Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Back at home, I work at a children’s play centre. Although this might not be my lifelong ambition, this Easter, the techniques of Applied Behaviour Analysis will be coming back with me!

One situation in which I can use positive reinforcement is at the ball pit. Boys LOVE to empty that thing! They throw the balls out every which way (or worse… towards me) and pathetically, I used to crawl around on my hands and knees picking them up one by one. Now I will do one of two things…

Firstly, if I see a child clearing up the balls (it is usually a girl, sorry to reinforce the stereotype) then I will praise her; “Wow, you are a superstar! Come and get a balloon from me to say thank you!” Not only does this reward her for the behaviour and therefore increase the likelihood of her continuing to tidy but by vicarious operant conditioning others might copy her behaviour as well. This was demonstrated by Bandura, Ross and Ross (1963) in an adaptation of their classic Bobo doll study. They showed that children were more likely to copy the aggressive behaviour of a role model if their behaviour was rewarded rather than punished.  

An alternative technique would be to make the act of putting the balls back reinforcing in itself by turning it into a game! “Who can put all the balls back in the fastest?” Then once again plenty of praise for the fastest ball returners. Innocent children falling foul of the most basic Skinnerian (1938) operant conditioning but who cares if they are having fun!

Unfortunately, unlike most roles working with children, I have very little authority for punishment. Under the scrutiny of parents watchful eyes I wouldn’t dare punish little Freddy. The most I tend to do is an authoritative shout;
“Don’t ride the motorbike down the slide!”
 “Don’t bite that girl’s arm!”
“Don’t take your nappy off in the ball pit!”
However, reprimanding is only level one of a behaviour analyst’s punishment.  A good alternative might be a time out. The whole play experience is rewarding for the child so removal from it will be punishing. However, this would need parent cooperation. Parents who listen to you when you tell them their child has done something wrong are fine. The problem parents are those who believe that little Freddy cannot possibly do anything wrong and they contradict your punishment.

So watch out kids… I am coming back and I have applied behaviour analysis with me!


Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology67, 601-607.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Cambridge, MA: B.F. Skinner Foundation.

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