On training people to be great people.


By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

This month, I’d like to pose a question or two that I think are worth behavior analysts exploring.  To pose them, I’d like to tell the story about the time I got punched on the way to work.  It’s one of my favorite stories.  One reason I think it’s one of my favorite stories is that I don’t live the kind of life where I ever get in a fight that comes to physical blows, but at the same time, like to think of myself as “tough.”  The first time I ever went backpacking, my friends and I did a very, very difficult route.  Several days later, on our way back out of the wilderness, we met a group of experienced backpackers, told them the route we had taken, and one of them said, “you did what?!”  in a way that functionally communicated, “you are crazy!”  And that felt really good.  I took it as good evidence that, because not only that I would hike such a difficult route, but that I would do so on my very first hike, I am tough.  Hearing an experienced hiker confirm it (even though she was really calling me crazy) was like a nice, warm hug for my identity.  I like doing things that make me seem tough.  And yet, I never get in fights.  It seems like tough people should get in a fight at least once in a while.  So getting punched as an adult, on the way to my job as a professor, was a good thrill.  Like I said, it’s one of my favorite stories. 

That taking a punch now and then makes me feel tough, however, isn’t the only reason.  In fact, if you look at the objective facts of the story, as you’ll see, I really didn’t get punched at all.  At about 8:00 am on a Monday morning, I was riding my bicycle (which I’ll refer to a bike from here on out. Bike sounds tougher) down Milwaukee Ave. on my way downtown.  Milwaukee is a very popular street for cyclists, as it has a dedicated bike-lane for most of its length.  I ride one of those hybrid bikes that looks a little like a mountain bike without being as rugged.  That morning, I was following behind a thin woman, on a thin road bike, as we came up on an intersection where the bike lane disappears entirely to make way for a right-hand turn lane for cars.  This particular intersection happened to be next to a subway station, and there was always a taxi or two waiting there to pick up passengers getting off of the subway.   What this means, is that when the light is red, a cyclist has two choices.  You can follow all of the rules of traffic, merge with traffic, and wait behind whatever car was ahead of you when the bike lane ended.  Or, you can take full advantage of being on a small machine, squeeze in between cars, and move to the front of traffic.  I’m not even sure the former actually exists as an option except at the far edges of theoretical math; everyone always does the latter. 

That morning, as I came up to the light, there was a van stopped particularly close to a taxi on its right.  The thin woman, on her thin bicycle, didn’t even slow down as she squeezed between them and to the front of traffic.  Me, forgetting for a moment that I was a wider man on a wider bike, tried the same thing.  “Try” is as close as I came.  In other words, I didn’t.  In fact, I bumped the side mirror on the taxi and the van.  It probably would have been better if I had tried to hit one.  Then I would have really went for that one, and probably missed the other.  I looked back to wave an apology.  The taxi driver didn’t care.  I waved at him and he shrugged.  The driver of the van, on the other hand… well… you know I’m getting punched (sort of) somewhere in this story, right?  You’ve probably figured out that he. Was. Irate.  I waved at him and mouthed, “I’m sorry,” as he screamed at me.  And then the light changed, he passed me, and I started peddling. 

One thing about Chicago, for better or worse, is that it gives you lots of chances to stop and collect your thoughts.  As the light at the corner of Milwaukee and Ashland turned green, the light half a block up at Milwaukee and Division was turning red.  The van came to a stop, and as I peddled up I saw that his passenger window was down.  I rolled up next to it, hoping to give more of an apology than just a wave.  But when I looked in the window, the driver’s seat was empty.  It was empty because the driver, a short, stocky man, had left the van and was storming around the front, yelling, calling me a jackass (amazingly, to my recollection, that was as close as he got to swearing.  For a man on the verge of getting in a streetfight, I thought that showed a lot of restraint!)

In that moment, there were a lot of things I could have done.  The things I thought to do were: 1) grab my u-lock (I hang it off my handlebar) and wave it at him, 2) put my hands up, my head down, and let my helmet take whatever punishment was coming, 3) try and talk him down, or 4) hear the man out.  I didn’t have much time to do a cost-benefit analysis of the options as I saw them, so I went with 4.  In that moment I decided that I was going to listen to whatever this man had to say and, if what he had to say was to give me a beating in the street at 8am in the morning, well, I was going to listen to that.  I didn’t put my hands up, I didn’t say anything, I stood there looking him in the eye as he approached me screaming. 

