The Premack Principle: Much ado about nothing you don’t already know.

Modern dog trainers and behaviorists like to make a connection between scientific research and some kind of über-knowledge they use to train animals. That way they can imply that they are secret knowledge that mere trainers don’t have. Look up the word hubris if you wish to know the truth of that practice. Their words are meant to sell a product, not give insight. In reality, trainers have been plying their trade so long that there is virtually nothing that hasn’t come before. To give you an example that you are just as smart about behavior as the learned doctors and their acolytes who crow the “great accomplishments” of modern, scientific training, consider one of their crowning discoveries – the Premack Principle.

Premack Defined: (From some Wiki or other)
The principle was derived from a study of Cebus monkeys by Professor David Premack, but has explanatory and predictive power when applied to humans. This is evidenced by the fact that therapists use the principle in behavior modification. Premack’s Principle suggests that if a person wants to perform a given activity, the person will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity. In behaviorist terms, activities become reinforcers. An individual will be more motivated to perform a particular activity if they know that they will be able to partake of a more desirable activity as a consequence. If high-probability behaviors (more desirable behaviors) are made contingent upon lower-probability behaviors (less desirable behaviors), then the lower-probability behaviors are more likely to occur. More desirable behaviors are those that individuals spend more time doing if permitted; less desirable behaviors are those that individuals spend less time doing when free to act.

Guess what? They just told you something that you already know. However, Premack left something out. Premack doesn’t work without a coercive component – a coercive component that is never referenced but is the underlying reason that Premack ever works…which is rarely. Unless you are forced to do the less desirable behavior you will not do it. “Mow the lawn or you don’t get to go to the pool party” has to include some threat of punishment or the kid is simply going to sneak off and go to the pool party. Why? Living organisms are designed to “cut to the chase”. EG: Do your homework before you go out to play does not make “doing your homework” desirable. The play does not strengthen doing homework unless there’s a whippin’ if you don’t. The truth is that Premack’s Principle only works in a candy shop. “If you eat M&M’s first, I’ll let you have a Wonka Bar. If that is all there is to it, why wouldn’t the trainer skip the middle man and simply use the Wonka Bar in the first place? Unless the less desirable behavior is reinforcing in itself, the whole thing falls apart. If you hate M&M’s you’ll only eat them to get what you want. If you can get what you want, why would you eat the M&M’s? Because Willy Wonka says so and he owns the chocolate factory.

The Real Context.
What Premack and every other “positive” biased person assumes is that you can avoid using aversive control by doing fancy tricks gleaned from a rat-box in a rat-lab. In reality they merely put obstacles in the way of an animal getting what it wants. That is the foundation of their control. i.e. Coercion through withholding a desired event, outcome, object or experience. Hmmm. So we avoid using aversive control by creating an aversive environment. That’s odd. That is the context that is never admitted in behavior analytic thought. But can’t a more favored behavior actually reinforce a less favored behavior? Nope. An animal at rest will remain at reset unless influenced by some other force. You can call that behavioral inertia. If an animal is resting comfortably and you offer it a treat, it will do what it has to do to get the treat. At the most basic level, that means the animal has to move to get the treat.

Here’s the sequence: Resting – a desirable activity – leads to moving – which leads to food. Duh. Have we missed something here? This is a great discovery? It sounds so abysmally mundane as to wonder where Premack lived all his life to not know this. It’s the treat that reinforces the movement. The proof of the pudding is to simply remove the reinforcer at the end of the sequence and see if the intermediate behavior is actually going to occur at all. Not for long. It will “extinguish” because it doesn’t pay off.

But wait, the truly brilliant reveal is coming! Premack has discovered that being forced to do a less desirable behavior in order to get a more desirable outcome strengthens the less desirable behavior. Isn’t that called “work?” Somehow discovering this took a research experiment. Ironically, the experimenter was doing less desirable behaviors (handling monkey poop) to do more desirable behaviors (examining research data). This all led to what really motivates people – the end game. We all do things we don’t really want to do to get what we want. In his case, Premack got to publish a paper which elevated his status and insured his income as a published professor. It even got his name repeated endlessly by people who think it’s a fantastic discovery. The problem is that it doesn’t really work in the real world. Premack didn’t handle monkey poop for fun and wouldn’t have done it if there was a way to get the recognition without it. Actually it’s likely that some graduate student had to do the dirty work so they could get a PhD.

Now I will tell you what you already know using real-life examples…
I didn’t like washing dishes more because I had to do them before I could go out and play. It was the play that motivated me to wash dishes. The dishes were an impediment that wasn’t particularly aversive – hot, soapy water, easy motions – but it was aversive because it delayed my reward – play. Once the coercive environment (living with my parents) was removed, dish washing dropped like a rock. As a bachelor it was almost non-existent. (Paper plates and dirty dishes in the sink) It only became a high priority behavior when I had a guest or some other event. (And the motivation was aversive. It would be embarrassing to have dirty dishes in the sink) To add to my analogy, I was actually a dishwasher at a restaurant as a teenager. I should have been so proficient that it was a piece of cake. No, it blocked my ability to do things I wanted to do. I was only a dish washer to save money to buy a very expensive banjo and pay toward my college tuition.

The real problems with the Premack Principle are that the principle is naked. It only talks about one aspect of behavior – “more likely”. It also doesn’t acknowledge that the real control is gained through aversive control. Yes, some behaviors are fun. However, the idea that a lesser fun behavior is going to be strengthened by leading to a “more fun” behavior is only true if we are looking at a specific criterion. EG: Climbing the ladder lets you jump off the high dive. What is not mentioned is that the high-diver never really climbs the ladder for fun. The false appearance that the less desired behavior is strengthened only happens if the animal is limited to a single behavior and can’t leave – meaning a coercive environment that forces the animal to do what it normally would not do. In these types of experiments, the animal doesn’t have the option of sneaking out of the Skinner box to go play baseball. They are literally one-trick monkeys. Worse, if they don’t work, they don’t eat. So, they can’t escape and behave normally which means that any results you get from this experiment do not describe normal behavior. Duh.

Time-Out from Premack:
One of the problems with using a behavior analytic perspective to understand behavior is behavior analysts have never actually cross-checked their findings. Consider that every nice person in the world loves ‘time-outs’ to puni5078sh behavior. Spray paint your bedroom and you will go to time-out. Let’s put Premack into the mix and see what happens. Time-outs always lead to freedom at some point. So, time-out – a lesser liked activity – leads to freedom. According to Premack time-outs should become reinforcers and strengthen the behaviors that cause them. Oops. Either Premack is wrong, time-outs aren’t functional or both. In reality, time-outs often trigger aggression and opposition. If they are strong enough to punish an unacceptable behavior they are strong enough to make a resistant enemy – kinda like the average prisoner’s perspective on being in the slammer.

We all swim in a sea of behavior. It is all around us and we even generate it. It is as close as your finger tips and floods your eyes whenever they are open. We have few choices as regards behavior; swim, sink, tread water or, if we are very bright, learn to navigate. Putting undo emphasis on supposed new discoveries or pretending that they advance our knowledge of behavior simply fills the waterway with debris. It also attempts to alienate our own personal knowledge and the rich legacy of trainers throughout history. Deifying behavioral scientists and their discoveries that were always a part of collective human knowledge is like the Cajun scientist who kept rolling rocks down a hill to see if they had any moss on them. No offense to Cajuns intended. (From a Justin Wilson tale.)

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