Yesterday it was that time again: A letter in an ugly yellowed, official looking envelope had to be received by the letter carrier personally and the receipt had to be acknowledged. Not a good sign. Inside was the fine notice from the fine authority in Speyer (Real? There I was?) saying I had to pay 128.80 euros, and that 20 euros more had been assessed because of similar offenses in the past. (I don’t know anything, my name is Hase.) And I would get one point in Flensburg on my rally account. Crap. I was annoyed ca. three minutes, then I forgot about the letter because I had other things to do. As a reminder to pay the bill on time, it now lies next to the laptop waiting for further processing.
I’m doing what I think makes sense
A short time later I got into the car because I had an appointment. I was driving on one of the main roads in Constance, where 60 km/h is allowed. On this section there are 2 speed cameras. I know that one of them doesn’t seem to be in operation because a few days ago I drove over it a bit late in the morning at 75 km/h without anything happening. The other one can easily endure 70 km/h without tripping. Most other drivers slow down long before the speed cameras, most drive under 60, more like 50 km/h for fear of the new menacing looking black devices. My sporting ambition, however, is to show them that no danger is imminent. So I step on the gas, overtake and kitzele out the maximum to prove: Look here, you snoreheads, you don’t have to obstruct the flow of traffic at an annoying 50 km/h. You can go faster. Immediately after the speed cameras I accelerate of course. But I never drive faster than 80 km/h here. We’re talking about an expressway with no pedestrians on it and no other reasons lurking why it would not be very safe to speed here. So I decide that the city’s decision to force people down to 60 mph is stupid, and adjust my speed as I think is right.
What is punishment is defined by the recipient
I do all this without giving a thought to the letter I have on my laptop at home. Yes. We don’t have to discuss that my behavior is wrong because I disobey the rules. It is. And that’s not what this is about. The point here is that the punishment that Father State is imposing on me is not a punishment for me. If it were one, yes I would learn and ergo change my behavior by sticking to the speed limits in the future. If the letter had said 1280 Euro instead of 128, it would have been a fine – at least for the next months – and I would have made sure to stay well-behaved (at least in and around Speyer). I really don’t know what I was doing there). So, from a learning theory point of view, punishment is something that only the recipient defines.
Doing what is worthwhile
Now here’s the thing, I naturally tend to be one of those somewhat impulsive people who just like to drive fast. It is fun for me. I also enjoy tricking the system with stupid speed cameras, just as I never pull a parking ticket on principle. I like the thrill. And Sunday drivers drive me crazy and make me drive faster per se – as if I have to compensate for their slowness. I take it sportive that I sometimes lose the game. So my behavior is highly self-rewarding! Now, if someone wants me to follow the rules, he has to convince me that driving slower is more rewarding than driving fast. He must change my motivation, my emotion. A person who just likes to drive slow on their own will never have this problem.
It often pays to trick the system
So to be able to stop a dog that likes to hunt, for example, by scolding him for it, is an illusion. Because the dog loves to do it, and he will become – just like me – very resourceful in tricking "the system" to satisfy his need. Keeping a dog that doesn’t hunt from hunting, on the other hand, is of course much easier😉 But if the dog that likes to hunt were now given a punishment that he would also perceive as a punishment AND that he would associate with his behavior, then there might be a chance of success – for the next while, at least. So if I electrocute the dog WHILE chasing (while speeding my passenger hits me on the back of the head EVERY TIME, so I’m really impressed), he might give up chasing for a while (at least in this environment, in a new environment it would probably need a new electrocution). Similar to my case, however, that I would eventually get over the 1280 euros or the headache and fall back into my old, self-rewarding behavior, the dog will eventually resume hunting – because he still enjoys it in the end:
If he felt safe because he wouldn’t have a teletype device on his body (no passenger).
If he would not have been punished for a long time, because he would have restrained himself (self-control, not to push the gas pedal).
If his human would not notice anything (no police car, no speed camera, no passenger in sight).
If I would hit a person while driving too fast, everything would change: I would probably never get into a car again. I suffered a trauma that would change my inner motivation in such a way that the old behavior would never occur again. But I also would never be the same.
I can also punish a dog so much for something that it breaks inside and it can’t show the behavior anymore.
The desire to follow rules
My unfortunate behavior of always driving a little too fast and interpreting speed limits in principle as having at least 10 % upward leeway could only change permanently if I suddenly no longer felt any desire to be faster than the others, to drive quickly, to trick the system. I should enjoy following the rule, and it shouldn’t cost me any impulse control to have to restrain myself permanently. It would have to be worth it for me to drive slower every time. How this might look in practice, I don’t know now. Here the creativity of the system would be needed.
How I motivate a dog not to chase and to have fun with it is – depending on the characteristics – not easy either, but definitely easier than convincing me to drive slower. The desire of my dogs to eat these damnable horse droppings is probably even greater than my desire to drive quickly. BUT: To change the behavior just needs some creativity of the owner. If the dog understands that it is worthwhile not to hunt, then he will not hunt. If the dog understands that it is more rewarding to display a horse apple instead of eating it, he will not eat it anymore. If the dog understands that it is worthwhile not to jump up, not to bark, not to run into the leash, not to scold, not to chew the best shoes – then he will leave it in favor of the more rewarding behavior. If we humans would internalize this law of learning theory, then our focus in dealing with ourselves and also with our dogs or other animals would be much more on the reward. Our first impulse should be to reward good behavior instead of allowing wrong behavior to emerge and then punishing it. Because punishment is in many cases nothing else than the illusion of success.
And as for me: I pay my fine. And try to take more time when driving and relax. Yes, honestly. Because she always tried hard… (until the next Sunday driver turned the corner…).
And this is how you teach your dog to indicate a horse apple instead of eating it: