Category: Behavior Science

I explore behavior science like a kid in a candy store. I hope I can convey how fascinating it is, whether it's about dogs or even humans!

If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

two hippos with their mouths open, arguing

What behavioral processes may be happening when we argue? They may not be what we think.*

Let’s dive straight into an example. Sadie has just commented online in a dog training group, expressing an opinion I find to be dangerous and wrong. I write a carefully crafted post that I believe addresses her argument with clear and concrete evidence. I am polite. I’m also focused on building a strong argument.

What happens next?

Likely this. First, Sadie keeps right on arguing her point, frequently and more vociferously. Second, some of Sadie’s friends join in, criticizing me for being “punishing” and “not force free.” But how can it be punishing if Sadie’s behavior of writing her opinion is still going on, even perhaps increasing?

Behavioral Analysis

Let’s look at the learning and behavior processes involved. For the moment we will pretend that my comment is the only thing affecting Sadie’s behavior, and let’s agree that it got under her skin. Here’s how it went. (See the bottom of the post for a note on the analysis of verbal behavior.)

  • Antecedent: There’s a discussion about a topic that interests Sadie on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie writes and posts her opinion
  • Consequence: I post a counter-opinion
  • Question: Does her behavior of posting on the topic decrease, maintain, or increase?

Possible Outcome 1: Behavioral Decrease Through Positive Punishment

Outcome #1: Sadie doesn’t post on that subject anymore. Her behavior of writing about the topic has decreased. That would likely be the learning process of positive punishment at work. My post was immediately and severely aversive. I think this is what we usually expect to happen when we argue with someone, even if it almost never does. The idea is that they will either change their opinion or shut up. In both cases, they have ceased the behavior of arguing their opinion. This does happen. The person will leave the group or discussion. But it’s not the most common response, in my observation.

Possible Outcome 2: Behavioral Decrease Through Extinction

Outcome #2: This one is less likely, but let’s not forget extinction, another way for the behavior to decrease. Maybe Sadie didn’t see my comment or doesn’t give one whit about my opinion. But nobody else chimed in and encouraged her, so she drifted off to greener pastures of discourse. This is extinction, where a behavior that has been previously reinforced gets no reinforcement, then decreases.

Possible Outcome 3: Behavioral Increase Through Positive Reinforcement

cartoon of short creature in armor typing on a keyboard. Trolls like to get people to argue
Trolls may be positively reinforced by getting people to argue

Outcome #3: Sadie keeps posting at the same or an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This could be the process of positive reinforcement. Perhaps Sadie is thick-skinned and doesn’t care what I think, but my comment indicates that someone is paying attention so her posting behavior increases. Or Sadie may be a troll, and this is fun for her. My response means she continues her game.

Possible Outcome 4: Behavioral Increase Through Negative Reinforcement

Outcome #4: Sadie keeps posting the same or at an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This subsequent behavior can be a result of a negative reinforcement scenario. I think it is the most common occurrence and quite an interesting one. We tend to visualize a zinger of a response as a one-time deal. Pow! and done. Positive punishment. Knock the person out, and they don’t come back to the discussion. That can happen. But we are humans. What usually happens when we receive a verbal correction? We get upset. We obsess about it! It’s not a one-time aversive; it has duration. The comment is still there. People are reading about it. Sadie is thinking about it. And that sets the stage for the next set of behaviors. We know what a duration aversive leads to, right? Some action to escape it. And how will she likely escape the discomfort? By writing more words on Facebook.

If this happens, what does the analysis of Sadie’s next behavior look like?

  • Antecedent: Sadie is uncomfortable because of what I said to her on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie posts back to argue her case
  • Consequence: Sadie’s stress of being corrected or publicly embarrassed is relieved
  • Prediction: Sadie will continue to respond when argued with

This is negative reinforcement, and it often leads to an infinite loop.

