Thursday, June 4, 2009

Conditioned Aversives - Part I

In my post The Changeability of Reinforcers I mentioned that reinforcers are:

1. Changeable
2. Situational

3. Personal

Through the story of The Great Coffee Cup Fiasco, we see an important dynamic that serves to further illustrate the situational nature of events in our birds' lives.

Recall an example of a conditioned reinforcer:
The dog learns that the jingle of the leash means a walk is coming.

The leash meant nothing until the dog learned to associate the sight and or sound of the leash with the opportunity to take a walk. It is the walk that the dog finds reinforcing.

If the leash were picked up along with a towel and a brush, and the dog were walked down to the bathroom for a bath, the dog would learn to associate the jingling of a leash, (when paired with the towel and brush), with an impending bath. If the dog liked baths, that would be great. Most don't (Barney included).

So the three, when presented together, would become a
conditioned aversive (something the dog worked to avoid - - - the bath).

Naturally, it is not the leash, the brush or even the towel... it is about what the dog has learned happens when the owner picks up all three.

This is the dynamic in play with Coco and the infamous coffee cup.

The coffee cup, when paired with my exiting the room, became a conditioned aversive. Over time, she learned that my leaving with the coffee cup meant I would not be returning for awhile.

Again, the emphasis is on the changeability and situational nature of the conditioned reinforcers or aversives. She will gladly sit next to me in the chair, drink out of that same coffee cup, or play with it on the floor. In those situations it could be either neutral or perhaps even reinforcing. But let me pick it up and head to the door... then everything changes.

Some examples of human experiences that further illustrate the situational and/or changeable nature of events:
A patient has no anxiety about going to the dentist for a cleaning; but great anxiety when obtaining a root canal.

At the dentist office, holding the syringe in my hand may not cause me any emotional discomfort. Seeing the syringe on the tray may evoke a certain level of anxiety. The same syringe in the hand of the dentist, coming toward my mouth with an 'open wide' demand, evokes yet a completely different set of emotions.

The Question of the Day:
What would I need to do to turn this situation around if I chose to?

Grab a cup of coffee, and stay turned for tomorrow's post to discover if I will need to forever give up my beloved java, or if there is a way...



Jim said...

Great topic, Robin. This is not an easy concept to discuss but I'm sure you can do it! (grin) I'll be waiting with interest to read more.

One of my pet peeves - "My bird hates a harness or towel". It's usually not (in the beginning) the object that is aversive, it is as you state, what happens and or the association with the object.

Good stuff! Keep the posts coming.


Lunar Lass said...

Fascinating! I wonder how I'm unknowingly conditioning my bird...I don't think I would have ever guessed that the coffee cup was the problem. Claps and hugs for this info!

Robin said...

I too find it fascinating! In the same respect as the dog associates the leash with the walk (or bath), Coco associates my picking up the cup and leaving with not returning for a long time. So it could be anything... this is why I must be careful not to exchange the coffee cup for something else that she would learn meant the same thing as the cup! We see this with birds that have been toweled; if someone started using a pillow case instead of a towel, they would learn to associate both the pillow and the towel with the experience of being covered and held! So it is not the towel (or pillow case) but what the bird learns happens...

It is so easy to inadvertently create situations, but this is part of the learning process for all of us! :)

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