The Key to Genuine Behavior Change

Behavior Change

Behavior change has been an interest area in psychology for a long time. And the research eventually led to our modern theory of behavior modification. That theory has one simple premise: behavior is controlled by its consequences. Sufficiently reward or reinforce a behavior, and will recur. Fail to reward it, or punish it, and it’s less likely to recur.

You can demonstrate the principles of behavior modification very clearly with animals. And the theory’s proponents insist that the very same principles apply to humans as well. Some folks, including myself, have a problem with such a simple outlook. Human beings, we argue, are more complex than most other animals. Accordingly, facilitating meaningful behavior change in a human being isn’t merely like training an animal.

Problem Behavior and Character Disturbance

Behavior modification theory doesn’t just assert you can acilitate behavior change. It brazenly insists that you can actually control behavior by what you reward or don’t reward. In that way, the theory relies heavily on power and the power of consequences. But as anyone who’s had to deal with a problem character’s behavior knows, things just aren’t that simple.  In fact, as I’ve written about before, it’s in the very nature of some disturbed characters to remain undaunted in their ways despite all sorts of negative consequences. And that begs the question of what it really takes for genuine behavior change to take place, if, in fact, it’s possible at all.

The Heart of the Matter

I’ve written before on the basic tenets of cognitive-behavioral theory and therapy (CBT). The ways think influence the ways we feel and act. Accordingly, changing our minds should prompt us to change our ways. Intuitively knowing this, countless folks (especially, therapists!) have wasted considerable time and energy trying to convince disturbed characters to change their ways of thinking. But some understand that it’s more important to change behavior first, which can invite a different way of seeing and thinking about things.

When it comes to meaninful and lasting behavior change, we face a considerable dilemma. A person can modify their ways, especially when it suits them. Such a change might even illuminate them to a degree. But that doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily taken any lessons to heart.

Meaningful behavior change only occurs with a change of heart. But a change of heart can only occur with committed, ongoing behavior change. I wrote my new book, Essentials for the Journey, for precisely these reasons. The “commandments” in the book are a call to certain actions that have the power to change a person. But for that to truly happen, and deeply so, they – and the lessons they can teach – have to be embraced in the heart.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about how to know when someone’s heart is truly changing. And I’ll be referencing my new book. I wrote the book and post on this blog because of how deeply I believe that hearts must change for the world – and all the various troubled relationships within it – to heal.

Character Matters

Catchs some more of my thoughts on this subject in the latest Character Matters Podcast.

25 thoughts on “The Key to Genuine Behavior Change

  1. Dear. Dr. Simon,

    As someone who has been studying and working with animal behavior for well over 10 years, I must with all due respect, take issue with the oversimplified rather outdated description of ‘theory of behavior modification.’

    Within the world of positive reinforcement animal training, we are taught and therefore teach ‘Conditioning.’ This ‘Conditioning’ does work with nearly all species including the human species. Conditioning, as you are likely aware, consists of two main theory, Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning. This is an absolutely huge, complex and still largely unplumbed area of study due to human psychology’s disregard.

    Your description of Operant Conditioning only referred to 2 of the 4 quadrants nor did it refer to other types of reinforcement such as intermittent reinforcement, although it was the basis of a previous post that discussed gambling and addiction (which I disagree as I draw a distinction between physical addiction through foreign chemical substances and unhealthy, dysfunctional conditioning. Although, I will concede physical addiction also develops an operant/classical conditioning component but not through intermittent reinforcement.) Operant Conditioning for a specific behavior is only as successful as the consistency in which its employed and the length of time the subject requires to be operantly conditioned to obtain a Classical Conditioned response.

    Once a behavior, through Operant Conditioning, is 80% reliable, it’s considered to be Classical Conditioned, that is largely an automatic response. That also means there is up to a 20% failure rate. It is my belief the 20% ‘failure’ rate indicates healthy, functional operant conditioning allowing a subject to retain their independence and autonomy, i.e. a dog successfully conditioned not to bark will still bark at an appropriate threat. Animal science believes the 20% failure rate indicates the ability for subjects to make mistakes which is an important way in which both humans and animals learn.

