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Archive for October, 2010

Some people imagine psychologists to be mind readers, or to be mind controllers. However, most of what psychology teaches is just common sense. Scientific testing does, however, help them to eliminate some false assumptions and to stick with the parts of ‘common sense’ that work best. I have not bothered to comment much on things that I have learned from psychology. But there are a few lessons which have been particularly helpful, that many of you may not be aware of. So I’ll make mention of them in this article.

But first I will explain the title. There are different branches to psychology. In my article, The Id and the Superego, for example, we looked at something that comes from Freudian psychology. This branch has a lot to do with people’s emotions and their family relationships. In Media Interviews and Cognitive Dissonance I refer to concepts that come from cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology deals with the ways that we think, and how we learn.

Behavioural psychology is the branch that deals with training people (i.e. changing their behaviour), primarily through rewards and punishments. It is the branch of psychology which is most practical for parents and teachers. Much of what has been learned in that field has come through experiments with animals, who were rewarded with food or punished through such things as electric shocks, in order to work out what would be most effective in training them. The lessons learned have then been applied to training people.

Rewards vs Punishment

It is largely as a result of behavioural psychology that the world has tended to move away from threats and punishments as a means of changing people. Research has shown that more positive approaches are usually more effective. When you see a sign that says something like “Thank you for not smoking in this area”, it is reflecting what has been learned from behavioural psychology. “Thank you” is much more appealing than “Don’t!” and it is also more effective.

Even people working as prison wardens, police, or security guards have benefited from training in basic psychology. Threatening a rowdy drunk with imprisonment may only make him or her more aggressive, whereas chatting about how his or her day has been going, or even just telling a joke, can be more effective in settling the rowdy person down; and it can be less dangerous for the law enforcement officer as well!

This change in emphasis reflects the difference between the Old Testament approach (“Thou shalt not”) and the New Testament approach (“Thou art loved”) in changing people’s behaviour. For all of our criticisms of the perverted grace teaching in the churches, we must recognise that the teaching has been powerfully effective in changing people’s behaviour to make them conform with church tradition, even if it has not been used to get them to obey Jesus.

Instant Rewards

A simple lesson from psychology that is overlooked by many parents, teachers, and even businesses, schools, and government bodies, is the concept of instant rewards. The closer a reward (or punishment) is to the behaviour that you wish to reinforce (or stop), the more effective it will be. When a mother says, “Wait until your father gets home, and he will deal with you,” she is more or less guaranteeing that Daddy’s punishment will be ineffective. Her threat at the time of the misdeed will do more good than whatever punishment Daddy metes out several hours later, because little Johnny will have pretty much forgotten what it was that he is being punished for by the time Daddy gets home.

A similar problem happens when parents promise rewards, but then take days or weeks to come good on their promises. Remember: The closer the reward is to the behaviour that you want to encourage, the more effective it will be. And the same goes for punishments.

This same simple lesson is overlooked when universities mail out final exam results a month or more after the exam was taken. It is most surprising that this practice persists even in psychology classes, where the lecturers know better!

In Australia, motorists are sent fines in the mail for traffic offences which were spotted secretly by speed cameras. Many, if not most, of the offenders will not even be able to remember when the offence occurred by the time they receive the fine. How much more effective it is when a speeding motorist looks up and catches sight of a flashing light in the rear view mirror at the precise moment that they have committed the crime!

Delayed Gratification

The concept of delayed gratification is not so much a behavioural psychology concept. However, it deserves mention here, because it illustrates a benefit from not always giving instant rewards. (See Intermittent Rewards and Punishments below.)

The ability to wait for rewards is a classic characteristic of anyone who is going to be successful. Because rewards do not always come instantly, people who learn to patiently wait for payment, recognition, or some other form of ‘gratification’ are the ones who will achieve the most in life.

A casual worker who spends the day’s pay getting too drunk to return to work the next day will never become a doctor or lawyer. Waiting till the end of the week to be paid, or the end of the month, or the end of medical school represents longer and longer periods of delay before a person gets to collect a reward for hard work.

For us as Christians, the ultimate reward (eternal life) does not come until the end of a lifetime of faithfulness. So at the same time that we strive to reward followers instantly, we also need to use those rewards in such a way as to increase their ability to wait longer and longer before they give in and revert to the bad behaviour that existed before the rewards started.

The most important thing for parents or leaders in this area is vigilance. You need to consciously and constantly observe the behaviour of your children or followers, so that you know how long you can wait before producing the reward.

City planners often do this with pedestrian crossings. They install cameras in areas (like crossings in the middle of a block) where walk signals are not linked to traffic signals, and then they watch to see how long pedestrians will wait for the walk signal to change before they give in and cross the street without it changing. They use that information to set the delay timer on the button that people press. In this way, the traffic flow is not hindered immediately each time someone presses the button, and a build-up of pedestrians forms before the signal actually changes.

Parents who want their children to be successful need to make similar observations with their children, and act accordingly.

