Chapter 4: Behavior, Motivation and Self-Control
In chapter 2, we considered the general steps in self-help and what
specifically we would like to change about ourselves. In chapter 3, we
thought seriously about our values--what would add meaning to our
lives. So, I will assume you now have some self-improvement goals in
mind. In this chapter, let's see if we can gain more self-control,
starting with behavior, i.e. what you do or how you act.
Introduction and Overview
Intro to Learning
Managing difficult behavior
Why behavior is hard to understand
Procrastination: an example of hard-to-understand behavior
Planning behavioral changes
Review of methods for controlling behaviors
Completing your self-help plan
References and methods for specific disorders:
More specific problems:
More specific problems:
When to seek professional help
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could control your behavior? You'd
avoid over-eating, alcoholism, all bad habits, procrastination, being
late, impulsive comments and purchases, sinful behavior, misplaced
objects and papers, rushing at the last minute, etc. Instead, you'd
have good health, a beautifully exercised body, excellent work habits,
an organized life, success, good social graces, good mental health,
healthy attitudes, and practically a guarantee of getting into heaven.
The truth is: you can't control all your behavior. We are all a little
out of control. Some of us are seriously out of control. For example,
some of us are ruining our lives and/or killing ourselves with food,
drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, careless driving and other ways. Some of us
are blowing off our school work or our jobs but still believing, even
though it is very unrealistic, that we will "be successful." Some of us
can't get or hold a job, or hold on to love, or properly care for our
children, or manage a home and pay our debts. There is an enormous
difference between the people who are out of control and those in
control. It is important to understand the causes of behavior and how
to change it. We could all gain better control.
Keep in mind that "behavior" is just one of five parts of any human
situation (see chapter 2). The fact is that behavior (actions) and the
other parts--feelings, skills, thoughts, and unconscious drives--are so
intermixed that it is artificially over-simplified to talk about one part in
isolation. Yet, psychologists do that a lot (me too, right now).
Otherwise, things get very complicated. And, indeed, perhaps
clinicians do over-analyze things, always wondering what you mean
when you say "Hello!" But in the 1950's and 1960's psychologists
focused on behavior and learning theory, then in the middle 1970's to
1980's the focus was on cognition (thinking). Both were over
simplified. Now, in the 1990's focus has turned to the interaction of
emotions, values, motivation, unaware perceptions and needs with
behavior and thoughts. Psychological methods, like therapy and self-
help, change our brain. This chapter explores these many interactions.
William James and Sigmund Freud would certainly be pleased with the
recent return to introspection of our conscious and unconscious
thoughts and feelings.
It is wholesome to keep a historical perspective. We must not
forget how young modern psychology is (and how ignorant we all are).
Only 150 years ago, we did not use the concept of unconscious forces.
Instead when people behaved in ways they didn't "intend" to behave,
it was thought they were possessed by an alien force--the will of God,
the work of the Devil, a guardian angel, or other spirits (Ellenberger,
1970). In 1900 the focus was on instincts, the stream of
consciousness, the "will," the self, and so on. Psychology has changed,
but we haven't come far. Wonder what psychology will be concerned
with in 2100?
Langer (1989) reminds us that many of our actions are "mindless,"
i.e. done automatically without weighing the rationality or the pros and
cons for the action before responding. Rather than mindless, it may be
more accurate to label a good bit of our behavior as self-deceptive or
self-conning. For instance, when asked "why are you doing that?"
people frequently give an explanation quickly and confidently, but it is
often inaccurate (they overlook important factors or are unaware of
some response they made and so on). Likewise, people have lots of
silly ideas and feelings about their own behavior, such as "I can tell
when someone is looking at me" or "I think I have a pretty good
chance of winning the lottery." We could also cite as foolish the denial
of alcoholics, smokers, over-eaters, non-studying students and others.
In any case, whether we are just unthinking about what we are doing
or unwittingly fooling ourselves, Langer's point is that greater
awareness (mindfulness) is needed for more rational self-direction and
greater self-control. Freud would say we haven't learned much yet; we
still need to become aware of our conscious and unconscious
cognition, including repression, rationalization, denial and other
There may be some behavioral habits that have little or no
cognitive, emotional, or unconscious aspects, such as brushing your
teeth, tying your shoes, walking, breathing and so on. But, as we
learned in chapter 2, most behaviors are influenced by other parts of
the problem, e.g. eating when anxious or bored, smoking or drinking
to relax, procrastinating to avoid work, socializing when we need
pleasure, avoiding hard tasks because we think we can't do it, learning
new skills when we feel inadequate, setting low goals so we won't feel
too disappointed if we don't do well, etc. Consequently, you can't fully
understand most human behavior without considering many factors:
environment, perception of the situation, consequences of our
behavior, learning from previous experience, emotions, needs and
level of motivation, knowledge and skills, values and life goals, plans
and intentions, expectations, self-deception, unconscious processes,
genetic and physiological or hormonal factors, and possibly many,
many more variables. All at once!
In the 1940's and 1950's, psychologists thought they would
develop one learning theory based largely on rats and pigeons which
would explain all human behavior. Not likely! But learning is very
important. Almost everything we do, feel, or think is learned. Learning
is usually necessary for changing--changing your behavior, changing
your mind, changing your awareness, etc. This 100-billion-neuron-
brain of ours with 1000 growing, changing synapses on each neuron
and over 50 chemical neurotransmitters interacting in each synapse
enables some wonderfully complex behavior and thoughts. No
computer comes close to matching the human brain. Two and a half
pounds of fantastic living matter that can, hopefully, study and
understand itself. What a phenomenon!
Overview of this chapter
In this chapter we will concentrate on understanding ordinary
behavior, including how new behavior is learned and how behavior is
changed (this is continued in chapter 11). We will look at simple
models of learning. Then we will focus on motivation, especially
achievement motivation. The common problem of procrastination
provides us with a more complex behavior to analyze. Stopping
unwanted behaviors and preventing relapses are other important skills
to acquire. The chapter concludes with several explanations of why
behavior is hard to understand and with a brief description of many
methods for changing behavior, using various forms of oral
consumption for our examples.
Obviously, emotion expresses itself partly through behavior, but
separate chapters deal with fear (ch. 5), sadness (ch. 6), anger (ch. 7)
and dependency (ch. 8). Also, skills (ch. 13) influence your
performance in many ways. Certainly your thoughts, including your
goals and plans, self-instructions (ch. 11), values (ch. 3),
expectations, self-concept, personality, self-deceptions, unawareness,
and unconscious factors (chs. 9, 14 and 15) influence your behavior.
You may want to go directly to those chapters, skipping behavior, if
those emotions or cognitive factors seem to be more at the core of
Psychologists use the term "learning" to refer to any change in
behavior that results from experience (Hergenhahn, 1982). To a
degree some of our actions are surely influenced by our genes or just
by "human nature," but most of our behavior, in contrast to other
animals, has been learned from experience. This is true of our
unwanted behavior too. So, if bad habits have been learned, they
could be unlearned. Likewise, becoming a better person, more
thoughtful of others or more skillful, involves new learning (new
behavior, new thinking, new values, or new motivation). Thus, as we
come to understand more clearly how we got to be the way we are,
how we learned to be ourselves, surely we will know more about how
to become what we would like to be. That's our task here.
Typical Introductory Psychology textbooks have described three
common kinds of learning: operant conditioning, classical conditioning,
and complex social learning. In the first kind of learning (instrumental
or operant) we attempt to use our past experience to produce some
result, some payoff, usually some change in the environment.
Example: You act nice to get someone to like you. The second
(classical) usually produces an automatic reflexive response, often an
emotion, to a specific situation. Example: Cigarettes come to taste
good and calm you down after you have smoked thousands in relaxed
circumstances. The third kind of learning (observational or social
modeling) is when we learn ways of behaving by observing someone
else, such as how to approach someone in a bar or how to get our way
by getting angry. In this chapter, we'll learn more about these ways of
learning. We will attempt to analyze the real causes of real life
situations. It is more complex than implied in most textbooks but you
can understand it easily.
Therapists and experimental psychologists know quite a lot about
changing. For instance, (1) changing your "environment," including
your expectations and plans, can encourage good habits and
discourage bad ones. (2) Simply observing your actions will often
change them. Disrupting the old unwanted habits and substituting and
practicing new desired responses will help. (3) Rewarding the desired
actions, thoughts, or feelings immediately, while ignoring or punishing
the unwanted behavior, are sometimes useful methods. The last part
of this chapter and chapter 11 show you how to carry out these
methods and many others. The primary focus in this book is on
For a clear understanding of behavior, we need to separate (a) the
process of learning new behavior from (b) the condition of becoming
energized or motivated to act out something you already know how to
do, i.e. learning differs from performance (or motivation). Sometimes
we must learn a new response in order to cope; the mousey person
must learn to be assertive. But much of the time we know how to do
the desired behavior, e.g. study, stop eating, attend to our spouse,
clean the bathroom, control our anger, etc., but the problem is getting
ourselves motivated enough to do it. The only new learning we may
need in these cases is more understanding of how to increase our
motivation or determination. However, in most self-help projects, you
will need to learn new self-modification skills as well as acquiring some
means of increasing your drive towards your goal, for instance
avoiding temptations, persevering for long-range goals, resisting
emotional reactions and so on. Self-help involves mastering self-
modification techniques, increasing motivation, and developing a belief
in yourself as a change agent.
To understand ourselves, we must comprehend the causes of our
behaviors. Wise observers have discovered many explanations for
behavior which are not obvious and not common knowledge. But this
uncommon knowledge needs to be made common. For instance, (1)
the payoffs for a behavior may be unrealized, e.g. shyness is
reinforced by avoiding social stress; payoffs may be quite delayed,
e.g. a career yields rewards years later; or payoffs may be something
we find hard to believe we want, e.g. to be sick or to fail. Also, the
effectiveness of a specific reward depends on the context, e.g. a bribe
of $10.00 is very different in a very poor family than it is in an
environment offering many rewards. Certainly, the payoffs for the
same behavior, say drinking, may subtly change over the years or
occur only occasionally (called partial reinforcement). (2) Reliance on
or over-emphasis on extrinsic rewards (instead of intrinsic enjoyment
of the activity itself) may be harmful in some situations, e.g. the good
student who comes to say, "I only study because I get $50 for every
A" or more commonly, "I'm only studying so I can get into college."
(3) Our behavior may suddenly change when we realize there is an
alternative way to react or when we recognize long-range
consequences hidden to us before. (4) Underlying emotions, which we
only vaguely recognize, may be the major factors producing our
behavior, such as when anxiety causes us to overeat or to be
compulsive. Awareness of these kinds of facts about learning can help
you gain self-control.
If you don't have the capacity to change yourself and your attitudes, then nothing around
you can be changed.
Remember, you will learn, retain, and enjoy reading this book
more if you immediately apply the ideas to your own life--see if the
theories explain your behavior, think about how you could use self-
help methods to change, and imagine trying out the methods yourself
or telling others how to use the methods. If you don't use--or at least
think about using--a new idea within 24 or 48 hours, you are at risk of
losing it forever.
Introduction to Learning
We change (learn) as the result of experience all the time. That
doesn't mean that it is easy to change our behavior, however. If
learning to be good were easy, we'd all be saints! Right? Let's see if
we can understand why self-improvement is often difficult. Perhaps
because there is another paradox, namely, psychologists and ordinary
people know a lot about learning (changing) but there is a lot more we
don't understand. Our ignorance and pessimism about self-control
sometimes overwhelms and paralyzes us.
