Influencing the Behaviors of Others

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

Whether you are in the role of a parent, friend, spouse, or boss, we want to improve the behavior of others to better provide for your goals. The quickest and easiest method to accomplish this is punishment. However, punishment is not the most powerful way to provide sustainable behavioral change.

Punishment is designed to make an undesirable behavior so undesirable that the person avoids doing it. Reward is designed to make a desirable behavior more enticing so the person does it more often. Thus, in their purest forms, punishment discourages an undesirable behavior by reminding the person it is undesirable, but does not inform the person of the desirable behavior, while reward encourages the desirable behavior by reminding the person of its desirability, while ignoring the undesirable behaviors.

The mind will focus on the behavior emphasized by either punishment or reward, increasing the likelihood of that behavior. For example, if you want your child to not hit their siblings, you may think to punish them every time they do. If you do, their mind will focus on hitting their siblings, and thus they may hit their siblings more often. However, if you reward them when they are kind to their siblings (or whatever you decide is more desirable than hitting siblings), they will think about this more frequently, and likely do it more frequently.

The main methods of punishment and further categorized into “positive” and “negative.” These terms refer to if something is provided (positive) to the person or taken away (negative) from them. For example, if you yell at your employees when they do not meet their sales goals, this is (as odd as it sounds) “positive punishment,” if you reduced their commission, it is “negative punishment.” If your employees make their sales goals and you praised them, this is “positive reward,” and if you give them a day off when they make their sales goals, it is “negative reward.” In punishment the added item (yelling) is undesirable, and the taken away item (commission) is desirable, and in reward the added item (praise) is desirable, and the taken away item (a day of work) is undesirable.

In managing these methods, it must be remembered that people are cognizant of who controls the rewards and punishments. In most cases, you administer both. This can then lead to the person you are trying to influence responding to your behavior more than the actual punishment or reward. For example, if your spouse does not help you with the chores, you could complain to them (positive punishment) or ignore them (negative punishment, your attention, which is desirable, is removed), or you could thank them whenever they do (positive reward), or excuse them from other undesirable behavior because they helped you (negative reward). If you punish them, they will experience you as aggravating and avoid interaction with you (which may include not doing chores for or with you). However, if you reward them, they will enjoy the experience and seek to please you (because it provides pleasure for them), which will likely include doing chores.

Another factor to consider is the nature of the reward, whether it is internal or external. An external reward is something that comes from a source other than the actual behavior, whereas an internal reward is something inherent in the behavior itself. For example, if you enjoy talking to your friend about a particular topic, but they tend to also talk about a different topic that agitates you, you could reward them with attention when they begin talking about the desirable topic (positive, external reward), while displaying disinterest when they talk about the undesirable topic (negative, external punishment). A more powerful method, however, would be to start a conversation about the desirable topic and direct the conversation to allow your friend to discuss things about the topic that is most enjoyable to them (positive, internal reward). This is the most effective method of influencing behavioral change in a person because the person is not alarmed by your influence (as they would be in using any type of punishment), they are motivated by characteristics of the desired behavior, and they associate these positive experiences of the behavior with you (you are the one influencing the behavior).

Although the use of positive, internal reward requires you to understand what behavior you want the person doing, and what the behavior provides for them, thus increasing the likelihood of the behavior being done spontaneously and consistently by them.