Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 4

070418_21621_trail4_ug.grid-6x2Whether you like it or not, the deal-breakers for most dog owners revolve around ending an unacceptable behavior. If you can stop it, the owner will be more likely to deal with lesser, nuisance behaviors and regain their desire to keep the dog. EG: The mother who worked extra hours to buy new shoes for her kid isn’t going to laugh off the dog ripping them to shreds. If next week it’s a huge hole in the couch and then the dog knocks over a neighbor-kid it’s likely to kill her patience. If the dog goes to a shelter there is an 80% chance it will kill the dog, too. Modern dog people and behavior experts are cold to this. They lose their empathy when an easy resolution calls for a punishment procedure. They think this woman should reduce her life style to living like a dog rather than elevating the dog to learn to live with people. She wants the behavior stopped immediately. That is a rational, logical and responsible decision for a mother with children and liJun 20 2012 012mited means.

Behavior analysts and modern dog trainers oppose any discussion of using the tool we all know stops behavior – punishment – regardless of circumstances and outcome. We know it works because you don’t touch cactus spines and neither do I, nor does anyone you know. Ergo, punishment can stop behavior without harmful side effects. Despite that general knowledge the behavior ideologues cannot admit reality. There are two simple reasons for their belief; they mistakenly have bought into the concept that punishment = harm and they have no training in how to apply punishment correctly. They are “reinforced” for their beliefs by the peer approval of others who share their fantasies. If it sounds like an exaggeration to say they don’t know how to use punishment correctly, don’t take my word for it – just ask them. This is from Murray Sidman – a lauded doctor of behavior analysis and now, modern dog training.

“…competence in the application of punishment is not the mark of a qualified behavior analyst. I know of no training program or degree, whether in psychology, psychiatry, education of behavior analysis that qualifies its recipient to use punishment. ” Coercion and Its Fallout

Murray wrote that in 1990. Nothing has changed since then. There is not a single course, text, instructor, internship, residency, practical examination or certification anywhere in academia that would teach someone how to use punishment. As “science” is the credential they present to speak as experts you are faced with a bit of a problem. Behavior analysts nothing about practical punishment based on their academic training. They aren’t experts. They aren’t even competent journeymen. They are amateurs who oppose the use of a tool they know nothing about first hand. Once you diffuse their words downward to trainers and other behaviorists who suck up anything that comes from “science” the problem intensifies. These lesser experts cite the more elevated non-experts without scrutiny and pass hearsay as if it was gospel. If anyone questions their statements they display their ignorance of how to use punishment – by using it abusively against anyone who disagrees with them. I call this the Lance Armstrong defense. When he was accused of “doping” by fellow competitive bicyclists, he attempted to destroy their credibility with personal attacks. His goal was to silence anyone who wished to examine his scruples. It worked for awhile. It also damaged the reputations of people who were telling the truth the whole time. Try to talk objectively about punishment as a component in behavioral control and see if you get “Armstronged.” It’s a sure bet you will.

To further bolster my claim that anti-punishment ideologues are deeply ignorant of the topic, consider one of the typical cautions about using punishment – it causes erratic behavior and terrible “side effects.” There is a supremely illogical concept contained in this statement. By definition, punishment reduces or stops behavior. It cannot “cause” increases or deviations because according to the same people who claim it causes erratic behavior also say that “punishment doesn’t teach anything.” Sorry, that doesn’t make sense. If it caused variations in behavior then it would create new behaviors – the definition of learning. The problem is that if an event doesn’t cause a decrease in behavior it is not punishment. Basically, the speaker has baited and switched contexts. They say punishment is worthless because it doesn’t teach anything. They also say that punishment “causes” unpredictable changes  They label these changes “harmful or dangerous side-effects” while never mentioning the beneficial primary effects of punishment like stopping fatal aggression. It cannot be both. Either it stops or reduces behavior or it generates horrible side effects – which logically means “it generates new behavior.” This begs the question of why one would not simply punish the horrible side effects?

Punishing the Side Effects:
If you are suddenly imagining that I am proposing an endless punishment process that leads inexorably to madness and violence, I am not. If something is a ‘side effect’ it is likely less of an effect than the behavior that needed to be stopped. A side effect of unstopped canine aggression is death. If a punishment procedure temporarily makes a formerly biting dog hesitant about rushing at the mailman, the side effect of fearfulness is less than death. Stopping the aggression buys the time to fix the side-effect because the dog is still alive. Additionally, providing punishment for anti-social behavior can be added to the repertoire slowly. The consistently bad effects of an absence of punishment have to be weighed into the mix. The cost of failing to punish bad behavior can be summed up while countering the claim that punishment causes “rebound aggression.”

