Quick Thoughts on Behaviorism

In my graduate program this week, we are discussing a psychology concept called behaviorism. It is basically the idea that people are largely motivated by external rewards and punishments. "If I clean my room, dad will give me candy." Or, "If I stay out passed my curfew, I will loose my video game privileges." Behaviorism is all around us in school (grades), work (paychecks), and home (potty training). I will not go into the details about classical and operant conditioning or tell you about Pavlov's dogs. I think you get the idea without all this detail.

Behaviorism is hugely criticized. There are many articles online that say things like, "Don't tell your kids 'good job.'" And it is true that the way we reward and punish our children or students should be handled more effectively. For example, a talk I love from a religious leader in my faith talks about more effective ways to offer children praise.

However, after studying the material from my class this week, I realized that behaviorism is not totally a bad thing. A weekly, biweekly, or monthly paycheck is what keeps most people going to work every day. And even before coins or paper currency was invented, behaviorism existed in nature. Think about it. The farmer must have realized, "If I plant this year, I'll harvest and have food to live." Nature itself conditions us to work to survive. Also, parents have been behaviorists long before B.F. Skinner: The Bible says, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him" (Proverbs 13:24).

I'll give you a few more natural examples. If I keep my house clean and organized, the reward is that I'll be able to find my stuff more easily. If I go to bed and wake up at a certain time consistently, my internal, biological clock will start to help me out. If I exercise, I will feel happier and be healthier.

The reality is behaviorism is natural. In fact, in scripture, God says, "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20-21).

God also proclaims, "I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise" (D&C 82:10). Who knew God, our loving Father, and His Son Jesus Christ were behaviorists? Well, not exactly, but many of the principles of conditioning seem to be a eternal principles: There are natural consequence for every action we take.

With all that being said and after all the reading I've done this week, here are my thoughts on good way to approach rewards and punishments:

  • Whenever possible, we should help children or students realize and experience the natural, intrinsic long-term consequences of their actions: Cleaning my room will help me find things easier and give me a visually pleasing place to spend my time.
  • If it becomes hard for children to realize the intrinsic value of a behavior, we can use operant conditioning to help to motivate them: If I clean my room, I will get candy from my parents. 
    • The goal is to do it until they see the benefit of behaving that way on their own without the reward. Once they begin to realize the intrinsic value of the behavior, you stop using operant conditioning.
  • Toddlers and young children need operant condition because they are often too young to understand the intrinsic values of behaving a certain way (think potty training).
  • Whenever we need to use operant conditioning (which may be more often than we realize), we can help children to set their own rewards, consequences, and rules. Autonomy seems to create a greater feeling control. 
a dad disciplining his daughter