Making sense of training terminology

When talking about training and behavior; misunderstandings easily happen. When translated into real life and actual training, misunderstood information can not only result in us not getting the results we want from our hard work, but in some cases it might even lead to not so pleasant experiences for the animals that we are training.
One way of preventing these misunderstandings and understanding each other better is to speak the same language: in our case, that means using correct training terminology.

The four quadrants of operant conditioning are a very important part of your training terminology repertoire. These words describe the consequence of a behavior (what happens right after the animal has done something) and what effect that will have on the animals behavior in the future.
Positive reinforcement is one of these quadrants, and describes a consequence that will increase the frequency of a behavior.
I.e  Parrot steps up -> Parrot gets his favorite treat! The result will be that your parrot steps up more often when your hand is presented in the future. This is also why we can train parrots to do things like wave their foot or say something on cue. Pretty straight forward!

Training lorikeets to station using positive reinforcement; lory nectar in a syringe.

Training lorikeets to station on differently colored platforms using positive reinforcement; lory nectar in a syringe, in this case!

The one thing that tends to confuse people the most here, is the use of the words “Positive” and “Negative”. In this context, these words have nothing to do with “good and bad”. Instead, they are used to describe if something is added or removed. Nothing more, nothing less! In the example above, the consequence was that a treat was added; hence it being called positive reinforcement.
Positive -> something is added
Negative -> something is removed

Now that we know if something is added or removed, we want to know what effect that will have on the animal’s behavior. Here’s where we use the words reinforcement and punishment.
A reinforcer is something that increases the frequency of a behavior, punishment is something that reduces the frequency of a behavior. Also pretty simple!
Now, let’s put it all together!

Positive reinforcement: adding something to increase the frequency of a behavior
Positive punishment: adding something to reduce the frequency of a behavior
Negative reinforcement: removing something to increase the frequency of a behavior
Negative punishment: removing something to decrease the frequency of a behavior

Duck being trained target a mop handle using positive reinforcement in the form of mealworms, so that he can be shifted inside in a more pleasant way. He has a history of being brought into his house at night using negative reinforcement.

Duck being trained to target a mop handle using positive reinforcement in the form of mealworms, so that he can be shifted inside in a more pleasant way. He has a history of being brought into his house at night with negative reinforcement.

We already have an example of what positive reinforcement can look like, so let’s take a look at the other three quadrants!
An example of Positive punishment could be hitting a child for disobeying you. You add an aversive (something unpleasant) to make something happen less often.
Negative reinforcement could be getting a bird in to his cage by chasing him. When the bird enters the cage, the unpleasant experience of being chased stops, which results in the bird entering the cage quicker the next time you start to chase him. Note that in order for something unpleasant to stop, it has to be added first…
An example of negative punishment would be removing yourself from a parrot that is playing a bit too rough for your liking. By removing something the parrot likes (your attention) you are reducing the frequency of an unwanted behavior, i. e adding too much pressure with his beak when you are playing. Another example is removing the freedom to go outside if your child doesn’t clean his/her room to make them clean more often.

One thing to remember is that you are not the one deciding whether a consequence is a punisher/reinforcer or not: the bird is! Shouting “shut up” to a screaming parrot might be intended as punishment, but is suuuper reinforcing to many parrots and will result in them screaming more to get your attention. Similarly, a sunflower seed may be offered as a reinforcer, but if the parrot doesn’t like sunflower seed, you won’t see any increase in behavior, and the seeds are not reinforcement.

Please also note that the quadrants were not created equal. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement might work sometimes, but often come with many unwanted consequences that can be detrimental both to the birds mental health as well as our relationship with our animals. Instead of chasing the bird for it to go back to it’s cage for example, a better strategy would be to teach him to go inside using positive reinforcement: like with the duck in the picture above.

Hope this helps to clarify some things. : )
Happy training!

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