Intermittent Rewards and Punishments

Experiments were done with birds in cages. At first, the birds would receive a grain of food each time they rang a bell with their beak, and then the rewards would stop. When the rewards stopped coming, the birds would give up after a few rings of the bell.

However, another group of birds went through a period after the initial training, during which they received rewards intermittently, e.g. only after the second, third, or fourth ring of the bell. When the rewards stopped coming altogether, the researchers were amazed to discover that these birds would often continue ringing the bell for hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the hope of getting the reward.

What this revealed was that, after you have succeeded in getting someone to respond to a reward on a regular basis, if you will gradually ease off on giving the rewards, they will continue with the behaviour for such a long time that it may become a lifelong habit. If, for example, you use this system with a child who wets the bed, it will soon be unnecessary to continue giving any reward. The behaviour will continue long enough to last throughout life.

Perhaps the most significant application of this principle relates more to the area of unpunished misbehaviour. I will explain.

Suppose someone steals a lolly from the corner shop. The lolly is that person’s ‘reward’ for the stealing behaviour. If they get away with it, they will steal again. The fact that the person is occasionally caught and punished does not over-rule the intermittent reward that comes with the many times that he or she gets away with stealing. In the end, the stealing will continue throughout life, even if they are caught and punished dozens of times.

Now for a family illustration: A child nags or throws a temper tantrum to get his or her way. If the parent gives in, the nagging or temper tantrums have been rewarded. The fact that parents later see the error of giving in and try to say no, fails to deter a child who has been intermittently rewarded for such naughty behaviour, and so they will continue with nagging and demanding, sometimes for the rest of their life… simply because it worked a few times when they were young.

The punishment, too, is intermittent. However, it is not as strong as the ‘reward’, and it was the rewarded behaviour that first set the pattern. If punishment was consistent right from the start, then the punishment could have set the standard and have achieved the desired effect.

So the lesson is to be consistent right from the start with not rewarding bad behaviour, and particularly vigilant about detecting and punishing bad behaviour in early childhood if you want to have a well behaved older child.

Behaviour and Belief

Now we come to an area of behavioural psychology which deals more specifically with what people actually believe. As Christian missionaries, we are more concerned with what people actually believe than we are with their outward behaviour.

Tests have shown that people tend to form their beliefs in such a way as to conform with their behaviour. It is precisely because of this that beliefs are so hard to change in the first place. If someone smokes, they will resist accepting evidence that smoking is bad for their health. In other words, they want to believe that smoking is not hurting them. The same is true if someone attends a church which teaches a particular doctrine. They will resist any teaching which challenges their behaviour. (See also In-Groups vs Out-Groups.)

So if we want to change these people’s beliefs, it may help to make very slight changes in their behaviour. You do not need to make the changes all at once. If a person who smokes did something as innocent as picking up some anti-smoking leaflets for a friend who is interested in stopping smoking, that action weakens the smoker’s belief system. Similarly, if we can get church-goers to have anything to do with us (whether or not they accept what we teach), it becomes easier for them to eventually accept the truth in what we are saying.

Sometimes we meet friendly people on the streets who want to talk to us. We may ask them to hand out a couple of our tracts while they are waiting for us to have time for a longer conversation. The mere fact that they handed out a couple of our tracts (even if they did not read a word of what was written on it), makes them more open to hear what is written in it later, and more inclined toward accepting the truth in it.

Something similar happens when we ask people to give us a few cents in payment for the tracts that we hand out. Even if they give us one cent it has the effect of committing them to a more positive approach to what we have to say. This is one reason why it is good to encourage friends and relatives to help us out in any way that they can. Even if their help may inconvenience us at times, it is worthwhile because it forms a bond with them which will make them more open to hearing the rest of what we have to say.

Over-Rewarding

Another interesting lesson from behavioural psychology is that people will not change their beliefs to conform with behaviours that they have been over-rewarded for. It is because of this principle that so many people hate their jobs. They do not see any inconsistency in hating something that they do, because they know that they only do it for the money. This lesson is particularly important for parents who lavish gifts on their children in order to get them to behave in the way that they want them to behave. What we really want is for people to internalise beliefs, so that they will do them with or without rewards; unfortunately, over-rewarding will defeat that purpose.

Churches that give away tons of free literature actually defeat their own cause, because people do not feel so strongly inclined to agree with something that they received for free, as what they do when they have paid even one cent for it. The same applies to churches that offer loaves and fishes to get people to attend meetings. The Salvation Army may win a few members through their charity work, but for the most part, dedicated believers will come from those who are not there for the handouts.

Of course there is no clear line between over-rewarding and rewarding sufficiently, and most behaviours are so complex that several different factors will come into play. People may still read (and then respond to) material that they received for free, and people who join a group for a selfish reason to begin with can gradually shift over to a more genuine motive. But the overall principle of over-rewarding is one that we need to be aware of.

In conclusion, we should say that psychology can never take the place of genuine love, honesty, and faith. At best, it just describes things that we may have already been doing in our efforts to obey God and to love others. Nevertheless, a little background with regard to which behaviours on our part are most effective in helping others to grow in faith can be quite helpful at times.

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