Pavlov’s dogs and intermittent reinforcement


Anyone who has studied Psychology 100 knows all about Pavlov and his dogs.  For those who escaped:  Pavlov was a Russian researcher who was studying salivation in dogs (who knows why).  When he presented food to the dogs, they would salivate (which, for some unknown reason, he would measure).  After a while, he noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate as soon as he came into the room – even before he presented the food.  They associated him with food and his mere presence would get them salivating.  This association is known as classical conditioning.

Those who lasted past first semester would have then been introduced to BF Skinner.  Skinner built on Pavlov’s theory.

Skinner’s idea was that whilst we go about our everyday activities, we encounter reinforcers.  Reinforcers have the effect of increasing the behaviour that occurred just before the reinforcer.

Think about how we train puppies…  Every time he or she engages in a positive behaviour (eg, does wee outside), we reinforce the behaviour with a treat.  This encourages the positive behaviour.  But while this is all well and good, it is, actually, less than ideal.  If you reward a behaviour continuously, once you cease rewarding the behaviour, it will stop.

Intermittent reinforcement is much more powerful.  This may mean instead of a reward every time, the puppy gets a reward every third time, then perhaps two in a row, then maybe not until he has weed outside five more times.  Think of that loyal dog sitting by the table waiting for a titbit.  Every now and again, he gets something.

I found an interesting article explaining this is why we all, incessantly, check our emails.  Checking email is a behaviour that has intermittent reinforcement.  Sometimes, but not every time, the behaviour produces a reward –  an interesting email.  And because you can never tell which time you check your emails you will get the reward, checking all the time is reinforced, even if most of the time checking your email is pointless.

Making soap is just like that.  You keep making soap because you think maybe, next time, it will be beautiful and just how you planned it, even though most times it doesn’t turn out right.  Every now and again, just when you think it is time to give up, something wonderful happens so you make another batch.

001copyRemember my Starry Starry Night soap?  I was so excited when I unmoulded this soap.  It was so beautiful and just how I planned it. The bars were lovely and hard and smooth and the colour was to die for.

But, alas, it was that ‘to die for’ colour that “did me in, ‘enry ‘iggins“.  Even though I followed instructions on Indigo powder usage explicitly, it was far too much.  The soap leaches blue big time.

Maus and I have been using it but it is even a little too blue for me.  It doesn’t stain your skin or the wall tiles but it does stain the face washer.  It is perfect for grey hair.  I have  been making Maus wash her hair with it.  But, in the end, even I thought it was all too blue.  My beautiful soap would have to be grated up.


This soap is not particularly beautiful but the white is lovely and smooth and I was able to use two of my Starry Starry Night bars.  The main reason I made this soap was to test the white recipe.  I had made it before and it behaved very well and I needed a good recipe with no glycerine rivers for a pièce de résistance I intended to make.  Can you see how lovely and smooth it is?


This is my pièce de résistance.  Look at that beautiful lace top, would you?  You cannot believe my excitement when I saw it.  It is picture perfect. The top is actually blue but, for some reason, looks more white in this picture.

This is the project for which I wanted the perfectly smooth white soap but look closely at the sides of the soap.  It is all splotchy and crumbly.  I did everything the same as I did with the previous batch and used a very safe fragrance.  My only ideas are: the oils were too cool or I didn’t mix them enough.  I was so concerned about over mixing.  Perfect top, shit soap.

BTW, if you would like to know how I did the top, I followed Auntie Clara’s instructions as set out here.


And then there was this lot.   This is my first attempt at transparent soap.  I bought Catherine Failer’s book, Making Transparent Soap, and followed the instructions exactly.  This is what happens when you follow instructions but don’t really know why or what you are doing.

Transparent soap is made by: first making some cold process soap, then cooking it until it has completely gone through gell phase (ie, it is completely neutral).  You then add solvents (alcohol, sugar and glycerine) to dissolve the soap.  The solvents are what makes the soap transparent.  I ended up with a pot of hot bubbly soap and solvents that all bubbled out of the pot and down over the element.  It was such a disaster.  There was soap everywhere.  Once you add the solvents, you have to tinker with them until the soap is transparent.  I didn’t think it was worthwhile trying to adjust the solvents or wasting money on fragrance and colour.  It was a disaster all round.

As it turns out, this soap, while not transparent, is perfectly good.  And if it had a lovely fragrance and colour, I probably could have sold it.

IMG_6104copyThis is my second try.  The first try was such a disaster, I wasn’t even going to try again but remember the theory of intermittent reinforcement and those beautiful Starry Starry Night soaps?  I thought I would give it one more try.  This time it is pretty good.  OK, it is not really transparent but looks and feels like glycerine soap.  And it smells divine.  The scent is so much stronger in glycerine soap than cold process soap because it is added after the soap has been cooked and neutralised so no strange chemical reaction happens.  This is rose and it is so intense.


