and observing that behavior reduce in strength or frequency in the future. What punishment is not is something the bird deserved or “had coming.” There is no judgment involved in punishment from the behavior perspective.

I have seen it written that if behavior reduces then punishment must be the procedure being used. This is not absolutely true and in a future article we will discover other procedures that while they may reduce a behavior they do not involve the use of punishment.

It is worth noting here that using punishment is a strategy that brings a number of unwanted side effects. These side effects not only undermine the relationship between bird and caregiver they also may have profound effects upon the bird and its future behavior.  In our hierarchy of choices of strategies for behavior change punishment falls well below reinforcement.

I hope you enjoy these short articles, if you have a term that you find confusing or would simply like better defined and explained please feel free to email me.

Keep soaring,

Reducing behavior means punishment occurred – not!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

When there is a reduction in behavior punishment is always in play! Once again I saw this used in a discussion in an Internet group. The discussion centered around the reduction of unwanted behavior, in the particular case it was a free flying bird landing on strangers. I don’t intend to address the poor strategies suggested to resolve this or the much better alternate strategies suggested. Rather I want to talk about the argument put up that even when using the alternate strategy because the unwanted behavior is reduced punishment is still present.

Again, for those who may not be familiar with the use of the word punishment here, I use it in its technical, behavioral sense and that is a contingent consequence that reduces the future frequency of the behavior it follows.

Punishment is a process and not a single event. It is the process over time, by which a consequence reduces behavior. Note that punishment is not the only way to reduce behavior; it is one of several approaches that include differential reinforcement of an alternate or incompatible behavior, extinction, and establishing operations. And this is where the writer who said that even when a positive reinforcement approach is used to resolve the landing on strangers problem, if the landing reduces then it has been punished is wrong. Something completely different and at the totally opposite end of the intrusiveness spectrum is in play and no aversive events are required!

So, let’s think about this a bit. Remember that all behavior serves some function for the subject performing it. So, if a bird is landing on strangers we can hypothesize that social interaction is what is reinforcing (maintaining) the behavior. Rather than punishing the behavior, since this simply attempts to teach the bird what NOT to do; we can devise a training strategy that drains the value of social interaction when the bird is being flown.  This strategy was written about by Raz Rasmussen in her blog and also the basis of a presentation she gave at the recent IAATE conference in Albuquerque, NM. For these reasons I won’t go into the details of the strategy used here. What I wish to focus on is that while the unwanted behavior may have been reduced it was not punished. The principle involved here is an antecedent arrangement, technically an establishing operation that serves to reduce the value of the reinforcer that was maintaining the unwanted behavior. The bird chooses not to land on strangers because doing so would result in a now less valued reinforcer than those available from the trainer and/or elsewhere in the environment.

In our efforts to have the smallest set of simple rules to understand and influence behavior it is easy to grab hold of a rule and use it without thinking it through. I have been guilty of this myself in the past; however, I do pride myself on having a very inquisitive mind and an ability to analyze things pretty well. The simple statement that if a behavior is reduced then punishment is in play is one we must be wary of. It is similar to talking about consequences being reinforcing or punishing without the context of the behavior; we must be specific about context when evaluating if punishment is in play. Ask, was a contingent, contiguous stimulus presented or removed that caused the behavior reduction. Then you will know if the behavior was punished or if some other behavior principle is in play.

In this article I have used terms that are not explained in the text, all the terms used here have appeared and been defined in previous articles and I chose not to make this article even longer by explaining each one. Please browse back to these older articles.

ABCs … a training tool

Positive good … Negative bad

A special thank you goes out to Dr Susan Friedman for reviewing this article and contining to empower and encourage those willing to listen on this journey of learning.

Keep soaring,


Ethical training as a way of life

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The following was written as my “Letter from the President” in the current issue of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators Flyer member’s magazine. I received emails and even a phone call or two from my IAATE collegues who had found it useful and even inspirational. I believe it is worth publishing to the wider audience that reads my blog, I hope you also find it useful, informative, and maybe even inspirational … enjoy.

(First published in IAATE Flyer, Sumnmer 2010)

Recently my mind has been occupied with several training and behavior subjects. This has involved watching a little more closely not only how the subjects of the training session behave but also how their trainers behave in their interactions with other members of their team. Some of what I saw was perplexing and it took me on several thought paths and to more observation and reflection. The question that kept returning was, “if these folks are applying the current best techniques and getting good, sometimes excellent results with their animals, why are their teams and relationships with their colleagues in such disarray?”

Slowly I came to the conclusion that when interacting with colleagues and team members these otherwise gentle, least intrusive trainers were hooked on aversive stimuli in their management and leadership styles. “Attracted to aversive stimuli like a moth to a flame” was how it was summarized by Dr Susan Friedman in one of our recent conversations on this subject.  The often used adage “setting them up to succeed” simply wasn’t present. I have to admit it came as a bit of a surprise that when dealing with the human members of their teams many people forget, or at least set aside, all the lessons they have learned so well for their animals.

During my reflections I spoke to several trainers on the receiving end of this aversive attention. There appear to be two extremes of leadership style; both fail their subjects in several areas. First there is the micromanager who seems incapable of allowing their team members to make a move without having almost complete hands-on themselves. What they are doing is taking all control away from their team members; the team has no power to make any decisions, anything they do is heavily criticized, leading to apathy and resentment. None of these effects should be a surprise to the trainer who understands behavior science.

At the other extreme is the leader who believes they are giving their team complete freedom by not interfering or supporting at all. While this approach can be not nearly as destructive as the micromanager it does bring its own problems, perhaps stronger this time for the leader. Things that are important to the team leader may not be performed, individuals begin to formulate their own priorities and focus on them, tension may develop between team members as they compete for their own agendas. Plus, the team leader often ends up just taking care of what needs to be done rather than directing the team and thereby creates a twelve-hour workday for them self.

Both of these situations can be avoided relatively easily especially for people with the skills that good animal trainers possess. Making the switch from the traditional training techniques for the animal collection was not easy. From their earliest years many, many people have become highly proficient in the use of punishment to gain control over others. Fortunately that is changing, at least for the animals; what is needed now is for the expansion of the ethical training techniques to be extended to encompass the whole team; to our colleagues, our supervisors, and the facility interns … everyone.

Apart from making the effort to keep the ratio of reinforcement to punishment as high as possible perhaps the most important aspect of being a good team member/leader is clear communication of expectations and responsibilities. Imagine the interaction with your colleagues like a play in which you are all actors. The play simply will not work unless everyone on the stage has the same script. Becoming angry because something was not done by a colleague when they were unaware that they were expected to do it just won’t help; be clear about expectations; be clear about responsibilities. Ensure that when the team decides what to do it is also clear about who will do it and by when. In a nutshell use one of the most powerful tools of empowerment, communication.

At a time when the forms of communication available to us are expanding almost exponentially it is vital to focus not on the volume of communication but the quality. Listen to what your teammates are saying, read their email carefully, think about and consider their motivation, their expectations … then respond.

Keep soaring,