Thursday, October 20, 2011

Honking Dog Trains Man

On Sunday, my wife and I were awakened because of a car horn sounding in the driveway next to our house.  Initially, in my groggy state, I thought it might be a car alarm. Then I considered that it might be the friends of one of the teenagers who are our neighbors.  Just as I thought about getting up to see "what was the matter," as the classical Christmas story says, the honking stopped.

A few seconds later the honking began again and stopped with a man's voice yelling, "Cut that out!"  However, the honking started again.  At this point I decided that I needed to look out the window and offer some neighborly advice to the horn honker.  I was surprised to see a small dog with his hind legs on the driver's seat and his front paws on the middle of the steering wheel.

I observed as the older gentleman walked away from the car.  I realized that my neighbors were out of town and that this man was mostly likely feeding their black lab, Sophie, who did not travel with the family.  As the man walked away, the small dog inside the car began honking the horn!  Immediately the man yelled out to the dog and walked back to the car.

In the classic book, Science and Human Behavior, B. F. Skinner describes the behavioral principles that govern much of human (and animal) behavior. The premise of the book is that behavior is influenced by the consequence of the behavior.

If a behavior receives a positive reinforcement (for example, you give your dog a treat when he obeys a command) that behavior is more likely to be repeated.  However, if you are punished when engaging in a certain behavior, theoretically, you may be less likely to repeat it.  Research and history have both shown that punishment is largely ineffective in the long-term.  Short-term, it may be some immediate effects, but usually those effects are brief.  The table below depicts the conditions under which behavior is influenced.

Karen Pryor is an animal trainer and has worked with large marine mammals such as dolphins and orcas.  In her book, Don't Shoot the Dog, she discusses the fact that whales do not accept punishment.  If the mammal misses a trick and is given a punishment, the whale will no longer respond to the trainer. 

In the case of the dog and man I described earlier, the dog was positively reinforced because when he honked the horn, the man gave attention to the dog.  The man was negatively reinforced because he increased his behavior of providing attention to the dog in order to have the negative event (honking horn) stopped.

It is possible to have our behavior influenced, without our knowledge, by the animals and people around us.  By becoming more aware of what influences our behavior, we can take an active role in what occurs in our lives.  Additionally, a knowledge of behavioral principles will help influence others.  I encourage you to read either Science and Human Behavior (challenging read) or Don't Shoot the Dog (fast and easy read).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Play With Enthusiasm

My daughter, Erika, has been taking piano lessons at a nearby university's pre-college piano program for about three years.  "Pre-college" is a generous descriptor of all of the students who range in age from preschool to high school.  Each year the pre-college teachers accept some new students.

Towards the end of each semester students participate in a recital.  To prepare for the recital, the teacher hosts a practice session in the recital hall.  Tonight, we attended the practice session for this semester.  There were some students and families that I had not seen before.  This was the first time I had the opportunity to see and meet them.

With all of the busyness, frustration, and often cynical, jaded views of life, it is easy to forget the excitement and passion that young children experience as they interact with the world.  In his book, You Already Know How to Be Great, Alan Fine reminds us that all of us were once one-year old and fascinated by exploring the new world around us.  Some of the young piano students required extensions to be added to the bench and for their feet in order to have the correct posture and hand position for the piano.

Tonight I was reminded of that excitement.  One little girl arrived in her pink ballet leotard and her piano book in-hand.  As soon as the teacher asked for a volunteer, she jumped up and walked briskly toward the stage.  The teacher helped the girl get situated at the piano and her 15-second song began.  Our little ballerina was smiling from ear to ear as she played, and even when she made mistakes she just kept playing, repeating as needed to correct certain passages.

Ballerina girl was followed by another young pianist who appear to be just as enthusiastic.  When the teacher ask for the next student to play, the first girl quickly raised her hand!  I love to see this kind of enthusiasm and passion.  There were much more accomplished, slightly older piano students in the audience but this did not affect the performance of these two new students.

I believe that the lessons from these observations that we can apply to our lives are these:

1.  Have fun no matter what.

2.  Don't let mistakes keep you from having fun or impeding your progress.

3.  Be a risk-taker and volunteer to go first.

4.  Others may be more talented, intelligent, or attractive, but persevere anyway.