Behavior 101 is an ongoing series about the principles underlying human behavior, and how to apply those to changing problem behavior in children, teaching children skills and maintaining positive behaviors. This installment: the principle of size.
A little over a month ago, back when I first introduced you to the principles of effective consequences, I defined the principle of size as follows:
A consequence is more effective when it matches the behavior in magnitude. In other words, does the punishment fit the crime?
Or, put another way, I lied again. Sorry. It was just a little one, and I’m going to clear it up right now. First, let me give you another description of the principle of size, paraphrased from L. Keith Miller’s Principles of Everyday Behavior Analysis:
The more worthwhile the amount of a reinforcer, the more effective the reinforcer. (p. 287)
[A punisher] will be more effective the greater the size. (p. 413)
Strip out the jargon and Miller’s sometimes arcane style, and we can define the whole thing even more simply: bigger consequences work better.
Going back to my example of cleaning the gutters, which reward is more reinforcing for the behavior of cleaning gutters: $5 or $500? Which one is more likely to make you want to do the job again? Obviously the bigger one.
Likewise, when we deal with punishment, a $500 fine is a much bigger deterrent than a $5 one.
Essentially, children engage in cost-benefit analyses every day, weighing the potential pros and cons of a given behavior. If the expected punishment for a negative behavior is perceived as being large enough, then they won’t do it.
For example, a class clown might act up in class if the attention he gets from classmates is rewarding enough for him (remember back to functions of behavior) that it outweighs the punishment of being scolded by the teacher.
The trick, then, when trying to change children’s behavior, is to use consequences that are large enough to actually bring about a change. In other words, they need to want those rewards and they need to feel the sting — figuratively — of those punishments.
One caveat: beware going too big with any one consequence. In the description above, it says simply that bigger consequences are more effective. While that’s basically true, consequences that go overboard can cause bigger problems. Using a punishment that is too harsh can stop the behavior, but it can also demotivate children and lead to them acting out in other ways. Likewise, using extravagant rewards causes children to set expectations too high, which can cause other behaviors to deteriorate. (I mentioned this effect briefly in my video on the principle of contingency.)
As a general rule, you want to use the smallest consequence possible that still works to change the behavior.
What consequences do you use with your children? Have you ever tried one that turned out not too work biggest it wasn’t “large” enough?
(Image credit: flikr’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license)