Clear and Accurate Communication … Training Tenet

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”.


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