Poisoned cues at tax time

As some of you know, I serve as the president for the Art and Science of Animal Training. In addition to organizing the annual ASAT conference, I take care of all of the behind-the-scenes administrative duties, including managing the website, answering emails, and paying the bills.  

Even though nonprofits don’t pay taxes, they still have to fill out plenty of tax-related paperwork. Most nonprofits in the United States file a Form 990, which is due every year on May 15.

I just recently finished putting together all of the files we needed to send to our accountant for our 990 for 2019. I had to sort through some documents and scan some papers, go through some spreadsheets that our bookkeeper sent me, type up some explanations of a few things, and then organize everything and send it to the accountant. 

The whole process was pretty easy and took me under two hours. It was this same simple process last year and the year before that. 

But, when it comes time to do this task, I drag my feet and procrastinate. In fact, getting all this stuff done was on my to-do list for a couple of weeks before I finally got around to doing it. 

I’ve been contemplating my own behavior. Why did I procrastinate for so long, when I knew it wasn’t going to be very hard? I think I know the answer. 

The first couple of years, getting all of this information put together was a mess. It was difficult to find all the necessary pieces of information, and I wasn’t sure exactly what we needed to do. Never mind the fact that some of my numbers and the bookkeeper’s numbers didn’t match up, and it took multiple emails and a few phone calls to finally get everything sorted out. 

During those first years, the task got done, and it felt reinforcing to finish it, but the process sure wasn’t pleasant. So, now I have a bit of a poisoned cue. Even though I knew this year that the whole process would be simple and straightforward, my early experience has made even the thought of May 15 aversive.

The research on poisoned cues (and my experience with the Form 990) shows that early impressions stick around. 

In the original poisoned cue research study, one behavior was taught with both treats and corrections. After the initial training period was finished, the dog had hundreds of trials with only treats. No more corrections were used. Yet, the dog continued to try to avoid the cue and displayed unhappy body language. (If you’re not familiar with poisoned cues, you can learn more about them in this post.)

Beginnings are important. First experiences are important. They create emotions and expectations that become part of the cue for a behavior. So, it’s up to us to design training environments and experiences so that our animals have positive associations with our cues from the start. 

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