Reihan: The Flypaper Theory of Blogging

Last summer Amy Sutherland published a much-discussed piece in The New York Times, "What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage." The premise was that we ought to approach changing the behavior of the people we love the way animal trainers approach their charges: positive reinforcement works. Sutherland said it best.

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.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

This is a little like Matt Yglesias's highly sophisticated approach to Joe Klein.

At any rate, it does occur to me now and again that the netroots could probably use some more good cops to go along with the bad cops. If, say, Klein not only got a torrent of critical email when he wrote something that pissed us off but also a torrent of positive email when he wrote something liberals liked, then he'd probably find himself writing more liberal stuff over the long haul, no? Being nice is no fun and I'm basically an asshole as a general matter, so I don't really want to do it, but surely a big community site like dKos could get the job done.

And of course most bloggers are, um, not sunny and upbeat people, so it's no surprise that a far more common approach is to ignore the "good" and hound the "bad." Because Matt has an ironic sensibility, he understands why this approach fails.

I'm attending a webby conference tomorrow, so posting will be light.