Avoidance Behaviour, Setting the Bar Low, and Why I am Challenged by the World of Blogging (Part 2 of 4)

Where did last week’s cliff-hanger-of-a-blog leave us? Ah yes, with the idea that a significant driver of what we do is the avoidance of negative consequences, rather than the bliss associated with striving to achieve greatness. And although it is widely accepted that providing a reward is the best way to encourage a behaviour, providing negative reinforcement (tying a behaviour to the avoidance or a negative consequence) comes in as a close second. Finally that this principle, which I like to call avoidance (hard to see that one coming) is what drives much of what we do in our everyday lives. For example, our justice system operates on the principle of ‘deterrence’, which is really just another way of characterizing the principle of avoidance.  An old-fashioned time clock system for logging people in and out of work (think the opening of The Flintstones, if you’re willing to admit you’re that old) is based on a similar principle.

By the way, and taking off briefly on a tangent, if you aren’t aware, our electronic security pass cards function exactly the same way as an old fashioned punch clock. I’ve been involved in at least one detailed analysis of swipe cards being used to track staff coming in and out of work. Technology may have evolved from the time of the Flintstones, but very little about what it is used for has changed. That’s the subject of a future blog, assuming there is an actual future in blogging and I’m not standing on a soap box at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park in six months because a massive solar flare and the associated EMP radiation has fried our electronics.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program, already in progress…

There are a few reasons we rely heavily on the use of negative reinforcement or avoidance instead of rewards and positive reinforcement. The first (and, I believe, the most powerful) is that implementing negative reinforcement is usually easier, at least in the short run. And all we have to do to understand this is to return to our basic model of human behaviour: what is the most powerful way to increase or maintain a behaviour? Positive reinforcement or rewards.

Say what? Providing the threat of punishment is more reinforcing than providing something positive? My optimistic world view continues to take a beating. But yes, in a weird and twisted way, the universes of human behaviour folds back in on itself, and we find that we, the people trying to drive a particular behaviour, get more immediate response (and therefore reward, to us) out of threatening punishment than providing a reward. How is that weird, apparent contradiction possible??

It’s actually pretty simple. Let’s say you’re responsible for safety for a small crew of people who work on construction. One of the most common injuries sustained by this group are head and foot injuries. Their heads get bonked when people working above them drop hammers, saws, lunch boxes and stale Twinkies, and as they’re stumbling around in pain, they stub their toes, have stacks of planks dropped on their feet, or step on exposed nails or screws. So what do you do? Among other things, you require the people on your crew to wear hard hats and safety shoes. You should probably also ban Twinkie consumption, but that might be very unpopular.

But here’s the problem: hard hats are uncomfortable, they’re hot in the summertime, they restrict your hearing and, most importantly, they give you severe and protracted hat-head of the worst kind. Safety shoes have similar issues. They’re also hot, and heavy, and extremely unstylin’. I’m not sure if that’s a hip word, but I’m using it anyway. Perhaps someday it will become hip.

Naturally, we would like to believe that any rational person would decide that the minor discomforts associated with wearing hard hats and safety shoes would be more than offset by the positives of preventing concussions and crushed feet. We also tend to think that anyone could work this out for themselves, but we take no chances and we explain to our crew about the bad things that happen if we don’t wear our safety equipment. Whether they think about it explicitly or not, we then expect that each of our crew members will (naturally) find the positive reinforcement associated with wearing the safety equipment to more than compensate for the discomfort.

There are (at least) two elements at play here. One is that we are relying on negative reinforcement, whether we know it or not. We want people to avoid a negative consequence (concussion, broken toes) and wear the safety equipment. And secondly, for many people, the negative consequence prevented won’t be enough to drive the behaviour. For these people, the punishment of a hot head, sweaty feet, and bad hair is sufficient deterrence such that they won’t wear the hat and the shoes. Worse still (and when I say ‘worse’, I don’t mean it like it sounds) they don’t get the bonk on the head or the crushed foot consequence often enough to make it a ‘real’ threat. But they do get hat head and sweaty every single time they wear the safety equipment. This immediate and certain reward of no hat-head is far stronger than the uncertain future bad consequence of a concussion.

So what do we do? In my ideal and optimistic world, we figure out a positive and immediate consequence for wearing the safety equipment. Rewards are the best way to increase or maintain a behaviour, right? But realistically, just how do you do that? Chip over here spends $100 a week on his retro Pulp Fiction-inspired Flock-of-Seagulls hair cut. How are you supposed to reward him for squishing it down every day?

