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What a rat taught me about creating successful relationships
by Graeme J. Davidson,
29 July 2006

Don’t expect miracles in a couple of days. You’re training your partner by rewarding appropriate behaviour so that you gradually shape the way he or she behaves.

..... Leaving dirty dishes lying about, backseat driving, taking control of the TV remote – common enough behaviour, but it might be driving you crazy. And when you complain you’re accused of nagging. You insist your polite requests are reasonable and all you do is inflame the situation. An insidious build-up of annoying little habits and inconsiderate acts is busily undermining your relationship.
...L Before you dump your partner in the recycling bin and search for that illusive and elusive better model, here’s something I learned about creating successful relationships – from a rat of the four-legged variety
.
...L As part of a psychology degree, we had to train these little critters to learn a complicated maze. The rest of the class put their rodents on a diet and rewarded them with food when they did the right move. I’m a rebellious softie. I couldn’t bear to deprive little Jezebel, as I called my lab rat, of anything basic to her wellbeing.
...L Yet Jezebel learned that maze faster than the other rats. Did she have a higher rat IQ? Maybe. But the secret to Jezebel coming top of the class was rewarding her with strokes and lots of attention when she made a right move. And when she made a wrong turn, I ignored those actions. Jezebel was one highly motivated rat.
...L Does it work with humans?
...L Definitely. Just think of your partner as a Jezebel. Instead of nagging and getting into a huff for the thousandth time the dirty dishes clutter the kitchen, do nothing and give gentle praise or a little hug when your partner actually puts something in the dishwasher. If it’s nagging about your driving, bite your tongue and say nothing. Only praise your partner for warning of an emergency. Similarly, respond positively when your partner shows signs of noticing how you feel.
...LDon’t expect miracles in a couple of days. You’re training your partner by rewarding appropriate behaviour so that you gradually shape the way he or she behaves. And remember not to negate your efforts with an “about time” snide comment or undermine your partner’s efforts by rearranging the dishes in the dishwasher because the stacking is below your expectations.
...LIt may be tempting to use punishment to speed the process – like shaming your partner in front of friends, withholding the car keys or denying sex until the dishwasher is stacked properly.
...LDespite our protests that the psychology department was cruel to rats and turning us into torturers, as part of our study we did have to apply mild electric shocks to see how effective punishment was at modifying rodent behaviour.
...LIt worked, but not as well as the positive reinforcement. And here’s the interesting bit. When I stopped giving Jezebel punishment, she quickly reverted to her old behaviour. It was as if the lack of punishment now gave her permission to do what I had just taught her not to do.
...LSo, if you’ve used punishment as your training method and then go away for a few days, expect your partner to relish the freedom to leave those dirty dishes lying about until a few moments before you walk in the door. Also, he or she will probably resent being manipulated through punishment and call you nasty things like bully, control freak – or worse – which is going to add to the angst and scuttle chances of a successful relationship.
...LWhen I forced her to make a choice, Jezebel preferred mild electric shocks to neglect from me. In fact, she squeaked pathetically and pushed a bar to give herself shocks until I stroked her. In this experiment, she’d learned that my conditional love came only after she’d suffered abuse.
...LThe implication for human relationships is obvious. Some of us have learned to expect neglect and abuse in order to get the attention and love we crave. But because a partner accepts abuse doesn’t mean it’s right.
...LWhen I ignored Jezebel’s incorrect moves in the maze and reinforced her correct ones, she excelled. When I neglected her unless she suffered, her behaviour focused on getting affection even if it meant abuse.
...LSo, Jezebel proves it’s sometimes best to ignore those little irritating things that otherwise pile up and sidetrack a relationship. But if, in return, your loved one ignores, trivialises or abuses your gestures of love, you may need to seek help in dealing with an unethical rat of the two-legged kind.


 

 

 

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