The Infinite Argument Loop

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what is happening to me? Potentially the same thing that’s happening to Sadie. When I post, she becomes uncomfortable. She relieves it by arguing back. And when she argues back, this is aversive to me. If I get pulled in, I take action to relieve the discomfort by posting again. Ad infinitum. When both people are sucked into ego responses, the loop is sure to keep going and going.

There are probably other behaviors spinning off from the aversive exchange as well. Sadie or I may be having intense conversations with friends. We may be sending each other personal messages. One of us may have a drink or perform some self-soothing behavior. But if Sadie started off by posting in a public forum, she is probably continuing to do so at a more and more intense level. And so am I.

The Argument of Tone

Kindness and respect don’t always erase the human response to being corrected. I’ve specified that my original response in this scenario was polite and kindly for a reason. A big problem with humans is that no matter how nice it is, we can receive criticism or correction as meanness, even if it’s not coming from that place at all. We are a social species and discord can touch very deep, survival-related feelings in us. This can send us back into some primitive responses.

There’s a name for this one. Objecting to some words because they “feel mean” is the argument of tone, a rhetorical fallacy that positive reinforcement trainers get pummeled with all the time. It’s a type of ad hominem attack, or just pure insult if it doesn’t address the content of the argument. No matter what your motivations or how respectful your discourse, someone is going to pop up and say, “You’re not force-free with people!” Make no mistake: if all you’ve done is to present fact or an opinion that they disagree with, this is a diversion and an insult.

It can also be true. I’m not a mud-slinger, but there have definitely been times when I have been less than thoughtful. Oh yeah. But I do my best at being kind and respectful when I am in the position of contradicting someone. Much of the time now I can tell the difference between my arguing principally to relieve pressure and “be right” and arguing to exchange and further knowledge. Because if we work for it, good argument can happen, even if one or both parties feel stung. We can put on our big girl panties and concentrate on the issues rather than our feelings.

What To Do

This post was born because I started thinking of the misuse of the term punishment. But negative reinforcement involves an aversive, too.  The more I think about this infinite loop of argument, the more I can see how so much of this unhappy discourse works. Here are some observations about the loop and how one might escape it.

  • Recognize that even kindly critique presented in a constructive way can be unpleasant. This negative reinforcement loop can happen even when people are being very nice.
  • Summer arguing in play

    Don’t assume that someone else is being mean when you are the recipient of critique. Try to identify what is contributing to your response.  Sometimes it takes me days before I can lose my righteousness enough to see another point of view. When you get to that point, you may still disagree, but you can see your way through to answer decently. Arguing with the goal of mutual learning greatly lessens the aversive state, in my experience.

  • At the same time, don’t stick around and put up with rude behavior and cognitive fallacies. If it’s in an environment where you can exert some control, you can do that. For instance, you can have a comments policy and enforce it when you are on your own Facebook page or on your blog. But if it’s out of your control, consider quitting. If someone persists in cognitive fallacies, you aren’t going to get through.
  • Clarify your goals. Is your goal to persuade this person? Is your goal to shut her up? (Be honest. It’s possible for this to be a valid goal when her statements are dangerous or provocative.) Is your goal to persuade lurking readers? Is your goal to have an argument that is polite, fair, and furthers knowledge on both sides even if you don’t reach an accord? Are you just pissed off and want to vent? (That’s a good time to wait a while.) Your goal should help you make a plan.

What are the ways the cycle can stop? Some things I do are 1) agree to disagree then stop reading the thread; 2) continue writing but with the other people in the thread in mind—the silent lurkers—and don’t engage with the original person from then on; or 3) take some notes and go write about the situation somewhere else. I don’t mean to go and Vaguebook. I mean leave the personal stuff and the grudges out and address the topic itself after some time has elapsed. (Ahem. Like this post.)

When I’m the recipient of correction, I make an effort not to blame others for my emotional response.  When I succeed with this, and the other person does too, we may get to experience one of those great arguments where both parties are reasonable, nobody takes pot shots at anybody else, and everybody gains some understanding. It can happen!

Have you been part of a fair and productive argument lately?

