My problems with the Constructed Theory of Emotions

I finally finished reading a book.

It took me three years to read.

Three.

Years.

And it’s not because I’m a slow reader. I plowed through Brandon Sanderson’s 1100-page brick The Way of Kings in less than a day. So why, then, did this particular book take me so long?

Well, before I tell you, let me frame the context.

It’s a book that’s getting a lot of traction amongst animal trainers lately, specifically amongst the behaviour analytic crowd.

The book is called How Emotions Are Made, and it’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of Psychology and a neuroscientist. In the book she makes a big, and in many peoples’ eyes, compelling, case of emotions being constructed rather than innate.
So, many behaviour analysts love the book, and I feel like a complete dissenter in that crowd, because while they’re all nodding in agreement, I shake my head thinking that some of the main conclusions in the book are seriously flawed.

Swimming against the behaviour analytical crowd

We’ll get to my objections in a minute, but let’s start with: what is the central idea behind the Constructed Theory of Emotions?

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How often should you train the animal?

In this post, I’m sharing a chapter from my extensive online course Getting Behaviour! The video below is one of the 108 similar chapters from the course.

The video discusses why training sessions should be shorter rather than longer, and why training more than once a day may in some cases actually hurt your training; sleep consolidates memory, so a second same-day training session may interfere with the consolidation of the first training session.

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The 6 foundation behaviours

I’ve recently revised my introductory animal training course, and one thing we do in the course is discuss which behaviours to start teaching an animal.

The 6 foundation behaviours.

Not only are these the behaviours that the animal learns first, so they are the ones that he’ll tend to revert back to and offer when he doesn’t know what else to do, but they also teach him about this game we’re playing together.

The foundation behaviours teach the animal what training is all about.

That it’s fun.

The foundation behaviours teach the animal what training is all about.

That the trainer is a good person to be around – interesting things happen next to that person, which builds their relationship.

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Using antecedent strategies to resolve challenging behaviour

During the pandemic, I’ve been crazy busy preparing a novel course, presently called Problem Solving, all about resolving challenging behaviour in animals.

I’ve had a bunch of brave and enthusiastic pilot students help me develop the course, and one course chapter that they found specifically useful was the one on Antecedent Strategies.

So I thought I’d share it.

But, before I do that, I need to give you some back story.

Behaviour occurs in context

Unwanted behaviour doesn’t appear out of the blue – it occurs in specific contexts.

Perhaps a specific location, or in the presence of specific animals, people or other stimuli.

And in this context, the animal has an emotional reaction. And, because of that emotional reaction, he performs a behaviour.

The behaviour (red) occurs in a specific emotional context (orange) when the animal is in a specific mood (yellow). This model was heavily inspired by MHERA, formerly EMRA*, and you’ll hear me refer in the video to “wearing the EMRA glasses”.
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Fact or Fake?

Why telling the difference between The True Truth and The Fake News is so difficult.

There’s lots of information out there on the internet. And sometimes it’s contradictory.

  • About the state of the climate crisis.
  • About who won the 2020 US election.
  • About how best to train animals.

In this blog post, I will not discuss these topics at any length (although if you’re insatiably curious, I’ll reveal my position on them), but rather beg the question: how do we know which information to believe?

You may think it’s by somehow recognizing truths and rejecting false information.

It’s just that we humans are not very good at doing that.

We very often reject information, even though it’s true.

And we accept information, even though it’s false.

And we all do it.

Every. Single. Person. Does this.

Me.

You.

Aunt Peggie.

Our view of the world is skewed, in some way or another. We’ve all built our personal understanding of the world on a mix of truths and falsehoods. Hopefully mostly truths, but still…

In essence, we all look at the world through partly broken glasses.  

A close-up of a chain

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The glasses may be more or less broken – but they are not perfect.

Disconcerting as that realization may be, I think that simply being aware that our glasses are partly broken will make it easier to fix them.

The purpose of this blog post is to alert you to your broken glasses, give ideas about how to fix them, and also how to go about helping others with their glasses.

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Talking to animals

When I was little, I became mesmerized by Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle could talk to animals. He’d ask them questions, they’d vocalize, he’d nod wisely and translate their chirps, whistles, woofs and meows to plain English, to the astonishment of those present.

It was my all-time favourite movie, when I was nine.

(Credit Image: SNAP)

Side-note: the 2,5-hour film from 1967 was broadcast on TV at a time in the evening when I was supposed to go to bed about three-quarters of the way through. So after one hour and 45 minutes, dad said: “time to go to bed, Karolina”.

And I pleaded. Threatened. Screamed.

To no avail; there were to be no exceptions to that bedtime hour. I remember being lead to my room, still protesting loudly. And then I spent several hours having a loud and ugly meltdown alone in my room, way past the time that the film ended, and at some point somewhat triumphantly shrieking at the door: “If only you’d let me watch the whole film I’d be asleep by now!!!”

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