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Really? or Don’t Say Stuff You Don’t Mean

Really? or Don’t Say Stuff You Don’t Mean

Every parent has heard their child(ren) say “Well, if you don’t let me (fill in the blank), then I will (fill in the blank).”  Every child has heard their parent(s) say, “Well if you (fill in the blank), then I promise you that I will (fill in the blank).  Really? Everybody knows we shouldn’t say stuff we don’t mean. But, guess what? We do it anyway.  All the time.

One of the journals where I publish some of my scientific articles is now telling authors that if they have a paper accepted for publication, it has to be revised and resubmitted in two month’s time. If not, then the review process will start all over. Really?  I doubt it. This would mean asking people to re-review (a time consuming process) something that already has passed muster. Reviewing an article, done right, takes several hours. If I were a reviewer, why would I want to review something again that has passed my muster once? I wouldn’t, and I would just be upset with the Editor if I ever found out I was just doing busy work because Joe Author dragged his feet in revising the manuscript.  Ain’t gonna happen. The really wild thing about this is that the people setting up the contingency are themselves professional behavior analysts. The point is not to belittle their attempt to bring order to unruly authors, but guess what? Even we professionals can’t escape saying stuff that isn’t “backed up” consistently by consequences.

We all do it and I am sure a few, or a few thousand, words from me won’t stop it. There are, however, lessons to be learned from the human frailties described above.

First, try not to say things you don’t mean. That may be like saying to a veteran couch potato, try running a marathon, you’ll like it. But seriously, the first first thing is to consider whether there is any chance on earth (or even less than a 30 percent chance) that you will actually do what you are planning to include as the consequence of someone not doing something. If there isn’t, then don’t say it in the first place.

The second first thing to consider (the two are equally important) is that if you have decided that you can and will do something, then make it realistic. Sending your child to his room for the rest of her life is not an option. Spending 8 hours with your kid driving 100 miles to go to the zoo because he cleaned his room is probably going to end up not being a pleasant experience (actually, it may be, but my point is to pick consequences that match the action that you are trying to get to happen or not to happen).

Next, focus on using positive reinforcement. There are many reasons not to use aversive contingencies, like sending your kid to her room for the rest of her life when she fails to do something you want done. People too often think about taking things away or punishing if they want to eliminate behavior. A more positive approach often goes a lot further. Instead of not wanting a disheveled room, what you really want is an orderly one.  Instead of wanting your dog not to jump on people or sniff their crotches when they come into your house, what you want is a well-behaved Fido that wags his tail maybe but otherwise sits quietly beside you as the guests arrive. Consider behavior in terms of what you want, not in terms of what you don’t want, and reinforce successive approximations. It’s the power of positive reinforcement, again.

People are always backing themselves into corners with threats that they can’t or won’t or shouldn’t carry out. Think in terms of what you want and how you can reward approximations to it and everyone will be better behaved and better campers.

 

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.