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

*ABA with humans involving verbal behavior is a whole separate branch of learning theory. I am not touching on that part; just the major motivators. Thank you to the board-certified behavior analyst who looked over this post and agreed that what I covered, I got right. I’m open to other ideas about what is going on, of course!

Related Post

When Is Citing a Research Study Not Enough?

When Is Citing a Research Study Not Enough?

Answer: Almost always. One study is usually flimsy evidence. What we need to consider is the bulk of the research. I’ll explain.

Most of the online requests for studies I see are from people who want to support their points of view in online arguments. Others are investigating a health or behavior condition that has to do with their own dog. Some need references for a position paper on dog training or another aspect of care. There are also people who are delving deep into an issue for reasons of education or scholarship. But usually, these people don’t need that much help.

Requests are almost always couched as follows:

“Is there a study that shows XYZ?”

This is human. We believe something, either from a perspective of faith or a review of the evidence. We want to bolster our belief with stronger evidence. But thinking we can do this with one study is based on a misunderstanding of how science and research work. In order to find strong evidence, we need to view any study in the context of the other research related to that topic.

There are plenty of contradictory studies in the canon. You can often find one that supports your position even if it’s wrong. It’s only over time that the best evidence floats to the top. And it takes an expert to assess that evidence.

The most recent study is not necessarily definitive. In fact, recent studies should be treated with healthy skepticism. Even when they are building on previous research, there has not been time to replicate or contradict their findings.

All this leaves us with some problems and challenges.

What’s Better Than One Study?

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to get an expert’s view of a study or a set of studies? To get an educated opinion about them? Well, there is a way. Experts tend to write books and articles. Here are three types of publications that will help the reader get a broad sense of a topic. Citing one of these publications is usually superior to picking out a single study.

A sampling of learning theory research books

  • Textbooks, depending on the level, cover a broad view of a field of study or topic. Good ones provide the standard research citations for every subtopic they discuss. They are almost always more appropriate for “winning an argument” than a single study. That’s because the author will cover all views and note which have the most supporting evidence. See Example 1 below.
  • Scholarly compilations are based on a large topic within a field of study. Usually, world experts are asked to contribute an article or chapter on one aspect of the topic. For example, the red book in the picture above is Operant Learning: Areas of Research and Application and has chapters by Azrin, Sidman, and other heavy hitters. Some of the information has been superseded over time but the book is still a great reference for the classic research.
  • Review articles summarize the research on a certain topic up to the current date. An example is James McGaugh’s article on memory consolidation: “Memory: A Century of Consolidation.” If you take a look at that on Google Scholar, you’ll see that it has been cited several thousand times by other authors.

These three types of publications provide the views of experts. They can tell us which studies have stood the test of time, been replicated, or been expanded on. They can tell us when the research took a wrong turn. They can tell us what new research to take a look at, and they do it without the sensationalist headlines we often get in blog posts.

Here are a couple of examples of what I learned on two different topics using textbooks (Example 1) or a personal review (Example 2). Oh yes, and a third example where my research had big holes in it.

Example 1: Punishment Intensity

Last year I wrote a post called Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong. In it, I talked about the pitfalls of using punishment. On the one hand, starting with too low an intensity allows the animal to habituate. On the other, starting with a high-level intensity risks fallout. There is nothing controversial about this finding. You can find information about it in any learning theory textbook.

A picture of picking cherries with a line through it. Cherry picking one's research is a bad idea.

A commenter claimed I had cherry-picked the studies I cited. But I hadn’t. I had cracked multiple learning theory textbooks. All of them covered the topic of punishment intensity. And they cited the same group of studies.

Textbooks are giant literature reviews created by experts in the field. They are generally way more helpful than a study or two.

Example 2: Dogs and Music

I keep track of studies on the purported effects of music on dogs. I am actually fairly qualified to assess some aspects of that literature, as I have master’s degrees in both music and in engineering science with an emphasis on acoustics. I keep a list of dogs and music studies.

