By Scott Herbst, PhD
bSci21 Contributing Writer
I’d like to write about reinforcing good social behavior. It’s something we recommend; I don’t know that we practice it so well. I was really confronted by this recently when a colleague reached out to me about a problem she was having with a student. He had approached her about halfway through the semester asking for more “hands-on,” interactive activities. It would fit his learning style better, he said.
She was rightfully insulted. After all, this was a class that she had taught many times, spent years developing and refining, and one for which she got good evaluations. Further, when she was in school, no one had ever adjusted their class to the peculiarities of her learning preference. Professors taught material the way that professors taught material, and it was up to her to adjust to that, however challenging that may have been. She asked me if she was wrong to be so upset by this request, how she should communicate that, and whether she should grant it or not. She specifically wanted to know if she should tell the student how inappropriate she thought it was for him to ask that.
Before I get to what I told her, I want to point to something in that last paragraph, as it will be illustrative to a larger point. When I wrote, “she was rightfully insulted,” you probably took that to mean that I agreed with her. I didn’t. I didn’t agree or disagree, actually. I simply thought it was a perfectly valid reaction to have when faced with a request to change something into which she had invested so much caring effort. It would have been just as valid to not think that much about it, or go home and question whether not she had been wasting her time all these years, or appreciate that – finally – after all these years, someone is giving me direct feedback. She would have been justified in any of those reactions, and there are probably dozens of others I haven’t even considered that would have been equally justifiable. And, as long as she was looking to me as a coach or advisor, I wasn’t going to agree or disagree with any of them. That’s what friends are for. What I want you to notice right now is that I wrote one thing, and you probably took it to mean something else. Of course, you could say that I implied it. The implication, however, wasn’t actually in anything I wrote. I wrote what I wrote. You took it to mean whatever you took it to mean. If there was any implication, it was actually in the behavior of taking it to mean something. Which is to say, the implication was an action, and it was an action of yours.
So what does this have to do with reinforcing good social behavior? Well, as I wrote, I don’t think that, in practice, we’re particularly good about doing it. If you’re like me, it’s very easy to see when others miss opportunities. It’s often very hard to see those same opportunities when we’re the ones presented with them. In fact, often, when people present what we could call good social behavior, we get insulted, and call it bad. The above example is a perfect case. My friend could have interpreted that in a lot of ways. She could have made up that the student was being very responsible for his education and trying to create the ideal conditions for learning the material. Or, she could have made up that he was very courageous for working up the nerve to ask for a change. She could have interpreted that he presented her with an opportunity to re-evaluate her teaching methods and improve her class. In any of those cases, we would have called his behavior “good,” and any of those interpretations would be just as valid as whatever conclusion at which she arrived. And, as an outside observer, it was very easy for me to make those interpretations. So why was it so hard for her?
If you’ve read what I write for this site, you probably know where this is headed. Whether you have or haven’t, I’m about to tell you. It’s because we – people – derive relations. And we do so based on arbitrary properties of stimuli. Without going into all the technical mumbo-jumbo (honestly, if you were interested in that you’d go read JEAB), I’ll lay it out for you.
From a very young age, we are taught to look at things in terms of cause and effect. One thing happens, then another, and then another and if they happen reliably together, we say that the first thing caused the next. If we’re really interested in science, we’ll take it a few steps further, manipulate some variables (We’re so manipulative us scientists!) so that we’re really sure our statements are true. And if we’re really interested in science, we’ll look for similarities between different forms of events where we’ve manipulated some variables, and when we find them, we’ll call them laws, principles, or processes. The law of gravity is like that. There are consistent relationships between how massive something is and how quickly other, smaller things, accelerate toward it. Operant behavior is like that. Some consequences increase the behavior they follow, and we call it reinforcement. Others decrease behavior and we call it punishment. We call that the process of selection by consequences. In the case of gravity, the objects may change from one instance to the next. In operant behavior, the behavior and consequences change. In either case, naming the law or process is very useful. Through them, we’ve been able to bring people to the moon and back safely, and pull people out of the psychological hole that is autism. It’s a wonderful thing, this notion of cause and effect. And, being so wonderful, we’ve created a very large, complicated, educational system to teach us all to look at things this way.
Once we’ve got it down – the general way of relating to things in terms of cause and effect – we do what animals tend to do: we generalize this behavior, and we start applying it to areas where it doesn’t really exist at all. We start looking for cause and effect everywhere, and that’s where we run into problems.
Let’s go back to my friend and her rude, insulting student. He made a request for her to change something about her class. Being so highly trained in cause and effect relations (she does have a Ph.D., after all) she immediately, and probably without awareness, started looking for what have might have caused this request to be. Given that the request was to change something, the natural conclusion would be to assume that what was at the source of the request was “something wrong.” Something wrong with the design or the delivery. Of course, we can always walk cause back a step and that’s what she did. Being the designer and deliverer, it wasn’t hard to overgeneralize this behavior and find something “wrong” with her that would set this terrible chain of events in motion. “How dare he say there’s something wrong with me?!” she thought.
Of course, he didn’t say that. He simply said what he wanted and then asked for it. In my experience, people often have trouble doing that. Well, they might not have trouble saying what they want. Usually, it’s in the form of a complaint directed at someone who is no position to do anything about it. In this case, that would likely be another student. Sometimes, they’ll complain to someone who can do something about it, and that’s just as bad. In this case, that would probably be a department chair. This is why, as professors, we say things like, “we welcome your feedback.” Then, when we get it, we get insulted and chastise people for making inappropriate requests. Then, doing exactly what the principles of behavior tell us they should do, they stop making them directly, and start complaining to others.
So, the next time someone says something and your identity gets insulted, take a breath. What did they really, at face value, say? What you’ll likely find is that they didn’t actually say the thing that you’re reacting to. You – YOU – inferred it. Once you notice that, then take a look. Is there something there that I can appreciate and reinforce? Was this person doing things that I say I want people to do? Things like being direct, honest, and open. If so, tell them you appreciate them being direct. Tell them you appreciate coming directly to you, how unusual it is, and how you know that takes courage to ask for what you want.
The point is, we all say we want people to act in particular ways. If we want that to happen, in practice, then we need to start reinforcing those behaviors when they happen.
Do you reinforce those behaviors? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting. After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital. As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance. As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting. You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.