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I Obtained Educated Like Pavlov’s Canines—Then Issues Fell Aside


Rinnnggg! I learned to expect something nice when I heard that sound. Then things went south.

The Sound

When I first started out as a blogger in 2012, I used a hosting site called WordPress.com. Their smartphone app has a pleasant little notification sound effect. I soon learned that the app played the sound when I got comments, likes, or follows.

Here’s the sound effect.

The sound is an arpeggiated C major triad, in the 6/3 position, pitched high (the lowest note is E6 at 1,318 Hz), with a timbre resembling a celeste. For most people accustomed to Western music, it would be a fairly pleasant sound, a lot more pleasant than, say, a buzzer.

Positive Feedback for Blogging

Getting positive feedback is fun for any blogger. But when you are just beginning and have no idea whether anyone will want to read what you write, it’s thrilling to find out that someone likes it well enough to follow. Or when they simply press the Like button. Or the absolute best, when they leave a positive comment or a question.

I didn’t realize until I started blogging how important comments are. When you write, you put your stuff out there and hope people read it. Encouraging comments act as positive reinforcement. You want to publish more, and to do that you have to write more! It was a great feeling whenever I found out that something I wrote helped somebody and their dog.

I feel lucky (most of the time) to be a writer today when immediate feedback is possible. I think about the writers of yesteryear, for whom positive responses often came only after they were dead, if then. But I can write a post and get responses on the same day.

The Classical Association and How It Was Built

You can see where this is going, right? Here’s what happened when I first started blogging and got the WordPress app.

  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone followed the blog
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone made a positive comment
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
A hand holds a smartphone and a bunch of like and other symbols float in the air above it

Et cetera. We’ve got both operant and classical conditioning going on. That’s always true, but it’s especially easy to see in a situation like this. I look at my phone when I hear the chime and get reinforced for doing so. But I also get a great feeling about that chime.

The chime was meaningless the first time I heard it (a neutral stimulus) since I didn’t know what it predicted. After a few repetitions, it predicted social approval. After a couple dozen repetitions, I started getting a surge of happiness when I heard the chime!

This is one of the clearest examples to me that the stuff that goes on with our brains and emotions is chemical. I could feel happiness wash through me when the chime played. And you can bet that whenever possible, I grabbed my phone to see what had happened. The pleasure that had at first come from a like or a follow or a friendly comment had moved forward in time. It started surging in when I heard the chime—even before I saw what had arrived on the blog.

The WordPress.com notification sound is custom, not shared by other phone apps to my knowledge. It’s beneficial for their sound effect to stand out. For me, as the end user, it facilitated the classical conditioning. It meant that the pairing of “the chime” with “cheerful news about my blog” was completely consistent, so consistent and distinct that I could feel my body chemistry change when I heard it.

Expulsion from Eden: The Association Changed

Portion of Michelangelo painting Expulsion from Eden: A serpent with a woman's head is wrapped around a tree.
The serpent from Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Eden

So it was bound to happen, but I didn’t see it coming.

What happened when I got my first nasty comment on the blog?

I heard the chime and got the thrill of joyful anticipation. I looked at my phone to see what had happened. I got an eyeful of vitriol! My mind and body were primed for a treat, and I got hostility.

The happy brain cocktail had started, but cut off as I felt an unpleasant flush. My skin got prickly. A wave of nausea washed over me. I was upset and hurt.

I sound like a real baby, and maybe I am. But the above is the best description I can give of my feelings. And from my amateur observations, it may be similar to what my dogs go through when disappointed and hurt as well.

I had been floating along in a honeymoon period, and it was not in my mind that someone would respond unpleasantly. Too bad WordPress couldn’t assign a different sound to nasty comments, eh?

The important thing was that it only had to happen once to completely change my reaction to the sound.

The next time I heard the chime, I had an unpleasant dual reaction. I momentarily had the old response, then the new unpleasant one washed in. The prediction of good stuff no longer held, and the purity of the chime was history.

And worst of all, there was still a prediction! Something was waiting for me! But was it a nice thing or an icky thing?