A brown dog appears to read a learning theory textbook for research
It’s usually safe to quote Chance

This is a new field so you won’t find extensive coverage in textbooks. The research is still in what we might call an oscillating phase, with conflicting, back-and-forth results. Yet there is a burgeoning market of music products for dogs, most of which claim that research has “proven” that music is beneficial to dogs.

That’s a stretch. And it pays to know something about the literature before taking such claims at face value. For instance, you can buy recordings of music that is specially altered for dogs. A certain brand claims that their music has been clinically proven to relax dogs and allay their fears. The product’s website cites a study. One study.

But what about the bulk of the research? Is there more than that one study? There sure is. And they leave out of the marketing materials the fact that their specific product has been tested twice three times in subsequent research studies. Guess what? In both all three of the studies the product has been no more beneficial than regular “classical” music. Instead of mentioning that, they just continue to cite the older article that shows benefits to dogs from classical music.

If we trace the current threads of research on dogs and music, we will see that a current hot topic is habituation. There are some studies that have shown that dogs habituate to music that is played regularly. Think about that one for a minute. Those tracks you play during every thunderstorm (if they ever did contribute to your dog’s relaxation) may have become so much background noise to your dog.

The lesson I have learned here is to always, always check the sources myself. Whether deliberately or through an oversight, product marketers, writers, and private individuals often cite studies that don’t actually support their claims. In some cases, they cite studies whose results are the opposite of their claims. One company referred me to a study that found their product to perform no better than a placebo!

Example 3: Research Blooper

Yellow sign that says "OOPS!"

In 2013 I wrote a blog post about errorless learning. I performed my standard research procedures and came up with Herb Terrace’s work starting in the early 60s with pigeons. My post was critical of applying his methods to dog training. The pigeons were food deprived and their training necessitated hundreds, even thousands of reps. Plus I disliked the absoluteness of the term “errorless” since even Terrace’s pigeons made errors.

I published my post and a friend whose parents trained with B.F. Skinner gently showed me Skinner’s work and his suggestions about setting up antecedents for errorless learning. Turns out my post on errorless learning had many errors! Several decades before Terrace, there was an important discussion regarding the role of errors.  The topic was important in Skinner’s work. Skinner disagreed with Thorndike, who claimed that errors were necessary for learning. I could get behind Skinner’s claims, which centered on skills and planning used by the teacher/trainer to make the learning process as smooth, efficient, and stress-free for the learner as possible.

In my defense, most textbooks and scholarly discussions about errorless learning center on Terrace’s work, not Skinner’s. Terrace’s own references and credits to Skinner are skimpy. I’m just lucky I had a friend who could direct me to the right place. I published a second post on errorless learning with updated information and corrections. I left the first one published (with cautions for the reader and links to the second article) as an example of how easy it is to miss a research elephant in the room.

Who else has a personal “Oops” story? Did you get taken in by a popular article on a study that turned out to miss the point of the study? Did you go as far as I did and publish an article that didn’t cover the research well?  (Not sure I can get any takers on this but it’s worth a try!)

My Learning Theory Go-To Resources

Here’s a list of the textbooks I use most often when researching a learning theory topic. Enjoy!

  • Chance, P. (2013). Learning and behavior. Nelson Education.
  • Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Pearson.
  • Domjan, M. (2014). The principles of learning and behavior. Nelson Education.
  • Domjan, M. (2000). The essentials of conditioning and learning. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  • Goodwin, C. J. (2016). Research in psychology methods and design. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Honig, W. K. (1966). Operant behavior: areas of research and application. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior (Vol. 2). Appleton Century Crofts.
  • Klein, S. B. (2011). Learning: Principles and applications. Sage Publications.
  • Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Wallace, M. (2018) Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan Publishing.
  • Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Wadsworth. Belmont, MA.
  • Schwartz, B. (1989). Psychology of learning and behavior. WW Norton & Co.
  • Shettleworth, S. J. (2010). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

tan dog with black muzzle and smaller black dog stare at the camera expectantly
Stares of expectation from Clara and Zani. Note Clara’s tail wag.

