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Category: Reinforcement

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thank you to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any mistakes are my own.

Some terminology in behavior science is notoriously hard to get one’s head around. One of these terms is negative reinforcement. Not only is this learning process itself a challenge to understand, but the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Behavior scientists specialize in training, teaching, and learning, so naturally, if a term from their own field trips people up, they are going to analyze the problem. The terminology for negative reinforcement has already been changed once, in the 1950s to early 1960s. There has been more discussion since then. This post is about the article that started the more recent discussion, and how it is often misunderstood in the animal training community.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael published an article named, “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things” in the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is widely mischaracterized, in my opinion. It is commonly quoted by people who use aversives in training and seek to minimize that when discussing or defending their methods. And certainly, the title sounds very promising for just that purpose. But only if you ignore the last phrase about “bad things.”

Some people claim the article says that the distinction between the learning processes of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They say that the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is blurred and can’t always be determined. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all the possible reasons for maintaining a distinction between the two. This is false (see page 43 in the paper).

Michael’s paper centers on better ways to make descriptions of and determinations about the contingent processes of operant learning. The claim that Michael states that there is little difference between positive and negative reinforcement is false. This claim misrepresents both the focus and the conclusions of the article. Note again the last part of the title: “A better way to talk about bad things.” 

In the article, Michael asks whether we need to make the distinction between what we call positive and negative reinforcement. His final answer is yes, that we need the distinction. He concludes, “We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world.” (page 43)

Dr. Michael is concerned about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He wants to get rid of positive/negative and present/remove in the descriptions for different types of reinforcement.
  2. He wants to find a better nomenclature to indicate when an aversive is involved.

He proposes a solution, which I will describe below.

There are four major parts to the paper: a history of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the current terminology, a section that explores whether we need the distinction or not (his answer: yes), and a proposed solution. I’ll summarize each briefly. The following four sections are headed with the subtitles used in the paper.

1. A Brief History of the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

This section comprises 75% of the paper and is devoted to a retrospective of the usage of the terms for reinforcement and punishment, starting with Skinner in 1938. As some people know, what Skinner initially called “negative reinforcement” is what we now call punishment.

A textbook published in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his usage of the terms in his own textbook, defining them as we know them today. There was a period of transition—Michael mentions that it had to have been especially tough for the students who attended courses at the same time that employed different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised usage, what we use today, was in common use.

I am not going into detail here, but Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are dedicated to the changes in definitions and usages of the terms and the resultant confusion. This is a major focus of the article and a major part of his criticism of the use of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What is Wrong with the Present Usage?

In this section, Michael says, “Since 1953 there must have been thousands of man-hours spent in the attempt to prevent the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Even though I am not credentialed in that field, I know what he means. I have spent many hours myself figuring out the processes of operant learning, with bonus time on negative reinforcement, and many hours as well trying to pass on my basic understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses can be confusing, especially since almost all the words used have other meanings or common metaphorical uses.

Michael goes on to describe another problem that includes semantics, in this often-quoted section:

Another difficulty with current usages is that the critical distinction between positive and negative reinforcement depends upon being able to distinguish stimulus changes which are presentations from those which are removals or withdrawals, and these latter terms are not very satisfactory descriptions of changes. The circumstances under which we have a tendency to say “present” certainly seem to differ from those where we say “remove” in vernacular usage, but some of these differences are irrelevant to a science of behavior, and there are a number of circumstances where the distinction is not easily made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Note that he is not saying that it’s difficult to detect the differences between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The issue he objects to is the use of the terminology of presenting and removing stimuli.

…In other words, from the point of view of the behaving organism presentations and removals are both simply types of environmental changes. If they differ, the difference must not be based upon the variables controlling the person who causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This section merits careful reading. His major objections to the concepts of “presenting” and “removing” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the environment or a third party and that they have societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removal can sound negative). He says what is really important to the subject organism is simply that something changed, and it is the point of view of the subject that we should be concerned about describing. We don’t need to talk about adding or removing stimuli, we need to describe bad changes and good changes from the standpoint of the subject. (Michael uses the terminology of “bad” and “good” throughout the article, which is also a deviation from standard practice.)

In other words, it appears that “present” and “remove” are abbreviations that can sometimes stand in place of a more complete description of both the pre-change and  post-change condition. The abbreviation is usually possible in the case of unconditioned reinforcements, although even here it must always be possible to infer the characteristics of both pre- and post-change conditions if we are to imply behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An interesting point: he states “present” and “remove” are incomplete descriptions. He is not arguing to ignore the nature of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He is arguing against shorthand. He is arguing that we need to describe the state of the environment and the nature of the change more accurately in order to determine the learning process in play.

