Friday, July 14, 2006

Another Application for Behavioral Theory

It's easy to see why the "Modern Love" column, "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," in The New York Times is among those articles most e-mailed to friends three weeks after it first appeared. It is well written and funny and illuminating about her attitude toward her husband Scott, and says something about how married people learn to live with each other's quirks and habits (or don't).

In the piece, writer Amy Sutherland tells of how she learned to reshape her husband Scott's annoying behaviors by studying the techniques that animal trainers use to get their subjects to do tricks. She writes:

"The central lesson I learned ... 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."

Parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder, those who are familiar with applying classic behavior theories to help their kids comply with ordinary demands, adapt to situations and learn, know what's coming next. Sure enough, Amy goes home and ignores Scott's tantrums about losing his keys, and kisses him when he puts dirty clothes in the hamper. "When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott," she writes. "Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and ... considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his."

I realize that this humorous column is nothing like living with a child on the spectrum. But I hope the knowledge that others try to coax better behaviors out of the people they love by using these classic techniques can make you smile.

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