Thursday, March 29, 2012

Reap Some Rewards

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how clients sometimes get "cold feet," and may change their minds about treatment and change because the positive goals of change take awhile to happen, but the negative discomfort of change happens right away.

From the perspective of operant conditioning, we know that immediate reinforcement is much more effective in shaping behavior than long-term consequences. If the immediate results are negative, and positive results are much more remote, the natural tendency is to decrease rather than increase the changed behavior. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true of many unhealthy behaviors we're trying to change, such as addictions, self-injury, and eating disorders: the immediate result is relief, while the negative consequences generally take longer to develop, with the overall effect of increasing rather than decreasing the unhealthy behavior.

I sometimes suggest to clients that they try to offset this by adding their own positive reinforcers for the changes they are making. Most simply, that means rewarding themselves for small, short-term changes while they are still waiting to see long-term positive results. A slightly more complex way of conceptualizing it is the Premack Principle (named after the researcher who identified it). Premack found that people will willingly engage in a less-desirable activity in order to engage in a more-desirable activity that is contingent upon it. For example, if you tell a child he can go to the park after he cleans his room, he is more likely to clean his room than if you just telling him to clean his room with no contingency. Similarly, I might decide that I will make a favorite meal after going to the gym, as motivation to exercise.

How do you keep yourself and/or your clients motivated through short-term discomfort, to get to long-term rewards?

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