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!