Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

So you want to be a circus performer?

Congratulations, you’ve left university with a degree and not a clue what you want to do in life. Repulsed by the idea of a sensible grad job and can’t be bothered forking out for a masters? Thought so. Ever considered joining the circus and becoming a professional horse trainer!? With a BSc in Psychology and basic knowledge of Applied Behaviour Analysis you’re pretty much on your way. Admittedly, this is not the career path that I am choosing to take, but it’s good to know that the option is there should I want it.
By using Thorndike’s ‘Law of effect’, which states that behaviour is a function of its consequences, we can begin to understand that the strength of behaviour depends on the effect it has on the environment. The primary way of doing this is through reinforcement, providing consequences for behaviour in order to increase or maintain it.
Positive reinforcement is the perfect way to train animals to do all kinds of tricks. If it works on dogs then it can apply to bigger things, right? ‘Correct’ behaviour is rewarded with an enticing treat immediately after it has been performed otherwise it may not be associated with the desired action. A clicker or whistle to mark the behaviour could further help the understanding of the connection between the treat and correct behaviour. It can take time for animals to pick up certain behaviours and ‘shaping’ can be used to reinforce similar behaviour and then gradually requiring more from them before the treat is given.
Negative reinforcement has also been found to work on animals but is not to be confused with punishment. It occurs when behaving in a certain way reduces or avoids a negative stimulus. An easy example to understand is that of using a whip on a horse to prompt it to move sideways if the whipping stops when they move in the correct direction.
Using these two forms of reinforcement can effectively mould behaviour to what the trainer desires.
I am aware that there are many ethical issues and debates surrounding the training of animals in captivity however the examples are used simply to understand different ways of applying ABA.
McIntire, R. W. (1968). Dog training, reinforcement, and behavior in unrestricted environments. American Psychologist, 23(11), 830.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology.

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