Home » Base of the Pyramid » Behavior Modification

Behavior Modification

July 28, 2006


One of the most emailed New York Times articles in the past couple of months has been an article by author Amy Sutherland entitled “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” [25 June 2006] While happy marriage is not the normal grist for a corporate blog, I am convinced that the principles Sutherland discusses have broader application in both the corporate and security arenas. Sutherland’s epiphany occurred while she was writing a book about a school for exotic animal trainers. She explains her enlightenment this way:

I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard. I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

Apparently those techniques worked and she was able to nudge her husband closer to perfection and her waning affection for him was rekindled. The “secret” used by animal trainers — positive reinforcement — is hardly a secret, Sutherland knew about the technique before she started wrting her book, the real epiphany was discovering that they could be used to change her husband’s behavior.

Positive reinforcement is not new in the corporate world either. Read any book on management you’ll learn techniques that motivate employees, most of which center around the principle of positive reinforcement. My mini-epiphany was that the techniques Sutherland discusses has a place in our Development-in-a-Box approach. In order to ensure that the jumpstart provided by Development-in-a-Box remains sustainable, behaviors often have to change. For example, corruption cripples any attempts to generate sustainable development. That is a behavior that must change and, therefore, a target area for behavior modification training. I also understand that corruption has both a behavioral and economic component and both must be addressed. When corruption is looked upon as an acceptable (even necessary) source of income, the poverty that undergirds the corrupt system must be tackled simultaneously with the behavior.

The idea behind Development-in-a-Box™ is that certain processes in critical infrastructure sectors can be automated to take advantage of developed world standards so that developing states don’t have to suffer through normal growing pains or convince potential investors that their systems are up to snuff. While business standards can be put in place with relative speed, changing societal norms takes more time — normally it is accomplished one person at a time. That is where Sutherland’s insights are helpful. She writes:

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.

Most compliance standards have been developed because they address areas where unacceptable behavior has at one time or another been repeatedly observed. Getting people to accept those standards requires educating them about the negative consequences of the underlying unacceptable behaviors they address. The flexible framework I promote includes this training and education as an integral part of the Development-in-a-Box approach. You can’t ignore the people who must implement and sustain the processes involved.

One thing that anyone involved in the development sector must learn is patience. Change generally occurs at a slower rate than either developers or those being assisted would like. Lack of patience, however, only leads to frustration. Sutherland learned with while “training” her husband.

I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I’d kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller. I was using what trainers call “approximations,” rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

Approximations are an important tool for several reasons. Not only do they provide opportunities to reward behavior, they also help establish measures of effectiveness. One of the greatest challenges that those involved with post-conflict or failed state scenarios have had to deal with is finding appropriate measures of effectiveness. Normal measures, like gross domestic product, simply aren’t available when a national economy doesn’t exist. Approximations (little steps in appropriate behaviors) permit you to measure progress, remain patient, and avoid frustration.

Another good technique that Sutherland learned is called incompatible behavior.

On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an “incompatible behavior,” a simple but brilliant concept. Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible. The birds couldn’t alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

Addiction programs that try to change people’s behaviors are very familiar with this technique. You replace the craving for drugs with some other activity that makes taking them more difficult or impossible. If you can find something that people “want” to do (and that activity is incompatible with an undesired behavior) you create a real win-win situation. During an interview on the Today Show, Sutherland said that if she wants her husband to quit bothering her while she’s cooking, she simply places beer and chips in an area far from where she’s working. She says it works every time.

One more thing that Sutherland learned was that the culture of the entity being trained must be understood and taken into account. As she puts it:

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn’t. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian.

Although Sutherland’s article was primarily about how she tried to change her husband, it was also an article about how it changed her. For one thing, she started looking at the world differently:

Once I started thinking this way, I couldn’t stop. At the school in California, I’d be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I’d be thinking, “I can’t wait to try this on Scott.”

Not only did she start thinking more horizontally (seeing path dependencies that would result from the proper use of specific techniques), but as she started looking for good behavior to reward she became less irritated by lingering bad habits. This is actually a pretty good life’s lesson: when you start looking for good, you generally find it. One cannot remain long in the development business without being optimistic. Looking for little victories, learning about others’ culture, discovering beneficial incompatible behaviors, thinking horizontally, and always looking for something positive is a pretty good recipe for sustained and measurable success.

Related Posts:

Full Logo


One of our team members will reach out shortly and we will help make your business brilliant!