Animal Husbandry

It’s no secret that I love the Sunday New York Times.

First, I gloss over the front page. Wait, first I get a non-fat decaf latte from Teo, the best coffee/gelato place in Austin. Then I read the Week In Review section, to put all of the week’s news in perspective. Then I get all depressed and cheer myself up by reading the Sunday Styles section, especially my favorite column, Modern Love, a weekly essay on love and all the different shapes it takes and trials it causes in this day and age.

The articles are always great, very specific, often confessional, and you get to take a look inside someone’s world. The last week of June there was an article “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” By Amy Sutherland. The author is a writer who was doing a story on animal training and started applying the principles she learned from the animal training to her own marriage, essentially training her husband. This article has been a sensation. It has stayed on the “Most Emailed Articles” of the New York Times list for almost a month, something virtually unheard of. And it recieved a lot of letters to the editor. Sutherland has surely struck a chord.

The basic technique of animal training she describes is something that I feel like I’ve been aware of for years. Something I’ve used in training improvisers as well as training the people in my life in how I want to be treated. The rules are somewhat simple. Sutherland writes,

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

But you don’t reward only totally successfull behavior, you reward any behavior that is a step closer to behavior that you want. Again, Sutherland

I was using what trainers call “approximations,” rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. 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.

In improv training, I use the same tactics. People take small steps towards success and I try to reward them with praise and laughter every step of the way. If a performer has a habit of talking too much on stage, if they enter a scene silently, I might say “Yes! Keep going!” although they appear to be doing nothing. Then when they want to start speeking I’ll say nothing. But the next moment of prolonged silence, I’ll reward them again. “Yes! Even less” After their next line I might even say, “Long pause, don’t even say anything.” And as they simply follow instructions, I reward them. “Good. Yes. Excellent.”

And when moderately negative behavior crops up, the trainer either is non-responsive to trains the subject to do an “incompatible behavior” instead. So instead of saying, “don’t do this” you say “do this instead” and offer a suggestion of a second activity that is incompatible with the first. For example, if everyone in warmups is talking and joking around and not being focused, instead of saying, “Let’s get quiet and focus,” which makes me seem like a real stinker, I can say, “Everyone move your tongue all around the inside of your mouth.” And suddenly the room is silent and everyone is focused on warming up their face.

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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