How to use science to improve behaviour

Kirsten recently sent me an article about how behavioural science might just turn out to be the most important science of all.

I read the article with wonder and some satisfaction, as I have long believed that behavioural science is definitely underutilized.  For many of us, science is something we enjoy the advantages of on the daily as we use electricity, take medicine, and surf the internet.  I would guess that most of us feel as though we are at arm’s length from science and don’t realize that we can actively apply scientific strategies in our relationships, at work, and at home.

Behavioural science examines how organisms, such as animals including humans, interact with the world around them.  It looks at more than just behaviour, though, because behaviour never occurs in isolation.  There is always something that happens right before a behaviour, an antecedent, and something that happens right after a behaviour, the consequence.

Antecedent Behaviour Consequence

When we begin to see that behaviour is affected by what happens before and afterward, we can start to learn ways to change behaviour.  If you are a dog owner or a parent, I can almost guarantee that at some point you have googled a behaviour issue that you want to improve or eliminate.  I can bet that you found pages and pages of search results promising techniques and solutions.  Some of them might have even worked!  But how many asked you to stop thinking about the behaviour and start thinking about the antecedent and the consequence?

The antecedent is what determines if a behaviour is going to occur.  The consequence is what determines if the behaviour will happen again in the future Most of the “solutions” you come across are generalized and do not take into account the highly personal antecedents and consequences affecting an individual’s behaviour.  Without addressing those factors, behavioural change will be difficult and it is not likely to be long lasting.

Determining the antecedent

The first step to addressing a behaviour is identifying when the behaviour is going to occur or what prompts the behaviour.  Antecedents can be anything from an event, action or circumstance.  It can be a location, change in activity, or a physical signal such as a having to go to the bathroom.  Antecedents can be identified by taking note of what happens right before the behaviour that you want to influence.

You can begin to affect change by modifying the antecedent or even eliminating it.  This information gives you the opportunity to arrange the environment so that it is more likely a desirable behaviour will occur.  A simple example of this is healthy eating.  If you are trying to eliminate an unhealthy afternoon snack, arrange your environment (your antecedent) so that there are no unhealthy options available and plenty of desirable healthy options available.  It is really that simple.

Understanding the consequence

The consequence of a behaviour determines if the behaviour will occur again in the future.  If the consequence was desirable, then it is likely you will see the behaviour again.  If the consequence was undesirable, then it is less likely that the behaviour will be repeated.  Consequences can be a tricky thing because they are highly personal and the true consequence can sometimes be difficult to identify.  For example, a child who is misbehaving may get yelled at by their parents but despite that being unpleasant, the child continues to repeat the behaviour.  How come?  Maybe the consequence that was meaningful to the child was the attention from their parents, which they definitely received.

It’s not really about the behaviour

Many of us spend way too much time worrying about behaviour (I’m so guilty of this!) and that rarely solves anything.  If you want to help someone, including yourself, improve or eliminate a behaviour then stop paying so much attention to the actual behaviour and figure out what is happening right before and right afterward.  The key to behavioural change is in the antecedent and the consequence.  This ABC Chart can help you track antecedents and consequences.

One easy way to improve anyone’s behaviour

When I was pregnant, I asked Kirsten to come and help us get our dogs ready for life with a baby. At the time, we had 2 beautiful rescue dogs and one of them was anxious. Kirsten came and gave us some great information as well as a few exercises that we could start doing with the dogs. Just as we were wrapping up our session, she said “Remember to notice and reinforce when the dogs are doing something right!” I rolled my eyes as I thought to myself “Really? I’m not worried about what they are doing right; I’m worried about everything they are doing wrong!” But because I love rules and instructions, I jotted everything down and started doing the exercises she had taught us.

It didn’t take long before I made 2 surprising observations:
1. My dogs didn’t spend nearly as much time doing “bad stuff” as I thought they did; and
2. The more I noticed and reinforced great behaviours, the more I got great behaviours.

It was really interesting to see that my dogs were actually good almost all of the time. I guess the bad behaviours just stuck out more because they were annoying/embarrassing/aggravating. Know what I mean? I spent so much time focusing on those behaviours that I was really missing out on all the awesome stuff they did.

The more I noticed the good behaviours, the easier it was for me to reinforce them. The frequency of these behaviours increased significantly. Even more interesting was that I was so wrapped up in focusing on the good stuff that I stopped paying any attention to other behaviours. Many of those behaviours actually extinguished themselves because I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. Those behaviours simply stopped “working” for the dogs so the dogs stopped doing them.

