Using Group Contingencies to Stick to Your New Years Resolutions

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By Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

January is now almost over, and many of us are starting to wane on our new years resolutions. You might have set a weight loss goal but couldn’t resist that piece of cake, or set a sleep schedule goal but stayed out at that party too late. Basic self-management strategies can be very effective in sticking with an objective, but there is another effective tactic that is often overlooked when setting goals: group contingencies. In Applied Behavior Analysis (the “white book”), Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) define a group contingency as “a contingency in which reinforcement for all members of a group is dependent on the behavior of (a) a person within the group, (b) a select group of members within the larger group, or (c) each member of the group meeting a performance criterion. (p. 567)” Here are some ways you and your friends can use group contingencies to stick to your new years resolutions this year.

Independent group contingencies

Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) define an independent group contingency as “a contingency in which reinforcement for each member of a group is dependent on that person’s meeting a performance criterion that is in effect for all members of the group. (p. 568)” With an independent group contingency, your own performance is the only determinant of whether or not you will contact reinforcement. The performance of other members in your group has no effect whether or not your behavior will be reinforced. However, the same contingency applies to all members of the group. For example, let’s say you and a group of friends set a goal to run a mile a day for a week. If you meet the objective for the week, you can treat yourself to a night out. You and your friend both run a mile a day for a week, but the other two members of your group do not. On Saturday night, you and the friend who ran all 7 miles go out to dinner, while your other two friends stay home. Independent group contingencies are effective because, even though the performance of other group members does not affect whether or not you contact reinforcement, each group member who meets the predetermined objective serves as a model of appropriate behavior, and this may motivate other group members to follow suit.

Dependent Group Contingencies

A dependent group contingency, as defined by Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007), is “a contingency in which reinforcement for all members of a group is dependent on the behavior of one member of the group or the behavior of a select group of members within the larger group. (p. 568)” One problem with dependent group contingencies is that they only motivate the group member or members to which the contingency applies. This is effective in changing the behavior of only a select few. One variation on dependent group contingencies that motivates all members of a group involves not revealing to the group members the individual to whom the contingency applies. One way to do this is by picking a name at random out of a hat. Whoever’s name is chosen says whether or not he or she met the objective. If they did, the whole group contacts reinforcement. For example, everyone in the group sets a goal to drink 8 glasses of water a day for a month. The group decides on a spa day as a reinforcer. At the end of the month, the name of one of group members is drawn from a hat, and that group member has met the predetermined criterion. As a result, everyone in the group gets to go to the spa.

Interdependent Group Contingencies

Cooper, Heron, and Heward (2007) define an interdependent group contingency as “a contingency in which reinforcement for all members of a group is dependent on each member of the group meeting a performance criterion that is in effect for all members of the group. (p. 569)” Everybody in the group needs to meet the objective for everybody to contact reinforcement. If even one person does not meet the objective, nobody in the group contacts reinforcement. For example, let’s say the group’s new years resolution is to be nicer to others. The members of the group set a short-term goal of giving compliments to 5 people a day for 2 weeks, after which they can earn a day trip to a place of their choosing. At the end of the 2 weeks, everybody has met the objective, and as a result everyone in the group gets to go up to New Hampshire for a day. Because each group member’s reinforcement is contingent upon the performance of all members of the group, individuals in an interdependent group contingency are likely to push each other to reach their goals. This can be very helpful if a few members of the group are struggling to keep up.

Group contingencies can be highly effective motivators for groups in which individuals have shared goals. If you’re finding yourself having a hard time sticking to your new years resolutions, find some friends who have the same goals and start tackling them together. Your friends (with the help of reinforcing contingencies) may be the push you need to get back on track.

Let us know how you are doing with your new year’s resolutions in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA, is a behavior clinician who works with children on the Autism Spectrum in the Greater Boston Area. She has over 3 years of experience delivering therapeutic services both in-home and in the public school system. Though she is predominantly focused on the utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis in treating individuals with disabilities, Emily enjoys examining topics such as religion, medicine, politics, and social constructs, through a behavioral lens. You can contact her at emandel90@gmail.com.

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