Behavior Modification of Spouses

By | August 8, 2017

Are humans “as easily manipulated as dogs” using behavior modification techniques?

Attention, frustrated wives: if you want your husband to start listening to you and stop leaving his socks on the floor, all you need is a little patience and a lot of mackerel. Such is the putative relationship advice of Amy Sutherland, a journalist who spent a year at an animal-trainer school and decided to apply the trainers’ techniques to her husband’s annoying habits. According to Sutherland, the key to marital bliss is to ignore negative habits and reward positive ones, the same approach animal trainers use to get killer whales to leap from their tanks and elephants to stand on their heads. So to teach her husband, Scott, to stop storming around the house when he couldn’t find his keys, she practiced what trainers call Least Reinforcing Scenario, which means she ignored his outbursts, and didn’t offer to help with the search. To prevent Scott from hovering over her while she tried to cook, she engineered “incompatible behaviors” by setting a bowl of chips and salsa at the other end of the room. Soon she had a key-finding, salsa-eating mate and, she says, a happier marriage.

Sutherland first wrote about her experiment in The New York Times in 2006, where it became the most e-mailed story of the year. This week her book, “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage,” comes out, and a movie is in development. Sutherland admits that her ideas are not groundbreaking: in the 1890s Ivan Pavlov experimented with dogs to study stimulus and response. In the 1930s, B. F. Skinner used rats and pigeons to develop his theory of “operant behaviors,” the idea that behavior is affected by its consequences. That doesn’t mean the strategy is not controversial: critics bristle at the idea that humans are as easily manipulated as dogs or marine mammals, and contend that books such as Sutherland’s reinforce war-of-the-sexes stereotypes about women using their feminine wiles to manipulate simple-minded men.

The idea of women training simple men is a well-worn trope of pop culture. In the 1963 film “If a Man Answers,” Sandra Dee’s mother hands her a canine-training manual with the advice “If you want a perfect marriage, treat your husband like a dog.” More recently, the BBC reality show “Bring Your Husband to Heel” featured a professional dog trainer teaching wives how to get their husbands to sit and stay.

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It seems you just need to figure out what rewards work.