2 min read: A manager on a behavioural science course was getting more and more frustrated with his teenage son, Ethan and his behaviour of hoarding dirty dishes in his bedroom. Every couple of days Dad would go upstairs after Ethan's girlfriend had left for the night and hassle him about bringing the dirty dishes downstairs. There would be a confrontational exchange and Dad would end up taking the dishes down to the kitchen himself.
After learning a little bit about behavioural science and consequences, Dad recognised that his attempts to influence Ethan were having little impact on the desired behaviour of bringing the dirty dishes down to the kitchen whilst also having an increasingly negative impact on their relationship.
Stepping into Ethan's shoes, he decided to try a different approach. Each evening instead of waiting until Ethan's girlfriend had left, he would go up to his bedroom whilst she was still there. He would make friendly small talk, helpfully enquiring whether Ethan would like him to remove the dirty dishes and generally making a nuisance of himself. Over the course of the next week, Ethan, who did not want his dad loitering in his bedroom, quickly learnt to avoid this by bringing the dirty dishes down before his dad had chance to come up to get them.
This is a great reminder of the following principles of behaviour change:
The behaviour you are getting is the output of the current environment.
If you want something different, you have to do something different, to create a new environment.
To understand how to best influence someone, view the world from their perspective. In this case Dad yelling was just Dad yelling, there was little motivation to avoid it, however there was motivation to avoid Dad hanging out in his bedroom each evening!
And my favourite part of this story, skillful use of negative reinforcement is about creating a condition that is just aversive enough for the performer to want to avoid or escape, without eliciting a negative emotional reaction.