Sunday, December 9, 2012

Changing Behaviors!

Thanks for reading my blog!

Positive Reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement is the most effective tool for behavior change.

Last week, I spoke about the use of Fear within media, and begun a conversation around the usage of fear as a motivator for action. The bottom line – it’s extremely effective. Let’s now discuss other alternatives to fear.

Positive reinforcement – a familiar term to many – coined in the discipline of Psychology, in the school of Behaviorism. Most people are introduced to this concept with the context of “Stimulus/Response” and the Pavlov’ian Dog/Saliva/Bell experiment. This knowledge has been expanded and is a driving force within psychology, medicine, marketing, economics, relationships… According to B.F. Skinner(and a lot of other more contemporary research), positive reinforcement is more effective at changing behavior than punishment.

There’s a reason, in the heavily scrutinized medical world, that positive reinforcement is such a driving paradigm within the therapy and rehab world. There’s a reason we create support groups and networks. Positive reinforcement is extremely effective.

What about business?

Marketing and PR seems like the obvious one. Positive reinforcement manifests in many forms within business, from Variable Reinforcement schedules of slot machines, to the sound effects of your apps, and even your text messages. How conditioned are we to responding to the “dings” of our cell phones, ipads, etc. We even acknowledge it, and know that it probably won’t be anything particularly exciting, yet we continue to respond immediately. Behavioral economics is able to look at our micro behaviors, and determine the impact on demand curves, using a multitude of factors.

We know that incentivizing works. We've seen it be successful. We know when it doesn't work(numerous employee incentive pizza parties come to mind…).

My question, is how come it isn't the prevalent strategy being used for effecting global change towards sustainability? Speaking to Norm’s more recent posts about the Harvard Hedge Fund Managers – why do we rewards the skills on betting more so than the engineers who are actually our inventors and creators? The marketing dynamic around “Global Warming” is fear – even if it’s accurate. Getting off fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy – driven by fear of global catastrophes caused by CO2.  


 As I pondered what to write about this week, Health Care fresh in my mind - the headline, "What Hospitals Don't Tell You" came across the radio. "Medical mistakes are now the third highest cause of death in the United States", Dr. Marty Makary. What followed was a recap of his recent appearance at Seattle Town Hall on November 15, 2012. His basic premise was this: "Creating a culture that holds hospitals and doctors accountable for these mistakes in order to bring about positive change in this system." His strategy, transparency within hospitals. As it stands, the amount of information patients/customers have on their hospital trips is limited, and challenging to interpret. Everything revolves around risk management and money. 

The “Hawthorne Effect”(Link to original Harvard Business School article), is essentially "the phenomenon in which subjects in behavioral studies change their performance in response to being observed. 

 What's interesting, is the relationship to transparency and reinforcement. The most obvious one, seems similar to fear:
If someone's watching me, I had better behave, or I might get punished.

And it's more complicated than this! Check out this article: "How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person". A group of scientists ran a "littering behavior" study, where simply having posters of eyes on the walls, twice as many people cleaned up after themselves! Interestingly, this article was written by a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching". I think that this quote speaks to both the punishment and positive reinforcement side of behaviorism. 

How can we use transparency in the realm of business, and our world, to change behavior?

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