Degrees of Freedom
In the previous section we saw that creativity comes from having a rich repertoire to draw on. This makes puzzle solving much easier. With my horses I work really hard to create optimistic puzzle solvers. One way to do this is to expand the repertoire of both the handler and the learner. The broader and more extensive the repertoire, the more options an individual has. If a horse knows only two choices and neither one is working, he’s in trouble.
Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz referred to this as being coerced by your repertoire. Here’s an example to explain what that means: suppose a high school student is a great debater. In fact, he’s so good, he’s captain of the debating team. You’d expect someone like that to have really high self-esteem. He’s so successful how could he not?
But look a little closer and you’ll see why. This individual is great at debating, but he’s no athlete. He’s left out of a lot of other school events. He doesn’t play sports. He doesn’t go to school dances. He has poor social skills so at lunch he’s off by himself. Yes, in debating he wins all the prizes, but he has only that one skill.
He’s being coerced into improving his debating skills because that’s all he can do. He’s the best debater in the school, but that doesn’t keep him from feeling left out and miserable. With only that one skill he has only one degree of freedom. Other members of the debating team may not be as good as he is, but they are also involved in other school activities. Compared to him they have three or four degrees of freedom, and they are much happier.
The captain is far and away the best debater on the team, but he’s been coerced into that position because he has no other choices. For him, as well as for our horses, the way to improve his emotional well-being is to expand his repertoire so he has more options, more reinforcers available to him.
A great real life example of this is the tennis great Andre Aggassi. In his autobiography, “Open”, he describes how his father forced him to practice tennis for hours every day. His class mates spent their free time playing after school sports, hanging out with friends, watching TV, playing video games – in other words developing a broad repertoire of skills. Aggassi hit tennis balls – tens of thousands of tennis balls. He hated tennis, but he was forced to play.
His friends went off to the local high school. He was sent away from home to a tennis academy. He hated tennis even more, but it was all he knew. When he turned pro, he was miserable, but how could he quit? What else could he do? He had no skills outside of tennis. All he could do was become better at the game. He was coerced by his repertoire. He won Wimbledon and seven other Grand Slams. He was a 1996 Olympic gold medalist. He made millions, but he was miserable.
If he had had other choices, who knows what the outcome would have been. He might still have chosen tennis, and perhaps he would have been an even better player. Whatever the choices, the greater degrees of freedom might well have produced a happier life.
Kay Laurence uses this concept with her dogs. If you’re working with an aggressive dog, you want to expand his repertoire. Teach him a dozen new behaviors: sitting, lying down, turning his head to the left, to the right, lifting a paw, walking in a circle, etc.. Now in a threatening situation he has a dozen new ways to respond, instead of just the two or three that he started with.
Coming Next: Being Emotional Is Being Alive
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