LIFELINES: CHANGING BEHAVIOUR – HOW HARD COULD IT BE? LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column appears on the 1st weekend of the month, and is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine. The relevant happenings in a community at any time often provide fodder for discussions on radio stations, in structured community meetings, in informal gatherings, and in any place where people gather and socialize. For some time now, residents in St. Kitts and Nevis have been lamenting the “fall of young people”, describing the escalating crime, apparent lawlessness, general delinquency, and decay of morals and values as phenomena that we are seeing because people have made a choice of “bad”over “good”. As is expected, all of the discussions are usually followed by passionate pleas for young people to simply “change their behaviour”- an apparently simple remedy that implies that with that choice would come the smooth and uneventful transition from “bad behaviour’to “good behaviour”. But is it really that easy to change behaviour and maintain it, without changing an entire framework that is supporting the behaviour? Let us examine four concepts that must be realistically examined and understood, so that we could know what goes into changing behaviour, and sustaining that behaviour change: * Reinforcement (rewards) * Motivators * Observational learning * Environments When we speak of reinforcers, we speak of anything that supports the probability of the behaviour occurring again, due to the fact that the individual got some kind of reward/feedback/attention as a direct result of his behaviour. Even though the terms ‘reinforcement” and ‘reward” sound like they imply something positive happening, that is not necessarily the case. A child who may be largely ignored by parents, for example, may come to realize that misbehaviour in school may lead to a flurry of activity and attention focused on him. So the misbehaviour then, is reinforced/rewarded in that parents attend to him, teachers attend to him, and all kinds of attention surround him for a while. If this is the only time that this child receives focused and direct attention, then this becomes the modus that he uses in order to get that attention. It meets his need for being included, not feeling isolated and feeling attended to, and even though the method of getting this need met may seem strange, it may be much better to him than having no interactions at all. Behaviour is also sustained by the things that motivate the behaviour to remain intact. Motivators could be internal or external, or often times, a combination of both areas. Internal motivators tend to be more resistant to change, because over time, they have become entwined in the person’s being, and in their concept of self. Let us take for example, the young man in the gang who has felt acceptance and respect from the other gang affiliates. That then translates into a feeling of loyalty to these young men who have fostered this positive feeling within him. The feeling of loyalty then becomes one of the strongest motivators for his behaviour in, and with regards to this gang. Observational learning plays a significant role in determining what behaviours are prevalent in people, and also has implications for what kinds of things have to be present, or absent, for behaviour change to occur. Not only do people observe what kinds of things other individuals do or say, but there is also external observation of the rewards/reinforcements that come to the individual as a part of that behaviour pattern. In other words, if young people see you doing something and getting something good because of it, then that alone could serve as a reason for them doing the same thing. A very simple example of something like this may be the child who observes that a parent often tells lies to get away from obligations (e.g. a father who calls in sick to work so that he could watch the game on TV). The child observes that as a direct result of this behaviour, his father feels emotionally good (happy and laughing), feels physically unencumbered (lounging and relaxing), and in general, got a reward for his lie. If he had to contrast this behaviour with his friend’s father who also wanted to watch the game on TV, but who went to work, and who came home feeling emotionally despondent (it was a really highly anticipated game and he was disappointed that he did not get to see it), and physically tired and frustrated, then for this child, the rewards that he saw his father receiving through his deception may be something that this child internalizes, and which he eventually takes as his own way of dealing with things. Environments very obviously support the type of behaviour exhibited by people. An environment that is tolerant of actions not typically condoned in general society, strengthens the probability of that behaviour becoming a part of a norm for the person in question, and making it much more difficult for outside influences to change the behaviour. Therefore, if we want to examine how to help any young person “change his ways”, we have to recognize that we have to help them change what kind of behaviour is reinforced. Praise the fact that this person did something positive, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Focus on anything and everything that seems, in any way, to be positive. We cannot espouse change in the individual, while continuing to harp on the fact that ‘perfection” in behaviour is not achieved overnight. In order for us to help change the reinforcers, we have to change how we respond to the behaviour that we want to encourage. What about motivators? If we went back to look at loyalty as a motivator, how could we, as society, encourage young people to be loyal to family? And community? And school? We do it by making the young people feel the same way that their gangs make them feel when they are in their families, communities and schools – wanted, accepted, respected, and cared for. We cannot expect them to change behaviour if we continue to shun and discard them as a society. How do we teach them to see that values, and morals, hard work and honesty, integrity and decency are equal to happiness, prosperity, and security? We have to be able to sell that message, so that young people are able to make a choice that they see as valuable to them, because they can see that, as a society, these things are valuable to us. This then, helps them to observe our sense of happiness and satisfaction as a result of making these choices, so that they can also make the same choices for themselves. How do we foster supportive environments that help to support behaviour change in individuals? What happens to the young man who has decided to lead a different lifestyle, and is really trying to do so, but goes back home every evening to a home that is chaotic, disordered, abusive and delinquent? How hard would it be to continue to try out his new found intentions in an environment that goes absolutely contrary to the new behaviour? It is absolutely necessary for us, as the society, to maintain a position of balance when we are trying to understand and encourage behaviour change, especially in our young people. While we, collectively, have a responsibility to encourage people to move away from certain types of behaviour, we also have to have some sensitivity to the fact that people act in the ways that they do because their behaviours have been taught and supported. A society then, that is willing to re-teach, must then be willing, through its messages, its outreach, its commitments, its tone and its levels of support, to change the reinforcers, the motivators, the things that people are learning, and the environments, so that behaviour change can in fact take place. Submitted by Michele de la Coudray-Blake Director – Counselling Services
Lifelines: Changing Behaviour – How Hard Could It Be?
- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -