Positive reinforcement. . . Naturally

Everywhere you go, there is behaviour and learning.  You can find it at the shopping mall or in a nearby greenspace.  All creatures learn through behaviour.  They learn through what works and what doesn’t.  If a behaviour works (if something happens that the learner wants to have happen or that feels good for the learner) then the behaviour will happen again.

Consequences (C) drive behaviour (B).

Let’s talk birds.  Three small birds are alone in a nest high atop a tree.  Their disproportionately large mouths (in comparison to their heads) are open wide and they make enough noise to let the birds in the next neighbourhood know that they are hungry.

A large black bird swoops down with grace and starts dropping food into her babies’ open mouths.  Over and over this happens.  The small birds, now content, curl up tight under the mum’s feathers and sleep.

Those open mouths and screaming will surely happen again.  Why?  Because it worked.  When they open their mouths and scream, mum brings food.  Those small creatures are not thinking “hmm I’m hungry, if I scream she’ll feed me”.  Nope, they are physically uncomfortable (A), they scream (B), food is given and the discomfort goes away (C).

Now, how about foxes?  I have seen glorious footage of a fox leaping high into the air and diving down nose first into the deep snow.  When the fox comes up again, they have a mouse in their mouth.  They do not get the mouse every time, but they do succeed often enough that the behaviours of locating and leaping up and then plunging into the snow work.  And so these behaviours are repeated.

3 small bears roll around, play fighting, and running along a riverbank while their ever watchful mum fishes for lunch.  Very few people could look at this scene and not smile because you can see the pleasure in the body language of the bears and you can probably feel it as a memory from your past when you were playing with friends or siblings as a youngster.  So why do creatures play?  There are many theories on why animals play that we will not get into today, but I can say that the behaviour of play continues because it feels good.

Let’s say that one little bear gets a bit too rough with his sibling and bites too hard.  Ouch!  That hurt and play will end.  When play is not fun or when it doesn’t feel good, the behaviour of play will stop.  That doesn’t work out well for the little guy who took things a bit too far and so he learns inhibition in his play so that the others will continue to play with him.

Horses rub up against fencing, dogs roll and wiggle in the grass, bears rub their backs on trees and they do it again and again. Why?  Because it feels good: maybe it relieves an itch, loosens dust or fur. It is reinforcing.  It works as a good consequence for the learner and so the behaviours of rubbing, wiggling, and rolling continues.

ABC, learning theory, reinforcement may all be coming to the main stream with more and more people interested in learning about them but these are not new and no one came up with these ideas.  This learning sequence has been at work all around us, every day, all the time, since the first living creature took a breath on planet Earth.

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