The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

One thing that training dogs has taught me is to better understand certain behavioral patterns in myself. Here’s an example.

I dislike unsolicited advice. I try to refrain from giving it to others, and it annoys me when it is bestowed on me by friends who (I feel) should know better.

And yet, a lot of the time, my response to unsolicited advice is to reinforce the unsolicited advisor by thanking them for their help. As a result, the friend is likely to give me more unsolicited advice in the future. The spiral of miscommunication continues.

Why on earth would I thank them for something I didn’t want? I recognized what I was doing, and I was puzzled by it – until I observed a completely unrelated behavioral pattern in dogs.

Learning to tug

Some dogs show little natural interest in playing with a tug toy. A common method of teaching them to tug is to excitedly tease and slap them with the toy and push the toy into the dog. Lots of dogs learn to tug this way.

Throughout the training process, a handler who uses this method is getting positively reinforced for teasing and slapping the dog with the toy: the dog grabbing and pulling on the toy is equivalent to me saying thank you to an unsolicited advisor. It’s a powerful positive reinforcer for the handler or the unwelcome advisor, respectively.

But what is happening from the perspective of the dog? Pause for a second before you continue reading past this paragraph. Is the dog’s tugging behavior strengthened and maintained by …

(A) positive reinforcement,
(B) positive punishment,
(C) negative reinforcement,
or (D) negative punishment?

Scroll down to see if you were right!

tugging, dog training, dog trainer, play

The answer is (C): negative reinforcement. The dog in our example doesn’t naturally care about tug toys. The trainer slapping and teasing him with the toy, trying to put it in his mouth, slapping some more while talking excitedly is irritating, confusing, intimidating or annoying to the dog. In an effort to escape the trainer’s behavior, he will sooner or later try grabbing the toy.

That very instant, the slapping, teasing and pushing stops. Wow! A moment of relief! The dog just learned that he can stop his owner’s craziness by grabbing and holding on to the toy. The better he understands his ability to influence the handler’s behavior, the sooner will he grab the toy. Eventually, he’ll start tugging as soon as the toy is presented. Voilà – the dog has learned to tug via a negative reinforcement procedure.

I assume many dogs eventually start to enjoy tugging as such, even if they initially learned by means of negative reinforcement. Some dogs, however, may never truly enjoy to play tug, and keep doing it mostly in order to not get slapped and teased with the toy.

Me? I’m like the latter kind of dog when it comes to thanking people for their unsolicited advice. I keep doing it to escape the pressure of being expected to respond.

Unsolicited advice

Being showered with unsolicited advice from friends – whether it is dog training advice, dating advice, or life advice – feels like being slapped with a tug toy. It’s irritating. It makes me feel yucky and disrespected. If that were the only force at play here, I’d probably actively reject the advice (applying positive punishment), or ignore it (applying extinction).

The pressure to respond and the crux of kindness

However, two other strong forces come into play as well:

  • My need to respond to my friends’ messages (the equivalent of “will to please” in a dog),
  • and the belief that kindness is more important than honesty, i.e. we should not do things that may hurt our friends’ feelings (the equivalent to living by a certain rule structure we sometimes observe in herding breeds).

When a friend writes me a message, the ball is in my court, and I feel like I NEED to give the ball back to them. As long as the ball is in my court, it’s as if the slapping and teasing with the tug toy continued. Having a friend’s ball in my court is pressure – that’s why I’m having a really hard time just ignoring unsolicited advice.

So I will eventually respond – and I’ll be nice about it. I feel like I need to respond to my friend’s good intentions rather than to the effect their unsolicited advice-giving behavior has on me.

I’ll probably at least say “Thank you” or a send a smiley face or a thumbs up emoticon. While this is the weakest reinforcer available to me, it is still strong enough to maintain my friends’ unsolicited advice-giving.

The Challenge

Now that I’m aware of what has been maintaining my grateful responses to unsolicited advice, I’m going to conduct an experiment: I’ll try to change my own reaction, and find out if I can reduce unsolicited advice giving that way. At the very least, I expect to feel better when learning to respond in a way that is in line with my feelings about unsolicited advice. (The training parallel here would be giving the dog a way to opt out of playing tug.)

I’m going to start with focusing on advice given in written form, online. My alternative response to unsolicited advice will be to close the chat window instead of replying. I’m going to use a food reward for myself: I will treat myself to the world’s best cheesecake, which is sold at a local café, contingent on closing the chat window. I’ve only had this cheesecake twice because it’s fancy and expensive cheesecake, but I think about it every time I walk past the café. Starting today, for the next four weeks, I’ll have cheese cake every time I close a chat window on an unsolicited advisor. I’ll see how it goes!

How about you? Has dog training changed your understanding of your own behavioral patterns or the behavioral patterns of the humans around you? Would you like to design your own version of the cheesecake challenge? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

2 thoughts on “The Cheesecake Challenge, or an Experiment in Resisting Negative Reinforcement

  1. Bettina Lori says:

    Haha, I hope you got lots of cheesecake since writing that post! I compare animal and human behaviour a lot. I blame FDSA for it! It helps me putting human traits I don’t like (in me and in others, also in politics, wars, racism and such) in perspective. Less judging, expecting things to go my way or getting angry. More understanding that we as humans react certain ways. I catapult myself on that nice cloud in the sky and watch that pretty strange species on two legs from above. Doesn’t always work though…I never considered a cheesecake challenge, but I will think about it on my drive this afternoon. I might just come up with something, who knows?
    Love your blogs!
    Bettina

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Unfortunately, I didn’t get any cheesecake! Not one slice. The first week or two after writing this post – no unsolicited advice whatsoever. By the time it happened again, my cheesecake resolution wasn’t on my mind anymore. Only after the fact did I realize I had reinforced the advice-giving yet again.

      I’ll need to split this down more if I want it to work: rather than expecting it to work in real life right away, I’ll need to practice in an easier context first. I could ask a trusted friend to give me unsolicited advice, for example, and then consciously practice the alternative behavior – cheesecake eating rather than engaging in the unsolicited advice. After established a bit of a habit, I could try and generalize – first to other selected friends, and then to the real world.

      We don’t trial dogs without practicing first, and we don’t expect the alternative behavior we came up with for our reactive dog to work in the real world before doing set-ups. Why would we humans be any different?

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