Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Blabberings About Bad Advice...

So ok, you like the internet right? You feel all jittery and excited when you first log onto google and type in "YouTube" because like me, that's just what you do. You would rather type out all seven of the characters found in the word YouTube than have to click the browser once -to open- then twice, to get to the page. Like I said, it's just what you do.

So considering that you are all full of this overwhelming excitement, like I am, you log onto youtube and you see a new video of a bird! OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG! NEW BIRD VIDEOOO!!!!!!!!1!!! You scream as your heart starts racing and your hands get clammy. You click the link...

And watch...

"That video was terrible" you say to yourself. 

You just watched a video about not one, but two hobbies you obsess about day and night: birds, and behavior modification. The topic in the video was about the most basic and founding elements of behavior modification: reinforcement and punishment. But wait, there is an article to go along with the video. Maybe I was wrong and this will clear it up! The summation of the article goes like this "Punishment is bad. Reinforcement is good! But punishment is unavoidable. But avoid it by focusing on reinforcement!" WTF?

And the you get the urge to shout "Someone on the internet is wrong!!" and you do...

I'm dissecting apart this paragraph to show exactly what is wrong and what is right with it, based on the founding principles of Instrumental (Operant) Conditioning.

"Since punishment can hurt the owner-parrot relationship, my best suggestion for dealing with undesired behavior is to do absolutely nothing in response to it.... Well that's all fine and dandy, if the behavior was encouraged in the past and the parrot does not yet find that behavior (the topic was biting) intrinsically reinforcing. Hypothetically in this very limited situation it should work. But most "undesired behaviors" occur for a reason, and when that reason is intrinsic then you are screwed if you only ignore it. Extinction is the concept you are trying to apply and it will never work in this situation. It's like trying to get your boyfriend to stop smoking by doing absolutely nothing, it just doesn't work. 

(punishing) things are so drastic that they will make the parrot scared or aggressive toward the owner. Wrong. Just wrong wrong wrong! This only holds true when a person uses Positive Punishment. Why is Negative Punishment grouped into this? And that's just the half of it, if there is no person or "thing" to blame the punishment on then it will not become "scared or aggressive towards the owner." Case in point: Steve Martin retold a story about training a bird to stop screaming with positive punishment. The bird was located in a garage and hated the garage opener. To stop the screaming he had the owner turn on the garage door every time the bird screamed. The bond between the bird and the owner did not suffer and the bird stopped screaming in a matter of days. 

Even still, some of these will only encourage the behavior even more (if a parrot is biting to make you go away, and you give up and go away, the parrot learns to bite even more in the future). Well then we are not talking about punishment anymore. When this happens it is called reinforcement. Why so confused? I've made an explanation of this in the post "Misrepresenting Punishment" that you should read. 

The simple fact is that finding an effective punishment that balances being aversive enough to discourage behavior and yet not go so far as to ruin the parrot-trainer relationship, is very difficult. Bird, and garage. Case in point. And if you didn't just group both positive and negative punishment together then you are completely ignoring the ability to remove attention, treats or toys from the environment. And as long as the trainer is not associated with the punishment you could use all kinds of punishment! It will ruin a relationship when a person violently shakes a cage out of anger. But if the person is not present when the shaking occurs then the person will not be directly associated with punishment. Now other side effects will likely develop such as a heightened sense of escape/avoidance behavior, generalized fear and/or apathy (depression). But to say that punishment will always ruin your relationship is bullocks. 

Extinction on the other hand is your best resort. If you do not react in any way to the unwanted behavior, you are guaranteed not to be rewarding it with attention and eventually the parrot will get bored of doing it. Along with extinction, focus a lot on prevention: do not leave important documents out, take off jewelry you do not want chewed, provide alternative toys/perches for parrot to enjoy, do not touch your parrot where it doesn't want to be touched, do not try to force a reluctant parrot to step up, etcI'm just getting tired of correcting all this nonsense. As already said extinction will happen if the behavior is not self-rewarding. Otherwise you're screwed and the bird will not "get bored of doing it." 

Now that last sentence is the first piece of  advice that is useful and correct. Prevention, not ignoring the problem, is the key. Because 
"Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." - Albert Einstein
 If we take a step back and listen to what our animals are trying to say we never have to resort to ridiculous ideas such as "ignore him biting you" when we clearly knew we should not have done "X, Y or Z" to have that animal bite. Will "ignoring" the monkey that's biting you eventually teach him not to bite? Sure, I'll let the zookeepers know about this revolutionary new training system!

