Elephants can teach us something about reward systems

Recently Mari and I spent the weekend in lovely Tennessee and spent some time with the folks at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald. This sanctuary practices protected contact, which is a form of control that is based on trust instead of dominance over the animals. In circuses it’s typical to see a bullhook used whenever an elephant is performing – the audience can’t see the sharp spikes on it from where they sit, but it’s used during training to instill fear in the animals. Elephants perform because they know if they don’t they’ll be poked or pulled with the hook, which is painful. Protected contact eschews the use of tools like this in favor of positive reinforcement – using rewards when the animal does what the caregiver wants. It’s still a form of control, just a gentler, kinder form. In order to care for an elephant, the caregiver needs it to willingly come to the fencing, maybe put a foot through a hole in the fence for a pedicure for example.

Each elephant is different – each one has a favorite food, and the caregivers soon discover what that is (elephants love jelly beans, apparently). These “high value” rewards are used to give the elephants a big pat on the back for choosing to conform with the caregiver’s request.

After watching a training session with Tange, one of the African elephants, I asked the caregivers about rewards. “Do you ever get to the point with a behavior where you can skip giving the treat?” They looked at me curiously, and one of them answered that, while they can move from higher value treats to lower value treats over time, they never stop giving the treats.

This is one of the points that Alfie Kohn makes in his book, Punished by Rewards, which is about reward systems for humans, and how they end up being more about conformance (control) than performance. Once you start giving someone a reward for a behavior, you’d better be ready to keep giving out those treats, because once the rewards stop, the behavior stops. The carrot and stick approach delivers quick short-term results, but often comes with devastating unintended consequences.

While it was a joy to see these elephants living out the rest of their lives on 2700 acres of beautiful Tennessee wilderness, free from fear of the bullhook, it’s important to note that the caregivers here wish that there were no elephants in North America. They don’t believe that elephants belong in captivity, period. The only reason they use these techniques to gain conformance from these animals is to care for them. These elephants wouldn’t survive in the wild.

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