2018-06-20

The Cat Training / Driver Training Metaphor

[Eighth in the highly unpopular "metaphor series." See also: New OrleansBicycling/DancingVikings stadium/Star Wars, bikes/guns, gas/pop, NIMBY/Amtrak, and soup/housing.]

[The guilty party.]
The other day, my cat peed in my sandal again. This happens about once every six months and each time I curse loudly and then begin cleaning up. I scrub the sandal with baking soda and soap and leave it out in the sun to dry. 

The one thing I don’t do is yell at my cat. 

(I think I did it once, years ago, when catching her in the act. She ran away of course, but she kept peeing.)

Yelling at the cat is pretty much the most useless possible reaction to the situation. It accomplishes nothing because cats do not speak english, nor do they comprehend human communication. Talking to your cat is a meaningless gesture*.

Instead, the only effective response to a cat peeing in the house is environmental. Re-double your efforts to keep the cat box clean and tidy. Keep things off the floor. Scrub and desensitize the affected areas of the house, using special anti-cat smell compounds available at any pet or hardware store. The only thing that works is to change and control the environment.

Here's the metaphor: this situation is exactly the same with car drivers. 

Yes, cats are just like car drivers.

For the most part, enforcement efforts (e.g. “stop for me”), safety campaigns on billboards, or televised PSAs are about as effective as yelling at your cat. When confronted with bad behavior, the vast majority of the problem — something like 90% — is environmental. Car drivers, just like cats, overwhelmingly respond to  behavioral cues rather than anything psychological or cognitive. 

This isn't to say you can't achieve anything with enforcement or public safety awareness campaigns. It’s possible to slightly tweak collective behavior at the very margins for a small percentage of drivers. There are some people who will put a “I STOP 4 PEDS” magnet on their car, or pay attention to a police enforcement effort.






[Like herding cats.]
In much the same way, it’s possible — though extremely difficult — to train cats.  

I know this because I’ve attended performances by The Amazing Acro-Cats of Chicago, Illinois on two different occasions. The Amazing Acro-Cats are the #1 trained cat circus in the United States, if not the world, and thanks to the tireless efforts of head trainer Samantha Martin, they perform somewhat amazing tricks like jumping on pedestals, pushing a small cylinder across a stage, and “playing" musical instruments. 

It's amazing, but more because of the efforts made by the trainer than the cats. The cats do these all of these tasks in response to a constant stimulus of positive feedback, the trainers using a “click stick" and cat treats.

(One warning at both shows: “Please do not be alarmed if the cats run off the stage and into the theater. They are cats after all.” Of course this happened; they are cats, after all.)

Training cats is like training drivers, pretty much impossible and only done with extreme dedication and continual attention. In both cases, the vast majority of the time, it’s not worth doing.

Instead, when there’s an accident [sic], the correct response is to change the environment. That’s the only thing that works. 

If the cat pees on your shoes, clean up the house and keep your shoes off the floor. If there’s a fatal crash at an intersection, remove a lane, install a bumpout, add green paint, or tighten the corners. 

Without changing the environment, nothing is accomplished. Yelling at drivers is like yelling at cats. “Training” drivers for a week or a month is next to useless. You might as well post a list of “house rules" in front of your cat’s food bowl. Just as with cats, the environment trumps everything else.


Note: this does not keep people from talking to their cats. Though I try to avoid talking to my cat, in principle, sometimes my psychological need to anthropomorphize a furry animal with the brain the size of a walnut wins out. This says more about the owner than the cat.

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