The Magic Ratio for Relationships

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Clicker trainers and other positive reinforcement trainers spend their lives finding ways to say “yes” to their pets, rather than constantly saying “no.” B.F. Skinner’s research led him to conclude that reinforcement is a more powerful tool for modifying behavior than punishment. He reached this conclusion because his experiments showed that reinforcement creates a lasting change in behavior, while punishment’s effects on behavior are usually temporary.

In more recent years, a researcher named Dr. John Gottman has shown that the way married couples interact during an interview is a remarkably reliable predictor of whether they will stay married or not. In the course of his research, Dr. Gottman discovered what he calls “The Magic Relationship Ratio,” a ratio of at least five “positive” interactions for every one “negative” interaction between the parties. Couples who maintain or exceed that 5:1 ratio tend to stay together, while couples who have a worse ratio almost always get divorced.

If we accidentally (or intentionally) respond negatively to our spouse, we have language and other tools that can help us reduce the impact of that negative interaction. When we respond negatively to our pets, though, there’s really no good way to make up for it, since we can’t explain our actions. It’s therefore particularly important to make our interactions with our pets as positive as possible, since we can’t “fix it” when we accidentally (or intentionally) punish them.

For some ideas on how to improve your ratio of positive to negative interactions with your pet, check out “Catch your pet doing something good” or “Clicker training: Technique and Philosophy (Part 1: Technique)” and “Clicker training: Technique and Philosophy (Part 2: Philosophy).”

You can watch a video of Dr. Gottman discussing the magic relationship ratio here.

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