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People Do It Because We Let Them

In many contexts we often wonder why people do things we don’t like.  Why do friends take advantage of us?  Why do our athletes skip workouts?  Why does our significant other do things that they know bother us?  Why do people continue doing these things when they know they upset us?  Well the answer is simple: people do it because we let them.

Why Do Dogs Pull?

Since about September of last year, I’ve been volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter, walking dogs, doing other activities and getting more training under my belt.  And I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been there. For example I’ve learned that I’m better at remembering the dog’s names than I am the other volunteers on my shifts.  I’ve also learned that I like most dogs better than I like most people though I pretty much knew that already.

But some of the things I’ve learned are actually a little more useful.  For example, one of the earliest classes I took was was called the blue dog walking class which allows you to walk the blue dot dogs at the shelter (read the article series Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter if you want this to make sense)

Among other things, you learn how to fit and use EZ-walk collars, how to teach a dog to wait at a door, what kinds of behavioral issues to expect and how to correct some of them (I learned a ton more when I took the 5 week full blue dog class).

In short, blue dogs often have some simple behavioral issues for example they may jump, or pull at their leash.  Part of the class was training us how to train the dogs to be better dogs and not do those things so they are easier to get adopted.

And in that class the instructor asked us a fairly simple question which was this:

Why do dogs pull?

Now, there are actually some reasons why dogs pull that are part of them being dogs.   It’s something called the oppositional reflex which I can explain simply: you know how if someone pushes you with their hand you tend to lean into them instead of letting them push you back?  That’s an oppositional reflex.  And dogs have it too to varying degrees.

Some dogs simply enjoy the pressure of the collar against their throat and chest.  Basically they get positive reinforcement from pulling against it due to this reflex.  I’ve noticed that the more musclely dogs (like the pitbulls) tend to really enjoy this since it gives them a chance to flex their muscles.

Basically dogs pull because they enjoy the feeling of pressure on their throat.  It looks and sounds like they are choking themselves out but they are actually enjoying it.  Like little furry David Carridines I guess.  Wait…too soon?

Now, there’s really not much you can do about this at a fundamental level, it’s just a dog being a dog (being a dog).   It’s one of those things that you can’t really control since you can’t change their instinctive behavior. But there is something you can control and that’s how you respond to the action.  And that was the next bit of the blue class.

Because the answer to the question of why do dogs pull is just stunningly simple:

It’s because we let them.

Dogs pull because we let them.  Dogs jump up on us because we let them.  Dogs do things we don’t like because we let them.  They have no reason not to do those things because we let them.  Why would they instinctively change their behaviors if they don’t have to?  They are just being dogs and we can’t change that.  They’ll do what they do if we let them.

And, quite simply you can insert just about anything into the place of “Why do dogs pull?”or “Why do dogs jump?” and it still works.  Dogs (or people) do X because we let them do X.  Clients waste our time because we let them.  Significant others do things we don’t like because we let them.  People treat you badly because you let them. You treat people badly (if you do) because they let you.

For the most part (unless some makes some conscious choice to act differently), nobody has any real reason not to do what they are doing to do if someone lets them.  And it really is that simple: they do it because someone lets them.  Since you can’t change what those people are going to do at a fundamental level, all you can change is how you respond to it.  And that means simply, not letting them do what you dislike.

And for some reason hearing it put in those simple terms was eye opening for me.  All the bullshit I’d put up with from clients, SO’s, in business, in my life occurred for one reason and one reason alone: because I let it happen.  Yeah, I’m slow sometimes.  And it took the dogs to teach me the lesson.

Because while they might have been wrong to do it, I was willing to let it happen.  I couldn’t control what they were going to do, I could only control what I did in response.  And chances are anybody reading this is in a similar situation: people are doing things you dislike because you let them. You’re doing things other people dislike because they let you.  Whether it’s clients, friends, SO’s, or your dog, they are doing things you dislike because you let them.

And the long and the short of this is that the solution to the problem of “Why does X do Y” is fundamentally simple: “Don’t let them.”  Mind you, what’s fundamentally simply in principle isn’t necessarily simple in practice.

But getting someone to act differently can be done so long as you do certain things in a certain way.  Which is all just a really long lead up to a discussion of behavior modification.  The focus here being on what you do to get someone or something else to act differently more than changing your own behavior.

A Primer on Behaviorism

.I don’t claim to be an expert on behaviorism, I’m going to take a very simplified look at what I know is a very complicated topic.  I’ll let the experts tear this apart in the comments if they so desire.  Entire books are available on a topic I’m going to sum up in like 8 or 10 paragraphs.  Go read them if you’re interested, this is the basics of what you need to know.

Now, behavioral modification, changing what something or someone does is divided by behaviorists into four general types, really just two versions of two distinct categories.  The names, sadly cause some confusion and while I’ll present the technical terms, I’m also going to provide my own that I think are easier to understand.

