Nobody expects an animal to change its behavior overnight, unless that animal is of the species homo sapiens. And that simple realization has changed journalist Amy Sutherland’s life, for the better.
Two years ago, after attending a school for exotic animal trainers for a book project, Sutherland had an insight: What works on animals ought to work on humans.
Using her own husband as her test subject, she applied the same techniques to training him that animal trainers use on killer whales, baboons and every other manner of critter. She wrote an article for The New York Times about it, and it became that newspaper’s most e-mailed article of the year.
It inspired so much interest, and so many interviews, that Sutherland turned it into a book: “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons from Animals and Their Trainers.” A movie is to follow.
“The cool thing about the animal kingdom — which we’re in — is that there’s a fundamental principal in that we all gravitate toward what we like and away from what we don’t like,” Sutherland told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Tuesday in New York. “We reach for the ice-cream cone, and we avoid the kick in the pants. That works with humans too.”
In her Times article, she had written: “I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.
“The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.”
Her insight isn’t new, but it might as well be. In the 1940s, B.F. Skinner, one of the towering figures in psychology, outlined the same principles Sutherland discovered some 60 years later. But Skinner didn’t have the same way with words as Sutherland, nor did he write about using his discoveries on his spouse.
Unlike Skinner, Sutherland has connected not just with American women, but with women — and men — around the world.
“It’s a wonderful book,” psychologist Helen Fisher, who joined the discussion on the TODAY Show, said.
“We are animals, and we grew up in these little hunting and gathering bands where everybody had to adjust their behavior constantly. And the brain is built to pick up on tiny little cues,” Fisher said. “We have this whole reward system in the brain. We want to feel good. We want to be flipped the fish and so we will respond. We’re built to respond, to please.”
In setting out to change her husband, Fisher found that she changed herself. And her husband, Scott, learned to use her own techniques on her, so that they were training each other.
“It was really about two things,” she said. “It was about me deciding what behavior did I like and encouraging that, because too often we let those moments get past us; we’re busy thinking about what somebody’s doing wrong or what they did wrong yesterday. And then the fundamental thing is that I changed myself. I changed my behavior hoping to change his behavior. But he ultimately was the one who responded.”
In a separate interview with NBC News, Scott quipped: “I sort of aspire to be a higher primate anyway. So if that helps me, great.”
“He’s a sweetheart,” Sutherland said.
Does it really work, Morales asked?
“Absolutely,” Sutherland said. “When you’re going to teach a dolphin how to do a flip, you don’t all of a sudden blow your whistle and say, ‘OK, now flip.’ You teach it, one step by one step. I translated this into human behavior — to look for small bits of progress instead of expecting something brand new all of a sudden.”
She put it in terms most women who have shared living quarters with the male of the species are familiar with:
“Like if somebody’s a slob and they’ve been a slob their whole life, they’re not going to completely pick up everything on the bathroom floor the very next day. But they may pick up one thing, and it’s worth noticing that.”
She said she feels she just hit a sort of literary jackpot with her story. “It sort of hit the trifecta of humor, animals and human behavior — and news you could use at home,” she said.
Added Fisher, the psychologist: “If you can train a pigeon, you can train a man.”