    Operant Conditioning is most effective for new behaviors which is not to say it cannot be used for existing behavior. But once a behavior is considered Classical Conditioned, often desensitization or other behavior modifiers must be coupled with any Operant Conditioning. Classical Conditioned behaviors are hard to change and experts within Applied Animal Science field clearly recognize ‘behavior problems are managed not cured.’ Conditioning is really about motivation and even within the animal behavior world we must recognize what motivates a behavior and what motivates the relinquishment or modification of a behavior for conditioning to be successful.

    I have found and animal science recognizes that within any behavior issue, the Operant Conditioning model is active. We take into consideration what positive reinforcement our subject is experiencing from behavior considered unwanted. Endorphins and other brain chemistry is often a positive reinforcement of behavior as well as other prompts, cues and inadvertent rewarding of poor behavior. An example (oversimplified of course,) lying is labeled as a poor behavior, however, truth telling is often positively punished, therefore, lying results in positive reinforcement. In addition, some of the ‘liars’ praise themselves, their acumen further rewarding the behavior. To change an adults behavior from lying to truth telling, is nearly impossible through operant conditioning as the action lied about will typically result in a negative outcome i.e. consequence. Therefore, the child had been operantly conditioned to lie and the adult is now classical conditioned (an automatic response) to lie even when truth has no negative outcome.

    Positive rewards, motivations both positive and negative are often dependent upon the subjects wants, tastes, drives and sensitivities. If having the approval, admiration and/or respect of others is more rewarding than accepting the risk of consequences of being caught in a lie, a person may be largely truthful. The converse is also true regarding the behavior being obscured by the lie. In working with dogs, food motivated dogs are the easiest to work with and the food must have a higher intrinsic value than the reward received for the behavior we want to modify.

    I believe the disregard of the Conditioning models within psychology is a mistake. Abusers use Operant Conditioning quite effectively and the acknowledgement of conditioning in the targets of abuse as Classical Conditioned responses would be exponentially helpful in understanding the long term effects of abuse and helping to desensitize and recondition the classical trained responses, the automatic acceptance of blame for example which is often viewed as a moral failing by both society and psychology. When the operant conditioning model is used abusively, for power and control, we will see a significant reduction of the 20% failure rate of classical conditioning indicating the loss of independence and autonomy (aka the lack of acceptance of mistakes.). In the world of animal science, this is labeled as Dominance training.

    Conditioning is extremely complex even though it’s often described in simplified terms especially by those involved with dominance training. I am tempted to say Conditioning has its limits but the simple fact is conditioning is underlying all behavior through active or passive means, intentionally or unintentional. Our disturbed characters are not willing to change, to follow the rules because ultimately they think and feel the reward is greater than the consequences. Often by the time our disturbed characters meets human psychology, classical conditioning has taken effect making behaviors very difficult to change. And as you’ve mentioned many times before, many of our disturbed characters think getting away with something is its own reward so the motivation to change, to modify just isn’t there even when they experience distress from said behaviors. That doesn’t mean Conditioning isn’t effective, it just means psychology needs to expand its understanding of it.

    And my apologies for the ‘book,’ this is a subject I am quite passionate about.

    1. “Charlie,” no need to apologize for the “book.” I’m sure those looking for a more thorough explanation of behavior theory will benefit from reading it, especially considering how eloquently you expressed things. It’s always a tough call what and what not to put in a 400-600 word post, especially when one has only one major point to make. And I think the best point you make here involves the “reward” disturbed characters perceive that seems to overshadow any negative consequences. It’s the nature of that reward that the article (and the hyperlinked other articles) only begins to speak to and what needs to change to for that not to be the case. I hope you’ll stay tuned for the rest of the discussion.

      1. Dear Dr. Simon,

        Thank you for your response, understanding, the compliment and the discussion. I will, of course, stay tuned to your discussions and look forward to acquiring your new book. I’ve been following your work for 8+ years now and have found your work, your departure from traditional psychology so very helpful in dealing with my personal troubles.

        Your comments (from this and other posts) surprise me as I’ve seen your work closely aligning with the O/C Conditioning Behavioral Model. I would not, based on much of your work, think you see human behavior as inherently superior, so much more complex than animal behavior. From my work with animal behavior, from my experiences with the darker side of human behavior, I see very clear correlations. From my observations of both sides of behavior, reward far outweigh consequence which is why Positive Reinforcement coupled with Negative Punishment is so often successful in conditioning.

        While it may be much simpler to isolate behaviors to target in animals, to control the environment in which the behaviors occur, the behavioral motivators are often quite complex and ascertaining the correct timing and rewards to modify behaviors equally complex. I’ve found the view of animals and humans to be quite similar with regards to thinking processes. Instinct, reactivity plays a much greater role than cognitive thought. The positive reinforcement (rewards) for reactivity are naturally and intrinsically higher than the negative punishment (consequence). We are a society that heavily rewards aggression and the mild to moderate consequences that may occur due to aggressive behaviors may create discomfort but are simply not enough to deter future aggressive behaviors and its potential rewards. An example, a dog pulling on a collar and lead may experience the discomfort of a sore neck, pain and even damage to the trachea but that in itself will not deter the pulling behavior because the reward for gaining more ground more quickly outweighs the consequence. Conversely, an individual looking for a quick, profitable score will view the reward as far outweighing the discomfort of the consequence of prison which would be why we see so recidivism.

        I’m very interested in seeing where your future posts will take us. I’m interested in knowing how successful CBT has been so I hope some of your future posts will include examples. My biggest criticism of CBT is that this model seems to confer thought and feelings develop personality versus personality develops thoughts and feelings as I’ve observed in animal behavior, but perhaps this is where humans and animals diverge somewhat.

        I’ve been developing a theory regarding the process of abuse and the detrimental/deleterious effects based on the O/C Conditioning Behavioral Model. I referenced it in my original post. I’m hoping you may be willing to review and opine after I’ve finished polishing it. Your input, particularly with your criticism of the model, would be greatly helpful and valued. I very much would like to help people more easily identify abuse and abusive tactics, recover from the abused ‘mindset’ and reduce the ‘weakness’ stigma attached to those who’ve experienced the process of abuse. While abuse is most commonly described as a pattern of behavior, I’ve recognized, in my experience and my research, it is clearly a developed process. I don’t believe those who have willingly lived with abuse have some psychological deficit; I believe abuse as its described is often difficult to recognize, to discern between poor and even unacceptable behavior ( i.e. anger management issues) and the intent of the abusive process.

        As always, thank you for sharing your important work and knowledge with us.

        1. You’re welcome. And again, thanks for the comments. What I hope we can have a good discussion about is what years of experience taught me was the key variable in why disturbed characters persist in their ways despite all manner of negative consequence and what has to happen in the heart for genuine and lasting change to be fostered. Stay tuned! And, as always, all (well, almost all) comments welcome!

    2. Charlie,
      I have a somewhat basic understanding of what you are saying. My daughters dog was food movtivated and was easier to train.
      I can also see that unless someone is guided by moral, ethical standards the rewards for bad behaviors can often be much greater than personal integrity. I have a family member who I just discovered is a narc, all the pieces finally fell into place and there is no motivation for her to change, she is getting just what she wants and is undetected by other family members.

      1. Hi, Kat,

        The behavior model is fairly complex and I’m told dry-as-dust. I find it fascinating. It’s more than just training, it’s actually about how to shape behaviors. And you can bet that I attempted to use it on my problem husband.

        Interestingly, I found that our disturbed characters respond better to Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment (the other 2 of the 4 quadrants and what is typically used in Dominant style training). I found that typically when I rewarded what I thought was ‘good behavior’ (behaving as Lucy described) it seemed to be interpreted by him as an open invitation for bad behavior. It took me awhile to realize that what I thought was good behavior was actually covert aggression so when I praised or rewarded, I actually made his behavior worse because I was unwittingly reinforcing bad behavior. Our disturbed characters are truly troubled, difficult souls.

  2. Words from my marriage counselor several years ago that I will never forget: “I don’t think he’ll change. He will “behave”, but I don’t think he will change.
    I’ve never forgotten that.
    And she was right.

    1. I have to agree on that one. I think it often applies to many others as well. I must not be very good at administering consequences to others in my life. Many times after trying to reason with friends and family in my life I’ve decided to forego the relationships as there was not much maturing on their part.
      I think the response from others is truly astounding however. For the most part if you back off from someone who is clearly character disturbed or breaking boundaries with you, their response is usually more hostility. It’s like they say to themselves, “how dare you reject me”???
      I had a friend for over 10 yrs, we got along great shopping, dinners parties etc. Started going to a group with her and she literally acted like I was her babysitter there. Cutting me out of a conversation another member started with me was the last straw.
      I feel good about my decision as I had to tell her several times while driving I didn’t feel good about her driving 80mph while texting. She wouldn’t stop, so I did!
      She went on to exhibit aggressive behavior towards me as well as using her kids to ring and run us when we no longer got together. I promptly texted her “look who was on our Ring camera doorbell today. That’s all I said, she claimed she put her 11 yr old son in a timeout while his friends were visiting.
      She also claimed she scolded him for not knowing better how not to get caught???
      See what I mean? Hurdles, hurdles, hurdles is all the CD seems to see.

      1. Hi, Priscilla,

        Your description reminds me of the difficulty of working with behavior modification of one breed of dog, the American Pitbull. And not all Pitbulls but the aggressive ones. I intensely dislike working with them because they seem to find joy in the fight, the challenges. I equate working with an aggressive Pitbull with being on a chessboard, they have a unique grasp of strategy and seem to delight in countering conditioning methods. While I’m typically successful in creating an effective behavior plan, I usually leave bruised, battered and sometimes a little bloody and I swear to you the dog respects that.

        I’ve seen plenty of people with a similar life outlook.

        1. Charlie,
          I’m surprised by what you have said about pitbulls, my daughter has had several and they have had a very sweet nature, but they are “working” dogs who do better when they have a job – do you find that as well?

          1. It’s not all Pitbulls. Most are sweet, laid back, easy going dogs with no aggression issues. But when I get called on this breed for aggression issues, they are unique and not like any other breed.

        2. Charlie,

          Can you name a famous person that you believe has this style of relating? Politicians come to mind for me.

          1. I can’t come up with a specific person, but a lot of Lawyers come to mind for me. And I agree with Politicians, a lot of whom are lawyers. I can’t say a whole profession is disturbed characters but they love a good fight.

          2. Charlie,
            Funny you mention lawyers because I know of a few women who were married to narcs who were lawyers and one of them reminds me of your aggressive pitbull description. She divorced him and was in court over alimony issues, I think she unknowingly was feeding into his aggression by taking him to court -he was never going to give up so she had to finally back down after 10 years of court battles.

          3. Kat,

            I experienced something similar with my divorce attorney. I seem to keep repeating the same mistake. As I’m not a very aggressive person, I keep thinking that taking on an aggressive person to help me deal with the aggressive people I’m struggling will work out for me. It doesn’t. Instead I get the bulk of the aggression which really throws me for a loop. My attorney yelled at me, constantly, if I didn’t do what he wanted, heck I could be doing exactly what he wanted and he would still yell at me. I managed to negotiate my own divorce settlement and my lawyer seemed disappointed that we wouldn’t need to go to court even though he reluctantly agreed I negotiated a better settlement than going to court would allow.

  3. Priscilla,
    I’ve realized, finally, to not waste precious time on the disturbed characters in our life, or to spend as little time as necessary. It’s such a noticeable difference when the characters are no longer a big part life, one can actually have peace. Who’d have thought!!

    1. Amen!

      It’s truly amazing how much more energy I have, both physical and emotional, now that I have chosen just not to deal with these folks if I can at all help it. And if I do, it’s as little as possible and with my cards close to my vest and emotionally detached.

      I can actually focus on my needs, wants, goals, etc… and feel peaceful and emotionally centered while doing so. Gone is the constant demands, coercive control and the manufactured chaos.

      1. Mindful,

        Same here. If it’s a relationship at all with a distorted character, it’s a controlled one, controlled by me. I won’t go down that sick path again.

  4. kat,

    I divorced a narc disbarred lawyer and he drug me through hell. Two and a half year court battle till I gave up and gave him what he wanted, half my pension. I couldn’t afford the attorney fees any longer. Oh yeah they go to battle and enjoy every second of it.

    1. Lucy, Kat,

      I had an aggressive attorney though he was quiet and demure in many ways. I realized to late his particular tactics in manipulating me to make the divorce last longer than it had to. I ended up firing him and concluded the divorce on my own.

      I realize now that the attorney was also a narc but a different kind of one. It was eye opening when coming to the realization how calculating a and manipulative lawyers can be. I suspect the bulk of them are narcissistic, to include sociopaths or psychopaths personality. For these attorneys its about money, winning and oneupmanship.

      1. BTOV

        Oh my gosh. The money (that I didn’t have) that I spent! Had I not given up what I’d believed was rightfully mine, attorney would have gotten every last dime (from loans of course) and I’d been unable to have enough left from the 28 years marriage to put a down payment on a home.
        I had to cut my losses. There was no win in any manner for me.

  5. Charlie,

    I became very aggressive going through the divorce process, and I was being bullied daily emotionally, financially, and through court.
    I had many battles with my attorney. Some of them personal.
    The whole process changed me.
    However, in my last relationship, I would tend to keep quiet on many issues I had disagreements with, but then when to the point of being really disturbed and angry it would come out, in anger, and in a non respecting way. It’s like my communication skills in personal relationship are not good. And it’s something I’m going to have to really work on.
    I’m not ready for another relationship and don’t want one. I’ve got a lot of self work to do.

    1. Lucy,

      What really struck me with my attorney was how unprofessional he was. Yelling at a client is the extreme in unprofessionalism. You mentioned ‘battles with your attorney, some of them personal’….I’m struggling to grasp the lack of professional standards in this profession. Aggressive people mixed with vulnerable people is not a good mix in any walk of life. I think Dr. Simon would term this ‘Unbridled Aggression.’

      Lucy, I m sorry your last relationship didn’t work out. If I remember correctly from your comments in that timeframe, that relationship really helped hold you together through your tumultuous divorce. It’s not really surprising then that you let a lot of things go until you were in the red zone.

      I think it’s good that you may be recognizing an issue with communication skills. One of the things I’ve realized is how much my ex husband ultimately influenced me, my communication skills, how I think, even how I act to a certain extent. I’ve noticed since the divorce, I’m starting to experience some familiar behavior, from before my marriage or early on in my marriage. It’s helping me get some sense of security back.

      Even the thought of being in an intimate relationship gives me nightmares and feels disempowering to me. I’m not sure if they’re in my future.

    2. Super understandable, Lucy. It’s self preservation when dealing with abuse to learn to fight back. It’s traumatic and our system gets really worked over.

      In my experience, we can sometimes swing too far in the other direction for a period of time. We overcompensate. But after we have time to recover (away from the abusers/stress), we get back to center. Meditation really helped me in this regard, it shrinks your amygdala. It calms and rewires the brain.

      Sounds like your new relationship really triggered something. It takes time and patience to heal from these things. I hope that you are able to be compassionate with yourself, you deserve that.

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