Accentuate the Positive

I wrote a blog post similar to this about 4 years ago. It’s a great reminder post, so if you are feeling nostalgic for retro ZooFit (before it was called ZooFit, even), definitely check it out.

When it comes to learning, consequences dictate behavior. Punishment decreases the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring again, while reinforcement increases the likelihood of behavior.

For training, whether it’s animals, children, or ourselves, the science is pretty clear on which method is most effective in stimulating learning, motivation, and empowerment. To learn new habits, to build a trusting relationship with ourselves, and to build momentum, using positive reinforcement is the best choice.

This isn’t just feel good mumbo jumbo hippie talk. Business professionals, researchers, psychologists, zookeepers, and many other professions are seeing the benefits of positive reinforcement in their daily lives. In the workplace, businesses are recognizing the damage punishment wreaks on their relationship with colleagues and productivity of their company.

Positive reinforcement training revolutionized how animals are provided care, in zoological facilities, and in our own homes. Gone are the methods of putting the fear of God in our furry friends. Our relationships are based on trust, something which would never be possible without positive reinforcement.

Many zoos give daily animal training demonstrations. If you watch them carefully, you will notice a sort of cadence between animal and trainer. This is based off of years working together. There is a lot of trust between the two species, because that trainer uses only positive reinforcement when dealing with their animal. It doesn’t matter if it’s an elephant, a lion, an eagle, or a mouse. Without trust, there is no training. Without the positive relationship, there is no care.

It sounds pretty black and white, but I want this to be perfectly clear. Punishment is not used unless there is absolutely positively NO OTHER OPTION. That is the truth to animal training in this day and age. I don’t care what else you have read, what documentary you watched, or article claiming zoos are cruel to animals. I have been in the field for nearly twenty years, and not once have I ever seen punishment used to make an animal perform.

Instead, I see a symbiotic relationship between species, working together in harmony to better this world and better themselves. I see animals empowered to make choices of their own, and trainers looking for ways to make the lives of the animals in their care better. I see progress recognized, success celebrated, and animal welfare go through the roof from positive reinforcement training.

Imagine using this method. Where instead of feeling guilty for skipping the gym, you focus on your successes. Imagine not having to start working out hard core for one hour every day, but can start with 5 minutes. Where you reward your effort to drink enough water, meal prep, or get enough sleep, instead of telling yourself that’s what you should be doing and not acknowledging these achievements.

With positive reinforcement, you will celebrate the idea of losing 4.5 pounds. Yes, you still have that half-pound to reach your goal.  But when you focus on your achievements instead of your failures and shortcomings, you are no longer bogged down by the task. It becomes a fun game. I call it the video game mentality and I’ve seen it with every single person I’ve trained. “I didn’t get there” becomes “I’m not there YET”. You never lose the game, you just keep playing until you reach your goal.

Positive reinforcement also motivates animals and people to excel and go beyond their expectations.

In training, it’s a game to the animals where they figure out what it is we are trying to convey to them. Once they figure out the rules (touch this target pole and get a treat), it is GAME ON! The light bulb goes on and they can’t WAIT to show you what else they have up their sleeves (paws, fins, whatever).

The same is with fitness. Using positive reinforcement, I taught a member of my gym to do box jumps. She didn’t get cookies or money every time she succeeded, but she got quite a bit of praise and encouragement. Starting from step-ups, my participant told me she wanted to do box jumps. But worried she couldn’t “at her age”. Psssh! Age-shmage.

I took a 45-pound plate and place it on the ground. The 2-foot jump was super easy for her, but I still used lots of praise. “That was great, in fact, you made that look easy. Want to add another plate?”

Within one class period, my participant was jumping 8 inches off the ground onto a pile of bumper plates. Each time, she received lots of reinforcement from me and her classmates. Now, when box jumps are programmed, she gets excited and stacks her bumper plates. Each class, she stacks them just a smidge higher. “I want to jump on an actual box sometime.” I have no doubt she will. And soon.

Because positive reinforcement was employed, my participant was motivated to not just try a box jump instead of step-up, but she was empowered to push herself to see how far she could go.

It’s not just having a positive report with your gym coach. It’s about changing your whole mindset. Using positive reinforcement, and operant conditioning in general, you can turn working out from a chore to something you cherish. It’s an incredible journey, and one that will change your life, and possibly help change the world.

So, be positive. Set your goals high, and let’s go have some fun.

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