Archive for the ‘Questions’ Category

Clear and Accurate Communication … Training Tenet

Monday, July 21st, 2008

I received an email from someone who had just read an article written by one of the people for whom I have great respect, Karen Pryor. The reason the person wrote to the bird training blog was to ask if they were correct in their reading of the article; stating that it was confusing in its use of some very important Operant Conditioning (OC) terminology. The article is available online at

The article sets out to answer the question:

“Can you teach everything without punishment? By punishment I mean “correction” which I translated to “punishment” in my question …”

When I read this article I have to admit that I was very disappointed in what I read. Here was an article from someone, as I said earlier, that I really respect. Karen Pryor has brought so much to not only pet owners but also to zookeepers around the world with her writings about training and in particular Clicker Training. Her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” is in my opinion required reading for anyone who works with or owns animals. This article however is so misleading in its use and definition of what is a well defined OC and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) term that it does nothing to educate the reader and gives a wrong answer the original question posed.

Let’s be clear here, if this article were not written by a well respected trainer it probably wouldn’t matter too much, it would be just another online writer misunderstanding and misstating the science.

Here is the scientific definition of “punishment”:

Stimuli that serve to reduce the likelihood that the behavior immediately preceding it will be repeated in the future.

Now let’s take a look at the definition from the article:

On the other hand, a punishment is something aversive that you do on purpose.

As you can see this is absolutely not what punishment is at all.

The article goes on to say:

But, a punishment does NOT have a predictable effect on the future.

Once again this is completely wrong. From our definition of punishment we know that it has a very well defined effect upon future behavior. Further more, if the stimulus, i.e. the so-called punishment, does not reduce the likelihood a behavior will be repeated then by definition it is not a punisher. Punishers or reinforcers only get to be called those things if they have the defined effect upon the behavior preceding them. Plus, their effect is always judged by the behavior of the subject.

So, why is this so important and why does it disappoint me so much? It comes down to one of the tenets of good training and that is good communication. One of the biggest problems experienced by folks that are new to training is the rather arcane words that are used to describe the process. Several of the well defined terms of OC and ABA come to the science with a long history and emotive meanings. “Punishment” is a prime example; because of its long use in a social rather than scientific context it brings many assumptions to the mind of the reader. It is therefore important that whenever a trainer describes a training process or a technique that they take extreme care to not only define these terms but use them exactly and accurately, in this way the trainer clearly communicates the process and understanding to whoever is reading the article. Consistent and accurate communication is not only required of trainer to subject, it also required of trainer to trainer, and trainer to student. With careless and incorrect use of terms in an article that purports to be a training article comes just more confusion. This was demonstrated by the person who wrote to me asking about this mentioning that the article had been promoted in a discussion group as a “very good” article that would clarify what aversives and punishment are. In fact it does quite the opposite.

In order to be a good educator one really needs to follow the tenet of clear and accurate communication. The science of OC and ABA are still in their “formative” years in the context of the greater public. It is the responsibility of those of us to work to raise public awareness of this science to serve it well by being diligent and careful when we write or speak about it. Using and defining its terminology in a careless and inaccurate way will only serve to further confuse our audience and will certainly not serve our goals of raising awareness and use of these powerful training techniques.

Read this archived article for an overview of the terminolgy, also Dr. Susan Friedman made a similar appeal for clear communication in her Goodbird magazine (Vol 2-1) article “Terminology Tumult: Coming to Terms with Terms”.


The Primary/Secondary Reinforcement Dichotomy

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I got an email about a statement I made about secondary reinforcers.

“Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.”

The writer questioned if I really thought that my examples were secondary reinforcers. This question lead me into some research because while I really did think they were secondary, otherwise I would not have written it, a good trainer should not blindly hold on to what they currently believe, but investigate and question those beliefs. This is one of the tenets of good science too. I try to keep in mind the following quotation:

“A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.” – Robert Oxton Bolt.

Before digging into this subject I would like to thank Dr Susan Friedman for her help in clarifying my thoughts on the subject of reinforcers and also for sending me into some interesting thought loops as we discussed this subject over the past week or so.

In my discussions of this with Dr. Friedman she pointed out that primary/secondary is a man made concept and in nature it is unlikely that we find such a clear cut division. The division is used by behavioral scientists and trainers to convey the concept that many neutral stimuli can become reinforcers through close, repeated pairing with a primary reinforcer (secondary reinforcers).

From a behaviorists standpoint there are three groupings of reinforcers; those that are from the evolutionary history of the animal, the so called “hard-wired” reinforcers, those that are based upon the past history of the individual, and those operating in the immediate environment. Of these three the first one groups together the primary reinforcers. To quote Dr. Friedman, “… primary reinforcers are a very short list — when primary reinforcers are understood to mean automatic, without prior experience.” She also added “Our (behavior analysts) adage is, when in doubt call it a secondary.”

So are “attention, verbal praise, or access to toys” primary, i.e. “automatic, without prior experience”? Personally I don’t think they are and to again quote Dr. Friedman “… it is likely that for social species, affiliation behaviors in a broad sense is [sic] a primary reinforcer but the behaviors used to get that outcome are largely learned.”

This last point about affiliation is worth expanding a little. Affiliation describes the interaction of social species, e.g. the mutual preening of a bonded pair of birds. It is often cited as support for head-scratching of companion birds as a primary reinforcer. However, as Dr. Friedman also points out, there are no hands in the wild! A bird needs to learn that a hand approaching its head will deliver a potentially enjoyable scratch. So, if it needs to learn this by definition it is a secondary reinforcer. Similarly being in close proximity to a social group member or mate in the wild can not be used as justification for similar close contact with a human. Once again the bird needs to learn that a human may bring reinforcement, therefore it is secondary!

Plus, there is another point that excludes reinforcers such as attention from being primary and that is that it may not be reinforcing across all members of a species. True primary reinforcers are primary reinforcement across all individuals of a species.

This is a subject that has been endlessly discussed by behavioral scientists for almost as long as the science has been practiced. It is worth restating that the primary/secondary dichotomy is manmade and nature is rarely so clean in its distinctions. The best way to think of primaries is as a very short list with the distinct characteristic of being automatic and without prior experience, i.e. instinctual, not learned, and from the evolutionary history of the animal. Everything else is secondary.

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