Sunday, 22 May 2011

Annoying Friend/Co-worker/Spouse? Operant Conditioning to the Rescue!

One of the courses I tutor in Psych relies heavily on learning principles such as operant conditioning. The (very) basic premise is, if you want a particular behaviour to increase, reward it. If you want a behaviour to decrease, punish it. The most classic example is teaching a rat to press a bar in order to receive food. Obviously once it learns bar press = food, bar pressing behaviour steadily increases. You might even be able to teach a rat to do this for food:

This year students had to apply these principles to themselves in order to increase studying and decrease procrastinating, to varied success. I am currently in the process of marking their reports about it (which also vary in level of success).

The reason I am mentioning this though, is that recently Husband has been dealing with a very difficult co-worker who is very grumpy. I thought - why not try to shape his behaviour into a more tolerable version? 

Husband was a bit suspicious of my idea at first, but eventually agreed to give it a go. The first step is observation: what particular events trigger the unpleasant behaviour? This is called analysing the antecedents. Once you're aware of them you can try to alter them. For example, perhaps the person gets particularly mean when they're hungry: Feed them! What are the consequences of their grumpy behaviour? If their snapping at you makes you just do what they want so they'll leave you alone, you're rewarding their grumpy behaviour. Try instead to punish it. Of course you have to consider carefully what the effect the punishment would have - making them become more aggressive isn't so helpful! Another option is to reward opposing behaviours - be nice to them when they aren't as hostile: smile, say thank you, offer them chocolate (have you seen that episode of Big Bang Theory? Hilarious).

Obviously the example I'm giving is overly simplistic, as it isn't considering the reasons a person acts as they do. However according to pure behaviourists that isn't necessary anyway. Also, I'm not endorsing everyone go out and try to change people's behaviour on a large scale without their consent either! But hey, if tiny changes can make your life easier, and it benefits the other person too (why would they want to be grumpy?) - why not? Think about it, most people do this to some extent anyway:
  • Ever decided not to give someone a big tip because of poor service?
  • Ever given someone a 'thank you' present after they did something nice for you? (Sure, you may be giving the gift for reasons such as not wanting to be indebted to them, but the consequence can still be that due to the gift they'll be more likely to help you again in future!)
  • Ever decided not to talk to someone for a bit after they did something to upset you? (Sure, this may be because you're so upset you can't face them right now, but if they value your friendship and don't like being ignored, they'll think twice before upsetting you again!)
Yeah, that's what I thought :P

P.S. For a tongue-in-cheek look at this sort of thing, this book by Amy Sutherland is pretty good: What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers.


  1. Baha! I have never seen the big bang theory but I like what I saw. Although the guy is just Roseanne to me and the girl reminds me of that show with John Ritter (who I loved - Problem Child. Hello!) ..... something dating my daughter?? Grrr. can't think. But yeah.

    Very interesting isn't it though. I know a few people who could use some positive reinforcement :D

  2. Hahaha, yeh actually Darlene from Roseanne is in it occasionally too! And Roseanne's sister, whatever her name was.

    I used to love the Problem Child movies! I think it was because I was a fairly good kid but always secretly wished I could be that destructive... is that awkward oversharing? Oops :P

  3. ROFL!!!!! I love big bang probably cause i loved Roseanne lol!! conditioning behavior is easy to do when applied appropriately. I remember doing a class on "implanting memories" by trying to convince another person of a fake event. 9 times out of ten you could make the other person believe you lol.

  4. I've never seen the "Big Bang Theory" and made an honest attempt to watch the clip that you posted, but got SO FREAKIN' angry at the guy "reinforcing" the woman's behavior like she was some kind of stupid lab rat (and her ignorantly accepting the food) that I turned it off after less than a minute. If that EVER came on my TV, I would throw a brick through the screen!!!

    Um, I'm not a fan of sitcoms. Can you tell?


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