So it was Valentine’s Day earlier this week – you might have noticed by the abundance of chocolate in the shops and cheesy movies on TV, maybe you even got a card?
It seems a little odd to me that we only spend one day out of the year telling our most loved one how special they are to us, because surely they are special every day of the year? Well maybe the majority of them at least, let’s give them a pass on those other days when we would cheerfully throttle them. But anyway, the day itself posed any interesting question for me.
B. F. Skinner (the scientist who is credited with discovering operant learning) is quoted as saying
“What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”
I saw this quote posted on Facebook on the fateful day and it got me thinking do we feel love towards someone because we have experienced a series of encounters with them that we have found reinforcing? On the surface this feels like it should be wrong, surely we can’t boil down such a complex emotion as love into such a simple precept? But the more I’ve pondered the more I’ve started to agree with Skinner. I *want* to spend more time with people who make me feel good. I actively try and avoid spending time with people who make me feel icky. Of course there are a myriad of way in which people can make me feel good – no not just that way…… they can be interesting, enjoy a good debate (I love a good debate), fun, have a dry sense of humour. What I find attractive and make me feel good can be quite different from someone else. In just the same way there are lots of ways that someone can make me feel icky, maybe they do hugging (I do not!), or are overly critical, or just plain moaning all of the time, all of those are reasons that I try and avoid people. People that I spend a lot of time with and have a lot of good experiences with I would say I love. Not all in the same way, but I care deeply about them, I feel attached.
I’m pretty sure dogs feel the same way. When their experiences with a person predominantly make them feel good, I believe they become attached to that person, enjoy their company, seek them out – we could call that love surely?
What I have particularly pondered this week is that second part of the quote – that vice versa.
What did Skinner mean by that exactly? I’m not sure, and we can’t ask him but *my* interpretation is that if we love someone we should be using positive reinforcement with them. Wow. I think that’s a huge statement in so few words. Interestingly there have also been discussions this week about whether training devices like shock collars should be banned in England, no prizes for guessing which side of the fence I sit on in that debate. Learning about Skinner and behaviourism I can honestly say has changed my life and the way in which I try to interact with people and animals. I think that biasing my interactions to positive reinforcement as much as I can has changed my relationships and not just because I try and “be nice” all the time. It’s changed my attitude towards the person/animal too. As I spoke about in a previous post about labelling, thinking about behaviour as a response to environment means I no longer think about it being me v them and being adversaries, instead I find myself thinking much more collaboratively and how we can work together to both get what we need. I’ve got to say it’s a much nicer mindset to be living in, and I’m pretty sure it’s more pleasant for those living around me too.
Maybe Skinner meant that if we love someone we already do use positive reinforcement with them, but I believe I’m just a lowly human who is inherently selfish and I’m yet to reach perfection and I think that sometimes using positive reinforcement requires effort and conscious thought. If you want to know how to use positive reinforcement with the dog you love I can help. I think that my Canine Concepts class has relationship building at it’s heart and it’s my most favourite course to date. The next one starts 27th March.