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Survival: Why Reinforcement Can Determine if You Live or Die

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Pathways with power

One thing I can't get out of my own mind after reading Karen Pryor's new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, is the fascinating neuroscience about how the click follows deep physiological, non-cognitive pathways involving the amygdala. Combine this with the "seeker circuit" physiology, and you have a big part of what make the clicker training process so powerful—it's permanent and impossible to resist. 

About a week after reading Reaching The Animal Mind, I sat down to read a book called Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. Gonzales has been obsessed with survival since his pilot father survived a more than 25,000-foot fall from the sky inside the broken nose-half of a WWII plane (really!). I picked up the book by chance. No one had recommended it. In fact, I bought the book before reading Reaching The Animal Mind, but didn't crack the cover until just a few weeks ago. But when I did open it, I couldn't stop reading it because Gonzales's research into survival yields results that should have every clicker trainer saying, "Wow!"

Danger + experience = unexpected results

Gonzales looks at all kinds of disasters (mountain climbing, airplanes, jungle exploration, sailing, avalanche) and all kinds of people involved with them (children, adults, men, women, novices, and those with experience). One scenario he examines in depth is the following: A highly experienced person makes what seems like an inexplicable series of wrong decisions—despite an abundance of information, warnings clues, advice, and directives that, had they been heeded, would have led to different and better decisions.

In one example, an experienced group of mountain rescue workers causes an avalanche by doing exactly what they were told not to do with their idle time. In another, a top-level, well-trained army commando drowns in a routine river accident that most likely would not have killed you or me. Why did these disasters happen to these experienced outdoor enthusiasts?

In a phrase, it's the power of reinforcement history.  Gonzales goes through some of the same neuroscience as Karen Pryor does in her book and finds the same phenomenon: a person's reinforcement history is not retained in the same way that cognitive knowledge is retained. Unlike cognition, reinforcement history is associated with powerful physiological responses.

In many circumstances, we don't think then act. We just act. In fact, reinforcement history can be so ingrained that it can take complete control and block out all cognitive messages—cognitive messages that tell us to do exactly the opposite of our reinforcement history when that history could even lead to death!

Members of a mountain rescue team coming back from a successful rescue on snowmobiles sometimes celebrate with a long-standing and thrilling activity—running the machines straight up a vertical face as fast and far as possible until the machines max out, and then turning and coming back down. And it's awesome. Except if the conditions are ripe for an avalanche.

Imagine you are an experienced mountain rescue team worker. You work in these conditions all the time. You are warned several times before you head out that the risk of avalanche is high—you should not engage in celebratory snowmobile activities. Would you? Probably not. You've been told. You've been warned. Every week you see the consequences of people making really bad mistakes in the snowy mountains. Intellectually, you know that dangerous activities with the snowmobile could mean death for you and for others.

And yet, on a beautiful day, staring out at the pure white snow, on the big machine, all the cues that resulted in past reinforcement are in play.

"It's so awesome."


"Gun the motor."

"Head up."

So you do. Minutes later, a wall of snow, hurtling like wet concrete, buries two people in 15 feet of snow, killing them. You are one of them.

What were you thinking? You weren't. You couldn't think. Or, more accurately, what you were thinking was outflanked  by how you were responding.

The control of the click

One of the primary themes of Gonzales's book is the incredible power of what happens through the amygdala. For the survival and benefit of the species, these pathways are absolutely vital. In most situations, these pathways make us efficient and make the best use of our accumulated experience. We learn to ski and then we don't have to think to ski. We learn to type and then we don't have to think to type. Animals learn to hunt and then they don't have to think about the right position, or to remember what the meaning is of "the rustle in the grass," as Karen says.

The power of clicker training hits home in a new way when you read the Gonzales book. The book chronicles the most extreme situations among the most knowledgeable people. All things considered, in these situations you would think that reinforcement history wouldn't stand a chance. How could the physiological "out-muscle" cognition for control of our human (!) actions? Yet staring back at me from the pages of Gonzales's book is evidence in very human terms that it does. "Click" trumps cognition.


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.