Monday, January 06, 2014

Adding and Deleting Behaviors the Behavioral Science Way

Horse Bound: The View From the Top of Mount Manure
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schedules of reinforcement/interval/ratio/extinction

Every  now and then I lapse into my native language, Psychologese.  This is one of those times.

It's a new year and many of us are facing a list of promises we made to ourselves and others, and it's daunting.  More than daunting.  It's one of the reasons that today is historically the most depressing day of the year.  The stress of the holidays went out with a bang over the weekend, and now 2014 stretches out before us.  From our perspective on the depression scale, it can look like a magic carpet that will fly us above the fray or like a bed of nails surrounded by hot coals daring us to move in any direction.

We get to pick which it is.  At this moment that's not apparent to the most downtrodden of us, but it's the truth.  We decide. We write our own stories, and we can write them however we choose and change them as we go.  Believe it or not, the details of our lives are not predestined or carved in stone.  What appears to be predestination is what happens when we set our feet on a path and refuse to see that there are options for change.

Today I'm talking about how to make those changes.  We'll consider our horses and other pets as well, but this is about every living thing capable of any kind of learning process.  Heck! Even the half-dead orchid on my window sill has the ability to grow toward the sun if I turn it around.  It's not a conscious decision, but the plant is genetically programmed to be a light seeker, and I can give it the opportunity to use that skill.

So are you a light seeker.  You just don't know it yet.

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The best way to change behavior is through behavioral training.  Duh.  What that means is that we decide on a behavior that we like or that will suit our purposes, and whether that behavior is going to come from us or from some human or non-human we're connected with makes no difference.  We pick a behavior, and we set about finding a way to effect it.  That's "effect" not "affect".

The list linked above is a great starting place.  But since some of you probably haven't set foot in an Ed Psych class, let's preamble it with a definition of Reinforcement.  

REINFORCEMENT:  whatever hinky thing it is that makes us want to do the same thing again another time.  Every critter, human and non, has what we in the biz call a "currency".  It's the payback, in whatever form, that will get us to climb that ladder, write that report, do that spin on the hindquarters, jump onto the kitchen counter, make funny faces, and so on.  You sort out who does which and why.

Food is a major positive reinforcer for all living things.  We Earthlings are pre-programmed toward survival, and food, water, air, and shelter are our currency.  Because we humans are also crazy, we have created false gods in the form of social acceptance, trendiness, and some version of "success" that we can't quite describe but which includes a Mercedes.

The key to learning--and unlearning--is the schedule we choose for that reinforcement, and the list linked above is very specific about the kind of learning (and inhibition--extinction--or unlearning that will occur with each type.  It's important, then, not only to determine the subject's currency but to look at the list and choose in advance the kind of learning you're planning on attempting.

Generally speaking, positive reinforcement is the most effective.  The kid makes it to school on time, you give him a cookie when he gets home.  Bingo!  Tomorrow he may do it again...or he may not.  There's always a testing by the subject to make sure there isn't an easier way to get the reward, so don't despair.  It's not you; it's him.  Just hold on and he'll eventually try it again, and again, and again until he  figures out how badly you want this and ups the ante, and you have to find something better than cookies, like a new car.

That's a pretty easy scenario to imagine.  Tell the human what you want, offer him a bribe, and off you go.  It's harder with a non-human-speaking critter, and there's more chance that a combination of positive and negative reinforcement is going to come into play.  Negative reinforcement isn't punishment.  It's the removal of something that makes the subject unhappy in order to get him to do what you want.  When Zip is standing on my foot, poking him repeatedly in the leg while I say (loudly) "Get off!" will eventually irritate him into moving.  Then he gets the positive reinforcement (cookie, pat on the neck, beer, whatever).  So it's a combination of styles because you can't tell him what it is you want in a way he'll understand.

There's more to the scheduling (try here for more details with photos:  But let's jump ahead to extinction, since that's something that is always under discussion.  How do you stop a behavior you don't like.  This came up recently regarding a horse playing with the leather straps on his bridle during tacking up.  How do you stop something without punishment, or is punishment the only possible route?

First, if it's something you've been reinforcing, just removing the reinforcer will result in a decline in performance.  Don't give the horse a cookie for bowing for, say, a month, and he will probably begin to hesitate when you give the verbal cue.  Eventually, if you're consistent with the no cookie thing, he'll stop entirely.  The thing with removing reinforcers is that intermittent reinforcement--a cookie every now and then just because you feel like it--results in stronger learning than if you reinforce every effort.  So you have to be religious about not reinforcing.

Better, though, is to replace the unwanted behavior with a similar one that you can reinforce.  If your child is getting up too early because he took your instruction one step too far, you can replace that habit with a specific time when he's allowed to disturb your shuteye and reinforce that instead.  If your horse is too excited to do his spin on the hindquarters so he does it every time you ask him to stand, stop reinforcing that and replace it with the habit of, say, taking one step back.  If he's playing with his bridle so you can't get it on him (your laughter and the attention he got from you were the reinforcers), teach him to lower his head or turn it toward you or something else entirely that preclude bridle molestation, and be sure you don't laugh or respond in any way to his strap-related antics other than to remove the leather from his mouth.

It's a Brave New Year, and time to get on all those nit-picky behavioral issues.  Good luck, and may the Reinforcement Schedule be with you!

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