Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Interesting reading

Now that Dempsey is napping, I've been catching up on my reading. In a case of synchronicity, I found two articles (one in the Times, and the other in the New Yorker) about self-control and success. Basically, researchers have found that children who have more self-control are more successul later in life.

Here's a description of the "marshmallow experiment" from the New Yorker, and the difference between two kids, Craig and Carolyn:

A researcher made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.

...Most of the children were like Craig. They struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children, however, were like Carolyn. They successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later.

...Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

I think this is very interesting, because what we're teaching Dempsey with clicker training is self-control. There might be an interesting leaf blowing by, but Dempsey is learning that it's better to sit still and concentrate on me rather than chase after the leaf. We never push Dempsey's butt down to make him sit. He needs to sit on his own. Ditto for the leash: We never use it to tug Dempsey in the right direction. He needs to bring himself to the right position. In other words, we never force Dempsey to do anything; we just make it attractive to him (with treats) to control himself.

A successful service dog is one who has self-control, so by practicing skills in distracting environments, we're helping Dempsey become a successful service dog. But there's a more interesting point: Self-control seems to make you a better learner. The researchers don't know how self-control is related to success, but I have a hypothesis: Self-control gives you the ability to concentrate and work towards goals.

I suspect this is why Dempsey seems like a genius to us (see the "push" demonstration below). By practicing concentration, we're making it easier for him to learn new skills. It would be interesting to do an experiment: See how long a puppy at twelve weeks can "watch" without being distracted, and see if that predicts how many repetitions it takes for him or her to learn a new behavior at sixteen weeks.

In the meantime, though, Dempsey will be waking up soon, and science will have to take a back seat to using the potty.

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