What Are You Really Saying?
We’ve been having an interesting discussion in my on-line course about the labels people use to describe their horses.
Words are so interesting. Recently I flew on a Delta airlines plane. Most of the airlines have rows at the front of the economy section that give you a couple more inches of leg room. United calls this section economy plus. Delta calls it comfort seating.
As I walked past the last row of this section to my seat in the middle of the plane, I couldn’t help thinking: “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” If I have just passed the comfort seating zone, what was left – the comfortless seating rows. Exactly right!
Words matter. Labels matter. We use language so we are constantly creating labels and attaching them to everything. We name our family members, our friends, our pets, the objects around us, the thoughts and emotions we’re feeling.
When we talk about our horses, we often find ourselves saying they are dominant, stubborn, aggressive, playful, friendly, submissive. We stick these labels on the animal, and they become self-fulfilling prophecies. The power of expectations is huge. Dr. Robert Rosenthal demonstrated this in a clever study done with rats. Twelve lab techs were each given five rats. Their job was to train their rats to run through a maze. Six of the lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that was bred for good performance. The other six lab techs were told their rats came from a strain that had been bred for poor performance.
They were given five days to work with their rats, and from day one on there was a significant difference in how the rats performed. The “smart” rats learned the maze much faster. Of course, you’ve already guessed the set up. The rats were all from the same strain. There should have been no significant difference in performance, but the expectation of the handlers impacted how they handled the rats. The “smart” rats were handled more gently which resulted in them performing almost twice as well as the “stupid” rats. The expectations of the experimenters had created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rosenthal went on to conduct similar tests of expectations in schools. In one study all the students in a class were given an IQ test at the beginning of the school year. The teachers were then told that five of the students had scored exceptionally well on the test and could be expected to excel throughout the year. At the end of the year, these five students had indeed surpassed all the other students in the class. And again, you’ve probably guessed the set up of the experiment. The five children were picked at random. Their scores were no higher than the rest of their classmates at the start of the school year, but the extra attention the teachers gave them again created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rosenthal dubbed the influence that expectation can have on results as the “Pygmalion Effect”. His work clearly shows us that labels and the expectations they create do indeed matter.
What Are You Attaching The Label To?
Dr. Susan Friedman and other behaviorists remind us that the emotionally charged labels we use don’t describe the whole animal, they describe the behavior we’re seeing. That shift in focus is important. If I think of a horse as aggressive, we can both become trapped in this label just as surely as a fly is trapped in amber.
Labels can become dead ends. An aggressive horse becomes just that. Even if I modify his behavior, that label remains attached like a permanent brand tattooed around his neck. He might not be showing aggression now, but watch out, that label warns. This is an aggressive horse.
When you unlock the horse from these labels and describe instead the behavior you are observing along with its antecedents and its reinforcers, you also unlock training solutions that create the potential for lasting change.
Labels can certainly be a convenient short hand. We all use them, but we need to be mindful when we do of the effect that these labels have on the ways in which we interact with our horses and the training choices that we make. We need to keep in mind the Pygmalion effect, but that doesn’t mean we mustn’t use labels. After all, labels – meaning nouns and the adjectives that modify them – are what give meaning and richness to our language. Without them we would be creating a very drab world indeed. (Note all the labels that were used just in the last two sentences. They help give colour to the world we live in.)
So instead of stripping our language down to the bare bones because we are afraid to use any descriptive labels at all, let’s learn instead how to put the Pygmalion effect to work for us. If our expectations contribute to the outcome we get, then let’s use labels that take us in the direction we want to go.
When you attach labels, think about what you want to modify. Are you describing the whole horse or just the behavior you are seeing in this moment? If you do label the horse, select ones that take you to the horse you want to have. I believe that horses are intelligent animals, and I love being around smart horses. The labels that I attach to the horses I’m with reflect this belief system and direction I want to be heading with them. Listen to the labels that people use to describe their horses. They will reveal their underlying belief systems.
We attract evidence to support our belief systems. If I believe that horses are intelligent animals, I will be most aware of experiences that support that view. Someone else might think of horses as stupid animals. Guess what they will notice?
We can see the same behavior, and our underlying belief system will cause us to see it in completely different ways. We’ll each end up attaching labels that support our belief system. So when you use someone else’s labels, you want to consider their underlying belief system. Is it a match with where you want to be heading with your horse?
If you try on someone else’s label, examine carefully what expectations that creates for you. When I say my horse is “smart”, there’s delight and admiration attached to that label. You might use that label and find that it creates problems. What happens if your “smart” horse doesn’t understand a lesson? Do you get frustrated with him because he’s not trying hard enough? He should be able to get this. If a label leads you down a relationship path that creates disappointment or conflict, don’t use that label.
Labels are often based on an incomplete analysis of the behavior we’re seeing. We hear so often horses are prey animals, and they are flight reaction animals. Lets take those descriptions a step further than these statements usually carry us. Horses are herd animals. They form social groups to provide safety from predators. When a predator attacks what do horses do? Run, of course. But not apart. They don’t scatter in all directions. They bunch together. Why? Because that tighter bunch makes it harder for a predator to get in close to take one of them down.
So when a horse is startled and crowds in on top of you, is he being pushy, or is he trying to keep you both safe? When you drive him out of your space because you’ve been taught that this behavior is a sign of disrespect, what must he be thinking? That you’re literally throwing him to the lions.
For obvious reasons we can’t have our horses jumping on top of us, but if I see this reaction as a desire for safety, I’ll find training solutions that support this need. Our underlying belief systems and our understanding of horses will very much influence how we see this event. It will impact what labels we attach to the horse and what training solutions we choose.
Through clicker training we are learning to look beyond the easy out of incomplete or outdated labels to the behavior we are seeing. Horses do indeed have very definite personalities. One of the great pleasures of clicker training is the horse’s personality can be expressed and remain intact. That makes it very much a study of one – your horse with his unique personality and life history. When you describe him, use words that lead you to towards the kind of relationship you want to have.
I believe horses are intelligent and my expectations create that reality in my horses.
Please note: If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:
P.S. If you want to learn more about expectations, listen to the January 22, 2015 podcast of NPR’s Invisibilia: How to Become Batman. You’ll hear Robert Rosenthal describe the study he did with the rats, and you’ll also hear from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck. I’ve referenced her work in previous articles.