Archive for January 27, 2009

Just Get Over It

In a series of studies published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith and his co-authors, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University explored the emotional costs of imposing retaliatory harm on a social transgressor. The abstract of the article presents their rather unexpected findings:

People expect to reap hedonic rewards when they punish an offender, but in at least some instances, revenge has hedonic consequences that are precisely the opposite of what people expect. Three studies showed that (a) one reason for this is that people who punish continue to ruminate about the offender, whereas those who do not punish “move on” and think less about the offender, and (b) people fail to appreciate the different affective consequences of witnessing and instigating punishment.

So, while we anticipate that exacting revenge will give us an enormous sense of satisfaction, they found that getting even just cements that sense of dissatisfied frustration more firmly in our psyches. If instead we ‘d just pull our heads our of our hinterlands and get over it — that sense of righteous indignation will fade and we’ll end up feeling less stress and frustration.

While human beings seem to have an enormously difficult time figuring this out, our dogs have a pre-programmed predisposition to forgive and forget.  It’s one of the best lessons they can teach us.

It also gives me a chance to harp on one of my pet peeves in the world of dog training.  This would be the difference between punishment and correction. Most new age dog trainers will tell you that there is no difference between punishment and correction. They’re both pigeonholed into the P+ quadrant of their sacred, reductionist operant conditioning diagram. defines punishment as:

1. the act of punishing.
2. the fact of being punished, as for an offense or fault.
3. a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
4. severe handling or treatment. 

It defines correction as:

1. something that is substituted or proposed for what is wrong or inaccurate; emendation
2. the act of correcting.
3. punishment intended to reform, improve, or rehabilitate; chastisement; reproof.
4. the various methods, as incarceration, parole, and probation, by which society deals with convicted offenders.
5. a quantity applied or other adjustment made in order to increase accuracy, as in the use of an instrument or the solution of a problem
6. a reversal of the trend of stock prices, esp. temporarily, as after a sharp advance or decline in the previous trading sessions

Did you happen to notice how that definition for correction was a lot longer and more detailed than the one for punishment? Did you also notice that while the definition of punishment relates entirely to retribution or harsh treatment — that the various definitions of correction very specifically relate in all but one instance (#4) to transmitting information?

In the four sacred quadrants of operant conditioning punishment is defined as an aversive stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in an antecedent behavior. Note that in this context, all that is required of punishment is that it be aversive (i.e. unpleasant) and that its presentation should reduce the frequency at which the behavior that occurred before its application.  An operant punishment doesn’t give the punishee any information about what he did wrong or how we might prefer he behave. It just tells him that unpleasant consequences will tend to follow it.

Yet — radical ‘purely positive’ trainers will tell you that punishments and corrections are the same thing. And they will condemn you to a Skinnerian hell for using either.

And this brings us back to Carlsmith, Wilson and Gilbert.  The ‘purely positives’ are right in one way.  Retributional punishment, the kind where you get even, er – umm; apply an aversive stimulus to a two- or four-legged animal after it behaves in a way you don’t like is as unhealthy for you as it is for the target of your anger, oops… the subject.

Whether the purely positives want to admit it or not, outside of behaviorspeak, correction is not the same as punishment.  Correction can be gentle and it should always be fair. It doesn’t just reduce the frequency of behavior by applying an unpleasant consequence, it provides information on why the behavior is not desired and / or what other behaviors to engage in instead. And when it’s done without anger and with even a moderate degree of skill, it doesn’t create fear or stress in the student or the teacher.

Its time to drop the behaviorist’s strict reductionist / operant idea that correction and punishment are identical.  Correction is not punishment.  Correction is rooted in explanation — not in retribution.  Correction should never be done in anger.  And — because a good correction creates an immediate improvement in behavior (however small)  it should always be followed immediately by forgiveness and praise.

               Forgive him!

dog is rewarded - behavior is reinforced

January 27, 2009 at 4:59 am 3 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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January 2009