Today, I would like to summarize the key points from a wonderful article I read in the NYT entitled “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” by Amy Sutherland. The piece is about what Sutherland learned about training techniques by observing professional exotic animal trainers – and how she then applied those techniques to her husband. It is one of the most-emailed NYT articles ever, and eventually led to a book which was published in February 2008.

There’s much ink spilt on how you shouldn’t try to change your romantic partner, and instead of should accept them for who they are. As anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship can understand, you can both wholly love someone while enjoying some of their peccadilloes and being constantly irritated by other habits and mannerisms they have. Whether your SO is on team over or team under is not a core part of their personality.

The core principles Sutherland presents are the following:

  • Principle 1: Reward positive behavior, provide no cues on negative behavior. Reinforcing desired behavior through rewards comes naturally to us. “Blanking” on negative behavior, on the other hand, is not as obvious – our first instinct is to give corrective feedback. The “Least Reinforcing Syndrome” is based on the idea that any response – positive or negative – can fuel behavior. In animal training, the blank response looks like instituting a brief two or three second pause when the animal engages in an undesired behavior. This is quickly followed up with an easy opportunity for it to earn reinforcement. Note that the pause is different from ignoring or turning away, as any movement or change can be interpreted as a (behavior-reinforcing) cue. With humans, a pause would be socially awkward, so Sutherland simply ignore her husband’s negative behavior.

  • Principle 2: Use approximations. This mean rewarding small, incremental behavior that can be aggregated into a complete desirable behavior. Sutherland writes: “With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.”

  • Principle 3: Use incompatible behaviors. Instead of teaching a trainee to not engage in an undesired behavior, teach them a behavior that makes the undesired behavior impossible. As a relationship example, she mentions how she stopped her husband from crowding her when she was cooking by giving him sous-chef tasks like vegetable prep, with a station already set up for him at the other end of the kitchen.

These are simple and powerful techniques, and Sutherland says her efforts had a “magical” effect on her relationship satisfaction: “After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love.”

If the idea of using animal training technique on your loved ones gives you an ethical pause, you’re not alone. It evoked in me much the same reaction as the Hidden Brain episode on judgment-free learning that described how Martin Levy, an orthopedic surgeon at Montefiore Medical Center in NYC, used clicker training with his students and thereby dramatically improved their learning outcomes. On the one hand, good teaching techniques are good teaching techniques, irrespective of the species being taught and the context in which the teaching is taking place. On the other, there’s something about disconcerting about applying dolphin training tricks to your romantic partner.

The training techniques that Sutherland and Levy espouse arose from constraints specific to working with animals, the most significant of which is that we don’t have a common language to provide specific feedback. Working around this constraint may have resulted in something even better. Our words – either of praise or of rebuke – can be layered with (or perceived to be layered with) emotion and/or judgement in a way that a click or a pause is not. Ultimately, whether we regard these methods as demeaning or dehumanizing is a matter of what we’re used to, coupled with fairly arbitrary social norms. If these training techniques originated in pre-schools instead of at amusement parks, we would certainly feel differently about applying them to our partner.

In what way do you envision these technique being useful in your own relationships? And do you have any ethical qualms about employing these techniques with your significant other?