I use WordPress.com to host this blog. It has a smartphone app. The app is most useful to me for checking statistics and getting notifications.
The app has a pleasant little sound effect. You can assign it to sound as a notification when different things happen on the blog. I didn’t understand the nuances when I first got it. I just went with the default, and soon learned that it played the sound when I got comments, likes, or follows.
Here’s the sound effect, as well as what a notification can look like. (For those who speak music, the sound effect is an arpeggiated major triad, in the 6/3 position, pitched high, with a timbre resembling a celeste.)
Getting follows, likes, and comments is fun for most any blogger. But when you are first beginning and have no idea whether anyone will want to read what you write, it is truly thrilling when you find out that someone likes it well enough to sign up for notifications. Or when they simply press the Like button. Or the absolute best, when they leave a nice comment.
I didn’t realize until I started blogging how very important comments are, but it’s obvious when you think about it. When you write, you put your stuff out there and hope that it’s read, but you don’t really know whether you have reached someone until you get some feedback. And to me personally, it is a great feeling to find out that something I wrote has helped somebody and their dog.
I feel incredibly lucky to be a writer in this day and age, when immediate feedback is possible. I think about the writers of yesteryear, especially the novelists, for whom, even if their writing got a positive response, it often came only after they were dead. But I can write a post and get responses the same day.
I think a good number of the major web writing and social platforms know their behavior science. One of the requirements for reinforcement to occur is for the consequence to follow the behavior closely in time or at least be clearly connected to the behavior. WordPress does several little potential reinforcers whenever you post. They congratulate you right after you hit the “Post” button and tell you how many posts you have cumulatively published, often including an inspirational quote. They enable quick feedback via the mobile apps. These things can encourage you, consciously or unconsciously, to write more. (Technically, to hit the “post” button more. But the whole behavior chain is probably reinforced.)
So here’s what happened with the chime thing when I first started blogging and got the WordPress app.
- **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
- **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone followed the blog
- **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone made a nice comment
- **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
Et cetera. Do you see where I am going with this? We’ve not only got operant conditioning going, as I described above. We’ve got classical!
Classical conditioning (also Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning) is a form of learning in which the conditioned stimulus or CS, comes to signal the occurrence of a second stimulus, the unconditioned stimulus or US.–Wikipedia
The conditioned stimulus was the little chime. Although it was designed to be pleasant to the human ear, for Westerners anyway, it was meaningless the first time I heard it (a neutral stimulus). But what happened after that was that it got paired umpteen times with something really nice. So what happened? I started getting a surge of happiness when I heard the chime! The chime became an antecedent that triggered an emotional response.
This is one of the clearest examples to me personally that the stuff that goes on with our brains and emotions is chemical. I could feel happiness wash through me when the chime went off. And you can bet that whenever feasible, I grabbed my phone to see what had happened. The pleasure that had at first come from a like or a follow or a nice comment had moved forward in time and started surging in when I heard the chime, before I ever saw what had arrived.
When I first got the WordPress app, they used one of the “out of the box” smartphone sound effects that is also used by the phone and other apps. They introduced the custom “chime” in an update. For the purposes of their marketing, it must be beneficial for their sound effect to stand out. For me as the end user, it facilitated the classical conditioning. It meant that the pairing of “the chime” with “happy news from the blog” was completely consistent. The chime wasn’t used for any other function on the phone. It was so consistent and distinct that I could actually feel the chemistry change when I heard it.
So it was bound to happen, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
What happened when I got my first nasty comment on the blog?
I heard the chime. I got the thrill of happy anticipation. I looked at my phone to see what had happened. I got an eyeful of vitriol! My mind and body were primed for a goodie, and I got doodie.
Instead of the happy brain cocktail, or actually right after it, I got a fight or flight response. I felt an unpleasant flush. My skin got prickly. Even a small wave of nausea washed over me. I was upset and hurt.
I sound like a real baby, and maybe I am. But the above is the best description I can give of my feelings. And from my amateur observations, it is similar to what my dogs go through at times when disappointed and hurt as well.
You’d think I would have realized that sooner or later someone would be bothered so much by what I wrote that they would write something nasty back, but I had been floating along in my honeymoon period and it was just not in my mind. Too bad WordPress couldn’t assign a different sound to nasty comments, eh?
