Emotions: To Feel or Not To Feel – That Is The Question
When you begin talking about animal emotions, emotions run high. The belief systems that have grown up around emotions are truly amazing. In the past people have denied that animals even feel emotions. They’ll tell you animals may feel pain, but they aren’t really aware that they feel pain.
Wait a minute. What are they saying!? That just made my head spin.
What nonsense. Clearly these people have never been on a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds are wonderfully emotional creatures. That’s their charm. They let you know everything they are feeling – the excitement, the fear, the worry, the joy. They truly “wear their emotions on their sleeve”. To say that these wonderful horses are not aware of their emotions is nonsense.
With his work on the seven core Affective circuits, Jaak Panksepp has helped bring the discussion of emotions “out of the closet”. Suddenly talking about emotions is the “in” thing. If an animal is being “too emotional”, people will tell you you’re clearly doing something wrong in your training.
Wait a minute. What did you say? Too emotional.
Words are amazing. They show us our belief systems.
Too emotional. What does that mean?
One of the roles of a behavioral analyst is to make us think about the words we use. Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz would say we are always emotional. Emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant. You can feel excited and agitated, calm and serene, but they are all emotions.
The Emotions of Extinction
We can look at a particular process, such as extinction. Suppose you have been consistently reinforcing your horse for standing on a mat. He has your undivided attention, so the clicks have been very consistent. But now you’re interrupted. Your friend has asked you to watch how her horse is trotting. She’s not sure if he’s lame.
Your attention shifts away from your own horse. He’s still standing on the mat, but now he’s not being reinforced. You’ve just put him into the early stages of an extinction process.
While you’re focusing on your friend’s lame horse, your own horse is going through his most recent repertoire of behaviors. What is going to work to get you paying attention to him? He puts his ears forward, he poses, he drops his head, he paws, he nudges your arm.
While he’s presenting those obvious behaviors, he’s also experiencing emotions. He’s feeling confused, then frustrated, then possibly angry. If the extinction process continues on long enough, he may begin to feel helpless because nothing is working. Finally, he’ll become resigned as he gives up and settles into a more subdued state of acceptance.
Extinction’s Emotional Pattern
We see this extinction process as a negative thing because it “produces emotions.”
Jesús reminds us that ALL processes produce emotions. We tend to think about emotions when they are the size of a five alarm fire, but really we are always “being emotional”. There are emotions associated with ALL behaviors. Ideally in training we’d like to avoid the five-alarm-fire type. That’s why it is so important to understand these processes. The sooner you recognize that you are in an extinction process, the sooner you can do something to get out of it.
In extinction the individual (rat, human, horse, etc.) follows a predictable emotional pattern.
First, you see response bursting.
Here’s what that means: You are observing a rat that has been reinforced consistently for pressing a lever. Abruptly the lever pressing no longer produces the expected result.
What does the rat do? It presses the lever with even more energy trying to get it to work. This has been equated with the classic hitting the button over and over again on the vending machine when your coke doesn’t fall out.
In the next stage you get angry. Now you’re kicking the coke machine.
Next you see regression. Behaviors which have been useful to you in the past reappear. What have you seen modeled? What is your past history when things like this fail?
Then there is a pause followed by another period of response bursting. Gradually the cycles become less pronounced. Each phase becomes smaller both in scale and duration until the individual settles into a calmer stage of acceptance.
Some psychologists have equated this pattern with the stages people go through when they are grieving. When you lose a loved one, a job, a home, you are thrown into an extinction process. Your loved one is gone. The reinforcers associated with that individual are gone, and your behavior is ineffective. Nothing you can do will change the reality of your loss.
The stages of grief begin with denial, followed by anger, then depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance and a return to a meaningful life.
It’s interesting to see the comparison people make between the process of grief and the process of extinction. Understanding does bring with it coping skills. If you understand the process you are in, you can keep things in perspective and find a faster way out of the worst of the emotional tangles. You can also be more understanding towards others (horse or human) if they are caught up in an extinction or grief process.
One of my Click That Teaches coaches, Cindy Martin wrote:
“Your description of the process people and horses go through, when things don’t work the way they expected, was so accurate and yet so full of empathy. The more I do clicker training, and teach and share clicker training, the more I realize there are some very profound lessons in the process; forgiveness, compassion, consideration. Those occupy a deeper layer, beneath the observation, handling skills, planning and preparation. Lately, I’ve been describing this type of clicker training, the kind that emphasizes details, and consideration for the learner, as ‘thoughtful clicker training.’”
When people ask Kay Laurence how she trained a particular behavior, the answer she often gives is: thoughtfully. As we gain more of an understanding of this work, we converge along similar paths. They all lead in the same direction – toward an ever deepening appreciation of others – whatever the species.
Coming Next: Understanding Extinction to Master Extinction
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