Pig wakes us up every morning at 4am by screaming and we give him his breakfast to get him to be quiet. How do we stop Pig from waking us up every morning? Well, in order to change problem behaviors, we need to first identify HOW the bad behavior is being reinforced (remember: if you have a pig that displays problem behaviors, the behaviors are SOMEHOW being reinforced. It may not be obvious at first, but animals don’t continue to repeat behaviors that don’t receive reinforcement). So let’s say that we have identified the reinforcer – feeding Pig when he screams at 4am. So we either completely stop reinforcing it or greatly reduce how often we reinforce it, and… It doesn’t have any effect - or more commonly, the bad behavior gets EVEN WORSE than before. What went wrong? First, let’s consider a different scenario that might be a little more familiar:
We have a laptop computer. We go to turn it on one day and it doesn’t turn on. Do we immediately assume that it’s broken and give up? Of course not- we would certainly try several more times to get it to turn on. Our actions (turning on the computer) have been rewarded consistently in the past (the computer turns on), so we have received reinforcement that it SHOULD work. What happens if our computer is older and has a history of being finicky about turning on? We would likely try EVEN LONGER to get it to turn on before giving up, because we know eventually, our actions will probably be rewarded and the computer will turn on.
These same learning principles apply regardless of species. So back to Pig – remember, Pig wakes up at 4am every morning and we now know that by feeding him, we are reinforcing that behavior. So we decide that we will ignore him when he screams. The next night, Pig starts screaming at 4am. We ignore it, but it doesn’t stop. In fact, Pig screams EVEN louder now! Why is this? Pig is demonstrating an extinction event, or extinction burst. When a behavior that was rewarded previously is no longer rewarded, Pig will initially perform that behavior even more intensely or vigorously than before. Remember the above example of our computer not turning on! It is no different for Pig – he assumes that maybe we just can’t hear him, or maybe if he screams JUST A LITTLE LONGER, he will finally get food (and depending upon the behavior, it can take days, weeks, or even longer to see a change).
So what if we work really hard to ignore pig for several nights, but in a few days, we are exhausted and we just need him to be quiet so we can get some sleep, and so we give in just once? What if we only give him a treat every now and then, but not every time he screams? We might think to ourselves, 'well, surely the behavior will decrease because I’m only giving in occasionally and so Pig isn’t being rewarded all the time.' This is VARIABLE RATIO OF REINFORCEMENT, and it is actually even more powerful as a reinforcer than continual reinforcement. Remember how our laptop is finicky and sometimes takes a while to turn on? Because of this, we are MORE persistent with our attempts to turn it on. Pig is no different – if he is occasionally rewarded, he will persist EVEN MORE with the behavior that sometimes gets him treats.
In fact, variable ratio of reinforcement is one of the reasons why punishment tends to be so ineffective with pigs. ESPECIALLY if the reinforcer is food, there is almost no punishment that would be severe enough to stop a pig from continuing to try to obtain it, even if they know punishment is likely. If your pig snaps and grabs for food in your hand when you’re sitting on the couch, and 9 times out of 10, you scold him and push him away, but every 10th time he tries it, he manages to get a piece before you deliver the punishment, he WILL be on a schedule of variable rate reinforcement, and he WILL continue to do the behavior. You have simply turned your pig into a gambler. Unfortunately with pigs, they are also smart enough to know that 9 times out of 10, they will receive punishment instead of the reward, which makes them proactively aggressive and anxious, because now that behavior not only occasionally leads to rewards, but other times, that very same behavior leads to punishment. It makes for a very frustrated, confused, aggressive pig. The single most effective method for stopping bad behaviors is to remove the chance for reward 100% of the time. It can’t be 97%, or 98% or even 99.9%- that’s not good enough with pigs. That might mean fundamental changes to your household. Maybe pig isn’t ever allowed in the kitchen & dining area, and that is the ONLY place where people-food is allowed (no one ever said house-pigs were easy!).
(Here’s something else to consider: Do you have a friend who is sometimes super fun to hang out with but other times is a total jerk? Why do you continue to spend time with this person? Because you are on a schedule of variable ratio of reinforcement – when you hang out with your friend, you hope that you will get lucky and this time will be fun… and even if it isn’t, you know that next time might be!)
Why do we spend time at the casino when we know that our chances of being rewarded are extremely low? Why does Pig keep trying to get into the garbage even though he only occasionally succeeds? Because variable ratio of reinforcement is incredibly powerful, whether we’re a person or a pig.
When it comes to behavior, we’re all gamblers at heart.