Consider how mysterious some behaviors are. Why are some very
attractive people shy? Why do some of us eat and eat until we are fat,
unhealthy, and ugly? Why do others refuse to eat because they weigh
95 pounds but think they are fat? Why do some drink until they die of
liver disease? Why might a person smoke cigarettes until they get
throat cancer, lose their windpipe, and even then continue to suck the
smoke through an air hole in their neck? Why do we often hurt the
people we love? Why do we put off studying until the last night before
an important exam? Why are some of us pessimists and others
optimists--some just get lemons while others make lemonade?
Everyone has a life-time of experience with learning, especially
finding out how to get what we want. We seem to have inherited a
brain that is especially adept at learning to cope, but we also learn
many self-defeating behaviors. Every person has thousands, probably
millions, of learned behaviors or habits. Many are very useful, like
brushing our teeth, driving a car, talking, etc. Bad habits are probably
learned in the same ways as good ones. Replacing bad habits with
new, valued ways of behaving probably follows the same learning
principles. So let's learn how to change our behavior by learning more
about the process of learning. First, a case.
John, the procrastinator
Consider the case of John, a college sophomore, who is
a procrastinator. John is of average intelligence and
wants to be successful, a manager in a corporation. Yet,
he puts off studying, especially math and science. He
knows he could learn it but these subjects take time and
become boring. He can't just fake his way though a
physics exam. John has been and still is especially good
at sports, particularly baseball and football, because he
is stocky and strong. Also, John has many friends, both
male and female. It is very hard for him to study when
he has so many fun things to do. Lately, he has noticed
resenting the teachers who pile on a lot of work. He is
just barely staying off probation.
Clearly, John is in a reinforcement-rich environment; there are so
many enjoyable things to do. Thus, it is hard for studying to compete
with all the opportunities to socialize, party, relax, play sports, listen
to music, talk, flirt, have sex, etc. How could studying math and
science possibly be more enjoyable than all these fun things? This
chapter focuses on this kind of dilemma.
(Follow up at age 38: John flunked out of college in his junior year,
got married to a girl in his hometown, and had three children. His job
is secure but uninteresting; it involves operating large earth moving
equipment. He has become a loner and depressed. He and his wife
drifted apart. Divorced at 37, he misses his children terribly. He still
tends to procrastinate, is late for work, doesn't pay his bills on time,
and makes no plans for the future. He manages to keep his job but
isn't likely to be promoted. The dreams of success he had in college
seem so far away and futile to him now.)
Background to theories explaining why we behave as we do
Learned people have always been interested in learning. 2400
years ago, Plato believed that we all had a soul which knew
everything. He thought this knowledge was available to us through our
"mind's eye" via introspection and reasoning, not observation. His
student, Aristotle, disagreed; he believed we learned through
observation and thinking to discover the "laws of nature." For instance,
Aristotle observed and concluded that ideas were associated in certain
ways; namely, ideas that are similar, opposites, frequently paired, and
were originally experienced together tend to occur together. So,
observing events lead to ideas, then ideas lead to other ideas,
according to these "Laws of Association." Both Plato and Aristotle
grossly oversimplified human learning and thought.
Unfortunately, Plato had more influence than Aristotle on
Christianity. Thus, the Christian religion set "man" apart from natural
law, i. e. since man (not women) was made in God's image and had
"free-will," man could not supposedly be studied scientifically. This
anti-empiricism, i. e. opposition to learning by observation, lasted for
1500 years! About 1600 philosophers started to speculate about the
nature of man again. Some thought there were innate ideas (from
Plato), e. g. Descartes and Kant; others believed ideas come from
experience, e.g. Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, very much like Aristotle...and
current thinking (Hergenhahn, 1982). For about 300 years, we
philosophized about learning. Empirical, careful research on learning
only started about 100 years ago, a blink of the eye in the history of
life. In general, humans have avoided learning about themselves.
The Old Testament in the Bible described Adam and Eve as being
made by God's own hands (God was pictured as an ordinary man). All
the other animals were assumed (even by great philosophers) to be
very different from humans; they had no mind, no rational thought, no
language, no feelings, and no soul; animals were mechanical
machines. But in 1859, Darwin in Origin of Species challenged the
separation of animals from humans with his idea of evolution and
aroused interest in adaptation to the environment by his idea of
survival of the fittest. Evolution was another way, instead of God's
hand, to create humans and all other creatures. A species may come
into being and adapt by capitalizing on mutant changes and/or by
learning how to cope better. People suddenly became interested in
psychology, especially in learning to adapt. Learning was also
considered another sign of a mind, so psychologists asked, what are
the smartest animals? Was learning a mechanical process or a
thinking-symbolic-creative, self-controlled process? Is there a
continuum from lower animals to humans--do they think like us, as
evolution theory suggested, or are they inferior and different
The 1880's and 1890's brought some remarkable breakthroughs in
understanding learning. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German
psychologist, described the laws of learning and forgetting by
experimentally studying his own memorization of thousands of
nonsense syllables. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a brilliant,
systematic, Russian physiologist who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for his
studies of the digestive and nervous systems. For the next 30 years,
he carefully explored a kind of learning he called "conditioned reflex"
(classical conditioning), which he believed was the basis of all acquired
habits and thoughts. At about the same time, a young American
studying under William James, Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949),
established the "Law of Effect," which states that voluntary
(controllable, unlike Pavlov's reflexes) behavior followed by a
satisfying experience tends to be repeated (learned). Later, B. F.
Skinner (1904-1990) saw operant conditioning as a way of controlling
almost all behavior. These scientists sought to study experimentally a
very simple form of animal learning, which would help explain complex
human behavior. It was a good idea, but it didn't work as well as they
had hoped. There were many other psychologists, following Darwin,
interested in learning but these four are giants.
Three basic kinds of learning: Classical conditioning, operant
conditioning, and social or observational learning
Let's start with the more simple forms of learning, even though it's
never so simple in real life. It is helpful to think of behavior as
occurring in a certain context or following certain events
(environmental or internal stimuli) and resulting in certain
consequences (rewards or punishment; success or failure). Thus,
several writers have spoken of the ABC's of behavior as described in
1. pair tone &
2. pair rat & loud fear of rat
3. (in a cage)
escape & get
4. (in Skinner
5. (at work)
watch 1/2 hr. TV
7. see a rat
of fear (but fear
8. child cries
give in to child
crying stops but
cries sooner and
louder next time
Learning new associations between the antecedents and
subsequent behavior is classical conditioning (1 & 2 above).
Knowing and/or using the relationships between the behavior and
its consequences usually involve operant conditioning (3, 4, 5 & 6
above). Many behaviors are strengthened by negative
reinforcement, i.e. avoiding some unpleasant experience (7 & 8
above). We often learn new ways of behaving by watching others
(9 above). Some more examples will clarify each type of learning.
The classic examples of classical conditioning are Pavlov's dogs and
Watson's Little Albert. In the 1890's Pavlov, a Russian physiologist,
was observing the production of saliva by dogs as they were fed when
he noticed that saliva was also produced when the person who fed
them appeared (without food). This is not surprising. Every farm boy
for thousands of years has realized, of course, that animals become
excited when they hear the sounds that indicate they are about to be
fed. But Pavlov carefully observed and measured one small part of the
process. He paired a sound, a tone, with feeding his dogs so that the
tone occurred several times right before and during the feeding. Soon
the dogs salivated to the tone, something like they did to the food (1
above). They had learned a new connection: tone with food or tone
with saliva response.
Similarly, John B. Watson, an early American psychologist,
presented an 11-month-old child, Albert, with a loud frightening bang
and a rat at the same time. After six or seven repetitions of the noise
and rat together over a period of a week, the child became afraid of
the rat, which he hadn't been, something like his fear of the noise (2
above). Actually, although very famous, Watson's experiment didn't
work very well (Samuelson, 1980); yet, the procedure shows how one
might learn to associate a neutral event, called the conditioned
stimulus (strange as it may seem--the rat), with another event to
which one has a strong automatic reaction, called the unconditioned
stimulus (the scary loud sound). (What I find even more amazing is
that Watson described three ways to remove this learned fear but it
was 40 years later before psychology took his therapeutic ideas
Eventually both the unconditioned (UCS) and the conditioned
stimulus (CS) elicit similar (but we now know not the same)
responses--an automatic, involuntary response which the person
frequently (but not always) can not control. Examples of unconditioned
stimuli and responses are: pain and jerking away, a puff of air to the
eye and a blink, approaching danger and fear, light and pupil
constriction. Classical conditioning sounds simple. Actually, there are
many complexities. That's why Pavlov persisted for 30 years. He
discovered many of the basic learning processes, such as the
necessary timing when pairing the conditioned stimulus with the
unconditioned stimulus, inhibition, extinction, generalization,
discrimination, higher order conditioning, and others. All still described
in Introductory Psychology textbooks today. Pavlov thought he was
discovering the fundamental building blocks of all behavior (and to
some extent he was). He even found that animals (he didn't work with
humans) went crazy--barking, struggling to get away--when they
could no longer discriminate between two tones, CS+ and CS-,
becoming more and more alike, one tone (CS+) had been conditioned
to produce saliva and a very similar tone (CS-) conditioned to inhibit
saliva. Pavlov concluded that all psychopathology was learned via
classical conditioning. He wasn't always right, but he was a brilliant
How can we use this information? What are common, everyday
examples of classical conditioning? The Good Humor Wagon and the
bakery attract you with bells and smells previously paired with food.
TV advertisers pair their product with beautiful scenes or with
attractive, sexy, successful or important people in an effort to get you
to like their products more. Studying may be unpleasant for John
because it has been paired with frustration (hating to do it). Much of
what we like or dislike is a result of classical conditioning. Let's take
drinking coffee as an example.
Have you ever wondered why and how so many people become
habituated to things that naturally taste bad? At first, coffee tastes
awful! Yet, many people drink it regularly (me too). Cigarettes taste
terrible! Alcohol too! Surely the taste of fingernails and filth under the
nails isn't very good! But many college students bite their nails. How
do we learn to like these things? Probably through classical
I'll tell you how I learned to like coffee. My first job as a young
psychologist was in a Psychiatry clinic. I was the only psychologist and
alone a lot. Needing to talk to someone besides patients, I started
taking a coffee break with the secretaries, who were attractive and
interesting. Coffee started to taste better and better because I liked
the secretaries and enjoyed meeting my social needs. The clever
reader might ask why I didn't come to dislike secretaries instead of
liking coffee. That would have been possible if the awful taste had
been stronger than my social needs. I would have stopped taking
breaks if none of my needs were being met.
Even though I'm aware that what I originally really liked and
needed was socializing with good looking women, not coffee, I am still
35 years later compelled to have a cup in the morning (only at the
office because coffee drinking is under environmental control). I've
learned to like it (and I still like women too). Indeed, coffee can now
be used to change my reaction to something else. For example, if I
now started to eat nutritious but terrible tasting diet cookies with my
coffee, I would come to like the cookies after hundreds of associations
together (this is higher order conditioning). In turn, the cookies could
subsequently influence my reaction to something else, and on and on.
In my case, coffee was paired with satisfaction of social needs.
Cigarettes are often paired with relaxation, alcohol with fun activities,
nail-biting with relief of anxiety while alone, work and study with the
reduction of anxiety, etc. If coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol are paired
thousands of times with relaxing, then these behaviors become
capable of calming us down. The body, in its wisdom, will start to use
these habits as a relaxant when we are up tight. Thus, research shows
that feeling stressed and helpless causes a smoker to want a cigarette
more than just smelling the smoke and seeing that a cigarette and ash
tray are available. With this understanding, it isn't surprising that
heavy smokers are more likely to be depressed and anxious than light
smokers or non-smokers. And, bulimic women report more sexual
abuse than non-bulimic women. Classical conditioning connects
feelings with environmental cues and with behaviors.
The examples above involve mostly taste but many other things
which we come to have a reaction to (but didn't originally) are
conditioned: the music we like, the social activities we like and dislike,
the people we like and dislike, the way we like to dress, the desire to
be the center of attention, the reluctance to approach the opposite
sex, the work we like and dislike, etc. Obviously, these subtle
preferences may have an enormous impact on our lives.
