Tips on how to change your own or other people's behavior.
My boyfriend is a very intelligent guy. However, he is quite lazy in regards to studying. His procrastination may have passed in the first 2 years, where he got firsts without opening a book, but when it comes to dissertations and third-year life, there is no way out but to work.
So below are 8 Ways I considered changing his behavior following the techniques from Pryor’s (1999) book ‘Don’t shoot the dog’. Pryor highlights the magic of positive reinforcement but maintains that each particular behavior from a certain individual is different and so it's up to us, the trainers, to figure out the best methods for changing specific behaviors. Some methods were implemented and successful. The effectiveness of the methods unimplemented remains undetermined.
1. ‘Shoot him?’ Dump him to not get stressed and annoyed by his behavior? This teaches him nothing.
2. Punishment: Threaten to confiscate and throw away his games? Yell, scold and criticize him in front of others? Not my style and doesn’t really work, usually because the punishment doesn’t coincide with the undesirable behavior and occurs afterward. Punishment may encourage him to study when I am present but not when absent.
3. Negative reinforcement: Disconnect the TV or withhold dinner or talking to him until he studied (and cease negative reinforcer when compliance obtained)? I am not his mother and feel this method would be quite excessive.
4. Extinction: Letting the behavior go away by itself? Let him mature and become accustomed to university pressures? Too much playing will (hopefully) make him get tired of it. If shirking is a way of getting attention, remove the attention, make him feel guilty/bad. However, he doesn’t have the luxury of time so this long-term method would not be helpful.
5. Train an incompatible behavior: We began studying together, making it a social occasion. Studying is obviously incompatible with procrastinating. He enjoys studying with me as it means he gets to spend more time with me as well – double bonus.
6. Put the negative behavior on cue. I began putting game playing under stimulus-control. So I would reinforce his playing whenever I cued it/told him he could if he wanted to and ignored him completely when not cued. I basically allowed a goof-off time. I rarely give the cue to game playing. This has dramatically reduced the amount of time he plays.
7. Shape the absence of the behavior: Reinforce everything that is not the undesired behavior. Praise like crazy when he’s done work. I give him massages, make him nice dinners and so on, whenever he studied or always subtly suggest we do something fun as soon as he finished work.
8. Change the motivation: If you understand why the unwanted behavior is happening, you can remove its cause. I figured out that the cause of his procrastination was that he really doesn’t enjoy studying. Only enjoying studying when I am there is not durable. I noticed, however, that when he studied and then relaxed, he seemed to enjoy playing games much more. I convinced him that he should enjoy working because it will help him have more fun relaxing. It worked marvelously.
Pryor asserts that it is often necessary to use a combination of the above methods. However, in the unlikely scenario that none of the 8 techniques above interest you or are ineffective, below are 3 more techniques for you to consider – that all seemed to work on my boyfriend as well – from Cialdini’s (2007) book ‘Influence’:
1. The rejection-then-retreat method. Works on the basis of the contrast principle. Make a large request (that will likely be turned down) then retreat to a smaller offer. Having made this concession, the other person will feel obliged to make a concession of their own (Cialdini et al, 1975). The only one available is the smaller request. Too large an initial request will be seen as unreasonable and could backfire (Schwarzwald, Raz & Zvibel, 1979). We feel more responsible and satisfied after agreeing to a concession and think we have brought that change. Studies show this method results in people being 4 times more likely to follow through the favor than only asking for a small request (Miller et al., 1976). Sometimes people even accept the larger request!
Based on this, I would, for example, be able to influence the amount of time he spent on work i.e. initially propose 2 hours of work then 1 hour.
2. Use of Social Proof. Pratkanis (2007) suggests that we behave according to other peoples’ actions because of the belief that ‘if others are doing it, it must be the correct thing to do’. We use the behavior of others as a guide for our own behavior and it works best when the proof is given by many other people (Bandura, Grusec & Menlove, 1967).
The fact that my boyfriend lives with other economics students makes this method rather easy seeing as research suggests that it is most effective when the people being compared are highly similar (Festinger et al 1956). I frequently tell him that they are all working hard and this makes him highly motivated to study.
3. Use of commitment and consistency. Writing things down is a time-tested method to affect commitment because it brings about internal and external pressures to conform to this new image. Moreover, whenever one takes a stand visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain it in order to look like a consistent person
Based on this, I tend to ask him his plan of the day, sometimes in front of others. I then follow up on him during or at the end of the day as to whether he achieved his goals. He tends to feel very ashamed and embarrassed when he doesn’t “keep his word” and simply asking him to commit himself to something seems to be highly effective!
So, nothing is hopeless. If you want to change something, you can. You just need to use trial and error and have faith in the widely used and researched tools. As much as I’d like to take credit for the fact that my boyfriend now studies and ENJOYS studying, according to Pryor, talking about it can ruin everything. So I am just going to enjoy what I initially thought was impossible.
Bandura, A., Grusec, J. E., & Menlove, F. L. (1967). Vicarious extinction of avoidance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(1), 16.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (pp. 90-91). New York: Collins.
Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 206.
Festinger, L., H. W. Riecken, and S. Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Miller, R. L., Seligman, C., Clark, N. T., & Bush, M. (1976). Perceptual contrast versus reciprocal concession as mediators of induced compliance. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 8(4), 401.
Pratkanis, A. R. (2007). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. New York: Psychology Press.
Pryor, K. (1999). Dont shoot the dog. New York: Bantam.
Schwarzwald, J., Raz, M., & Zvibel, M. (1979). The Applicability of the Door‐in‐the Face Technique when Established Behavioral Customs Exist. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9(6), 576-586.