My negative commenter didn’t leave right away, so the negative feelings started being my principal response and the joyful reaction faded. Instead of happily reaching for my phone with a slight sense of euphoria, I looked at it with dread.

The Association Changes Yet Again

Fast forward a few months. I had had no aggressive commenters for a while, so when I heard the chime, I usually looked forward to checking out what was going on. I would never regain the pure joy reaction, but the chime had moved back into the positive side again.

In June 2013, I got an email from the WordPress.com staff that one of my posts was going to be featured on Freshly Pressed, the daily WordPress showcase. It was thrilling to have a post chosen out of the millions published each day. They didn’t tell me the date of the feature in advance, but I knew exactly when it happened because the chime on my phone blew up. It went off constantly for more than an hour. Wow! My post had been showcased for a potential audience of millions. All sorts of people outside the dog training community, including other writers, read my post and many followed my blog!

The chime went off at a very high rate for more than a week, and there weren’t any comments that were exceptionally hard to deal with, so all was well.

Cans of Spam on a grocery shelf

But about a month later, I noticed something. The flurry hadn’t quite died down, but my new followers didn’t look like real people from their usernames. This took a while to sink in. But when most of the usernames were things like reebok4ever, vi_gracheap, and gucciandcoach, I started to get it that not everyone who followed the blog or liked a post was passionate about dog training. They were interacting on the blog for a different reason. These bots and spammers would like a post because their icon and a link to their website could appear in a list at the bottom of the page.

Soon most chimes were predicting these spammer likes and follows. They greatly outnumbered serious followers, and I wasn’t getting any comments. So the chime became meaningless. Why would I want to know when another non-entity followed the blog?

I turned off the chime.

Dogs

This post isn’t just about me.

As a human, I have a big cerebral cortex and some cognitive skills that are unknown to dogs. I can reason and predict and justify. But I experienced the change of the chime physically, and the switch from yay to yuck was very unpleasant. Dogs have similar neurological chemicals and reactions to those of humans. And I can only imagine what it would be like to go from trusting that something great was about to happen to finding out that I might get whacked, without the cognitive skills to understand what was happening.

This is the classical conditioning version of the operant poisoned cue. I’ve written about the effort I made to replace such a cue that was negatively affecting my dog. Now, when I establish a classical pairing, or assign a cue to a behavior, I make sure in both cases that they predict only good things. Not only for effective training, but to be fair and kind to my dogs.

Here’s an example of a situation that could have gone south, but I managed to not let that happen.

I reinforce my dogs generously for getting on their mats. Most times, the mat itself is the cue. I reinforce “offered” mat behavior. So little Zani, who ceaselessly sought goodies from me, decided when we first got up in the morning and headed to the back door to run ahead of me and lie down on every mat. She was such a clever little cuss. Trouble was, she got underfoot, and some mats were in my way. I caught myself many times wanting to fuss at her for plopping down in front of me on a mat. There I was, stumbling sleepily along. I thought, damn, she should know better!

A black and rust dog is lying on a navy blue mat holding a sports shoe and looking directly at the camera
Zani on a mat with a shoe: a double bid for reinforcement

But she was doing exactly what I had daily reinforced her for doing. Mats predicted nice things happening. I hadn’t put mat behavior on stimulus control. And I was the one who put the mats in the walkway.

I know I mashed up operant and respondent learning in that example. But it was mashed up in the chime example, too. I have reinforced my dogs for being on mats so much that mats are classically conditioned as good, happy places.

So did I really want to create a similar nasty experience for my dear little dog? Did I want to switch without warning from “mats predict great things” to “getting on a mat can make Eileen pissy”?

No. Never. I didn’t want to dilute the power of her cues. I wanted that happy brain cocktail for her as part of our interactions always. And I still want it for all my dogs.

Copyright 2013, 2022 Eileen Anderson

This post was first published in 2013 under the title “Goodie or Doodie: When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On.” I’ve rewritten it substantially.

Spam photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Angry Red Hammer Guy under this license. I cropped the photo, which originally showed that the Spam was misplaced in the Kosher section of a grocery store.

Serpent photo from Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain.

The smartphone illustration is from CanStock Photo.

The two photos of Zani are copyright Eileen Anderson.

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