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Episode 213: Joe Layng Pt 2: Degrees of Freedom and Degrees of Coercion

This is part 2 of our conversation with Dr Joe Layng. Dr Layng has over 40 years' experience in the experimental and applied analysis of behavior, with a particular focus on the design of teaching/learning environments. In part 1 we began our discussion of degrees of freedom with a description of an experiment that was done with pigeons. The pigeons were given an electric shock every time they pecked a key, but instead of avoiding the key, they continued to press it. And in fact, if they were blocked from pressing the key, they became upset. We could easily look at this and think this is crazy. Why are these birds engaging in such a costly and unpleasant behavior? The answer was not that mysterious. The key presses were on a schedule. Keep pressing the key and you get food. Don’t press the key and go hungry. This study opened our discussion of degrees of freedom.

In Part 2 Joe helps us understand more clearly the concept of critical consequences and he shows how expanding the degrees of freedom can help handlers understand more clearly the factors that are effecting the behavior we see. This is critical if we want to understand our horse’s preferences. When a horse says “No” to cues you know he understands well, why is he making this choice? And what can you do to turn a “No” response into a “yes” answer?

Degrees of freedom are one side of a coin. Degrees of coercion is the other side. The degrees of freedom is inversely related to degrees of coercion. The more degrees of freedom you have, the less coercion you have. Joe unpacks this statement with some interesting examples of human behavior. It’s an important reminder that a handler can be using positive reinforcement procedures and still be coercing behavior by limiting choice.


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