I am always curious about why we act the way we act. Understanding how socialization works is a key component of sociology, and I stumbled across an article that provides some interesting insight into how we shape and are shaped by others.

One of the most emailed stories at the New York Times today is titled “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” by Amy Sutherland (apparently it orginally appeared June 25, 2006). In it Sutherland reports that she had been doing research on how exotic animal trainers are able to get animals to do what they want them to do. She decides there might be some lessons there for shaping her partners actions. She writes:

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.

Providing some more specifics she goes on to write:

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.

She goes on to write about other techniques she attempts and seems quite pleased at the results. In the end she reports that she did share these lessons with her husband and found that he turned around and used them on her as well.

It raises some interesting questions about the ways in which we might shape the actions of others. I suspect that some might also raise questions about the analogy of using animal training techniques to shape the actions of others. I confess that I also wondered if people might respond differently to the article if the author were male and he was talking about his wife.