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The perils of rewarding bad behavior

March 8, 2011

The headlines are screaming “Charlie Sheen” everywhere you look.  It seems you just can’t get away from the latest news about what the former “Two and a Half Men” star is up to.  Our local paper asks, “Did Media Fuel Sheen’s Shenanigans?”

Was that meant to be a rhetorical question?

If you don’t believe that Sheen’s continuing rants and raves aren’t based on “media opportunities,” then you really don’t understand Hollywood, “fame,” or human nature.

Let me explain.

Let’s talk about Human Motivation 101. This is something I go into when presenting to parents and educators about what causes certain behavior and what is required to change it.  Before you change behavior you have to understand that people are motivated by

  1. Positive recognition/attention for positive behavior or…
  2. …in absence of that, they’ll take negative attention/recognition for negative behavior

…over being ignored.

As an example, let’s consider the evergreen parenting problem of whiney toddlers.  This is classic Behavior 101 in action.  Toddler whines; gets attention.  Parents decide that want their toddler to stop whining, so they tell the little cherub that he/she should use their big girl/boy voice.  So, cherub tries that in asking for a cookie.  Now, let’s say that for whatever reason, mom won’t allow the little tyke the cookie at this time. So, since child doesn’t get the cookie for the “positive behavior,” what do you suppose happens next? RIGHT! Whining begins.  Mom caves and toddler gets cookie.  Perfect, you’ve just reinforced that negative behavior you were trying to change.

You can use the same model to understand Charlie Sheen’s behavior (and, frankly, if you ask me, I don’t think he’s so far off the “whiney toddler model” as you’d think).  His constant ranting and raving is being picked up by every media outlet, and guess what:  more ranting and raving!

Imagine the reinforcement he’s getting from all the media attention, which, of course, then drives public eyeballs to his Twitter account, Facebook, all those other “outlets” he’s using to “communicate” to the world. Because of the attention, the media thinks he’s a hot commodity, so they give him MORE access, which drives more traffic, etc. His negative behavior is getting lots of strokes via the buzz it’s creating, so he ratchets up the controversy, the hype, and the “shenanigans.”

He’s stuck in the whiney toddler “gotcha game!” And, intentionally or not, the public and the media are part of the dysfunctional cycle.

Imagine, for a moment that instead of gaining all this notoriety and attention, we were to all ignore his bad boy behavior? How long do you think it would last?  He might try to up the ante again, increase the volume or the outrageousness of his language or actions.  But, if we held fast and didn’t react, he would get no “reward.” When he didn’t get any attention for his negative behavior, eventually he might learn that it has no effect, that we don’t care about this nonsense.

And, it would stop. Without an audience, the bad behavior would end because it wasn’t effective.

What if we just decided that we would stop feeding celebrities’ and other people’s bad behavior by rewarding positive behavior and examples of good character?  While there are plenty of examples of celebrities doing well, it doesn’t get the attention and support from the public as do the “renegades” and trouble-makers like the Lindsay Lohan incidents, Charlie Sheen’s outbursts or similar. We know “bad news sells,” but clearly, too, does bad behavior.

As long as we participate in this circus by reacting to each self-centered, self-absorbed tirade, we’ll continue to see them happen.  If we want the negative behavior to cease, we ourselves have to grow up and say “enough.” Otherwise, we’re just feeding into this nonsense by giving it the attention it doesn’t deserve.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 8:23 pm

    This makes so much sense that when a different perspective on discipline is offered, it seems ‘too good to be true’.
    As a 20+ year school counselor, I have not found a better concept that effectively support the points in this article than ‘The Nurtured Heart Approach’ by Howard Glasser. Considerable research explains the success of this approach. I applaud your straight-up comments about how we feed poor behavior- and wonder why it continues!!!

  2. Corinne Gregory permalink*
    March 31, 2011 5:09 am

    Thank you so much, inneractionunlimited, for your conments. I hope you’ll share this post with others who might benefit. And, come back to visit often!

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