Bullies Beware: Rule Breaking Required

How to put an end to bad behavior.

Posted Apr 28, 2017

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. And, while the exploits of bullies are almost universally decried as distasteful to say the least, bullying behavior itself is actually the quite understandable by-product of unintentionally reinforced behavior.

Thankfully, a little creatively applied psychology can often reverse established trends toward bad behavior. One need only the willingness to break a few rules.

Enter, for purposes of illustration, a cat called Kraken. 

When the feline in question arrived on my doorstep for an overnight visit, I was warned by the owner about the cat’s insatiable need for food – at predictable, but nonetheless inconvenient hours of the night. 

Kraken apparently used multiple, long trains of vocalizations characterized by ever-increasing intensity of volume to insure that feedings came precisely when ordered.  A form of behavioral bullying. 

I smiled weakly at Kraken’s owner and inquired about the animal’s nickname.

“Oh, that comes from Scandinavian folklore,” I was politely informed.  “A kraken is a terrifying sea monster capable of destroying ships and devouring human beings.  It’s not his actual name, of course.  But I think it more suitably fits his personality.” 


The bullying, it’s important to note, was not Kraken’s fault, nor the fault of his owner.  Rather, the cat’s epic, high-volume vocalizations were the by-product of well-meaning and unintentional reinforcement of what, over time, became an unwanted behavior.

As a novice animal trainer, I once inadvertently produced in a dolphin a similar unwanted behavior that could easily have led, in time, to behavioral bullying.

Luther was learning to participate in a scientific study that would eventually “ask” him a series of questions, one-by-one.  To answer each question, he would be expected to provide a simple, behavioral response by touching the tip of his beak-like rostrum to one of two paddles.  

Luther found the task confusing at first.  Sometimes, in frustration, he would sink just below the surface and release two or three sizable bubbles of breath – the dolphin equivalent of a cartoon character’s bubble of question marks. 

One day, Luther provided a correct answer to a sample question, and I rewarded him with a quick tweet of my training whistle to signal the impending delivery of a fish snack.  After having endured many fruitless efforts, Luther was so excited he could hardly contain himself.  In fact, he emitted a high-pitched squeal of delight and darted off for a victory lap around his pen. 

When he returned, I promptly fed him several fish without a thought as to what behavior I was actually reinforcing.  Good trainers know that desired associations are largely established on the basis of how immediately a reward follows a behavior.  I thought I was reinforcing his correct response, while I was actually rewarding his excited squeal and fast swim.

Bullying is established in much the same way because bullying behavior is almost always immediately rewarded.  

In a moment of frustration, a bully-in-the-making may do something he’s never done before.  Perhaps a child desiring a ball shoves a smaller playmate.  His shocked companion steps back, eyes wide, and drops the ball, thus unintentionally rewarding the shove.  The undesired behavior is now likely to be repeated in the future.

What is more, the shoving behavior is often accompanied by a scowling facial expression and raised voice.  Over time, these lesser displays of aggression are recognized by the smaller child as a sign of things to come.  In order to avoid the unwanted shove, the child begins to recognize and respond to the lower order threats.  Soon, all the larger child needs to do is glance disapprovingly at his smaller companion in order to be handed the ball. 

In essence, the bully has established the rules of social interaction based on the immediacy of his own behavioral reward. To reverse the trend, one need only break the established rule of interaction. When bullying fails to produce its desired result, the behavior begins to recede.

To reverse Kraken the cat’s vocal reign of terror, he needed to receive the food rewards he desired before having the opportunity to begin requesting them. 

I decided to take the cat by surprise.  I opened one of his snack bags.  Immediately upon hearing the familiar sound of crinkling plastic, Kraken let lose with a series of vocal demands.  Nothing doing.  No payoff.  Instead, I slipped the treats into a pocket and ignored the cat completely.  Then, throughout the day, when Kraken was otherwise occupied with exploring his new surroundings or sunning himself by the window, I’d reach out and offer him a snack. 

It didn’t matter what Kraken was doing as long as he wasn’t vocalizing.  Silence was, in behavioral parlance, the only contingency for the cat’s reward. 

Things got a bit more complicated as the clock ticked closer to regularly scheduled meal times.  With the cat on high alert for food, even the slightest of predictable movements toward feeding – my walking into the kitchen, or the rattling of his food tins – was enough to renew Kraken’s interest in vocalizing.

When that happened, I simply ignored the cat and removed food bowl and cans into another room to prepare his meals behind closed doors.  Whenever Kraken took a break from vocalizing, his food dish would appear.  If he became overly excited and vocalized as the bowl was being placed before him, the food would disappear again. 

In other words, I broke the established rules of social interaction to which Kraken had become accustomed and replaced them – patiently and consistently – with a new, no-vocalization rule.  Rather than risking Kraken’s wrath, I was actually promoting a form of social bonding between us by providing the animal with a puzzle of sorts to work out in concert with a kindly coach rather than a cruel, scolding task-master.

Soon, the cat got into the spirit of the game.  His vocalizations became softer and less insistent as he began to experiment with the contingency of his reward.  Eventually, the cat began requesting food with expectant, but silent, glances between me and the food bowl.  His new behavioral approach earned him food, praise, and plenty of petting.

Kraken, it should be noted, was an exceptionally quick study.  Although cats are often notoriously tricky to train, Kraken was mastering the new, non-vocalization requirement in a matter of hours. 

That’s because Kraken was no newcomer to the training game.  His owner had successfully coached him to walk outdoors on a leash, shake hands, and give high fives on cue.  Novice animals, on the other hand, can take days and even weeks to catch on to new behavioral requirements for reward.  Patience and repetition is the key.

By the time Kraken left, we were fast friends.  To my great relief, and in spite of the feline’s fearsome nickname, no animal trainers were harmed in the making of this friendship

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017