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Shamu and the Happy Marriage

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Want to change your spouse's behavior? Reward desired action and ignore the undesirable.

Last week my husband sent me an article from the New York Times entitled "What Shamu Taught Me about a Happy Marriage" by Amy Sutherland. Hint: It had nothing to do with taking a vacation or sitting in the soak zone! (For those of you who aren't natives of southern California or in other ways amusement-park savvy, Shamu is the famous performing whale at San Diego's Sea World.)

In some ways it was a strange article for a man to send to his wife. It's about how Ms. Sutherland learned to apply the techniques used in training exotic animals to effect behavioral change in her husband. Was he sending it to me as a point of intellectual interest, or did he think my current strategies of screaming and sulking could use some improvement?

The animal trainers seem to employ basic behavior modification techniques, a simple idea that Maimonides espoused 1500 years ago but one that frequently loses out to good old-fashioned nagging. While behavior modification does effect lasting change, it is a slow process. It's the difference between quick, fad diets (grapefruit anyone?) and a slower adjustment to healthier foods and smaller portions. The weight doesn't drop off as quickly, but it usually doesn't come back.

Ms. Sutherland cites the central lesson as rewarding desired behavior and ignoring the undesirable.

The rewarding part is, I think, easier. The technique of choice is something called "approximations" -- rewarding each step in the right direction. (This works with children too, and with wives!) Just as seals don't move in one fell swoop from swimming peacefully in the ocean to balancing balls on their noses (a lot of small fish are consumed along the way), so too our spouses don't move from leaving dirty laundry on the floor to wash, dry, fluff and fold -- not overnight anyway.

So we express appreciation for each action. You threw one sock in the hamper? Terrific. Two? You're the man. (Okay, that's slightly exaggerated, but you get the picture.) As any smart wife knows, her respect for her husband is crucial to him and experiencing her praise will lead to more of the same behavior. This is the easy part.

The more difficult challenge is when behavior just needs to be ignored, when the solution is keeping our mouths shut. As all studies in this field of psychology demonstrate, if a behavior is reinforced intermittently, rats (and people) will continue the behavior. And the reinforcement does not have to be positive; hence the frequent negative attention-seeking behavior of our children -- and our spouses.

So in eliminating undesirable behavior -- it doesn't have to be bad character, it could just be something you personally find annoying -- the best strategy is to ignore it. The animal trainers call it L.R. S. -- least reinforcing syndrome.

This doesn't require the studied creativity and careful wording of the approximations that led to slow, positive behavioral change. It requires something much harder: keeping our mouths shut. Not shouting, "I can't believe you lost your glasses again." No sighs of frustration either. And most certainly avoiding a descent into a silly fight that chips away at our marriage. We have this compulsion to respond to every situation. But sometimes just saying and doing nothing is the winningest strategy. Just smile and remain silent.

Just ask the animal trainers. If they can prepare walruses and sea otters for leading roles in their stage productions -- and they can (don't make me tell you how many times I've seen the show!), then surely we, the more intelligent species, can benefit from these skills. I may actually go back to Sea World this summer -- just for educational purposes of course. And with the right amount of slow reinforcement, I may even convince my husband, who has sworn off amusement parks after trip #137.


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