Kirsten calls this little game of noticing all the good stuff “ISpy” and it is, hands down, one of the best things that I have ever learned to do. It is extremely effective in dog training and is pretty powerful in other relationships, too. Because I am human and flawed, I sometimes get annoyed and frustrated at my husband and son. Since I have yet to develop the capacity for infinite patience, I use ISpy to help me focus on the good. Instead of getting caught up in all the stuff that is driving me crazy, I try to think and talk more about what is going right. This inherently improves my relationships because my family spends more time hearing me talk about good stuff instead of hearing me be critical. Seriously. Try this.

Don’t you find that dog training (and people training!) tends to focus almost exclusively on the problem behaviours? I got caught up in that and forgot the simplest rule of behaviour: behaviours that are reinforced will be repeated. Start noticing the amount of effort you put into dealing with “problem” behaviours versus the amount of effort you put into noticing fantastic and appropriate behaviours. If I were a betting lady, I’d bet that considerably more attention is being paid to the exact behaviours you wish would go away. Pick a few great behaviours you want your dog* to do more and start to play I Spy with these behaviours today. You’ll be amazed at what happens!

*spouse, in laws, kid, neighbour, boss, co worker, whoever!


Why reinforcement is rewarding

When you start to look for behaviours to positively reinforce, instead of looking for things to criticize and correct, it dramatically changes the way you look at others AND yourself. It feels good to give positive reinforcement and feedback, to watch for good things, and let people know that you noticed and appreciated what they did.

Reinforcing others becomes rewarding (aka: reinforcing) for you! You begin to look for ways to be kind and to reinforce others quite simply because it feels good to do it. It makes you feel good (there’s the reinforcement!). The increase in your behaviour of reinforcing others shows that the reward for doing so has now become reinforcing for you. Remember, a reward can only be considered reinforcing if its delivery increases the likelihood that the behaviour will occur again. Some people might say this is selfish behaviour; being kind to others because it makes you feel good. Fantastic! There’s nothing wrong with that. You deserve to feel good and be surrounded with happiness!

Did you know positive reinforcement results in changes in brain chemistry? This change in brain chemistry can affect behaviour favourably especially when you consider that both you and the learner are being reinforced. In children, studies have shown favourable responses in behaviour and also in character development when they are taught using positive reinforcement. Powerful stuff!

In the 1950’s, James Olds at McGill University was doing studies with rats when he discovered that there is a central neural system (reward system) that mediates reward, reinforcement, and pleasurable experiences. Studies on human beings also revealed similar findings; stimulation in some parts of the brain, specifically areas of the hypothalamus, produces pleasurable feelings. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is strongly involved with the reward system of the brain. Dopamine is released in areas of the brain as a direct result of pleasurable or rewarding experiences, like food or sex or positive reinforcement. When we have higher levels of dopamine, we are more likely to feel happy and motivated to achieve goals. Dopamine also helps us to learn and retain new information.

So you see, there is an actual chemical reaction in the brain resulting from positive reinforcement that increases the probability that a learner will repeat a behaviour that was followed by a pleasurable experience. Every time you reinforce your learner, you BOTH benefit from this predictable chemical reaction.

Consider for a moment how much easier and pleasant life would be if you were not fighting to make things right all the time and having to correct and fix relationships with your child, spouse, or pet. Sounds pretty nice, right? Good news. You can have this. There is no time like the present to get started on an easier, kinder, and more pleasant way of life!

Time to rewild

Until recently, I had never heard the term rewilding.  Over the past few years, I started to see articles trickling across my newsfeeds that talked about rewilding.  I was intrigued.  Rewilding has a few different definitions, some more technical than others.  Scientists, such as conservation biologists, use the term rewilding to describe the process of reintroducing plants or animals into areas where they once thrived.  People like me use the term to describe the experience of stepping out of our urban setting and back into nature. If you want to read a really great book about rewilding, check out Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff.

For me, rewilding is important for a number of reasons.

  1. Nature is awesome and there is so much cool stuff to see and learn and experience.
  2. Being outside feels great.
  3. Being outside is good for you.
  4. It helps to remind us that we are a small but important part of something much bigger.

