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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rewards, Punishment and the Indomitable Spirit

The apple tree at Orchard House is loaded down with ripe fruit. It's really a rather small tree, but this year the yield is bountiful. I went over there several times this week to pick the red and green apples, and I have two giant bowls of them over here, and some in the refrigerator at Orchard House, and many more still on the tree.

The apples are a bit on the tangy side and the skin on them is a little coarse, and they come in irregular shapes, not like the apples from Wal*Mart. Still, they are perfectly edible, and I eat them myself. I also want Bow to eat them, but he's not sure he wants to. He's rather picky when it comes to fruit.

Yesterday, for lunch, Bow had a sumptuous feast, including a green apple from the store, a red and green apple from Orchard House, a banana, two Chinese pork dumplings, and some macadamia nuts. He chose to eat the green apple first, then the banana, then he asked for what he called "the little apple".

"Now, Bow, are you sure you want to ask for that little apple before the other things?" I asked. "You know if you don't finish it, you don't get the rest of your meal."

"Yes," spelled Bow.

I gave him the little apple from Orchard House. As I anticipated, after a couple of bites, Bow stopped eating and started examining the apple distastefully.

I waited a while to see what would happen, but when it was obvious he wasn't eating any more, I had two choices: to clear everything away or to try a more diplomatic approach.

Bow is a well-fed chimpanzee, though by most standards he seems slim, compared to chimps in institutional settings who are fed on Monkey Chow. I can and I will clear everything away, if need be, and I know he won't starve. But yesterday I was feeling more conciliatory, and I didn't feel like going through the whole day with Bow bearing me a grudge and me having to be extra tough on him.

I went and sat down next to him. "The apple is good," I told him. I took it from his limp hand and bit into it myself. As I was chewing, I made sounds to let him know I was enjoying the apple. After I finished that bite, I let him smell my empty mouth. Then I gave him back the apple. "Your turn," I said.

He started eating it again, but when he got close to the core, he stopped and gave me a searching glance. I took the apple from him again. "There's still more left to eat," I said and took another bite.

Bow smelled my breath after I was done, then he ate some more. But he never consumed it entirely, the way he does with his store bought apples until nothing is left but the stem. He left a small slender core, which by human standards would be equivalent to finishing the apple. By  chimp standards though, it was a protest against the quality of the produce.

I let that that pass, and he proceeded to ask for the rest of his meal, one item at a time.

One of my readers commented yesterday that maybe the way to get Bow to sit still and work on his penmanship would be to offer a banana as reward. But food rewards are not what motivates Bow to write. Neither would a punishment of denial of food be effective. Bow writes when the spirit moves him, and no threat or bribe can affect his output.

This is one of the things that I find most difficult to explain to outsiders. Yes, Bow loves food. Yes, food and mealtimes are important parts of Bow's day. But even when he is asking for food , or negotiating over food-related privileges, his use of language is not motivated by a direct food reward. Bow uses language to communicate, and one of the things he communicates are his individual preferences, his likes and dislikes.

I could no more motivate Bow to improve his penmanship by offering him a banana, than you could make your child excel at calculus by offering a lollipop. It just doesn't work that way!


  1. In working with animals and with children with disabilities, I find food rewards very negative. Food is a necessity and a right. It should never be used as a reward or a punishment, in my opinion. Positive, sincere praise and compliments, pets and hugs, or in the case of people or chimps who can ask for something, a requested item, are far better rewards than food.

  2. Suzanne, I wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately, too many educators actually believe that food rewards are good motivators.

  3. Oh, I feel kind of bad for bringing it up the last comment.
    Sorry, I thought, in my poor humor, it might be funny...

    I really don't think of food as an incentive (or some other diplomatic/behavioristic ideas of motivation).

  4. נוצות, I didn't mean to give you a hard time about it. Sorry! I can see that you were not really serious. With me, it's a sore point, because there are people who really use these methods, and some have even recommended them to me.

  5. Never the less, I do apologize for my clearly broken sense of humor.
    I couldn't agree with you more about the mentality of behaviorism and reward-motivation.
    It is like rushing a piece of music on the piano in front of an audience to say "There! Done! where is all the clapping?"