Archives for September 2014

New Perspectives on IFS

I did some IFS with a friend last night around his nail-biting, an area where he hadn’t gotten much traction working on his own.

Early in the process, when he expressed some judgements about the nail biting, I clarified that I wasn’t interested in getting him to stop biting his nails if we couldn’t first find a better way to meet whatever need was currently being met by nail biting.

I assumed the nail biting was serving an important purpose.

Assuming that neurotic-seeming behaviors may be serving important purposes is part of the IFS instructions, so I’ve been saying stuff like that since I’ve started doing IFS. But saying it used to feel more like going through the motions. I’m not quite sure what I mean, because I really didn’t want to get rid of or change parts without their consent. It feels different now, though.

I trust that people’s internal ecosystems make quite a lot of sense.

On a related note, I haven’t had much desire to do IFS on myself recently. Or to have others do it on me. Mostly because I assume that I’ve internalized these processes enough that if things haven’t found a way to shift on their own in IFS-y ways, there’s a good reason they haven’t.

I’m still very open to conversations where I explore my psychology around a thing, but I want them to feel more organic.

I’m also more inclined to just try to give myself what I want instead of changing what I want, even if I sense that I want it in part because I’m hurt in some way. The example that came up most recently was thinking about how I often get angry after we hire cleaners, since they don’t do it exactly how I’d want them to. I think the getting angry is a bit of my own craziness, but these days I’m somewhat more inclined to actually get what I want anyway, instead of “healing” it.

This shift fits pretty well with the idea that paradigms work best as scaffolds instead of permanent structures. So, my IFS scaffold is pretty dismantled by now.

Probably not my clearest post ever, but I’ll leave it at that.

A Year of Updates about Operant and Classical Conditioning

A year ago and a couple of days ago, we got our dog, Argos!

Around then, I dived pretty deeply into learning about operant and classical conditioning, especially with respect to animal training. I read many books and blogs, attended ClickerExpo, and chatted with the trainers at our puppy socials. And after living with a puppy and a toddler for a year, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experiment with ways to get behaviors I wanted from them. 

My very broad brush summary is that a lot of the technical points actually cache out in just being patient, caring, and creative. And, to me anyway, this is excellent news! I want to get better at those things anyway, and it (usually) feels good to practice them.

The most useful distinction in this area that I hadn’t really been making was between skill building and behavior choices

I’ll call something a choice if it would respond to Szasz’s “Gun-to-the-Head Test”. My dog wouldn’t eat butter off the counter if he knew it would be really costly, so I’ll count that as a choice. But he can only roll one way (I’ll call it to the left), so teaching him to roll on his back to the right counts as skill building. 

I summarized my heuristics for skill building in a Memocracy talk at Ephemerisle, and finally just put the notes from my talk into a blog post of its own because it seems like a separable topic.

Okay, so assuming you aren’t trying to help someone learn something new (like how to walk, talk, or give you a high five). Assume you have strong enough preferences over the behaviors the other person is already offering to try to influence their frequencies.

Plan A: Meet the Underlying Need

My first, best lever is still trying to meet an underlying need (or want?) that will get me the behavior I’m looking for. It actually did help Lydia ignore other kids’ water bottles to buy her a variety and let her play with them at home. It very clearly helps me get Argos to lie around calmly more of the time when I take him on long walks and run around the yard with him. Giving him stuff to chew helps him not chew Lydia’s toys.

In order to meet needs, I have to notice them, and one of the biggest things that help me do this is not blaming the subject OR myself. Either one takes the focus elsewhere. It also takes some experimentation to be pretty confident that you know what the underlying need is. 

More than anything else, maybe, meeting needs usually takes an absence of learned helplessness about meeting the need.

A lot of my recent thoughts about how to best meet needs have come from this unschooling website.

I don’t in any way consider myself an expert on figuring out how to meet people’s needs, though I do recommend a meta/intrapersonal approach. (Basically, meet your own needs too. Avoid unfunded behavioral mandates (HT: Mike Blume) by making it the job of the part of you that wants something to happen to figure out a way to meet the needs of parts that are blocking it. Or something kind of like that. I have a post building up in my head about my thoughts in this domain.)

Plan B: Assume New Tank Syndrome

My second lever actually covers quite a lot of the situations that aren’t solved by (straightforwardly) meeting needs, and that is helping the learner become more comfortable with an environment or stimulus. I covered already in this post, but I think it bears repeating and elaborating on. Very frequently, if it seems like Lydia and Argos aren’t processing what I’m saying, they’re are very focused on the environment, and spending lots of cycles processing that. 