All animals will give some kind of warning body language before they do something drastic, like biting, because it is evolutionarily advantageous. If an animal does not warn you, then there is something wrong. I find that if birds do not warn you before they bite, then some kind of positive punishment or negative reinforcement was used in the past. If you ever get to come to one of my workshops we delve into greater detail about this unfortunate phenomenon that rescue groups can run into when taking in second hand birds.

Soar if you can my fellow people...

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Punishment: Too Complicated?

The internet. It's full of joyous memes, chatting with friends, Wikipedia and...this?
"Punishment can lead to unintended consequences where there is a difference of opinion between pet and owner of what is being punished."
Did you understand that? My head feels dizzy. Ok I'll break it down. 
"Punishment can lead to unintended consequences..." 
Ok cool, yeah I would agree with that. Studies have shown that punishment can cause unwanted side-effects (Flora). 
"where there is a difference of opinion..." 
Um, I guess. 
"between pet and owner..." 
Now that's getting weird. I've never had any animal express an opinion on punishment before. Since when did my Achilles ever express "a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty?"
So far as I know birds don't hold beliefs because it has never been shown demonstrably. And to imply a "belief" in punishment is just stupid. A person either understands it or they do not. Punishment is real and demonstrable in any environment and is documented in the lab. So stating that punishment is a wishy-washy idea is just absurd! 
"of what is being punished." 
Well, the definition of punishment is a behavior that is reduced. If a behavior is not reducing then it is not a form of punishment, it is a form of reinforcement. Easy right? There is no imaginary "disagreement" if the person doesn't understand why a behavior is increasing, it is their lack of knowledge about what does or does not act as punishment that causes problems.

For example, many people still think that yelling at a family pet will stop it from making noise (punishment). But if the pet screams more and more every day then it's not punishment, is it? Of course it is reinforcement, and just because the person does not understand the definition of punishment and reinforcement does not mean you should encourage that kind of thinking! As teachers we have the duty to teach these people the definitions and applications of ABA theory.

It's like saying all budgies will find millet reinforcing. It's just not true. Your budgie may like millet while my budgie may like sunflower seeds (and boy, did she!). The same goes for punishers and reinforcers. All we need to do is to adapt the training to what the animal finds reinforcing or aversive. Easy right?

I think that this source is trying to say "Punishment is too hard to understand for the layperson. Different birds find difference things reinforcing and punishing!" But I disagree, and to use a fancy quote.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.Albert Einstein

And how is that too hard to understand? Stop complicating a simple idea! This idea is so basic they teach it in Introduction to Psychology courses! Anyone, anyone, anyone can learn this. They need a clear cut teacher that knows the subject well enough to have the student succeed in learning and applying the topic. If the people that you are teaching are having a hard time it is your fault. It's the same with training animals. If I'm having poor success I always ask myself "What did I do wrong?" because yes, it is my fault and I am owning up to it.

This source assumes the audience is just "dumb" and that the topic is too hard to understand, which is very insulting. Reinforcement and Punishment go hand in hand. For example, did you just give a bird a treat? That's R +! But did the bird also just eat the treat? Uh oh, R + is gone! The act of eating is P - (negative punishment)! So implying that we should not teach punishment, when it is directly involved and linked to reinforcement, would leave a big gap in the student's knowledge. Let me address the final bit.
"...behavior can be complicated and two sided. This is why most parrot owners should just stick to the positive reinforcement cause then there's less ways to go wrong."
So even though it looks like a five year old structured this sentence, the real problem is that the concepts of behavior theory are being represented by a ten year old. Behavior is often a little complex and always two sided. There is nothing about behavior that enables to "just stick to the positive reinforcement (side)". For example, If an animal gets a desired treat then its R +. But he ate the treat and the delicious taste was taken away! And in the two seconds it took for a puppy to scarf down a biscuit both positive reinforcement and negative punishment were used. Even if you wanted to, even if you could make hell freeze over, you could never take away the duality of behavior.

If we teach people everything about behavior, rather than leaving the bits we don't like out, they will know the basics and can branch out and discover knowledge for themselves if they are so inclined. Then down the road we can share our findings, have a nice little chat and help each other grow intellectually. And who wouldn't want that?

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Flora, S. (2001). The power of reinforcement. NY: State University of New York Press. Retrieved from

Reasons why punishment should be avoided with parrots. (08, 12 2010). Retrieved from Why Punishment Should