There is much more in this section about presentations and removals not being specific enough for scientific usage, and it is in this section one really gets a sense of Dr. Michael’s concerns.

He also addresses an argument that has been going on for a long time in behavior science. It goes like this:

You can’t tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement if you train using food because you don’t know if you are adding food or removing hunger.

Various people

Experts in the field discuss this question earnestly and with goodwill. But you will also see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who seek to mask their use of aversives (it’s is a favorite among force trainers). I humbly offer my own study of this question, but here’s a surprise. Dr. Michael addresses this very situation in his paper.

When we say that we present a food pellet to the rat the listener can always assume that the pre-change condition is one in which no food is available. We could say that we remove the “no-food” condition, but then the behaviorally important aspect of the change would remain to be described. When we say that we terminate a 50 volt electric shock, the subsequent “no-shock” condition can generally go without further description, but if it were described alone little information would be provided.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He is saying that only one description is typically accurate in a particular situation because the other one fails to describe crucial parts of the situation. Again, he is arguing that we need to analyze the reinforcement situation with information about the environment before and after the change, not by focusing on one stimulus and whether someone “presented” or “removed” it. What is happening from the animal’s point of view? Is it a “good” change or a “bad” change, and does it involve a bad thing (aversive)?

3. Why Do We Bother?

In this section of the paper, Michael examines possible differences between negative and positive reinforcement and discusses whether each particular aspect could or should be the reason we need to make a distinction.

As we find ourselves applying behavioral analysis to more and more complex human situations we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between presenting and removing, or we find an increasing number of situations that seem to involve both. A fairly common response to this situation is to avoid making the distinction, and simply refer to the relevant environmental change as “reinforcement,” without attempting to determine whether a positive reinforcer is being presented or a negative removed. One might well ask, then, why we bother making the distinction even in those cases where it can easily be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

If your goal is to generally minimize fallout of the use of negative reinforcement, you can cherrypick the above paragraph without continuing and make it look like Michael is saying the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is the section where he specifically rejects that interpretation. He considers four reasons for making the distinction. He discounts the first three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening effects of R+ and R- different? He answers that they are not any more different than the differences between different forms of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  involve different physiological structures or processes? He doesn’t think trying to make this distinction is a good idea in view of the changing field, but he leaves room for future research. This article was published in 1975, before most of the current discoveries that showed exactly that: that different physiological processes are likely involved (Overall, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Should we keep the current terminology so as to warn people only to use “positive,” not “negative”? He appears to be asking whether we should actually appeal to the double meaning of positive. Again he answers no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Note that in using the term “social distinction” he is referring to the words “positive” and “negative,” not to the actual learning processes.)

So he rejects three reasons for making the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. Then, in a section that is rarely quoted, he goes on to answer his original question in the affirmative, saying that we do need a way to distinguish the difference. He says:

The layman frequently finds it necessary to identify an environmental event or condition as one which he doesn’t like, which he attempts to escape, or avoid. He may refer to such an event as “bad” (without the moral implications of this term), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” etc., and he also has “punishment” to use as a contrast with “reward.” A science of behavior also needs a way of identifying such events.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And finally:

We need to make the distinction in order to have a name for the bad things in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He is arguing that we need the distinction between what is currently called negative and positive reinforcement so as to be able to specify when a “bad thing” is involved. So it is incongruous that this paper is cited in support of arguments to blur and erase the use of aversives.

4. The Solution

Michael spends so much time focusing on confusing terminology in the paper that it is strange he doesn’t devote more space to making his solution clear.

But here is what he wrote.

So, the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement and call the bad things punishers and punishment. One set of terms refers to changes which have a strengthening effect on the preceding behavior; the other to changes which have a weakening effect. The distinction between two types of reinforcement, based in turn upon the distinction between presentation and removal simply can be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, bold added by Eileen

The last sentence of that quotation can also be taken out of context in a misleading way. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can claim Michael is saying that there is no difference between the learning processes we call R+ and R-. But he has already said that we need to specify when there is a bad thing involved. He is arguing not to base the distinction on the terminology of presentation and removal. 

Finally he writes:

The arguments set forth above convinced me about 6 years ago to stop making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and to refer to the bad things as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That is the way he achieves his goals of getting rid of the terminology of presentations and removals and finding a better way to describe the “bad things.”