The other day I was sitting in my bedroom with Clara and Zani and the doorbell rang. And there was dead silence. Continue reading “Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?”

What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)

What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)

Black and brown dog with her head tilted, as if to ask a question

A lot of dog training advice you get on the Internet won’t help.

Pretty strange comment coming from a dog blogger who frequently writes about training, right? But even if people recommend a humane, positive reinforcement-based approach, something is missing that can’t be done in a typical online discussion. That’s the functional assessment. Continue reading “What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)”

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong

Two hands offering different treats to a dog in an attempt at a preference test

What’s your favorite color?
Do you prefer pie or ice cream?
Which shirt do you like better: the striped one or the solid green one?

Most of us have been asked our preferences since we were children. Sometimes we are being asked to make a choice: if we choose the striped shirt we won’t be wearing the green one also. If we are asked to choose enough times, our preferences often become clear.

With the best intentions, many of us are attempting to determine our dogs’ preferences by Continue reading “So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want: 9 Ways Preference Testing Can Go Wrong”

Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

(In answer to a couple of comments: The title of the post is correct. I am addressing my dogs and asking if they want to come in. Sorry if it comes off as clunky,)

What do my dogs understand when I ask them a question?

A while back I read a suggestion that we should stop giving our dogs one-word verbal cues and start asking them questions instead. In full sentences.

Talking to our dogs is no biggie–most of us talk to our dogs all day, right? Continue reading “Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?”

Latent Learning: The Original Definition

Latent Learning: The Original Definition

The graphic shows silhouettes of rats poking their heads up out of a maze. The first study of latent learning really did involve rats in a maze.

Latent learning has a precise definition in learning theory and it’s not what many people think. It’s not magic learning that happens during downtime–at least not in the way people assume. It is not a sudden better performance after a break between training sessions. It’s not when everything suddenly comes together after we sleep on it.

Here’s the definition:

[Latent learning is] learning that occurs during non-reinforced trials but that remains unused until the introduction of a reinforcer provides an incentive for using it.–Lieberman, David A. Learning: Behavior and Cognition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 1990.

Note that the definition includes nothing about making sudden cognitive leaps. If we are struggling with teaching our dog something and in the next session she has improved vastly–this does not fit the definition of latent learning.

One reason we can be sure it doesn’t fit is that when training we are regularly reinforcing the behaviors we want or reinforcing the closest approximation to them that we can get. Again, latent learning deals with “non-reinforced trials.”

The First Latent Learning Study

The study that prompted the definition and exploration of latent learning took place in 1930 by Tolman, Chace, and Honzik.1)Tolman, Edward Chace, and Charles H. Honzik. “Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats.” University of California Publications in Psychology (1930). Rats were divided into three groups and the individuals in each group were put in a maze. The rats in Group 1 received a food reward when they reached the end of the maze. The rats in Group 2 never received food; they just were put in the maze and wandered freely for a certain amount of time for 10 days. The rats in Group 3 wandered the maze with no food for 10 days, then on the 11th day they started receiving a food reward for finishing the maze. It took them only one day to catch up to the Group 1 rate of running the maze. This was believed to show that they had been learning to navigate the maze during the period of no food, i.e., no reinforcement.

Stevenson demonstrated probable latent learning in humans in 1954. His experiment also dealt with remembering locations.2)Stevenson, Harold W. “Latent learning in children.” Journal of experimental psychology 47.1 (1954): 17.

A real-life version of latent learning could go like this. Say I have no interest in bicycles or cycling. None. Nobody in my life does that. And say there is a bicycle repair shop in a little strip mall that I pass sometimes. If I notice that, there’s nothing in it for me. No reinforcement.