Many of us live busy lives in busy cities.  We don’t really have a choice but to immerse ourselves into our urban environments (which are also pretty amazing).  It often feels like rewilding is impossible between getting to and from work, driving our children places, and getting regular errands done.  Here’s the cool thing about nature.  It is everywhere.  Rewilding doesn’t mean trekking through the woods for weeks at a time.  It is about starting to pay attention to nature all around us and our role in it.

Even the most die-hard city slicker can rewild without changing much about their regular routine.  Pay attention to the trees that line the street to your office.  Notice how they look at different times of the day or during different seasons.  Listen to that bird doing some old school tweeting.  How does it sound?  Can you hear another bird answering?

Nature has so much to teach us about the world and ourselves.  Connection with nature isn’t just for hard core outdoor enthusiasts.  It is for everyone and it is accessible to everyone.  I’m a city girl in her thirties who is discovering all this for the first time.  I don’t know much about nature but I know that understanding it and protecting it is too important to ignore.

Rewilding is the beginning of something that can help to positively affect your health, your relationships, and your perspective.  From there, it will positively impact the world around you.  It’s time to rewild!

Why Kindred Connection works

Have you ever wondered why your dog, your child, your spouse or even you do certain things?  And what about why you don’t do certain things?

Behaviours happen (or don’t) based on an antecedent.  An antecedent is what happens right before the behavior.  They keep happening (or don’t) based on what occurs after the behaviour.  That is the consequence.  We refer to this as the ABCs of behaviour.

Here is an example to help illustrate what I mean.  If I put a colouring book and crayons out for my child and teach him to colour and he enjoys it, then the next time I put those items out again he will colour in his book.

A:  The antecedent is the book and crayons.

B:  The behaviour is colouring.

C:  The consequence is pleasure, engagement, and contentment.

The reason my child returns to colouring when I put out the book and crayons is due to the pleasure that the activity of colouring provides.  If my child really did not enjoy colouring then my putting the book and crayons out would not prompt colouring.

Starting to make sense?

Let’s look at another example.  I have a 9 week old puppy who is chewing everything in sight.  He keeps chewing because the behaviour of chewing provides some pleasure for him and possibly the release of discomfort from sore gums if he is teething.  He chews a particular object because it is available to chew.

A:  The antecedent is the available object.

B:  The behaviour is chewing.

C:  The consequence is pleasure or the relief of the discomfort of teething.

So why would the puppy not chew every time the item is available?  Well therein lies the mystery but. . . maybe not so mysterious.  Perhaps the pup is engaged elsewhere, watching you in the kitchen, playing with the children or playing with another toy.  Perhaps he does not need to chew, therefore the act of chewing would not provide pleasure.

The point is that for a behaviour to occur there must be

A:  Antecedent:  the opportunity to perform a behaviour; and

C: Consequence:  a consequence that is favourable to the learner.

So ABC really explains why Kindred works.  You will need to observe and learn what motivates your learner.  We’ll help you to identify what makes them feel good, happy, and content.  Then we will show you how to work towards providing those consequences for behaviours that you want to see more.

In the first example above, I can start to create a favourable environment and consequence if I provide the tools (Antecedent) which are the books and crayons and spend some time with my child teaching him to colour.  The next time I put out the book and crayons, perhaps he will start on his own and then I will have the opportunity to encourage and reinforce the efforts.  As time goes on, colouring will become a pleasurable experience.  And now, I can do a few other activities close by that I need to get done while my child is colouring.  This has happened only because I took the time to teach and reinforce the behaviour.

How about that puppy I mentioned?  If I place my pup in a contained area so that mistakes can’t be made and I provide a few really enticing chew toys that may even have a food source (like a frozen Kong) then I am creating a comfortable environment with a great consequences for my puppy (chewing and accessing food).  Over time, the presentation of a frozen Kong (Antecedent) in a contained space where puppy can be safe, prompts the chewing (Behaviour), and the puppy is busy and content (Consequence).  This gives me a chance to engage in other activities while my puppy is busy with an appropriate and reinforcing behaviour.

Ever broken down your dog’s recall into ABC?  The Antecedent is you calling the dog. The Behaviour is running towards you.  But what is the Consequence?

That’s where Kindred really shines!  Join us and we will show you how to choose consequences for your dog that truly reinforce the behaviour of running towards you and so much more! We’ll show you how you can have a wonderful life with your dog.