I have to admit it is very encouraging to see the growing number of people talking about training these days who are becoming more and more familiar with the science of behavior change. Just every now and then however I am having a conversation or sitting in a meeting and I hear something that makes me think … really? That happened recently and I thought that maybe a short blog telling the story might help people understand this valuable science a little better and also to really think about places in everyday life where we can apply our most positive, least intrusive strategies to behavior change.
The story begins with our “hero” walking in a park behind a group of several young women. The young women are deep in chatter and generally having a great time. They, and our hero, continue through the park in the same direction, at one point one of the young women finishes the candy bar she had been eating. Don’t you hate how young people can eat anything and not gain weight? Anyway, I digress. With the candy bar finished she purposefully throws the wrapper onto the beautifully kept grass alongside the path. Now our hero, who considers herself a good trainer, formulates a plan to attempt to change this behavior. She walks over and picks up the wrapper, taps the young lady on the shoulder, and tells her she dropped something. The young lady sheepishly walks over to a trash can and while being teased by her friends she drops the wrapper into the trash. Feeling pleased to have applied her training knowledge our hero happily sets off home.
In relating this story our hero tells us that as she walked away the teasing of the friends continued and she can imagine that the friends would continue the teasing as their walk continued. She tells us this would lead to reducing the wrapper throwing behavior in the future.
So, do you see what made me think to myself … really?
Here we have an example of focusing ONLY on reducing, or punishing the unwanted behavior with no attempt to build the acceptable behavior. Because of the focus on reducing the wrapper dropping behavior our hero missed a golden opportunity to use the most powerful strategy in our trainers’ toolbox. The power of positive reinforcement. The moment the wrapper was dropped into the trash she could have heavily reinforced that behavior, instead she walked away pleased that the aversives would continue to flow from the friends.
While this is a simple story it nicely illustrates the approach that says rather than focusing on the behavior you don’t want, focus on the behavior that you do want to see and use positive reinforcement to build that desired behavior. It almost makes you want to have a candy bar in your pocket, ready to reinforce the wrapper going into the trash … but not eating the candy bar oneself is a whole other behavioral issue ;o)