Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I’ve been around cats most of my life. My Mom had cats and when I got married my wife had cats and over the years we taken in quite a few, housing as many as 10 at a time. We also have taken in a lot of rescue kitties of all ages. We’ve rehabilitated some and found new homes for them, provided hospice care for others and had to put a few down due to age, injury or disease. Cats, in other words, are a big part of my life. (That’s why all the lolcat pictures. We’re always taking pictures of them as well. The one that shows up in most of my lolcat pictures is Germanicus, a one year old pure bred Turkish Van and general hell raiser.)
If you’re familiar with cats, you already know that they are solitary creatures and that one of their primary personality features is that, unlike dogs, they have no hierarchy and therefore no need to please. What makes this important is that despite this, cats still need to be trained not to bite and claw, not to jump on the table, to come when they’re called (sort of) and other sundry things that involve not destroying property or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves.
If you try to train a cat by using punishment, you will end up with a very nasty and/or unsociable animal. Cats don’t know how to be submissive and they will respond to punishment in one of two ways: Either they will flee or they will fight. What they won’t do is learn the lesson you wanted to teach to them. Continue to punish a cat and it will either leave permanently if it can, hide all day and only come out for food in the dead of night or worse, it will hang around, but attack anyone who comes near it.
The key to training a cat is to make sure that behavior adjustments aren’t triggering fear responses. If they are annoyed, pissed off or frustrated that’s ok, but they must not be afraid. When one of the cats we were rehabilitating started tormenting one of our other cats, I didn’t swat him when I caught him in the act, I just grabbed a shirt, blanket, pillow or whatever I could grab and put it in his face and started slowly pushing him backwards with it. This sort of thing is really annoying to cats and sends a clear message, but it doesn’t scare them. Consequently, they’re more likely to learn from it.
Because cats do not fear this technique, it doesn’t lead to behavior problems. They are far more likely to obey a simple voice command in the future because they are not afraid of me.
Once a cat is in fear, that is all they focus on and all of their responses will be fear based. In addition to being a horrible teaching tool for cats, punishment does something else to the little furry critters. It sucks the joy out of them. Happy cats are fun. They snuggle, they play, they get along with other animals and they run around and have a good time and many of them make cute little noises. You can see it in their body language and in their eyes as they walk by casually rubbing up against you or coming out to greet you when you get home.
This is the lesson that cats teach us about being punished. Without a need for attention and with no need to please, they react to punishment in a very straightforward way and this gives us a window into the actual effectiveness of punishment. You see, just because dogs have a need to please does not mean that they are handling punishment any better; it’s just that it is masked somewhat by their loyalty and submissiveness.
The difference between training and punishment is whether the conditioning evokes a fear based response. Shouting for example, does no physical harm, but it is almost guaranteed to evoke a fear response all the same and is therefore punishment.
One thing I noticed is that preventing a fear response is crucial to fast and effective training and since punishment evokes fear, it is a bad method. And if this is the case in dealing with cats, it’s probably the case in dealing with other animals and with humans as well. If the goal is training, then punishment is not the answer.
Punishment leads to the land of unintended consequences. Cats and dogs get anti-social, children turn to self destructive behavior and when it is played out on a domestic or international stage it can and does backfire in devastating ways, such as the rise of Hitler after the punishing treaty of Versailles or in the form of the never ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our method of dealing with drug abuse for example, is based on punishment and no other domestic program in the history of the United States has been such a dismal and on going failure. From the beginning of prohibition to the present day, all it has done has funded organized crime which, having no legal recourse to settle disputes resorts to violence; Drug users and low level dealers go to prison (while the wealthy and powerful dealers go free) and having other opportunities denied to them are far more likely to resort to crime later in life. At no point in our history has this diminished either the flow of drugs or the demand. So while the intended goal of punishment for drug use has been to reduce the overall use of certain drugs we have not only not met this goal but have also spawned an increase in criminal activity. This has not changed in 100 years.
Another example of this is the abortion debate. Punishing people for either performing abortions or having them has been demonstrated by history to be a futile exercise. Abortions are going to happen and it’s best not to criminalize it. Yet this is not the only way to reduce the number of abortions and if we look at preventing unwanted pregnancies through education and increasing income we find that there isn’t the same conflict there.
While we are vastly different from most animals on an intellectual level, I don’t think we are all that different on an emotional one. We can learn from cats that punishment is basically an uncreative fear based response and in choosing this as our favored method of behavior modification we greatly reduce our chances of getting the outcome we want. As long as we are focused on punishment we are almost always overlooking better and more creative solutions to the behavior modification that we seek.