I'm learning to train my dog. According to the experts, it all comes down to food. Nothing works as well as food rewards when it comes to getting an animal to do a trick. I assume that's because food is closely associated with survival, so over time you can create an association in the animal's brain between doing a trick and survival itself.

This made me wonder if humans can be similarly trained with food rewards. And it made me wonder if we do it inadvertently all the time. It seems to me that human brains must associate food with survival the same way a dog does. And like most other animals, we don't need to be starving to want a food treat.

When I grew up, my family ate dinner at 5:00 pm every night. If a kid was late, there was some risk that the best stuff was gone. So there was a food reward every day of my life that was associated with punctuality. My hypothesis predicts that I would be a punctual person, and that is very much the case. When I feel even the possibility of being late for any event or deadline, I experience an intensely unpleasant physical reaction. It is as if my very survival is at risk and I want the feeling to stop. My brother and sister, who are in other ways very different from me, are just as punctual. Were we all trained by food?

I start work earlier than most people and always have. But I didn't always like it. I grew to enjoy it over time. I realized recently that I developed a habit long ago of eating something within minutes of waking, such as a banana. Did I train myself with food to become a morning person?

If my hypothesis about training humans holds true, it has huge implications. You could easily mold human behavior over time by associating good habits with food. And you wouldn't have to starve a person to make the plan work, any more than you need to starve a dog to make him do tricks for tasty treats. It's a bit frightening to think about the power this method might hold.

This hypothesis might explain why movie theaters are popular even though most movies are bad. I will drive across town and watch a movie with bad reviews if there is some popcorn in the deal, even though I have a home theater and all the food I want at home. I tell myself that some movies are better with the crowd experience, or that it feels good to get out of the house. But I can't rule out the possibility that I am simply trained by food treats to go to the movie theater.

Is there anything to the hypothesis that humans are easily trained by food? Let's do an unscientific survey right here. Think of your own eating habits and consider when there has been a consistent pattern of a specific activity followed by a food reward. Then ask yourself if you are addicted to the activity that generally preceded the reward.

For example, if you have a habit of reading a physical newspaper every morning, do you generally eat something or have coffee while doing it? If so, my hypothesis predicts that it's the treats that make you love the routine more than the newspaper itself.

Any other examples from your life?
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Feb 18, 2009
When I needed to get up really early, I would always go downstairs and eat something within minutes, like yourself, of waking up. It took the sting out of getting up at an ungodly hour.
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Feb 18, 2009
Yup - training humans works exactly the same (though you don't have to use food!)

Simple exercise - talk to a friend and when they say something you want to encourage, smile and nod. When they say something you want to discourage, keep a blank face. Simple, and it works.

If you want to learn about the true skills of training humans - Read "Don't shoot the dog" by Karen Pryor. Yes, it's mainly about training animals, but also discusses humans...
Feb 18, 2009
I eat when I am bored, because I really do not like having nothing to do, even if the nothing to do is within the 2 minute block of space a commercial break takes up during my favourite show.

Would this count?
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Feb 18, 2009
I think they're may be some proof to your hypothesis.

I am often late for things, I procrastinate, and I'm a C student college. Back in high school, my mom worked early hours so she wasn't there to make sure my sister and I got up to eat breakfast. Most of the time, I would go to school without breakfast and late for my first hour.

My sister turned out well, but she was also older when my mom stopped getting my grandmother to babysit us in the morning. Perhaps she had been fully trained.
Feb 18, 2009
the mother who promises their child a treat at the end of errands if they behave themself...

My mum used to give me a jam donut if i was brave while being immunised. My daughter always has milk before bed and if we run out or she refuses to drink it, she doesn't sleep through the night very well, you hear her tossing & turning all night long.
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Feb 18, 2009
We have Casual Sex Friday where I work. Attendance is way up. I sense a connection here.
Feb 18, 2009
Funny that you should mention it, I came to similar conclusions in college. I'm a software engineer, so most of my classes had the following demographic: male. nerdy. kinda dumpy.

Our grades were often based on class presentations of software we'd write, and a large part of the grade was on the class' reaction. We figured that our class would respond best to 2 things. 1) food (as you suggest) because everyone loves a snack, especially during a boring class. and 2) sexy girls. Because what class full of male nerds doesn't like to ogle a bit? We would bring some cheap little debbie snacks, and one or two slides in the presentation would feature some exceptionally hot, scantily clad girl in some only mildly-offensive, but kinda funny way.

