Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Affect of Aversives on Trust

In my post: Flight or Bite, aversives were introduced. This post will specifically address the affect an aversive has on what we all desire: a trusting relationship with our birds.

An aversive is something a bird will work to avoid.

Recall: An example of something aversive (to most humans) is a seat belt buzzer. We want to make it stop, therefore we buckle our seat belts. Sometimes even before it starts buzzing!

To make the buzzing stop, we can:
  1. Choose not to drive/leave the car to get away from the buzzing.
  2. Rip out the electrical wires/dismantle the mechanism.
  3. Buckle the seat belt.
If the buzzer causes an increase in the buckling, then behavior was modified through negative reinforcement. (An example of increasing buckling through positive reinforcement would be for the car to spit money out of the dashboard, or candy out of the cigarette lighter, after buckling.)

The negative reinforcement did work to increase the behavior. While we accept the buzzing as a feature on the car, we may not like it (or the manufacturer for using it). However, if a car was made that spit out money when the seat belt was buckled, wouldn't we all want one? And wouldn't we all be anxious to buckle our seat belt? And wouldn't we have a very positive opinion of that manufacturer and want to do business with them in the future?

Behavior can be modified through means of positive reinforcement, negative punishment, negative reinforcement or positive punishment. The question is: how does each affect our goal of building a trusting relationship with our bird?

Positive reinforcement is the least obtrusive method of changing behavior and will not have a detrimental effect on the relationship.


None of us would knowingly choose an aversive or a punishment method when interacting with our birds. Especially given its affect on the relationship. Unfortunately, the advice often given by those in pet shops, on street corners, or even well meaning friends at times, when viewed in the light of day, are revealed to in fact use such methods.

Let's take the example of teaching a bird to step up. How many times have we read or heard: "Just gently press your finger into the birds belly... or, just gently nudge the bird's belly with your finger, and it will step on your finger (to avoid being poked, prodded, pushed and pressed)!"

If this results in the bird's step up behavior being increased, then it occurred through the use of negative reinforcement. In order to avoid the aversive (being nudged, poked, pushed or pressed by the finger), the bird steps up. No matter how "gentle" it may seem, the bird is working to avoid it and it is therefore aversive. Instead of stepping up to gain something good, the bird steps up to avoid something aversive.

(Note: the bird may also try to get away or even bite the aversive finger to make it go away!)

In order for negative reinforcement to work, there must be an aversive. This method turns one of our body parts, (our hand - something we want the bird to trust), into an aversive! That's awful! We would like the bird to learn to take food from the hand that was just an aversive! It is easy to see how this approach would be extremely counter-productive.

A difficulty in relationships with birds can be that we see ourselves as trustworthy. Therefore, it is tempting to believe our birds should see us in the same light, often by virtue of providing their daily needs of food, water and care. Some might say, "But he sees me give him food everyday! You would think he would learn to trust my hands... they are always bringing him fresh food and water!" Oh, if it were that simple! Unfortunately, caring for our birds' daily needs does not translate to trust. However, using aversives is a way to lose trust.

I have also heard and read folks say, "If I could just get the bird to step up, even with a 'gentle nudge', then once on my finger, it would see I meant it no harm and then trust me!" If someone grabbed us, put us in their car and then started talking sweet, would that work well for us? Talking sweet after the aversive tactic would not cancel out, or cause us to forget, how we got into the car to begin with.

As we make progress in the study of aversives and negative reinforcement, it becomes increasingly clear that the interaction initiated by these means will not end in a trusting relationship.

The key is to provide a bird consistent positive experiences utilizing positive reinforcement in all our interactions.

Taking the time to consider the methods or techniques used to create new behaviors (or modify behaviors) in our birds is certainly worth the effort! Our birds, and relationship with them, deserve the best that the science of behavior has to offer.

So the final question remaining is, "If I don't nudge/poke/prod my bird into stepping up, how will I ever get it to step up?" We now know the answer: through positive reinforcement! If the bird steps up, it gains something good such as a treat, a ride to a favorite window, etc.

Here again is Strider stepping up to gain something good:



For further reading:

Operant Conditioning

Articles by Dr. Susan Friedman:
How Parrots Learn Behavior
The ABC's of Behavior
The Facts About Punishment


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3 comments:

Sid said...

Nice blog! Well done,

Robin said...

Thanks for the R+, Sid! :)

Anonymous said...

Great information Robin, very well done.
Tina, Roxy and Marlyn :)

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