Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training explains the fundamentals of behavior change. And these methods are effective whether the subject is a dog, a dolphin or your neighbor, Larry.
The main lesson for getting people to do what you want is that positive reinforcement — rewarding behavior you like — is king. Whether it’s with a smile, a cookie or a bribe, rewards work.
But what about getting rid of behaviors you don’t like? This can be far trickier. Pryor lays out the 8 methods that you can use to stop bad behavior.
“Shoot the animal.” In our case, we don’t mean that literally. It means firing an employee or dumping a partner. It works, but it’s extreme.
“Firing an employee, divorcing a spouse, dealing with a messy roommate by changing roommates: all are Method 1… Fundamentally they eliminate the behavior by restraining the subject physically from the performance, or by eliminating the presence of the subject. The vital thing to understand about Method 1 is that it teaches the subject nothing.”
Method 2: Punishment. (Everybody’s favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.)
“Punishment does not teach a child how to achieve a better report card. The most the punisher can hope for is that the child’s motivation will change: The child will try to alter future behavior in order to avoid future punishment.”
If punishment almost never works, why do we do it? We have an ulterior motive: “…establishing and maintaining dominance. The punisher may be primarily interested not in behavior but in being proved to be of higher status.”
Method 3: Negative reinforcement. (Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.)
“People use spontaneous negative reinforcers on each other all the time: the warning glance, the frown, the disapproving remark. Some children’s lives, and some spouse’s lives too, are filled with constant daily effort to behave in such a way as to avoid disapproval.”
Method 4: Extinction, letting the behavior go away by itself.
“Extinction in human interactions best applies, it seems to me, to verbal behavior — whining, quarreling, teasing, bullying. If these kinds of behavior do not produce results, do not get a rise out of you, they extinguish.”
Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. (This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)
“…training a dog to lie in the dining-room doorway when people are eating… Going away and lying down is incompatible with begging at the table; a dog cannot physically be in two places at once, and so begging is eliminated.”
Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer’s most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behavior.)
“…when the organism learns to offer the behavior in response to some kind of cue and only then — the behavior tends to extinguish in the absence of the cue. You can use this natural law to get rid of all kinds of things you don’t want, simply by bringing the behavior under the control of a cue… and then never giving the cue.”
Method 7: “Shape the absence”; reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)
“I used Method 7 to change my mother’s behavior on the telephone… The conversations were usually, and sometimes excessively concerned with my mother’s problems… I deliberately let her complaints and tears extinguish – Method 4…I then reinforced anything and everything that was not a complaint… within two months the proportion of tears and distress to chat and laughter in our weekly phone calls became reversed.”
Method 8: Change the motivation. (This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.)
“Smokers quit when their motives for smoking are met in other ways or when motivations to stop – fear of cancer, say – outweighs the reinforcers of smoking.”
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