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Men vs. Women: The Gender Gap in Training Choices

Traditionally, human males are recognized for their rational thought and ability to excel in the sciences. Female humans are often praised for their emotional connectivity and ability to excel in the arts. What happens, though, if a human finds himself/herself in an industry requiring the artful application of science? Do men find themselves standing on the mountain of rathional thought/science looking across the divide at the mountain of emotional connectivity/art? Are the women looking back at the men from across the same divide?

The opposite ends of the non-human animal behavior and training industry is defined by two main groups. These groups are identified by three categories: 1) the use of the four quadrants of learning theory (rational thought/science), 2) proactive vs. reactive relationships between trainer and trainee including the effect on the relationship itself (emotional connectivity/art), and 3) ethical perspectives about how to artfully apply science. One group (Group A) prefers to use positive reinforcement/negative punishment (clickers, treats, toys and time outs) in a proactive structure that focuses on creating, improving and maintaining behavior (communicating what they want the trainee to do) which is rooted in a duty-based ethics wherein the trainer's primary responsibility is to the trainee. The other group (Group B) chooses to use negative reinforcement/positive punishment (choke, prong, shock and alpha rolls) in a reactive structure that focuses on suppressing or eliminating behavior (communicating what they what the trainee NOT to do) which is rooted in ends-based ethics wherein the trainer's primary responsibility is to the achievement of their goal regardless of how they get there. Generally, women are the majority in Group A; men are the majority in Group B. While there are execptions to the generalization that "gender lines equal methodology lines," generally the generalization holds true. One man who is an exception to this generalization is Drayton Michaels who said, "As far as professionals I see a more male dominated use of force [positive punishment] than from females. There are more outspoken and education efforts for the use of non-force methods by females." (personal communication)


B.F. Skinner popularized the four quadrants of learning theory (Behaviorism). He

tested thousands of animals in his "Skinner boxes" that led to the identification of these four methods for effecting behavior change: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, positive punishment and negative reinforcement. I will not spend time explaining them here, but they generally work by trying to strengthen or weaken a behavior through rewards or aversives. All four quadrants work. If anyone says they don't, they just aren't speaking the truth. Skinner and others provided ample proof that you can change behavior using each quadrant - and do so effectively.

Since Skinner, non-human animal behavior and training professionals have moved beyong Behaviorism. Increasingly more information is available about how non-human animals learn in the post-Skinnerian era. The simple stimulus-response "black box" of the brain (of any species) is a relic and only a piece of the puzzle of behavior analysis. One of the things we know much more about these days is how emotions affect behavior. Both sides of the divide agree about what we do knwo when it comes to behavioral science. The differences are not rooted in rational thought/science itself - it lies firmly in the other two areas: emotional connectivity/art and ethics.


We cannot ask non-human animals to tell us how our choices about applying behavioral science affects them. Their only way to communicate with us is to use their species-specific body language and vocalizations. The effectiveness of that message relies heavilty on teh observation and interpretation skills of the human with whom they are communicating. That puts non-human animals at a disadvantage because they don't speak human and their many verbal languages. There is, however, another group who are just as affected by our choices that can communicate more clearly - human children. They are, just as non-human animals, a population that are suffering the consequences of our choices about how we train them. Parenting is not far from non-human animal training when you consider that both parents and trainers are working to effect behavioral change with the hope of creating good-mannered individuals.

A 2006 study by Dobbs, Smith & Taylor from the Children's Issues Center at the University of Otago in New Zealand aimed to examine the meanings of family discipline and physical punishment from the childrens' perspectives. The title of the study is taken from a quote from one of the participating children: "No, We Don't Get A Say, Children Just Suffer the Consequences": Children Talk About Family Discipline. This quote is clear evidence that there is an emotional effect for each quadrant beyond observable behavior. Children share a common language with adult humans and can tell us clearly how they feel about the choices we, as adults, make. I submit that the non-human animals share similar emotional experiences when they also "suffer the consequences" of our choices about how we apply behavioral science.

Teaching through positive reinforcement-based methods are preferred by trainees. "Research on the acceptablilty of behavioral interventions has consistently showed that teachers, psychologists, and children rate positive reinforcement-based procedures as more acceptable than punishment-based procedures." (Friedman, 2010) Everyone, human and non-human alike, enjoy being told they are getting something right!