And then the most amazing thing happened.  First, he got a lot quieter as a look of confusion came over his face, and he stopped screaming and started stuttering.  It was like a spell came over him.  After a second of confusion, he shook himself a little, and then went to his mirror to see if it was damaged.  It wasn’t.  Then he came back to me, still looking a little confused, and then he “punched” me where my shoulder meets my chest.  I use quotes there because, on its own, it barely qualified as a punch.  It was more like a one-handed version of the way that Elaine used to shove Jerry on Seinfeld.  It didn’t have a lot of force behind it.  Then he stormed off and, as he did, I said, “I’m sorry.” 

Then I peddled down to the next light and turned left as he continued down Milwaukee.  As I did, there was a lot going through my mind.  First off (for me – I’m sure it happens to real tough guys all the time) getting hit on the way to work was a once-in-a-lifetime (so far) occurrence.  Immediately I was formulating how I would tell the story once I got into work.  Mostly I was thinking, “Can I honestly tell everyone I got punched?  It wasn’t really a punch.  But ‘punch’ sounds so much cooler than ‘shoved.’”  (Obviously I went with “punch.”  More on that later.)  Beyond that, though, I was thinking, “what just happened?  And not in a “basic facts” sort of way.  In that way, it was pretty obvious.  I bumped a man’s mirror, he got out of his car at the next light, shouted a little, stopped shouting, checked his mirror, shoved me, and then drove off.  That’s what happened.  But I mean, what happened?  What were the processes working, behaviorally, that had it go one way I found pretty acceptable (no bodily harm plus an interesting story) and not another that I would find pretty embarrassing (college professor instigates a fistfight at 8am on a Monday morning).   How does that work?  And, if we were to really “explain” what happened, what explanation would we, as behavior analysts, consider adequate? 

One place that I found interesting to look was neuroscience and what they call “mirror neurons.”  I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand the research, but what I gather is that, in non-human animals that they’ve studied, researchers have observed that when an animal observes another animal doing something, similar regions of the brain that are active in the acting animal are active in the observing animal.  Further, this effect has been shown not only when an animal is looking at another, but also when they can hear the other animal performing an action and when they observe the consequences of another animal’s actions (I’m taking Keysers’ & Gazzola’s – 2009 – word for it on this one).  They speculate that, at the brain level, mirror neurons are what makes things like observational learning and empathy possible.  So, explaining my little episode in terms of brain activity, the driver came at me one way (very angry), observed me behaving another way (calmly), seeing me altered something in his brain regions, and he calmed down as well. 

But that’s a pretty poor explanation.  First, we have no idea what was going on in his brain.  We actually don’t have first-hand evidence that he or I even have a brain.  It’s a fair assumption that we do, but we don’t even really know that with 100% certainty.  So it’s not an explanation, just speculation.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with speculation, but it is important to be responsible that it is just speculation.  I’ve written elsewhere that we tend to confuse speculation for explanation and then fall short when it comes to experimentation.  When we do that, we sell out on prediction and influence.  So saying that “it could be mirror neurons,” is not, for this audience (I hope), going to cut mustard, as far as explanation goes. 

However, let’s pretend for a moment that we could see inside his brain and inside mine, and we did in fact find that he started with certain regions of his brain very active, and I started with different regions of my brain active.  Then, in our land of make-believe, he saw me and we saw his brain activity change so that it was more in line with mine, he mostly calmed down, and then drove off.  Then, we can definitely say that mirror neurons had something to do with it, but we still can’t call it an explanation.  You see, if he had stormed around his car yelling, and in that moment I had taken a fighting stance, we could use the exact same explanation.  The only difference, in this case, would have been that I would have been the follower in our dance instead of the leader.  But you still would have seen our brains with similarly activated regions. 

The piece that’s really interesting to me is what, in that moment, had me not react to this very angry, threatening man?  I have a lot of ideas and most of them relate to an extensive history of intentional training at sitting with and not reacting to all forms of communication.  In fact, the weekend before that Monday I spent the weekend in an intensive, experiential workshop in which a lot of the work we did involved training people to deliver different communication that we wouldn’t want to hear in ways that we wouldn’t want to hear it.  And then we practiced getting that communication without reacting to it.  And we were given immediate feedback on whether people observed a reaction or not.  And we did that over and over until the people observing us could honestly say that we didn’t react.  As such, there was a very recent history in which my behavior of remaining calm (even welcoming) in the face of hard-to-hear communication was reinforced.  Beyond that, I put myself in those situations routinely; I’m kind of a junkie for personal growth. (I don’t think it had anything to do with my personality.  Years ago, before I got really interested in this type of training, I once peddled as hard as I could to chase a man down after he honked at me while I was riding.  I didn’t get in a fight that day either, but it was because of a choice he made.  He gave me the finger and drove off.)

