I had a little outpatient procedure the other day. As I was leaving, still a little fuzzy, the discharge nurse gave me some papers including a little card in an envelope. She said, “This is a thank you note from all the staff who worked with you today.” I was surprised, and mumbled, “Well, I should be thanking them.” When I got home I opened the envelope with that little surge of happy anticipation you can get with such things, even if it’s from a medical office and even though I knew they had a reason beyond the simple goodness of their hearts for sending it. After opening it I first saw that five staff people had signed it by hand. How nice. Then I read the printed message. “Thank you for letting us serve you today. Please take the time to complete our survey.” There was a green sheet in the packet with questions about the service at the facility.
I felt slimed.
(This is a generic thank you note. I don’t have a picture of the actual note because I threw it away THAT DAY.)
I should have known better. I did sense that they wanted something from me when the nurse made a point of mentioning the note. I couldn’t imagine what they could want, though, and the suspicion slipped away. My cultural programming took over, and in spite of myself I had a little of that sense of anticipatory happiness that comes with an unexpected gift or even just a piece of pleasant mail.
I started thinking about this in behavioral terms as I realized that they had squelched any desire on my part to be cooperative. That’s too bad since they were nice staff. Perhaps they needed the survey for some kind of accreditation. But I had a visceral negative response to this ham-handed attempt at manipulation.
I discussed the incident in the context of Dr. Susan Friedman’s wonderful course, Living and Learning with Animals, which I am currently taking.
I described my feeling of being tricked. I had been expecting a tiny happy feeling from being thanked. It might have reinforced going to that facility, or more probably opening the envelope of the card. I got an aversive instead. I was blindsided by pressure to perform a task, albeit simple, but in a way I really didn’t appreciate.
So instead a goodie potentially resulting in positive reinforcement, I got an icky application of negative reinforcement*.
Susan Friedman pointed out that the thank you note was a poisoned cue. Whoa. Of course.
She was referring to a term coined by Karen Pryor that refers to a cue associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Animals that experience this kind of mixed training are generally demotivated and often display stress. Nicole Murrey performed several experiments with poisoned cues for her master’s thesis research under the supervision of Jesus Rosales Ruiz at the University of North Texas. The behavior in the study was to come to the human on cue. The aversive seems comparatively mild to us: it consisted of the dog being pulled into position via the leash when it failed to come voluntarily.
The dog learned one verbal cue for the behavior that was taught with positive reinforcement only. It learned a different verbal cue for the version that included the aversive. Adding the aversive completely changed the dog’s performance and demeanor in those training sessions.
The above photo was graciously provided by Debbie Jacobs of fearfuldogs.com. She has a great blog here. Debbie’s life’s work is UNpoisoning things for dogs. I almost decided not to use the photo because it seemed a bit callous for me to compare my instant of squirming irritation with the experience of a dog being pulled by its neck. But these kinds of connections help me learn, and maybe they will you too.
For humans and some animals, the aversives involved with negative reinforcement can be completely non-physical. Negative reinforcement is present in social pressure, threats, nagging, extraction of promises, guilt trips, even quotas and deadlines. All situations in which some kind of pressure is applied to get you to do something, at which point the pressure relents.
A thank you note is a cue for being thanked, and opening them has been taught to me with positive reinforcement. Every time I had opened one before this I had gotten a small bit of pleasure, or at the worst, a neutral experience. What I got this time instead was a mild aversive, and the surprise made it SUCK. This was a tiny incident in life, a blip on the screen. But I’ll bet it will be a while before I have unspoiled anticipation at opening a thank you note again.
Now can someone help me figure out why a simple request to return the survey would have been a neutral event, but coupling it with a thank you note created pressure and gave me bad feelings? I’m still trying to figure out the nuances and I feel like I’m talking all around it but not quite getting there. I’m going to publish this anyway; I’ve been working on it disproportionately long for such a simple story. Maybe you folks can help me out.
How about you? Have you ever gotten something slightly (or extremely) icky when you were expecting something nice? How did you feel about it?
- Comparing licking and tongue flick behaviors
- “Errorless learning”
- Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
- Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
* I’m not going to explain the quadrants of operant conditioning here. Others have done it well. Here is a blog post by Dr. Sophia Yin that has a good explanation.