Now the model operates on us, the supervisor. If it’s hard to find a way to reward the right behaviour, the most common thing is to figure out how to insert our own negative consequence into the equation to prevent the behaviour we don’t want. And then we tell the crew explicitly what that negative consequence or punishment will be. They will get written up for a workplace violation. They will get yelled at by you. They won’t be allowed on-site if they aren’t wearing their equipment. If they don’t bring it, they will be sent home to get it, and they will miss paid time at work.

In other words, we set up a very clear negative consequence for them not engaging in the behaviour we want, and by giving them that negative consequence, we set up a future where they’ll start wearing their safety equipment to avoid the negative consequence. We also usually hope like hell we won’t have to actually provide the punishment.

Why do we (the boss) do this? It’s easy to understand when you think about it. The result of doing it is immediate (to us) and reinforcing: we dish out the threat of punishment (or actual punishment) now, and we get the behaviour we want. We’re in the cycle that is the MOST powerful in terms of maintaining or increasing a behaviour: immediate, positive consequences to us. Why would I make a little chart for each crew member to which I can attach a gold star each day they wear their equipment when I don’t know whether that will even work…when instead I can create the result I need with the threat of negative consequences?

I’m making light of the difficulty in finding rewards, but not by much (I’ll be exploring the process of finding appropriate rewards in a later blog.) And I’m deliberately using an easy-to-observe behaviour for this example (I’ll also tackle some harder-to-observe behaviours in a later post.) But the challenges hold, as is evidenced by how often we use threat of punishment in our world, rather than possibility of reward, to drive behaviour.

So what? You might ask. If it works, what’s so bad about leveraging negative reinforcement and avoidance to make the world go ‘round? The optimistic land of striving to achieve things because we find it reinforcing is a pipe dream and after all we live in the real world.

As it turns out, there are downsides to the world of avoidance. I want to talk about two – one that appeals to the optimist in me, and one that appeals to the cynical, somewhat negative ‘real world-er’ I become about 50% of the time (usually during the latter part of the workday.) It’s important to note that whether either of them ‘appeals’ to me doesn’t change how human behavior operates. But it makes me feel better about the reality to talk about my feelings as if they matter. You could say it’s reinforcing for me.

Let’s start with the one that I would characterize as appealing to the practical, possibly cynical side of us humans. I haven’t talked much about punishment in this post (more to come at a later date) but we’ve certainly dealt with the threat of punishment as part of avoidance.

One of the most important things to recognize about punishment is that in order to be effective, it has to be used very sparingly. And it’s not just because you might be worried about jail time for smacking your kid/co-worker/boss, it’s because it loses its effectiveness when applied too often. What people find punishing can quickly become an inconvenience, or worse still, an irritation. If you delve deeper into things, it appears that the fear of punishment (and in some cases the unknowns around just how bad the punishment might be) holds most of the power with punishment. When a person actually experiences the punishment, the unknown (and associated fear) is removed, and the situation changes.

One of my favourite examples of this is a personal one, and it involves my brother. Dan, who is a year older (and, much to my irritation, was always known as the ‘smart’ one…admittedly not without justification) was the kid who was always pushing the boundaries and getting into what my parents defined as ‘trouble’. It has often occurred to me since that Dan simply had a different definition of trouble, and this has resulted in a life-long attempt to reconcile the two definitions, starting when he was about four.

Being of ‘a certain age’ means that my brother and I were subject to the ultimate childhood punishment (at least to me): spanking! I’m sweating just typing that. And although my brother and I were significantly more afraid of our father, it was our mother who almost always administered the spanking; her preferred implement was the wooden spoon. Interesting aside: as an elementary school teacher at the time, she also had access to the dreaded ‘strap.’ Not sure it’ll ever be a post, but fascinating to note that 30 years ago we lived in a world where not only was spanking kids in school acceptable and expected, you could actually buy purpose-made tools for doing it. Before you comment, yes I realize you can still buy tools for spanking today, but those are for a very different situation.

But to get back on point, the fear of getting spanked was a huge deterrent for me to do, well, almost anything that might be considered to be on the wrong side of the parental law. In rather start contrast, Dan really didn’t care. The reason? By the time he was 6, he had been spanked a more than sufficient number of times to remove all mystery from the process. He knew it would sting a bit, he learned that he had to work up some tears so my mom would think it was the worst thing ever for him, but he had no worry about the punishment itself. The effectiveness of punishment, and the threat of that type of punishment, had worn off. His behaviour was not impacted in the least by the existence of spanking.

It is sort of analogous to being a person who likes to drive fast, and being so rich that you don’t care about having to pay speeding tickets. Well, and living in a world where you can get an unlimited number of tickets without additional punishment. Analogies are generally imperfect.

