Doing What Comes Naturally: Shaping

The WiFi connection in my apartment is not the greatest. When I try to use my various gadgets for connecting to the internet from my bedroom, the service often cuts out, leaving me suspended outside cyberspace. I have learned, however, that there are certain ways of holding my devices while lying in bed that allow me better access than others. So, naturally, I find myself lying in contorted positions so that I can savor the many pleasures of the world beyond my bedroom door.

Now, consider the goldfish in this short clip.

It has been trained to push the soccer ball into the net. This is not rocket science. It is a commonplace occurrence in zoos, amusement parks, wild animal parks, circuses, and, yes, even in people’s homes. I once had a talented graduate student who had trained his golden retriever to, on command, go to the ‘fridge, open the door, and retrieve a beer for its thirsty owner. And here are the instructions for teaching your cat to sit on the toilet instead of using a litter box:

So, what do the events in paragraphs one and two above have in common? Both involve the process of behavior shaping. In the latter paragraph, the shaping is direct and intentional. It is in the former, too. The only difference is that the “shaper” in the latter case is a person and in the former it is simply the circumstances of the environment. Which is to say, there is no real or functional difference between the two.

Both we and the environment shape all the time. Shaping often takes the form of the children’s game “you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder” when we teach its simple principles to others. Basically you start with what you have and with the target or final behavior in mind, and then watch for successive changes in the desired direction and reinforce or reward those. The amount of time one dwells at intermediate steps and the required size of the steps to achieve the next approximation of the target behavior have been shown to be critical. If the step size is too big or the dwell time too short or long, then the desired changes become less likely or the attempt may fail altogether.

The interesting point that I want to make about shaping is how totally ubiquitous it is in our daily lives. It is as much a part of living as is breathing. Can’t figure out how to make the widget work?  Play around with it enough and you’ll likely get it. The target is “making it work” and your machinations keep moving around the environment, typically in small steps, until you find a solution.  Shaping operates in solving problems large and small. We do not have to set out to shape a response for that response to develop, as was the case with the WiFi and me. When we don’t shape, the environment takes over and shapes in the absence of our input.  This can be a good thing or it can turn out pretty ugly. In the case of the latter, people sometimes learn some very bad ways of doing things because others have not provided the shaping of appropriate ways of solving problems. Any of you reading this who are golfers might especially appreciate how easy it is to develop bad habits through unprogrammed shaping of stance and swing! In our professional lives, managers, for example, are sometimes left to their “natural tendencies” in learning a management style. The outcome of a decent bottom line justifies and reinforces management practices that one of Charles Dickens’s most onerous characters would find unacceptable, maybe even offensive.

Sometimes shaping is either supplemented or supplanted by instructions (see my piece entitled “Lessons from a French Washing Machine” for a few other thoughts on instructions and their role in teaching new behavior).  Whether one instructs or shapes a new response depends on the circumstances. The costs and benefits of either are speed of acquisition (faster if I tell you how to do something, or give you the answer) versus the value of having the experience of trying things that don’t work as well as others. Both are good and bad, it depends on the goals of the learning experience.

It is always to the benefit of individuals and organizations to carefully consider that shaping continues even when it is not intended.  In working with other people, it almost always is better to specify important outcomes and shape or instruct and shape toward them than to leave the results to Lady Luck. 

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.