The Power of Cues – Poisoned Cues

The Power of Cues – Poisoned Cues

In the previous post about cues, I talked about how they are all around us and that a cue is simply something that is an accurate predictor of the outcome of a particular behaviour in the presence of that cue.  So when my hand motions down to my horses that ‘cue’ is an accurate predictor that if they head lower, they will get a click and reinforcer. 

Likewise, because cues work in two directions (that is the topic for another day), a click is an accurate predictor that I will go in to food delivery mode. 

With a history of reinforcement in the presence of that cue, the horses learn that the outcome of the behaviour will be reinforced.  In other words, they have learned the cue is predictable through repeated experience of what behaviour will earn them a click in the presence of that cue.

Poisoned Cues

Does your horse have an inexplicable fear of an object, such as, a water bucket ?A cue can be just as predictable of the outcome of a behaviour when the outcome is not nice. For example, if you touch a hot cooker, the outcome is pain and a nasty burn. The gas flame on a cooker becomes an accurate predictor that if we touch the cooker it will bring an unpleasant outcome; thus we avoid touching the cooker. If we have ever experienced a horse kick then that particular body language plus a turning of the rump to us is likely to get us moving pretty fast. It's a predictable cue that if we don't do something, the outcome might be less than pleasant !One Shot LearningHow we learn these cues can vary as well. Sometimes we need frequent repetition to realise that the outcome will be predictable. However, there is also a concept called 'one shot learning'. If the outcome is bad or good enough (how bad or how good it needs to be is in the eye of the recipient) we can learn with one experience that the presentation of 'that' cue is nasty and so it tends to set us/horses in to panic. if we think back to the example of the cooker; one experience of that hot cooker burning us will be enough to teach us that the outcome fo doing that again will be painful. We learn that with one exposure.Have you ever seen a horse scared of buckets, or some other harmless inanimate object ? It's almost certain that at some stage something unpleasant happened to the horse in the presence of that 'cue'. That horse has associated that bucket with the nasty outcome and so the bucket is now a cue that elicits a fear response. This helps us to better understand why our horses may respond irrationally to innate items in their environment.That is fairly straight forward. However.....What if the Outcome is NOT Predictable ?This is where we get in to the realms of Poisoned Cues. "Can I see you in my office in 10 minutes ?" Did you just get a shiver down your spine and a horrible feeling as you read those words ? When you think about that question, do you know what the outcome will it good or bad ? To so many people that statement sends shivers down their spine because they are really not sure what to expect; "did I do something wrong, am I going to be asked to take on a special project because I was so good at something" etc. The outcome is ambiguous and THAT is a poisoned cue.So many things can be poisoned cues. Our own name is often a poisoned cue, especially if your parents only ever call you by a full name (as opposed to a nickname) when they are either really mad or really pleased with you.Now think about how focused you are on your work after your boss says those words to you. Are you focused at all ? Can you get any work done in those 10 minutes ? For most people the answers are not at all and no, respectively. If we imagine our horses in a similar situation with training. We need to understand that they too will lose focus on the training as the focus on what the outcome may be. They may even get anxious and start to behave unpredictably. Can I See You in My Office !If the experience of a new object is very pleasant or very unpleasant, the animal can learn about it in one shot

Karen Pryor first came up with the term ‘poisoned cue’.  She believed a number of years ago that this was a concept that she was seeing in some situations.  For example, a dog would start to respond to a cue but then maybe get a leash pop if they did not do it correctly or do it fast enough.   If they did respond to the cue fast enough then they got a click and reinforcer.  The dog would then start to show avoidance behaviour; “if I don’t even attempt to do the behaviour then I can’t earn a leash pop”.  When you hear those words “can I see you in my office”, do you;

  • a) rush right in there with a big grin on your face;
  • b) avoid it and chat to the people you work with asking if they know what it  might be about;
  • c) nip to the bathroom first then meander slowly back in the direction of your bosses office.

Generally we avoid having to find out what it is our boss wants to see us about.  We are so desperate for it to be good news and that makes us want to rush in there, but on the other hand it might be bad news so do we really want to know, or should we just get it over with as quick as possible.  If we don’t let him tell us at all (just not go in to his office) then it can’t be bad news, right ?!

Unless we have never had our boss give us a ticking off for something we generally avoid going to their office.  All of the thoughts of ‘it can’t be that bad’, ‘I’d best just get it over with’, ‘but it might be awful’ cause a lot of anxiety.  We start to show avoidance behaviours and we may even start to show displacement behaviours (a normal behaviour seen out of context…going to the bathroom when really we could have waited a while, or an hour, or biting nails and so on).

Our animals are no different.  If, in the past, a cue has sometimes meant the outcome of their behaviour resulted in a reinforcer and other times in a punisher they will behave in the same way we do.  They may show avoidance behaviours, displacement activity (e.g. yawning while training) and may even just stop working with us at all.  They may even look like they have gone to sleep (often conditioned suppression); a phenomenon I often see and hear about when horses are having feet shod. 

We really need to be aware of how our reactions to our horses might create poisoned cues, and we should avoid creating them where possible.  

Alexandra Kurland documented a wonderful interview with Jesus Rozalez-Ruiz (Associate Professor of Behaviour Analysis, North Texas University) on DVD.  Jesus and his research students had researched Karen Pryors theory on poisoned cues and in the DVD Jesus discusses the results.  He also discusses the learning theory behind poisoned cues and there is also some very powerful video of the research in progress presented.  Poisoned cues is a large topic and so, to find out more about them, I will direct you to Alexandra’s wonderful DVD.

Happy Clicking

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