Behaviorally, there’s a lot going on there.  I wrote that, in the moment, I made a decision.  That’s a behavior.  Then, when he started yelling I remained calm and held eye-contact.  That’s another behavior.  Then, when I remained calm the driver seemed to calm down.  More behavior.  And none of it is going to make the evening news.  It isn’t very interesting to report that traffic wasn’t stopped while two men didn’t fight in the middle of the street this morning.  However, if world peace is something we’re interested in, then episodes like this are something that might be interesting to behavior analysts.  There’s probably already a lot out there that might inform this research.  And not only from fields like neuroscience, but from within our own field.  For example, my gut feeling is that research concerning delay-discounting and impulsive behavior has a lot to do with episodes like this. 

One thing I am certain of, however, is that we can train people to be great people.  In fact, as a species, we happen to be really, really good at it.  I’m thinking specifically of the Dalai Lama.  The current Dalai Lama was identified to be the next when he was two years old, and then started training.  From what I can tell, the training worked wonderfully.  By all accounts he is the kindest, most forgiving person you will ever meet.  The people who I have met who have met him say that there is something very, very special about being in his presence.  From a behavioral perspective, however, there’s really nothing special about it.  He’s merely a product of his training.  What makes the training special is simply that we don’t provide it to a lot of people.  But I think we could.  I really do.  And I think the conditions under which someone becomes great are something worth investigating, and I think we have something to contribute there. 

But I promised some follow-up about the time I got punched.  You might be feeling cheated about my story.  After all, I started the story talking about the time I got punched on the way to work, and so far all you’ve gotten out of it is what most people would probably call a shove.  Bait and switch, right?  Well, hold on.  So like I said, after he shoved me he got back in his car and continued down Milwaukee Ave. while I turned left onto Chicago Ave., thinking about how I would describe my morning to my coworkers.  I biked about a mile and a quarter down Chicago, past Halsted, and then got stopped at the light at Kingsbury, across from what used to be Cabrini Green.  I was sitting at the light, still debating whether I should call it a punch or a shove when I heard someone yell, “Hey!” from behind me.  I looked over my shoulder and it was the man!  He must have still been thinking about it after he had gone straight on Miwaukee and now, for whatever reason, had turned around, backtracked, and caught up with me.  I waved to him. 

He said, “Buddy!  You really ought to be more careful.  And… I’m sorry I punched you.” 

These are the rewards of a life well-lived. 

How do you think we can train people to be great people?  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!


Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V.  (2009).  Expanding the mirror: Vicarious activity for actions, emotions, and sensations.  Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 19, 1-6. 

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 [email protected] for more information.

5 Comments on "On training people to be great people."

  1. Fine article! Well told and well explained.

  2. Thanks, Dad! I appreciate it. 🙂

  3. Martin Scherer | January 5, 2016 at 11:39 am | Reply

    Sounds behavioural rather than behaviour science, which is seems confirmed by the only reference being to neurobiology. Behaviour scientists are not concerned with the ‘wiring in the box’, as Skinner acknowledged that is the job of neurophysiologists, not behaviour scientists. If there is a fault in the wiring, that’s not for behaviour scientists to resolve.

    I don’t see how the article fulfils its title ‘How to make better people’. The term ‘better people’ is not defined. Behaviour scientists are not interested making people ‘better’. That’s a moral or legal question.

    Sounds to me like the age old conflict between various road users. Cyclists can be arrogant and as inconsiderate of pedestrians as motorist are to cyclists, just as car drivers can be an arrogant irritant to lorry drivers, as cyclists can be to all motorists by trying to squeeze between cars. Most in society think those who misbehave deserve to be punished. You misbehaved and you got punished. Hope you learnt your lesson. However, in the eyes of the law, the motorist should not have taken the law into his own hands nor used excessive force. He is technically guilty of assault. He should have reported you for dangerous cycling and for damages if there were any to his vehicle. Otherwise, the motorist should be aware there are cyclists around who take silly risks.

    In terms of social policy and regulation, call that behaviour engineering if you want, the answer is already given. Segregation of road users. Pedestrians and motorists are segregated. As a cyclist and motorist myself, I’d urge you to stop wasting time on nebulous moral concepts like ”better people’ and do something about it. Campaign for cycle lanes.

    Skinner said, let’s not be concerned about ‘is or isn’t’ it fair, ‘was or wasn’t’ it right, ‘should or shouldn’t’ you or he have done what you did, but go DO something to resolve the problem.

    • Although I do see your point, Martin. There is plenty of behavioral science going on throughout the article, including descriptions of his own verbal behavior, observation of his reaction as a potential reinforcer to the mans apology for his violence, etc. etc. He may have decreased the likelihood that the man would aggress in the future. Just my opinion, but that may be a ‘better’ outcome. Enjoyed the article and the comments! Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comments! As behavior analysts, we are all about doing something!

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