Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Getting What You Ask For

I train animals. To help me understand how to do that better and more efficiently, I study behavior science. My preferred method of training is based on Applied Operant Conditioning, to be specific, Clicker Training.

Behavior science tells us that successful behaviors are repeated. Hence I use the clicker as a bridging signal/secondary reinforcer to tell my horses and dogs the exact instant when they've done something right. This action on their part earns them a paycheck/primary reinforcer: a piece of carrot, a horse cookie, a cheese cube. Once they understand the rules of the game, they participate eagerly, learn very quickly, and never forget what they've learned.

It's possible using these methods to teach any critter to do anything it's physically able to perform, even if that behavior is far outside what we normally think of as typical for the species.

Judge retrieving a dumbbell at age 3

But training doesn't always progress smoothly. Sometimes behaviors other than what I'm looking for crop up and persist. That's when I have to take a step back and think about what I am actually reinforcing versus what I think I'm reinforcing.

Because the behavior you're getting is what you're really rewarding, no matter what you think you're doing instead.

So what does all this blathering have to do with gun laws?

Human societies are far more complex systems than the relationship between an animal trainer and her animals, but the same principles apply. Whatever behaviors members of those societies manifest are successful behaviors.

So if you're seeing a whole lot of behaviors you don't want, you can bet those behaviors are being rewarded, somewhere, somehow.

Crime and criminal violence are behaviors we absolutely don't want. When those behaviors increase, it's because they are successful for their perpetrators. The rewards are immediate: the stolen money, the stolen property, the "pleasure" of gratifying a sick desire to inflict pain and suffering.

Society is very fond of positive punishment. Investigating a crime ideally results in an arrest, a conviction, and appropriate sentencing. That's all well and good, but it all takes place well after the fact. Some investigations go on for months or years, and in the mean time there are no adverse consequences of their antisocial behavior for the criminals.

For punishment to work as a behavior-modification method, it must be a significant and immediate consequence of the behavior. No criminal commits a crime thinking he'll be arrested while he holds up the liquor store. But if he sees there's a good chance holding up the liquor store will get him shot, well, that's a clear disincentive.

Over and above the value of dangerous victims making criminals think twice, though, we need to look at how society rewards criminal activity. This post discussed how low reporting and arrest/conviction rates can factor in, but there's a lot more to explore.

Now can anyone please explain to me how making it more difficult and dangerous for people like me, law abiding citizens, to own guns and defend ourselves effectively increases the risk and reduces the rewards for criminals who attack us?


Lorimor said...

If you had a badge, you'd be alright. Can't have private citizens running around with these wild ideas of self defense. They might harm someone.

A badge guarantees competence. Everyone knows that. :)

Matt said...

Well said!

This fits in rather well with some of what Tim Harford argues in his book The Logic of Life about incentives for behaviour. Seems to me that more animal trainers and microeconomists should be running for office. :-)