GETTING IN SHAPE WITH BEHAVIOR MOD

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"We are controlled by the world in which we live...  The question is this: Are we to be controlled  by accidents...or by ourselves in an effective cultural design?"
B. F. Skinner
 
 Most people are familiar with the term, Behavior Modification. Some have inquired about it's meaning and applications. Several decades ago, a Harvard behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner, conducted research with animals. In thousands of studies he proved that simple animals such as rats and pigeons could learn to perform complex tasks-- such as correctly choosing among several shapes and colors, or playing ping-pong-- if doing so was immediately followed by a reward or the avoidance of something unpleasant.
 
From these studies, Skinner generalized to other animals and then humans, believing that the natu- ral tendency of all organisms to seek pleasure and avoid pain could be used to shape their behavior with exquisite specificity.
 
Skinner's inclusion of humans in this paradigm aroused shock and outrage. Imagine a person being compared with a dog! Yet, he merely discovered and systematized existing relationships among events, then provided a way to learn these principles. Many people we consider gifted teachers, brilliant strategists, winning coaches, successful businessmen and effective parents intuitively use the principles Skinner discovered, even if they have never heard of him! Essential to applying behavior modification effectively is the understanding of a fundamental principle: behavior changes as a function of its consequences. Behavior that is followed by immediate and consistent consequences can often be successfully altered. Think of behavior as a vehicle and consequences as the engine that powers it. To take a behavior someplace, you need to empower it with a consequence.
 
 A behavior is observable and measurable. This format allows for the determination of change. For example, "sitting in seat" is an observable behavior; "bad attitude" is not. Consequences are either reinforcement or punishment. A reinforcement is anything that increases the occurrence of a behavior it follows. A punishment decreases the behavior it follows. In other words, in order distinguish a reinforcement (often just called a reward) from a punishment, you need to determine what happens to the behavior next time! If it increases, your consequence was a reward; if it decreases a punishment. If there is no change, try using something else.
 
Punishment-- often, the consequence of choice in a variety of institutions such as law, education, family, religion-- can be ineffective in modifying behavior. Sometimes it's actually a reward. Similarly, a reward is sometimes a punishment.
 
 Suppose a father was to say, "Tim, summer's coming. I want you to mow the lawn once every week. If you do a good job, you may come to the opera with mother and I this fall." Chances are this man's lawn will dwarf his house by summer's end. Did he reward Tim? He may think so, and not understand why his son seems unmotivated. “Traditional” psychologists might conclude that it must be something "inside" of him that prevents appropriate behavior.
 In contrast, check out this arrangement: "Ralph, what is something that I could do for you this summer that would really make you happy?"
 
 "You could let me take the car on weekend nights."
 "Okay. Would you be willing to work for the privilege?"
 "Like what do you mean, Dad?"
 "Mow the lawn once per week through Labor Day weekend. For each week that this is done by Thursday evening, you make take the car during either Friday or Saturday night, pre-arranged at our convenience."
 
If the lawn has been mowed weekly, one may conclude that the arrangement was truly reinforcing. Similarly, parents, educators and employers can evaluate the extent to which a targeted behavior is getting stronger. If so, your consequence must be reinforcing and you would be wise to continue using it. However, if a given behavior is not growing stronger, then, in retrospect, what you are using is not rewarding and may even be punishing. You need to do something else.
 
 At this point, a lot of people may be asking, "But why should I have to reward my child (student, employee) for just doing what's expected? Isn't that bribery?"
 Bribery is defined as returning a favor or making payment to someone for engaging in illicit acts. If you consider enhancing discipline or academic skills as engaging in illicit behavior, then you are bribing that person; otherwise you are not.
 
 "Yes, but if I have to reward my child every time he behaves, he'll always expect something for proper behavior." That's what shaping is all about. Be here next time.