These are slivers I cut off the top to neaten it (I then cut them into flower shapes) and you can actually see through them!  This is enough for me to get some green colour and apple fragrance and try again.  You never know, if not the next time, maybe the time after, the soap will be perfect.


28 thoughts on “Pavlov’s dogs and intermittent reinforcement

  1. Hello Glenda! Beautiful soaps and pictures!
    Your stories made me laugh 🙂 I think one of the things that has made me “addicted” to soaping is the fact that no matter how many times you soap, there is always a surprise (either while making the soap, when cutting the soap or when using the soap!) 🙂

    • Hi Amanda. What I like about soap making is that something always happens that makes you want to try again to get it “right” but it is never perfect. Like you say, there is always a surprise.

  2. Glenda, beautiful as always and I love the so called imperfections. The lace tops on the soap bars will make perfect Christmas presents too. And with the blue soap, you might start a new hair color trend 🙂

  3. I always love reading about your soap making adventures and of course seeing the finished products. I know you know which are your finest & which aren’t but I look at them all in amazement thinking how pretty they all are. Maybe some aren’t perfect for practical use but I still love looking at the colors and textures.

    • Hi Diane, You are so kind. Only my Starry Starry Nights can’t be used as I used too much colour. Normally it is perfectly usable soap but not the EXACT look I was going for.

  4. Oh wow! It’s been a long time since I stepped into the Passion Fruit Garden …. I remember I dropped by to pick up my first sourdough starter … and you had just made some soap with a green colour you were adamant could be improved, but I thought lovely. Starry, starry night is stunning …. I made my 2nd batch of functional soap recently, but it is fun and I will continue … and this post has inspired me despite the inky blue cloths 😉 Thanks Glenda.

      • My SD is rye now … and I’m not baking a lot of bread currently, but keeping it active and making pancakes etc 🙂 I’ve got a few friends into the soap making (over only 2 sessions hahhahaha) and they are hooked also …. we’ll have a little club soon 😀 They make great gifts even when they are not perfect, teamed with handknitted washcloths and other MYO lotions.

  5. My first thought was “why has Glenda put up a photo of a doily on a piece of cheese?” I should have known better. The decoration is very clever.
    I think all the soaps look fab – I just wish we had Smellavision too.

  6. Oh Glenda, you just amaze me! I couldn’t help but think of the scene if Private Benjamin where they hijack the Sergeants shower with dye. Blue rinses used to be the weekly hairdressers peak load along with the ‘set’, thank goodness that has diminished. I couldn’t bear having to enter that stage! The only word for all of these soaps is stunning! You are very, very creative. Bread baking brings out similar self critiquing effect on me, celebrate your beautiful creations we all do!

    • Maree, that is exactly what we look like.. I could join the blue rinse brigade. My grey bits have a distinct blue hue after a Starry Starry Night episode.

  7. Glenda, I adore your soap posts even though I do not make soap or even have the inclination to try making soap. Very funny post – dry humour, the best kind. Now I know why I obsessively check email (and WordPress feedback….). Loved the lace effect you achieved. So very creative.

  8. That’s a very high brow and educative post you’ve brought us Glenda. I love that you didn’t want to waste Starry Night so re-purposed it. Onwards and upwards. I really like the look of those blocks of rose soap. Transparent enough I think! (As an aside, I had my hair dyed electric blue last week so Starry Night would be perfect for my hair)

    • Thanks Liz, It breaks my heart to grate up Starry Starry Night. It was my best bar, oh well. The problem with me is I never want to repeat a bar so I am always finding out new ways to make mistakes.

  9. You are a perfectionist. They all look stunning- love the white ones with indigo bits- almost like a Japanese silk painting of a tsunami. Thanks for the reminder about Skinner- lost him for a while in the dark recesses of the brain.

    • Francesca, When I think of all the stuff that should be in the dark recesses of my brain it is scary. All those years of study and only Pavlov and his dogs remain.

  10. I love a good obsession, Glenda! And I completely understand – there is such joy in making something and spending time perfecting it – the issue is to then find a use for it all, be it baking or soap making or sewing. For what it’s worth, my favourite is the re-purposed starry night soap – I love the rough mountainous top and the silky smoooooth white and the icy blue seas. I think they’re art!

    Have you ever tried making goat soap? That’s all we can use here, as it’s wonderful for allergies and eczema. x

    • Hi Celia, I am hoping to sell a lot of the soap just before Christmas at our local market. Goat milk soap is just cold process soap with goat milk used instead of water. I don’t make it as I haven’t got access to cheap goats milk. I have made yoghurt soap which is exactly the same technique.

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