“It is interesting to note that most socialized individuals have already learned not to attack those who may use punishment legitimately, because they have been punished for such attacks in the past….We can speculate that those who do, have probably never been effectively punished for such behavior. ” Axelrod and Apsche, The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior.

People who are opposed to punishment assume that each act of punishment will cause a domino effect of terrible behavior after terrible behavior. This assumption is openly preached as the accepted norm by academics, animal behaviorists and modern, scientific dog trainers.

Hey , wait a minute …
My first question is going to be the most direct – “How do they know those things?” They can’t answer that. I don’t mean they don’t know the answer, I mean that they may not answer truthfully or their ignorance is exposed. They certainly can’t admit that they’ve been standing around mute while all those nasty trainers horribly punished all those hapless dogs – thereby triggering myriads of harmful side effects like attacking the punisher or bystanders – which of course would include them as bystanders. If that happened, it would mean they observed abuse and did nothing about it. That, of course, would be immoral. They can’t admit that or they lose their moral superiority. That leaves very few places they could have so intimately learned about the side effects of punishment. They couldn’t have learned it in school because there are no courses in punishment.

Likewise, positive training seminars and clubs do not allow the use of punishment. So, where did they see it enough to know how it works? The answer is simple – they didn’t. They either invented the information or the heard it from someone who did. They have no direct experience and have never actually seen the things they predict. Instead, they create a straw man – the “punishment based trainer”. No such person exists. That is because punishment stops behavior. Anyone stupid enough to base their training on punishment isn’t going to get dependable performance. They aren’t going to get any performance at all. That’s when the back-peddling starts. The Anti-Punishment ideologue starts scrambling to claim that the punishment-based trainer actually uses negative reinforcement to compel the animal’s behavior. In case you haven’t figured it out, that would make the trainer a “reinforcement-based trainer.” It would also mean that someone claiming to be “scientific” doesn’t know how to use scientific terminology correctly. If the don’t really know the scientific terms used to describe behavior modification, why would they understand the topic “scientifically”?

If your brain is starting to overheat because of the confusing language your intuition is telling you something very important. Smart people using confusing language do so for a purpose. It allows the speaker to push an agenda that cannot be analyzed logically. It must counter-act common sense and common experience or the game is up. That is what it does – it creates a language barrier intended to defeat reason. Before we can move toward an understanding of aversive control we have to wade through this convoluted mess and define out terms. “All-positive” ideologues like that. They prefer that you remain confused.

Terms: Reinforcement and Punishment; Positive and Negative.
To scratch the surface of the crazy language of modern training, consider that the word “positive” is used to mean beneficial or pleasant and “negative” is used to mean harmful, abusive and cruel. This is said by people who claim to be using scientific principles. The problem is that in science positive means, “added” and negative means “subtracted” – as in mathematics. Those emotional add-ons are not scientific. This confusion of definitions between common English and scientific jargon is widespread. This is done both when speaking to the general public and within the profession, where a higher standard of language should be upheld. Here is a pitch for a seminar in England by a learned behavior analyst and practitioner. It was posted on a Facebook page for applied behavior analysts.

“ABSTRACT:  Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) has become a dominant paradigm for designing support for individuals with challenging behaviour.  Grounded in the science of behaviour analysis, PBS uses person-centred planning to improve quality of life through meaningful engagement in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities.  This workshop will review the foundations of PBS and the strategies for establishing effective living, learning, working and community environments.  Specific emphasis will be given to designing behaviour support plans that combine function-based interventions with self-determined process.”

I have a unique qualification to parse this paragraph. I was given a major award from the Association for Behavior Analysis International for “effective presentation of behavior analysis in the mass media.” I have presented before that organization, the largest organization of professional and academic behavior analysts in the world, many times. I know their language and I obviously know mine. So, my first question for the presenter above is this: does this mean “additive” behavior support, “beneficial” behavior support or “pleasant” behavior support? (I can’t bring myself to throuw in the British ‘u’ in behavior, but I can cut and paste without feeling slightly off-kilter.) I actually asked that on the Facebook page where the seminar was announced. I heard the faint sound of crickets chirping, but got no answer.

At a regional conference of ABAI (NCAba, now CalAba) a panel of learned doctors discussed current methods for practice. A middle aged woman stood up and asked, “We have a patient in treatment who bites to inflict wounds. This has been going on for months. What can we do besides restraint to stop this behavior?” Those crickets started chirping again. Then the experts spent about ten minutes going down the panel and never using the word punishment – the behavioral effect known by their colleagues Axelrod, Apsche, and others that stops behaviors.

