Shaping: Behaviors vs. Results (human edition)

I just wrote a very long post–one I’ve been thinking about for days–about shaping dog behaviors. This post is about getting results through shaping human behaviors. It’s no secret to anyone at this point that I’m trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster and that I’ve been trying to lose weight and get in shape and run faster for more than three years. It started when I realized that running Rush in agility was going to take way more than I was capable of at that point, and the effort–the one where I lose weight and get in shape and run faster–has continued since then.

That’s the easy part. I identified the result I wanted: to run Rush in agility successfully. Note that that’s a result, and that it’s a result that comprises many many steps. It requires training Rush in independent obstacle performance; it requires training him to follow my lead, to have a good startline stay; it requires that I run faster than I could run then, that I handle more effectively (no time to correct mistakes!)… and more.

So I knew what results I wanted, but I struggled with identifying the behaviors that would lead to those results, and I struggled then–and continue to struggle–with how to reward those behaviors. Just as there are some rewards for Rush that are so rewarding that he loses his brain (which is why I don’t carry frisbees into the agility barn but I do carry squeaky tennis balls), there are some rewards that I just can’t use for myself. For example, I’ve identified keeping a food diary as a behavior that significantly helps with weight loss, but rewarding that behavior (writing down what I eat) with chocolate (one of the highest quality rewards for me) would require that I control myself successfully around chocolate. That’s as difficult for me as it is for Rush to control himself around flying frisbees. I do keep some chocolate in the house (on a very high shelf, at the back, where Jay can reach it, but I can’t) (unless I get out a ladder), but the chocolate itself is a reward for not eating the chocolate. That makes sense to me, even if it sounds completely nuts. (I note that Rush’s highest and best food reward–chicken liver treats–leaves me cold. But he’s not that interested in chocolate, so we’re good.) Mostly these days, I’ve developed a habit around keeping a food log, and the months and months of food logs and the consequent data availability and the resultant weight loss have become the reward. (It has helped enormously in identifying just what foods help me to control my lust for sweets and starches.) Initially, though, my rewards were things like a manicure after N days of logging. I still keep lemon creme body wash–ridiculously expensive–as my reward for running.

The real problem with shaping human behaviors is that the reward is rarely (if ever) a surprise. If I say to myself “I will reward ten days of food logging by getting a manicure,” that’s perilously close to being a lure rather than a reward. I have tried to persuade Jay that he should get me a new cashmere sweater every time I lose ten pounds, but I’ve failed. Besides, predictable rewards are not as successful with humans as unpredictable ones. (Las Vegas has built an entire city around unpredictable rewards!) I’m not really surprised (any more) when I lose weight–although I do find it very rewarding–when I follow all the behaviors that I’ve identified, because at this point I know what works.

There are some rewards that do come as surprises, though. When I realize that my Q rate has improved significantly, even though I’m competing at a more challenging level, that both provides a reward and provides an indication that I’m moving toward my goals. I ran faster over five kilometers last weekend than I have since I quit running competitively in the early 1980s–a new PR for me, and progress toward my goal of achieving the same age-group percentage (70%) that I achieved back in my twenties. I’ve moved from an age-group percentage of 42% to 61.6% over the last two years. That’s significant progress. It feels really good–very rewarding–when I check that on the age-group percentage website. It helps, too, to discover that keeping up with Rush is just not as hard as it used to be.