Avoidance Behaviour, Setting the Bar Low, and Why I am Challenged by the World of Blogging (Part 3 of 4)


Perseverance is a virtue, right? Or is that patience…or persistence..or maybe it’s none of those, but in any case, here we find ourselves at post #3 on avoidance behaviour and how this relates to my reluctance to write these things.

I know, I know, if you’ve actually gotten through the first two posts on this topic, you’re likely thinking the word count would seem to indicate a complete lack of reluctance for me to write blogs, but let’s try and ignore that apparent anomaly for the moment.

To bring us back to where we left off, we talked previously about the concept of negative reinforcement, about the concept of engaging in certain behaviours in order to avoid negative consequences, and that this ‘avoidance behaviour’ drives a lot of what we do. We (and when I say ‘we’, of course I mean ‘I’. But it feels so much more conversational that way, doesn’t it?) also talked about negative reinforcement and avoidance as being a pretty effective way to achieve a minimum standard, but not being the best way to maximize performance.

And now, finally, I want to bring the discussion back to the comments with which I kicked off this blog trilogy: between avoiding bad things (like failure) and the allure of immediately reinforcing things (like YouTube and hamburgers), it’s a miracle that I have managed to write so many words in three separate blogs. How could this possibly come to be, with everything seemingly so stacked against me? To generalize, how is that we are ever able to overcome one pattern of reinforcement and behaviour and break into a new one, when clearly the deck is stacked against us?

I would suggest that having an understanding of why we do what we do gives us a better platform from which to try and effect change. If we are able to re-arrange our own levers based on understanding what is driving us to do certain things, we can create a situation where new behaviours, and therefore new results, are possible.

I’m not saying that’s easy to do.

Here’s the thing: We do whatever results in us maximizing our personal reinforcement. And in the same way we can’t measure cold (only the absence of heat), our personal reinforcement may come in the form of minimizing negative consequences instead of more obvious rewards. But the bottom line is that, and only that, is what drives what we do. What we often have a hard time accepting is that we don’t do things simply because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. Or because we’re ‘noble’, or ‘selfless’. As much as we hear people say it, we don’t do things “even though there’s nothing in it for me.” We ONLY do things that have something in it for us. Whether that means a reward or the avoidance of something bad.

Does this mean we’re all completely selfish and we act only to help ourselves? That we can’t do something inherently ‘good’, even when it appears to result in us having to suffer? This doesn’t sound good, does it? And it’s not something that we find easy to accept. And anyway, what about the hero in an action movie who sacrifices his own life to save others? Or the mother I read about in the paper the other day who tackled a bear that was mauling her child, knowing full well that the outcome for her personally was not going to be good? Isn’t that clear evidence that we don’t act entirely in our own self-interest? Can I fit one more question mark into this paragraph?? Absolutely, have two.

If you break down the different scenarios above, you find a couple of things. First, the concepts of ‘good’, and ‘the right thing’, and even ‘selfish’ are arbitrary constructs, based almost entirely on your point of view. They happen to be extremely important concepts, ones that are necessary for humans to live successfully together in a society without killing each other, but they have their basis in a rather complex amalgamation of simple patterns of behaviour and reinforcement. Patterns that have evolved, by trial and error, over thousands or millions of years, resulting in a (relatively) successful (for the moment) society of human beings going about its business.

“Whoa, buddy,” you’re saying, “You’re going all macro-philosophic. How about we take things back down from the cosmic level to a more practical one?” Good idea, let’s do that. That last paragraph is the basis for a much longer discussion, but some other time.

At the practical level, we need to recognize that rewards or reinforcement come in a variety of forms. We tend to think of them like they’re cupcakes or piles of money – in other words, things that are material, and commonly recognized to be liked by most people. One thousand years ago, the commonly accepted reinforcers would have been something different (say maybe a horse or a steel sword, depending on where you might be living.) We think of these things as ‘rewards’ because we can see them, touch them, taste them…excuse me while I make a trip to the bakery…

Where was I before that extra five pounds appeared around my waist? Ah, yes, our concept of what constitutes a reward. It’s generally pretty narrow – something physical, observable, immediate. Many things that people find rewarding fit perfectly into that category. But we humans are complex machines, and many things we find rewarding do not meet all of these criteria.

The principles of behaviour management rely heavily on the idea that we should, as much as possible, base things on what we can observe, whether that be specific behaviours or specific rewards. If we can observe it, we can measure it, and we use that to help us determine a way forward. The problem with people is that we just can’t see inside of their heads. Smart as we think we are, we don’t know what people are thinking. When it comes right down to it, we are effectively little islands of consciousness, and we have no way of knowing directly how any other human being in the world perceives or processes things. We have tools that we use to attempt to share our perceptions, language being a rather significant one, and these give us the impression that we perceive things in similar ways. But I have no way of knowing that what I perceive as the color red looks like what you perceive as the color red. By various means we can deduce or conclude from various bits of evidence and reasoning that what I see as red is the same thing that you see. But I can’t let you into my head to confirm it. Oh, and did I mention I’m colorblind?

