Tuesday, August 10, 2010

People Behave in Ways that Work for Them

I have come to discover that most people - especially the difficult people that others might not like - are not really "bad", but the product of a long history of reinforcement.

I am not talking about people who kill, or abuse others (at least not today).

I am talking about people who engage in behaviors that have always worked for them. No one ever fixes what ain't broke.

I will bring up a recent interaction I had with a young man - I will call him Phillip.

Every summer, my family and I go to a folk festival. I have been volunteering there for 12 years. My husband joined me when we were dating about 6 years ago, and has been volunteering ever since. This past summer, my husband and I were made crew chiefs for the parking crew, where we scheduled and placed volunteers in the parking lot.

All of our volunteers were given shifts. We asked that everyone show up on time for their shifts, since the previous shift would need to be relieved.

On day one, Phillip, an 18 year old young man, showed up late for his shift. I reminded him for future shifts, he would need to arrive on time.

Immediately, while addressing this with him, Phillip - a very tall young man, put his hands behind his back, lowered his head, pouted, and proceeded to tell me he was very, very sorry, and he would not do it again.

I felt like I was reprimanding my 3 year old son. But I let it go, and told him the next shift, he must show up on time.

The following day, he showed up 45 minutes late. I asked him why he was late. He again "assumed the position" - hands behind the back, head down, etc. He told me he didn't know why he was late, and he was very very sorry. I asked him if he thought it was fair for the person who was waiting for him to relieve him. With his head bowed, he replied "no" and again repeated how sorry he was.

I informed him if he showed up late the following day, he would lose his volunteer bracelet, and would have to pay to be at the festival.

Sure enough, the following day, my husband walky talkied me to let me know Phillip showed up an hour late. I told him to remove his bracelet.

Phillip waited and waited and waited, without his bracelet, to talk to me. When I arrived at the parking area, Phillip stood in front of me, and again placed his hands behind his back, bowed his head, pouted, and spoke in an immature voice. He told me he doesn't understand why he wasn;t showing up on time, and how sorry he was - over and over again.

I should say that Phillip is an intelligent young man. But I watched him stand there and behave like a 3 year old child. Now... This is a good looking kid, and a charming young man. I stepped out and observed the scenario.

Here is this young man, first and foremost - engaging in avoidant behavior. Showing up late repeatedly has a function.... He clearly was escaping his volunteer job.

Phillip continued to engage in avoidant and escape behavior by "assuming the position" - the hands behind the back, bowing the head, pouting, and repeating "sorry". I am sure his history of reinforcement taught him if he stood and acted humble, he would escape further reprimands.

By playing on another's sympathy - saying he can't understand WHY he isn't showing up on time, and promising he will try much harder - may get him some attention. Typically, the other party might try to console him, or comfort him by saying "I understand. You are doing the best you can"

These behaviors might also get him to access something tangible. He gets to keep his job, or get something else he wants with this behavior.

I am going to hazard to guess the above behaviors worked like a charm with his mom.

However, Phillip did not realize he was barking up the wrong tree.

I let him know that he was done with my crew. I informed him of the multiple reminders and the last chance I gave him.

Then, an interesting behavioral phenomenon occurred. Extinction, and the extinction burst.

Extinction occurs when a behavior that was previously reinforced no longer gets reinforced. As a result, the behavior occurs at a greater intensity and frequency with the hope for reinforcement. The increased intensity and frequency is called the "extinction burst"

I have included a link to my favorite example of an extinction burst EVER!


In Phillip's case, he proceeded to get angry. His demeanor changed. He no longer "assumed the position". As a matter of fact, he stood up tall, looked me in the eye, and asked me what my problem was. That he was "just trying to help out" and I wasn't letting him. He realized that the behaviors that were previously reinforced for God knows how long, were no longer being reinforced, and he was at a loss. He did not know what to do next.

He had no money to purchase a festival ticket, and "assumed the position" to the volunteer coordinator. I warned her that he would sucker her in, and she was - only slightly.

He wound up getting on a new crew. Garbage detail. I was told they worked his butt off.

I am sure Phillip will continue to use those behaviors until he discovers they won't work anymore. The bad news is - enough people will reinforce him for a while to keep it going.

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