Frustration Theory, Labels and Their Implications

(Original Post September 27, 2015)

For the past few years, I have been improving my understanding of Frustration Theory (Abram Ansel, 1992) and the descriptive behavioral concept end points of dispositional learning. Fancy words, but really it boils down to this: I’ve been interested in how frustration as experienced by the learner (be it dog, child, or adult) can be expressed through one of four ways, and how this impacts the educator/trainer and also the learner. I have taught this theory in general terms to my MBA students as it relates to responses to stress, but it hadn’t really hit home for me personally until Kelsey and Parker entered my life. This has really come to the forefront as my youngest has entered the formal education system. As an educator in the University system, parent, and dog trainer, I’ve really reflected on this and feel the need to share an important emerging hypothesis/idea. So let’s begin!

Everyone experiences frustration at some point. Frustration is when expectations are not met (either consciously or unconsciously via classical conditioning). Formally, it is described as the interplay between rewards and frustrative nonrewards from essentially the same behavior (Ansel, 1992). Basically it means, you expect a reward (be it intrinsic like solving the problem, or extrinsic like receiving praise or cookie) but there is none. There are four behavioral outcomes to experiencing frustration for all animals (including humans – children and adults), which are: suppression, regression, invigoration, and persistence. Again, fancy words, but here’s what they mean.

Suppression is when the individual appears to give up. They stop trying and look passive. For dogs, it can be expressed through slowing down, sniffing, stopping and staring at the handler, or leaving and wanting to go into their crate / car. In humans it can look like day-dreaming, giving up, helplessness, avoidance.

Regression is when the individual repeatedly offers a behavior that worked in the past, but is no longer working. I tell my students that it’s the individual standing at the crosswalk repeatedly pressing the button, because “it will work eventually.” It’s the dog who repeatedly offers a down when you are actually looking for a stand, or it goes through its well-rehearsed full cookie-song-and-dance, when all you want is a new behavior (stand still).

Invigoration is when the individual expresses their frustration through an increase in emotional and energetic response. This can look like two types of behaviors: zoomies/hyperactivity where the individual runs around, giggles or screams in a manic-seemingly-hyper way; or through aggressive means of screaming/barking, destroying or throwing items, biting, or punching/pinching. It’s the individual who says, “ARGH!!! I don’t get it!!!” and slams the book onto the table.

Finally, persistence is when the individual repetitively attempts new behaviors to solve the problem. It’s the dog that keeps offering new behaviors until they get the reward (click-treat). It’s the child who keeps trying different strategies to solve a problem. It’s the adult who attempts different things, including asking for help or reading the instructions, to solve a technical problem with their cable TV.

The thing about these four responses to frustration is that everyone does these, and everyone (animal/human) has a predisposition or tendency to one or more of these. For example, I know that as a child, my predisposition was towards invigoration. Throughout the years, I have learned to rely more on persistence; however, invigoration can still boil under the surface for me.

The interesting problem for educators and trainers is what we do when we see these behaviors and predispositions. If there is one thing I have learned in my field and working with adults in industry and my students, is that people love labels and buckets. They love being able to say, “Oh, that person is an ENFJ (from Meyers-Briggs) and so that means X, Y, Z about that person,” or “Oh, he’s a Taurus, that means he can be stubborn.” (Both, by the way, are not predictively valid labels.) Labels enable us to use cognitive shortcuts so we can interact more easily than spending the time and energy to really get to know each other. It’s a human thing, and in many ways, a necessary thing. Stereotypes are necessary for us to function. However, when the stereotypes become prejudicial, we have a serious problem. Prejudicial stereotypes are when there is an evaluation assigned to the stereotype, and it is usually a negative evaluation.

The more I look at our training of dogs and the education system, the more I see the prejudicial use of labels on the different behavioral outcomes of dispositional learning. The dog/child who suppresses is lazy, a day-dreamer and unable to focus, and a problem. The dog/child who regresses is stubborn and unwilling to learn or try new things, and a problem and might be beyond help. The dog/child who invigorates through hyperactivity is aloof, a goof, hyper, and needs to be more serious, and a problem to be fixed with sternness and medication or corrective means (i.e., yelling at them). The dog/child who invigorates through aggression is a bully, aggressive, dominant, and a problem to be addressed through corrective means (i.e., punishment). The persistent dog/child is the star pupil, brilliant, a pure pleasure, and not a problem.

The issue with prejudice is four-fold:
1) It puts the onus on the target (child/dog) and makes it part of who they are, not about the context they are facing.
2) It permits the educator/trainer to act in a way that is less humane or caring towards that individual.
3) It also shifts the focus from what the educator/trainer is doing in setting up the educational context (something that the educator/trainer actually controls and can change) to the characteristic of the learner (something that the educator/trainer cannot change and has no control over).
4) This shift of focus actually increases the level of frustration for the educator/trainer as well, because they are now in a situation where there is a problem and it is beyond their control.

There are differing opinions and practices of the role of frustration in learning. For some animal trainers, like those working with lions and killer whales, frustration in training can literally kill the trainer (e.g., Bob Bailey, in conversation; Blackfish (2013); Susan Garrett, in presentation). For some dog trainers, frustration is systematically introduced to train the animal how to respond in a persistent manner in the face of frustration (e.g., Susan Garrett). The educational systems also differ internationally in the role of frustration. Some systems, like North America, don’t appear to factor it into the pedagogical and curriculum; whereas others, like China, do (e.g., Susan Garrett, presentation). Given the school-shootings and the increasing pervasiveness of teenage/pre-teen depression in North America, it might behoove us to seriously attend to the role of frustration that is occurring within our educational system.

As a trainer, when I see frustration as a response from a dog, I know it has been over-faced with a challenge, and that as the trainer, I need to bring in small wins and break down the challenge for the dog. Sometimes I have the knowledge and skill set to address it, sometimes I need help from behavioralists or other like-minded trainers. The same thing applies to humans. I can guarantee you, I would get a large expression of frustration from my students (expressed all four styles within a class of 75 students) if I asked them to calculate the standard deviation of a data set, by hand, when I have only taught them how to calculate a mean of that data set. Some would persist, some would regress, some would suppress and some would invigorate.

From an educational perspective, I see major challenges for teachers who have curriculum imposed on them, and large classroom sizes. It would be very easy for over-facing to occur. To make it even more complicated, within classrooms, over-facing can come from multiple sources: social interaction, behavioral and physical requirements, and class content.

The challenge we face as a society, educators, trainers, and parents is to resist the labelling of the dispositional learning endpoints, look at ways to prevent over-facing the learners, while still allowing opportunity for small wins and the development of persistence.

I don’t have the final answer, but I do know the easy first, small-wins, step is to drop the labels and to realize it is likely simple frustration, the learner is over-faced and in need of help to learn how to find the small wins.

(For more information on small wins, you may read my Training Thought “Small Wins” from June 7, 2015.)


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