There Are No Bad Dogs Part 5: Operant Conditioning in Humans
It's the night before your big presentation to the board of directors and you still have no idea what you're going to talk about. In fact you're just sitting down in your home office to put together your PowerPoint. You have engaged in the common human behavior known as procrastination, and just like dog behavioral issues human behavioral issues have their roots in our biology and operant conditioning. Here is a good article from Psychology Today explaining what operant conditioning has to do with procrastination.
As a vertebrate mammal we aren't that much different from dogs in that our main biological motivations are to avoid negative stimulus and seek out positive ones. Sitting down to make a presentation is few people's idea of fun and therefor it is a negative stimulus. It can also be a negative stimulus that leads to more negative stimulus which compounds the problems. How many times have you asked someone why they aren't doing a project and they answer, "What if no one likes it?" They are explaining a negative stimulus and operant conditioning.
Think about the common fears of human beings. Public speaking is often listed as a top fear. Think about all the chances for negative stimulus involved with public speaking and it isn't too hard to understand how people are conditioned to be afraid of it. Most of our common anxieties and even some complex phobias can be explained through operant conditioning. our deepest biological desire is to avoid negative or harmful situations and if we were subjected to those situations in the past associated with a person, place, or thing, our brains are going to work to avoid them. Dogs are no different. If a person, place, or thing has caused them harm in the past they will develop an anxiety or fear response that can result in aggression. Not too different from how certain phobias cause people to turn violent when cornered by them.
When it comes to teaching and training dogs we utilize operant conditioning but we aren't the only species that does so. Cats have been known to meow in imitation of a human baby when hungry. There is obviously a significant reward to the species when it comes to feeding a hungry child. Personal survival isn't our only biological desire and nature has programmed us to respond to certain sound cues. Cats take advantage of this and use their meow to communicate with us on a biological level. One of the most interesting thing about cats and their meows is that cats don't use a meow to communicate with other cats, only humans. Think about that for a second. Cats use vocal commands and operant conditioning to train humans. Sound familiar?
So the next time you're sitting up late at night, on your tenth cup of coffee, and wondering why you procrastinated yet again remember it's just operant conditioning and your biology. You are a vertebrate mammal after all and just like any other your main need in life is to avoid negative stimuli and seek out positive ones.