How Animals Train Humans
Personal Perspective: We might not be the only ones using operant conditioning.
Posted July 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- We believe we train our pets to do what we want, but the reverse may also be true.
- Animals have motivations, which shape their behaviors, just like humans do.
- Some of these animal behaviors might entail shaping our behaviors through reinforcement learning.
In the lab where I trained animals in sensory discrimination tasks, another graduate student had taped a cartoon to the lab door, showing two rats in a Skinner box having a deep conversation. Pointing towards a bearded scientist in a lab coat, one rat tells the other, "See that guy? I have him trained; when I press a bar, he gets up and gives me a food pellet."
That cartoon was no joke: Animals do know how to train humans, as the story I'm about to tell will illustrate.
The story involves one human—my wife and fellow Psychology Today blogger Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.—and five animals: a tree squirrel, two dogs, and two California scrub jays.
Let's start with the two dogs, Georgia and Buddy, owned by neighbors on either side of us, respectively.
Although both dogs appreciate the little treats Chris sometimes gives them, what they primarily crave is Chris's attention, and they have trained her to be generous with that attention using an operant conditioning paradigm where the unconditioned stimulus, here employed as a negative reinforcer, is barfing.
That's right. If Chris is busy and ignores Georgia when she peeks into our sliding glass door after hiking up the hill from our neighbor's house, Georgia usually throws up on our patio. Georgia never does this, however, if Chris stops what she is doing and goes out to pet Georgia for at least 10 minutes. (Learn more about what Georgia has taught Chris about life in Chris's article on Georgia.)
Buddy, a dog owned by another neighbor, may have picked up this same trick from Georgia through imitation learning (the two pooches are passing acquaintances) or may have thought of it on his own, but the result is the same. Chris played a vital role in Buddy's life when a neighbor first brought him home from the shelter, comforting him in his new environment, playing with him, and holding him lovingly (see below). Then, when that neighbor moved away, leaving Buddy with another neighbor, Chris eased the trauma of the transition by being a constant reassuring presence in the canine's life.
Today, Chris often sees Buddy on his regularly scheduled walks, and, without fail, if she spends less than 10-15 minutes petting and playing with him in the street, he barfs as soon as she leaves him.
As a result of being conditioned by dogs, Chris spends a lot of time with the two animals.
The scrub jays, Picky and Scaredy, a female/male life pair, have also trained Chris, but their goal is strictly food. Every morning and most afternoons, Chris puts peanuts out on the patio, or sometimes in our living room with the sliding door open, for the birds to collect (they don't eat most of them but hide them in the bushes and cover them with leaves). As with Georgia, if the animals see Chris in the house but do not see peanuts, they bend her to their will with their behavior, hopping from a tree branch to a bush to the patio table right outside our sliding door, perching there, staring intently in at Chris until she relents and gets up to give them the peanuts. In this case, the negative reinforcer is not barf but guilt.
Finally, there's a tree squirrel, Eric, named after someone Chris thinks is also a messy eater, who has recently discovered and taken a liking to the scrub jay's peanuts. Over the past few months, Eric has evolved a two-pronged reinforcement strategy that combines elements of the other animals' behavior. Like the jays, if Eric sees no peanuts on the table, he comes right up to the sliding glass door and stares in at Chris until she gives him what he wants.
Eric also has educated Chris about a contingency related not to barfing but to peeing: If peanuts are there when he arrives, he (messily) shells and eats them. If the peanuts are not there, he will jump on the table, sniff around, and pee.
Animal learning purists could argue, with some justification, that the behaviors of Eric (the squirrel, not the author), Buddy, Georgia, Picky, and Scaredy might not be due to the creatures' willful use of operant conditioning techniques, but to simpler factors (e.g., some dogs, like humans, tend to vomit when upset, squirrels pee a lot for random reasons, and scrub jays stare at you for reasons known only to them).
However, while it's true we cannot know what's in an animal's mind, Chris and I do know for certain that we have modified our own behaviors in order to avoid barf, guilt, and pee. So, whether or not the creatures originally intended to modify our behaviors with negative reinforcers, they ended up doing so.
Whatever the case, I have to go now because the animals are here. There are no peanuts on the patio table, Chris is away, and a scrub jay is perched on a patio chair staring expectantly at me, possibly thinking she has to go through the tiresome task of training yet another human.
Copyright 2022, Eric Haseltine