Misconceptions all around us

At the end of March, I attended ClickerExpo in Stamford, Connecticut. The weekend was full of interesting presentations and thought-provoking discussions. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing several blog posts with some of my notes from both the March ClickerExpo and also the January ClickerExpo in Portland, Oregon.

ClickerExpo - Train betterOn the first day of the Expo, I attended a lecture by Dr. Susan Friedman about misconceptions. The presentation was titled: “Ideas that should die: Outdated, outmoded and misunderstood behavior science.”

Dr. Friedman covered more than a dozen misconceptions in this fast-paced, 45-minute lecture. She grouped them into three broad categories, general science misconceptions, training misconceptions, and misconceptions about applied behavior analysis.

In this post, I’ll share a little bit with you about one misconception from each of these three categories.

General science misconceptions: The outcome of science is proof

Many people think that the purpose of science is to prove things. Instead, Dr. Friedman explained that the outcome of good science is always provisional. Science doesn’t “prove” things, because scientific knowledge is always being updated, revised and refined.

Sometimes, scientists get things wrong. However, scientific research tends to be self correcting. Scientific journals require peer review, which means each article is reviewed by a team of experts who look for potential flaws in the design of the study or the author’s reasoning. Also, scientific discovery, especially big discoveries, leads to replication by independent groups. Replication can help us better understand a phenomenon and better understand the variables that influence how that phenomenon works.

One thing to remember when reviewing research or research claims is the phrase “under what conditions.” The media (and others) often try to make vast generalizations from a single study or set of studies. However, remember to look at the particular context in which the study was conducted and the population it was conducted with. For example, if a researcher conducted a study using shelter dogs, the conclusions might or might not apply to pet dogs.

Misconceptions about applied behavior analysis: ABA ignores biology and genetics

This is a big one!

Many people believe that Dr. B.F. Skinner and the field of behavior analysis completely disregard biology and the influence of genetics. According to this misconception, behavior analysts believe that all behavior is a result of environmental causes and that genes play no role in an individual’s behavior.

This could not be further from the truth.

As Dr. Friedman pointed out, most people who make these claims have never read any of Dr. Skinner’s original writings and are not familiar with his actual views on this subject. Skinner most certainly recognized the importance of biology and genetics as influencers on behavior.

Here’s one quote on the subject from Skinner’s book, Science and Human Behavior:
“Behavior requires a behaving organism which is the product of a genetic process. Gross differences in the behavior of different species show that the genetic constitution, whether observed in the body structure of the individual or inferred from a genetic history, is important.”

Genes do exist and they are certainly important. The point that Skinner wanted people to understand, however, is that oftentimes people overgeneralize and attribute too many behaviors to genes. This often stops the analysis and prevents people from discovering other variables and environmental factors that are also related to the behavior.

In addition, while knowing about genetics may help you in predicting certain behaviors, it is usually not helpful if you are interested in changing behaviors because an individual’s genetic makeup cannot be easily changed. Skinner argued that if you are interested in changing behavior, it is often much more useful to closely study the individual’s environment.

Training misconceptions: Cues cause behavior

This is a common misconception, especially I think for people who are new to clicker training.

Cues are signals that tell the animal – if you do this certain behavior at this moment, your behavior will be reinforced (rewarded). However, the cue doesn’t make the animal do the behavior.

Where does this misconception come from? I think it comes from two possible sources. Many people are more familiar with Classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning, where the stimulus does cause the response. (Ex. When shown a piece of meat, the dog salivates.)

Also, in many types of traditional training, it can appear that some initial event is causing the behavior. For example, the trainer pulls on the leash and the dog comes to the trainer. However, even in this situation, it isn’t technically the leash pull that “causes” the behavior. Instead, when the dog comes closer to the trainer, the trainer releases the pressure on the leash. It’s what happens after the behavior that is important. If the trainer continued pulling on the leash even after the dog came, this wouldn’t be an effective way to teach the dog to come.

So remember – cues don’t cause behaviors. Animals (and humans) do certain behaviors because of past consequences. If a behavior is happening consistently in response to a certain cue, this is because in the past, when the animal did this behavior when this cue was given, the animal received reinforcement.

Misconceptions are everywhere

Misconceptions are present in all sciences. In training and behavior analysis, they can interfere with understand both what causes behavior and how to influence future behavior.

So what’s the answer to preventing misconceptions? According to Dr. Friedman, we should ask more, read more, and research more.

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  • Sonya Bevan

    Two thumbs up. Off to share.

  • Hertha L. James

    Super. Enjoyed those, Mary. Especially the last one is a real trap for people who tend to ‘shout’ louder in the belief that will help the communication :-). Looking forward to more of your notes. You certainly sound busy!

    • Thanks, Hertha. The “shouting louder” is a really good example of what happens when people think the cue is what controls the behavior.
      Something else I also see a lot — giving the cue half a dozen or so times. If the animal isn’t responding, there are probably other things that need to be fixed, rather than just repeating the cue.

  • Ric

    Great post, looking forward to the next post

    • Thanks, Ric! I’m glad you enjoyed it. There will be another post of notes this coming week. :)