Imagine that you have a condition that is jeopardizing your health, your relationships with those you love, possibly your very life. There are, thank heavens, treatments available. Untold thousands, probably millions, of laboratory and research animals, from rats to pigeons to cats to dogs to chimps to college students, have given their tiny alls for decades to discover exactly how these treatments work. From all this research, two basic treatment options have been developed: Pill A and Pill B.
Both pills have things in common. To be truly effective, they have to be administered correctly, at the right time in the right amounts. If taken in the wrong dosage, taken inconsistently or taken at the wrong times, neither works very well. They also don’t work very well if other factors—like poor lifestyle choices that contribute to the condition—aren’t addressed: if you continue to gorge on pizza, get drunk and drive into trees, don’t blame the pills for not working. So neither one is magic or foolproof—it’s not like they’re wondrous cure-alls that allow us to keep eating the same junk while transforming into the young and beautiful with no effort. Both of the pills require a commitment to follow a plan and keep following it until the results are obtained.
But there are differences, too. Pill A actually tastes nice, makes you feel better and has no known harmful side-effects. This is true even if the plan isn’t executed perfectly--the results won’t be as good, but no damage will be done by the pill itself.
Pill B, on the other hand, tastes horrible, can leave you feeling anxious or stressed, and has a whole slew of well-documented and potentially nasty side effects. It can also be less forgiving of error—getting the treatment plan wrong may result in loads of those nasty side effects and none of the benefits.
Effectiveness? In virtually every objectively conducted side-by-side comparison, Pill A has about a 90% success rate. Pill B has—about a 90% success rate. Pill A usually has a very slight edge for effectiveness and speed, but not enough to be significant. So, they both work about equally well when administered correctly. Oh, and they cost about the same and take roughly the same amount of time to produce results.
So: Pill A, tastes nice, makes you feel good, no bad side-effects, 90% success rate. Pill B, tastes awful, can make you feel lousy, potentially bad side effects, 90% success rate. The choice should be clear and obvious: you’re going to want Pill A, hands down.
But it turns out, you may not. First, Pill A—though as thoroughly tested as B and as old—came to the market later and seems “new.” Lots of folks don’t trust “new.” If they grew up on Pill B, have always taken Pill B, they’re family always used Pill B, a good friend uses Pill B—they’re all going to want you to take Pill B. It’s familiar, and—hey, it works. If it works, it can’t be all that bad, can it? (Especially if you escaped the side-effects.) It works. It’s familiar. It’s trusted. That newfangled Pill A sounds good, but how do we know it really works?
Absented a truly trusted expert, we all tend to take our information from friends, family and familiarity. Mere science, with the thousands if not millions of research subjects tested in obsessive detail for decades, if rarely good enough for us: it’s too remote, theoretical. Better to listen to Aunt Millie, who used Pill B to rousing success.
Familiarity aside, there may be another problem: it has to do with the condition you have. It can show up looking like you’re being stubborn, lazy, deliberately disobedient. You lack discipline and self-control. Yes, you might need the help of a pill, but what you really need to do is just Buck Up, Grow Up and Learn Your Manners.
If the perception of your condition is that it’s a failing on your part (or your parents, surely they are to blame)—you’ve been too coddled and have no work ethic, respect or moral fiber and you need to shape up—wouldn’t a Tough Love approach make more sense? Not to mention, your condition makes you behave in annoying and obnoxious ways that even you don’t like about yourself. Spoil the child, spare the rod; no pain, no gain; drastic problems call for drastic measures. If you really want to make something of yourself, you need to work hard and sweat for it. Handing you a pill that tastes like candy, makes you joyous and can’t hurt you—how the heck could you possibly learn to be tough, disciplined and self-controlled from that?
We’re a diverse culture with a long history that embraces many points of view, but hanging over many of us like a sword of Damocles’ are old puritan-type values, the core of which (in pop sensibilities) seems to be that anything fun must be sinful, and if it’s pleasurable it can’t be good for us. Real virtues are attained by suppressing our base animal instincts, sacrificing what we want for a higher order of being. Few children particularly care for “obedience” but we all need to have it drummed into us, for our own good. That getting what we want and having fun can lead to Virtue--things like discipline, self-control and obedience—may make sense to the Hedonist on our right shoulder, but to the Puritan on our left should, It Doth Not Compute.
From the view of ye olde puritan meme, bad/sinful needs to be corrected—it’s a moral imperative. So when we perceive ourselves or our behavior as bad (wrong, weak, dominant, your hot button word of choice), or the people around us and their behavior as bad, or the dogs around us and their behavior as bad—what to do about bad? Traditionally, we punish bad. We’ve always punished bad. Bad deserves to be punished. And if we’re in the control/authority position, we not only feel entitled to punish, we feel obligated to punish.
Surely a child who is being a brat or a dog that’s growling at kids or pigs or whatever needs an attitude adjustment, or to be taught a lesson, not gobs and gobs of yummy candy or chicken delivered in a timely fashion for flashes of nicer behavior. The fact that the gobs of candy or chicken are likely to achieve nice behavior more quickly—or at least as quickly—with less stress and far less danger of future side effects may be true—if our goal is only to fix the behavior. But that may not be our only goal. We may also, openly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, need it to feel right. If satisfying our need to be in control, to be authorities, to uphold a morally virtuous order or just uphold a pattern familiar from our own dysfunctional childhoods lurks in our cultural abyss, maximum efficiency with minimal harm to the animal may be less important than getting our own cognitive dissonances resolved.
And so we may continue to vote for Pill B (positive punishment) with all its downsides and dangers instead of Pill A (positive reinforcement.) Not because punishment works better (we’ll claim it does, but the evidence is against us), not because it’s faster, cheaper, or more efficient (it’s not), but because—it makes us feel virtuous. Even if or even because it tastes nasty, makes us anxious and could be dangerous. We have a long tradition of thinking that stuff that hurts us now or makes us uncomfortable now will lead to all kinds of rewards later. Not to mention all the brownie points we gain with the authority figures who told us that in the first place.
Of course whether we choose the sweetness of Pill A or the bitterness of Pill B is entirely up to us—we’re human, and maybe we really can’t feel cured unless we feel like we’ve paid our dues. But when it comes to making that choice for another being, opting for bitter over sweet because it makes us feel virtuous seems a little dodgy. I am not, for example, trying to teach my dog Tinker that if she doesn’t waste her money on shiny objects now, she’ll reap the benefits of a college education later. Nor—however much we might like the behavior itself—is there any particular moral virtue in being able to hold a long down-stay that’s enhanced by swallowing a bitter pill: there’s no reason why a down-stay that Tinker enjoys holding is inferior to one that she doesn’t. I’m teaching motor-muscle movements to a creature designed to hunt squirrels, not lofty philosophical life lessons to youngsters who can grasp ethics.
And—this is the real bugaboo—a down-stay taught with pleasure is in no way less reliable than one taught with pain. We feel strongly that it should be—after all, what if Tinker “decides” that she doesn’t want to anymore. Of course this can happen, but ignores two critical facts.
First, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pleasure, she’s likely to be successful at least 90% of the time, because the brain’s dopamine reward system is an outrageously powerful thing. We hear “pleasure” as something warm, fuzzy, weak, trivial, instead of the deeply-rooted survival imperative that it is. Animals will die for pleasure, and kill for pleasure, and fly thousands and thousands of miles to meet a mate for pleasure. Tinker’s about as likely to ignore it as I am to turn down a slice of pizza anytime soon. Maybe using a different word would help—not pleasure vs. pain but something like passion vs. pain. Passion, not fuzzy, weak or trivial, is a brute-force of nature that can move mountains—or motivate down-stays. Powerful stuff, no fooling, and if you don’t believe me, consider:
A behavior motivated by positive reinforcement won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard…
A behavior motivated by deep, genuine passion won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard… Hmmm.
Second, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pain or fear, the dog is likely to be successful… at least 90% of the time. But not 100%; never 100%. There’s still a chance the dog will get confused, make a mistake or “decide” an opportunity to chase the squirrel is worth the risk of the pain. If we’re motivated enough, pain and fear can be overcome. If we’re passionate enough about something, or more afraid of something else, we will damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead. We know this; we’ve all done it.
The passion/pain system isn’t designed to make guarantees: it’s designed to give animals the best odds of survival in an ever-changing world of opportunity and danger. It’s meant to give critters behavioral adaptations, not robotics. Promises of 100% should go with a discount bridge for sale in a desert. If nothing else, dog trainers are human and they make mistakes that can drop a dog out of the behavior 100%.
And now we come to what I’m going to call the Toxic Triple Whammy. It’s so familiar in other contexts (read the news) that it’s scary, and heart-breaking.
Start with a Logical Fallacy:
I/he/she must have (insert need or desire)
I/he/she will (die, never be loved, insert horrible thing)
Add the Only One Syndrome: Only I/he/she/it can (give the desired thing to avoid the dire outcome: Only I can save you, only he loves me, only she understands him, only you can give me X…) Sprinkle with protestations of love and good intentions.
Top off with a dose of cultural puritanism: I/you/he/she are doing something bad and deserve to be punished.
Does any of this sound like the basis for a healthy relationship?
The Toxic Triple Whammy is a mindset just loaded with the potential for abuse of all kinds. You must have me or die, no one else will ever love you and there’s something wrong with you that I’m entitled to fix (for your own good because I love you and only I can save you) is a nightmare scenario worthy of a horror movie. It’s probably been the plot of more than one creepy thriller. Of course the danger is, if you believe it, you’ll eat any amount of crummy relationship crap that I care to dish out--and if the deserving of punishment garbage sneaks in, I will dish out with the best of them. After all, I love you. I’m the Only One who can save you. What other choice is there?
If I as a dog trainer lay this trip on your dog and you buy into it, I now have license to abuse with impunity and am above reproach and criticism. After all, I love dogs. (This is probably true but has zero to do with my training skill.) I’m the only one who really understands them. (I myself can name a dozen trainers who are so top-notch at this I would cry to have their skills.) I’m the only one who can save them. (Actually, if my method is any good, everyone knows it, it’s repeatable and predictable, and there are dozens if not hundreds of competent practitioners who can do it, too.) They’ll die without me, and I can justify any degree of crummy training practices. (Why can’t I save them using best practices? Don’t I know how?) It’s for the dog’s own good. (False dichotomy again; I could use best practices for the dog’s own good.) Especially if it’s a really, really bad dog—only punishment can save them. (How about getting a second opinion from one of the top-notch folks above? They routinely resolve the same cases without punishment.)
It’s hard to think critically from a place of fear and desperation. People get there with their dogs, and it leaves them vulnerable to nonsense ranging from silly to dangerous to just plain mean.
Meanwhile, those thousands and possibly millions of lab animals are hopping up and down, waving their tiny lever-pressing paws trying to get our full attention. They and their legions will tell you: there’s more than one way to train a rat. They know. They deserve to be listened to.
Science is your dog’s friend.