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.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Convincing Findings: Behavioural Analysis in Research.

Thorndikes (1927) Law of Effect states the probability of a behaviour reoccurring is altered depending on the consequences following said behaviour. Behavioural Analysis aims to use reinforcement techniques (Skinner, 1938) to elicit or prevent certain behaviour in an individual, but as as a full-time research assistant options seem fairly limited. After all, the people who one interacts with may only be acquaintances for half an hour. There are situations where these techniques could come in handy, however, and possibly even times when the researcher is subject to conditioning themselves.

Whilst short experiments may not provide enough time to use behavioural analysis, longer projects spanning several days could allow the application of some principles. An example that springs to mind took place during our first year, after turning up late to one of the experiments we were assigned to participate in. Whilst it is unlikely the lovely experimenter intended to cause any feelings of soul crushing guilt, it certainly did the job of keeping me punctual for the remaining sessions. This effect could have been replicated with threats of loosing course credit etc., but using a punishment tactic such as this is generally advised against. Side effects could include unintentional classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1927), where the negative feelings could be attributed to the task (on this particular occasion I could have attributed the negative feelings of guilt to participation itself and been reluctant to return).

Positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of a particular behaviour being repeated, and will likely come into play with monetary incentives. Participation is rewarded with payment, so a participant would be more inclined to repeat the behaviour, i.e. participating. Therefore, whilst payment may entice people to take part in research, it may also work to make them more likely to put themselves forward for other studies with or without incentives. Similarly, a researcher looking to build links with a school could offer to hold a class talk on their findings, giving teachers a break alongside giving them a good reputation on an educational standpoint. School staff may be more likely, therefore, to accept frequent requests to allow researchers to use their students. This could of course work both ways, in that a researcher may be more inclined to help the school out, with the positive reinforcement being a large, readily available sample of students.

When thinking about careers and behavioural analysis, it becomes apparent that the application is likely widespread without people (on both ends) being aware. All it takes is an interaction within a business relationship in which someone benefits or loses to make a repeat of the interaction more or less likely. Even on a smaller scale, acts such making a round of brews when things are going well or after being praised could motivate those sipping that freshly made cup of tea to keep up any positive feelings.

Stuart Miller






Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditional Reflexes. New York: Dover Publications.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behaviour of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

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

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