Pavlov's experiments dramatically demonstrated the environment's
control over behavior. We are highly responsive to cues in our
environment. We see dessert and can't avoid eating it. We act
differently with our mother than we act with our boy/girlfriend. We
have a place where we can really concentrate and study. We feel
uptight goofing off and get back to work. In fact, classical conditioning
is involved in almost everything we do (even though brushing your
teeth isn't the emotional high point of your day, notice how you feel if
you don't brush your teeth at the regular time). Thus, changing our
environment is one of the most effective self-help methods (see ch.
11). Changing our reaction to the environment is another self-help
approach based on classical conditioning methods. Indeed, learning to
reduce our fears and other unwanted emotions is a major part of
gaining control over your life (see ch. 12).
Operant or Instrumental Learning
While Pavlov was studying reflexes in Russia, Edward Lee
Thorndike was a graduate student at Harvard observing cats and dogs
trying to get out of a cage he had built with a trap door (opened by the
animal pulling a string) in order to get food. He wanted to know which
animals were the smartest and how does the mind help animals cope.
From these studies, he concluded that animals (dogs, cats and
chickens) don't learn by imitation, don't reason, don't have insight,
and don't have good memories. At first, this must have pleased the
anti-evolutionists! But Thorndike did not glorify the human mind; in
fact, he concluded that all learning, even in humans, doesn't involve
the mind! Learning was for him simply the building of a connection
between the situation (S) and a response (R), depending on the
rewarding or punishing consequences to the animal. His basic
conclusion was: rewards strengthen the previous response and
punishment weakens the previous response.
In the 1930's B. F. Skinner built a "box" in which an animal could
get a pellet of food if it learned to press a bar or to peck a light.
Thousands of research studies have been done on animals in the
Skinner Box. Therefore, the most common textbook examples of
operant or instrumental conditioning are a rat pressing a bar in a
Skinner Box or a pigeon learning to peck a light to get food (See 4 in
Table 4.1). In real life, common examples of operant conditioning
would be working for a weekly pay check (5 in Table 4.1) and
disciplining a child to change his/her behavior. The use of rewards and
punishment has been known to man for thousands, maybe hundreds
of thousands, of years. These response tendencies may be built into
the species. Indeed, even animals punish their young for nursing too
vigorously or for misbehaving. During the 1960's and 70's, the use of
reinforcement, called behavior modification, became very popular with
psychologists, especially in schools and with the mentally or
The basic idea, straight from Thorndike, is seductively simple:
reward the behavior you desire in others or in yourself. This is
Skinner's key to utopia. There is also a parallel notion: if you don't
understand why you do certain things, go look for the possible rewards
following the behavior (Hodgson & Miller, 1982). Then change the
reinforcers if you want to change the behavior. This is a key method in
self-help. Behavioral analysis (understanding the antecedents and
consequences) and positive reinforcement are undoubtedly powerful
and under used methods but probably not the solution to all human
problems. Don't other factors besides reinforcement influence
behavior? What about hoped for rewards? plans? intentions? powerful
Nevertheless, the Skinner box has undoubtedly given the world
valuable knowledge about different kinds of reinforcement schedules,
i.e. the consequences of reinforcing every bar press response vs.
every 3rd or 10th press vs. every 30 seconds of pressing the bar, etc.
As a result, psychologists and efficiency experts know a great deal
about getting the most work out of rats certainly and people perhaps
in highly controlled environments. Advertisers and politicians certainly
know how to sell things. But, psychologists know a lot less about self-
control in more complex situations where people have many
alternatives and can make their own decisions and plans.
Operant conditioning involves operating on the environment in
very specific ways, namely, delivering reinforcers or punishment right
after the "target" behavior. There are several situations in which
behavior-consequence contingencies might be established:
You may reward or punish some specific behavior of someone
else, i.e. you are changing his/her environment in hopes of
changing his/her behavior.
Some specific behavior of yours may be rewarded--or
punished--by someone else or by yourself.
You may engage in some specific behavior because you expect
it to yield some desired change in your environment--a payoff
(5 & 6 in Table 4.1).
Furthermore, learning not only involves acquiring a new response
but also learning to effectively use that response in other situations
(generalization) and learning to not use the response in other
situations where it won't work (discrimination). Thus, as with classical
conditioning, the setting exercises great control over our operant
Classical and operant conditioning were not new kinds of learning
invented by Pavlov and Thorndike. Conditioning has always existed;
psychologists just studied and described its forms more carefully in the
last 90 years. No doubt, animal trainers, parents, bosses, and lovers
used rewards, punishment, and change of the environment quite
effectively 10,000 years ago, much as they do today.
Other examples (5 above) of operant conditioning are salespersons
on a commission and factory workers doing "piece work," where the
better or faster they work the more they get paid. Likewise, studying
for grades, dressing to be attractive, being considerate to make
friends, getting angry to get our way, cleaning up our messes for
approval or because we enjoy neatness, etc., etc., are behaviors
operating on the environment. If they work (yield rewards) the
behaviors are strengthened, i.e. become more likely to occur in the
future, because they have been reinforced.
There are many other self-modification methods based on operant
procedures: self-punishment, negative reinforcement, intrinsic
satisfaction, covert (mental) rewards and punishment, extinction (no
rewards or punishment after the behavior), and others discussed near
the end of this chapter and in chapter 11. You should know them all.
Recent research clarifies earlier learning concepts
For 100 years, classical and operant conditioning--behaviorism--
have been a major part of psychology. However, recent research has
uncovered many misconceptions about these learning procedures. I
will not burden you with all these interesting studies (Leahey & Harris,
1989) because they would not be personally useful to you. I will,
however, summarize the more interesting results. If it bores you, skip
First of all, while classical and operant conditioning sound like very
different methods applied to very different responses (reflexes vs.
voluntary action), the fact is that both are involved in almost every
real life activity. You are responding classically to many stimuli in your
environment all the time, and many operant response tendencies
(serving many purposes) are constantly pushing you in different
directions. As illustrated in 7 & 8 in Table 4.1, a feared or distressing
object (rat or whining child) classically arouses an emotional reaction
prompting you to avoid the stressful stimulus. Thus, you may
operantly escape the fear or placate the irritating child, which is
followed by relief (negative reinforcement). Unfortunately, also
because of the reinforcement, the fear grows (7), the child cries a lot,
and you learn to slavishly cater to the child (8). Emotional-reflexive
responses are all mixed up with behavioral-voluntary responses. They
are just two parts of our bodies.
If classical and operant responding are so intermixed, why are
these two conditioning methods always separated in the psychology
textbooks and described as being very different? Well, remember who
discovered the methods and how. These experimenters--Pavlov,
Thorndike, Skinner, etc.--were looking for the basic elements and laws
of learning (changing or adapting) that might explain all behavior. But,
they observed in detail very limited parts of behavior. In fact, Pavlov
strapped his dogs into his apparatus excluding operant behavior, so he
wasn't likely to learn much about the reinforcement of voluntary
action. Likewise, Skinner was just as restrictive; he only looked at
automatic recordings of bar pressing; he didn't even note how the
animal pressed the bar (e.g. left paw, both paws, nose, or body block).
Clearly, the rats in the Skinner box were salivating just like Pavlov's
dogs, but it wasn't measured and, in general, neither was any other
emotional, physiological, brain function, or reflexive reactions (e.g.
frustration, urination, blood pressure, muscle potential, EEG, licking
the bar, etc.). Like therapists, experimentalists find what they are
looking for--what their biases direct their attention towards. They
found very minuscule parts of life, and they failed to observe the
interactions with other parts of the organism. As a knowledgeable self-
helper, try to do better. Guard against over-simplification and seeing
only what you want to see or what is right in front of you. It isn't easy.
Always look for classical, operant, and observational or social learning
when you are trying to understand any of your behavior. Always look
at the five parts of any human problem (chapter 2).
There are other important factors that were grossly neglected by
the early investigators of learning: cognitive processes (the mind), the
genes and biological influences, and, in humans, such things as values,
purposes, and intrinsic satisfactions. A brief summary of these
neglected factors will be given here.
From 1900 to 1975 the most serious omission from learning was
probably thinking or the mind. Before that time, the mind was thought
to control behavior. During this time, learning was seen as simple S-R
connections, i.e. the environment controlled behavior. Now, since 1980
or so, the mind is back in control of behavior. Psychologists tried to
make things simple but it didn't work. Granted, the human mind is
complex and behavior would be easier to understand if we could
disregard the mind, but that isn't reality. It is just common-sense to
include the mind in psychology. In our daily lives it certainly seems to
us as though we mentally control our actions. We plan to call a friend
or go to the store...and we do. We decide to watch our diet...and we
eat less. Fishbein (1980) contends that we act according to our
intentions, if we rationally decide to do so and if significant others
approve (or won't find out). If plans, self-instructions, and other
thoughts do affect our actions, then we need to know how to control
our thoughts too (see chapters 13 and 14).
Contrary to the 1900-1975 theorists who thought conditioning was
a mechanical, blind, automatic, unthinking process, there is growing
evidence that thinking is very much involved in conditioning. In fact,
the connection between the conditioned stimulus or CS (tone or rat)
and the unconditioned stimulus or UCS (food or loud noise) must make
sense and be useful, otherwise an animal or human won't learn that
connection. Example: An adult would certainly start to salivate to a
bell (or smell of a bakery) signaling food is near by. But an adult (or a
4-year-old) probably wouldn't develop a fear of a little kitten under the
same conditions as Little Albert with the rat. Adults know kittens don't
make banging noises. Even "lower organisms" have an idea about
what is most likely to make them sick, so rats, for instance, associate
eating or drinking something with nausea much faster than a tone with
nausea. Thus, a mass of research demonstrates that animals (and
humans) aren't stupid; they are thinking and adapting; they don't
learn just any useless pairing of two stimuli together, but where it is
very useful, one-trial learning can occur. The classically conditioned
stimuli (tone) must truly predict the unconditioned stimuli (food), thus
helping the animal be forewarned and to adapt, before the animal will
learn the connection. Similarly, the reinforcement must truly be
contingent on the behavior before operant learning occurs. The
learner--animal or human--is involved in a complex cognitive process
of calculating the relationships between stimuli in the environment and
behavioral reactions. The organism is figuring out what is going on--
what causes what or what leads to what (called cognitive maps)--and
then acts to get the reinforcer (reward).
Note: do not assume that our thoughts affecting what we learn are
always correct and just. There is impressive evidence (see The Class
Divided on PBS or Zimbardo's film about the Prison Experiment) that
humans have a remarkable propensity to quickly learn to be
prejudiced and mean towards people who are seen as different. Some
of the easy things to learn are very wrong. Degrading others,
however, can be self-serving (rewarding). So, different parts of our
brain have to check the rationality of other parts.
As Tolman insisted 50 years ago, the organism's purposes and
expectations seem to be important (although not always
commendable). One related issue is why avoidance conditioning
doesn't extinguish. Consider this example: suppose a dog has learned
to jump out of a shock box at the sound of a tone to avoid the shock.
But now the shock is turned off. After many, many jumps to the tone
without receiving any shock (this is an extinction procedure--the dog
gets no punishment), the animal should stop jumping, but it doesn't.
Why not? Perhaps because the animal expects to avoid shock by
jumping, which happens every time and this, in turn, confirms and
reinforces the expectation. So, the jumping doesn't extinguish even
though, unknown to the animal, there would be no shock. That makes
sense. Similar expectations may be involved in useless human
compulsions, obsessions, and worries (chapter 5). For instance, if you
avoid talking to black men, then, like the dog in a shock box, you will
never learn to interact with and trust black men. In fact, the paranoid
expectations may grow.
