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 
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