However, let’s say I have a new friend who is into cycling. She cycles to my house one day, and just as she arrives something goes wrong with her bike. She needs a repair. If at that moment I remember the location of that bike repair shop, that is latent learning. Learning about the location of the bike shop was not valuable earlier. There was no reinforcement available for it. To repeat the definition: The knowledge was “unused until the introduction of a reinforcer provided an incentive for using it.” In this scenario, the potential reinforcement is that I can help my friend.

What Should We Call the Other Thing?

OK, so if that’s latent learning, what should we call that thing that happens when we wait a little bit, then it all comes together? When everything gels and we, or our dogs, “get it”? It’s a great thing when it happens; no wonder we want a name for it!

Candidate #1 could be the so-called Eureka effect, where a perplexing problem becomes clear all at once in a flash of insight. But the focus on this term is not on the passage of time, except that a period of sleep is sometimes mentioned. Also, it’s not usually applied to animals.

Candidate #2 could be memory consolidation, a concept in neuroscience.

Consolidation is the processes of stabilizing a memory trace after the initial acquisition.–The Human Memory

It involves converting something we know from short-term to long-term memory. It could contribute to fluency in knowledge and possibly tasks. It is even known to correlate with getting some sleep. I am pretty far out of my league here, but it seems like it could apply, for example, in something like cue recognition. It could account for a notable difference in correct cue responses from one session to the next. But I’m not sure whether that merits that dramatic change we are usually talking about when something all comes together.

Here’s a good review article if you want to read about memory consolidation: Memory–a century of consolidation.3)McGaugh, James L. “Memory–a century of consolidation.” Science 287.5451 (2000): 248-251.

And there is now a study of dogs that demonstrated memory consolidation!

Candidate #3 could be that some dramatic improvements we observe are related to longer inter-session intervals. Since the early 20th century, learning and behavior researchers have been studying the effects of tinkering with the times between sessions of learning.4)Shea, Charles H., et al. “Spacing practice sessions across days benefits the learning of motor skills.” Human movement science 19.5 (2000): 737-760. That time period is referred to as the inter-session interval (and yes, occasionally the time between is referred to as inter-session latency, just to build in some confusion). But I’m not aware of a zippy term for the advantages of a longer wait, although said advantages are common. Somehow, “benefit of a longer inter-session interval” isn’t sexy.

But What If There’s No Such Thing?

It gets more complex. There were later studies that countered the latent learning effect. There were researchers who argued strongly against it. They claimed that the rats in the maze without food were getting some type of reinforcement and that their behavior could be explained under standard principles of behaviorism. You can read about that point of view in this article:

“Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.”5)Jensen, Robert. “Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.” The Behavior Analyst 29.2 (2006): 187.

After reading that article, I almost decided not to publish this post at all. But I still think it could be useful. I’ll let eager researchers make their own decisions.

So, in summation:

  • Latent learning has an official definition and it might not be what you thought.
  • There isn’t a sticky term for what you thought was latent learning, but I mention three possibilities.
  • Oh, and latent learning (as per the definition) might not exist anyway.

And if you think this turned out weird, check out my post on the (nonexistent) opposition reflex!

But Eileen, Language and Usage Are Always Changing!

Here’s the part where you can get after me for being stodgy or old fashioned. It could be that “latent learning” is on its way to becoming an acceptable term for a sudden improvement in performance after some downtime. I have seen one recent journal paper that uses the term that way.

I don’t know if popular usage will bleed into academia or not. But learning about the original definition turned me on to some pretty cool research, and I hope you enjoy it too.

This post started life as a rant about terminology on the Facebook group Canine Behavior Research Studies. Thank you to the people who contributed to the discussion there, particularly  הדס כלבי ה, who suggested the term memory consolidation, and Sasha Lazareva, who brought up the “other” controversy about latent learning and cited the Jensen article mentioned below.

 Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Notes   [ + ]

1. Tolman, Edward Chace, and Charles H. Honzik. “Introduction and removal of reward, and maze performance in rats.” University of California Publications in Psychology (1930).
2. Stevenson, Harold W. “Latent learning in children.” Journal of experimental psychology 47.1 (1954): 17.
3. McGaugh, James L. “Memory–a century of consolidation.” Science 287.5451 (2000): 248-251.
4. Shea, Charles H., et al. “Spacing practice sessions across days benefits the learning of motor skills.” Human movement science 19.5 (2000): 737-760.
5. Jensen, Robert. “Behaviorism, latent learning, and cognitive maps: Needed revisions in introductory psychology textbooks.” The Behavior Analyst 29.2 (2006): 187.
Leave It: Not Just for Dead Men Anymore

Leave It: Not Just for Dead Men Anymore

The other day I was pondering the trend of talking about teaching “self-control” and “impulse control” in our dogs. I got to thinking about “leave it,” both the term and the behavior. I realized a couple things. First, the term “leave it” doesn’t pass the dead-man test. (I’ll get to that below.) Second, the behavior “leave it” is not just one, but several behaviors. Third, I realized that this combination of problems could present some difficulties when training.

What is your dog actually doing when she successfully “leaves it”? Continue reading “Leave It: Not Just for Dead Men Anymore”

Local Enhancement and Socially Facilitated Behaviors in Dogs

Local Enhancement and Socially Facilitated Behaviors in Dogs

Three dogs lying on the grass as seen from above. It is local enhancement, imitation, or just that they agree on the best place for sun baths?

This post started out as one thing and transformed into another as I went along, as many of mine do. I have been familiar for a while with the term local enhancement for a type of social learning in dogs. I had some videos that I felt were good examples. But while researching this post and putting the clips together into a movie, I learned that the concepts and definitions were a lot less cut and dried than I thought.

This topic is up for lots of interpretation and discussion in the literature and I have found it to be underrepresented in discussions about dog behavior. I felt that at least an introduction to the subject would be helpful. I have gone with the most thorough, most recent, and most cited sources.  I am open to additional information and hope for a good discussion.

Terms and Definitions

There are several different types of socially facilitated behaviors and social learning. These are two separate terms since behaviors can be socially facilitated without subsequent learning (Heyes, 1994, p. 214). Also the types of social facilitation overlap, and more than one can be going on at the same time. Among the types are behavioral contagion, local enhancement, stimulus enhancement, observational conditioning, copying, emulation, and imitation.

I got interested in local enhancement since I was pretty sure I saw it happening with my dogs.  Like most of the other types, it involves animals performing similar behaviors as a result of observation or other perception of another animal. But it is not classified as imitation.

Here are a definition and an example of local enhancement from textbooks:

Local enhancement occurs when, after or during a demonstrator’s presence, or interaction with objects at a particular location, an observer is more likely to visit or interact with objects at that location (Hoppitt, 2013, p. 66).

…When local enhancement is in play, a model simply draws attention to some aspect of the environment by the action he undertakes there (for example, digging for worms). Once the observer is drawn to the area, he learns on his own (Dugatkin, 2004, p. 154-5).

Note that the observer animal doesn’t have to see the demonstrator animal. The observer can happen upon odors the demonstrator left or other signs of its actions in the area.

But if you have more than one dog, I bet you have seen local enhancement now and again.

Socially Facilitated Behaviors Without Learning

One thing that tripped me up is that it turns out local enhancement doesn’t have to involve learning (Thorpe, 1963, p. 154). Sometimes behavior is elicited socially but there is no behavior change in the future. The examples in my movie are probably of this type.

Some researchers say that local enhancement only takes place if the observer animal interacts at the location after the demonstrator has left (Heyes, 1994, p. 215).  That is true in the first of my video examples but is not required by most definitions.

William Hoppitt (2013, p.66), whose definition I included first above, believes that the term local enhancement should be inclusive:

…We suggest that local enhancement be retained to refer to all such location effects, irrespective of whether they result in learning.

