Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reinforcing Change

My profession is about helping people change, and I help my clients figure out what changes they want to make, and then we generate strategies to help bring about those changes. One of the most important tools in helping anyone change is understanding the principles of shaping behavior.

These principles of shaping behavior are applicable to any animal, even us humans. We are certainly more complex in our understanding and our motivations, but basic principles of punishment and reward operate similarly across all animals. We often understand this principles as they relate to pets or even children, but sometimes we don't apply those principles to ourselves, so I want to outline the basics of reinforcement and punishment and explain how to apply these principles to yourself.

First, let's define reinforcement and punishment. While this may seem basic, understanding each of this principles is critical to understanding how to create change. Reinforcement and punishment are both responses to a person's behavior. Reinforcement is anything that increases the probability of an organism engaging in a particular behavior. For example, if you say "Thank you!" to someone who holds the door for you, you have just reinforced that behavior. Your expression of gratitude has made it more likely that that person will hold the door for you (or someone else) in the future. Punishment, on the other hand, is anything the decreases the probability of an organism engaging in a particular behavior. If you honk at someone who cuts you off while you're driving, that person is probably less likely to make that mistake again.

Why is this important? This basic definition of these two responses help us understand something that is critical for creating change: Punishment stops behavior; punishment does not teach new behavior! This seems obvious, but how many times have you punished yourself when you have been trying to start a new behavior? Perhaps you are working to develop a new exercise routine, and you miss a day. If you're like me, your first reaction is to criticize and berate yourself. "You're not going to get in shape like that! You've got to try harder! Are you really committed to this?" This kind of self-talk is unpleasant and punishing, which is not going to help me increase my behavior of exercising! Instead, such self-punishment is likely to decrease my desire to make attempts to exercise in the future.

Reinforcement, on the other hand, is just what you need when you want to increase a behavior. If you are trying to increase your exercise, reinforce every positive change that you make! Use all kinds of reinforcements, especially when you're just starting out. Try positive self-talk, saying something like, "You did it! Good job!" Schedule rewards for yourself, such as your favorite drink after exercising. Plan for bigger rewards as you meet your goals; for example, you might buy a new outfit when you reach a certain weight goal. All of these strategies will help you make the change that you want!

One last principle to remember as you practice reinforcement is the concept of shaping. Shaping is the practice of reinforcing small changes on your way to bigger changes. If you decide to learn a new language, it will be important to give yourself rewards as you learn all the basics of pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. Reinforcing yourself along the way will increase your motivation to continue learning. If you only reinforce yourself once you're fluent, it will be a long, hard road on the way there. Use shaping to make your change easier to manage.

I've focused in this post on creating change in yourself; these principles are just as true in eliciting change in other people. If you want your children to be more helpful, reinforce them when show even the slightest bit of helpfulness. If you want your spouse to listen to you more, let him or her know how much  like it when they do listen. Child psychologists often talk about catching your child doing something good; this is reinforcing the behavior that you want.

If you're interested in learning more about reinforcement to shape the behavior of yourself or of other people, Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog offers a great illustration of these concepts.

The Stories We Tell

One beautiful spring morning while I was in graduate school, I was waiting at the bus stop to ride in to UNC - Chapel Hill. I had enjoyed the refreshing, cool air of that morning as I strolled to the bus stop, and I was happy to have the chance to savor the morning. As I waited for the bus, I watched the cars zoom by, imagining the different lives of the people in those cars.

While I was watching the cars and daydreaming, I suddenly noticed a beautiful butterfly that had somehow found its way onto the road in the middle of traffic. This poor, fragile butterfly wasn't flitting between the cars, merrily dodging the speeding vehicles; this little butterfly was floundering on the ,asphalt in the middle of traffic. Every time a car drove past (or over!) the butterfly, the wind from the car tossed it about and sent it tumbling along in a new direction. Somehow, none of the tires from all the cars actually hit the butterfly, or it would have been crushed instantly.