It’s a shame that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of applying his terminology. But I would suggest a couple of examples, following his lead. Both of these are what we would now call negative reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the goal of increasing behavior, the learning process could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol where an animal’s behavior is reinforced by giving them more distance from a scary thing, the learning process involved could be called using reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It seems clunky at first, but once you realize a bad thing (“punisher”) can be involved in reinforcement in only one way, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we need to stipulate when there is a bad thing included as part of the learning process. He also states that what we call negative reinforcement includes a bad thing, and presents a cogent argument that the differences between what we currently call R+ and R- are important and are distinct from each other in real-life situations.

Epilogue

In 2013 (yes, I’ve been working on this post for seven years), I tried to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he applied his terminology: how and when he made the distinction that a punisher was involved. I reached his wife, who said he was not able to discuss such things any longer due to dementia. He passed away this year: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted several others in the same vein, questioning the terminology of “positive” and “negative” with regard to reinforcement. In my reading, the arguments had some of the same flavor but were not exactly the same. I’ve included those articles in the references below. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers usually get a footnote in behavior science textbooks, but the standard nomenclature hasn’t changed to reflect the ideas put forth, which Michael himself later noted (Michael, 2005). I recently heard a behavior analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice a similar concern with “presentations and removals.” She mentioned that in her work it is most important to observe whether behavior is under aversive or appetitive control, and those are the classifications she uses.

And permit me one moment of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use negative reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal leave or take a break from a difficult procedure means that R- is a planned part of a training plan. Most of us would agree that allowing escape is less intrusive than flooding, but we also try mightily to train with enough skill that the animal doesn’t want to leave in the first place. So my aim here is not to preach purity, although I try to avoid the use of R- in every possible way. My argument is with people who are disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to attempt to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant learning.

Rest in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts here have done this famous paper justice.

References

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?. The Behavior Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Teaching the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The behavior analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Principles of psychology: A systematic text in the science of behavior.

Lattal, K. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And Yet…: Further comments on distinguishing positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Comment on Baron and Galizio (2005). The Behavior Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Speculation and Explicit Identification as Judgmental Standards for Positive or Negative Reinforcement: A Comment on. The Behavior Analyst29(2), 269. 

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Sidman The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis.

Photo Credit

Skinner Box diagram credit Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats

If the idea of giving junk food to your dog appalls you, don’t read this. But I will say that my concoction of goopy stuff is healthier than the original.

I won’t make you read the history of the world before presenting the recipe. To save some of you from scrolling down, here’s my best substitute for canned spray cheese. But feel free to read the story of my experimentation. It will probably help with your own. Also, Cheez Whiz is a U.S. product; I have ideas for my friends in other countries at the end of the post.

Continue reading “A Great Substitute for Canned Spray Cheese for Dog Treats”
The Stages of Crossover

The Stages of Crossover

When I crossed over to training with positive reinforcement, I had no idea how much my behavior and even my belief system would need to change. I had to question my faith in some long-held cultural assumptions and learn to rely on scientific observation and analysis.

Crossing over was a lengthy process for me, and even now, after more than 10 years, I occasionally fall back onto old assumptions and behaviors. I wonder sometimes if I am the only one so vulnerable to cultural programming. But a quick look around social media says no, I’m probably not.

Continue reading “The Stages of Crossover”
Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!

Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!

What if your dog’s recall is so good that she comes before you call her?

The little movie featured in this post shows the myriad ways a smart dog can mess up your plans.

small black dog running to come when called, to a recall

The Original Goal: Film That Recall!

This post brings together a lot of ideas I like to explore. Among them are cues, offered behaviors, and stimulus control. And like many of my posts, this one features an unintended consequence. I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Oops! I Trained the Better Than Perfect Recall!”
The “Invention” of Cues in Training

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.   

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

Continue reading “The “Invention” of Cues in Training”
Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?

This article was first published by Clean Run – The Magazine for Dog Agility Enthusiasts, in August 2017. I changed the title after publication in this version. Please see the note about that at the end of the article.


Three dogs looking through a fence. Continuously reinforcement. A recall trained via variable reinforcement probably won't get their attention.
If I’ve trained recall on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, how likely are my dogs to come away from the fascinating distraction behind the fence?

But do I have to carry around treats or toys forever?

This is a common question from trainers who are new to positive reinforcement techniques. And most of us have heard the following typical answer.

Continue reading “Doesn’t Intermittent Reinforcement Create a Stronger Behavior?”
Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules

Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules

Chocolate cookies on a cookie sheet. The baker may do other activities while the cookies are baking as long as she shows up at the right time. Her behavior follows the matching law.
When we bake cookies, some reinforcement is on a variable interval schedule.

