Behavior analysis analyzed (Proceedings)


Behavior analysis analyzed (Proceedings)

Nov 01, 2010

Within the study of psychology are several sub-disciplines that focus on animal behavior. One of these fields is called behavior analysis. Unlike ethology, the study of how animals behave in their natural habitat, behavior analysis deals primarily with the way behavior is changed by the environment. This field is also called the experimental analysis of behavior. Behavior analysis began in the early 1900's through the work of scientists such as Edward Thorndike, John Watson and B.F. Skinner. As a foundational cadre they developed terms and concepts to create a discipline that would form a science of behavior. Their original terminology and perspective of behavior analysis has remained the dominant jargon of this and other related fields. When we use terms such as "reinforcement" to describe the strengthening of a behavior, we are using terms coined by those original researchers.

It should not be a surprise that current investigations into behavior use this existing framework. What may be surprising is that this seminal resource for modern animal behaviorists is only tangentially connected to animal behavior. Though most of the research in behavior analysis is conducted with animals, the choice of experimental subjects was done for reasons other than facilitating the care or understanding of those species. Skinner, et al, chose pigeons and rats as their primary research animals as models for human behavior. Paradoxically, these species were not selected because their behavior closely resembles humans. They were selected because they were small, easy to care for and inexpensive. 1 Skinner believed that the behavior of any animal is basically analogous to that of other species. Within 20 years of the acceptance of rats and pigeons as experimental standards, that vast majority of behavioral experimentation was/is confined to these two species. When peer review literature grew to a substantial size, behavior analysts confined themselves almost exclusively to these species. Logically it made sense to foster uniformity and gain apple to apple comparisons between scientific studies. The problem is that rats and pigeons are not good models for the behavior of cats and dogs.

Peckers vs Predators:

Obviously, rats and pigeons are not predators. Both species are browsing animals whose survival requires methodical, stereotypical behaviors such as pecking and foraging for food. Modern companion animals are primarily predators or the descendents of predators. Predators have a completely different way of surviving that makes direct comparison between the two types of animals problematic. EG: Pigeons peck things. Dogs don't. If your research depends on an animal pecking a lighted disk to quantify behavioral data, the dog must learn the behavior from scratch. The pigeon performs the behavior instinctively, therefore automatically. The dog's nose-bumping must be reinforced to create a baseline, the pigeon pecks in the absence of reinforcement. Unless comparison studies can demonstrate a predictable and calculable skew between the species, these two studies are not logically connected. Comparison studies of this sort are fantastically rare. In essence, while attempting to match apples to apples, behavior analysts have excluded oranges altogether. Sticking with this metaphor, veterinarians are primarily concerned with oranges and apple data is of little use.

Beyond instinctive or species specific behaviors, the physiology of predators and prey also compounds the problem of comparison. The primary experimental procedure for behavior analysis is based on reinforcing a particular behavior. Simply stated, the behavior "causes" the presentation of food or water which increases the behavior's strength and likelihood that it will be repeated. This new reinforced behavior is called an "operant" because it is determined purely by its consequences. Once an operant is formed, the reinforcement procedure is then contrasted to the removal of reinforcers until the behavior stops entirely or goes back to a previously established baseline. This process is termed extinction. The reinforcement/extinction paradigm works best with animals that are in constant need of food and water. Experimental animals are kept at less than normal body weight or dehydrated to facilitate reinforcement. Both rats and pigeons require relatively constant access to food and water. Much of their day is devoted to this process. Virtually all the available research on the use of positive reinforcement is based on these parameters.

In contrast to browsing, grazing animals, predators tend to gorge and starve depending on availability of prey and successful hunting. Rather than being constantly active, wild canids and felines spend most of their time sleeping and conserving energy. Additionally, most wild canids are diurnal creatures that tend to "lay up" during the day, even if they have not eaten in several days. Their biological clocks may suppress normally occurring behavior at various times of the day. This means that dogs and cats don't react to food like rats and pigeons. For instance, dogs may stop reacting to food reinforcers even if they have not eaten for more than 24 hours. Cats are even more finicky and may simply stop eating because a particular food source isn't properly palatable. In both of these species the nutritional quality of the food is a great predictor of the animal's enthusiasm for acquiring it. For top-end predators, low protein, low fat foods are invariably less interesting and less reinforcing than high protein, high fat foods. Pet owners are usually resistant to keeping their dog or cat at 15% below its normal body weight merely to facilitate training. Ultimately, the differences between the typical Skinnerian experiment and the reality of training dogs and cats in pet homes make it difficult to draw analogies. i.e. Comparing positive reinforcement/extinction findings gleaned from rats and pigeons may have little or nothing to do with similar analysis of dogs or cats.

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