This is not a minor issue. It makes a huge difference in outcome for those that receive the “positive” methods. For instance, if I slap to your face and it stops you from assaulting me, my use of punishment is “additive” and “beneficial” and “pleasant” – for me. For you it is beneficial, additive and not-so-pleasant. But that’s not what they mean. They are actually speaking about the behavior therapist. Using pleasant methods is pleasant for them. It is beneficial for them because they get paid. It is additive because they presented something pleasant whether it worked or not. The same is true for modern dog trainers. They do not consider the dog owner or dog when they predict a beneficial outcome. It is about them using methods that are pleasant for them. It’s fun. They get paid. They get paid more because “all-positive” training takes forever and never really fixes anything. To go back to human behavior analysis for a second, here’s a confirmation of what I just said. Underlining is mine.

“Functional analysis results showed that the problem behavior (aggression, self-injury, and disruption) of 2 children was maintained by adult attention. Function-based treatments, which included the differential or noncontingent delivery of attention and the withholding of the same reinforcer following problem behavior (i.e., extinction), were shown to partially, but not satisfactorily, reduce problem behavior. Adding punishment contingencies to the function-based treatments resulted in sustained near-zero rates of problem behavior and maintenance of an alternative response for both participants. Finally, and perhaps most important, when the children were given the opportunity to select behavioral interventions, they chose the intervention that involved both a reinforcement contingency for alternative behavior and a punishment contingency for problem behavior.”

To reduce that to plain English, two “children suffering from moderate retardation” lived with regular episodes of self-injurious behaviors. A “positive” intervention led to unsatisfactory suppression of the behaviors – meaning the kids kept hitting themselves in the head. A combination of positive and negative consequences created “near zero” results. (The form of punishment was prescribed in advance and was incredibly mild – holding the child’s arms to their sides for 30 seconds. Meaning it wasn’t designed to stop the behavior entirely it was meant to be politically acceptable. If the goal had been to stop the behavior and save the children from themselves the intensity would have been increased…but that would be negative and is not allowed. The conclusion is huge. The behavioral therapy offered these children was controlled by fear of punishment for using methods that were effective but not approved by mainstream behaviorists. Just think about that for a moment. It makes my blood boil. The children suffered because the therapists were afraid to give them what they needed. ) The most important thing to understand is that the children preferred the solution that better stopped them from hitting themselves. That’s not retarded. (Note: Retarded simply means “slower than” and was a euphemism created to replace terms like idiot and moron in the early 20th century. Like punishment, the term “retarded” does not imply anything pejorative. In this case the children were able to correctly decide that they wished to have a release from their torture of hitting themselves. Behavior analysts generally disagree with this decision.)


Changing the Language to fit the Orthodoxy:
We have now entered a world where words mean other than what they are supposed to mean. For instance, the word punishment is regularly used as a pejorative term implying abuse, even though the scientific definition does not imply anything other than something that causes behavior to decline or stop. EG: “Punishment-based-trainer” is intended as an insult and to degrade the target, not a neutral statement about a training philosophy. Those who use this term reveal their own crass nature. They use punishing words to stop people from objectively analyzing punishment. Besides being nasty, the term “punishment based trainer” isn’t accurate, either. A leash and collar is a device that applies positive punishment and negative reinforcement – both considered “negatives” by all-positive trainers. Obviously, then, if you use a leash, you are by definition a punishment-based trainer. Additionally, if you use a leash to stop a dog from lunging, you are using “positive” punishment. That would make you a “positive” trainer by scientific definition. We all know that a leash correction would be called “negative” by the same people who claim to be all-positive – yet they use leashes. The language (and the concepts behind the words) are used almost exclusively in a rhetorical manner to promote an ideology that is incompatible with a full reading or understanding of the scientific literature. Meaning it is not just imprecise, it is incorrect – and they know it.

This muddying of the language is the result of a practice started by B.F. Skinner almost 80 years ago. He created an experiment that examined what was plainly abuse – the application of non-contingent aversive stimuli maintained by positive reinforcement – and called it punishment – an experimental process that is widely used to this day. His conclusions are extrapolations from experiments that did not examine punishment as a discrete phenomenon. They shocked the pigeon periodically when it pecked a key – and then used positive reinforcement to rebuild the behavior and then shocked the pigeon again and rebuilt the behavior and shocked the pigeon over and over and over. Like I said, that’s abuse labeled as punishment but is not an examination of punishment. Punishment stop behavior. That is why they had to give treats to get the tortured little pigeon to peck the key again.

