Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book: "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage"


TITLE: What Shamu Taught About Live, Love and Marriage (lessons for people from animals and their trainers)
AUTHOR: Amy Sutherland
PUBLISHED: NY: Random House, 2008 (168pp).

Shamu is the famous killer whale made popular by the world-famous San Diego SeaWorld. When I last saw the black and white orca a few years ago, it seems that the world world world (sea-world, that is) revolves around the famous star attraction.

This is not about animal training. Neither is it a manual for making relationships work. Well, not exactly. It is one person's creative attempt to incorporate animal-training to the human world. The author in 2006 wrote an article in the New York Times which quickly topped the most emailed articles list for the NYT in 2006. I came across the book almost by accident, having not encountered the article myself. Back in 2006, I was too busy writing papers for my theological school, so I am not surprised I missed out on this fad.

Sutherland is a journalist. Her writings are both creative and often hilarious, making her work a delight to read. In a nutshell, Sutherland brings to the table the technique of animal training to the world of human relationships. Believers of the theory of Evolution, like most scientists will find no difficulty in the basic premise that humans are animals too. After all, biology often classifies living things in terms of the Plant (vegetabilia) and Animal (animalia) kingdoms. Human beings being living creatures will be entered into the column entitled "Animal Kingdom."

TRAINING: Sutherland's basic thesis is that techniques used in animal training can be applied effectively to human relationships. Essentially, by using encouragement by positive reinforcement methods, people can be coaxed to behave in the manner that is desired. This contrasts with the fear-of-punishment technique, also known as the stick approach. For example, when a dolphin does something the trainer dislikes, it is completely ignored. When the 'right' moves are made, the trainer throws the bottle-nose mammal a reward, usually a fish or two. Sutherland then applies this observation to her own marriage, which can be rather amusing. Here's an illustration on one incident when her husband was getting frustrated about not finding his car keys. Instead of joining in the key-hunt, which throws in suspicions and careless accusations, this is what Sutherland did.

The answer is 'nothing.' Dolphin trainers, in fact all progressive trainers, reward the behavior they want and ignore the behavior they don't. So I'm ignoring behavior I don't want - Scott's rising temper. I don't even call out places to look. Rather, I, lips sealed, keep at the task at hand, rinsing a plate. At the sink, I hear my husband bang a closet door shut, rustle through papers on a chest in the front hall, and thump upstairs. I pop the plate into the dishwasher and rinse another. Then, sure enough, all goes quiet. A moment later, Scott strides into the kitchen, keys in hand,
and says calmly, 'Found them.'

Without turning, I call out, 'Great, see you later.' Off he goes with our much-calmed pup. The drama averted, I feel like I should toss him a mackeral, maybe toss myself one too. It's not easy thinking like an exotic animal trainer. (Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me..., 12-13)

Lesson for Life, Love and Marriage

  • We know that animals aren't perfect and are prepared to accept them as they are. Why not our human-to-human interactions?
  • Fear can be conquered. However, they need to be done gradually, just like the technique of habituation for animals.
  • Punishment is one of the worst ways to train as it can be very unreliable as far as animals are concerned. Rewards are better. This positive reinforcement is the major thrust of the whole book. One observation of parents is that they focus too much on stopping bad behavior of their children and forget about teaching their kids what they want (good behavior). If one can get people to behave, and at the same time make them happy, why not?
  • Looking the other way is another method of avoiding the use of the punishing stick. Interestingly, when one ignores unwanted behavior, chances are they will not be repeated, just like killer whales do not go on strike when a behavior is ignored.
What I learned About Positive Reinforcement
  • TIMING: Trainers know the right timing in order to motivate their animals. Animals link simultaneous behavior for they are creatures who live by the moment. Thus, it is important to link the desired behavior IMMEDIATELY with a reward, to encourage the animal to repeat the act. This is used in conjunction with a whistle, which is the main instrument to control timing. This is also applied to when to use the reward and when NOT to use it.
  • REWARDS WORK BETTER: Use positive reinforcement more.
  • SIZE MATTERS: Offer the smallest bit to entice the largest response. This keeps the animal hopeful for a larger reward next time.
  • MIX-IT-UP: Have multiple forms of rewards, the more the better. Animals do get bored sometimes. Likewise, it is good to have plenty of options to motivate people. For instance, ice-cream and candies can be used in conjunction with hugs and kisses, thrown in with a junk cruise. Use different training techniques when any one fails to produce results.
  • NOW YOU GET IT, NOW YOU DON'T: This is especially when new tricks are being taught. Trainers try not to be too predictable, and introduces a sense of mystery to the animals' curiosity. In other words, not every time the trainer is compelled to give the reward. Sometimes, the trainer will withhold the food and hint the animal to do it one more time.
  • KEEPING ONE HAPPY: Trainers often have to know the balance between food deprivation vs optimal/minimal food offering. That can be crucial when dealing with dangerous animals. Too hungry, they will rather bite the hand rather than the most delicious looking fish. Too quick too soon makes the creature lazy.
  • BABY STEPS: This is a rather perceptive technique. It is like learning the alphabets before we form words and sentences. In life, we too can benefit by making sure that we learn the basic blocks of communications in our understanding of one another, like vocabulary, the meaning of words we use and the various idiosyncrasies we all have.
One benefit I have learned from this book is the Least Reinforcing Scenario (LRS), the technique of ignoring negative behaviors. In a way, it is being able to cool tempers down without having to do anything substantial. In fact, ignoring unpleasant behavior, is one of the most effective ways to stop it altogether. This can also be applied to non-family members. If we don't like a stranger to look at us, don't stare back. He/She will eventually look away.

My Comments
The book is not rocket science. It is simple, practical and downright common sense in every sense of the word. Not everything the author prescribes should be seen as gospel truth. Yet, the same concept described can also be applied to the book. Whatever that works, use it. Reinforce it. Share it and broadcast it widely. Whatever that does not work for you, you can use the LRS by simply ignoring it. Like the author, I agree that life is full of surprises. Having said that, it is a very good reminder that it is often not the external event per se but OUR RESPONSE to it that sets the tone for all of our relationships. We can react to it, or simply ignore it. Thanks Sutherland. Thanks Shamu.


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