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From Behavioral Science to Behavior Modification by Harry Kalish


Harry Kalish’s engaging college level tome argues that we should focus on learning and current conditions, that Environments deserve attention because few changes can be made to the genes of living humans with present technologies.


Behavior modification offers four general alternatives: Reward and withholding reward, aversive stimulus and withholding aversive stimulus. Behaviorists see words and thoughts as forms of stimuli. Yelling, whispering, and arguments are considered stimuli just as a carrot and stick are.


Quickly acquired and long lasting, avoidance learning (phobias, for example) needlessly harms us, leading to the neurotic paradox: Attempts to avoid anxiety produce more anxiety. Evasion as a stress reducing method erodes freedom and flexibility.


Feeling and acting in control is one better method of reducing stress.


Getting newly learned behavior to transfer to beneficial situations remains difficult. Kalish suggests using a variety of stimuli in a variety of settings. It does no good to learn how to be friendly with only your best friend. We should tailor practice toward generalization.


Numerous fascinating, and sometimes bizarre, side boxes dot this work. One woman happily wore a chastity belt to assuage her jealous husband. Her husband came home at lunch, so she could use the bathroom.


Another box tells the story of mothers who tried to pay attention to only desirable actions in their children. The mothers produced worse behavior because total attention declined 25 to 50 percent from when children gained attention for being destructive. Regressing to an earlier age is one way children attempt to get attention.


Some noteworthy points made by Kalish: Conditioning affects humans, including those who think of themselves as self-created gods. Much conditioning is unconscious. Depending on the individual traits present, promotions and responsibilities can be more punishing than rewarding. Status envy matters: Children envy, identify with, and imitate those who control food and love, freedom and other resources. Stimuli must quickly follow an action to succeed. Exinction bursting: Taking away a reinforcer causes individuals to try to get the reinforcer back. Children having tantrums initially throw even worse tantrums when adults stop catering to tantrums.


To help make behavior last, you can, one, get peers to help; two, get individuals to reason and add better strands to their values; three, teach individuals to enjoy their activities, especially duties; four, use intermittent rewards once tangible rewards are withdrawn; five, find ways to make activities more satisfying; six, practice new learning; seven, solve problems arising from new ideas and actions such as the problem of new actions not “feeling right” because they are outside old comfort zones; seven, make sure new emotions and actions are as automatic as bad habits.


Punishments have big downsides, especially if not used judiciously. Punishments need to be combined with rewards, but rewards should not be used immediately after a punishment. Otherwise, the punishment serves as a cue for the reward, which leads to wrong actions and ills such as masochism. A child misbehaving to get attention is an example of rewards interfering with learning.


Sometimes punishment stops learning because it creates defensiveness or other bad responses (for example, learned helplessness). Punishment, in addition, teaches what not to do rather than what to do.


Over time tolerance of a punishment increases. Individuals engaged in nagging regularly increase the level of nagging until their behavior seems ludicrous.


Vicious cycles undermine attempts to stop smoking, drinking, and overeating. Bad emotions lead to indulgence, which leads to ruminating about will power, then self-flagellation, leading to more indulgence.


Overeaters often eat based on mood or habit rather than severe hunger. Even enjoyable experiences (elation, for example) lead to overeating. Kalish also summarizes some causes of depression. Worth skimming.

book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 5, 2009


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