Part 2 of 4
Adopting a Cyclical Approach
Our question now becomes, “If something more is needed, what else do I need to do?” In order to understand what else is needed, we shall first have to adopt a new, modified perspective of behavior and its influences – a new lens for understanding the behavior of others. This new perspective requires adopting a cyclical, rather than linear, model of behavior and its influences. For many, this represents a radical shift, since, as a general rule, we tend to view the behavior of others through a cause-effect paradigm. When we want to understand the causes for another’s behavior, we tend to look at the events that preceded the behavior. In our new model, rather than considering causes and effects, we will consider the events that precede a given behavior, which we will call antecedents, but we will also consider the events caused by the behavior – its consequences, or outcomes – which necessarily follow the behavior. These consequences that follow and are produced by the behavior form the feedback loop that informs the actor whether or not their behavior had the desired effect.
If our behavior were merely a mindless reaction to its antecedents, then all we would need to consider would be the events that preceded it. However, when we choose to act, we almost always have some purpose in mind. For this reason, the antecedents don’t often help us understand why a person has chosen to act, but they can help us to predict when a similar behavior is likely to occur. For example, if I ask a group of people why they answer their phone, the most common response is “Because it rings!” In fact, the ring tells us when to answer our phone (or at least check caller i.d.). The reason, however, why we answer our phone when it rings is because, in the past, when it has rung and we have answered it, there has been someone there with whom we could speak.
If we want to know why a person has chosen to act, then, we need to watch what happens after they act, and we need to seek to understand what kind of influence the consequences of the behavior has on the behavior. The effect of consequences on our behavior can be profound, even to the extent of making behaviors that are seemingly punishing actually desirable. For example, if I posted the following job description, chances are slim that I would get any takers:
Wanted: Healthy man or woman to perform the following task: Lift 15 lb. object. Walk approximately 15 feet. Heave 15 lb. Object as hard as you can. Repeat task with a frequency of about once per minute.
Given this job description, a job for which few would willingly apply, it might surprise you to find out that you have most likely paid for the pleasure of performing this task. It is called bowling. The difference between a job which you would not want to do and a sport for which we will pay for the privilege of performing lies not with the actual behaviors performed, but with the consequences and environment within which the behaviors occur.
With this perspective in mind, it is helpful to classify the consequences based on whether or not a particular outcome will strengthen a given behavior, or response to the antecedents, or whether it will tend to weaken a given behavior. The waters can get a little murky here, so it will be helpful to reference the chart below as we define the various types of consequences.
According to our chart, there are four types of consequences: 1)Positive Reinforcement, 2)Punishment, 3)Extinction, and 4)Negative Reinforcement. In order for us to understand these types of consequences, we have to first keep in mind that they occur after we have done something – after we have chosen to act. Once we have done something, we have to consider the outcome(s) that the behavior produced, because the effects produced by our behavior will determine whether or not our behavior will occur again in the future.
Our first type of consequence, Positive Reinforcement, occurs when we do something, and the result is that we get what we want. Our behavior produces the desired effect, or outcome. In this instance, we are more likely to try that behavior again, given a similar context. As a simple example to illustrate positive reinforcement, we might consider the method through which we might teach a dog to respond to our command to “come”. Most people would choose to do this by rewarding the dog with a treat when it responds to our call and comes to us. This would be an example of how we might consciously apply positive reinforcement principles to produce a desired response. However, whether we are consciously applying the principles or not, they are always at work, and, many times, this pattern may even create behaviors which we would never consciously foster.
For example, have you ever seen a parent placate a child throwing a temper tantrum by buying the child the treat they were demanding? The behavior may have the desired effect in the moment – the child may calm down and stop screaming. On this level, the parent’s behavior is reinforced (actually, as we will see below, this is an example of negative reinforcement). Having created the desired effect, the parent may be more likely to placate the child the next time they throw a tantrum. Unfortunately, we can readily see the problem when we view this same interaction from the perspective of the child. The child’s temper-tantrum throwing behavior is also reinforced – in this case, positively. Their tantrum “produced” a treat – making it more likely that they will use this tactic again in the future to get what they want. More on this pattern later.