I despaired for this poor, helpless butterfly that was facing such insurmountable odds. I wondered how it had ended up there, concluding that it must have been fluttering along when it strayed into the road and got clipped by a passing car. It clearly wasn't able to fly; every time the wind buffeted the butterfly, it awkwardly flapped its wings and fell back to the hard asphalt, where it flopped around again until the next car passed. I mourned for this beautiful, little creature that had unwittingly stumbled into its doom. I even contemplated running out into the traffic to try to save the little thing, but I knew that would be dangerous for me, and I thought it would be a pointless risk given how obviously injured the butterfly was. Without an ability to fly, it would certainly die even if I rescued it from the road. There was nothing I could do to help this little creature; I could only watch it struggle until the inevitable end came.

I watched this butterfly struggle for what seemed liked an hour, although it was probably only a minute, maybe two. I found myself wishing that one of the tires from the passing cars would actually run over the butterfly and put it out of its misery, and I was saddened to watch such a delicate creature perish on a morning that was otherwise so beautiful. As I watched the butterfly and wished for its misery to end, another car passed by, throwing the butterfly up into the air again. This time, however, I was surprised to see that it remained airborne longer that it had every other time. It still fell back to the asphalt, but this was the first time that I began to wonder whether the story I had been telling about this butterfly wasn't accurate. I watched it carefully as the wind from another car sent the butterfly aloft again, and I was astonished to see the little thing catch the air with its wings and awkwardly flit toward me. Another car passed again, and the wind buffeted the butterfly again, but it persevered in its flight out of danger. This beautiful little butterfly that I had already been mourning found its way into a bush just a few feet from the bus stop, and it landed on one of the upper branches. I imagined it holding on for dear life as it sat in that bush, and I watched as it settled there and then slowly began beating its wings. I was reminded of butterflies that I had seen emerging from their cocoons, unfurling their wings, and beating them to help them dry. I imagined the butterfly soaking up the morning sun as it fanned its wings, and I watched it gradually increase the speed with which it moved its wings. Before long, this creature that I had already been grieving took flight and flew off, away from the road and off out of my sight.

As this butterfly flew off to other adventures, I was struck by how certain I was that it could not possibly survive longer than a few minutes on that road. I had told a story about an injured butterfly that would inevitably be crushed by one of the passing cars, and I was thoroughly convinced that this story was true. In the midst of this story, I felt despair and hopelessness, and I did nothing to try to help the butterfly get to safety. Why would I? I was convinced that it would make absolutely no difference. And what if the butterfly had somehow been convinced of the same story that I told myself? What if it had also despaired, lying on the pavement waiting for the final, crushing blow? Or what if it had desired the end to the misery that I had wished for? Would it have thrown itself under one of the tires?

Or what if I had been telling a different story? What if I had imagined a butterfly that had recently emerged from its cocoon and hadn't yet learned how to use its wings? What would I have done differently? Would I have looked carefully to see what I could do to help this butterfly get to safety? Would I have been a bit more creative in my thinking, imagining new possibilities that could save the butterfly? Would I have been able to enjoy watching this butterfly fight for life and succeed?

This experience helps me to remember that we are always telling stories to ourselves. These stories don't just come out of nowhere; we have learned these stories from past experiences and especially from hearing stories from our family and friends and from the media. The biggest problem with these stories is that they often feel so true when we're in the middle of them, even when they're not helpful to us. They may elicit hopelessness and despair and cause us to give up; they may elicit anger and a desire for revenge and cause us to attack those who are on our side; or they may elicit fear and anxiety and cause us to avoid the risks that are necessary to build a meaningful life.

The practice of mindfulness helps us to observe when we are caught up in stories and to step out of those stories and focus on what is important to us. When we recognize these stories for what they are, they lose some power over us, and we can learn to focus on writing our own stories, living our lives in way that is consistent with our own values. I invite you to take a moment to examine your own life: What stories do you tell about your experience? Is there any story in your life that you are absolutely convinced is true? Perhaps you even have an abundance of evidence to support your story, just as I did as I watched that butterfly struggle. Is there any chance that you can use the same facts to tell a different story?

As you consider a new story, consider what values you want your life story to reflect. What do you want the moral of your story to be? How do you want to face adversity? How do you want to interact with others? What importance do you want to place on your connection with others? If someone is watching you live your life, how will they see your values reflected in the story you are building?

Again, I invite you to examine your own life for stories that you are telling yourself. I further invite you to discard the stories that are not helping you live the life you want and to consider how you can live a life that reflects all the values that you hold dear. Mindfully building a life that is guided by your values will give you a life that is more satisfying and more meaningful than any other story you might hear.