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How long does it take to change behaviour?

This sign – “PUSH” on the right hand door is a brilliantly simple example of the process of behaviour change. How long do you think it would take to learn that in order to exit you would need to in fact push the left door and not the right as instructed? Longer than you might initially think.

And even then it's not that reliable. I have a substantial learning history (that I’ve not really thought much about until now) of seeing a sign on a door that says “PUSH” and when I push said door – it will open. This feedback loop reliably reinforces my behaviour of pushing the door with the PUSH sign on it because it allows me to exit and continue on my way. I’ve probably seen similar signage thousands of times, mostly without even being consciously aware of this learning mechanism.

“The sign says to push the right hand door, when in fact you need to push the left one in order to exit” I’ve recently had cause to visit my local physiotherapy outpatients department on a regular basis. The first couple of times I left ward, it amused me somewhat that the sign said “PUSH” on the right door, which doesn’t open. And that to exit I needed to push the left door. Even after four visits each spread a couple of weeks apart, I would still find myself trying to push the right door, despite the fact that on each occasion I received instant feedback that my behaviour did not work for me. It turns out my learning that when a door has a sign saying “PUSH” on it, if you push it, it will open, is pretty deep.

“Even after four visits with instant feedback I would still find myself trying to push the right door.” However, when my appointment schedule changed to weekly I found that I finally started to instinctively reach for the left door. So when the feedback was received on a more regular basis my brain quickly learnt that in this particular context despite the sign instructing to push the right door I should push the left in order to exit. “When I received feedback weekly that seemed to be just enough for my brain to learn that in this particular context to reach for the left hand door despite the sign instructing right.” But here’s where it gets interesting, having skipped a couple of visits, today I once more found myself trying to open the right hand door. So weekly practice and feedback is sufficient to learn a new behaviour is this specific context, but reduce the frequency and the old behaviour returns. This is an example for a very simple behaviour: In this context when you see PUSH on the right door, push the left door. I was motivated to do behaviour to exit the ward. I am capable of understanding that I need to push the left door. And yet my previous learning history meant that I kept trialling the old behaviour rather than the new desired one. Even with instant feedback that told me it didn’t work. Only regular practice and feedback was sufficient to maintain this new behaviour. Without regular practice and feedback the old behaviour returned.

“Only regular practice and feedback was sufficient to maintain this new behaviour. Without regular practice and feedback the old behaviour returned.” So think about the behavioural change we often ask of others at work. You’ve previously worked in this way, now do it that way. You’ve previously led your team in this way, now do it that way. These are often far more complex behaviours, that the individual may not necessarily be motivated to do, may not understand the need for and will rarely if ever receive sufficient practice and feedback to stand any chance of becoming fluent in. And it’s this last point that gets consistently overlooked. So always remember these three points for any behavioural change you are asking for:

  • A prompt is only going to reliably trigger a behaviour if the individual has a learning history that predicts reinforcement is available for that behaviour.

  • If we need to condition a new response to an existing prompt, then removing reinforcement for the old response will make it more likely the person trials a new behaviour in that instance.

  • The rate of behavioural change will be proportional to the frequency with which the individual trials the new behaviour and receives reinforcement. The more times we trial a behaviour and receive reinforcement, the more likely that it becomes the automatic response in that context and the deeper the learning. So coach for fluency. Build in lots of practice and reinforcement. And then some more.

So as I conclude my blog and reflect upon prompts attempting to influence behaviour within the hospital environment today, I realise that it was not designed in such a way as to effectively prompt me to pay for my parking before leaving.


Better go sort that out.

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