Avoidance Behaviour, Setting the Bar Low, and Why I am Challenged by the World of Blogging (Post 1 of 4)

What if I what I write sucks? What if what I write is great, but nobody ever finds it, and so it goes unread? What if what I write doesn’t exactly suck, but nobody wants to read it anyway? 

Nobody knows the exact number, but there are an estimated 150 million blogs out there, with more than a million new posts going up every day. Given those figures, it’s quite possible that the average blogger has never been troubled by the questions I raised above when he or she embarked upon his or her blogging journey.

But I have stumbled, and continue to stumble, often and hard. That’s a big part of why this is post #2, and not #202. I have no shortage of ideas I want to explore and communicate, but I’m thoroughly haunted by the looming disaster of failure, which all three of the questions in the first paragraph describe, at least for me.

On the positive side, this stumbling provides a good illustration of an important concept in behaviour management: avoidance. Or as the purists would say: negative reinforcement.

One of the distressing thoughts that comes out of spending time thinking about why people do what they do is the conclusion that much of our behaviour is driven by doing things to avoid an unpleasant consequence. Optimist that I am, I like to imagine that every day each of us heads out into the great wide world to pursue our dreams, to make the world a better place, that the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can achieve, and that the joy of pursuing the dream is all the reward we need.

This is, conceptually anyway, in line with the principles of behaviour management. The best way to increase a desired behaviour is to provide a consequence that the person finds rewarding. Even people who don’t buy into all of the aspects of behaviour management theory can accept that.

It follows that we would all tend to shape what we do (our behaviour) toward getting positive consequences. Hence my dreamy world in which we all go out to seek our destiny each day because it’s so rewarding.

But sadly, we know it doesn’t happen like that. Although positive reinforcement or rewards may be the best way to encourage behaviour, the next stop down the line when it comes to getting more of a particular behaviour is much more commonly seen out there in the real world. It’s something behaviorists call ‘negative reinforcement.’

This term can be confusing because for most of us, ‘negative reinforcement’ makes us think we mean a negative consequence, or punishment. In fact, negative reinforcement is engaging in a behaviour to avoid an unpleasant consequence. It’s not punishment at all; it’s acting in a way that allows us to avoid punishment. And we keep a given behaviour or set of behaviours going because it continues to make bad things not happen.

In order to try to avoid confusion, I use the term avoidance to describe this situation. You engage in a behaviour to avoid the bad stuff…you see what I did there in coming up with that brilliantly descriptive term? The purists might raise an eyebrow, but given my limited cognitive powers, I need to keep things as simple as I can. Whatever you call it, a close examination of what drives our behaviour at home and at work will show that avoidance or negative reinforcement plays a major role. And to repeat what I said earlier, next to providing a reward, negative reinforcement is the best way to increase or maintain a particular behaviour.

Which makes me feel a little sad. My optimistic view of the world gets sullied a little by the realization that avoiding bad consequences, rather than pursuing good ones, is what makes (a lot of) the world go around.

But then again I’ve had similar revelations around things like:

  • Chocolate makes me fat;
  • Drinking too much makes me sick; and
  • Winning the lottery is not a good retirement plan (although I haven’t given up on that last one.)

Regardless of whether I like it, I’ve always found that understanding how something functions makes it much easier for me to work with that thing (whether it be an internal combustion engine or an organization structure.)

Bringing this back to where we started, how does me and blogging lend itself to an understanding of avoidance or negative reinforcement? It helps to explain my avoidance behaviour. Despite the fact that:

  • I am full of ideas of things I’d like to write about; AND
  • I personally find the writing about these things to be reinforcing or rewarding,

I am contending with forces out there that are at least as powerful as these rewards. Namely the potential punishment (or really, my fear of it) that may follow the act of blogging: FAILURE!!

I am regularly conflicted about blogging (and regularly do not do it) because I’m avoiding the potential bad things that might happen if I do write and post a blog. Fear of failure is often stronger than the promise of reinforcement associated with accomplishment. Throw in there how immediately reinforcing watching Netflix or eating a hamburger is compared with sitting down and typing words onto a page (and hell, that’s virtual – it’s not even a real page!), and it’s kind of amazing that I do anything at all.

Think about that concept in the broader context of life: much of our social compliance behaviour – like not speeding, not spitting in public, not breaking the law in general – is all about avoidance. At work we complete our time sheets or our status reports because if we don’t, we’ll get a nasty or nagging email from our boss. We put on our safety equipment to avoid a scolding. We attend Monday morning meetings that we believe are a complete waste of time so that we don’t have to explain why we missed them.

Unfortunately, much of society is set up with this compliance mentality, which means behaviours are driven by avoiding negative consequences, rather than achieving positive ones. That in turn leads us to a ‘minimum standard mentality’, focused on minimizing what we characterize as ‘bad’ or undesirable behaviors, instead of maximizing the desirable ones. This caps our potential to achieve and, for most of us, is not terribly satisfying in the long run.

You can’t really find fault with this; it’s simply the way that human behaviour works. You can see it in action with your personal fitness regime. Even though you know you’ll very likely feel better and live longer if you workout regularly, you also know that there will be short term discomfort associated with that workout. Avoiding that unpleasant consequence is a very powerful attractor, especially if you have something immediately reinforcing to help you with the decision – back to Netflix and hamburgers.

And yet, crappy-or-not, unread-by-any-eyes-other-than-my-close-relatives-or-not, this blog has made its way into existence. How can that happen, given the power of avoidance?

Unfortunately I’m still playing catchup on Game of Thrones, and there are hamburgers to grill. But I will explore this mystery further in the next post. Assuming I can overcome this avoidance thing and actually write it….

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