The study of cognition (thinking) has become a major part of
psychology in the last 15 years. It is another important, complex part
of life, along side behavior. In this book you will learn about several
cognitive theories and therapies: Social Learning Theory (see next
section), Problem-solving Therapy, Reality Therapy, Cognitive-
Behavioral Therapy, Rational-Emotive Therapy and others.
The early behaviorists also neglected biology and genes (of course
we can't expect them to have known everything discovered in the last
50 years). It has only been in the last 10 years that fascinating
research with identical twins raised apart has shown that talents,
interests, temperament, personality (e.g. altruism, empathy, and
nurturance), habits (smoking, drinking, and eating), physical health,
speech patterns, and even nervous mannerisms are probably genetic
to a considerable extent. We can't alter these influences (although we
can usually over-ride them); we certainly shouldn't deny them.
Neubauer and Neubauer (1990) describe identical twins raised apart
from birth who were almost identically obsessed with order and
cleanliness. Both had dressed immaculately, arrived exactly on time,
and scrubbed their hands until they were red and raw. When asked
why, one convincingly explained, "Because my mother was a
demanding perfectionist" and the other said with assurance, "because
my mother was a total slob." Our genes work in secret (even more so
now that our grandparents and great-grandparents are often strangers
to us). There is so much we do not know: How do neurons and glial
cells influence each other? How do life experiences change brain
structure? Why are more schizophrenics born in late winter and early
There is also evidence that each species has evolved differently in
terms of how quickly certain things are learned, e.g. rats quickly learn
to fear a rubber hedgehog (a natural enemy), birds instinctively fear
large predator birds, humans tend to fear speaking in front of groups,
etc. Other examples of quick conditioning are given above. Perhaps
one of the most important species differences to realize is that
reinforcements affect rats differently than humans. Most psychology
books go into great detail about how different "schedules of
reinforcement" produce very different behavior. THIS IS BASED ON
RATS AND PIGEONS. In fact, HUMANS don't seem to be very sensitive
to the schedule of reinforcement (variable ratio, fixed interval, etc.).
Psychology textbooks, like early learning theorists, oversimplify things.
Biology seems to have some amazing effects in certain unusual
conditioning situations, such as using drugs (which may help us
understand addiction). Suppose you pair repeatedly a certain stimulus
or S (perhaps a specific environment) with taking heroin. After a while,
the S (being in that situation) will produce physiological reactions
similar to taking heroin, i.e. fast heart rate and feeling high.
Conditioning has occurred. But this conditioned physiological reaction
to the environment gradually starts to change on its own. The same S
(being in the drug-taking situation) starts to produce the opposite
physiological reactions, namely, low heart rate, feeling very down, and
craving more heroin. Why does the CR, conditioned response,
mysteriously change to a physiological reaction totally opposite to the
UCR, the unconditioned response to heroin? The best explanation is
biological: perhaps the body learns to prepare in advance for the
anticipated shock of a drug injection by lowering the heart rate and
making other adjustments which reverse the original conditioned
response. Again, conditioning is not a blind, mechanical pairing
process, it is a very adaptive response of the body for survival (Leahey
& Harris, 1989). We have a fantastic brain...and a wise body. Yet,
some mistakes are made.
Finally, the early behaviorists neglected to pass along valuable
knowledge to the ordinary person. Experimentalists, first of all, tend to
publish in obscure journals, obscure because they cater only to
theorists who are haggling over fine points of a theory that will soon
be replaced by another theory. Secondly, notwithstanding Skinner's
utopian and teaching machine ideas, experimental psychologists seem
to have little interest in informing ordinary people. They say they are
seeking "basic knowledge." Maybe that focus explains why there was a
40 year delay between Watson's work with Little Albert and the use of
a classical procedure called desensitization with fearful clients in
therapy. As we will see, the very limited applied research has been
directed almost exclusively towards helping the professional therapist
(behavior modifier) or human efficiency expert or ad agency or
educational researcher. It was as though the ordinary person was
seen, like the rat or pigeon, as mechanical and unthinking--mindless!
Skinner, although the not-too-excited "father" of behavior
modification, openly expressed serious doubts about self-
reinforcement; yet, he didn't research self-reinforcement or self-help
at all; he apparently believed that individuals and society could only be
changed by ingeniously clever operant conditioners. The point is that
psychology, both the experimentalists and the therapists, has taken
decades to get started trying to "giving psychology away" and still
generally has little apparent interest in doing so. There's not much
money or professional status in it.
Observational learning: Learning by observing others and by using
cognitive processes, including self-help
In spite of centuries of believing that there is a natural tendency
for humans to imitate others, psychologists for most of the 20th
century generally assumed that humans didn't learn from observing
others. Apparently, this idea came from animals who don't learn very
well from observing; animals need to have the experience themselves
and be rewarded to learn. As we've just discussed, humans are
Bandura (1965) and others have demonstrated that we learn from
observing models but we don't necessarily copy them. This is called
observational learning. In an early study, children watched a film of an
adult hitting and kicking a large punching bag type of doll. Some of the
children saw the adult rewarded for the aggressiveness, others saw
the adult punished, and still others saw no rewards or punishment
afterwards. Later, as you might imagine, when placed in a similar
situation as the adult with the doll, the children were more aggressive
themselves if they had seen an adult rewarded for being aggressive. If
they had seen the adult punished, they were less aggressive, even
though they could imitate the adult perfectly. They had learned
behavior by observing and learned to monitor and control their
behavior if it might lead to rewards or punishment. Every parent has
observed this too.
Modeling has also been used as a form of treatment. Children
with a fear of dogs (Bandura, Grusec, and Menlove, 1967) or snakes
(Bandura, Blanchard, and Ritter, 1969) were shown a model who was
not afraid and approached and handled the animal. The children
learned to be less afraid. Although observing an effective model in a
film is helpful, seeing a live model works better. Even more effective is
watching a live model first and then participating by approaching and
safely handling the feared animal yourself.
This area of research is called Social Learning Theory because it
involves people learning from each other or modeling. Humans can
learn what behavior leads to what outcomes by directly or vicariously
(indirectly on TV or from books) observing others, they don't have to
experience the situation themselves or be rewarded for the new
behavior. In this theory, reinforcement does not strengthen learning;
it is simply a payoff that motivates us to perform the behavior that
leads to the reward.
The observational learner uses his/her head and thinks. He/she
must attend to the model, remember what the model did, see the
usefulness of the model's behavior, and be able to duplicate the
behavior (after some practice). This kind of learning, along with
classical and operant, is also involved in many things we do. We learn
how to socialize, to do a job, to intimidate by yelling...from others.
Every one of us can readily see the influence of our parents' model on
our habits, preferences, attitudes, and patterns of thought. In several
places in this book, the powerful influence of friends will be mentioned.
Schools, TV, entertainment stars, religion, and other sources provide
other models. In complex ways these models help us decide how to
behave and what kind of person we want to be.
Observational learning involves higher order thinking, not just
thoughtless imitating. The person becomes a controlling factor; we
make decisions that direct our lives; our mind is an active "agent"
involved in learning and changing ourselves and our environment.
Cognition and the modern evolution of self-control
In the 1970's much of psychology returned to the study of the
mind. Cognitive psychology studied memory, information processing,
decision-making, etc. Attribution theory described how thoughts
(about what caused what) could influence behavior, and Rational-
Emotive therapists said thoughts (irrational ideas) produced emotions.
Academic researchers studied reasoning, judgment, the purposes of
excuses or rationalizations, etc. Even behavioral therapists started
teaching their clients to be assertive and to give themselves
instructions. The list could go on, but psychology was again thinking
Bandura (1977; 1980b; 1986) came to believe that human
behavior is largely self-regulated. He concluded that we evaluate our
own behavior; the satisfaction felt when we do well is intrinsic
reinforcement. He assumed that self-rewarded behavior was just as
well learned as externally reinforced behavior, maybe better. Bandura
has also researched extensively the concept of self-efficacy which is
one's beliefs about his/her ability or inability to control one's own
behavior, based on personal accomplishments or failures. Clearly,
Social Learning Theory involves antecedents (environment),
consequences (motivating pay offs), and complicated cognitive
Many other psychological theory-developers have studied self-
control recently. Mischel (1981) and his students researched the
"delay of gratification" which is when we work or wait for a big payoff
instead of taking smaller immediate rewards. They studied how a child
avoids temptations, including having distracting-but-fun thoughts
while waiting, developing a "plan" for the payoff, and making use of
self-instructions. Kanfer ( Kanfer & Karoly, 1982) and his students
have conjectured a three-stage model of behavioral self-control: self-
observation, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. These theories
have evolved to be more and more cognitive.
While focusing on the mind, naturally some psychologists re-
considered the old self-help concepts of volition, will-power, self-
control and so on. A few self-help books described self-behavior
modification. Several books focused on stress management and
handling fears. Other books dealt with assertiveness, gaining insight,
and other specific skills. But no book covered all the problems of the
students in a class; therefore, there is no usable, highly applied
textbook and only a few personally useful self-help classes for high
school or college students. Consequently, self-help techniques have
not been well researched in the classroom. Moreover, self-help
teaching and research is too time consuming for most publish-or-
perish academics. In addition to developing the classroom instruction,
the self-help instructor needs several trained assistants working with
small groups of five to seven students. This psycho-educational
approach is much too complex and too time consuming for most
graduate students doing theses and dissertations. As mentioned in
chapter 1, there are several barriers to progress, including a lack of
competent teacher-researchers in this area, a negative attitude
towards teaching ordinary students, a problem measuring and
describing the unobservable mental events and the outcome of self-
help efforts, and, thus far, a lack of easily researched areas of
specialization (analogous to self-efficacy or locus of control).
In spite of this lack of self-help research, by the early 1980's,
therapists and researchers believed that 60% of the effects of therapy
were attributable to the client's efforts and only 40% to the therapist
and the therapy methods. Therefore, this group expected self-help to
grow more than any other development in the field (Koroly, 1982). It
hasn't happened, yet. We have several popularized, highly specialized
books, but not much sound self-help research and no general
introductory self-help textbooks. Hopefully, as the task of preparing
the instructional material for a self-help class is reduced (by general
textbooks, instructors' manuals, student work books, guides for group
facilitators, etc.), the systematic research of self-help methods will
Psychologists have focused more attention on the power of
consequences--rewards, punishment, and removing something
unpleasant--to change behavior than any other method. Some
behavior modifiers use only this method; others don't use it at all.
However, it is not known exactly how reinforcement works: (a) do
rewards strengthen the habit (response tendencies in a specific
situation) or (b) do rewards merely give us information, letting us
know which responses result in the pay offs we want? Or, (c) do
rewards act primarily as pay offs for performing a certain action, thus,
motivating us? This has been a controversy for decades. We still don't
know. Perhaps all three processes are involved; that's my guess. Let's
look at some of the complexity.
Behaviorists have a specific definition for a reinforcer: a reinforcer
is anything (like food) that is produced by an operant behavior (like
pressing a bar) which increases the likelihood that the behavior will
occur again in the future. Ordinarily, this is called a payoff or a reward
(I often use reinforcer, payoff, and reward interchangeably), but you
should realize that a reinforcer, on rare occasions, acts differently from
a reward. For example, if your Dad makes a dessert every night but on
one particular night announces that you get dessert that night because
you studied before supper, this "reward" will probably have no effect
on your studying (and, thus, isn't a reinforcer) because it really isn't
meaningfully connected to or contingent on your studying. You get
dessert anyway. Another example: if a teacher criticizes your hand
writing, encouraging you to be more careful, and it results in your
writing more neatly, then these reprimands function like reinforcers for
better writing (or were they punishment for sloppy writing?). Certainly,
rewards don't always work and produce the desired behavior, but, by
definition, reinforcement always increases the strength of the
There are some other problems with the above definition of a
reinforcer. It implies that reinforcers only influence behaviors. But
there is reason to suppose that emotional reactions, thoughts,
attitudes, and physiological processes are also affected by reinforcers.
