If you have a habit of not listening when you tell yourself to do something, maybe from now on you want to train yourself instead of tell yourself what you want you to do! Exotic animal trainers like the ones at Sea World have a simple method for training their subjects to do a new behavior. They reward the animal when they do what they want, and ignore what they don’t.
What would happen if we were to adopt a similar training method on ourselves, rather than using punishment and self-criticism to get ourselves to do something? One thing would surely be different; we would hear a lot more positive self-talk!
Imagine if you goofed and did something you were trying to stop doing…like eating fast food. What if instead of telling yourself what a bad choice you made, you simply put your attention on something else? And then, when you did do something you wanted yourself to do, say ate something healthy and fresh, you gave yourself a lot of praise, love and acknowledgement?
I’m guessing you would do a lot more of the latter.
“With positive reinforcement, you teach an animal what you WANT it to do. You encourage rather than discourage. The problem with discouraging is that it only emphasizes a behavior you don’t want. It does not automatically encourage or teach what you DO want,” says Amy Sutherland, author of, ‘What Shamu taught me about Life, Love and Marriage.’
When Sutherland, a NYC journalist, took on an assignment to study exotic animal trainers, she was astonished to learn how much humans are like dolphins and celebrity whales like Shamu, in how they learn new behaviors.
“Progressive trainers think of training as communication. They teach rather than tame. They don’t make animals do anything, but rather entice them. Their goal is to make animals not obedient, but engaged. They want animals to like—no, love—training.” The more training an animal receives, the more easily trainable it is for the next round of behaviors.
Similarly, people who are enticed with positive reinforcement, rather than punished or shamed into compliance, are more likely to keep the desirable behavior and more likely to be flexible enough to learn other new behaviors.
Humans seem to be constantly training each other, and usually without knowing it! If parents consider all interactions with the kiddos as opportunities to train (because they are!), we can create more trainable humans! Rather than using threats and coercion (which I have resorted to just like most everyone else!) But I also try to remember to reinforce and specify behaviors I want to see more of.
For example, if the kids are whining or rude, I may mention that speaking respectfully and clearly saying what you need will get a response, and then simply ignore anything that is not a clear and polite request.
After a statement like this, they begin to realize the way to ‘win’ is to listen to the feedback and adjust their behavior to what works better. Self-awareness and the ability to adjust are very valuable skills and apparently, the mark of a ‘21st Century Learner’.
Training leads to trainability. When animals begin to respond to positive reinforcement, they can learn to do all sorts of things…as long as you leave out the punishment and criticism.
And, you are no different! Even happiness can be trained according to Richard Davidson. He says, “Happiness is not a trait but a skill, like tennis…If you want to be a good tennis player, you can’t just pick up a racket—you have to practice. We can actually practice to enhance our well-being. Every strand of scientific evidence points in that direction. It’s no different than learning to play the violin or play golf. When you practice, you get better at it.”
But what if you are practicing the violin and someone is standing there telling you how rotten you are every time you make a mistake? It doesn’t sound very inspiring! Yet, I am guilty of just such a thing. I told myself I want to be more relaxed and less stressed. After saying that, every time I react out of stress I get mad at myself. Being mad at me is stressful so that’s where my attention goes. Therefore what is growing is the opposite of what I want…stress!
However, when I make myself right…and lovable…even when I react to something out of stress…that breaks the stress-mad-at-self-stressed-about-being-stressed cycle. Because feeling ok with myself and lovable is relaxing, so it accentuates the good feeling I want to reinforce!
You can condition animals, children and even yourself to obey an authority in order to avoid fear or shame…but the effects won’t last, and often leads to an eventual pushback. Besides, do you really want to be a part of a system like that? I would rather elicit cooperation and train myself, kids and animals to be trainable. Blind obedience to an authority just isn’t any fun. Even if that authority is me. I mean, what do I know?
In a nutshell, here are some of Amy’s Rules for Engagement Training AND please check out her book!
“Always be aware that any response, positive or negative, might fuel behavior…any kind of response could fuel a behavior, because you can never predict what will be reinforcing to someone else.”
“A trainer always needs a plan, set a few specific goals, to think of what you want and don’t want, rather than just keep stumbling along not knowing what you are training the animals to do.”
“Trainers [and parents] must also learn to do the opposite of what their instincts tell them to do…The human urge to respond runs deep. Not doing so is counterintuitive.”
“Trainers avoid labeling behaviors ‘bad’ or ‘good’. They know there are good reasons for all behaviors…even for an attack.” Take another perspective and call it ‘what works and what doesn’t work.’
“People, like animals, aren’t wired to learn lessons when they are out of sorts. If an animal is having a bad day, leave him alone. ”
“Better to play to a species strong suit…some behaviors are too entrenched to change.”
“Another rule of thumb for trainers is that you have to give the animal something better than what it already has.”
“It takes more energy to stop a moving object than to change its direction, meanin it may be easier to get someone to do something else than to stop them from doing something.”