Not a joke, and not an atheist »« Looking for #2

So it’s like training a dog

Everyone is dealing with raging sexism nowadays, it seems: the atheist/skeptic community, the video game community, the philosophers, everyone…including the SF community. Over on Making Light, I read something hopeful, though — a comparison between what we’re seeing now and dog training.

In dog training there is a thing called the Extinction Burst. Let’s say you’re training the dog to not bark when someone comes to the door. You’ll be chugging along, working your operant conditioning like a boss, and you’ll notice your dog is finally starting to catch on. “Oh, you mean if the doorbell rings and I woof my servant monkey turns her back to me and ignores me, but if I don’t make a noise I get a treat? Awesome!” But just when you think the dog has it all down and it possibly the smartest dog in the universe, your friend will ring the doorbell and the dog will go bugshit crazy, barking, woofing, yelping, whatever, and you’ll just want to sit down with a pitcher of margaritas and give up. Don’t do that. Keep going, because what you’ve just experienced is the Extinction Burst. A few more tries and your dog will be so silent it’s like she’s bored whenever the doorbell rings – like she never even reacted in the first place.

OK, I can hope — we’re going through an Extinction Burst in sexist behavior (it’s not entirely valid to extrapolate from individual psychology to sociology that way, though). I still want that pitcher of margaritas right now. Now, you hear me? I’m waiting.


  1. Tony •King of the Hellmouth• says

    Ok, I’ve got to try this with one of my dogs. She *always* barks when someone knocks or rings the doorbell. It’s damn annoying.
    If it works, I’m going to try it on a sexist skeptic.
    As for margarita’s, if you’re willing to venture to the zipper of the Bible Belt here in Pensacola, I’d prepare one for you.

  2. says

    Interesting thought: Is the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, the presuppositionalist arguments for god, etc, the Extinction Burst for religion?

  3. says

    It’s true. I knew when I got my 100-lb lab mix that I could NOT have her thinking she can charge out the door whenever she feels like it, so I taught her that the back door only opens when she’s backed up so her hind legs are behind the laundry room door jamb (about 7 feet from the back door).

    And for a short while after she started catching on, I had to deal with her breaking position in every damn way she could think of just as I opened the back door a crack. The “I’m going to take one step, it doesn’t count” move, the “look how cute I am, don’t you want to laugh and pet me” move, the “can’t hold onto my excitement about the backyard any longer” move, the “howl and whine like a Wookiee so you don’t notice that I’m walking toward the door” move, you name it.

    I had to get real used to pretending I didn’t even see her — just staring into space across the laundry room and shutting the door calmly and wordlessly as soon as she started to move. There was a *lot* of opening the door three inches and immediately swinging it shut again, I can tell you. Sometimes I thought I would stand by that fucking door for the rest of my life.

    Now the more she wants to go outside, the more passionately she throws herself into staying behind the laundry room threshold.

    It would be really nice if it worked that way with sexist asshats.

  4. nohellbelowus says

    I wonder what it is like to hug a cephalopod, because I feel the urge right about now…

    (I’ll just let that scene play out innocently in my mind, to be on the safe side.)

  5. nohellbelowus says

    It would be really nice if it worked that way with sexist asshats.

    Yeah. Too bad we aren’t real animals.

  6. says

    nohellbelowus, if you provide a sexist asshat for me to train in the simple and controlled environment of my laundry room I’ll let you know how it goes.

    On second thought, don’t. I bet he’d leave stains on the linoleum that would just *never* come out.

  7. One Thousand Needles says

    A more accurate dog training metaphor would have another person in the house actively encouraging the dog to bark all the time and wondering why a freethinker would not want their dog to bark freely.

  8. nohellbelowus says

    On second thought, don’t. I bet he’d leave stains on the linoleum that would just *never* come out.

    Why do I get the sinking feeling she doesn’t mean cum stains?

  9. nohellbelowus says

    (Plus I strongly suspect that my dog is a lot smarter than most of the sexist asshats I’ve personally encountered. And it took long enough to train the dog.)

    Patience is indeed a virtue.

  10. shades says

    The problem, I suppose, is finding a behavior to train them for that’s incompatible with harassment and general assholery. Do you give them a treat whenever they shut their mouths? Or leave? That’s the trickiest part of training an animal to *not* do something, unless you use positive punishment… which society tends to frown on (Once positive punishment becomes fair game, then the paint ball guns start looking like the perfect idea).

    All in all, I suspect it was easier to train my cats to sit on command, though. The cats waste less energy with defensive rationalization — at least as far as I can tell.

  11. timberwoof says

    I wonder if the same thing works with IDiots and Creatards. Elsewhere I just explained to someone for the third time that no, the only people who think you can turn mud into a human is Christians (God did it), and this feat does not have to be replicated to “prove” evolution. Perhaps had I done that after reading this article I might not have gone ballistic on the dumb ass. Maybe I just experienced my own Extinction Burst.


  12. unclefrogy says

    that might be true for an isolated individual and may even describe the stages of change in thinking / behavior of individuals like the stages of grief but it sure as hell does not describe the state of society as a whole

    uncle frogy

  13. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    Please don’t start this again, or I;ll have to kill soeone.