The important thing was that that only had to happen once to completely change my reaction to the sound.
It had gone sour. The next time I heard the chime I felt like the rug had been jerked out from under my feet. I had kind of a dual reaction. First I momentarily had the old reaction, then the new unpleasant one washed in. The prediction of good stuff no longer held, and had already destroyed the purity of the chime.
And worst of all, there was still a prediction! Something was waiting for me! But was it a nice thing or an icky thing? What was behind the curtain? It was now a potential threat!
My negative commenter didn’t leave right away, so the negative reaction started being my principal response and the nice happy reaction faded away. Instead of happily reaching for my phone with a slight sense of euphoria, I looked at it with curiosity and a small amount of dread.
Fast forward a few months. I hadn’t had any really aggressive commenters for a while, so I was generally looking forward to checking out what was going on when I heard the chime. I would never regain the pure joy reaction, but the chime had definitely moved back into the positive side again.
In June 2013 I got an email from the WordPress staff that one of my posts was going to be featured on Freshly Pressed, the daily WordPress showcase. (The link to Freshly Pressed works only if you have a WordPress account.) This was thrilling news and I looked forward to the day it would be featured. I knew exactly when it was published because that chime on my phone was almost constant for about an hour. Pring, pring, pring, pring! How thrilling! All sorts of people, outside the dog training community and including other writers, were liking my post and following my blog!
The chime went off at a higher rate for more than a week, and there weren’t any comments that were exceptionally hard to deal with, so all was good.
But about a month later, I noticed something. I connected this with having had a post featured on Freshly Pressed, but it may have been just that my blog had been around long enough. The people who were following and liking my blog didn’t look like dog people, or even serious writers, from the look of their usernames. This took a while to sink in. But when most of the usernames were things like reebok4ever, vi_gracheap, and gucciandcoach, I started to get it that not everyone who followed the blog or liked a post was passionate about dog training. The spammers will “Like” a post because their icon and a link to their website will then appear in a list at the bottom of the page.
Soon most chimes were predicting these spammer likes and follows. They greatly outnumbered serious followers, by the look of them. So the chime became meaningless. It was a prediction of…nothing in particular. And from there it went to annoying. Why announce it when another spammer is trying to tag onto my blog?
I turned off the chime.
You didn’t think this was just about me, did you?
As a human, I have a big cerebral cortex and some cognitive skills that are unknown to dogs. I can reason and predict and justify. But I experienced the change of the chime physically, and it was very unpleasant. I know that most mammals, including dogs, have similar neurological chemicals and reactions to humans. And I can only imagine what it would have been like if I went from trusting that something great was about to happen to finding out that I might get whacked, without the cognitive skills to understand all of what was happening. It was bad enough as it was.
I’ve talked about poisoned cues before, both in the literature and personally. But let’s bring it a little closer to home. One of the things I have learned about training dogs is the importance of consistency. Not just for effective training, but to be fair and kindly to our dogs.
For example, I reinforce my dogs generously for getting on their mats. I don’t have to tell them to do so for them to get a treat. In many cases, the mat itself is the cue. I reinforce “offered” mat behavior. So little Zani, who ceaselessly seeks goodies from me, has decided when we first get up in the morning, to run ahead of me and lie down on every possible mat. Trouble is, she gets underfoot, and some of the mats themselves are in my way, like the one right next to the bed. I have caught myself half a dozen times wanting to fuss at her for plopping down in front of me on a mat. Here I am stumbling to the back door. I think, damn, she should know better!
But she is doing exactly what I have reinforced her for doing, thousands of times. Mats predict nice things happening. I have not put mat behavior on stimulus control (more on that in the future). And I’m the one who put the mats in the walkway. (I know I have mashed up operant and respondent learning in this example. But it was mashed up in the chime example, too. I do think I have reinforced my dogs for being on mats so much that mats are classically conditioned as good, happy things.)
So do I really want to induce a similar goodie->doodie experience in my dear little dog? Do I want to switch without warning from “mats predict great things” to “getting on a mat can make Mom mad and fuss at you”?
No. Never. I don’t want to dilute the power of her cues. I want that happy brain cocktail for her as part of our training interactions always.
- Replacing a Poisoned Cue
- Call the Doctor! I Think I’ve Been Poisoned!
- What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?