Monday, July 24, 2006

The Power of Incentives

Here's an odd example of how incentives matter. I have two cats. One of them has some intestinal problems, and as a result the healthy cat doesn't like to share litter pans with her. The problem is that the healthy cat will instead urinate on anything that resembles a plastic litter pan, litter or no. For example, an empty plastic container, a plastic mat for an office chair, etc. Naturally this is unpleasant to deal with, so I have built a cat tower for her with a litter pan on top. Only she can climb up to this litter pan, because the sick cat is old and not so agile.

In order to persuade the healthy cat to use this new litter pan (instead of other objects), I have taken to giving her small treats after she uses it. This has had an unforseen effect, however. She now seems to use the litter pan about five times more often than she did before. She used to urinate maybe four to six times a day. Now she seems to urinate around twenty times a day, each solidified clump of litter being very small. Of course, that also means she gets treats twenty times a day.

On a couple occasions she has tried to fool me--she jumps up on the tower, scrapes around in her litter, but does not urinate. Then she makes her cute "questioning sound", looking for a treat. I've probably been fooled by her a few times, but I don't mind so much, since she is now using the litter pan.

Even non-humans respond to incentives!