The NFL Desperately Needs Skills in Changing Behavior that Matters

Over the last two weeks there have been at least 7 cases making the news about domestic abuse by NFL players. This week, there was an NYT editorial on abuse and its justification by too many men, including these football players. Many people see what Adrian Peterson did as well within parental rights. A few of his colleagues and others who came to his defense stated, however, that while within his rights, he should have  taken into account age, physical vulnerability, and his own strength in administering punishment for the offense committed by his child. Adrian said he did not mean to physically hurt the child (to the degree he did) but he justified what he did on the grounds that his father did the same to him, making him the man he is today.

That is the problem. Individuals who have grown up in violent or chaotic environments, in spite of their desire to do otherwise as adults, often have learned patterns of behavior they cannot escape—their history of learning. They need new learning and to build new histories. What we know about behavior and the use of punishment clearly indicates that the more one hits, the more one will hit. The first hit may be mild but to have effect, punishment must be stronger the next time that the same undesired behavior occurs. People provide justifications such as having to teach a lesson out of love or because that is what happens when a person shows disrespect or disobedience, regardless of the level of outrageous abuse that occurs. In our society all too often there is a myth about punishment as an efficient way to change behavior that we dislike into behavior we like. This myth, making it OK for one person to abuse another to teach lessons is an ethical, moral issue that American culture must address.

As a clinical psychologist, I saw savage examples of parents doing what was done to them—at times of much greater magnitude. Physically (as well as verbally) punishing others is highly reinforcing to the punisher. The cycle of using punishment to affect desired outcomes is in too many ways a life sentence. Those who punish are reinforced at a high and steady rate, and by such, their actions become habitual—the first choice to solve their problems. Unless new ways are taught with care and precision, the cycle will begin again. Punishment will, at least temporarily, stop undesired behavior. It removes any need to shape and guide. The person who punishes is not helped either. There is a strong desire to get out of his or her way. We know scientifically that punishment suppresses but does not build new behavior. It limits the opportunities for genuine positive interpersonal experience along life’s way.  All of us need a way to cool our righteous indignation about the behavior of others that at times we all feel. It is of critical importance that we learn how to manage our anger and our expectations when what we want is not done by others. Punishing others is not the answer. Seeing behavior objectively helps in selecting new behavior to replace the unsuccessful pattern.

Objectivity about the methods for producing positive and desired behavior helps as do specific skills in shaping positive results. Learning to carve mistakes in sand and success in stone helps guide us all in helping others and ourselves to make needed changes. Knowing about the science of behavior analysis is critical to learning how to manage behavior better. Knowing more about this science also benefits our larger society as well. Mark Twain said, “Nothing needs reforming as other people’s habits.” Aubrey Daniels’ book entitled, Other People’s Habits, provides a good start to understanding why we continue to do things that either help or hinder us. It is important for business, family or self-management. The book addresses interacting with the people around us with greater positive effects on all. The NFL would benefit from reading it and applying what is taught, especially if they use what they learn to help one another practice better ways to handle conflicts with others. The first rule: No hitting off the field. For more on the science and effective use of consequences, visit The Aubrey Daniels Institute.

Posted by Darnell Lattal, Ph.D.

For more than 30 years, Darnell has been dedicated to supporting clients in areas such as strategy implementation, behavioral systems redesign, and leadership development.  Her expertise lies in coaching individuals and organizations towards effective behavior change.