Imagine that you are locked in a museum. Evil people have hidden bombs throughout the building. You cannot run away. There is no way you can call for help. If you smash the bombs with a hammer, they explode. Your only hope is to defuse the bombs.
Rushing about, you seek to find the explosives. As you find each bomb, your nimble fingers gently open the casing. You pry apart the mass of tangled wires and you deftly clip the wire and disable it. Then you rush off to find the next one and the next one.
Which quadrant did the evil villain use?
I love bizarre questions like this because sometimes the insanely exaggerated helps us understand the mundane. Running around looking for bombs is creepy and twisted. Thus, it is…interesting.
Plenty of behaviours are increasing: searching, prying apart wires, clipping them. We know that this is some form of reinforcement. There is an obvious aversive (something unpleasant that we would rather avoid). Bombs are clearly an aversive in the vast majority of situations. Thus, this is clearly negative reinforcement. Without the negative reinforcement, none of the behaviours, the seeking or the defusing would take place.
Here is the twisted part. Generally, we flee FROM things that are nasty, scary, painful, uncomfortable or just plain yucky. If a tiger is trying to eat you, you probably will run away.
In the bomb scenario, we would run TOWARD the aversive.
While it is natural to flee from aversives, the reason we run toward a bomb is because the behaviours that lead to escape are near or part of the aversive. In order to escape the aversive, you must search for the bomb, touch the bomb, examine the bomb and cut the wires.
Placing the abort sequence on an aversive creates an odd scenario that causes people to run toward things that are scary, nasty and even potentially dangerous because the behaviour of approaching is part of the escape route.
While our hypothetical example might conjure up images of blind panic, there are other examples that do not. People who search for land mines do the same thing. However, it’s with a slow and steady purpose. As J.M. Lohr points out in Clinical Psychology Review, “”there is no expectation that the predictability of an aversive event will reduce the aversiveness of the event.” Having the ability to safely find and defuse bombs does not make bombs any less aversive.
When it comes to dogs, this sort of “put the abort button on the aversive” scenario is interesting for a couple of reasons. Two things change when the location of the abort sequence is near the aversive.
- The direction of escape changes. Fleeing turns into approach. Do not assume that approach equals lack of aversive control.
- Lack of overt fear does not mean lack of aversives. Calm, cautious behaviour may indicate practice and predictability, not lack of aversiveness.
Trusting common sense and rules of thumb can only get you so far. Thankfully, quadrants do not lie. Some might claim that quadrants are fuzzy. As Leahy and Leahy pointed out, “Just because the boundaries between night and day are fuzzy, it does not mean they cannot be meaningfully differentiated.”
The quadrants are four little boxes – it’s not rocket science. Changing small details such as the location of the desired behaviour can change everything. Fleeing takes the form of approach. These details are interesting and important elements that require our attention.
Exceptions such as these are especially important for trainers and rescue workers who evaluate dogs for placement into family homes. Approaching children is not necessarily the same as loving contact from children. It’s an important distinction if one is placing a dog in a home with a child.
Trainers can place abort sequences on or near scary things. Dogs will learn to approach them. Anything is possible if you know how to wield the sword of behaviour modification. The question in dog training isn’t whether you can but rather whether you should. Sometimes the quadrants get a little sneaky and you have to look very carefully to see if there’s an aversive lurking about.
I’d like to give Jean Donaldson a thank you for her assistance – for letting me ask her questions. I have never met someone who is so open to questions and helping others.