Quit Moralizing your Preferences

I prefer ketchup on my french fries and corn dogs.  My husband and two boys prefer mustard. On corndog night I hear this, “Mom’s a derp eating ketchup on her fries.” (yeah, “derp”….thanks Youtube).  My kids are moralizing their preferences.

There’s a difference between morals and preference, yet in our society we tend to generalize, and the lines between the two become blurred.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Definition of moral

1 a :of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior

Definition of preference

1 a :the act of preferring :the state of being preferred

b :the power or opportunity of choosing

Morals are the principles of right and wrong.  Preferences are the principles of choice. It seems to go south when we decide that something we prefer is the only right thing.

We hit on this a little bit in our post about only being better than yourself, but I think it’s worth reviewing the concept.  In animal care it’s easy to blur the lines between morals and preferences, between right and wrong, and choice.

I’m going to give you two examples:

Example #1: The Toe-hold

When working with parrots, there are two schools of thought. School one believes that holding the toes of a parrot on your hand is okay and is a good thing for safety. Many toe-holders have birds that aren’t confident or capable fliers, work their birds in dangerous areas, or just prefer having a safety net. Some of the birds are conditioned for this because it’s happened to them their entire lives and some were trained to offer their foot under the trainers’ thumb using positive reinforcement.

School two believes that toe-holding restricts choice and isn’t necessary. Many flat palmers have birds that are confident and capable fliers, but they also have some that are not. The birds are free to test their wings when desired, but enjoy staying with the trainer because that’s where all the reinforcement is. Trainers in this school of thought know relationship is one of the most important parts of keeping their birds on their hand.

So who’s wrong? Are the toe-holders morally wrong? Are they abusing their animals by restricting their movement and taking away the animals choice to fly or flee? Or are the flat palmers morally unjust? Are they risking innocent animals’ lives by putting them in danger of crash landings or worse?

It sounds silly right? Well I hope it does, but before we get to why, let’s talk about another example.

Example #2 One to one schedule of reinforcement

When it comes to reinforcing your animals there are tons of reinforcers, multiple different schedules, and lots of opinions on which is best. The major divide looks a little like this; on one side of the fence you have the one-to-one ratio trainers. They believe that every correct response and every bridge should be followed by a primary reinforcer. If you bridge without feeding you weaken the strength of your bridge and risk making it meaningless. They argue that if you bridge and don’t feed a correct response you’re still on a 1-to-1 schedule because your bridge is a conditioned reinforcer.

On the other side of the fence are the VRRV (variable ratio reinforcement schedule, with reinforcement variety), variable interval trainers, and lots of trainers who just don’t follow every bridge with a primary reinforcer, but don’t care what you call it. They believe that variety builds solids behaviors, they reference the slot machine example, arguing that pulling that slot machine is so fun exactly because it doesn’t pay out every time. It’s certainly more fun than going to work everyday where we know there’s a guaranteed paycheck.

So who’s wrong here? Who’s right? Clearly one side is ethically awful and will likely never achieve results because they are so wrong. Right?

Okay, please tell me it sounds silly. The toe holders and the 1-to-1’s have great behaviors, excellent relationships with their animals, and accomplish awesome things. The VRRV trainers and the flat palmers are successfully doing shows across the country and training animals for complex medical behaviors. All types are trainers are having successes and all types of trainers are having failures.

When it comes to training, your best bet in my opinion, is to know as much about all the different methods, schedules, and theories as possible. You should know the most about your animal: personality, natural history, preferences. You should know everything you can about your team, situation, facility, and circumstances. Why? So you can make the best decisions possible for you, your animal, and your team.

You might hold the toes of one parrot and flat palm another one. You might use 1 to 1 reinforcement with one tiger and VRRV schedule with the other. Use what you understand and what works for you and your animal. When you decide what works best for you don’t moralize your preference. Remember that we’re all different and that’s GOOD!


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