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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Swift Slap on the Forehead

As fireman chief, I will use Applied Behaviour Analysis to influence the drive and determination that is needed in a unit that saves the lives of those in emergencies. If one of my trainee firefighters is scared to use that big huge ladder on top of the truck, I can use ABA to reward them every time they climb it: I will note down the number of times they are required to use the ladder on training days or rescues and the proportion of unsuccessful attempts or times they get someone else to do it. Then, by establishing a reward system for the firefighter who climbs to the end of the ladder and onto a training day ‘rooftop’, the scared one will be reinforced for their bravery with a little fire truck-shaped chocolate, cheers from their team or maybe a hug from me at the finish line. I could have their partners lock the front doors of their homes and have ladders leading up to their first floor windows instead, the instant reward of which is clearly being allowed into their own houses.

If their observed performance on ladders improves, I will slowly reduce the occurrences of rewards and see whether or not their bravery declines. Hopefully, their consistently facing the discomfort of climbing the ladder will prove the earlier fear ungrounded and render the reward insignificant. Their duty as a firefighter should now be the driving force for their climb, rather than the reward of chocolates or cuddles.

If a firefighter doesn’t make good decisions in training exercises and shirks their duties on rescues, I have many options for punishing them every time they get someone else to climb the scary ladder. I would most likely give them a small slap on the forehead for everyone to see (when the environment is too noisy for stern words), or shouting at and embarrassing them in front of their training peers. It would be a bad move to punish them with physical exercise, as is performed in many of the public service roles, as ‘using exercise as punishment can have negative physical consequences’ (Burak et al 2013). 

However, the training environment for firefighters lends itself to using hoses to soak bad trainees. This would most effectively fulfil the role of the punishment as intense, inescapable and immediate, important aspects of punishment that will make it effective in stamping out unwanted behaviour (Meindl & Casey 2012). Furthermore, punishment must be consistent across every firefighter on the team, no one member receiving a smaller reprimand just because their service up until then was good. This is important because inconsistency in punishment can have detrimental effects on co-operation, as shown by van Prooijen and colleagues (2010).

The main attitudes that must be reinforced in a firefighting team are responsibility, quick thinking and fearless action on decisions for the benefit of the victims. As a result, rewarding performance on real-life rescues will be a large part of the work, as commending ‘hot saves’ will reinforce the bravery and selflessness required of a successful firefighter. Clearly, rewards such as ‘ranking’ a firefighter are used today to reinforce such success.


Meindl, J. & Casey, L. (2012). Increasing the Suppressive effect of Delayed Punishers: A Review of Basic and Applied Literature. Behavioural Interventions, 27:3, 129-150.

Burak, L., Rosenthal, M. & Richardson, K. (2013). Examining attitudes, beliefs, and intentions regarding the use of exercise as punishment in physical education and sport: an application of the theory of reasoned action. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43:7, 1436-1445.

Van Prooijen, J., Gallucci, M. & Toeset, G. (2010). Procedural justice in punishment systems: Inconsistent punishment procedures have detrimental effects on cooperation. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47:2, 311-324.

By Alek Lagowski

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