Parents come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, confused about why their children persist in behavior that doesn’t make any sense. One mom recently put it this way:
“I don’t understand why my teenager continues to lie and steal from stores. He gets in trouble. He gets arrested. He gets things taken away from him. He gets caught right away and doesn’t get to keep the items very long. I don’t understand why my child would continue to lie and steal even though there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of sense to it. How does that make behavioral sense?”
Dr. Boney’s answer for all parents with the same concern is actually very simple, but, at the same time, very powerful. There is a phenomenal book, now in its 5th edition, by Aubrey Daniels, called Performance Management, which applies the science of behavior to work-related behaviors. It uses something called the PIC/NIC analysis to determine why people are motivated to do certain things, even if they are not in their best interest.
Basically, what Daniels did was whenever he would begin a new consultation, he would analyze all of the target behaviors, looking for the consequences of each. Specifically, he was looking for whether the consequences were immediate or future and then certain or uncertain. What he found, unequivocally, was that the most powerful consequences are going to be immediate and certain, with the least powerful being future and uncertain.
This is getting back to the basics. What we are doing is based on operant or functional behavior, which is consequence maintained and important in understanding PIC/NIC analysis. The behavior “operates” on the environment to produce a desired consequence. Also important to keep in mind is the concept of selection by consequence. We select our responses based on the consequence that we expect to get from the environment.
We tend to see positive, immediate and certain consequences for the undesired behavior and we also tend to see many negative future uncertain consequences. The opposite is true, as well. We tend to see many negative immediate certain consequences for the desired behavior and then many positive, future, uncertain consequences for that desired behavior. An example is like when someone thinks about starting an exercise program. Anyone who has ever participated in an exercise program pretty much knows that right away there is going to be soreness, fatigue, less sleep, some irritability and more stress from trying to work it into an already busy schedule. These are the immediate and certain consequences of making this choice. The future uncertain consequences are better health, eventually getting better sleep and having less stress and probably living longer. Even though these future consequences are fantastic, it is the immediate and certain nature of the negative consequences that are the most powerful.
Other good examples are smoking and drinking. Some of the immediate, certain consequences are a feeling of being relaxed, enjoyable taste, the sense of a buzz, feeling less stressed, imagining they have better insight and enjoying the social nature of doing it with friends. These all sound pretty good. Some of the future, uncertain consequences, however, include the possibility of cancer from smoking or liver disease from drinking, lower sex drive and the likelihood of dying younger. These all sound awful, but because they are future and uncertain they are not as powerful and do not exert as much control over the immediate behavioral response.
Whether we are talking about children or adults, it is the immediate and certain consequences that are always going to be the most powerful player in explaining why people make the choices they do. This has been proven over and over. If you look at your own life or examine the lives of people you know, you will find that this is going to hold true all of the time.
Dr. Boney uses what he calls a “day-by-day” system. He tells parents that it is not effective to enforce a punishment or aversive consequence for any longer than one day. Combined with this, children are not given access to the things they want, their reinforcers, for any longer than one day. The reasoning behind this includes:
- Breaking the cycle of constant punishment, averseness or removal of things
- Prevents and reduces the “screw-its”, which is the child deciding that since all privileges are lost anyway and likely to remain that way, might as well make everyone else miserable, too
- Puts the focus on earning things each day and less on losing things by making each day a clean slate
- Makes consequences much more immediate and certain, which is the greatest benefit
Suggestions for putting this system into place start with picking three to five target behaviors that you most want to increase. This will mean being flexible on any other standards or stuff. You can’t fix everything all at once. You never will be able to do that. Communicate with your child that these are the things you really want to work on together. Look for opportunities to make consequences for those behaviors as positive, immediate and certain as possible. Set mini-goals for the day and discuss the consequences for meeting them. Use frequent measurement and monitoring of those target behaviors and provide frequent feedback. Reward even small improvement. If the overall goal is not reached but there is an improvement, reward it.
As much as possible, stop using the threat of future or uncertain consequences. They aren’t nearly as powerful, anyway, so focus on immediate and certain consequences.
Utilizing evidence-based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about the Scottsdale Children’s Institute or how to help your child with behavior that doesn’t seem to make sense, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.