Also, the above definition may imply that only extrinsic material
rewards (in the environment) are reinforcers, but, as we will see,
simply our belief that others are impressed with us may be rewarding,
and feeling proud or excited may be a reinforcement. Certainly love,
hate, and addictions "increase the likelihood of certain behaviors" but
are they "produced by operant behaviors?" These emotions and needs
precede the behavior and seem to motivate certain behaviors which
will lead to desired pay offs (including feeling better which is negative
reinforcement). Perhaps a need (like hunger) exists before there can
be a reinforcer (food), but the drive or need is not ordinarily
considered part of the reward. Again, the point is that needs,
reinforcements, and rewards are related but somewhat different
It may also surprise you but rewards will, strangely enough,
sometimes reduce the frequency of the preceding behavior, i.e. have
the effects of punishment. Extrinsic rewards are, in some
circumstances, harmful, e.g. rewards (like "pay") may turn fun into
"work," lower our motivation to do the "work," and reduce the amount
of innovativeness or thinking we do about the "work" at hand, thus,
making our behavior more automated and stereotyped. Warnings
about when not to use material rewards are given later in the section
on intrinsic motivation. Other examples of harmful rewards: giving
concrete rewards (money, car use) for good grades results in lower
grades! Threatening and pressuring students to do better is harmful
but giving praise, offering to help, and giving encouragement is helpful
(Brown, 1990). Repeatedly rewarding the student for completing easy
tasks results in the student feeling less able and being less motivated.
Even rewarding excellence with honor rolls and status may be
detrimental if students restrict their interests or avoid hard courses to
keep their GPA high. There are no simple rules that all wise people
know. It is important to know some of the complexities (see Kohn,
1993, for an excellent practical summary).
To further complicate matters, the effectiveness of a reinforcer
(reward), of course, depends on the individual. Listening to loud music
is a great reward for some people; it's punishment for others.
Accumulating a lot of money is critical for some and rather
meaningless for others. Likewise, failure affects us differently. If you
are success-oriented, a failure experience seems to increase your drive
to succeed and you will try again to accomplish the task. If
personality-wise you focus primarily on avoiding failure, a failure is too
punishing and you lose interest in the task; you won't try it again. You
have to find your own reinforcers (see method #16 in chapter 11).
Losers visualize the penalties of failure. Winners visualize the rewards of success.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. This is easy for the
success-oriented, hard for the person trying to avoid failing.
Also, while it seems logical, experimentalists didn't point out until
recently that the effects of a reinforcer depends on the context, i.e. a
reward has much more impact on behavior if it is powerful relative to
the other rewards available in the environment. Likewise, a reinforcer
received in an environment rich with many other wonderful, freely
available rewards, is not going to have much impact on behavior
(remember John?). Thus, the payoff for argumentative-rebellious
behavior could be reduced by increasing the rewards obtained from
completely different behaviors, such as studying, doing the dishes,
getting a job, etc. Perhaps just being in a supportive, reassuring group
would reduce the reinforcement gotten from arguing or fighting.
Likewise, a weak reward in a rich environment can be strengthened by
reducing the free reinforcement available or by making some of the
other reinforcers also contingent on the desired behavior (McDowell,
1982). Example: The satisfaction of cleaning your room may be
overwhelmed by the other pleasures in the room--TV, electronic
games, clothes, friends on the phone, food, etc. Self-helpers need to
consider the context of their self-reinforcement.
Considering all this complexity, some psychologists (Klein and
Mowrer, 1989) advocate giving up the word reinforcer because it is so
unclear. For instance, if presenting food to a very full cat doesn't alter
the cat's behavior, then food isn't a reinforcer in this instance, is it? As
Bandura suggests, maybe a reinforcer is merely an incentive--a
motivator--when the animal is needy. For instance, it is clear that
some solutions to problems can be learned but not used (we may find
the bathroom long before we need it), suggesting that immediate
reinforcement (although, what about the relief of knowing there is one
available?) is not necessary for learning to occur. It has also been
shown that thin people eat when they are hungry; overweight people
eat when food is available and attractive ("The cookies will get stale if
they aren't eaten"). The eating-without-being-hungry reaction at first
looks like an automatic, almost uncontrollable habit response, not a
matter of reinforcement by reducing hunger (but maybe some other
need is reduced).
An example of the motivational aspect of reinforcers is your weekly
pay check. Especially after 20 years, the money isn't a necessary
reinforcement for learning how to do your job. The pay and the threat
of loosing your job are simply motivations; you work, in part, for the
money. On the other hand, while it is common for self-helpers to
reinforce studying by taking restful breaks, calling a friend, having a
coke, taking a walk, etc., it seems unlikely that a person would study
four hours every night just for those minor immediate rewards. Also,
the grade arrives weeks or months after the studying! Hardly an
immediate reinforcer. So, what explains studying? or working for a
promotion? Frankly, psychology doesn't explain this very well. I think
we study, in part, because we repeatedly remind ourselves of the
long-range + and - consequences of studying, and it feels good to be
making progress towards a valued future. The little rewards the self-
helper gives him/herself (the 10 minute break) may make the "work"
a little more pleasant and probably remind us of our long-range goals,
but those goals are usually the powerful motivators.
Early learning theorists thought that being paired very close
together (contiguity) was the key to connecting the CS with the UCS
(in classical) and the response with the reinforcement (in operant).
Recent research has shown that close pairing does not necessarily
result in learning, but rather the CS must predict the UCS and the
operant behavior must truly produce the reinforcement (not just be
followed by a reward). The reinforcement must be contingent on the
operant behavior. Contingency--knowing some behavior leads to
certain pay offs--is the basis for conditioning. The motivated student
must believe that studying leads to better grades and better grades
lead to more success and success leads to more satisfaction and so on.
Naturally with all this controversy about reinforcement today, it is
also questioned whether self-reinforcement will work. Many say it is
the most effective self-help method we have; others totally ignore the
method (Brigham, 1989). Isn't it amazing that we don't know how
much of the effects of a reinforcer is due to receiving the reward itself,
the personal reaction of the person to the rewarder (you or someone
else), the reaction to being in control or controlled, and/or to the
personal satisfaction of being successful and earning a reward? It's all
intermixed. Maybe the confusion explains why people aren't more self-
rewarding in order to produce more desired behavior. We apparently
don't strongly believe in self-reinforcement or we'd be doing it all the
time. Maybe, as Skinner thought, it is punishing to withhold a reward
from ourselves, e.g. if you deprived yourself of an available fantastic
reward--say a Porsche 944--until after completing the desired "target"
behavior (say getting all A's this semester), would the strain of waiting
for the Porsche be so unpleasant that the Porsche wouldn't actually
reinforce studying? It isn't easy to say, is it? And, there is another
question: would most people just cheat (if they could) and
immediately take the car, forgetting about achieving the "target" GPA?
I think most people could rationalize taking that beautiful little car out
of storage for a special occasion or a little vacation. (In which case,
you are reinforcing cheating and rationalizing.) Learning to live by the
rules is a real problem, as we will see next.
Another problem is that researchers studying self-reinforcement in
children have confounded "self-control" (e.g. getting a prize after
doing your school work) with external control (where the teacher sets
up the reward system, including evaluating the work, deciding when
and what prizes are given, etc.). Someone has to plan, execute, and
monitor the system--either the teacher or the student. In most of
these studies of "self-reinforcement," the little kids aren't taught to be
skillful modifiers of their own behavior. So, when the teacher or a
psychologist is running the project, it really isn't a self-directed project
(although the student may physically give him/herself a toy as a
reinforcement). If the children in these studies are not monitored by
the teacher and if they grade themselves and have free access to the
prizes, they tend to lie and cheat, taking the prizes rather freely
(Gross and Wojnilower, 1984). That is no surprise and not a
compelling argument against all self-reinforcement. It does raise
questions but it is still possible that we--as adults and even as
children--can learn to forego goodies and fun for a little while, so we
can make these reinforcers contingent on doing the things that will
improve our lives in the long run. To assume otherwise, i.e. that
humans can't delay gratification and would always cheat to get what
they want now, is a very negative view of the species. And it doesn't
square with the bulk of the data (Mischel, 1981). Many people are
testing the notion that useful knowledge (with or without reinforcers)
enables a person to become self-directed (including you as you read
One more complication is that there are two aspects of self-
reinforcement all mixed together. This is an example: (a) the
satisfaction of sinking long shots while practicing basketball and (b)
giving yourself a coke as a "reward" after doing well in basketball
practice. Do both (a) and (b) actually reinforce accurate shooting? Or
does (b) only reinforce practicing, not accuracy? How do we know?
Secord (1977) says self-rewards and self-praise don't add much
reinforcement beyond the satisfaction of doing well. On the other
hand, the intrinsic satisfaction of making long shots isn't exactly self-
reinforcement (you aren't in total control--you don't make every shot
and you didn't create the thrill). Secord focuses on helping people set
up the conditions (not reinforcement) that increases their chances of
doing what they want to do but haven't been able to do, namely in my
example, make more long shots (see change of environment in
Age also partly determines which approaches you need to use with
children or teenagers. With young children, you can teach parents and
teachers how to modify the child's behavior by rewarding or punishing
it. With teenagers, this manipulation of rewards frequently will not
work because parents can't control much of the teenager's
environment. Besides, teenagers are into self-control, i.e. doing their
own thing, and skillful at resisting control. Therefore, the usual
approach with teenagers is to teach them self-management training--
ways of changing their own environment--so that they and their
parents or teachers are both happy. Often the major task the teenager
needs to learn is which of his/her behaviors will irritate others and
which will eventually be reinforced by others.
Many behaviors produce a variety of consequences. Brigham
(1989) points out that almost all problem behaviors occur when the
complex consequences of an action are both immediate and delayed,
taking immediate pleasures but running into trouble in the long
run (smoking, over-eating, building love relationships with two
people at same time, being so let's-have-a-good-time-oriented
at work that you are fired),
taking immediate small pleasures but loosing out on major
satisfactions later on (spending money impulsively as soon as
you get it rather than saving your money for major, important
purchases later, having a brief affair resulting in loosing a good
long-term relationship, teasing a person to the point that it
becomes a big fight),
avoiding a minor immediate unpleasant situation but risking a
major problem (not going to the doctor to have a irregular,
dark mole checked, avoiding treatment for an emotional or
addiction problem, neglecting to buy condoms or to take the
avoiding a minor immediate unpleasant situation and, thereby,
missing out on an important future event (not studying hard
enough to get into medical or law or graduate school, avoiding
meeting people and not developing social skills that would lead
to an enjoyable social life and wonderful relationships).
Research has shown that animals and humans tend to take the
smaller immediate reward, rather than waiting for a larger delayed pay
off. Consider this example: suppose someone offered you $8
immediately for an hour of work or $10 for the work if you would wait
three days to be paid, which would your take? Most would take the $8
now. But suppose someone offered you $8 for the work in 30 days or
$10 in 33 days, i.e. the same 20% profit in 3 days, which would you
take? The 33 day offer, of course. Maybe immediate, no-wait pay offs
are just more satisfying. Maybe "a bird in the hand is worth two in the
bush." Maybe life teaches us that promises may be broken. In any
case, being aware of the appeal and excessive focus on the immediate
pay offs, can help us cope with these situations. Where the immediate
pleasures need to be decreased (#1 and #2), one should avoid the
situations and develop other incompatible responses, like assuming
more of a responsible leadership role at work instead of playing
around. One needs to keep his/her eyes on the big long-range
consequences (see motivation in chapter 14). Where one needs to
tackle unpleasant immediate tasks (#3 and #4), one should change
the environment or oneself so that the necessary immediate behavior
is well rewarded while at the same time focusing on learning to enjoy
dancing and studying. Again, keep the future in mind so you can avoid
major problems and achieve major goals. When we are fully aware of
all the consequences of our actions, we can have more self-control and
more payoffs in the long run.
Regardless of the outcome of these many debates and questions
about the technical term reinforcement, you can rest assured that the
outcome or consequences of a specific behavior will in some way
influence the occurrence of that behavior in the future. Providing a
material reward isn't always the best thing to do. But, assuring that
genuine satisfaction follows the desired behavior will enhance your
learning and/or your motivation.
As we conclude our discussion of learning, it must be made clear
that (1) learning processes are quite complicated, but there is a great
deal of useful knowledge available to us in this area, (2) theories often
fail to explain or predict real life behavior, and the early theorists
neglected many crucial causes of our behavior, and (3) learning
theories and experimental researchers have seldom developed helpful
treatment or self-help methods. Hundreds of therapy and self-help
procedures already exist; they were mostly invented by suffering
people and creative practitioners. However, research and theories are
important for knowing with greater certainty which methods work, how
well they work, and why. That's why researchers should help much
more in the process of "giving psychology away."
How to Get Motivated
Humans are motivated by many things--psychological needs,
physiological drives, survival, urges, emotions, hurts, impulses, fears,
threats, rewards (money, friendship, status...), possessions, wishes,
intentions, values, mastery, freedom, intrinsic satisfaction, self-
satisfaction, interests, pleasure, dislikes, established habits, goals,
ambitions and so on. All at the same time. In the next major sections
of this chapter we will deal with questions like: Why don't we do what
we want to do? Can we prevent unwanted behaviors, like addictions
and bad habits? Why is our behavior so hard to understand? How can
we stop procrastinating? In this section, however, we will focus on
increasing our drive to achieve our more worthwhile goals, as
discussed in chapter 3.
Changing involves both knowing how (learning) and wanting to
(motivation). It is important to see that learning is different from
performing. A hungry rat in the laboratory will work diligently to
discover how to get food. It learns how and vigorously performs, i.e.
eats until it's stuffed, then it stops. The rat's eating behavior, after the
initial learning, is determined by its hunger needs. We humans are the
same; to grow and develop new behaviors we must learn. But, in
terms of how far we get in life--how much we accomplish--motivation
may be just as important if not more important than learning. We
already know how to lose weight (don't eat) or get A's or give
generously to others. A common barrier to accomplishing many goals
in life is not wanting the goal enough to give it the necessary time and
effort (or conning ourselves into believing we can reach our goal in
some easy way).
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than
unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost
a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is filled with educated derelicts. Persistence and
determination alone are omnipotent.
-Calvin Coolidge, former President of the United States
Edison: genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Atkinson: achievement is 50% ability and 50% drive.
Motivation gets you started, habit keeps you going.
Occasionally, a person will have enormous determination to
achieve something requiring great effort over a period of years. It is
emotionally moving to hear about such a person who has overcome
great obstacles to achieve an impressive goal. Glenn Cunningham was
told as a boy that he would never walk on his badly burned legs; he
became a great miler. How do you get the drive to go to college at age
35, work full-time, care for three children, and graduate with honors?
The same way Rebecca Lee in 1864 became the first black woman
physician: you work to accomplish your dreams. There are many,
many inspiring examples of great achievements. Yet, psychology can't,
as yet, guarantee high drive or prescribe a cure for laziness.
The Importance of Setting Effective Goals
Motivation is trying to reach our goals. But, it isn't just a matter of
setting high, noble goals, as discussed in chapter 3, although that is a
critical step. It is common to wish for higher goals than we are willing
to do the work to attain. We want to be a lawyer but goof off in high
school. Many college students with a 2.7 GPA want to become PhDs.
We want to be a star performer but don't like to practice. Even when
trying to better ourselves we may lack the motivation. For example,
Rosen (1982) found that only half of the people in a self-help program
completed the work. Those who stuck with it got good results
(overcoming their fears). Similar results have been found in toilet
training of children and self-administered treatment for premature
ejaculation. Likewise, Schindler (1979) reported that only 17 of 60
subjects made full use of an assertiveness book. What determines
these vast differences in motivation among us? Why are some of us
fantastic achievers while others take the easy route? We don't know
for sure (but see learned industriousness later), but having explicit
goals and certain attitudes help.
Life goals set our sails and give us a push, e.g. "I want to help
people." People who reach many or most of their life goals are usually
calmer, happier, healthier and less stressed or emotional. However,
there seem to be certain life goals that harm our mental health, e.g. "I
want to have the power to control or impress people." Wanting to be
close to and good to others is associated with better emotional health
(National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1995). Likewise, seeking to
improve your skills ("mastery goals") results in feeling good about
trying hard and in increased effort when an obstacle is met. But
wanting to beat others ("performance goals"), such as having a
winning season in football or being the best student in your math
class, result in avoiding tough challenges, giving up when starting to
lose, feeling more anxious, and less gain in self-esteem than with
mastery goals. This is why enlightened coaches are teaching players to
focus on mastering their basic skills, not on their won-loss record. It is
also easy to see the connection between mastery vs. performance
goals and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation or satisfaction. The
importance of intrinsic satisfaction and the problems with extrinsic
rewards are discussed thoroughly later under "Why behavior is hard to
In any area where we are hoping to self-improve, both short-term
and long-range goals are needed. If your long-term goals clearly
contribute to your most important values and your philosophy of life,
they should be more motivating. Good goals are fairly hard--they
stretch us--but they are achievable taking small steps at a time. As
much as possible, you should explicitly describe your goals in terms of
very specific behaviors. Danish, Petitpas & Hale (1995) provide
examples of specific behaviors in sports psychology:
Physical skills--"I'll do 3 more sit ups and 3 more push ups this
week than I did last week."
Cognitive skills--"I'll develop some self-talk that should reduce
my fears and improve my batting."
Gain knowledge--"I'll learn more about exercising to prevent
my back from hurting."
Courage--"I'll practice batting against a very fast pitcher for
two weeks, then I'll try out for the school team."
Social support--"I'll talk to the coach about batting; I'll make
friends with guys/girls on the team."
Positive objectives are usually more motivating than negative
ones, e.g. "I want to bat over .300" is a better goal than "I'd like to be
less scared of the ball." Certainly, the more appealing goals are
something you want, not something imposed on you. Mastery-oriented
people, realizing success depends on their skills, become more self-
directed, work harder, achieve a higher level of performance, and get
more enjoyment out of the activity. In contrast, according to Murphy
(1995), "performance"-oriented people are more likely to strive for
attention and view beating others as a "life or death" matter (in this
case, failure is interpreted as "I don't have the ability" and interest
This book addresses many different aspects of psychological
motivation. The needs for food, water, air, sleep, shelter, and even sex
are always there but they don't usually dominate our lives. Our social-
psychological needs, instead, dominate most of our lives, such as
attention, companionship, support, love, social image or status,
material things, power and so on. Also, psychological or cognitive
factors, in addition to goals, strongly influence our motivation and
attitudes, such as self-confidence in our ability as a change agent
(self-efficacy and attribution theory). If we see ourselves as able and
in control of our lives, then we are much more likely to truly and
responsibly take control.
Sometimes, however, a person's motivation seems excessive. Our
goals may be out of reach but we still strive mightily for the goal (as in
the movie Rudy). Exceedingly able people are occasionally extremely
demanding and self-critical of themselves. Between 1987 and 1990,
Steffi Graf was ranked the #1 tennis player in the world; she won 97%
of her matches. Yet, she was unhappy with her performance 97% of
the time. She was so self-demanding that during practice she
frequently had an outburst of self-criticism and broke down in tears.
Surely intense motivation and excessive anxiety can sometimes be
To be effective our motivation has to be focused on important
tasks. As Covey (1989) cogently illustrates, most of us spend a lot of
time doing things that seem urgent at the moment but are really not
important in terms of our major mission in life. Also, we waste quite a
bit of our life doing things that are unimportant and not urgent, such
as reading trash novels, watching mindless TV, etc. So, assuming we
do what we are motivated to do, then our motivations are frequently
misguided. Covey also emphasizes that our efficiency could be greatly
increased if we spent more time doing things that are often not seen
as urgent but truly are important, e.g. clarifying the major purpose of
our life, developing relationships that facilitate efficiency, growth, and
meaningfulness, planning and preparing for important upcoming tasks,
reading, exercising, resting, etc. He tells a story about a traveler who
comes upon a hard working person sawing down a tree and asks,
"How long have you been sawing on this tree?" The tired, sweaty
worker said, "A long time, seems like hours." So, the traveler asked,
"Why don't you sharpen your saw?" The reply was "I'm too busy
sawing!" A lot of us are sawing with a saw that needs sharpened. We
need to know a lot more about the processes of motivation and self-
Challenging-but-achievable goals are themselves motivating. On
the other hand, easy-to-reach goals are boring and/or demeaning.
Impossible goals are frustrating (and there are lots of impossible
goals, in contrast with the "if you can dream it, you can achieve it"
nonsense). Since challenging but realistic goals require us to stretch
and grow, they must constantly be changed to match the conditions
and our ability. We are most motivated when we feel capable,
responsible, self-directed, respected, and hopeful.
Theories About the Need for Achievement
The desires to succeed and to excel are called achievement needs.
Achievement motivation is basic to a good life. Achievers, as a whole,
enjoy life and feel in control. Being motivated keeps us productive and
gives us self-respect. Where and how achievement needs are learned
are complex, intriguing, and important questions. David McClelland, et
al. (1953) and John Atkinson (1981) have contributed greatly to this
area of study. They began by developing a measure of the need to
achieve. Using the TAT, a test which asks you to make up stories
about pictures, they found that persons with high achievement needs
can be identified by the stories they tell, namely, more stories about
striving for excellence, overcoming obstacles, or accomplishing some
difficult goal. Other researchers (Jackson, Ahmed, and Heapy, 1973)
suggested that achievement needs are made up of several factors:
1. Wanting approval from experts
2. Wanting to make money
3. Wanting to succeed on our own
4. Wanting respect from friends
5. Wanting to compete and win
6. Wanting to work hard and excel
Thus, one high achiever might strive primarily to make money
while another person, equal in overall need to achieve, would
concentrate on gaining respect and status from friends, and so on,
depending on our past experience.
How do we learn to have a high or low need for achievement? It
comes partly from our childhood. Although the conclusions are not
certain, Weiner (1980, p. 216-218) says a high achieving male tends
to have rejecting parents who expect him to become independent
early, make high demands on him, reward his success, and/or punish
unsatisfactory behavior (which increases the fear of failure). Rather
surprisingly, both loving-accepting (undemanding?) and dominant
(overcontrolling?) fathers tend to have less ambitious sons. However,
sons of managers and owners have much higher needs to achieve than
sons of fathers with routine jobs (Byrne & Kelley, 1981).
Notice in the last paragraph I was talking only about males. What
about females? The research in this area for many years found very
different results with each sex, so researchers avoided achievement
studies with women. More recently this has changed and serious
concern has been given to the impact of socially defined sex-roles on
behavior. For instance, children's books were found to describe boys
as active, effective, and achieving, while girls were described as
watching the boys, being a boy's helper, or just tagging along
(Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, & Ross, 1972). Furthermore, an
experiment showed that sexist stories actually had immediate impact
on the behavior of nursery school children. Girls were more active and
persistent in their work if they had heard stories picturing girls that
way (McArthur & Eisen, 1976). This is just one minor example. Our
needs and goals and self-concepts come from thousands, maybe
millions, of experiences. We'll study sex-roles more in chapter 9.
