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

Breaking the selfish nature tea fosters!

Hold onto your hats everyone, I’m breaking away from the proposed theme for this blog, but then as a wise philosopher once said ‘the title is more a guideline than an actual rule’... or maybe that was a pirate... and me misquoting... regardless I’m going to tell you a real story from past employment, rather than a hypothetical of the future!

One warm evening in the summer of 2012 I received a call from a good friend asking me if I would consider joining him on a month long 9-5 job, sorting and selling old stage equipment for a company he occasionally does free-lance work for. I contemplated for a moment, thought of my finances, and realised if I was to keep up the high frequency of pints I had become accustomed to into the next academic year, then a little extra cash on the side wouldn’t hurt.  Unfortunately for me I was away for the first week of the proposed four and thought my chances were gone. My friend, let’s call him Steve, told me he was sure he could find someone else to fill in the first week but who couldn’t do the rest, and sure enough this is what happened. 

I turned up my first day at 9am and was run through what I was being hired to do. The company loans out stage equipment but had a lot of stock that was old and no longer hired out because they offered newer better variants of the equipment. Steve and I were tasked with sorting the to-be-sold equipment, photographing it, pricing it, putting it online to sell, packaging it, and finally arranging shipment of the bits to their new homes. A warehouse in the same industrial complex as this company had recently become vacant and the landlord had offered the company it for a month at a reasonable fee to use as a sorting area for these items so getting rid of them did not interfere with the usual hiring out business of the company. The second day I turned up at 9am and was surprised to find that Steve was not there, instead it fell to me to open the warehouse up, turn the equipment on and get everything ready for the day. Ten minutes later I headed over to the main office and warehouse, made myself a coffee, and headed back over to the warehouse. At 9:20am Steve arrived. He didn’t apologise for being late, or for leaving me to open everything up for the day, no, instead what he said was,
“Ah mate, Matt always had a tea ready for me when I arrived.”

The next day I turned up at 9am and lo and behold no Steve. So, being a good friend, and because he was the reason I had the job, I opened the warehouse up and then made him a cup of tea that was waiting for him upon his 9:20am arrival. The same happened the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week, and I started to get annoyed that the setup of each day was being left to me because he was always 20 minutes late, yet we were being paid for the same number of hours. That’s when the psychologist in me kicked in and I decided I might mould him into a better colleague. Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’ (1927) made me realise that this past week he had been turning up late because over the two weeks he had been working here he had been greeted by a cup of tea at 9:20am and no reprimand for being late. With some theoretical knowledge of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1938) I realised Steve’s morning tea could serve as a negative reinforcer in that he would avoid being late so his tea was warm when he arrived.

So, Monday of my second week (his third) I turned up and made my coffee and his tea straight away at 9am before heading over to the warehouse and opening it up for the day. As a result it was cold by the time Steve arrived at 9:20am. He was naturally peeved but I made little comment towards it. The next morning I did the same and again he arrived to cold tea. The Wednesday of that week he arrived at 9:15am-ish to a slightly warmer cup of tea. By the time we entered the fourth week Steve was there bright and early to help me open up the warehouse at 9am and had warm tea to begin his day, so everyone was a winner... maybe... you decide!


Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Oxford, England: Appleton-Century.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

AJ King

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