Cognitive Dissonance? Or Functional Fixedness?

In clicker training we often hear that people don’t want to switch over from whatever their normal training method is because of cognitive dissonance, “ the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values”. The theory is that by believing that you can train horses more kindly by rewarding them makes people uncomfortable because then they see how cruel they’ve been to horses, all animals, up to that point making it hard for them to accept positive reinforcement because it forces them to accept that they were unkind. This is obviously true for the people who believe that. But is it the sole reason and true for everyone? I tend to disagree.

I was reading a great article in the December/January Readers Digest. Most people come with quotes from deep scientific papers, I read Reader Digest. I am not deep and scientific. This is taken from a slightly more lofty source though, Elastic: Flexible Thinking In A Time Of Change, by Leonard Mlodinow. He states that once on a path people tend to follow it, no matter what. We get stuck in our ways, stuck in our thinking and are unable to change, unable to even recognize that it is possible for things to be different.

I know I see it in myself regularly. I fight and fight with something no matter how hard it is to accomplish. I don’t see that I could do it different, even though often there are ways of doing it much more easily that I should be aware of, it just doesn’t sink in because I’m so busy fighting my way down the path I have chosen.

It’s not because we are bad people. It’s not because we know, subconsciously, that it will make us feel bad if we do things in a kinder way. It’s that we are already doing it, in the way we are used to, surely there is no other way.

Most people are already doing things in a very kind and understanding way with their horses, or any animals. Are there things that could be improved? Yes. All of us have things that could be improved. Few people are going to start clicker training and suddenly become distraught over how cruel they’ve been their whole lives. There may be some why didn’t I do this sooner?! This thing and that would have been so much easier if only I had discovered this easier, funner, way sooner! The same as I feel nearly daily about many things in life.

In order to overcome our fixed ways of thinking he offered a few suggestions.

Change your environment, from small changes like reorganizing, to larger ones like reorganizing your entire life.

Pretend you are encountering situations for the first time no matter how often you’ve encountered them. Think about and examine deeply the normal ordinary things you encounter regularly in life.

Surround yourself with people who don’t necessarily agree with you. People who have different view points and ideas. I guess I’ll have to keep following some of those groups that drive me crazy 😉

And, this one should be easy for us positive reinforcement people, think positively! When we get all negative we shut down, stop thinking. When we are positive in our thoughts and actions we explore and broaden our horizons, open ourselves to new thoughts and ideas.

I think that instead of being all negative about the reasons people aren’t interested in trying positive reinforcement, criticizing and critiquing, we need to stay open, listen to them, talk, share, and be nice. Remember that we need to be as open to the possibilities that there are other ways of doing things as we would like them to be.

And to go with that, a video of Harvey nicely walking into a trailer 🙂



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