Spoiled Deer

The video below is described as showing a “spoiled deer”. But let’s watch and then break down what is really happening here.

Whose behavior is controlling whose?

This is an excellent example of how we can create (and then reinforce) behaviors that are not all that great without realizing it.

Cute baby deer. Rub belly. Seems innocent enough.

Except that....eventually he NEEDS to put the adorable wild animal down. This is super duper cute for a YouTube video but ultimately this is teaching the deer a pretty maladaptive behavior.

So where did this go wrong? Did they just happen across a “spoiled deer” in the wild? No. No they did not. They created a behavior that society would label as “spoiled.” The problem with this (and really all labeling) is that it insinuates fault lying with the person being labeled- in this case, the baby deer. This new-to-the-world wild animal is actually not spoiled. It simply learned from some naive power line workers that it’s really easy to get a belly rub and then keep it going.

I mean, who doesn’t want a belly rub all day??? I might holler the same way if I knew that was all I needed to do to get a 2 hour rub!

There is no mystery to the motivation behind this behavior. The issue is in how it was (inadvertently) created by a different behavioral contingency.

Based on the story described we can assume that the creation of this behavior went a little something like this:

Power Line Workers: “We saved a cute baby deer! Let’s pet him like we do our dogs at home! Belly rub time!”

Deer: “Hello random people….oh….oooo…that feels niiiiice.”

Power Line Workers: “Ok we have to get back to work now.”

Deer: “Maaahhhhh noooooo!”

Power Line Workers: “Haha it screamed! How cute. OK fine…..”

30min later…still holding the deer and now (because it’s so cute and YouTube needs to see) they’ve shown Baby Deer on MULTIPLE occasions that all he needs to do is give a cute little scream and the rub will continue!


I think many of us have seen this scenario before. Maybe in the grocery store when Mommy gives in and gives the cookie to the child who is screaming for it (I mean, everyone WAS giving her dirty looks after all)? Maybe the time the police officer let your friend off with a warning because they cried when the officer told them he was going to give them a ticket?

Let’s not fault anyone here. The thing to be gleaned from all this is that we need to be aware of the interaction that our behavior has with the behavior of others.  Multiple contingencies occurring simultaneously can mean one person’s (or baby deer’s) behavior is being reinforced by another person because that other person wants to escape the ugly situation they’ve encountered.

There is an easy solve for those who have the stomach for it. Ready?

Let them scream and cry.

When it doesn’t work, it won’t be reinforced. Meaning that the probably of that behavior occurring again under the same circumstances has now been reduced. It’s true! Science says so. It will be obnoxious to the max…but only just this once.

“But he’s so cute!”

I know. But don’t.