by Robert Kenneth Jones

Can we parents, family members, friends, supervisors, teachers, pastorsor human service providers get the people in our sphere of influence to do things that are good for them when they seem to be going in the wrong direction or even on a collision course with disaster?

Why Do Good People Make Bad Choices?

When presented with seemingly good options they choose a path of least resistance, the easy way out…or even pursue repetitious behaviors that fail every single time. It is frustrating to watch as life batters the people we care about.  It feels like no matter what we do to force compliance or how much nagging, pleading and threatening is exerted, minimal change occurs. Far too often we end up exasperated with it all and just cut the person loose in the name self-preservation, detachment or tough love. It’s time to take another look. Perhaps all we need to do is provide a little nudge or to ‘catch them being good’.

It’s hard to change habits, but often a gentle push rather than a big shove can direct us in the right way. My own discovery of this truth happened at The Children’s Home of Vermilion County in Danville, Illinois where I was a child care worker in the early 1970’s.  There were eight boys, age 6-12 who were placed in my residential unit.  My work with The Child Care Institute and with some innovative professors at The University of Illinois led me to believe that disadvantaged, abused and neglected children could achieve at the same level as their societal counterparts who had not experienced the rough edges of life.  My boys were poor students who were disruptive at school and at our home.  I decided to employ punishment techniques used throughout the institution for several weeks using consistent consequences for negative behavior.  Nothing much changed. The boys generally complied but didn’t thrive.  When I altered my methods to match discoveries about positive reinforcement or ‘catching them being good’ the change in our living environment was dramatic.  The kids began to work harder to achieve goals.  They became curious, grades improved and the atmosphere in the cottage became fun, spontaneous and controlled. You might wonder how and why this shift was so successful.  It all started with the work of Dr. B. F. Skinner.

How To Shape Behavior in Positive Ways

Skinner developed and refined his theory of operant conditioning way back in 1948.  He wanted to shape behavior in ways that were pleasant rather than punishing.  He found by rewarding small behavioral steps toward a goal that responses changed rather easily and desired targets were reached quickly. His research led to enormous changes in classroom teaching developed by Dr. Wesley C. Becker at The University of Illinois. Becker discovered that instead of pairing misbehavior and attention more effective learning occurred when teachers paired desired behavior and attention. Paying positive attention to incremental successes greatly improved and accelerated learning. Becker went on to write a book called Parents Are Teachers which gave tools developed in classrooms to every day Moms and Dads. Skinner and Becker became my mentors and the Children’s Home became my lab. The great discovery revealed that ‘catching them being good’ worked more effectively than other techniques.

So how can we use this information here and now? Well, it’s become all about The Nudge! Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for his Nudge Theory.  He co-authored a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness with Cass R. Sunstein which generated a lot of enthusiasm. It is interesting to me that this approach to behavior change comes from Thaler, a professor of economics at University of Chicago and Sunstein, a legal scholar.  Their simple wisdom for us all is this; “If you want to encourage people to do things…make it easy.”  The theory teaches that “nudges” will help us manage our kids, our co-workers, our health and our aspirations.

A nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a choice, or behave in a particular way so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favor the desired outcome. Just like Skinner and Becker, Thaler proposes that positive reinforcement and arranging the work, school or home environment will achieve non-forced compliance to influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals. The results have been astounding.

Police Departments And A Nudge In The Right Direction

It has been suggested that police departments use Nudge Theory to reduce repeated criminal behavior.  John H. Laub of the University of Maryland and Jim Bueermann of the Police Foundation presented their sweeping plan for the use of Nudge at the 2013 Jerry Lee Syposium and some departments have embraced Nudge Theory successfully.

I have become interested in how we might use The Nudge to help LEO’s get support services after trauma at work.  Forcing them to be compliant with departmental policies and procedures to attend individual or group therapy sessions has proven to be only marginally effective. Nudge thinking is a stark departure from our traditional “carrots and sticks” approach. It relies on the idea that small changes to the “choice environment” can encourage large changes in people’s actions. Part of the appeal of nudges for both those seeking change and those who are being asked to change is that instead of mandating behavior, nudges offer people the ability to make their own decisions. There is substantial information and data which lead me to believe that a small tweak in the way we frame our internal systems will result in the desirable behaviors we want and healthier outcomes for everyone.

Measures such as on-the-clock 20-30 minute didactic support groups every two to four weeks put on by local mental health providers, counselors, and in-house Chaplains would reduce the stigma associated with mandatory ‘head shrinking’. Completion of course work related to the groups could enable merit increases and/or affect chances for promotion. Using nudges to improve program adherence could promote better outcomes while limiting program costs. There are a plethora of possible benefits to utilizing The Nudge for law enforcement. As Richard Thaler tells us, we just need to make it easier.

Using A Simple Nudge Toward Success

There is a huge opportunity to influence behavior in positive ways by employing nudge thinking.  Remember that the beauty lies in its simplicity.  From protecting the environment to encouraging kids to succeed and stay in school, from the efficacy of health services to reducing criminal behavior and from an opioid epidemic to new pathways for freedom from addiction, we have a means for change by applying the insights of operant conditioning and behavioral economics. So, why not get started with a small step at home or at work?  See what happens when you catch someone being good.  We could be at the beginning of a journey with unbelievable outcomes.

After all…It just takes a little nudge.

 

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