Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Toilet Trained: A Lesson in Operant Conditioning

While sitting on the toilet the other day, I had an epiphany: my new house's toilets managed to change my whole family's behavior.

B.F. Skinner a well-known psychologist (to psychologists--he doesn't have the same name recognition as Pavlov) was the father to Behavioral Therapy.

One way to encourage behavior is to reward it. A way to extinguish (get rid of) unhelpful behavior is to make the consequences of the behavior so repugnant, disgusting, frustrating that the behavior gets extinguished. This can be done by negative reinforcement, extinction or punishment.

My toilets chose negative reinforcement.

At my old house, after going #2 a person could essentially wad up a whole roll of toilet paper and the toilets would flush. Rarely would it plug up unless someone had week-long constipation or something (but I digress).

At my new house, the toilets have set the limit of toilet paper at four squares. Period.

Now ladies (and men too, but they care less) we all know that four squares are not enough--except for meals. So, like you, I used more. My kids used more. My husband used more. Guests used more.

During the first week at the house, one of my first purchases were two shiny new plungers. One for each bathroom.

How much do I hate plungers? Words fail me. It is impossible to adequately describe how despicable clogged toilets can be day in, day out, day in, day out. And with Daddy at work all day and into the night guess who gets to (to the tune of Whistle While You Work from Snow White) plunge, plunge, plunge, plunge, plunge, plunge, plunge, plunge, all the whole day long?

That's right ME!

Somewhere along week two, I freaked out. I became the TP Police (kinda like an MP but meaner). My kids freaked. They started throwing used toilet paper into the trash because mom might lose it if the toilet plugs again. We all went back to Freud's anal stage for a while. It wasn't pretty.

Slowly, subtly we changed. Against our collective will, we became raging environmentalists. "Only four pieces of toilet paper. Do ya hear me? FOUR!"

We traded off TP for tread marks and upped our Bleach usage (the only thing that kills bacteria is very hot water and bleach, word to the wise.)

What's my point? I do have one, actually. If a toilet can change our behavior, we can shape behavior, too.

Dr. Phil of psychobabble fame always says "we teach others how to treat us." And he's right.

A group of sociology students thinking they were funny conditioned their teacher. Every time he hit a topic they liked they made eye-contact, leaned forward and feigned rapt attention. Every time he diverted into a boring topic, they yawned, looked away and acted disinterested. It worked. They counted the time, and the professor slowly, but surely taught the information that was reinforced and stayed away from the yuck topic. Operant conditioning at work.

We do this every day. Why do we keep getting certain people in our life? Because we are still in our own life and our words, beliefs, and mostly actions (communication is about 90% NON-verbal) reinforce certain behaviors.

So here's the deal: be like the toilet. Decide how you want to be treated and then reinforce behavior you like and extinguish behavior that bugs you.

Don't like your kid's whiney voice? Don't yell back (or worse whine, "Johnny don't doooooo that" wah, wah, wah). Ignore him. He get's nothing, not one thing until he uses the tone you want.

Sick of your husband dropping his clothes all over the house? Don't pick them up. Don't wash them. Leave them to rot. Ditto the dishes. When he asks what's going on--tell him that you clean the clothes that make it to the laundry basket. (And say it happily and sweetly--this will reinforce his communication with you. A snide tone will kill your progress.)

Want your wife to show more appreciation? Show appreciation to her (modelling). Then when she throws you even the tiniest of bones, reinforce it. Say something like, "thanks for noticing and saying something it means a lot to me." Be enthusiastic and encouraging in your tone and action.

If this all seems like too much effort, consider how your past behavior has worked. Maybe some change, on your part, is in order.

A word on punishment: this is the easiest form of behavior modification but is the equivalent of winning the battle but losing the war. Except in extremely unique circumstances, it should be avoided at all costs. Why?

Punishment usually works only as long as the punisher is around. The punishments breed resentment which causes other more undesirable behavior.

For example, an age-old standard punishment is "withholding". You married people know what I mean. Rather than solve the problem, it breeds hostility. The situation spirals.

Another example is yelling "no!" over and over to kids. Until a child approaches three, negatives are difficult to understand in the abstract anyway. Better to reinforce positive behavior and use positive language "hold the cup with two hands", "nice job putting the cup on the table!" rather than "don't spill the milk!" No behavior is specifically requested and the message sent is "spill the milk" because the negative, the word "don't", is not processed. If the child does spill, make her wipe it up. This might be called a negative reinforcement. (Oops, I have to clean when I spill.)

Don't argue with me on this one, these are actually very simple psychological principles.

Like the toilet, be clear on the behavior you want. (Few paper products please.) When the desired behavior is performed, reward it. (Nice, easy flush.) When the undesired behavior is performed ignore it or negatively reinforce it. (Overflowing toilets with objectionable contents.)

We can change our behavior and so can other people. We don't have to play victim. Grabbing hold of destiny includes teaching people how to treat us.

Toilet training takes on a whole new meaning, doesn't it?
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