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What’s Love Got To Do With It? The Surprising Connection between Clicker Training and Love

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Clicker training practices are built on the science of learning and behavior. Science gives us the confidence to understand the great possibilities of well-timed markers and reinforcers. Through skilled application, the receivers of those reinforcers, whether persons or animals, are more likely to become enthusiastic, joyful, and fluent learners. These benefits to the learner/receiver are well-documented in the scientific legacy of B.F. Skinner.

But, what about the giver? What impact, if any, is there on the provider of those reinforcers? Are there consequences of being a person who, in interactions with the world at large, practices these principles? That answer doesn't appear to be particularly well-studied, at least in the scientific halls of behaviorism.

But the science is there. And, of all places, I first discovered it reading about love.

In a 2015 article in The New York Times’ Modern Love section, writer Mandy Len Catron described her experience using a methodology of noted psychologist, Dr. Arthur Aron to find love. Dr. Aron’s work is based on what social psychology calls the “theory of self expansion.” In a nutshell, the self-expansion theory says that satisfaction with life is greatly increased if we engage in the activities, environments, and relationships where our sense of self expands. Self-expansion has been linked in literature to an enormous number of activities—learning something new, experiencing a new environment, or entering a new relationship—all activities that break the routine.

But Dr. Aron’s contribution to this field is what caught my eye. Dr. Aron has added a new depth to the understanding of how incorporating others into our lives leads to self-expansion. His work demonstrates that self-expansion and interpersonal connection are both fostered when we call out what we admire about others.

In her 2015 article, Mandy Len Catron details her personal attempt to put Dr. Aron’s research into practice, employing a series of questions that two people use to get to know one another and to develop a deep emotional connection. Turns out, her experience is as powerful as Dr. Aron would predict; she falls in love with, and becomes engaged to, a person she gets to know using Dr. Aron’s methodology. Her article was a huge hit. (Read the full story, reissued by The New York Times this week.)

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Particularly interesting was Len Catron’s side musings on the wonder of what she was experiencing and its implications. If I was not attuned to the power of reinforcement, I doubt I would have even noticed. But her words are powerful.

“Saying things like, ‘I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,’ makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.
"It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.” (emphasis added)

Indeed. Doesn’t that thought sound familiar? The principles behind clicker training are not just universal laws of learning; they may also be universal laws of love. When we teach, train or love successfully, we call out the actions and qualities in others that we find valuable. In doing so, we expand our own sense of self and create greater interpersonal connections, trust and intimacy. All we need to do is make it our practice to appreciate and value genuinely and explicitly the qualities of the people and animals, new or familiar, in our lives—our whole lives.

Now, gimme some sugar!

Want to experience self-expansion for yourself? Register for ClickerExpo Stamford, March 31-April 2.

About the author
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Aaron Clayton is President of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and TAGteach International, and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.