Research suggests that it only takes social animals a few instances of seeing their peers rewarded for a behavior before they will want to mimic that behavior in order to get the same reward. This effect is often explored in regards to fairness research and behavior change. When social animals get what they feel is a worthwhile reward, they feel an innate sense of fairness; when they don’t, they feel as if they are being treated unfairly. This universal reaction in relation to a highly relative sense of fairness can be very useful when trying to influence behavior change. All animals will quickly change their behavior in any way possible to get the desirable positive reward when they feel that they have the power to balance the fairness scale. Take 5 minutes and watch this video of monkeys getting grapes versus cucumbers.

The last few weeks, I feel as if I have been the monkey who keeps getting the cucumber. I bang my rock, I give it to the lab tech, and I think I’m going to get my grape. Instead, I get a stupid cucumber. I may have even thrown a little temper tantrum at one point last week. If I had had some poo, I’d probably have thrown it. 

I’m taking some liberties with the metaphor, but the point is that unlike our frustrated primate cousins, my stress wasn’t being imposed by a white-coated lab tech; instead it was 100% in my own head. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I am cognitively capable of recognizing that my emotional milieu has been my own doing, I’ve still struggled to shake it.

As I contemplated how to shift my thoughts and unpack these ideas of fair and unfair, I found myself thinking back to Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch. In their work, they explore various techniques of using positive reinforcement versus punishment to accelerate change in individuals and organizations that aren’t acting the way we want. 

Humans, like the monkeys from the video, want grapes, not cucumbers. In other words, we want to believe that we are getting the best reward possible for our actions. The funny part is that the relative weight of those rewards are so often being determined just under our conscious thoughts. Too often, we don’t bother to slow down and ask what makes a grape better than a cucumber.

Let’s take a step back and look at how behavior change works in the context of Chip and Dan Heath’s book. An athlete, let’s call her Ursula, consistently shows up 10 minutes late to class. Positive reinforcement would be for me to acknowledge Ursula coming late and require a 10 burpee penalty – 1 burpee for every minute late. Negative reinforcement would be me ignoring Ursula’s tardiness and continuing on with the class after a brief greeting or direction for her to join the rest of the athletes in the warmup. Addendum: a third option is punishment, which would not be burpees but rather refusing to let Ursula join the class. Ironically, punishment is actually positive reinforcement, but its severity must be such that it negates the individual’s ability to continue with the intended result of the stimuli. In this case, the stimuli that caused the late arrival is unknown but doesn’t really matter. Ursula, whether she had intended to be late or not, expected her action, showing up, to result in me letting her join the class. A burpee penalty only delays the intended result rather than fully deny it; therefore, it’s not actually punishment. As a side note, punishment is very effective in changing behavior in the short term. It’s also very effective in keeping someone safe when she is going to do something dangerous. However, its effectiveness also quickly deteriorates when overused.

As I kept thinking about this more and more, I came to realize that by letting myself sink into my own head about things, I was being Ursula and I kept rewarding my own undesirable behavior. My face would scrunch up, jaw would tighten, arms would cross my body, and I would feel myself taking a more aggressive approach with people. And, as my reward, people reacted as if I was being aggressive. Shocker. The reward was not what I wanted for my behavior but it was still a positive reward and it in turn fed my undesirable behavior. Similarly, the coach who keeps giving Ursula burpee penalties when she arrives late will inadvertently cement her future tardiness.

A baseline strategy that may get some change but might take a really long time would be to simply ignore the undesirable behavior. In Ursula’s case, perhaps I simply ignore her when she comes late, and I hope my negative reinforcement strategy works. Unfortunately, that’s a crap shoot with less than 50/50 odds of success. In my case, ignoring the undesirable emotions is actually much harder and might actually be worse if it becomes a case of repressing those emotions and forcing them to resurface at another, inappropriate time.

With Ursula, I need to be extremely efficient with my actions because I only get a few chances each week to influence her. As I’ve recognized, I can’t simply ignore her all the time so by offering desirable positive reinforcement to her peers who have arrived on time and denying her any reinforcement, it’s likely that she may start to change her behavior much more quickly. This is where I also need to be liberal with using what are called bright spots for Ursula. Perhaps one day, instead of 10 minutes late, Ursula comes hustling in just 2 minutes after the start of class. What a great chance to celebrate her with a bright spot that focuses on her effort at making small changes. If I wait until she is perfect to recognize her, it’s unlikely she will have the emotional stamina to see the forest for the trees. Psychologist Carol Dweck talks a lot about the effect of celebrating effort rather than focusing on results and how this is critical in cultivating a Growth Mindset. Though a slightly different topic, the two ideas help support the idea of making behavior change stick once we start to get some momentum. 

Where Ursula’s case is easy, she’s either on time or not, in my case it starts with my body language. Someone suggested that I should just try smiling when I feel that sense of aggressiveness creeping in. I tried it and it kind of worked. The effort was there, I gave myself a little bit of credit for trying, and the resultant emotional tenor was different. It might not have been the exact grape I was hoping for but it made a change and that’s something. 

None of this stuff is perfect or works every time. People still come late. I still get frustrated. Life goes on. But for me, these concepts seem like bridges that can not only help lead us to new behavior patterns but also help with difficult relationships, letting go of anger, or becoming better people. Striving for perfection in our behavior is unrealistic and probably a waste of time. But if I recognize that I don’t want to keep acting the way I am acting and I take the time and energy to change just a little bit, then I should celebrate it when I see even a little bit of a change; that can add up to some long term results pretty quickly. If you are doing something you don’t want to do, stop. Take a breath, change something, and see if it yields a new result. If it does, give yourself a little reward. Get a couple of those bright spots and see where they can take you.

Now go back and watch that monkey video one more time. I did and then I ate some grapes from my fridge. Silly monkeys.