Overcoming the pop-out effect
The technical term for our neurological bias toward presence is “visual search asymmetry,” but I prefer the plain old nickel talk: “pop-out.”
Build a better relationship with your horse---and improve your partnership--by training yourself to identify and reward the absence of misbehavior.
Young Opie is still learning to respect human space and stand quietly while being tacked up. He has a long way to go before he can trot a ground pole, negotiate a bridge or jump a Grand Prix course. And, naturally, he’ll make mistakes along the way. For one thing, the 3-year-old sometimes tries to rub his face against people while being bridled. His trainer doesn’t want to make a federal case out of this, given that Opie has so many more critical lessons to learn. At least he’s dropping his head and accepting the bit! So, each time the gelding turns to touch her, the trainer pushes his face away, gently but firmly. She does not punish misdemeanors, but she does not allow them to continue. For several days, she bridles from the left, Opie turns to her and tries to rub, and she pushes his face back to center. Her brain is designed to notice his misbehavior. One day, the young horse holds his face forward while being bridled. In effect, he is asking a question---“Is this what you want?” But the trainer doesn’t realize that she has been asked a question; human brains are unlikely to notice the absence of a misbehavior. As a result, Opie has been shown the one thing not to do, but he doesn’t know which of a thousand alternate behaviors to offer instead. What’s more, he receives no reward when he produces the desired behavior.
You might imagine that the trainer’s failure to notice Opie’s effort is merely coincidental, but it’s not. Human brains are designed to perceive presence automatically, but perceiving absence requires time, effort and attention. This innate neurological bias causes us to miss chances to teach our horses what we expect by rewarding them for desired performance.
ATTENTION TO PRESENCE
Human brain bias toward presence is easy to demonstrate. Look at illustration A (page 38) and find the horse with a forelock. OK, great. Now, check out illustration B and find the horse without a forelock. For a stronger demonstration, show both arrays to someone who hasn’t seen this article and time him while he searches each one.
DEMONSTRATION: The human brain is designed to perceive presence automatically, but noticing absence requires time, effort and attention. To experience the pop-out effect, compare how long it takes for you to find the horse with a forelock in illustration A with the time it takes to identify the horse without a forelock in illustration B.
It takes longer to search for the absence of something than to notice the presence of the same thing. Consequently, people require more time to find the horse whose forelock is absent, even though this image would be very unusual. The process feels more difficult, too; you have to look more carefully at illustration B than at illustration A. These differences in time and effort occur because our brains have to work against themselves to search for absence. They must override their natural bias toward presence and search each face for a forelock. Seeking presence is automatic: The one forelock pops out of the array with no effort. Seeking absence requires work. This result is so reliable that it’s used in teaching the basics of cognitive science and research methods to college students. It’s every science professor’s dream---forgiving enough to accommodate a budding experimenter’s mistakes, but strong enough to yield a statistically significant effect. Most psychological effects result in tiny
differences measured by millisecond timers, but we can prove pop-out with the second hand on a cheap wristwatch.
The technical term for our neurological bias toward presence is “visual search asymmetry,” but I prefer the plain old nickel talk: “popout.” Discovered during the 1980s by cognitive scientist Anne Treisman, pop-out occurs across ethnicities, social backgrounds, age ranges, incomes and educational levels. It persists regardless of the number of items in the display. In other words, you will find the forelock (in illustration A) in the same amount of time regardless of whether it is embedded among 50 horse faces or 500. It’s an unconscious and involuntary process.
On the other hand, finding the horse without a forelock (in illustration B) requires attention. We must search the display item by item, taking time to inspect each face briefly. Because of that effortful search, finding the absence of a forelock takes more time as the overall number of items in the display increases.
What I’m getting at is this: Human brains are biased powerfully in the direction of presence and use different brain processes for the two types of search. For that reason, we must train ourselves to identify the absence of misbehavior that horses use when they ask whether they are meeting our expectations.
REASONS FOR SEARCH ASYMMETRY
Why do our brains rely so much on presence rather than absence? The two most credible possibilities are evolution and memory. First, brains evolved over time, with greater survival among individuals who could find food and notice threats quickly. There is little evolutionary need for speed at identifying the absence of berries on a bush. Instead, survival depends on the presence of berries. Likewise, in a world where predators chase you down and eat you, it’s much more important to notice a predator than to get all riled up about its absence.
Second, in addition to the evolutionary argument, a stimulus acts as a reminder to brains that are focused on other activities. Let’s return to Opie for a moment. We are bridling the horse because we are focused on preparing him to be ridden. We are busy grooming, tacking up, contemplating the more critical lessons to come over the next hour or so. If Opie doesn’t rub today, we forget that it’s an issue. To overcome this brain-based slant, we have to study the horse’s efforts to communicate. Once you bring absence of misbehavior into your training radar, you will expand your ability to identify and reward it. Seek the good!
Our human inclination to ignore the absence of misbehavior is relevant not only to interactions with our horses,
but with all of our animal and human friends. Close family members hear little from us when they are behaving well, but all too much when they do something wrong. Turn that equation around, and you’ll have happier interactions with more positive behavior.