In contrast, Dobbs, Smith & Taylor found that "overwhelmingly, the majority of children advised that physical punishment was the worst thing parents could do when children transgressed." When discussing positive punishment with children they "judged both the pain and the emotional involved to be greater than that judged by the parents, and most felt hurt, upset and angry about it." The most important message they received was about the emotional state of the individual delivering the positive punishment. When asked about positive punishment during their childhood, college students - years after the events - didn't remember anything about the effect on their behavior. Ninety percent of them did report they remembered how angry the person delivering the positive punishment was. (Kennedy, 1995)

The fact that these individuals, even once they reached adulthood, so readily recognize that these methods (positive punishment) are more often about the emotional needs of the punisher indicates that individuals using positive punishment to effect behavior change often are doing so ineffectively. "While anger and physical punishment may allow parental emotional release, this is not the same as effectively changing the child's behavior." (Straus, 1994)

It can be argued that they aren't really trying to effect behavioral change in their children, but rather themselves. Their goal is not to change the child's behavior, but rather to vent their anger by using their power and position to dole otu punishment. However, when you ask parents their reasons for using positive punishment on their children, they routinely explain how they are trying to change the child's behavior. They do not believe they are affected by the act of punishing their children and they downplay the emotional effect on the child. Humans do the same when discussing the use of positive punishment with non-human animals when we say things like, "it doesn't matter, they live in the moment" or "the shock doesn't hurt."

When asked how parents could change their responses to transgressions, "Children thought that the best thing parents could do when children transgress are stop being angry and listen." (Dobbs, Smith & Taylor, 2006) This clearly expresses the opinion, and a valuable one, that children want those responsible for teaching them to be thoughtful, not emotional, about teaching moments. When it comes to human children, they are not immune to the irregularlity of power and rules in relationships. One 13-year old firl from the Dobbs, Smith & Taylor study lamented, "It's not fair - adults hitting is against the law but not children. It's not okay that adults can't hit each other but can hit kids."

Children want to be heard, not marginalized, when there is a conflict. I am confident that non-human animals want the same respect and to be heard - not marginalized. In the same study, children pointed out that when there was a disagreement about appropriate behavior, parents often responded with "anger and escalation of punishment." If this is not evidence that common application of punishment is not about behavior change but emotional release for the individual with the power in the relationships, I don't know what is.


If men as a gender are more inclined to use rational thought/science to make choices, does this indicate that they would be better at applying punishment in a scientific (i.e. unemotional) fashion? Is it simply that women are less ablve to punish effectively due to their focus on emotional connectivity/art? The answer is no. Men are more likely to play the role of "disciplinarian" in several settings. How many of us heard, "Wait till your father gets home!" as a child? Hyman, Clarke & Erdlen (1987) found that male teachers and administrators are more likely to administer physical punishment to boys. Are we, by example, setting up young male humans to be more emotional and physically punishing about training thus weakening the effect of rational/scientific thought? Janice Kennedy (1995) confirmed an earlier study by Showers & Johnson (1984) that showed those in positions to choose between positive reinforcement-based or positive punishment-based options are most likely to choose the same quadrants that they experienced as a child. "They use methods used with them as children, regardless of education to the contrary." Whoa.

This does more than hint at men being more likely to use positive punishment-based methods. The Kennedy study states, quite clearly, that men are more likely to use punishment and view it as effective - regardless of the actual change (or not) in beahvior as a result of the punishment. "Overall, judgments about the effectiveness of corporal punishment were influenced by how often one uses it and by judged corporal punishment to be more effective. (Kennedy, 1995) The more you use physical punishment, the more you are likely to use it again. Indeed, doling out punishment is reinforcing for the punisher.


One reason why men may be more likely to use punishment-based methods, including phusical punishment, is that they are less likely to include effect on the relationship between themselves and their trainee as a criteria in their choice. Men are more likely to base choices on principle, not relationship. There is ahigher likelihood that men will make decisions on principle than women. (Eckel & Grossman, 1996) Because they think that way, the often assume their trainee also thinks this way. This leads to anthropomorphic choices when training non-human animals whether or not those non-human animals share our human principles. If men feel a principle has been violated, they are more likely to respond with positive punishment, often physical in nature, more than women. They are more interested in maintaining their principles than their relationships.

This might also lead us to conclude that women are less likely to use punishment because it affects relationships. After all, relationships are build on emotional connection, not just scientific cause-effect. Dobbs, Smith & Taylor (2006) demonstrated the effect of punishment on relationships. Their study suggests that "parents are often angry, inconsistent, and harsh when punishing their children, and that this adversely affects ongoing relationships and effetive socialization." I venture to say that you could insert the word "trainer" for "parents" and "non-human animal" for "children." The sentiment is still the same.

Relationships do matter. You can effect behavior change without using positive punishment, particularly physical punishment. Positive reinforcement, used properly, is effective and lacks the side effect of relationship damage that can reslut from using positive punishment.


If science so clearly demonstrates that positive punishment has a lasting effect on relationships, why would a rational/science-friendly individual choose methods with such an obvious negative effect on their trainee?

