Don’t Reward Behavior You Don’t Want to See Again

it's a watercolor painting of a rat solving a maze on a laptop computer while scientists in the background note the results on a clipboard
Image by Adria Richards / CC BY

Joke: “How do you punish a masochist?”

My answer: “Ignore them.”

Attention Is a Powerful Motivator

It’s something that experts advise new parents: Punishment can backfire if done too much or done the wrong way. Scolding or hitting tends to be particularly ineffective. Even if addressing a child’s behavior directly these ways is intended as punishment, the impact is often quite different. Because while scolding or physical punishment might not be a child’s preferred form of attention, it is nonetheless attention. And attention is a powerful form of reward, regardless of the form that attention takes (furthermore, physical punishment also carries attendant risks such as increased aggression and negative impact on mental health in the children subjected to it).

Many schools of parenting advise ignoring tantrums and negative outbursts that are attention-seeking. Because if left unchecked, punishing such displays are effectively training your child that if they act out, they will get attention.

It’s tempting to punish every misstep. But inadvisable. The experts say it’s better instead to pick your battles and reserve punishment for extreme cases. When doing so, it’s helpful to make the punishment something more tied to natural consequences of the act. For example, if they throw food on the floor, making sure they clean up the mess with you is entirely appropriate. In the absence of clear consequences of the act, it’s usually more effective to withdraw a privilege. Time-outs, no TV or phone. That sort of thing.

And generally speaking, it’s important to not just tell them what not to do but also give them a clear path to success. They should have an idea not only of what they shouldn’t do but also what they should be doing.

Making sure to reward them when you see them engaging in positive behaviors, what you would rather they do, is one way of reinforcing this. Another is to model the desired behavior yourself.

Psychology’s Law of Gravity: Reward Behavior You Want to See Again & Don’t Reward Behavior You Don’t

When it comes to human psychology and social sciences as a whole, there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules. Our formulae and discoveries aren’t as tidy as those of the physical scientists. (Which makes sense; it’s difficult for something to know itself, so it’s a dubious quest when you have humans peering into other humans as hard as we can with what can be admittedly creative methodology. It is what it is.)

But there are some phenomena you see over and over again if you’re a person who studies human behavior.

The closest thing we have to a law of gravity comes from the behaviorists, the pioneers in the study of conditioning (Watson, Pavlov, Skinner, etc.): What is reinforced is what recurs. So if you want someone to do something again, reward them.  And whatever you do, don’t reward behavior you don’t want to see again.

That’s where that parenting advice stems from. It’s also a principle used in education, marketing, business, advertising — anywhere we’re trying to shape the behavior of others. Usually, it appears in a slightly altered form, modified from the basic element, disguised.

But it’s the same general principle, gussied up a bit.

And knowing this principle has personally radically altered how I interact with other people. Especially people who seem hellbent on doing the same bad stuff over and over again after a series of clear, fair warnings that I find that behavior unacceptable.

Operant Conditioning Via Texting

Sometimes I’ll get people asking me for my advice on situations that involve a relative or acquaintance who has a history of saying rude things to them or guilt tripping, in spite of polite correction and redirection. “Hey, I don’t like it when you [X]” or “Could you just not say [Y]?”

Situations where the rude/guilt-tripping person has been explicitly told to stop the behavior and nonetheless just ignored these kinds of pleas over and over again. And for whatever reason, they can’t exactly easily cut this person out of their life.

“What would you do if you got this?” they ask me, as they show me yet another another overtly rude, guilt-tripping, or fishing-style text AGAIN. And give me the context that it’s the exact same thing they’ve politely told them multiple times to stop doing.

“Ignore it,” I say. “I only reward behavior that I want to see again.” I tell them that in their shoes I wouldn’t respond until that person addressed me in an acceptable manner, without exhibiting the problem behavior.

“Okay, I’ll text them and let them know that’s what I’m going to do,” the advice seeker will often say.

“No, don’t do that. I mean, don’t text them at all until they’re being decent,” I say. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be a step in the right direction. Something markedly better.”

“But isn’t that unfair? Shouldn’t I tell them what I’m doing?”

At this point, I’ll remind them that they just told me that they’ve told the individual in question several times that what they’re doing is unacceptable. That the issue clearly isn’t due to a knowledge gap. There just haven’t been any natural consequences to their actions. And that by continuing to engage with them that they’re effectively reinforcing the problem behavior (and also giving them an excuse to be indignant or call you childish/selfish for drawing a boundary).

The person I’m advising is often dubious about this approach. About half the time, they can’t do it. They cave somewhere along the way, responding to a horrible text with a text of their own, and continue to have the same obnoxious results.

Even folks who do follow the advice are normally skeptical of the approach until they do it. It feels counterintuitive. Wrong. Like a leap of faith that’s going to plunge you into a chasm.

But the vast majority of the time, a very predictable thing happens: The person texts them additional times, trying out a variety of different tactics. Sometimes the initial texts are actually quite a bit worse, involving escalations, mean outbursts, extra heavy guilt trips. But as those subsequent rude texts are ignored, they typically will modify their approach to become sweeter, even apologetic. And in subsequent messages, provided you reinforce the improvements by resuming communication, they are quite a bit better.

