As clicker trainers, we know that change is inevitable. Behavior is always in motion, being reinforced or weakened by the consequences of actions. There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about change. In fact, we are in the business of creating behavior change.
However, there has been a lot of change in the world. For some people, that change has brought an unusually heightened level of uncertainty, randomness, and inconsistency. A huge number of natural disasters that affect places, people, and animals we care about have occurred recently. We have witnessed important safeguards being eroded, and convention or decorum upended. For some, that’s cause to cheer, but for others it’s unsettling. For example, consider healthcare. Many self-employed people, like some trainers and behavior consultants, have anxiety-inducing uncertainty around how to navigate, obtain, and maintain affordable, quality health insurance options.
For a broader audience than just trainers, there’s a sense of creeping economic uncertainty in the future. Recently, I couldn’t fall asleep because this thought was in my head. “Once we have driverless truck fleets (probably sooner than a decade away), what’s going to happen to the 3.5 million people who drive a truck for a living?” I started with that worry and then raised it up a notch. “What do we do when, through automation, sound economic growth can be achieved with 20% fewer people working?”
I don’t know the answers, but they are serious questions. If work provides purpose and purpose is reinforcing, what replaces work (and purpose)?
In my sleeplessness, the apparent contradiction hit me. I am in the business of behavior change, so why do the changes around me feel so unsettling? It’s not just me feeling worried—so many others do as well. We have set new records for the percentage of the US population with levels of stress and anxiety. I am not alone.
For an answer, clicker trainers need only look within. Positive reinforcement trainers know that the strategies we employ to create behavior change are both kind and effective. These two adjectives also describe characteristics that are observable in our learners. For example, there are fewer signs of stress and we observe enthusiasm for learning new skills in students learning positively, to name just two pluses. Skill as a clicker trainer can arguably be measured by the ability to see these outcomes in the learners. New trainers sometimes miss them. Even experienced trainers miss these outcomes.
When trainers don’t see positive outcomes, they learn to recognize that something is going wrong, and to explore root causes. Generally, there are two categories of root causes. One we are in charge of, and one we are not. The root category we are not in charge of is history. A learner with a history not strongly rooted in positive reinforcement is going to take a while to come around to respond in the new system. The new reinforcers compete against a history of alternative behavior being reinforced or behaviors being punished. Figuring out how and what to change going forward, because of the past, a skill we focus on at ClickerExpo.
The root category we often do control is consistency. Consistency is a simple concept, but it has very real consequences for managing behavior change. Trainers are leaders in a relationship. Leadership in a training context requires consistency—consistency in a number of dimensions but, most importantly, in the application of positive reinforcement.
Positive trainers don’t mix in praise with punishment randomly; we mark and reinforce behaviors we like. We don’t punish mistakes; we see mistakes as correct behavior in the making. We don’t keep animals guessing. We are, to our learners, highly predictable. We are not predictable because we are nice. No, it is because we know that we are in the business of behavior change for the long term. Consequently, we care about our animals’ health, we care about their development, and we care about the relationship. We don’t want the behavioral outcomes that punishment brings—sneakiness or aggression or withdrawal. And, we don’t want submission; we want voluntary participation.
If leadership is unpredictable, if praise and punishment are mixed, the animals (or people) that depend on a trainer will show all kinds of observable symptoms, ranging from aggression to weariness to moodiness. On the other hand, when leaders are predictable, more control is handed over to the learner. Inconsistent leaders just yank all sense of control away from the learners.
That’s why interrogators (and authoritarians) often use a good cop/bad cop technique. The questioners are in complete control of the range of outcomes, and the unpredictability of those outcomes breaks their subject down, fast. Inconsistency is good cop and bad cop, rolled into one cop.
Back to the world and all of us. When random events hit one after another, there's no predictability and that leaves people feeling vulnerable. Without control over important outcomes, we feel helpless. If leaders dispense praise one moment and punishment the next, the effects will be an increased sense of control by the leaders and a decreased sense of control for learners, those dependent.
So what to do? To counter all of the effects of control loss, first be aware of it. Self awareness can help you weather the storms of unpredictability. Second, go to where you find consistency and plenty of reinforcement.
This year, that will be more true than ever. Consistency and reinforcement abound at ClickerExpo 2018. <See what’s new> Right now, I think we all could use a little ClickerExpo. Make the choice to come. You can count on ClickerExpo.
We hope you will join us at ClickerExpo 2018!