What are the family backgrounds of females with high needs to
achieve? They tend to have nontraditional, permissive parents who
reward their achievements. The mother plays a crucial role, as does
the father for males. Tenth grade girls who feel most competent (this
is related to high career goals but not exactly the same as high
achievement needs) had mothers who placed high value on their being
independent, successful, and ambitious but low value on self-control
and being responsible (Baruch, 1976). More research is needed here.
There seems to be a fine line between a parent being very encouraging
and being overly dominant. Being over-protective is clearly harmful
(see chapter 9).
In contrast with the research just cited about what an achiever's
parents are actually like, achievement specialists recommend having a
somewhat different kind of parent. Johnson (1984) says achievers are
produced by parents who let them go on their own, let them set their
own goals, and make their own mistakes. These parents encourage
high but appropriate goals, respect the child's abilities, take and show
great pleasure from the child's successes, and give lots of praise. They
let the child try hard on their own before giving suggestions or help,
but they give help before the child gives up. They don't do the task for
the child nor insist that it be done "my way."
In general, educators believe that high achievers have respectful,
praising, optimistic, supportive, hard working parents who are
themselves learning and success oriented. These parents expect each
person in the household to do their share of the chores and to follow
reasonable rules. They talk with each other about their work and
For your purposes, these childhood experiences or the lack of them
may be of interest but they occurred in the past and, therefore, are
unchangeable (although we might change our reaction to our past).
What can you do now that enables us to be highly motivated? How can
you be so intent on reaching a distant goal that nothing gets in the
To accomplish great things, we must not only act but also dream, not only plan but
Atkinson (1957; 1981) suggested it is much more complicated
than just a single need making us do something, although that's part
of it. Borrowing a lot from learning theory, he says three factors
A large number of competing motives or needs are striving for
expression at the same time, such as the need for achievement, the
need for close relationships, the need for power, and the need to be
cared for by others. Besides the conflict among many motives, the
theory assumes there is a conflict between the hope of success and
the fear of failure, i.e. an approach-avoidance conflict over each goal.
The fear of failure can keep us from trying in school, just as the fear of
rejection can keep us from getting emotionally involved with someone.
The strength of the approach and avoidance tendencies is
determined by the relative strength of the needs to achieve and the
needs to avoid failure (or success), plus the next two factors.
What we expect to happen if we follow a certain course of action.
We observe the situation and, based on our past experience, estimate
the likelihood of success and the chances of something bad happening,
depending on what we do. Having some hope is necessary, but it is
not a simple situation. As discussed in attribution theory later, a highly
motivated achiever may utilize complex optimistic or pessimistic
cognitive strategies (Cantor, 1990). For example, an optimistic, high
achieving student may seek out friends who value and reinforce
his/her successes in school, he/she frequently re-lives in fantasy
his/her past accomplishments and dreams of the future, and he/she
may relax with friends before an exam. This is called "illusory glow"
optimism because such a person nurtures and protects his/her self-
esteem and confidence. They expect to do very well, they work very
hard, they enjoy their successes, and, if they should fail, they
automatically and immediately apply an "I couldn't help it" defense of
the ego (and optimistically take on the next challenge).
On the other hand, Cantor describes the high achieving
"defensive pessimist" as defending his/her self-esteem before the
test, not afterwards. Such a student expects to do poorly or, at least,
anticipates a variety of possible stumbling blocks. He/she works very
hard, preparing especially well for the anticipated difficulties. He/she
uses the high test anxiety and stress as motivators, not as something
to avoid, and then takes an "I expected it" attitude towards the rare
failure that does occur (and with anxious excitement systematically
attacks the next challenge). This strategy is very different from the
pessimistic student who "bad mouths" him/herself after a failure: "I'm
such an idiot," "I'm so lazy," etc. Such a pessimist is likely to gradually
lower his/her expectations and goals, and perform more and more
poorly until eventually becoming a total pessimist who has no hope,
expects to fail and, therefore, doesn't try.
Both the "illusory glow" optimist and the "defensive" pessimist are
challenged by hard tasks; achieving is important, gratifying, and
absorbing for them; they see themselves as having considerable
control over the situation and stick with the task, even though it is
hard and occasionally disappointing. Compare these achievers with the
underachievers described later.
The incentive we feel depends on how attractive the possible
outcomes are to us personally (relative to how unattractive the
possible risks are to us). Each major task, such as becoming a winning
tennis player, learning to play an instrument, completing high school
math through Advanced Calculus, asking a really appealing person for
a date, getting a BA with honors, going to medical school, or raising
two children, provides a enormous range of possible payoffs, some
more appealing to us than others. The more likely we feel we are to
succeed in #2, and the more appealing, important, the-right-thing-to-
do, exciting, or wonderful the eventual goal, the more drive and
enthusiasm we have about the activity.
How motivated we are depends on (1) the strength of fairly
consistent motives or needs inside of us, (2) our expectation of what
outcomes certain actions will produce, and (3) how badly at this time
we want a certain payoff over all the other wants we have and over
the risks we face. The needs, expectations, and incentives are mostly
learned; together these factors (our motivation) largely determine
what we do and how far we get in life. Although the past experiences
related to these factors are unalterable, these factors that influence
our lives so enormously can be changed by us. That's the beauty of
being human. What does the theory about achievement needs tell us
about self-help? Let's consider John, the procrastinator, again.
Parents and teachers train children to be independent and
achievers (Winterbottom, 1958) and to fear failure (Teevan & McGhee,
1972). Being rewarded for striving increases our achievement motive;
being punished for unsatisfactory behavior--and having our successes
disregarded--leads to a fear of failure. To the extent we are self-
reinforcing, we could presumably increase our achievement motivation
by emphasizing our successes and simply using our failures as cues for
us to try harder.
There have been several successful attempts to train people to
have higher achievement needs (Burris, 1958; McClelland & Winter,
1969). People were taught to have frequent fantasies of achieving,
observe models of successful people like themselves, play games or
role-play situations involving taking risks and being a successful
competitor. These researchers concluded that they were teaching self-
confidence and that "knowledge gives confidence." You could train
yourself in the same ways; schools--and this book--should increase
your expectation of success by teaching you skills (chapter. 13), self-
control, reasonable attitudes (chapter 14), and self-awareness
A high need to achieve is correlated with higher grades (Schultz &
Pomerantz, 1974); however, Raynor (1981) has shown it isn't a simple
relationship. Considering getting B's or higher as important for future
plans and for self-respect was related to grades in school for boys.
Raynor also found that students in the high-needs-to-achieve-and-low-
test-anxiety group did well on the important (to them), relevant
courses but not as well on less relevant courses. Students with low-
achievement-needs-and-high-test-anxiety did about the same as the
above group on less relevant courses but much worse on important
courses. The points seem to be: (a) your need to achieve and self-
confidence won't do you much good unless you convince yourself that
school is relevant to your future and your self-esteem, and (b) a fear
of failure produces failure in the more important courses. The next
chapter tells you how to reduce fears.
Johnson (1984) summarizes what you can do to keep on striving
for your special goals: (a) break your major goals into manageable
daily tasks and set aside the time, (b) take pleasure from the work
and reward your progress, (c) remember your past successes and
imagine how good you will feel when you accomplish your goal, (d)
also imagine how bad it will feel to give up or mess up, (e) use
competition, especially trying to improve on your best effort thus far,
to arouse interest, and (f) seek encouragement and find "heroes" to
Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was
One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.
Greissman (1987) interviewed over 60 highly successful people
and found they had several things in common. They (a) love their
work, (b) become highly competent in a specialty, (c) commit
themselves to their work, giving it their time--their life, (d) meet most
of their needs through their work, (e) long for recognition and self-
fulfillment, (f) focus on and "flow" with their work--loosing themselves
in it, and (g) quickly see and use new ideas and opportunities at work.
They pay a price for success, such as few friends, little partying, little
travel, and even isolation from their family, but they have few regrets.
Talent matters, but devotion determines the winner most of the time.
No one can tell you exactly how to become so devoted...or even if it is
a good idea.
Attribution Theory and Achievement
Another related theory to help us understand behavior and
motivation, like John's procrastination, is attribution theory. In the
18th century, Hume (1739) argued that assuming there are causes for
everything that happens is an inherent part of observing the world,
because it makes the world more meaningful. Humans want to know.
For instance, if someone bumps into you, you wonder why. You may
assume he/she is aggressive, clumsy, flirting, that you are in the way,
etc. Obviously, what you assume is the cause of the bumping makes a
big difference. Likewise, John might ask himself, "Why do I put off
studying?" And answer, "because I am dumb" or "because it is boring."
He attributes his procrastination to his slowness or to the dullness of
the reading. These kinds of assumptions about causes (we seldom
know for sure the real causes) will certainly influence how we behave
and how we feel.
Heider (1958) was one of the first modern psychologists to write
about how the ordinary person thinks about causality--what causes
what, or what is attributed to what. Since 1960, hundreds of studies
have contributed to understanding why some are highly motivated to
achieve and others are not. According to attribution theory (Weiner,
1980), a high achiever will:
Approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding because
he/she believes success is due to high ability and effort which
he/she is confident of. Failure is thought to be caused by bad
luck or a poor exam, i.e. not his/her fault. Thus, failure doesn't
hurt his/her self-esteem but success builds pride and
Persist when the work gets hard rather than giving up because
failure is assumed to be caused by a lack of effort which he/she
can change by trying harder.
Select challenges of moderate difficulty (50% success rate)
because the feedback from those tasks tells you more about
how well you are doing, rather than very difficult or very easy
tasks which tell you little about your ability or effectiveness.
Work with a lot of energy because the results are believed to be
determined by how hard you try.
The unmotivated person will:
Avoid success-related chores because he/she tends to (a) doubt
his/her ability and/or (b) assume success is related to luck or to
"who you know" or to other factors out of his/her control. Thus,
even when successful, it isn't as rewarding to the unmotivated
person because he/she doesn't feel responsible, it doesn't
increase his/her pride and confidence.
Quit when having difficulty because he/she believes failure is
caused by a lack of ability which he/she can't do anything
Choose easy or very hard tasks to work on because the results
will tell him/her very little about how poorly (presumably)
he/she is doing.
Work with little drive or enthusiasm because the outcome isn't
thought to be related to effort.
Obviously, our beliefs about what causes and influences our
behavior have a marked impact on our expectations and, thus, our
motivation. In chapter 6, we will read about "learned helplessness"
which, of course, is associated with little motivation. In chapter 14, we
will also learn much more about many cognitive factors that affect our
behavior and emotions. Therefore, one way to change our motivation
is to change our beliefs--our attributions. For example, we could teach
(and prove to) unmotivated, underachieving, and depressed people
that they can control life-events by exerting more effort. There have
been demonstrations that intentionally "trying harder," say on every
other day, actually results in more behavioral changes, but it is hard
for some people to exert extra effort. The next section is a case in
The Motivated Underachiever
Harvey Mandel and Sander Marcus (1988, 1995) have an
interesting view of the "unmotivated" student. They say an
underachiever with an "academic problem" is not unmotivated, but in
fact is highly motivated to do poorly and get mediocre grades! Why?
Because they want to avoid success! Why and how would anyone
choose to blow off school work which is clearly connected with what
one does for a lifetime? Because they are afraid of achievement and
want to avoid responsibility. The underachiever unconsciously utilizes
excuses to explain why he/she is doing poorly and why it isn't his/her
fault. They say, "The exam didn't cover what the teacher said it would"
or "everybody did bad" or "my parents had all kinds of things planned
for me the night before the exam." The trouble is they believe they
want to succeed and they believe their own excuses. The authors call
this self-deception "the crap gap." The underachievers also believe
that the situation is beyond their control, that they are innocent
victims of circumstances. They aren't uncomfortable enough to fight
their way out of the gloomy situation they are in.