They may eventually revert to the old behavior somewhere down the line, but so long as you approach any spontaneous reversions similarly, they really do seem to do it less and less.

It’s Important to Pick One’s Battles

This strategy also seems to shape the way I argue with others. Or rather, the way that I don’t.

I love debate (was actually on my team in high school and won awards for it), but I don’t argue with every person I disagree with.

There have to be a certain list of conditions met before I argue with someone else. But a big one is that they have to be making an earnest effort and acting in good faith towards the issue. If they’re not giving an argument the respect it deserves and utilizing enough critical thinking, care, and concern, I typically just move on. I don’t feel a need to respond (even if they’re directly addressing me like in a comment thread or something on social media).

In a similar vein, if someone insults me in a non-substantive way, particularly a person I don’t know very well or someone I don’t respect or care very much about, I don’t feel a need to defend myself. (There are actually very few people who I respect and care about enough for them to hurt my feelings.) Because I don’t want to reinforce that kind of behavior, the fly-by insult. They’ve engaged with me in a way I don’t find acceptable, so the last thing I’m going to do is reward that with attention.

This is true whether it’s real life or online.

If I do engage with people, even if it is to disagree with them, it typically means that I found value in what they said and/or appreciated that they were making a good faith effort, even if we came to radically different conclusions.

I’m Not Perfect At This, But Even Trying It Changed My Life for the Better

I’m not perfect at adhering to this principle. Sometimes I do find myself engaging negatively with someone in a way that I probably really shouldn’t. Every so often, I’ll take the bait and reinforce undesirable behavior. It happens.

But I’ve found that by at least trying to adhere to these principles that my life is worlds better than it was a decade ago.

Part of this is that as a recovering people pleaser, I can often see what other people want from me. I spent a long time actively anticipating the needs of everyone around me, so I’m pretty good at identifying it quickly. On the surface, making everyone happy seems like the dream! How could this be a bad thing? People pleasing forever! Everyone! All the time! Let’s do this!

The trouble, however, is that, like the old saying goes, you can’t actually please all the people all the time. And saying yes to one person often will mean saying no to another.

So when you say yes to people you shouldn’t, you have less capacity to say yes to people and things that you should. You’re far more likely to shortchange people who make your life happier and who treat you the way you want to be treated if you’re stretched too thin from giving value to people who aren’t treating you the way you want to be treated.

As I wrote in an earlier piece:

I began to hear that inner voice that I’d ignored for so long: What I wanted. What I thought was fair.

And when I did, I began to self-grease. To start attending to my own needs. And to not jump to grease up every little squeak I heard from others behind me.

If it seemed more like a request motivated by control or ego and less like something that the person was asking for help with in good faith, I just let them complain.

I never really began to squeak much per se — and I don’t know if becoming a squeaky wheel is in the cards for me. But I started to find I didn’t have to, if I just paid attention to different things.

As I began to quietly grease my own wheels and also to ignore the unnecessary squeaking of the most demanding people in my life, other quiet people noticed. And as I stopped frittering my attention away on people who didn’t really deserve it, I was able to see that these quiet people were in a similar state to my own. That they’d been quietly suffering for years, greasing spoiled and entitled squeakers while neglecting self-care. I turned to them and applied grease to their wheels. And they reciprocated.

Predictably, the squeaky wheels pitched large fits in the face of my new relative neglect of them. But I continued to ignore whatever exaggerated noises people were making and instead looked carefully at what seemed to really be going on. I started to focus primarily on the issues themselves rather than the size of any given person’s complaints.

I stopped dumping unneeded maintenance into systems that should be working just fine, if everyone acted in good faith and didn’t treat other people as crumple zones.

Note: There’s Definitely a Middle Ground of Accountability & Boundary Setting

Like anything, there’s a middle ground. For example, the advice I gave above about ignoring texts primarily applies better to situations where someone doesn’t have much of a vested interest in you or doing what you want (difficult relatives, acquaintances, etc.) and after you’ve actually told them clearly that you don’t want them to do a certain thing.

I don’t typically use this strategy on long-term romantic partners — and if I’m doing it a lot, it’s a good sign actually that I shouldn’t date them at all. Within a relationship, I’m more likely to work within an accountability framework (please see that link as well as our selection of articles about boundary-setting if you’re interested in the middle ground between what I talk about in this article and being a doormat).

But there are plenty of situations where that level of emotional labor isn’t available or appropriate to invest. There’s not enough energy or time to go to the moon and back for every single person in one’s life, every cousin, every coworker. And in many situations, the other person simply isn’t invested enough in me to respond with accountability or to respect boundaries without the administration of natural consequences (and not just the verbal warning of them).

And in those cases, I’ve found this technique to be a large help.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. I wonder if this is partially behind the old etiquette maxim of ignoring gaffes? Not only does it make someone feel bad to point out that they’ve goofed on accident, but it helps quash those doing it for attention.

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