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?


  1. Aric,

    What a great blog entry! It seems that this is a perfect example of polarities, when the situation presents itself to be an either/or situation but does not necessarily have to be the case. And Thomas Jefferson’s quote just about sums this point up! It seems that people may generally be motivated by BOTH positive reinforcement and a bit of fear. The fear may be tied to the concept of reciprocity, which is so big in our culture--- the need to give back or return a favor to those who have given us something or have done something kind toward us. It’s sort of like that extra layer of accountability; that if someone is actually watching us we feel the need to behave in a way that we might expect or want for others to behave under similar circumstances. In an ideal world, we might utilize a “pay it forward” type of situation or even a large-scale barter program (or smaller scale barters) with regards to global warming, which builds off of the reciprocity concept. For example, I compost my neighbor’s scraps, while he or she drives me to the edge of town when he or she is running errands anyway (to decrease our carbon footprint in the process as well!). I know, I know. I have my head up my ass. But some fantasies can indeed come true….

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hava,

      Thanks again for your continued feedback, I always appreciate your comments. Apologies for my lack of replies on the last few weeks.

      I think what you are saying is very interesting, and how reciprocity is a culture. It's also interesting to acknowledge how it exists within the U.S. culture, as compared to other places in the world. It's hard to make global comparisons without making massive generalizations, and it's still really interesting to see how many other cultures deal with reciprocity.

      Another thought I had about reciprocity, is how often it chains to other people. Smiling and laughing are easy examples.

  2. Aric, I suggest that transparency is on the rise... membership in the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Global Reporting Initiative has grown exponentially. The MSCI KLD 400 Social Index, which mirrors the S&P 500, places an emphasis on sustainable businesses and has quite noticeably outperformed the S&P 500 for the past 20 years. More and more businesses are finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion by not participating in transparency programs. I can't say for sure if we've reached a tipping point, but it's very quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception to be transparent about your impact if you're a business.

    1. I definitely agree that transparency is on the rise. I think this post is definitely more oriented towards the tipping point inherent within that rise.

      I'd also love to hear your thoughts on the challenges of transparency. I know that you and I have discussed some of the challenges, specifically related to the military. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

    2. Also, thanks Daryl for your continued readership and comments!

  3. Great post Aric. I'm glad that I found your blog!

    Daryl states above that transparency is increasing, and I agree that it seems to be. However, with income disparity increasing at an ever more rapid pace, it seems like we may be reaching a tipping point where the wealthy will be able to buy control of information and reduce transparency.

    Sure, we have Google and Facebook, which have lead to wonderful transparency and social revolutions. However, we also have the Koch Brothers that have been able to significantly influence politics and give rise to an extreme political movement, the Tea Party, solely out of an interest to preserve and maximize their wealth. And, their wealth isn't declining. -What would happen if Larry Page's perspective begins to be less pure than we hope it to be? Do we want to put that much trust in one person or one company?

    So, my question is: How can we truly achieve transparency at a level that can't be controlled by money or a few people in positions of power?

    1. Cameron,

      You're speaking to a really powerful concept, that information and knowledge are power, and that currently - the wealthy hold this power.

      I think there is sort of a tipping point here as well, especially with regards to the media.

      To speak to your question, "How can we truly achieve transparency at a level that can't be controlled by money or a few people in positions of power?", I think this is where incentives and further transparency play a crucial role. The media is far from perfect, but the amount of media-scrutinizing journalists is on the rise, which is effectively adding transparency. As the culture demands information, media conglomerates will continue to tell the "truth" as they see fit.

      I'd love to hear thoughts on how positive reinforcement and incentivizing could impact news media. I have this cynical viewpoint that the American public loves being fed the crap - and actually doesn't like real information.

      It's complex, and I think it's moving in the right direction.


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