Tue | Mar 28, 2023

Effecting behavioural change

Published:Thursday | February 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM


The Editor, Sir:

I am writing in response to the excellent article by Martin Henry in The Sunday Gleaner 'Chaka-chaka social behaviour'. I am in complete agreement on the need for improvements in public (and private) behaviour. I am also concerned about the strategies to be adopted to effect this social change.

I would like to draw attention to some basic principles about behaviour change, whether in individuals or in groups that need to be borne in mind when planning a campaign.

The first is that there are two main strategies that can be used to change behaviour, increasing desired or desirable behaviour (to replace the unwanted behaviour) and the reduction or elimination of undesirable behaviour

Many people do not realise that when you increase the desirable behaviour you also reduce and replace the undesirable behaviour.

There are several reasons why a positive approach is more desirable than a negative one and should be used as a first resort:

Desirable behaviours

Efforts to increase desirable behaviours create a positive, encouraging and supportive environment in the home and community. People feel good about themselves. On the other hand, reducing undesirable (note, I do not use the word 'wrong') behaviour requires punitive and negative methods which create a negative environment resulting in resentment, poor self-esteem, and stubbornness with the potential for aggression.

The use of the latter approach is a popular child-rearing practice and is what is resulting in the behaviour we are concerned about. The resentment created by constant negative criticisms, scolding and corporal punishment ostensibly done to get good behaviour in two- to three-year-olds results in increasing stubbornness and anti-social behaviour as the child grows older.

The problem with the people who display the unwanted, negative and crude behaviour is that they have always been noticed for this behaviour. This brings up a second basic principle of human behaviour:

The more you give attention (notice) behaviour, whether desirable or undesirable, the more you strengthen or increase that behaviour. Positive attention (praise or just acknowledging) increases desirable behaviour; negative attention (ignoring or punishing) decreases desirable behaviour. The same applied to undesirable behaviour. Some people actually behave badly because it gets them more attention than behaving well!

No attention at all, if consistent, decreases any behaviour that is under the control of the will.

Basic principles

This brings up a third basic principle: in order to change behaviour, whether to improve or correct, consistency is essential. Unless your responses to the behaviour are consistent, the behaviour will not change. Consistency across time (you must do it every time) and across people and places (in every setting) are all fundamental. Note how a child can play off one parent (or teacher) against another unless everyone closes ranks.

So how do these basic principles apply in creating social/behavioural change?

First, decide on a positive goal and pinpoint clear standards for acceptable behaviour. Create a positive and warm environment. Then design ways to reinforce/strengthen those behaviours in the public domain and ignore unimportant, non-threatening behaviour.

Only use negative strategies (punishment or shaming) when all the positive methods have failed and identify and use consistent rewards for the demonstration of the desirable behaviour

All the social/behavioural problems need to be analysed like this and prioritised because you can't do everything at once.

I am, etc.,