Category Archives: Musings

Thinking inside the box

I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.

And carried on lecturing.

It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not.  It was very rare for anyone to.

So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’

Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.

The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).

The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.

The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.

The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.

I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.

I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.

I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.

Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it.  They might help each other, they might not.  An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,

When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.

It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it.   RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.

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