Powerful messages don’t rely on words. They do this.
You can train a dog to turn in a circle on command. Here’s why that explains human communication.
“Use your words” is a playground scolding for little kids. As adults, you expect people to be able to communicate with their words.
Words are great at communicating the thoughts in your head. They’re often the only way to transfer information from one brain to another, and they’re definitely the best way to transfer information from one brain to many other brains.
But in some (extremely common) situations, explaining the thoughts in your head can actually be counterproductive.
When do words not work? Here are some common examples:
A messy roommate doesn’t clean up. You are frustrated by asking them to clean up a lot, and they get frustrated because you’re “nagging” them.
Someone on your team at work doesn’t speak up in meetings. You tell them they need to be more vocal, but it doesn’t work – you’re frustrated and they feel bad.
Kids won’t stop screaming. You tell them to stop or threaten them with punishment. Even if they do stop, it doesn’t take long before they’re screaming again.
Your violin teacher tells you how to get a better sound. But when you try for yourself, it sounds even worse than before.
Explaining what you think has limits, and those limits start right around where you try to change a specific behavior – yours or someone else’s – with words.
To turn to another saying, “actions speak louder than words.” More than your words, how you respond to someone’s behavior gives them clues about how they should act in the future. How you act contributes to how they act.
To understand why people act the way they do, there’s no better place to look than animal training.
Why do people act the way they do? Dog training explains
Karen Pryor is a behavioral psychology expert, animal trainer, author of Don’t Shoot The Dog (the best book on behavioral psychology, in my opinion), and founder of the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior.
Her YouTube channel is full of old, grainy recordings of training animals to do hyper-specific tricks – and they are an incredible resource for understanding human behavior.
Here’s a 6-minute video showing how to train a service dog to do a 360 degree turn. If it doesn’t hold your attention now, take another look after reading about why this approach works so well.
Way back in 1898, psychologist Edward Thorndike coined the Law of Effect.
"Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."
40 years later, legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner would become the father of operant conditioning. If you’ve ever heard of pigeons in a “Skinner Box,” that was Skinner.
Behavioral psychology evolved to become extremely complicated – researchers now study reinforcement schedules and timing, individual variations from person to person, and environmental factors have been researched.
And, yes, thousands of rats have been run through mazes.
But ultimately the most important insight from behavioral psychology (and the reason it’s such an important part of communication) is the same one discovered by Skinner and Thorndike:
Behaviors that get rewarded happen more often
Behaviors that get punished happen less often
Any time you take an action, the response to that action makes you feel something. If you paint a landscape and people say they love it, you’ll probably paint more. If you say ‘hi’ to that guy you don’t really know at work and he scowls at you, you’ll probably not say ‘hi’ again.
A guy at work scowls at you. So what? You won’t say hi to him anymore. The question is: will you still say hi to other strangers?
Reinforcements can stack on top of each other. If your experiences with strangers go poorly, you might say hi to them less often – or even develop social anxiety.
“Shaping” behavior is so interesting because it leads to actions that wouldn’t happen on their own. Even though a dog is perfectly capable of turning 360 degrees, it has no idea what you’re talking about when you say “turn” – until you’ve trained it.
Human behavior is more complicated than turning in a circle, but everyone (that includes you, and me) is influenced by shaping. In ways they don’t usually realize.
The 8 ways to change behavior
“Shaping consists of taking a very small tendency in the right direction and shifting it, one small step at a time, toward an ultimate goal. The laboratory jargon for the process is ‘successive approximation.’” – Karen Pryor
In her book, Karen Pryor summarizes decades of behavioral psychology into a handful of straightforward, well-stated rules of conditioning.
As she states in the above quote, shaping is the practice of slowly teaching a behavior through reinforcement. If you want to teach a dog to turn in a circle on command, there are steps to slowly reach that behavior.
In the video, you can see a sequence of behaviors that ultimately lead to a full spin:
Dog touches stick
Dog touches stick at different lengths
Dog touches moving stick
Dog slowly follows moving stick in circle
Dog follows faster stick in circle
Dog spins in circle in response to smaller stick movements
Only good, fast turns get a reward
Reward changes to verbal
Dog turns on command
This is shaping in action.
When trainers are trying to teach a new behavior, there’s a crucial underlying principle: use positive reinforcement; not punishment or negative reinforcement.
Even when the goal is to stop a behavior, punishment isn’t the way to go. Here, according to Pryor, are the eight ways to change behavior:
“Method 1: "Shoot the animal." (This definitely works. You will never have to deal with that particular behavior in that particular subject again.)”
“Method 2: Punishment (Everybody's favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works).”
“Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)”
“Method 4: Extinction; letting the behavior go away by itself.”
“Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners).”
“Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer's most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behavior.)”
“Method 7: "Shape the absence"; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)”
“Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)”
If you want a behavior to start, you use positive reinforcement to shape that behavior.
If you want a behavior to stop – don’t use punishment. Instead, reinforce the good behavior that you want to see (Method 5). Or choose from methods 5-8 as appropriate.
Punishment will never teach a dog to turn in a circle. It also won’t teach a child to do chores, or a beginning violinist to get a great sound, or struggling fitness newbie to workout more often.
No matter what words you use, people interpret punishment the same way dogs do – “don’t do that thing again.”
This might sound obvious, but there are examples that break this principle all over the place:
“Nagging” a messy roommate to wash the dishes is negative reinforcement
Yelling at noisy kids is punishment
Telling someone to speak up more in meetings is punishment
Beating yourself up for a screech of the violin is punishment
People even accidentally punish the behaviors they want. If you talk to family on the phone and they complain that you “never call,” they’re punishing you for calling!
What if you encourage people instead of punishing them? What does that look like in each scenario?
If you have a messy roommate, you could:
Thank them for cleaning things that are not dishes
Thank them for keeping dirty dishes in the kitchen, vs. lying around
Say, “hey, let’s take care of the dishes.” Put on some music and have a dishes dance party. Throw on a funny podcast. Make the experience fun and thank them for helping afterwards.
If you have a quiet team member, you could:
Respond enthusiastically when they volunteer an idea in a meeting
Respond enthusiastically when they volunteer an idea outside of a meeting, ask them to share it with the group, then celebrate their sharing
Create a situation where you go “around the room” (so everyone talks) and praise their response
If you are teaching yourself the violin, you could:
Focus on one part of the violin at a time (e.g. hitting the right notes, getting a good tone, playing speed, bowing)
Verbally praise yourself when you hit your goal
Avoid punishing yourself (e.g. exclaiming in frustration) when you make mistakes that aren’t related to your goal
Noisy kids are a little harder, since there’s an immediate behavior that needs to stop. Pryor would suggest:
Avoid, at all costs, positively reinforcing a tantrum (via extra attention, fawning etc.)
Address any underlying needs (hunger, tired, thirsty) as best as possible
Praise kids for being good in situations where they are sometimes noisy (e.g. a grocery store)
Put the behavior on a cue, and then stop giving the cue. For example: “ok, when I say watermelon we all make as much noise as we can for 10 seconds.” Then say watermelon when kids want to be noisy, but slowly say it less over time.
If you think about how you can be positive and also get the things you want, everyone ends up happier. Good actions happen more and bad actions happen less. Frustration dissipates, and there are more joyful moments.
Rewards are a form of communication, and some things you can only communicate with what you reward and what you punish.
How has reinforcement already affected your life? You probably see it every day.
One of the most interesting understudied topics in psychology is how reinforcement affects you across your entire life.
The world is at least partly random, which means that you have probably been rewarded for some things and punished for others mostly by chance.
If you’ve put forward your ideas and good things have happened, you’re probably more likely to suggest ideas again. If no one listened, you’ll probably think twice next time.
If you get punished for disagreeing, you’ll probably keep your thoughts to yourself. If people listen, you might voice an objection again next time
If you’ve expressed affection and people respond well to it, you’ll probably become more affectionate. If they respond poorly, you might become more closed off.
There are millions of opportunities to be reinforced or punished over the course of your life. When you stack those moments on top of each other, there are strong reasons to think that reinforcement has long term effects on the way you approach the world.
There’s some research on this idea from across psychology disciplines:
PTSD as a “generalized” fear response. This perspective argues that post-traumatic stress disorder is the result of an intense punishing experience (e.g. war, abusive relationship). People with PTSD have “generalized” their experience, meaning that they have strong fear responses to everyday cues.
Reinforcement history can affect reinforcement. When humans or nonhumans have been previously reinforced, their responses to new training are different. This is pretty good evidence, but tends to be much smaller scale research than “over a lifetime.”
Personality and life experiences can influence each other. In a 16-year study, researchers found that personality traits can affect life experiences and that life experiences can in turn influence personality.
One perspective, from personality psychologists Dan McAdams and Jennifer Pals, is that what we call “personality” is a mix of factors:
Dispositions (like the Big 5 traits) that are partially built-in
Characteristic adaptations (like reinforcement history, goal setting) that are affected by life experiences
Life narratives, the way you frame the story you tell yourself about your life
There’s a lot more research to do here. Even if it’s clear that reinforcement happens in everyday life, it’s not clear exactly how it affects people long term.
What is clear is that reinforcement is powerful – and one of the most important psychological principles. Even without words, rewards and punishment can communicate a message.