Moving the goalposts, changing the rules

When you’re training a dog, consistency is key. There’s a language barrier, so you’re teaching with either a carrot or a stick. The thing is, the dog has to understand what the reward or punishment is for.

This isn’t a post about training dogs. Hang with me for a bit.

There are some things that are innate to dogs that you need to teach at human scale. One trainer taught us about walking. The alpha walks in front. Always. The non-alpha dog’s hip doesn’t pass the alpha’s hip, and when the alpha stops, a line drawn between its front toes and extended past is the stop line for non-alpha dogs; crossing this line is a challenge to alpha status.

We can translate that pretty easily into human actions. When you’re walking a dog on a leash, the dog’s nose and even neck might extend past you, but as soon as the dog’s front hip passes you, the dog is leading the walk. When you stop with, say, your toes together, the dog might step in front of that line but if you’re alpha it should retreat behind your toes. as it stops.

You need to decide how to communicate that you will reward for compliance or punish for non-compliance, but that’s something a dog understands.

Something dogs don’t do innately is sit on command. They’ll do it when they understand it’s what you want, but you have to find a way to explain to the dog that sitting is what you want.

Once you establish these rules, any deviation from them is confusing to the dog. You can add new commands, but you can’t change the rules. You can change the reward or punishment, but it has to be for the same thing. The easiest way to explain this is shifting from a steady reward to a variable reward. To teach the behavior, you reward every time. To keep it going, you reward at random.

That’s a Skinner experiment, by the way. If you give a rat a treat every time it hits a lever and then stop the treats, it will only hit that lever a few times and then give up. If you give a rat a treat sometimes when it hits the lever and then stop the treats, it will keep hitting that lever for a while before it gives up.

So you can change the reward (or punishment), but again, you can’t change the rules.

It’s the same with people. Even the most flexible among us are unlikely to keep trusting someone who changes the rules.


What you can do, though, is move the goalposts.

It’s one thing I’ve been doing with my daughter. She knows the rules are, if she wants something that is somewhere she can reach it, it’s up to her to go get it. Sometimes, though, that something moves.

We go to the library for story time. There’s an area rug that’s a reasonable place for kids to crawl around, and, at the back of the rug there are two long upholstered benches, which effectively help section off the reading area.

We arrive early so we can pick out some books to read at home for the week, and to get some moving around in. Typically, I’ll put her somewhere on the rug in a seated position, put our tote on one end of the bench, and walk over to one bookcase and start grabbing books.

When the baby makes her way to the bench, pulls herself up and moves near the bag, I bring it all the way to the other end of the bench and choose books from the another bookshelf.

That’s moving the goalpost. I didn’t change the rules — the bag is still there when she reaches it and she still has to move to it — but I did move the goalpost.

You have to do this carefully, of course. If I never let her reach the goalpost, she’ll just give up. If you’re setting numbers goals for employees, you can’t move the goalposts, or they’ll never bother trying to get to the first one.

But you can set additional goalposts. You could set an additional incentive at 10 percent over the initial goal, for instance.

When I take the bag and bring it to a bookshelf on the other side of the bench — so that my daughter would have to either climb over the bench, crawl under it or go around it — now I’ve changed the rules. Instead of doing something she knows how to do and practicing it, I’ve made her solve a new problem. And yes, we certainly do that, but not as part of a game with different, known rules.


Now here’s an exercise for you.

• Where in your life are you changing the rules for others? This could include not properly explaining the rules — are you making covert contracts? — or changing the game entirely, such as changing from requiring your three-year-old to eat his vegetables to get dessert to using the toilet to get dessert without first setting up the new game?

• Where in your life are you changing the rules for you? Are you setting yourself up to fail, or worse, letting yourself off the hook/

• What goalposts can you move for yourself? Can you have better relationships, save more money, create more experiences, improve your health?

• What goalposts can you move for others? Can you challenge your friends, spouse or coworkers to be better?

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