The second type of consequence that we will consider is known as Punishment. This is another consequence with which we have all had plenty of experience. Punishment occurs when we do something and, as a result, we get what we don’t want. For example, consider the child that is hungry and spies the cookie jar on the counter. Desiring a cookie, they may reach their hand into the cookie jar just as their mother happens upon them. If the house rule is “No cookies before dinner without first asking permission”, then the child may find themselves in the unfortunate position of having their hand slapped to remind them of the rule. In this case, the antecedent was two-fold – a hungry feeling in their stomach paired with the presence of the cookies in the jar. Their response to the antecedent was to reach their hand, with the desired intent of pulling out a cookie to eat. However, rather than getting what they wanted, their behavior produced an undesired consequence (what they didn’t want) – the hand slap. It may be obvious that the impact of getting what we don’t want will be to reduce the likelihood that we will do that behavior again. However, punishment only reduces the likelihood that the behavior will occur as long as the source of punishment is present. In the future, the child will likely attempt to “steal” a cookie again – after all, they will likely find themselves in the position of feeling hungry again, and the cookie jar will still be on the counter. What they are most likely to learn is that they had better check to see if mom is around before taking the cookie! After all, when the cat is away, the mice will play…
The third consequence on our list is called Extinction. This occurs when we do something, and the result is that don’t get what we want. To illustrate this type of consequence, we can turn to the famed fable, credited to Aesop, regarding the boy who cried wolf. In this story, the main character in the fable, the shepherd boy, repeatedly cries “Wolf!”, when there is, in fact, no wolf threatening his flock. The first few times that he cries “Wolf!”, the villagers come running to his aid only to find that there was no threat. At the conclusion of the fable, a wolf does indeed show up to threaten the flock, and the boy raises the “Wolf!” cry once again. However, wary of the false alarms, none of the villagers respond to his cry, and the wolf wreaks havoc on the flock.
The most common moral for this story that is mentioned focuses on the actions of the boy – we shouldn’t lie, lest we not be believed, even when we are telling the truth. Our moral, however, has to do with the behavior of the villagers. The moral that their behavior illustrates is that an antecedent (the “Wolf!” cry) may “cause” a behavior to occur once, or even a few, times. But, unless it is paired with a meaningful consequence (in this case, an actual wolf to run off), the antecedent will become meaningless, and the response it once engendered will die out, or become extinct. The cycle of doing something and not getting the outcome we want will lead to the extinction of the behavior over time; we become less likely to produce that behavior in the future.
The final type of consequence that we will investigate is Negative Reinforcement. The description of this type of consequence contains a dreaded double-negative, so you will have to bear with me here. It may seem confusing at first, but I promise that I will explain it so that the fog will lift and all will become clear. According to our chart, Negative Reinforcement occurs when we do something and the result is that we don’t get what we don’t want. When this pattern occurs, we are more likely to engage in the behavior again, given a similar context. The implication of this definition may not be immediately clear, so we will again illustrate this with an example – one of which I am actually quite proud since it will enlighten anyone who has ever had kids, or who has ever been a kid (which should include you!). My illustration has to do with kids and room-cleaning behavior.
When we consider the behavior of kids with respect to cleaning their rooms, the relevant aspect on which we will focus our behavior is on the typical antecedents that precede the behavior. In the vast majority of instances, kids will only clean their rooms when they have been threatened with some sort of undesired consequence (the outcome that they don’t want) that will occur if they don’t clean their room. “If you don’t clean your room, you won’t be able to watch t.v. or play any video games!” “If you don’t clean your room RIGHT NOW, you won’t be able to play with your friends for a week!” So that they don’t get the outcome that they don’t want, they have to do something – they have to clean their room. Similarly, in the case of the parent with the tantrum-throwing child above, the undesired condition (the screaming child) “caused” them to buy the treat and placate the child as a means to end the screaming. They had to do something to escape from something they didn’t want.
The definitions of punishment and negative reinforcement both hinge on the occurrence of an undesired consequence. They differ in terms of the contingent relationship between their behavior and the occurrence of the consequence. As we said above, with punishment, the undesired consequence occurs after the actor has chosen to act, while in the case of negative reinforcement, the undesired consequence (which is administered by someone else – like the mother threatening to suspend television viewing privileges if the room doesn’t get cleaned) occurs if the actor fails to act. The motivation of the actor is to escape or avoid the undesired consequence in negative reinforcement.
So, let’s now reconsider the New Year’s Resolution dilemma with this new perspective in mind. When viewing behavior from this cyclical understanding, realizing that the consequences that follow behavior are actually much more critical in determining whether or not a give behavior will continue, we can see how the assumptions associated with Change in Rational Man are flawed. The cynical person, trapped by the fundamental attribution error, feels that their efforts to manage change are thwarted by the Resistance to Change in those whom they are trying to influence. In fact, it is much more constructive to re-conceive Resistance to Change as a function of what is known as Behavioral Momentum. While this may seem obvious, they are engaging in their present (and now undesired behavior) because is has been reinforced in the past. The Change Management efforts that are typically undertaken when we assume that we are dealing with Rational Man are antecedents for new behaviors, but these antecedents, without also being paired with a change in consequence for behaviors, will only have a short-term effect on behavior. Many times, people do respond by trying the behaviors that have been explained to them, and, when they do, their initial efforts are frustrating and ineffective (which would be punishing according to our definitions above). Even if they are done correctly, their efforts are often met with a deafening silence (which, according to our definitions above, would lead to extinction). In either case, the likelihood that they will continue to perform those behaviors will decrease over time, and will likely be replaced with the behaviors that were in place when we started – those behaviors that were previously reinforced, and therefore have momentum.
Something more is still needed, but we are much closer to understanding what exactly that “more” is.
Jonathan Krispin is a speaker and consultant based in Valdosta, GA, working primarily in the areas of strategic planning, business process improvement, organizational development, and leadership development. He is currently working on a book on leadership that adopts a trans-disciplinary approach.