Articulate Brutes with Cattle Prods: Waldo has left the picture

image_t6But don’t applied behavior analysts use electric shock and other forms of physical punishment?

“Throughout his career, Skinner opposed the use of all forms of punishment; he advocated positive ways of changing behavior.
Standards for practice in applied behavior analysis severely restrict the use of electric shock and other forms of physical punishment. For example, it can be used only when other methods have failed, and when the behavior involved is a threat to the safety of the individual or others.An autistic child who repeatedly hits himself in the eyes with his fists, for example, is likely to cause blindness. If other forms of treatment (e.g., positive reinforcement, extinction) are unsuccessful, the child might be sprayed in the face with a water mister each time he hits himself. This mild form of physical punishment is usually effective in reducing the frequency of self-injurious behavior. Stronger forms of physical punishment, such as brief and mild electric shock, are seldom used and then only as a last resort with severe behavior disorders that have not responded to gentler procedures.”

(The above quote comes from the FAQ’s of the Association for Behavior Analysis International website. They have a new website in progress that may or may not include this information, but it was up there for the last few years and is not contradicted by their collective writings. Meaning it is fair to say this is still their opinion. Skinner is still their guiding force, punishment is still recommended as a last resort after “positive” methods fail, etc. For more on this part of the issue, look here:

In the world of behavioral science and ethics there are some things that have always puzzled me that I would love to understand. The above quote comes from the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)  and was intended to inform the public about what they do and don’t do. If you are not familiar with behavior analysts, they created the bulk of what is known as learning theory. They are also the 600 pound gorilla in the treatment of humans with mental disabilities and autism and are the metaphoric mentors of modern animal behaviorists and trainers. They crafted  both question and answer.

Now here’s an odd thing. Behavior analysts admit that in rare cases it is appropriate to use electric shock to stop things like self-injurious behavior but they couch their reluctant approval in terms that display their antipathy. After all, their icon, B.F. Skinner apparently opposed any use of punishment. In this quote, they do not talk about effective treatment, they talk about “gentler” treatment. They say that a spritz of water is “usually” effective in reducing the frequency of a self-injurious behavior. What if it’s not? I think the correct treatment would require stopping the behavior immediately and creating an inhibition for the future. Each moment delayed is a risk of potential harm to the patient.  They can be pardoned slightly for their evasion. As they have no training in the application of punishment they logically aren’t the people who would do it and have no first-hand knowledge that would make them experts.This leads to an obvious mystery and a host of questions that are left unanswered. If there is someone more qualified than a behavior analyst or behavior counselor to apply punishment when it is ethically appropriate, why wouldn’t someone go to that person first? After 70 years of behavior analysis working with problem behavior there should be a formal list of behaviors that do not respond to “positive” methods or are likely to require ethical punishment to stop. (Sorry, that doesn’t exist for some reason.)  I would simply like to know who this person is and where they got their training. Is there a certification or license for someone who applies punishment? That would require courses, texts, instructors and internships. If these things don’t exist then who does the dirty work and where did they come from?

Searching for Mr. Good Punisher: Where did this guy get his expertise?
Perhaps the punisher is someone  who is only there to apply the electric shock. I discount the spritz of water reference. As punishment can only be used for serious problems and as a last resort we are supposed to believe that the following quote from a behavior analyst in current practice can be solved with a squirt of water.

“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.”

So, if a board certified behavior analyst isn’t the person allowed to even suggest a punishment procedure, who is? Is that person only qualified to apply punishment or do they also use positive reinforcement? Where did they get their training? There is no course at any school of psychology or veterinary college that teaches the application of reinforcement and punishment. (Or a course on the use of punishment alone) As someone who is qualified to apply punishment and reinforcement I can tell you that it creates layers of behavior that studying only one effect cannot teach you. This supposed course is not part of any curriculum connected to behavior analysis or to my knowledge, medicine or psychiatry. In 2009 I gave a workshop at the ABAI annual conference on punishment that included a live demo. I punished two, adult Dobermans – a father and son team – that had ripped each other severely only two days before. Within five minutes they were lying down next to each other and within 15 had both fallen asleep.  To my knowledge that is the only presentation ever offered that would at all give a representation of punishment done correctly and that is far from a course, text, certification or license. (At the 2015 ABAI International conference there will be about 1500 total presentations, none regarding punishment.) Apparently their program is a well-kept secret. Regardless of any lack of image_t6leftspecificity, the image ABAI promotes is still highly evocative. It conjures up the image of some guy with a black hood and a cattle prod, stoically waiting for the effete behavior analyst to say the word to shock the poor, self-abusive wretch. Perhaps a better metaphor goes all the wayback to the Crucifixion with Pontius Pilate washing his hands. “I’m not the person actually doing the deed so I am blameless – but I approve of it.”

Trickle Down Damage: Peeing in the collective knowledge pool
If ABAI was simply a collection of academics and had no influence this issue would be moot – simply one more group of normative hedonists trying to make a name for themselves and control the conversation/market. Unfortunately, they do have influence. As the gate-keepers of “learning theory” they are imitated by people who benefit from claiming the imprimatur of science. Consider the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). They published a “Position Statement on Punishment” to let people know that punishment is bad, they don’t use it and you shouldn’t either. They too weasel out on this critical issue of who shall hold the cattle prod. They want everyone to go elsewhere to get this terrible, side-effects ridden procedure done. Like ABAI they don’t actually tell you who knows more about performing this procedure than they.

