Sunday, May 3, 2009

Changeability of Reinforcers

In my post: A Setup for Success, we learned what was reinforcing Strider's behavior of camping out in Sammy's cage/area. At that time, Sammy's cage was located closer to the window than Strider's. To be specific, the window is a secondary (or conditioned) reinforcer.

So, let's break this down by first looking at the 'click-treat' response in clicker training. Initially, the bird must learn to associate the sound of the click with the presentation of a treat. (This is often called 'charging' or 'conditioning' the clicker.) Until the bird is conditioned to associate the click sound with the presentation of a treat, it has no meaning and is neutral. Through conditioning, the bird learns that a treat follows the sound of the click.

Why is the window a conditioned reinforcer for Strider? The window is the vehicle through which he is able to gain a primary reinforcer (what he sees and/or hears outside). The window and the click are both secondary (conditioned) reinforcers.

Another example of a conditioned reinforcer is the sound of a jingling leash upon which a dog comes running in anticipation of going outside for a walk.

Conversely, if each time the dog responded to the sound of the leash he instead received the consequence of an undesirable bath, the sound could become aversive (something the dog worked to avoid).

We see this dynamic at work when someone says, "My bird used to always step up, But lately, when I ask it to step up, so I can take it back to its cage, it won't! Or, it steps up, and then flies away just as I am approaching the cage!"

When contemplating reinforcers, consider:

1. They are changeable
2. They are situational
3. They are personal

Reinforcers, and the conditions upon which they are predicated, can and do change and are individual-dependent (personal). What is reinforcing for one could be either neutral or even aversive/punishing to another. Additionally, something that is reinforcing to an individual in one situation, may not be as reinforcing, or perhaps could even be aversive, to the same individual in a different circumstance.

In our daily lives, we all experience a reinforcer losing its value, or becoming aversive, through a variety of possible mechanisms.

Some examples of the changeability of reinforcers:

I enjoy participating in a book club until someone in the club begins stalking me.
If this person quits, I once again enjoy the book club.

I enjoy a walk in the park but not at the height of pollen season, in bad weather, when I am tired or when I am ill. Walking in the park is more enjoyable for me when I am with friends than when I am alone. Walking in the park at night is aversive (something I will work to avoid).

A child loves to play the piano. The amount of time spent playing the piano increases.
The parent then signs the child up for piano lessons.
After a few lessons, the amount of time spent playing the piano decreases.
The child participates in a recital and is awarded first place and many accolades.
The amount of time spent playing the piano once again begins increasing.

A reinforcer may also change in relation to its availability. Going to an amusement park is great fun. If, however, I live next to one, and have a free annual pass, I may find at some point that it no longer holds the same value it once did. The easy availability of the park may result in it becoming less reinforcing. Being told I can only attend twice a year, that I can only attend for one hour on each visit, or moving across the country from the park, may once again cause the value of the reinforcer to increase.

If millet (a special treat) is a reinforcer to a bird, having millet available to the bird 24/7 will likely result in the reduction of its value as a reinforcer. My parrot finds zero value in millet, so it could be available to her 24/7, and she would consistently ignore it. (This is an example of a personal reinforcer: millet can be a reinforcer to Strider. Thus far, it has never been a reinforcer to Coco.)

I want to pause, at this point, to add an important caveat:

I use a variety of reinforcers with my birds (not exclusively treats). I find that I am actually the most valuable reinforcer available to my birds. Since I use millet as a reinforcer for Strider, I increase its value by not making it available 24/7. However, millet is a treat; it is not a necessity of life.

I do not condone food deprivation as a training method for companion birds. I do recognize that in the hands of a knowledgeable, professional trainer, it is one of many available tools for those involved in bird shows and public exhibitions. And I believe that those true professionals use it, if at all, in a minimal and controlled manner, phasing it out when it is no longer needed.

Since I am not a professional trainer, but am instead an ordinary gal with companion birds (as are 99.99 if not 100% of us), food deprivation, or the deprivation of any of my birds' basic needs, has no place in my home, training or relationship with my companion birds.

(Now, let me jump off of my soap box lest I fall and skin my knees...)

While I am a strong reinforcer for my parrot, Coco, my value as a reinforcer can change. There may be something that is momentarily more reinforcing than 'me', or something that reduces my value as a reinforcer. As examples:

She enjoys interacting with me, except:

1. If I am wearing red nail polish.
2. If my husband is in the room (she prefers to keep a watchful eye on him).
3. If she has just had a shower and would prefer to preen rather than interact.

Observing and understanding the changeable, situational, and personal nature of reinforcers for each of my birds, is a tremendous asset in developing my relationship with them as well as promoting positive flock dynamics.



Sid Price said...

Hi Robin, I love this blog, thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge is such a clear, easy to understand manner!

Robin said...

Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Sid!

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