This experimental procedure is where many of the current clichés of positive training come from. EG: Punishment doesn’t really work to stop behavior. Punishment doesn’t teach the dog what to do. Punishment must be applied within one or two seconds of the event or it won’t work. All these statements are specious arguments promoted to prevent an objective examination of the topic (or simply a parroting of the Skinnerian catechism without objective analysis) – which is exactly what Skinner wanted to achieve.  i.e. The imprecision is inherent in the body of knowledge currently called “learning theory” because it rests on the Skinnerian foundation. This has led to a rhetorical use of the word “punishment” to denigrate anyone who isn’t part of the club. To demonstrate this, consider the following.

EG:This is from two years ago…
“I have been punishing my new puppy for squiggling when I hold him in my lap. By the common definition used here, that is “negative”, even though it is actually, by definition, “positive.” I am using contingent “positive” punishment for squiggling behavior. The result is entirely beneficial. After three sessions of physically restraining him when he squiggled (the presentation of a contingent punishing stimulus) his squiggling decreased and was swapped for lying quietly and going to sleep. Now he invites being held in that manner, increasing the amount of love and affection he receives.” (GW- Just as the children preferred a treatment that included punishment but lead to the suppression of their own injurious behavior.) I have just accurately described something that is undoubtedly a contingent positive punishment procedure and included the fact that I used punishment before I tested to see if positive reinforcement worked. Both of these things are taboo in modern behaviorism and dog training.

For those people who still have a problem with thinking rationally about the actual definitions of terms I suggest they examine the dog on the other end of their leash. It, too, is being controlled with a punishment device. That is negative. Anyone who uses a leash is therefore a nasty, negative, punishment-based trainer. That is humorous but entirely consistent with the rhetoric of modern dog training and behavior.

To read the series, use these links
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

5 thoughts on “Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 4

  1. “It is about them using methods that are pleasant for them. It’s fun. They get paid. They get paid more because “all-positive” training takes forever and never really fixes anything.”

    That line absolutely blew me away… You sir Gary know how to give reality checks.

    Oh and interestingly enough I come on here to read about dogs yet I learn something else that perfectly relates to my future: The portion about 2 intellectually disabled kids who needed positive punishment instead of positive reinforcement is something I will probably have to deal with as a future Special Education teacher.

    Thanks for your wonderful insight and blog posts! Keep em’ coming!!

    • Brandon, nobody realizes that positive reinforcement in the absence of punishment for unethical behavior creates and perpetuates unethical behavior. One might suggest that morality is taught primarily through punishment for obviously rewarding but anti-social behaviors. These so-called experts have feet of clay. They propose a harmful ideology that is beneficial to them. Yes, you will find this in the world of special ed. Here’s something I got in my email from a behavior analyst struggling with the same issue.

      “Here in my current position, I often struggle with years and years of ‘reinforcement’ procedures that still have my students breaking their own noses and requiring 2-person holds – often on a daily basis, and an absolute resistance to even discussing the possibility of using a punishment procedure.”

      • It is interesting how the positive reinforcement agenda infiltration goes beyond just dogs, but to many other aspects of humanity too.

        I have a feeling that I will face the same predicament the behavior analyst has when I graduate and enter my field. I’m thankful that your readings continue to enlighten me not only to changing my dogs behavioral traits, but future students as well!!!

  2. Thanks Gary for putting some sanity back in the world. This article reminds me of so many things I have read, some about why treating the sick takes so long is because Dr. charge by the hour (and by the test), same for attorneys why settle today when we can drag this on for years, and millions.
    A friend on Facebook just posted about an African Tribe that surrounds someone who has done something wrong and tells him how good he is to bring back his good nature. The post appears to be fake but the comments are about how great this is and why can’t we be more like this.
    That would be similar to while our dog is chewing your couch up you take him off the couch and tell him about how good he is, he sits when told, does down, comes when called. If I were the dog I would probably think, “Yeah I am pretty good at chewing couches too.”

    • Larry, Thanks for the kind words. When that African tribe thing hit about a year ago I tried to track it down. There was no name, location or citation that could be checked. There was a long piece in the Seattle Times about 30 years ago that was supposed to have been written by Chief Seattle. It was a long diatribe attacking the ways of the white man. It turned out it was written by a white guy writer. As my article suggests, positive reinforcement is amoral. It rewards all kinds of bad behavior, especially lying to foster an agenda. Nobody imagines that making money selling snake oil could possibly be part of the motivation of people who blatantly hood-wink the public while elevating their status and putting dough in the bank.

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