The Behavior Adjustment Training framework helped me get clear on what to do to help a learner feel more comfortable with a stimulus. She tried a bunch of different approaches that I won’t summarize here, but what seemed to work the best and fastest was letting the animal explore the stressful stimulus at its own pace in an environment with other cool distractions for when it wants a break, only intervening to stop the animal from getting stressfully close to the thing.

In retrospect, this strikes me as being extremely commonsensical, but I think I now have a better model of why and how it works. This model results in greater confidence that, over time, behavior around a specific thing will get more conscious and flexible, with more room for input from other interested parties.

Karen Pryor mentions “new tank syndrome” in Don’t Shoot the Dog:

What is once learned is not forgotten, but under the pressure of assimilating new skill levels, old well- learned behavior sometimes falls apart temporarily. I once saw a conductor, during the first dress rehearsal of an opera, having a tantrum because the singers in the chorus were making one musical mistake after another; they seemed virtually to have forgotten all their hard-learned vocal accomplishment. But they were, for the first time, wearing heavy costumes, standing on ladders, being required to move about as they sang: Getting used to new requirements temporarily interfered with previously learned behavior. By the end of the rehearsal, the musical learning reappeared, without coaching. Dolphin trainers call this the “new tank syndrome.” When you move a dolphin to a new tank, you have to expect that it will “forget” all it knows until the new stimuli are assimilated. It is important to realize that berating yourself or others for mistakes in past- learned behavior under new circumstances is bad training. The mistakes will usually clear up by themselves shortly, but reprimands cause upset and sometimes tend to draw attention to the mistakes so they don’t go away.

I didn’t get how important it was though. At almost two, almost everything is “new tank” for Lydia. A circle of girls playing with attractive My Little Ponies at the playground is a “new tank”. Maybe the block we live on wasn’t a “new tank” last week, but it is now because her perceptual abilities are sharper and her interests are different. She’s not used to processing the neighbor’s flowers because she didn’t used to care about them.
For Argos, our neighborhood is still a new tank. I’ve been taking him on walks since the beginning, but the neighborhood is full of new smells, new dogs, new people, and new everything else. It’s not as true as it used to be, when he’d stare at bicycles. But it still mostly is. The new stimuli have not been assimilated. Which is fine. That’s part of why it’s exciting to go on walks. 
Argos and I have been finding a good rhythm on walks recently where he doesn’t pull me around too much (he’s big), but part of what’s helped has been… letting him pull me around quite a bit while he explores. He gets by now that he’s usually not supposed to interact with on-leash dogs much (because he’s not calm enough for it to go well, also because lots of dogs don’t like intact adolescent male dogs), and is actually pretty good at keeping himself pretty under threshold, in part by running away from dogs. Not in a scared way, in an I’m excited by I know I can’t really have it and now need to let off some energy way. Sometimes we still practice loose-leash walking around the neighborhood, and he can often actually do it for long stretches of time if nothing too stressful happens. (He’s a pro in the house, even when he’s excited because he knows he’s about to go on a walk.)
I’d read books and talked to trainers, but I hadn’t really gotten the thing about processing the environment being THE thing for loose-leash walking, assuming the dog can do it at home (which in our case took very little time to teach). I think this blog passage is what made it finally click for me:
Mindy has been in public a lot, but mostly in the suburbs, in shopping areas, in hotels and malls and such buildings. She hadn’t seen the press of a typical urban street during crowded times. So many people, so close together, with so much traffic, was a lot!
When one criterion is raised, another drops! so I didn’t worry about leash manners. She pulled, a lot, because she was so busy looking around and taking things in. I wasn’t worried about this; leash manners will come back when she’s able to think about them again. Fussing at her would only have frustrated us both and both kept her from processing all this new scenario and established a bad association with it. 

Miscellaneous Other Stuff

If I hadn’t been reading about operant conditioning, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to reward behaviors I was looking for even when they were totally accidental and out of context. Baby signing was the relevant use case. I made a point of getting super excited WHENEVER Lydia made a motion that was kinda like a sign, since then she became conscious of what she just did with her body. She could hook the skill of doing the movement on purpose up to the actual meaning later, and she routinely did.

Similarly, if there’s a particular thing I’m looking for from another person, like being really attentive to what I’m saying, or empathizing, or not being defensive, these days I’m more on the lookout for opportunities to comment appreciatively on the thing even when it’s not happening at the time I feel like I need it. Because then, the person is more aware of the thing as a conscious skill they can choose.

On a slightly different note, Argos is actually pretty great about trying to be careful with his body even when he’s moving very quickly… except that he doesn’t get that his tail is part of his body. I think lots of dogs don’t understand this. My plan is to try to teach him to intentionally knock balls off the table with his tail, in hopes that it will improve his awareness in this area. I don’t have super high hopes for the approach, but I’ll probably report back if it works.