This has significant implications when we’re trying to understand behavior; both that of others, but also our own. It’s part of why changing our own behaviour is such a difficult thing. In a work situation, for example, where you are part of a team that is attempting to accomplish a shared objective, you have an environment (hopefully) managed by one or more other individuals, who can define and communicate the result that the team needs to achieve, the behaviours required by each team member to accomplish that result, and specific reinforcement for the individuals on that team to encourage the required behaviours. This requires communication and consultation with team members around all of these elements, including what team members find rewarding. But in that case, someone who is not you is attempting to create that pattern of behaviour and reinforcement. And they have some external (to you) levers to do that. They can provide rewards like money, better information, and recognition, to name a few.

When you’re trying to do all of this for yourself, it’s quite a bit trickier, since you essentially have control over everything and nothing. I control the TV remote and the credit card that is accepted at the hamburger joint. I have my hand on the mouse that takes me down the YouTube hole instead of opening that Word document where my blog awaits creation. And me being human and all, I’m going to do what I find reinforcing. I’m not going to do ‘good’, or ‘the right thing’ UNLESS that is the thing that provides me with either the most immediate reinforcement, or allows me to avoid the most significant (and immediate) negative consequence.

The real question becomes, can I set things up in my brain so that at a given moment, the reward that I associate with writing my blog is either:

  • The most reinforcing thing I can do with my time right now;
  • The surest way to avoid a negative consequence, said negative consequence being more powerful than any immediate reinforcers like eating a bag of Smarties.

The answer to that is an intellectually clear and resounding ‘yes’. In the emotional here and now, it’s not quite so clear. But we attempt to set up patterns of behaviour all that time that associate positive rewards and/or the avoidance of negative consequences to get us to do the ‘right’ thing. To exercise, to make that difficult phone call, to write the damn blog. We often don’t think about it in a conscious way, but that’s what we do (or attempt to do.)

In order to do that consciously, we need to recognize that there is a behaviour that precedes the behaviour, that is not easy to perceive by someone outside of our own head. That behaviour is ‘thought’. I put it in quotation marks because the idea of thought starts to touch on the idea of ‘consciousness’ and that’s something that almost no one claims to fully understand, certainly including me. But nevertheless, understand it or not, there is a process that frequently takes place inside our heads that precedes us engaging in an externally observable, measurable behaviour.

In my imperfect way, I (and plenty of others) infer that one of the ways that thought manifests itself in people is via their inner voice, often referred to as ‘self-talk’. Language is one of the main tools that we use to communicate our wants, desires, ideas, unhappiness, our thoughts, to others. It’s also the tool that we use inside our own heads for the same result.

Think of it (no irony implied or intended with that lead-in) as analogous to the piece of paper we use to write down the steps we follow in carrying out long division by hand (if you can remember back to a time when your calculator didn’t do it for you.) Language is the tool that allows us to deal with ideas, and we use it in our heads, even when not speaking aloud. Near as we can, it appears all of us people have an inner voice ‘reading’ to us when we’re looking at words on a page, or ‘talking’ to us as we figure out a complex problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that this is some disembodied third party haunting our brains – this is us, our consciousness, expressing ourselves. Language is the tool. Language inside our heads is ‘thought’.

When an external third party, like our team leader, is working with the team to explain results, behaviours, and asking us about rewards, we have put him or her in the position of being able to help us shape our behaviour, individually, and as a team. We are granting him or her levers to change or enhance the pattern to get new and better results (or to try to.). If we’re trying to drive our behaviour all on our own, we have to provide our own governor or regulator to help us engage in the behaviours we want, to get the results that we want. Which means we have to consciously try and influence or steer our self-talk in the way that is most helpful to us. As noted above, this is difficult, but ultimately we are the ones who have our hands on the levers, and we can easily choose to continue a behaviour pattern that gives us immediate rewards, but that doesn’t give us the longer term result that we want.

Wonderful. How the does this mean I ever get a blog written when clearly I feel that I’m avoiding failure by NOT writing it, and I’m getting immediate and powerful reinforcement from food and television.

It’s not easy.

We have to use self-talk and self-driven reasoning to connect the immediate behaviour we need now to the rewards or positive benefits of the result we will achieve later. Visualization is part of this. Making a conscious choice about changing your environment to create a different opportunity for reinforcement and behaviour patterns to be established is an element. Repetition of these things is big too.