Punishment becomes less effective if overused, and the use of punishment can also create resentment, anger, and generally negative feelings, leading to unpredictable, but generally undesirable behaviour. When my brother was a teenager, my parents had simple rules about our curfew: there wasn’t one, so long as we let them know where we were and when we’d be home (there were some other details about the ‘where’ not being in an opium den, but let’s not worry about that for now.) Failure to communicate meant being grounded (the punishment.) My brother’s reaction to and resentment of the idea that my parents would have the temerity (I looked it up, it’s an appropriate use of the word) to think they could punish him for doing exactly what he wanted, led to a complete absence of communication, a flaunting of the grounding punishment, and many departures from home (of the ‘running away’ variety) by the time he was 14. In case you’re wondering, I was an angel and always told my parents where I was.

The same resentment my brother felt at 14 can be seen in the workplace all the time when a supervisor tries to get a team member to ‘do the right thing’ (like wearing safety equipment), with the threat of punishment as a lever. Our team members will tend to think of themselves as adults, capable of making a judgement about what is safe and not safe, and resent us for (from their perspective) treating them like children. Disobeying the boss can be a deliberate act of defiance, often in a big part to show the boss just how the threat of punishment makes them feel.

Here’s another interesting thought: there are very, very few environments where you have such complete control over a group of people that they can’t circumvent any attempt at punishment (note that this includes everything up to and including quitting a job, or running away from home.) When your kids are 3 years old, when you’re a sergeant major running a military boot camp, or when you’re the coach of a kids’ sports team – these might be situations where you have, relatively speaking, more control, but this is not the situation in which most of us find ourselves.

Too much punishment is not a helpful thing when trying to get others (or yourself) to engage in a given behaviour. Unfortunately for us, the threat of punishment suffers from the same problem. Eventually the threat wears off, people start to resent the constant threatening, and they may start engaging in unexpected and non-productive behaviours as a result. At some point they don’t believe that you’re going to implement the punishment. And if you do punish, well, then you’ve got all of the problems noted above.

Don’t get me wrong – you and I know from everyday personal experience that the threat of something punishing will drive us to engage in a certain amount of behaviour. But the context and the mindset we bring to avoidance behaviour is not the most positive. For those of you that have one (or more), just ask your teenager how much they enjoying hearing you nag them to put their dishes in the dishwasher. Or clean up their room. Or put their phones away at the dinner table.

Which is a bit of a segue to point number two about why the threat of punishment is not the ideal way to do things. I bet you forgot there even was a point number, but don’t worry, I’m not losing the thread. This is the one that appeals to the optimist in me. The point is this: avoidance behaviour and negative reinforcement create an environment where everyone is encouraged to perform and behave to a certain minimum standard. The bar is set at a minimally acceptable height, and there is absolutely no incentive to go beyond that minimum.

People being people, and all of us being constrained by certain rules around why we do what we do, we engage in a given behaviour just until we reach the minimum point that avoids the negative consequence, and then we stop and go off and do something that we find rewarding! We don’t go above and beyond in cleaning our room, or keeping our time sheets up to date, or driving only at the exact posted speed limit because….well, why the hell would we? Once bad consequences have been avoided, where’s the incentive to keep on doing the behaviour? And in our world, people can and will find a behaviour that comes with a direct reward. Because rewards are the most powerful way to drive behaviour. Avoidance is number 2. Given a choice, we will always go for number 1.

If you want to achieve, if you want to make the upside unlimited or nearly so, if you don’t want to put a cap on people’s performance, you have to find a way to reward them for it. If you need a minimum standard, negative reinforcement can get you there, but you’re creating a ceiling.

If you’re worried your children will experiment with drugs and do harm to themselves, can it be effective to try and scare the crap out of them by showing them every overdose story about teenagers taking what they thought was ecstasy at a party? Absolutely. If there is the possibility of a loss of life in a workplace accident if certain safety protocols aren’t followed, can it be helpful to provide harsh and unpleasant consequences for team members who don’t follow those protocols. Yes. But is using negative reinforcement and avoidance the way to achieve great things? No, it is not.

“Great,” you say. “Mackenzie, you’ve made your point. Or at least you’ve beaten us into submission with all these words and I would like to avoid more words here and move on to talking about just how any or all of this relates to you writing your damn blog!!”

Excellent comment. And one that I’m going to address. In the next post. I like the trilogy concept. Plus this one has gotten much longer than the last one, which I cut off for the same reason. You need a bathroom break anyway.

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