Positive Reinforcement My Ass. Punishment Works on Dogs as Well as Humans. Right?

Posted: August 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

To swim against the current of human intuition is a difficult task.
The human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can therefore have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated factors.
~Leonard Mlodinow; Author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Amazon affiliate link)


In 1965, Daniel Kahneman -who was at that time a junior Psychology Professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem- was tasked with teaching a group of Israeli Flight Instructors on the conventional wisdom of behaviour modification and its application on the psychology of flight training.

The gist of what Kahneman was teaching this group of grizzled Flight Instructors was that rewarding positive behaviour works; but punishing mistakes does not.


One of his students disagreed.

I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers and the next time they always do worse. The reluctant student proclaimed.

And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers and by and large the next time they improve. He continued.

Don’t tell me that rewards work and punishment doesn’t. My experience contradicts it. He concluded.

The other Flight Instructors agreed.

Even to Kahneman, the sentiment rang true, and yet, in animal experiments the reward clearly works better than punishment.

He paused to mull this over for a while and then it struck him.

The screaming preceded the improvement, but it did NOT cause the improvement.

This story was liberally pilfered from a brilliant book on randomness The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow (Amazon affiliate link).

Another brilliant thinker, Sir Francis Galton popularized the concept of Regression towards mediocrity in hereditary stature in his late 19th century publication. This concept is also known as Regression toward the mean. But what does it mean (he he…pun totally intended) and how does it apply to dog training for crying out loud?

Any acquisition of skill and knowledge can be traced along an gentle upward curve.

Day by day, step by step, we get better at whatever it is we are trying to learn. It doesn’t matter if you are a child, adult, dog, or a budding Pilot.

However, if we zoom into this “gentle upward curve” we see sharp and extreme peaks and valleys.

How come?

Over the long term, knowledge/skill acquisition is traced along a gentle upward swing, however, moments are characterized by the extremes.

The process of “getting better” is tied to small “breakthroughs” which take your skill set to the next level.

Conversely,  you are bound to encounter obstacles and “downswings” in your performance as you attempt new things, fail and try again until finally succeeding.

Therefore punishing poor execution has nothing to do with the subsequent improvement. The “student” is simply returning to the “mean”.

This brilliant insight into human psyche has earned Kahneman a Nobel prize few decades later…in Economy (but that’s a yarn best unfurled at another time).

How many people have you encountered who swear by aversive techniques? Past teachers, coaches, bosses, parents, dog trainers?

This brings up another related question.

What significance does your boss/teacher/parent/dog trainer/etc GET from applying the punishment?

A chance to exorcise some of their own daemons perhaps? Tell me what you think.

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