Psyching out

You know what my big soap box of 2010 appears to be? There is nothing new in the world of the psychology of learning. Just a few days ago I wrote a post about it. Today Ellen Reynolds from Dachis group wrote a post describing Kate Niederhoffer’s presentation about the psychology of teaching people new behaviors. The takeaway: People adopt a new way of doing things (like participating in social media) over time more easily when they are rewarded rather than punished.

If you’ve ever learned about animal training, you already know that’s true: the most effective way to create a new behavior long-term is to ignore undesired behaviors and react immediately and visibly to desired behaviors. From an operant conditioning standpoint, that’s positive reinforcement. Once you establish the new behavior and you want to see it happen more often, you change how often you reward the behavior. So once you’ve got people participating, your start varying the rate at which you reward them. In other words, surprise them with rewards if you want to encourage long-term change. Positive reinforcement changes behaviors and keeps people (and animals) motivated.

And that’s why Kate is so impressive (and rare): science has its place in business. It just takes someone both practical and “on their toes” like her to see it and call it out.

If you want to be brave, get people to do something new

Make natural behaviors happen more frequently …But if you want to be smart, figure out what they do naturally and see if you can get more people to do it, or get people to do it more often.

From an operant conditioning standpoint, it’s a lot easier to train established behaviors to happen on cue, a lot harder to shape an entirely new behavior. How do I know? I used to teach a Marine Mammal Behavior and Training class at SDSU Extended Studies during my many years of working in Education at SeaWorld.

Some of the “easier” training at SeaWorld happens when trainers see the animal doing a behavior they’d like to repeat on cue. They reinforce the behavior immediately, which increases the likelihood of the behavior happening again. (Kind of like kindergarten teachers give “caught you being good” awards)

So there you go: license to be a little lazy/smart: to increase your success rate, focus your marketing efforts on doing something you know happens organically.