We never got anything under an A-
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Feb 18, 2009
My current job has pretty decent coffee that is free. I find myself looking forward to going to work and starting the day because of the coffee that I know is available. Double that with the nice little caffeine kick and it makes for a pretty strong reward to drag myself out of bed.
Feb 18, 2009
I chew my fingernails, does that count as food? It obviously satisfies something subconsciously, while pissing me off consciously.

Would water work as well? Here boy! Sit? Siiit? I'll bet your thirsty! It's been three days since your last drink... are you gonna sit?

I'm sure you could use food as a negative enforcer as well, by feeding people really crappy food, like plain oatmeal, or liver, onion, blue cheese & salsa sandwiches. With a lot of the items that were expressed, there is also a social component, not just food. Being in groups, making someone else happy, watching something together, they all provide positive feedback.

I don't think I was ever given treats when I crapped or peed in the toilet as a child. I'm pretty sure it was just the fear of the negative ramifications of dropping a load in my undies that would stop me, and the social embarrassment. With your dinner example, did you not have any negative ramifications for being late to dinner? Yelled at for instance? Disappointment from mom?
Feb 18, 2009
My girlfriend insisted that I dine at the Y once a week, but I always refused. Then she took to slathering her nether regions with bosco. Now I really look forward to Saturdays.
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Feb 18, 2009
Edward Deci I think wrote a small book a few years ago titled "Why people do what they do" or something like that. What you are describing he called extrinsically motivated behavior. You are motivated by something outside of the behavior itself. Teachers use this all the time and unfortunately it can backfire. The student who you want to be a "lifetime reader" will only read when the behavior is rewarded and will stop when the reward stops. Intrinsically motivated behavior is something you do solely for the act itself. Intrinsically motivated behavior is something we can only really set the stage for or help along, but we can also close the door on it by offering disconnected rewards.
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Feb 18, 2009
As a college prof, many years ago, I started passing around a bag of candy at the beginning of every class. It costs me some money, but really helps my attendance! Students routinely tell me that mine is the only class they never miss. In my own defense, I had good attendance before and students routinely enjoy my classes...but the candy takes it to another level!
Feb 18, 2009
If that's true, Airlines stopping meal service on flights could be a much worse decision than they realize.
Feb 18, 2009
I prefer a beer reward.
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Feb 18, 2009
Nothing gets good attendance at meetings more than free donuts and coffee. If it's some kind of company status/strategy meeting, you need to have it at lunchtime, with free lunch. How many attend a "brown bag" lunch? Nobody, that's who. But if the meeting is some real boring, fooffy, psychobabble thing, like State of Mind, or some empowerment exercise, you need to go off site to someplace that does a real good job on catered lunches. We're talking roast beef and shrimp scampi here.

Free food - that's the ticket.
Feb 18, 2009
I think your onto something. However, with me, it would only work if it was beer. Quite often, i skip eating what i want so i have enough cash to buy beer. So if it were a beer treat, or a shot of yagermeister, it would certainly work. Of coarse this would limit the amount of repetition of training that could be done in any given part of a day.
Feb 18, 2009
Thanks to the reader who reminded me that the winner of the first grade spelling bee got a free fountain drink at the establishment owned by our teacher and her husband.

More recently, I'm pretty sure I get up every day to go to work because I stop first for breakfast at that red and white place with the senior menu.
Feb 18, 2009
Uhh...I read your blog while eating lunch?
Feb 18, 2009
I started waking up earlier and looked forward to the Starbucks coffee I would get as a reward once I got to school/work from the moment I woke up - but the habit hasn't stuck yet. Perhaps I should try the more immediate reward of a banana.

I've also gone too far in the other direction. As a reward for working on a project, I would get whatever food from restaurants nearby I wanted, but then I was always thinking about getting food instead of doing the work.
Feb 18, 2009
Right now I reward my kids with tokens for good behavior - if your hypothesis is correct I should switch to chocolate chips. Let me try it and get back to you.

Other dog training tricks work with humans - rewarding good behavior with attention and ignoring bad behavior supposedly works, though I am not patient enough to ignore the bad behavior for long.
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