“If punishment is added to a modification plan, it should only be used if the owner has first demonstrated reasonable ability and consistency at rewarding appropriate behaviors and removing the reward for bad behavior. If punishment is suggested as part of a complete behavior modification plan, owners should not begin using it until they have ensured that the person helping them is able to articulate the major adverse effects of punishment, judge when these effects are occurring over the short term and long term, and can explain how they will reverse the adverse effects if they occur.” – AVSAB Position Statement on Punishment

One again the glaring but unstated question is “who will do the dirty work”? Apparently AVSAB has copied ABAI’s strategy. In order to appear rational they must admit that there is a time and place where stopping a behavior is the logical and ethical solution to a problem. However, there is nothing in their training that would qualify them to apply punishment so they pass the baton to the unnamed person helping an owner punish their dog. Ironically, veterinarian behaviorists are the analog to a human psychiatrist – medical doctors with training in psychology and behavior. They are supposed to be at the top of the food chain among veterinarians to apply behavioral solutions – but allude to someone more qualified. We do have at least one hint about who AVSAB’s punisher might be – someone who can articulate the harmful side effects and knows how to reverse them. That presents the common result of parroting things you don’t understand – another logical conundrum.

Skills Upon Skills: The Renaissance Brute Revealed
Apparently the brute with the cattle prod is articulate and knowledgeable about the use of positive reinforcement. Logically if that brute is capable of reversing the horrible side effects they must use some behavioral effect other than punishment to do so. Huh? You mean the terrible consequences of using punishment can be reversed? Now we have another qualification added to our hooded figure.  As punishment causes those horrible side effects that can be countered, the brute is both articulate and must be skilled in the art of using positive reinforcement to correct behavioral problems. I’m confused. If the brute with the cattle prod is articulate, skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of positive reinforcement, why would he use punishment at all? After all, Dr. Ian Dunbar said this, recently.

“To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need: A thorough understanding of canine behaviour. A thorough understanding of learning theory. Impeccable timing. And if you have those three things, you don’t need a shock collar.”

And this is another Dunbar quote from a presentation at a dog trainer’s conference.

“There are two undeniable facts about punishment:
1. Any punishment for inappropriate behavior is an obvious advertisement of insufficient, or ineffective training. You have yet to effectively teach your dog to want to do what you want it to do.
2. In most cases, the dog associates punishment with the training situation and the trainer, understandably causing it to dislike both training and the trainer, i.e., you!”

Attacking the Savior:
Excuse me but the other shoe is about to drop. If behavior analysts, veterinarian behaviorists and popular animal behaviorists acknowledge that punishment is sometimes the ethical tool, wouldn’t you think they’d support the executioner? He’s the guy that gets them off the hook so they don’t have to get their hands bloodied. After all, in a practical sense, if a client has need of a punisher-guy the behavior analyst or veterinarian behaviorist is obligated to provide a referral if they don’t offer that service. The ethical rule of informed consent requires that they te
ll the client about all treatment options and then facilitate their choice if possible. It is perfectly ethical to say, “I am not qualified to offer that service” and give out the contact information for someone who is. What is not ethical is to say, “You need an effective, ethical application of punishment to fix your dog. I am not qualified to do that service” and then attack anyone who is qualified. Yet that is what they do.

In Dunbar’s world, a person who uses punishment is an untrained brute. But ABAI and AVSAB say that the punisher is a highly trained, articulate specialist. Apparently, if we take AVSAB’s advice, Dunbar says that it will merely alienate the dog from its owner. To Dunbar there is no articulate executioner, merely someone who doesn’t know enough to not use punishment. Apparently that lack of knowledge includes both ABAI and AVSAB. Or maybe Dunbar means that the dog will be alienated from the punisher. One wonders why the dog wouldn’t make a simple discrimination and realize that its owners don’t have black hoods or cattle prods and revert to its old behavior once the punisher leaves. So many logical questions, so few answers. For instance, Dr. Dunbar says that any use of punishment is an admission of lack of training or bad training. Where, exactly, did he get his training that would make him an expert on this topic? Wouldn’t we want to talk to the articulate guy with the cattle prod, clicker and treats? Logically, that guy is the expert. Those who merely acknowledge the need for his existence aren’t really experts as they only sanction the punishment without being a part of the process.

 Where’s Waldo? He just left the beach.
To prevent my head from exploding I have to ask another question, much as I hate to do so. Which of these opinions is correct? AVSAB says that the punishwheres-waldo-punisherer should be skilled at correcting any side-effects. Dunbar says that anyone skilled enough to know about side-effects wouldn’t use punishment. ABAI says punishment is justified (like a barium treatment to show an intestinal blockage) but seems confused about who would provide the service. This kind of bizarre, illogical and contradictory rhetoric is one of the terrible side-effects of discussing punishment with academics. It makes my head hurt. If you can sort this out, let me know. If not, perhaps we qualify to have a visit from the guy with the hood.



3 thoughts on “Articulate Brutes with Cattle Prods: Waldo has left the picture

  1. I feel as though to discuss punishment with any academics would be redundant–for they would be too caught up in their own bias to establish a listening ear.

  2. I am commenting in regards to your equating ECT (electrical convulsive therapy) to punishment. Your information is flawed. This procedure is NOT used to punish anyone for their behavior as an e-collar could be used to stop a behavior in a dog. In ECT the patient is under sedation as they would be for surgery which is WHY it is performed by physicians. It is NOT paired with the behavior as punishment would be. This procedure is used to create something like a seizure which ‘reboots’ the brain to allow a change in the chemistry. This is used in people with severe, debilitating mental illnesses in which their ability to function in daily life is extremely compromised. This is used only when less invasive methods such as medication and other therapies have failed.

  3. Hi Debbie, if I read the article correctly the portion about electric shock on the Autistic child was a quote from the ABAI and not a comment from Gary. While you are correct about ECT, electric shock conditioning has used in the treatment of autism. It is looking at being banned in its practice.
    Thanks Gary for the information, I continue to read all the articles you post I just don’t comment a lot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *