Monday, August 10, 2015

Consistency Considered Harmful

It seems that almost every parent swears by consistency.  But sometimes inconsistency is best.

Well executed evidence-based parenting methods typically start showing results in a matter of days.  So, if you have doing the same thing consistently for months on end with no results, then you need to change. I knew a mom who started consistently reinforcing whining as soon as her kid started talking, instantly reacting to whining by giving the kid face-time and saying “Use your words”.  Three years later, we kept the kid for a few days and there was never any attempt to whine around us.  But within minutes of the mom’s return the kid whined at her. The mom immediately turned to the kid and said “no whining” and the kid made a little pouty face and the mom immediately went over and hugged the kid.   It would be hard to come up with a better operant conditioning procedure than this one for causing whining.  Since the kid never tried whining around us, it’s likely that there were other adults in her life that ignored whining and she had just quickly sized us up and categorized us with those adults that don’t reward whining.

Lots of immediate positive attention at first is great for establishing a habit, but constant, consistent praise of a specific behavior over the long haul creates a brittle habit that tends to go away when the praise stops.   In her book Don’t Shoot the Dog!, one of the methods that Karen Pryor recommended to get rid of a habit was to first subject it to constant positive reinforcement for a while and then abruptly stop reinforcing it.

Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Child Conduct Center, recommends, after a habit is established, fading praise to occasional.  Variable reinforcement has long been known to make a habit more robust, more resistant to extinction.  Skinner proved this in experiments with pigeons.  The best policy is to inconsistently direct positive attention at a low rate toward an established good habit.

But, inconsistency can be bad.   Variable reinforcement of bad behavior will make it harder to get rid of that behavior.  This variable reinforcement effect is considered to be one of the factors in gambling addiction.

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