    As much as this writing style may appear to be me, I am not in control of the PZ red posting ability.

  14. mandrellian says

    Conditioning is all very well, but you can’t deny it’d be very cathartic to just swat a sexist asshat with a rolled-up Maxim.

  15. Ogvorbis says

    Nice to know that PZed worships bofore the altar of Tpyos, holawed be hir mane.

  16. says

    Wrong. I torment Tpyos, with my exclusive and magical ability to actually edit my comments. Flare white hot with envy, peons.

  17. ljbriar says

    @Matthew Prorak – I’ve actually wondered the exact same thing myself. Crossing fingers that it is so.

  18. Ogvorbis says


    Sorry. I gorvel at your feet and beg forgiveness.

    I torment Tpyos, with me exclusive and magical ability to actually edit my comments.

    Would it matter if I said ‘that’s not fair’?

    Flare white hot with envy, peons.

    And you now owe me for a melted keyboard.

    Or a rangefinder would be nice?

  19. slatham says

    I like to think I behave better than a lot of other people. I like to argue to that effect and defend against various accusations. About 20 years ago a couple of female grad students took me to task for complaining about the extra syllable I was being asked to use — “humankind”. My tendency was to argue and defend. But I’ve decided two things since then:
    1. Argue for things that matter. If it’s not a big deal for me but it will mean something for someone else, then it’s worth the effort to change.
    2. Want to change. Too often people resist change as they get older. I knew that when I was young, and I have to fight to remember it as my thoughts and patterns get more entrenched.

    I think the second of these things is why dog training goes better than human training. Dogs have motivation (no attention versus treats), and they probably have less pride in retaining their old behaviours. Asshole behaviours are going to get more attention, and these guys are unlikely to be rewarded strongly for better behaviour (especially in more-or-less anonymous fora). Perhaps the only positive is that at even jerks at these conferences probably have pride in their cognitive ability to have a mind that’s open to other folks’ perspectives. Here’s hoping.

  20. Sili says

    Wrong. I torment Tpyos, with me exclusive and magical ability to actually edit my comments. Flare white hot with envy, peons.

    That’s not very hands-off.

    I think you need to ask Mary to fix your tryos like the rest of us.

    And then curse at the computer when she’s away to pet the sheep at Rhinebeck (October 20-21).

  21. DLC says

    Hmph. afraid we’re about out of tequila. try a rum collins or daiquiri instead?

  22. andrewv696 says

    OK, I can hope — we’re going through an Extinction Burst in sexist behavior (it’s not entirely valid to extrapolate from individual psychology to sociology that way, though)

    I think you are being unduly optimistic. My hypothesis is that the school system is churning out a fresh crop of misogynists each and every single year. Under the current regime it is not going to stop any time soon either.

    I suggest you read the following paper:

    Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Biases: Experimental Economics in Schools
    Authors: Amine Ouazad, Lionel Page
    Date:January 2012

  23. andrewv696 says

    Here is another paper. Not as acessable as the LSE one but supportive still the same.

    Study: Journal of Public Economics 92 (2008) 2083–2105

    Do gender stereotypes reduce girls’ or boys’ human capital outcomes?
    Evidence from a natural experiment ☆

    Victor Lavy ⁎
    Department of Economics, Hebrew University, Israel
    Department of Economics, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom
    NBER, United States
    CEPR, United Kingdom

  24. Amphiox says

    Here’s hoping the recent surge in anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality activity in the states are extinction bursts as well.

  25. Shplane says

    Wrong. I torment Tpyos, with me exclusive and magical ability to actually edit my comments. Flare white hot with envy, peons.

    I torment Tpyos, with me exclusive and magical ability to actually edit my comments.

    with me exclusive and magical ability

    with me exclusive




  26. McC2lhu does not have gerseberms says

    You mean we weren’t supposed to be drinking the pitcher of margaritas all along? You do things your way, I’ll do them mine. *hic*

  27. oolon says

    I agree with andrewv696 that PZ is being optimistic – but for a bit of a different reason. I think that PZ trying to get a feel for how much sexism there is out there is a bit like someone living in Chernobyl trying to measure the background radiation level — you are bombarded daily. But unlike the radiation analogy it actively seeks you out!

    Also there is the symptom that the more you look for something the more you will find it. To put it mildly I had not been thinking about sexism or feminist issues until I started reading here and on Skepchick. Now I notice total nut-job MRAs on other sites I had previously frequented (IT ones mainly) that I had just edited out previously. I would probably have said there is not much sexism on those sites if asked! It is a bit like seeing the fnords for the first time, if you ever read Illuminatus! And given that in that book kids are trained to not be able to see the fnords it seems to be to be quite apt in light of andrewv696 comments and links above.

    Anyway PZ is being optimistic but part of the reason I think he is being optimistic is cause for optimism… Or something.

  28. ibbica says

    @Justin #33: don’t read this then:

    “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”

    Don’t fret too much: hubby turns it around on her in the end…

    (ducks and runs)

    (Also: I don’t think I can see any way to classify the recent displays of misogynistic behaviour in response to discussions about misogyny, feminism, privilege, etc. as ‘extinction bursts’. But that’s a very long, pedantic comment in the making… so I’ll just say “I’m hopeful because the discussions are being had at all.”)