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Productivity placebo effect

Have you ever heard of those productivity studies, where no matter what researchers do, productivity goes up (at least temporarily)? Paint gray walls pink. Productivity goes up. Paint them gray again. Productivity goes up. Pipe in music. Productivity goes up. Pull the music … you get the picture. Sometimes that’s how I feel about all the ways I try to help Lilly overcome hear shyness and fear. Everything seems to help, at least at first. I’m beginning to think we have a productivity placebo effect.

I’m either A) seeing small improvements merely because I really want SOMETHING to work (the classic placebo effect), or I’m experiencing what Temple Grandin describes in her book “Animals in Translation” as “confirmation bias,” where animals (and people) see cause and effect. OR, maybe it’s a combination of both.

There really are things that Lilly can now do that she could not do before … like walk calmly through a busy farmer’s market or sit quietly at an outdoor cafe while I eat. Some of these gains came along in the timeline with the use of Rescue Remedy and Nutracalm. Did they help? I thought so, at first. Now, I’m not so sure.

I’ve pulled Lilly off nearly all the supplements we’ve tried and then reintroduced them singularly to see, in my quasi-scientific way, if I could pinpoint the winner, but so far I’ve had no luck.

(Just to be clear, there are no magic pills or potions. Every medical treatment, if that’s how you categorize such supplementation, must be paired with behavior modification work.)

There’s a lot of information in Grandin’s book and Patricia McConnell’s two books that I will share in the coming weeks — consider it my summer of book reports, or my version of doggie Cliff Notes. But, for now, let’s look at the concept of confirmation bias, where we assume that correlation is cause (see page 99 in Grandin’s book to read more about it.)

She says, in part:

“Confirmation bias is built into animal and human brains,
and it helps us learn. We learn because our default assumption is that if Event 1
is followed closely by Event 2, then Event 1 caused Event 2. Our default
assumption isn’t that Events 1 and 2 happened at the same time by coincidence.
Coincidence is actually a fairly advanced concept both for animals and for
people. That’s why in statistics courses you have to formally teach students
that a correlation isn’t automatically a cause. Our brains are wired to see
correlations as causes, period. Since in real life a lot of times Event 1 does
cause Event 2, confirmation bias helps us make the connection.”

When we click/treat a dog, it helps them recognize the cause and effect of certain behaviors we’re hoping to shape.

But, as I try to solve her issues, I also get stuck in believing that certain things help, when perhaps they really don’t. I begin to get a little obsessive-compulsive about things. If I don’t do A, B, C, and D, then we’re going to have a crappy day at class. Then, again, sometimes I think I do everything “right,” and we still have a tough day.

Grandin explains: “The downside to having a built-in confirmation bias is that
you also make a lot of unfounded causal connections. That’s what a superstition
is …”

“Animals,” she adds, “develop superstitions all the time thanks to
confirmation bias.”

Great! Now, we’re both nuts!

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.