If human and equine brains evolved over time to find food and notice threats, shouldn’t horses also experience search asymmetry? I’m willing to guess that they do. Vertebrate mammalian brains have much physiology in common, and perception is critical to all of them. Items that pop out automatically in the human brain include presence, color, shape, movement and tilt.
Certainly, movement would pop out automatically to the equine brain. The horse is designed to run, not to stand around pondering an approaching lion: “Hmm, could be a cat, awfully large though, let’s just wait and see.” No, a horse’s brain needs to capture movement unconsciously and send him on his way pronto. That’s why he tends to shy and bolt at unexpected motion. He doesn’t have the time---or the capacity---to deliberate.
A common complaint among riders is that a horse has seen an object “a million times” and still shies from it. Yes, the horse is hard-wired to shy; that will be his natural reaction every time. At best, he will learn to overcome that natural reaction, but it doesn’t just vanish. We can help our equine friends by overruling our own search asymmetry. Watch for instances in which the horse does not shy from a scary sight and praise him for that absence of misbehavior. As he becomes more relaxed, invite him to explore the object from a distance and reward him for quiet curiosity. Show him that dominant horses and familiar people are not afraid of it. Eventually, your horse will be curious enough--and will trust you enough---to approach and sniff all sides of the item. Patience and reward are much more effective than insistence.
Colors that are visible to a horse are likely to pop out as well. Horses see blues, greens and some yellows clearly---use these colors to be sure a horse notices hazards. For example, red survey tape tied to flag a temporary fence is invisible to a horse against a green pasture. Instead, use bright yellow, which will pop out. Whether horses experience the bias of presence as opposed to absence will require empirical testing. Certainly, horses are excellent observers, noticing the presence of new or unusual objects and tiny differences in placement or brightness that humans rarely perceive. But what about absence? Based on anecdote and experience, my guess is that their brains are biased against finding absence, just as ours are. It would be the very rare horse to shy from an object that is suddenly missing!
DO OR DON’T
Successful training depends on a horse’s ability to understand what we expect. We can reduce equine confusion by honing our ability to identify the absence of misbehavior. Opie is trying to crack the formidable code of human expectation---let’s help him out.
Too often, we communicate which behaviors we don’t want but fail to convey which ones we do want. We tell the horse, in effect, “Don’t wiggle, don’t buck, don’t jig, don’t shy, don’t bolt, don’t go too fast, don’t go too slow, don’t, don’t, don’t.” It’s like a broken record---for those of us who remember records---in which the horse is constantly being corrected rather than encouraged.
The horse learns quickly what we do not want because we show him. Yep, no bucking under saddle, got it. But think of how much more complicated it is for a horse---or a dog, child, friend, spouse---to suss out what we do want. The possibilities are endless! With animals, we have to use nonverbal communication including reward to convey our expectations.
Begin to think in terms of what you
want from your horse: “Do stand still, do move forward, do walk on, do observe scary things calmly, do slow down when asked, do rely on me.” Turning your manner of perception upside down--from don’ts to do’s---is not as easy as it might seem. It takes time and effort because of our innate brain asymmetry. But thinking in this way increases your reward opportunities. Suddenly, the horse is being taught how much he does well, what a good horse he is, how easy it is to be successful at meeting human expectations. As your attitude becomes more pleasant, he can learn in comfort. The animal’s motivation to perform increases dramatically when we arrange opportunities for him to succeed.
A horse who receives praise for various behaviors will sometimes “guess” what you want. One of my horses was not permitted to eat for 12 hours prior to general anesthesia for surgery. When I arrived the morning of the operation, he began performing his reward repertoire, one action after another, in hopes of receiving food. I use edible rewards sparingly, so he had to choose from only a few behaviors.
He started with a big “down dog” yoga stretch, forelegs straight out in front of him, nose between his knees, croup high. No luck. He stared at me, then tried it again, legs almost parallel to the floor this time. He held the pose. I began to feel guilty. He moved on to popping his lips together, an action I had rewarded years ago to countercondition pawing. That didn’t work. He touched my arm, then walked to his empty feed bucket and turned to me. He touched the flat bucket with his front hoof. Nope. He raised his head and stared over the top of the stall door at a bale of hay across the aisle, then moved his huge eyes from the hay to me and back again. Nothing worked---I praised and stroked him, but anything edible would risk his life during anesthesia. At the risk of sounding hopelessly anthropomorphic, I swear the horse was disappointed with my poor performance. Horses communicate with us all the time, just not in the way humans communicate with each other. Watch for your horse’s guesswork---if he throws varied behaviors at you in succession, he could be trying to figure out which one you want. When he stumbles on the right one, tell him! Let him know through gentle strokes or a return to his stall that he has succeeded. Give him an edible treat only if he’s figured out something truly important.
Every time you work with your horse, find something to praise. If necessary, set a task that you know he will do, just so you can reward him. Because your brain is biased against absence, try even harder to find some typical misbehavior that the horse has not done today. Reward him for not making the usual mistake, within a few seconds of his inaction, of course. Watch for his silent questions “Is this what you want?” and answer them. Soon you will have a horse who rewards you with the absence of misbehavior all the time.
Thinking in this way increases your reward opportunities. Suddenly, the horse is being taught how much he does well, what a good horse he is, how easy it is to be successful at meeting human expectations.