Meg Daley Olmert provides one explanation in her book Made for Each Other (2009). Women have more oxytocin coursing through their bodies. This hormone is implicated quite strongly in the ability to create bonds and maintain relationships. It encourages us to protect and nurture social relationships - even cross-species relationships. Men also area affected by oxytocin, but not nearly as strongly as women. Men, however, are quite strongly affected by vasopressin. Olmert describest eh effect of this hormone as follows: "we saw vasopressin instilling a sense of fearlessness and aggression...vasopressin is better knwon as stress hormone that raises blood pressure and conserves bodily fluids. It is also a key instigator for flight/fight." When men see a challenge - such as behavior that challenges their principles - they are more likely ro respond aggressively. This encourages men consider the short-term success of suppressing inappropriate behavior more than the long-term effect on the relationship. Curiously, I wonder what would happen should we study the oxytocin/vasopressin levels in men who neither experience positive punishment nor are encouraged to use it in childhood. And, what of women who neither experience positive punishment harsh enough to impair their oxytocin producing system? Do we create individuals who are more balanced between respect for emotional connectivity and artful use of the science of learning theory. Or, do we create hyper-rational individuals who lose the ability to feel?


Making choices based on principle and/or relationships leads to the next point: ethics. The choices that each individual makes leads us to ask, "Is Effectiveness Enough?" (Friedman, 2010) Or, althernatively, "do the ends really justify the means?"

Those with a preference for ends-based reasoning may feel that the effectiveness, or the success, of the method chosen is more important. Ends-based reasoning pays little mind to relationships affected along the way to accomplishing the end goal. Given what I have already presented, we would expect men to be more attracted to the ends-based reasoning. This framework gives the freedom to violate relationship rules to achieve short-term goals. the other problem with ends-based reasoning is that success is only defined by the trainer. It does not take into account what success is for the trainee. Ends-based reasoning can be incredibly selfish. If the trainer's definition of success conflicts with the trainee's definition, whose "end" is more important?

Dr. Susan Friedman, a proponent of duty-based reasoning, clearly states, "Effectiveness is not enough when it comes to choosing and applying behavior-change interventions...The commitment to using the most positive, least intrusive, effective interventions allows us to think before we act, so that we make choices about the menas by which we accomplish our behavior goals. IN this way we can be both effective and humane." (Friedman, 2010) If our primary duty is to the trainee suffering the effects of the methods and equipment we choose, then we have to take their perspective into consideration. We must extrapolate from the clear and honest expressions of human children that those choices matter. They also matter ot the non-humans with whom we interact. Women have a history of cross-species relationships reaching back to the Paleolithic age. No wonder they are more likely to choose duty-based reasoning that allows for all perspectives in the relationship (trainer and trainee) to be explored and considered.


The human brain has a lot of information to sort through in order ot make choices about how to responsd to our trainee when we, the trainers, have the power in a relationship. Humans are subjected to our chemical makeup, our own reinforcement histories, our ethical frameworks and scientific information each time we choose to respond or react to an interaction. We certainly need more research into gender differences, especially when considering ethical dilemmas (is the behavior goal or the relationship more important?). What we have learned is that although a long history of learning science is available to us, most of our training choices are emotionally and ethically based. humans just are not the rational creatuers we like to imagine ourselves to be.

Men are less likely to consider effect on relationship when making choices, They are likely to consider their own definition of success as most important. How they achieve success is less important than the fact that they succeeded. They are more susceptible to the chemical influence of vasopressin that encourages more aggressive behavior. Men are more likely to consider their own emotionas in a training situation ang give little space to their trainee's emotions, even if the relationship with that trainee is worth nurturing and maintaining.

Women are more likely to give space to the other side of the relationship and take their perspective into account thanks to the influence of the chemical oxytocin. They are less likely to have experienced positive punishment - especially physical punishment - in their childhood creating individuals less likely to choose positive punishment as adults. Duty-based reasoning supports those choices by focusing on their responsiblity to their trainee.

There is no doubt that a balanced blend of rational though/science and emotional connectivity/art creates an effective teacher regardless of gender. How much rational thought/science compared with how much emotional connectivity/art is the most effective combination? Then, how do we, as adults reach that most effective and humane balance?









8. personal photo

Sources Dobbs, T.A., Smith, A. & Taylor, N. (2006) "No, We Don't Get a Say, Children Just Suffer the Consequences": Children Talk About Family Discipline. International Journal of Children's Rights.14: 137-156

Eckel, C.C. & Grossman, P.J. (1996) The Relative Price of Fairness: Gender Differences in a Punishment Game. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 30(2): 143

Friedman, S.D. (2010) "What's Wrong With This Picture? Effectiveness Is Not Enough"'s%20Wrong%20with%20this%20Picture%20-%20Dogs.pdf

Hyman, I.A., Clarke, J., & Erdlen, R.J., Jr. (1987) Analysis of physical abuse in American schools. Aggressive Behavior. 13:1-7

Kennedy, J. H. (1995) Teachers, Student Teachers, Paraprofessionals, and Young Adults' Judgments About the Acceptable Use of Corporal Punishment in the Rural South. Education & Treatment of Children (ETC). 18(1):53

Olmert, Meg Daley (2009) Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human Animal Bond. DeCapo Press

Showers, J. & Johnson, C.F. (1984) Students' Knowledge of Child Health and Development: Effects on Approaches to Discipline. Journal of School Health. 54(3): 122-125

Straus, M.S. (1994) Beating the devil out of them: corporal punishment in American families. New York: Lexington Books.

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