A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine gave me a book entitled Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. The non-fiction book is based on studies done at MIT and other universities where higher pay and bonuses resulted in better performance ONLY if the task consisted of basic, mechanical skills. It worked for problems with a defined set of steps and a single answer. If the task involved cognitive skills, decision-making, creativity, or higher-order thinking, higher pay resulted in lower performance. After finishing the book I started to draw parallels between our world and the animal world.

Recently I found a Ted talk from Daniel Pink called The Puzzle of Motivation on YouTube, very interesting and definitely worth a watch. In his Ted talk he references Duncker’s candle problem. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s outlined below.

Duncker’s Candle Problem

Ducker’s goal was to find out how problem solving works.

Many of the people who attempted the test explored other creative, but less efficient methods to achieve the goal.

Daniel explained this story as a reflection of motivation. How does a consequence effect the performance of people? The motivation can change drastically with adding a predicted consequence.

The test was created by Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker and is a cognitive performance test, measuring the influence of functional fixedness on a participant’s problem solving capabilities. It was called Duncker’s Candle Problem and this is how it went:

You have 2 groups of people, group A and group B. Both are in a different room. The challenge that Dunker gave to both groups was exactly the same but he told the 2 groups different consequences.Both groups are given a small open box with thumbtacks, a candle and matches. Each group is asked to attach the candle to the wall and light it. The challenge is that the wax from the candle can’t drip onto the table. Duncker said to group A, ‘I want you to find out the average time to solve this problem in’. To group B he said, ‘the fastest person will get $20, the rest will get $5’.

Daniel then asked the Ted talk audience who they believed solved the challenge the fastest? Right away the audience screamed ‘Group B!’.

Turns out Group B was the slowest of the two groups. There was a second part to the test where Duncker decided to take the thumbtacks out and put them next to the box on the table. He asked for the same thing for both groups. This time Group B was definitely faster.

What came out of the study was that, depending on the difficulty of the test, the consequence can block creativity. If you add a strong reinforcer to the problem the team had to solve, their sight of thinking more creatively was a lot narrower than when it was for a simple answer, such as discovering the average time.

This makes me wonder, can we actually teach the animals to think with us? To let them help us solve the challenges we have ahead of ourselves?

You will have heard me say many times, that we should listen to the animal, that we should look at the answers they give us. This allows us to find out different angles on problems to solve. If we can even call it a problem.

Recently, I’ve talked with ZSL London Zoo keepers about their gorillas. One of the topics was choice and control, they asked us if we utilised it in our Zoo, I explained that we did and so I asked the same question to them. They explained that they used to have a gorilla that was reinforced by the choices she could make on her own. Whenever she was asked to do something, before she even did it, she would point out what reinforcement she wanted for the behaviour.

Chimp Phil playing the puzzle. Credit: Image courtesy of Zoological Society of London

It seemed that she chose the same reinforcer over and over again, so the keepers decided to just use that particular chosen reinforcer every time they would train her. Surprisingly, the gorilla didn’t want to participate anymore. They explained that she stopped participating since removing her choice. So they decided to get the choices back again, her response was back to participating directly. We can assume this meant that she preferred having the control, over the reinforcement she was choosing, and that the ability to choose was what was reinforcing for her.

When training the animals and we only use the same high food reinforcers, aren’t we just blocking the creative mind of the species in front of us and there for label them with insulting meanings?

Puzzling Chimpanzee

I read a story about a chimpanzee that was presented with a puzzle box for cognitive enrichment purposes, based off a paper written by Fay Clark. The goal was to move a nut through a maze of different challenges to eventually have the nut so he could eat it. The nut was replaced with a dice, to everybody’s surprise the animal kept on solving the puzzle.

ZSL researcher Fay Clark says: “We noticed that the chimps were keen to complete the puzzle regardless of whether or not they received a food reward. This strongly suggests they get similar feelings of satisfaction to humans who often complete brain games for a feel-good reward”.

I think creativity comes from an intrinsic thought process, where our curiosity is fed by why questions and the need to discover. If we are blocking the vision of creativity in species while training them, we might only touch a very small percentage of what the animals are actually capable of doing. Should we use different reinforcers? Or should we try to teach the animal to do it for their own sake just like the chimpanzee?

Intrinsic motivation is harder than we think, just because it happens in the mind of the animals. The beautiful part is that we can discover so much more if we are creative about the way we get there.

How can you get your animals to use their intelligence to your advantage? Something to think about while training our animals.

Do you have questions? Want to know more? Or just want to be inspired? Follow us on Instagram #Zoospensefull and Facebook. We also have a facebook group with different videos, documents and discussions. Join right here if you want to learn more: Zoospensefull – Conditioning a Creative Way



Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


Terry Golson · January 8, 2019 at 16:34

Sorry, Karen isn’t blogging 🙂 But, she’s working on a bigger project, and you’ll be able to read a chapter soon. Keep an eye on my website. I should have a link by the end of the week!

PeterGiljam · January 8, 2019 at 16:25

Thank you Terry! Yes I agree. There for we should look more into what we give as consequence. I try to do the same as what you say Karen does. Need to ask Karen Pryor if she would like to write a guest blog for me 🙂

Terry Golson · January 8, 2019 at 14:35

Peter, I think variability in consequences keeps everyone more interested. I’ve watched Karen train, and her genius is that nothing is rote – everything she does is in response to the animal. The animal shows a spark, and she has a response that builds on it. Also, she is always increasing criteria.

PeterGiljam · January 8, 2019 at 09:46

Dear Terry,
Thats cool you discussed this topic. I’ve seen it dolphins as well but would that be that we are very variable in our consequences? It makes me wonder many things. We tend to go quickly into the “they like this so I will only use this for reinforcement. Thank you for your thoughts!!!


Jenny Haskins · January 8, 2019 at 00:26

Wonderful article. Wonderful comment, Terry Golson

Terry Golson · January 7, 2019 at 16:07

I was having a discussion on this topic with Karen Pryor yesterday! (We often meet for tea and conversation.) She said that when working with the students in orthopedic surgery (doing Tag Teach to teach surgical techniques) the reinforcer was the dopamine surge when the students got it right. (They’re not handed treats when they’re sawing into fake arms – of course doing the task well is highly motivating in and of itself) She said that animals, too, get this. For the dolphins that she trained, the excitement of doing the show was a reinforcement, and that the animals thrived on the “thrill of achievement.” I do dressage with my horse, and when he masters a movement, I swear he tells me “I’ve got this!” She said that 3 clicks and treats in one training session for these learners was plenty. Just enough to tell them that when they’re on the right track for something new.

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