He also includes in his definition that the demonstrator animal may be either present or absent. Under that definition, both of the examples in my movie would qualify. When the demonstrator animal is still there, the classification of the observer’s behavior is more difficult. If the observer is interacting at the location at the same time as the demonstrator, we could be seeing general social facilitation. This is the tendency of animals to behave as others in their group are doing (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 467). Consider such contagious behaviors as yawning in humans and barking or fence running in dogs. In one of my examples in the movie, the dogs are attracted to a location but also running around excitedly in a group. Local enhancement and social facilitation are both probably involved.

Thus, local enhancement can end up with two animals doing the same thing at more or less the same place. But it is different from imitation or emulation. These are separate and precisely defined learning methods.

Not Imitation or Emulation

The term imitation has a specific meaning in learning theory.

Imitation: Performing the same action as a demonstrator by virtue of having seen the action performed. The action must be novel… (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468)

Some definitions stipulate that the observing animal must use the same body parts to perform the behavior they observe. For example, in one study, marmosets watched a demonstrator open a canister. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its hands to remove the lids used only their hands. The marmosets that observed a demonstrator using its mouth also used their mouths to remove the lids (Voelkl, 2000). That difference marked their behavior as true imitation.

Emulation means that the observer copies only some of the elements of a complex action (Shettleworth, 2010, p. 468).  The behavior by the observer may be different and may or may not achieve the same end as the demonstrator.

Local enhancement is a much looser concept than both of these. But the more I read about it, the more obvious it seems to me that since animals of the same species would respond similarly to the same stimuli in the same location, it would make sense for them to pay attention to what their conspecifics are doing and where. This could be advantageous and selected for.

When Do We See Local Enhancement?

Almost all studies of local enhancement in the natural environment involve foraging behavior. For instance, one animal will see that another has found a good source of food and will go to that area. Or an animal will happen on the scent of a conspecific and will learn to consume the food in that area or of that type.

Lab experiments follow this model as well. Rather than involving foraging, they generally involve a learned behavior that results in food.

Several domesticated species respond to humans in ways that involve local enhancement. One study shows local enhancement behaviors in horses as a response to the presence of a human near food (Krueger, 2011).  There are several studies with dogs. Some of the human gestural and pointing studies with canids may involve local enhancement.

One of my examples shows two of my dogs investigating a spot in the grass after another dog had appeared to snap at and possibly eat an insect there. The two other dogs waited until the first dog left, then both went to the spot and sniffed for a while. Anthropomorphically speaking, here’s what I imagine going through their heads. “That was interesting. Is it something I need to know more about? Did she maybe leave a piece or is there another one of those? Do they live here?” In the second example, one dog discovers something alive and exciting under a step on my back porch. This is the one where you can see both local enhancement and socially facilitated behavior. After all the dogs arrived, they ran around excitedly and tried to get at the animal (which stayed safe).

Link to the video in case the above embed doesn’t work for you. 

Social Learning Is…Learning

Some dog trainers treat social learning as exempt from learning theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on the type, social learning includes antecedents, behaviors, consequences, and/or classical associations. It’s just that some of the elements are a little different from what we are used to.

How about your dogs or other animals? Do you see local enhancement? How about between different species?


Dugatkin, L. A. (2004). Principles of animal behavior (No. Sirsi) i9780393976595). New York: WW Norton.

Heyes, C. M. (1994). Social learning in animals: categories and mechanisms. Biological Reviews, 69(2), 207-231.

Hoppitt, W., & Laland, K. N. (2013). Social learning: an introduction to mechanisms, methods, and models. Princeton University Press.

Krueger, K., Flauger, B., Farmer, K., & Maros, K. (2011). Horses (Equus caballus) use human local enhancement cues and adjust to human attention.Animal cognition, 14(2), 187-201.

Shettleworth, S. J. (2009). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.

Thorpe, W. H. (1956). Learning and instinct in animals.

Voelkl, B., & Huber, L. (2000). True imitation in marmosets. Animal Behaviour, 60(2), 195-202.

Thank you to Yvette Van Veen and Debbie Jacobs for leading me to some good resources on this topic. All conclusions are my own.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

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