Classical Conditioning

If you consistently do something a few seconds BEFORE something else happens, the learner will connect the dots and start anticipating the second thing after the first thing. This won’t be as reliably true if they happen too close together, simultaneously or in the other order. Knowing this made me more inclined to announce my intentions with Lydia verbally before showing body language that I was going to do the thing. (Saying “Can I pick you up?” before putting my arms out.) I know she would have figured everything out anyway, but verbal communication is a big enough convenience factor for me that I’m willing to invest in optimizing my behavior to help her understand me more quickly.

It’s worth worrying about poisoned cues. Basically, if something good OR bad might happen when you ask someone to do something (you’ll get mad if they don’t do it or do it wrong), then they’ll easily come to dread hearing you ask. Fear is terrible for learning. Avoiding poisoned cues falls under being nice, but I thought I’d mention it specifically.

tl;dr Be nice. Work on one thing at a time. Everything else is new tank syndrome.

Skill-Building Heuristics

After I gave a talk at Ephemerisle, some months ago, I got some requests for a summary in writing. Here it finally is!

My intuitive model of learning spits out that I learn best when I’m “challenged”. I’ve come to believe that a feeling of accomplishment and a desire to “consolidate” what I’ve learned (by taking a nap or some other sort of break) are good signs. I’ve also come to believe that frustration and failure are suboptimal. Sure, it’s virtuous on my part to be able to learn from situations that aren’t designed for my learning experience (most of them), and that means learning strategies to cope with frustration and failure. But when I’m the one designing the learning experience, for myself or someone else, I now see it as my job to minimize frustration and failure in the learner.

Errorless learning is a thing, and it seems to me to be a good thing. (At least in certain cases. I was going to say it was great for people, like amnesiacs, who relied on implicit memory more since I had remembered reading that theory, but while looking up citations, I also found this, which says that for memory, errorless learning can trade off against effortful recall, which seems to be important. Interesting. For memory, I think spaced repetition is quite optimized.)

An unfortunate side effect of learning that does involve failure and frustration is that you can end up getting misplaced aggression in the learner. I’ve definitely observed this in my dog, my daughter, and myself, though not to any serious degree.

I think TAGteach is a pretty good methodology. Here are my main takeaways:

  • Work on one criterion at a time. (Practice either speed or accuracy, for example.)
  • After giving whatever longer instructions you want, describe what the learner should do in at most five word.
  • Easily verifiable criteria are the best. (“Arms above head” beats “hold your arms up high”.)
  • If the learner can’t do what you’re asking in three (or so) tries, make it easier!
  • If you can use a marker sound (like a clicker, or saying “Yes!”) to point out the exact moment the learner got it right, this can speed things up quite a bit.
  • If you’re increasingly the criteria in one area, expect performance in other areas to degrade. This is normal and expected and will go away once you get the thing you’re working on straight. (If you’re trying to jump straighter and you’re not jumping as high as you were, that’s fine.)
  • Being in a new location (or with new equipment etc.) is an increase in criteria.
  • To best get fluency, work on precision before speed.
  • For learners who want to learn the thing, getting the information that they’re learning it is potent reinforcement. But if anything is making the experience unpleasant, it can be nice to additional actual treats when they get stuff right.

Punishment is very problematic for building skills. It has advantages, and can be very effective, sometimes resulting in one-trial learning. It also seems to generalize well, but threat kills curiosity and experimentation, which I very much want to preserve in any learners I work with. Here’s a Karen Pryor quote from Reaching the Animal Mind:

Clicker trainers have a strong gut reaction against punishment; and the more experienced we are, the stronger the feeling. Well, thanks to Panksepp, we have a scientific rationale for why mixing correction and reinforcement is harmful rather than helpful to the learning. It’s not just a moral issue; it’s common sense. Correction or rebuke switches the learner from the hypothalamus and its SEEKING mode to the amygdala’s path of avoidance and fear.

And even punishment that seems mild to the one administering it can be very bad for relationships. 

I will emphasize that, since learning more about learning, it’s become increasingly obvious to me how much people, including me, tend to assume that teaching means telling people they’re wrong and “correcting” them. As a tutor, I’ve found it especially hard not to fall into this pattern. My narrative has historically been that I’m providing maximum value to people when I’m showing them something they don’t know yet, and that equates to giving them problems they can’t do yet. These days, I’m changing my approach to something friendlier and more success-based :-).

I’ve also largely moved away from “teaching” as a paradigm recently, since I’ve been working on grokking unschooling, and that’s something I’ll try to write more about as my thoughts feel ready to be put into blog posts.