Some people are lucky – they find behaviours associated with doing the ‘right’ thing are already reinforcing. One of our kids provides good examples of this. Our youngest would seem to be a model of discipline when it comes to eating well and exercising. You can tell from 100 yards out that this is a kid who is in great shape. And how he looks is a good reflection of his behaviours around nutrition and fitness. He is highly disciplined about what he eats – all natural, mostly vegetarian, very conscious of the ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fats (including applying an understanding about what fat is actually good and necessary.) The same is true of how he exercises. He plays on a high level soccer team which means he’s practicing or playing soccer 5-6 times a week, but he also does strength and cardio training on his own religiously. He doesn’t smoke, smoke weed (although it’s pretty common at his high school), or drink much alcohol – all because he feels it would negatively impact his physical performance. As his parents, we’re ecstatic about that, and we try and give him positive reinforcement for all of that at every opportunity.

But if we dig deeper into the situation, we find something very interesting: he’s not looking for his parents to give him his rewards, he’s found that he gets his own particular ‘high’ from the burn of a good session with weights, or the fire in his lungs after a good cardio session. He has a FitBit and tracks his heart rate, workout intensity, calories consumed, calories burned, steps taken during the day, and he finds looking at all of this information to be reinforcing. In short, his physical and emotional make-up is such that he finds these behaviours intrinsically reinforcing. We can talk about his discipline and dedication and hard work, but ultimately he finds all of these behaviours give him rewards. Any short-term pain he feels in the process is more than offset by the reinforcement he gets from the behaviours.

He also doesn’t get rewarded in the same way for some of the behaviours that might run counter to his healthy lifestyle. A typical example: kids these days seem to go to a lot of birthday parties, starting at about age 2. One of the highlights of those parties, for most kids, seems to be when the birthday cake comes out and everyone gets to stuff themselves with refined sugar and chemicals. Most kids clamor for additional pieces of cake, more ice cream, and generally anything that contains a hit of nasty but incredibly good tasting chemicals. But not our boy. He would consistently take one bite of cake, and then pass it to me. Why? Because he didn’t care for the sugary, chemical goodness – he didn’t much like the way it tasted. On the one hand, you could lament that is was a shame that he never really got much pleasure from a birthday cake, but on the other hand, how fantastic would it be if things that were bad for you (like booze, cake, and ice cream), actually tasted bad??

I often reflected on this as I ate his cake, sent him back for a second piece to hand to me, and then looked at the number on the scale the next morning. I knew what the cake would do to me (believe me, staring at the number on the scale as I battled a sugar hangover is very punishing to me) but the immediate reinforcement of the flavor in my mouth kicked that future punishment’s ass every time.

What if you’re not lucky like this? What if you find ‘bad’ behaviour very reinforcing, and ‘good’ behaviour punishing? Is it possible to change your behaviour and reinforcement pattern, particularly if you don’t have the equivalent of a ‘boss’ who can work with you to change things about your environment? In other words, what if you’re like 99% of us humans out there? It’s a rare person who comes into this world finding all things ‘good’ rewarding, and not getting anything out of all the ‘bad’ temptations out there that will make you fat, sick, and unhealthy if you let them.

The answer is, of course, yes, it is possible to change your behaviour. It ain’t easy, but it’s doable. For empirical evidence of this, just look around and see all the people who have quit smoking, everyone who learned to study hard in school and graduate, everyone who changed diets and lost weight, started exercising and maintained it. Look at blogs that got written. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes.

What’s the secret?

There are a thousand gurus out there with a thousand different variations on what it takes to make this kind of change. Solutions include pills, special equipment, various types of counseling and therapy, medical procedures, or combinations of all of the above. Some of them aren’t helpful, some are effective, many are effective for some people and not for others.

At the fundamental level, making a change in behaviour can be greatly assisted by a few things. The first is an understanding of the principles of behaviour management. Reinforcement, punishment, avoidance, and the interaction among them. The second is the recognition that the combination of our physical state, and the environment into which we are born, raised, and exist, creates a unique way in which we interact with the world. We have our own unique variations of what we find punishing or rewarding. Some people come to enjoy spanking, some people hate birthday cake. Some people have little interest in money but are highly reinforced by the feeling they get from their snowboard carrying them down a steep slope through deep powder. And some people (most relevant, at least to me) find a Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzard to be more reinforcing that crack cocaine (which technically might be a terrible analogy because never having tried it, I have no idea how reinforcing crack cocaine would be to me. I just know that thoughts of physical violence have (briefly) flashed through my mind when asked to share a blizzard with another person. But I use the analogy because crack is something we think of in our society as being incredibly reinforcing and hence ‘addictive’.

Good news/bad news story people: good news is this post is done. Bad news: the Triology now has a part 4.

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