Have you heard trainers talking about the matching law? This post covers a bit of its history and the nuts and bolts of what it is about. I am providing this rather technical article because I want something to link to in some other written pieces about how the matching law has affected my own training of my dogs.

Continue reading “Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules”
Finding the Joy in Agility

Finding the Joy in Agility

What do you see in this professional photo of Summer on an agility A-frame in a competition?

She’s so pretty in that photo, and running nicely, but you know what? She wasn’t happy.

Here are a couple more photos from that same trial.

Summer was not miserable. She was responsive and doing what I was asking her to do. (What a good girl!) But she was stressed. And she was not joyful. I can tell it from her face, which was drawn, even a bit grim. For some dogs, that particular look might just be focus. But for her, it shows unpleasant stress. Can you tell?

How Was She Trained?

Summer’s agility behaviors were trained with positive reinforcement. She was never forced onto the equipment, but was taught gradually and gently. She wasn’t scared of it. She was physically confident and generally enjoyed the activity. So why did she look grim in these trial photos? I can identify three reasons.

  • She was undertrained. She just didn’t have that much experience yet and wasn’t solid. The behaviors weren’t “can do it in her sleep” fluent.
  • She was stressed in the trial environment. It was outdoors, there were lots of dogs, it was muddy and rainy, and she didn’t have enough experience in challenging public situations.
  • This is actually the big one. I had trained her with positive reinforcement, but I had not sought out and used reinforcers that she was wildly crazy about.

Fixing the last one sent us well on our way to fixing all three.

Finding the Joy in Agility

At the time these photos were taken in 2008, I had recently found a new teacher. She helped me realize that even though Summer could perform most of the behaviors, and had even had some qualifying runs, I was trialing her too early.

So, we worked on Summer’s and my agility behaviors. We worked on her distractibility, especially her penchant for hunting turtles. We worked on my handling, so I could be consistent and clear. She showed me that almost anything Summer did (except to run after a turtle) was because I had cued it with my body. We cut down and practically eliminated the times when Summer might just run off after a bad cue of mine, both because my cues got better, and because Summer found it worthwhile to stick around even when I messed up.

At my teacher’s encouragement, I found very high-value treats that turned Summer’s attention on high. And we used a novel reinforcer—playing in the spray of a garden hose—as a reinforcer for a whole sequence.* The water play not only upped her excitement about agility in general, it was also great for proofing her performance. She learned that if she ran straight to the hose rather than following my signals, no water came out. But finish the sequence correctly, and there was a party with the hose. She loved it!

Transfer of Value

In my last blog post I described how I became a conditioned reinforcer to my dogs over the years through regular association with food and fun. The same thing happened with agility.  All those good feelings associated with the high-value goodies, the fun, and the hose bled right over into agility behaviors.

Three years later, we competed again. We had practiced going to new environments. The fun of agility was so strong, and our behaviors were that much more fluent, that this is how she now looked in competition.

sable dog jumping an agility jump with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

sable dog exiting an agility chute with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

Summer came to love agility. She sprang from the start line when released. She ran fast and happy. She was an unlikely agility dog with her penchant for turtles and other prey. But she not only got good at it, she loved it. And I loved doing it with her. Even after I got Zani, who was young, physically apt and very responsive—running with Summer was always like coming home.

I thought about calling this post “Going Beyond Positive Reinforcement,” but I decided that was inaccurate. I didn’t need to go beyond it. The difference was just better positive reinforcement training.  More thorough, more general, more thoughtful. And the result was joy.

If you want to see just how joyful, watch the following video. The first clip is from 2012, at a trial. Even though it was late in the day and I made some clumsy errors, she ran happy! The comparison in her demeanor from the previous competition is striking. It is followed by the best example of her speed I have on film: a run we did in 2014 at an agility field (with distractions). Finally, I show some messing around we did at home in 2016, just to share how delighted we were to be playing with one another. She was 10 years old then, and that winter was the last time shared the joy of agility together. (She passed away in August, 2017.)

Link to the agility joy video for email subscribers.

My teacher, and other great trainers who have influenced me, have taught me to set the bar (ha-ha) high. It’s not enough that a dog can do the behaviors. It’s not enough that they can qualify. It’s not enough that they can get ribbons. It’s not enough that they are happy to get their treat at the end of the run or get to go explore the barn area at the fairgrounds.

What’s enough is getting the joy.

*If you allow your dog to play in water, especially with a hose, make sure she doesn’t ingest too much. Drinking too much water can be deadly.

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using learning theory. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.

Glumph

Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

 

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

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