Bait and Wait?

In several earlier commentaries, I have discussed different aspects of shaping behavior by reinforcing successive approximations to the target response – essentially a behavior-analytic version of the children’s game of telling the child she is getting “warmer” or “colder” as she tries to “guess” what the other children have selected for her to find or do. There are technical details of shaping not captured by the children’s game, but they pale in comparison to the similarities.

Skilled shapers can accomplish the task with a few judiciously placed reinforcers, novices can take hours to accomplish the same thing. Like many things, skill comes with experience.

Inexperienced shapers and impatient ones often turn to other means to get behavior going. Sometimes rats are induced to lever press for food by smearing a glob of peanut butter on the lever, then installing the rat in the box. Instead of shaping the lever press, one simply  waits for the rat to activate the lever, thereby releasing a food pellet, by licking the peanut butter off of the lever. Hence, the title of this commentary. “Bait and wait” does get the lever activated, but it doesn’t necessarily yield the classic “downward force with front paw on the lever” form that one often sees in You-tube video clips. Rather, in extreme cases the rat looks as if it is licking or eating the lever, rather than pressing it.

Does this matter? After all, we are interested in function, and as long as whatever the rat is doing operates the lever so that a response is recorded, who cares what it looks like? This often is true. But there are many instances where form of the response does carry some cachet.  If you mispronounce French badly enough, for example, even though you have the “right” word, if no one can understand you, you are not going to get that yummy chocolate croissant/pain au chocolat (unless, of course, you either point or just grab, which is a whole other topography).  In serving the tennis ball, you may throw the ball high in the air, extend your torso and legs upward, hold the racket extended backward from your shoulder, and then bring that racket forward so that you get a nice “thwock” when it hits the ball. This is exactly what Serena Williams does when she serves. Or is it? The general form is like Serena Williams, but … “same” response or not?

All of this leads us to a narrow and a broad point about the importance of early training. Narrowly, form can make a difference in how behavior is controlled. Rats with odd lever-press topographies may be affected differently by contingencies than rats with more “typical” ones.  For example, sometimes high and low response rates may result in different effects of other variables, such as many behaviorally active drugs, like amphetamine or cocaine. Baiting and waiting may be efficient in the short term, but detrimental in the longer term. More broadly, imprecise and unsystematic ways of doing things yield imprecise and unsystematic behavior. Early training of behavior makes a huge difference in terms of the terminal performance. Give people poor training with few contingencies and little reinforcement and the outcome will not be pretty. Give them good systematic training in appropriate steps and with positive reinforcement for approximations to the terminal performance and the outcome more likely will be satisfying to all involved, teacher and learner alike. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.