By: Jean Donaldson

Empathy 101

Imagine you live on a planet where the dominant species is far more intellectually sophisticated than human beings but often keeps humans as companion animals. They are called the Gorns. They communicate with each other via a complex combination of telepathy, eye movements and high-pitched squeaks, all completely unintelligible and unlearnable by humans, whose brains are prepared for verbal language acquisition only. What humans sometimes learn is the meaning of individual sounds repeated association with things of relevance to them. The Gorns and humans bond strongly but there are many Gorn rules that humans must try to assimilate with limited information and usually high stakes.

You are the lucky humans who lives with the Gorns in their dwelling. Many other humans are chained to small cabanas in the yard or kept in outdoor pens of varying size. They have become so socially starved that they cannot control their emotions when a Gorn goes near them. Because of this behavior, the Gorns agree that they could never be House-Humans. They are too excitable.

The dwelling you share with your Gorn family is filled with numerous water-filled porcelain bowls, complete with flushers. Every time you try to urinate in one, though, any nearby Gorn attacks you. You learn to only use the toilet when there are no Gorns present. Sometimes they come home and stuff your head down the toilet for no apparent reason. You hate this and start sucking up to the Gorns when they come home to try and stave this off but they view this as increasing evidence of your guilt.

You are also punished for watching videos, reading certain books, talking to other human beings, eating pizza or cheesecake, and writing letters. These are all considered behavior problems by the Gorns. To avoid going crazy, once again you wait until they are not around to try doing anything you wish to do. While they are around, you sit quietly, staring straight ahead. Because they witness this good behavior you are so obviously capable of, they attribute to “spite” the video watching and other transgressions that occur when you are alone. Obviously, you resent being left alone, they figure. You are walked several times a day and left crossword puzzle

books to do. You have never used them because you hate crosswords; the Gorns think you’re ignoring them out of revenge.

Worst of all, you like them. They are, after all often nice to you. But when you smile at them, they punish you, likewise for shaking hands. If you apologize, they punish you again. You have not seen another human since you were a small child. When you see one on the street you are curious, excited, and sometimes afraid. You really don’t know how to act. So, the Gorn you live with keeps you away from other humans. Your social skills never develop.

Finally, you are brought to “training” school. A large part of the training consists of having your air briefly cut off by a metal chain around your neck. They are sure you understand every squeak and telepathic communication they make because you sometimes get it right. You are guessing and hate the training. You feel pretty stressed out most of the time. One day, you see a Gorn approaching with a training collar in hand. You have PMS, a sore neck and you just don’t feel up to the baffling coercion about to ensue. You tell them in your sternest voice to please leave you alone and go away. The Gorns are shocked by this unprovoked aggressive behavior. They thought you had a good temperament.

They put you in one of their vehicles and take you for a drive. You watch the attractive planetary landscape going by and wonder where you are going. The vehicle stops and you are led into a building with the smell of human sweat and excrement. Humans are everywhere in small cages. Some are nervous, some depressed, most watch the goings on from their prisons. Your Gorns, with whom you have lived your entire life, hand you over to strangers who drag you to a small room. You are terrified and yell for your Gorn family to help you. They turn and walk out the door of the building. You are held down and given a lethal injection. It is, after all, the human way to do it.

This nightmarish world is the one inhabited by many dogs all the time. Virtually all natural dog behaviors – chewing, barking, rough play, chasing moving objects, eating food items within reach, jumping up to access faces, settling disputes with threat displays, establishing contact with strange dogs, guarding resources, leaning in to steady pressure against their necks, urinating on porous surfaces like carpets, defending themselves from perceived threat – are considered behavior problems. The rules that seem so obvious to us make absolutely no sense to dogs.

If someone tried to punish out behaviors, you knew were necessary for maintaining your well-being or earning a living, would you cease doing them altogether or would you try to figure out when it was safe to do them and when it wasn’t safe? How would you feel about the punisher? What kind of credibility would they have? It is as inherently obvious to dogs that furniture, clothing and car interiors are good for chewing as it is inherently obvious to you that TV sets are good for watching. If I reprimand you for watching TV, your most likely course of action is simply watch TV when I’m not around. And you’re a large-brained, conscience-laden human.

We smart, moral beings do this kind of discriminating all the time. Take speeding on the highways. A lot of people get tickets. Wat’s the actual effect of this hefty punishment? An immediate suppression of the behavior: you slow down right after you get the ticket. You’re angry and upset. But what happens over the next few hours, days, and weeks? Most people start speeding again, although they will tell you that they fully understand that speeding is against the law, that it is potentially very dangerous, and they understand the penalty if they are caught. Those last four words are the key: if they are caught. What is typically obtained with punishment is finer discrimination: you get better at smelling out speed traps, at knowing where and when you can speed. This is the typical result obtained with punishment. We are subject to the laws of learning. So are dogs, but with less incentive from understanding the potential harm of their behavior. Dogs cannot have moral failings as they cannot knowingly act against the common good. They therefor never self-punish with guilt and self-recrimination as we do. This doesn’t make them morally inferior. It’s just how they are. We take far too personally phenomena that are simply products of animal learning laws.

Similarly, burning your mouth on pizza makes you check the temperature of the pizza next time before digging in but doesn’t stop you from it again. This is because pizza tastes good and you know this. An organism will always look for a way around the punishment to get the reinforcer if there is one. It’s useful in fact to think of punishments as obstacles to overcome on the way to reinforcement. Likewise, a dog will rarely find it “wrong” or quit cold turkey his habit of digging in the azaleas although he may learn it’s dangerous to do so when you’re there. What else could a flowerbed possibly be for, to a dog? Whenever you punish, you’re the cop giving out the speeding ticket to a not so sophisticated and amoral being who really wants and maybe even needs to speed. Oh, he’ll stop for a while if the fine is hefty, but he’ll sooner or later be back to speeding and he’ll be better at avoiding speed traps.


HUMAN                                      DOG

FURNITURE                              CHEW TOY

FOOTWEAR                              CHEW TOY

CAR                                             RETREATING OBJECT

CAR INTERIOR                        CHEW TOY

CARPET                                     TOILET

DOG FOOD                                FOOD

HORS D’OEUVRES                  FOOD

KLEENEXES                             FOOD

CELLO                                        CHEW TOY

BOOK                                          CHEW TOY

CAT                                             RETREATING OBJECT

SQUIRREL                                 RETREATING OBJECT

PLASTIC WRAP                       FOOD

HI-FI SPEAKERS                      CHEW TOY

ROCK                                          FOOD (LABRADOR)

Copied from:

The Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson, Chapter Four “It’s All Chew Toys to Them”

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