Ultimately all four have as their goal changing a behavior: either trying to get a desired behavior to occur more frequently or an undesired behavior to occur less frequently.  But each can have their specific use and application depending on the specific situation.  And I’ll give some examples, some with dogs, some with not dogs (i.e. people) to make this a bit more clear.

In any case, the 4 general categories of beahviorism are typically given as positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.  Which is where people get confused: how can punishment not be negative for example?

But this is one of those confusing semantic issues that I’ll comment on further below.  I’m actually going to add a fifth category (that I’m sure is part of behaviorism as a whole) since it’s one we use with the dogs and that can sometimes be more powerful than any of the others in one specific circumstance.

Positive Reinforcement

Think of this as “providing reward”.  When someone or something does something you want it to do more of (whether voluntarily or on command), you provide a reward.  Since most things like getting rewards, providing reward in response to a desired behavior tends to make it occur more frequently.

For a dog that might mean giving it a  tasty treat, or a toy, or a high pitched “Yes” or a pet on the head.   For a kid who got a good grade, that might mean taking them for ice cream.  For an athlete who does something good, the reward might range from a “good job” to a something tangible (name on the 300 lb bench press board, a special shirt, whatever).

I’d note that different dogs respond to different things and it’s crucial to use a reward that is actually relevant to whatever you’re rewarding.  Using a treat for a dog that doesn’t like them doesn’t work and the same holds if you’re trying to change a behavior in a human.  You have to give them something that they consider rewarding for it to have relevance.

There’s actually an interesting couple of nuances to positive reinforcement worth bringing up here.  First realize that the neurotransmitter dopamine is the primary reward chemical.   And while early thoughts were that dopamine levels went up in response to the reward, it’s actually looking like dopamine goes up in anticipation of reward.

For example, certain parts of addicts brains light up not when they consume their drug of choice but during the lead up.  All of those rituals that smokers, alcoholics and heroin users go through is what’s driving the reward; the drug is secondary. This is also why true addicts usually can’t be around certain environments.  Watching others engage in the rituals of their drug tend to drive the cravings and parts of their brain involved in reward light up if they even see video of other people using their drug of choice.

Of more relevance is the fact that intermittent reward ends up being more reinforcing than either constant rewards or non-existent rewards.  This is part of why gambling (where the house odds are set at around 51%; that is people will win just under half the time) can be so addictive.  It’s set up so that you get rewarded just often enough to make it worth you’re while to keep trying.  That’s when you really keep doing something.

Consider the situations where you gambled and won every time: it would get boring because you know you’re going to win.  Or consider one where you lose every time: you’d give up because you know you’re going to lose.  But a situation where you win about half the time is massively rewarding: every time you gamble there is the anticipation of reward (the real driver for dopamine) and you’ll actually get it about half the time (so you keep going in anticipation of getting the reward).

This also explains why someone being coy, sometimes rewarding your advances sometimes not, is so much more attractive than someone who always blows you off or always rewards with you affection.  Unless you’re an idiot, getting constantly blown off makes you give up.  Getting rewarded all the time can become boring.  When you only get rewarded some of the time for hitting on them or flirting with them, it’s often much more rewarding than either extreme.

We use this with dogs, once we’ve chronically rewarded a given behavior to establish it, we move to a random schedule, sometimes rewarding it sometimes not.  This further reinforces the behavior and you often see dogs starting to voluntarily try things that sometimes get them rewards: just in case.  I taught ALFIE! touch (where he had to touch my hand with his nose) long ago and sometime he’ll bop me with his nose just in case it might get him a reward.

I’ve taught him that hedging his bets is worthwhile because it might get him a reward.  Think about how you might use this with athletes.  Or girlfriends/boyfriends.    Ok, moving on.

Negative Reinforcement

This is one of those confusing ones, how can reinforcement (usually thought of as positive) be negative but, again, this is a semantic technical issue.  Think of negative reinforcement as “removing punishment” (the negative here refers to subtracting something).

Technically it’s “removal of an aversive stimulus” but punishment is easier to type.  Since most people don’t like punishment or aversive things, having a routine punishment removed ends up being a reinforcer.  They will start to do things you want so that you won’t punish them.

So let’s say that you constantly beat your dog or your kids.  Just all the time for sheer hell of it.  But every time they do something good, you stop beating them.  That’s an example of negative reinforcement: in response to a behavior you want them to engage in, you take away a punishment/aversive stimulus.  This is, of course predicated on there being an aversive stimulus to remove.  I also would ask you to not beat your dogs on a regular basis.

Perhaps a better example would be of a coach who routinely makes their athletes run wind sprints after practice.  Or a teacher who puts a dunce cap on a kid to embarrass them.  If when the athletes do particularly well in practice they don’t have to do wind sprints as a reward, that’s an example of negative reinforcement. The punishment is being removed.  Allowing the kid to take off the dunce cap because he stopped acting out is another example.

Here I can comment on another nuance of behavior that’s more relevant for humans than for dogs: consider an athlete who equates “working hard with better results” who like the sicko that many athletes are likes doing the wind sprints after practice because they believe that it’s making them a better athlete.  In this case what the coach thinks is negative reinforcement/removing punishment is actually not that.   Rather, it’s negative punishment which I’ll get to in a second.

Positive Punishment

This is another one that confuses people, how can punishment be positive?  Again, a technical terminology issue.  Think of it as “giving punishment” (here positive can be thought of to mean “adding” something. You’re adding punishment).  So when a dog or a human does something you don’t want it to do, you actively punish it with whatever punishment you decide to use.

Since most things don’t like being punished (unless they are masochists in which case what appears to be positive punishment is actually positive reinforcement), the behavior you’re trying to eliminate will tend to decrease in response to punishment.

With a dog you could smack it on the head, check it with your leash, say “No” in a bad voice (dogs, like many athletes and girls with daddy issues, just want approval and dislike being in trouble with their master).   With an athlete, you might punish it with extra work, making it do extra sets or wind sprints or whatever.  Note again that someone who parses punishment as positively (because they like pain) may translate what you think of as positive punishment as something else entirely.

Negative Punishment

Another confusing one since most would think that this refers to positive punishment.  Instead think of negative punishment as “removing reward” (again negative here refers to removing something, you’re punishing someone by removing something, in this case something they find rewarding).

In this situation, in response to a behavior you want to decrease, you remove something that the person enjoys. I’m actually going to save a specific dog example for a more specific example of changing behavior (leash pulling) in Part 2.

In the case of humans, consider what parents often do with kids who act out: take away the car, take away video game/computer privileges, disallow desert.  These are are all examples of negative punishment: when someone or something does something you dislike, you take away something that it considers a reward. In premise the behavior you dislike will decrease since most things don’t like having things that they like taken away from them.

Ignoring the Behavior

This is the fifth category of strategies that can be used to alter behavior and can sometimes be more powerful than any of the active strategies I described above in specific situations.  Sometimes critters, whether dog or human, do things for attention.  They just want a response from you but don’t care so much what it is.  In this case, that you respond is far more relevant to them than how you respond.

For example, dogs like to jump up and sometimes the best thing you can do is just ignore them.  We are taught to just turn our backs with our arms crossed when a dog tries to jump up on us because almost any other action will be a type of reinforcement for the dog: by recognizing it at all we reinforce it.  Instead we just ignore it until the dog gets bored and stops.

Then when it does something good (like 4 feet on the floor and quiet) we click or “Yes”/treat it for positive reinforcement.  When the dog learns that what it’s doing get it nothing, it will often give up trying.  I’d note that this has a huge implication for consistency in training which I’ll talk about in the next part of this series.

And the same often works stunningly well with humans.  Think of all of the relationships you’ve been in where the other person brought constant drama to the table.  They call you and chew your ear off with drama, drama, drama.  Drama which is invariably of their own making.  And they don’t want solutions and they don’t want empathy.  They just want someone to listen to them bitch.

In this case they are mainly looking for attention, if you give them any type of response you are rewarding the drama.  And the drama will continue.  If instead you just ignore it and refuse to disengage, you’ll find that either the drama stops or they take it to someone else.  Either way, your problem is solved simply by ignoring it.

The same holds for folks coaching athletes: think about athletes throwing constant tantrums or whatever the issue is.  Usually they are just making noise to get a reaction out of you.  And if you give them a reaction, you just reinforce the behavior.   Almost regardless of the reaction you use: whether you positively or negatively reinforce or positively or negatively punish it, your response to it at all is the reward they want.

The same holds for those people who are constant comedians or obnoxious, who like just saying stuff to get a rise out of folks or push their buttons (like Internet trolls, or me on Facebook).  By responding to them at all, you are reinforcing their behavior.  They don’t care HOW you respond, only THAT you respond.

If in contrast, you ignore them, they eventually get bored and stop pestering you or they go elsewhere.  Either way the problem is solved from your end.  My coach would do this with me sometimes when I was in a mood and just being my jackass self.  He’d ignore me until I’d either stop or go bother someone else.  Either way it stopped being his problem.

And that’s where I’ll cut it today.  Next time I’ll teach you how to stop your dog from pulling on its leash and how to get everybody else to step into line too.  Oh yeah, I’m going to be trying something “new” with this post, and that’s turning off comments until Part 2.  Invariably people start arguing about what they think I’m saying (instead of waiting for me to say it) or asking questions that I end up answering in the later part.  So Friday you’ll be able to comment or whatever.

Read Because We Let Them: Part 2.

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