Imagine the scene: A marathon runner — ahead of the pack, body aching and sweat streaming — nears the finish line.

The moment of victory is just ahead. But rather than raising her arms in victory, she glances at her stopwatch instead — and then stops dead in her tracks. She turns to the driver of a nearby support vehicle and asks for a ride to the starting line because she hasn’t quite equaled her best time. Yet.

If you’re thinking such perfectionism might indicate a slow leak from a hole in the head, you wouldn’t be far from wrong. According to the record books, the only top athlete to insist on such high standards belongs to a species not our own.

Veteran animal trainer Karen Pryor, in her essay “The Domestic Dolphin”, attests to having seen a dolphin “striving to master an athletically difficult trick, actually refuse to eat its ‘reward’ fish until it got the stunt right.”

Pryor’s placement of the word “reward” in quotes probably wasn’t an accident. As animal trainers and psychologists know, the notion of what each of us finds rewarding is hardly set in stone.

The writer John Cheever “famously wrote his early stories in his underpants, after first putting on a business suit to walk from his apartment to his office,” according to the journal “Poets & Writers”. Novelist Graham Greene was known to have checked himself into a hotel in order to complete a final draft, and Virginia Woolf rewarded herself for her efforts by writing standing up.

As these eccentric examples suggest, there are hardly any limits on what individuals find rewarding. For years, psychologists sought to describe both reinforcement and punishment in terms of effects on biological drives like the need for food and water, and they advanced the notion that reinforcers tend to diminish drives (satisfy hunger and thirst) while punishers tend to exaggerate them.

The problem was researchers kept encountering exceptions to the rule, like Pryor’s hard-working dolphin.

Experiments with rats by David Premack in the 1950s and 60s eventually gave rise to the notion commonly referred to in animal training circles as the Premack Principle — namely, that one behavior can be used to reinforce (or punish) another, provided that an individual’s tastes and preferences were taken into account.

Reinforcement and punishment became relative — and highly subjective — terms.

If a rat left to its own devices ate more often than it drank, and drank more often than it ran on an exercise wheel; then for that individual rat, a run on the wheel could be rewarded by a drink of water. Similarly, that particular rat’s willingness to drink could be rewarded by a chance to eat. Reverse the order of events (eat, then drink, then run) and each new (and less preferred) behavior would, in effect, be punishing the behavior immediately preceding it. At least, for that individual rat.

Premack’s notions of reward and punishment held equally for humans as well as rats. In an experiment with children given free access to both candy and a pinball machine, individual preferences were recorded. Then the children were divided into two groups. In children who preferred candy to pinball, the opportunity to eat followed (and therefore increased the frequency of) playing, while for those preferring pinball to candy, playing followed (and thereby bolstered) eating.

The take-home benefit? How about custom-designed days, filled with ever-more rewarding tasks as each hour passes? A careful eye toward scheduling and an honest and well-ranked appraisal of our own highly individualized preferences could just turn that daunting daily rat-race into an easy trot toward the finish line.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

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