The Power of Positive Psychology in Action – at Sea World

The Power of Positive Psychology in Action – at Sea World

Picking up behavior tips at Sea World

Animal trainers show power of the positive

By MARK CIOCCA For the Monitor


October 19, 2008 – 7:38 am

While attending a professional conference in Orlando, I had the opportunity to visit Sea World and saw some amazing shows involving highly trained birds and sea mammals. I also had the opportunity to speak with several of the young trainers, most of whom have degrees in psychology. During the show, I witnessed virtually constant use of positive reinforcement with the animals, involving both tangible rewards, such as food, and more social rewards, such as petting and other signs of affection. In speaking with the trainers, I asked whether they rely mostly on positive methods or if they use negative methods like deprivation and punishment behind the scenes. They were adamant in saying that their ability to work with the animals involved developing close relationships with them and providing positive reinforcement and feedback.

One thing that struck me about all of this was the way many of us tend to stray from positive techniques into punishment and negative reinforcement in our lives, despite decades of research supporting the superiority of positive methods. From training our pets, to working with the behaviors of our children and even our partners, we often seem to give scant attention to positive reinforcement and over-use punishment and negative reinforcement.

A classic example we’re all familiar with is the way some people try to housebreak a dog. Many people still subscribe to the “rub his nose in it” approach to dealing with indoor accidents, which represents punishment, the application of an aversive or uncomfortable stimulus in an effort to reduce the likelihood of the unwanted behavior. The use of punishment in this instance usually fails to teach the animal anything, in that it probably does not connect its behavior, which occurred some time ago, with the negative stimulus it is receiving at the hands of its owner. What tends to be more effective is positive reinforcement of the behavior you’re looking to increase – in this case taking its business outside.

In family relationships, similar principles apply. Most people don’t like, and usually don’t respond to,

what we refer to as “nagging.” In behavioral terms, nagging is an attempt to use negative reinforcement. The person doing the nagging is applying a negative stimulus, the nagging, in the hope that the recipient will perform the desired behavior in order to end the nagging. This is akin to the laboratory experiment of a rat pressing a lever in order to shut off a loud noise. The rat will learn to press the lever, but not as efficiently if positive reinforcement had been used.

Even when nagging produces the desired outcome, such as the child cleaning his or her room, it is important that positive reinforcement of the room cleaning behavior be provided in order to make it more likely that the room will be cleaned again. The positive approach also has the added benefit of not souring the relationship the way nagging can.

The other behavior technique that is often neglected is called ‘shaping.” which is the progressive reinforcement of behaviors that are moving in the direction of the behavior we want. So, for instance, if we would like our children to speak more quietly at the dinner table, we should aim for a short period of quiet and provide reinforcement for it, then gradually extend to time period. Too often we try to skip this shaping and expect that a behavior we want will go from nonexistent to meeting our full expectations in one step, only to be frustrated when this approach doesn’t work.

Human beings – and even sea mammals – are complex creatures with complex motives and behaviors. Nonetheless, when we can apply sound behavior principles in working with them, we can often be surprised at how much positive change can happen.

For a great book along these lines, and promoting principles entirely consistent with positive psychology, check out “Whale Done!” by Ken Blanchard and friends.