Natural Pinball-Manship

Remember playing pinball, the coin-operated arcade game? This is a game where the player attempts to score points by manipulating (whacking) one or more metal balls on a play field inside the pinball machine.

As I was contemplating the current popular trends in horse training, I couldn’t help but note the similarities between the game of pinball and pressure/release/aversive/intimidation based horse training. In the game of pinball, the ball is directed by flippers, mechanically controlled levers that whack the ball throughout the playfield. These flippers are the main control that the player has over the ball.

When the ball is moving along the correct path, the player has no need to whack the ball. (Release of pressure or aversives) In a sense, if the ball were sentient, it would quickly identify the correct path by the lack of whacking. The only way it would know it was doing something wrong, like moving right instead of left, was by forceful contact with the flipper. (Punishment, aversives, intimidation) This is perhaps why pinball is so fun for the player, the forceful, skilled whacking gets the job done. The player has asserted hierarchy over the pinball and shown it who’s boss. Fortunately, the cute little metal pinball has no feelings or defense mechanisms and can’t escape its glass cage.

Let’s say a positive reinforcement pinball player enters the game. This player has decided that whacking isn’t a fair way to tell the ball what to do,  but still enjoys the challenge of directing the pinball through the maze to the to the target. So instead of using flippers to forcefully direct the ball, he simply pulls out a magnet from his pocket. The pinball feels the draw of the magnet and is instantly attracted. The player then proceeds to move the magnet through the maze with the pinball following easily, steadily, smoothly, directly in line.

If we were to ask the pinball which method it preferred to be played, do you think it would say the forceful headache inducing flipper whacking or the effortless attraction to the magnet?

I recently spoke with a director of a several prominent zoos. At his zoos, they employ exclusively positive reinforcement/operant conditioning with even the most powerful creatures such as bull elephants. He told me a terrific story of a wild bull elephant who for a mere apple, quickly learned a complex chain of behaviors, that cured a dangerous cuticle infection.

The big deal here is that normally, elephants when presented with 300 lb jumbo sized foot soaking tubs will yell “Trebuchet!” and hurl the tub out of the enclosure. Compounding the difficulty, how many folks can simply walk up to a wild hormonal elephant and say Lend me your ear so I can poke you with sharp object? All these death defying feats were accomplished smoothly, quickly, easily and systematically by attracting the elephant into the behavior.  No super charged electric prods, tranquilizer guns, spears, ropes or elephant sized flipper paddles used to intimidate or establish leadership, just an apple.

The director then explained to me that the use of operant conditioning as a method to communicate with wild animals was the first time he could sleep at night knowing his animal keepers and the animals were safe.

If I were a television producer, I would bet that attraction-based pinball playing would not satiate audience’s desire for drama and action. However, there are many thankful zoo keepers that hinge their lives on the drama-less power that operant conditioning/positive reinforcement/red delicious training provides. Not to mention all the animals that feel good with the opportunity to use their brain rather than being treated like a pinball.



2 thoughts on “Natural Pinball-Manship

  1. great post.

    I love the pinball analogy.

    And isn’t it true, in a game of pinball, that the ball spends the whole time trying to get to the slot at the bottom and escape the game? You’re right, it sure doesn’t want to play!!

    And people wonder why so many horses are hard to catch.


    • Thanks so much! And thanks for your insight.

      I hadn’t thought about the escape part! And so many are subjected to all sorts of things like round pens, lunge lines, tie downs etc where there is no escape and unless they are in the hands of an understanding trainer, you can bet catching them (since they are taught to move away from stomping, shushing, whips etc) will be challenge—


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