Monday, July 10, 2006

Supernatural Dignity or Domestic Bliss?

In case you missed it, there’s a must read on modern love from the New York Times style section : What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage (June 25, 06). It could just as easily have appeared in the science section, given that it’s about behavior modification techniques. Amy Sutherland, researching a school for exotic animal trainers, discovered that their techniques worked equally well on her husband. Generally, reward good behavior and studiously ignore bad behavior. More specifically, reinforce actions that are the building blocks of desirable behavioral repertoires, as well as those that displace unwanted behavior. Her husband became less annoying and more loveable as his behavior improved, and it happened without nagging and sarcasm, which meant fewer hurt feelings and arguments – all told a better marriage.

Sutherland's approach is standard behavior mod, with (please note) no use of punishment, except the mild but effective disappointment of being ignored occasionally. So there’s nothing particularly new here, except of course that Sutherland is TRAINING HER HUSBAND! What is he, after all, an animal? Yes indeed, and that’s the crucial lesson here, with considerable ramifications. Sutherland says:

I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

Sutherland understands, wisely, that behavior is a fully caused matter of contingencies of reinforcement and hard-wired biology. This objective, rather tough-minded view of ourselves as physical animals leads to acceptance and control. She can’t any longer suppose that her husband can just choose to behave better, and is therefore blameworthy in that sense. Rather, the causal origins of his faults lie partially in his environment, which includes, of course, herself. She can’t any longer point to hubby as the freely willing, self-caused source of his behavior, and this blocks the contempt often heaped on those we suppose are willfully misbehaving. Rather, seeing his causal story motivates a compassionate acceptance, and forces an acknowledgment of her own role in marital disharmony. She can’t as easily get on her high horse.

Further, she (and her husband too, as you’ll see if you read the piece) gain non-punitive control by virtue of understanding why they behave they way they do, and what actually works in learning new tricks. The acceptance mentioned above makes it less likely that they’ll want to use insults and sarcasm to punish annoying behavior, instead of the more effective strategy of simply ignoring it. Compassion and control, what’s not to like?

Well, maybe seeing ourselves as “mere” animals is to lose dignity, in particular the dignity of having a higher, soul-based nature that isn’t susceptible to training and other influences. OK, but if you insist on such dignity, you also let slip the dogs of blame, contempt and moral superiority, which feed on the idea that people really could have done otherwise, whatever their circumstances, or that they’re literally self-made in some respect. So what do you most want: the improbable supernatural dignity of being a causal exception to nature, or domestic bliss?


Blogger John K. Fitzpatrick said...

Some valuable lessons, but no way I'm going to forward the article to my wife. :)

Jul 13, 2006, 10:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It goes to show that proclamations of the death of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism are much exagerrated.

Jul 23, 2006, 12:13:00 PM  

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