Since the underachiever is afraid of achieving, the usual efforts of
parents and teachers--e.g. offering rewards, threatening punishment,
and being assigned a terrific teacher--are ineffective because these
methods don't deal with the self-deception and the fears. These
underachievers don't want to look honestly and carefully at
themselves, their motives, their values, or their future. Why not?
Because being successful and realizing that one has the ability to make
"A's," take out the garbage on time, change the oil, pay one's own
expenses, choose a career, work full-time, etc., means the person is
ready and able to "be on his/her own," to be responsible, to be
independent, and to keep on taking care of him/herself for the rest of
his/her life. On the other hand, being unable to manage your life
(without it being your fault) keeps others from expecting you to be
mature and capable. Growing up is scary and some, like Peter Pan,
don't want to do it (on a conscious and/or unconscious level).
Since this kind of underachiever is not aware of this self-deception,
it may be hard for him/her to help him/herself. So, let's see how,
according to Mandel and Marcus (1988), a therapist would close the
"crap gap," the difference between what the student thinks he/she
wants ("good grades") and his/her actual behavior (mostly avoidance
of all responsible behavior through the use of excuses). The critical
first step is to simply ask the student how well he/she would like to do
in school. Get them to state a specific goal, e.g. a "B" average.
Second, the therapist, assuming the role of helper, would find out
everything about course requirements and exactly how the student
prepares to meet the requirements. Third, ask the student what is the
problem in one of his/her courses (actually this usually solicits an
excuse). Then get all the facts, e.g. if he/she says, "I study about an
hour a day but it doesn't do me much good," the therapist will find out
exactly how much and how effectively the student studied yesterday
(maybe 10 minutes because TV was on).
Fourth, make sure the student realizes the connection between
studying and his/her grade two months later: "What will happen if you
continue to only study 10 minutes a day on math?" "I'll probably get
another D." Fifth, the therapist asks the student for some solution for
this particular problem or excuse. A detailed plan, including how to
handle barriers, is worked out by the student, e.g. "I'll put in a full
hour every night." Sixth, make sure the student knows exactly what
he/she proposes to do before the next therapy session. This is done
knowing that the student will probably not follow his/her plan--he/she
hasn't done what they intended to do before, so why now? The
therapist's goal, at this point, is "excuse-busting," i.e. to merely to
reduce the "crap gap" by getting the student's views of the situation
("I will study one hour without TV") closer to his/her actual behavior
(10 minutes again), to recognize his/her use of excuses, and,
eventually, to see his/her role in causing the underachievement.
Seventh, find out if the plan was actually followed. Usually, as
expected by the therapist, the student avoids the plan or does poorly
for some other reason. Almost always he/she gives the therapist
another excuse, e.g. "I forgot my books," "I studied the wrong stuff,"
or "I tried to study for an hour but friends kept calling," because to
stick with the old excuse (TV was on) is admitting that he/she really
wants to do poorly (the student is strongly motivated to not recognize
this fact). Eighth, excuse after excuse is eliminated by going through
steps 3 to 7 with each excuse for not reaching each goal. Gradually,
the student begins to see his/her self-conning use of excuses, that
he/she is responsible for his/her behavior (and the resulting grades),
that he/she has some power to control his/her life. Lastly, as the
excuses are striped away and insight gained into procrastination and
avoidance of responsibility, the student will want to openly discuss
his/her fears, what does he/she really want in life, and how does
he/she get there from here. Therapy now becomes a very different
process, more nondirective, because the student is responsible,
introspective, self-directed, far more emotional and alive but ready to
face life as an independent individual, even if scared.
Hopefully, some people will be able without therapy to see that
they are lying to themselves by the use of excuses. Then by
consciously taking control of their lives (stopping the self-conning),
they can help themselves. Others will not be able to see why they are
underachievers but they will realize they are not performing up to
capacity; they should seek professional help.
Besides the "academic problem" type (about 50% of all
underachievers), Mandel and Marcus, especially in their 1995 book
written for parents, describe several other kinds of underachievers,
usually related to moderately serious psychopathology requiring
professional treatment, such as Anxiety Disorder, Sociopathic Disorder
(lack of conscience, manipulative), Identity Disorder (confusion about
life goals), and Defiant Disorder. Other writers have described the
academic indifference of some people as being due to cultural
differences, e.g. if you assume that only white middle-and-upper-class
students care about getting good grades, and if you aren't in that
social-economic group or hate that type of person, then it becomes
difficult to take school seriously. Kohl (1995) writes about students
who become offended or resentful and say, "I won't learn from you."
There may be many ways to be unmotivated. In any case, a wasted
mind is a terrible loss to society, but it is even more serious for your
own life when it is your mind that is wasted. Do something!
The social-cognitive approach: As a student, are you learning or
According to Dweck (1986) and other researchers, there are two
basic types of students: (a) learning oriented --those wanting to
learn and gain competence and (b) image oriented --those wanting
to look smart and/or avoid looking dumb. We all want to build our self-
esteem but we try to do it in different ways. While over-simplified,
there are clusters of findings crudely associated with these two types.
Understanding these types may help the schools help students and
each student self-help.
Learning oriented students see intelligence as changeable ("I can
learn to learn this stuff" or "I can get smarter"). They enjoy learning,
often fascinated with special topics, such as dinosaurs, geography,
some phase of history, politics, women's rights, pollution, nutrition,
etc. They see low grades as due to a lack of effort or a poor strategy,
which they can change. Pride is based on amount of effort they put in,
not on looking smart. They work hard. Being unchallenged is boring
and offers no chance to test or prove themselves. Thus, even if they
don't feel they are real bright, they will take on tough, challenging
intellectual tasks, risking failing on an assignment. More boys take this
attitude than girls.
Image oriented students see intelligence as permanently fixed.
They consider it very important that others see them as smart or, at
least, not stupid or naive. Since doing well is assumed to be due to
brains and not effort, there isn't much need to work hard. In fact, if a
person has to work hard to learn something, that suggests they aren't
very smart. And, if you do poorly, there isn't anything you can do
about it. You were born that way. Naturally, such a person would avoid
difficult challenges if doing poorly seemed likely (especially true of
bright girls or women). They tend to be less curious, less interested in
new ideas and in learning about themselves. Their pride is based on
good impression management, not on honest, careful estimates of
their ability. They avoid testing their limits. Thus, the student's level of
confidence is shaky--one low quiz score, one criticism of them, one
foolish statement by them raises their own doubts about their
intelligence. Even high achievers fall into this trap; their worry about
their image reduces the intrinsic satisfaction they get out of learning.
Schools have recently attempted to build students' self-esteem,
sacrificing perhaps the acquisition of knowledge. Three popular
principles guide many teachers: give lots of positive reinforcement,
expect students to do well (self-fulfilling prophesy), and build the
students' self-esteem. All sound commendable. All may be harmful in
certain circumstances. Examples: Expecting and rewarding success on
easy assignments does not encourage a student to tackle hard tasks.
Being "successful" on easy tasks doesn't build self-confidence, it
makes students feel dumber. Children know their limits aren't being
tested. Students are being misled if they are subtly taught that it is
easy to succeed as a student. That's a lie. It's deceptive because you
haven't been encouraged to dig deeply into topics, to feel the delight
of uncovering fascinating new knowledge until you know more about a
topic than anyone else, to realize the depth and complexity and
wonder associated with almost any subject, to interact with others who
know more and are also excited about learning in many areas, etc.
The greater the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.
Becoming motivated to study
A recent study by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi indicates that to become
motivated to learn in school, (a) you must learn to genuinely enjoy
reading and studying and using the information (usually telling others
about it), (b) you must be given support and challenge at home and
school so that you willingly take on tough assignments, realizing that
you will occasionally not do well or not get done, (c) you must feel
competent and be taught or tell yourself that doing poorly on an
assignment or a test basically means that you need to work harder or
take a different approach or both, and (d) you must, in most cases,
believe the information learned is worthwhile (at least for passing the
So, if you were an undisciplined person, like John, how could you
become motivated to study and gain self-confidence?
Learn "I am responsible"--that the more you study, the more
you learn and the better your grades are. Thus, you begin to
feel more responsible for what you get out of school. How
exactly can you do this? (a) Keep records of how much you
study and compare your grades when you have studied a lot
with times when you study very little. (b) Prove to yourself that
you are in control of your grades, no one else, not the teacher,
not the exam, not luck.
Learn "I can be in control"--that you are capable of directing
your life. How? (a) Schedule more study time and reward your
promptness and increased effort. (b) Carefully measure the
greater efficiency you achieve, e.g. how much more of the last
few paragraphs do you remember when studying intensely (see
SQRRR method in chapter 13)? (c) Remember: doing poorly
simply means you should try harder. Take pride in your self-
Learn "I have ability"--that you have more ability than you
previously thought. How? (a) Have more success by developing
skills, like reading and test taking skills. (b) Get more
information about your ability, such as aptitude test results or a
respected person's honest opinion. (c) Increase your feelings of
Learn "I value learning"--that you can value studying and
success in school more. How? (a) Write down all the benefits of
doing well in school. (b) Remind yourself that each successful
step in school means three things--you are earning a chance to
continue, you have what it takes to succeed, and you have
done something worthwhile. (c) Make use of what you learn,
e.g. tell others, interact with others who can add to your
knowledge, apply the knowledge in other classes or at work,
Learn "I may deceive myself"--that you, like others, are
capable of remarkable self-deceiving and self-defeating thought
processes which interfere with many important activities in your
life, ranging from doing your best in school to trying out for the
track team or asking the smartest person in school for a date.
How? (a) Observe your attributions, especially your excuses,
and double check their accuracy. (b) Overcome your fears
(chapter 5) by doing whatever scares you (if it is safe)! (c)
Attend closely to your self-concept, including self-efficacy and
attitudes about changing, and find the best views for you (see
You need to realize that change is possible before you can change.
In recent years, a procedure called attribution retraining has been
successful in increasing peoples' motivation to do better in school and
other settings. In most cases, the experimenter persuaded the
subjects that their failure at a task (e.g. grades) was due to a lack of
adequate effort. Not surprisingly, later the subjects tried harder and
did better. In other studies, seniors told freshmen about their grades
improving markedly or a professor described almost flunking out as a
freshman, but, with help of a friend, he started to take his studies
seriously, eventually excelling in graduate school. By implication or
explicitly, these success stories tell us that we too can change and that
good grades result from hard work and persistence day by day, not
just before exams and during the last week of the semester.
Furthermore, the more effort you put in, the more you learn; the more
you learn, the more able you are to do well.
Actually, some researchers have reported that the above success
stories improved exam scores a week later and even GPA and
Graduate Record Exam scores months later. Improvement was greater
in students who believed they had little control over their lives (see I-E
Scale in chapter 8). However, if students can improve their grades
after a couple of effort-improves-grades stories, then why don't the
hundreds of you-can-change-your-life stories told by friends and
parents or on TV or in the movies, have the same effect on all of us?
One possibility is that our belief in our own self-control is very
situation specific, i.e. the success story of an average-turned-super
insurance salesperson would probably not inspire a high school
freshman to study harder.
Studies of female valedictorians and other academically gifted
women often find that they "drop out" of college or graduate school. At
the very least, almost every very bright woman finds it necessary to
frequently deny or hide her intelligence. Men and women find highly
able women threatening. You may think sexism is in the past, but
being superior is especially hard for women. Walker & Mehr (1993)
provide help for gifted women who want to achieve their potential.
Recent research suggests we can learn to be hard, persistent
workers. Those of us who have been rewarded, often starting in
childhood, for making strong efforts to achieve our own or assigned
goals tend to develop a "work ethic" and a "moral ethic." Likewise,
training in persisting or waiting for a worthwhile reward or
achievement can help us develop better self-control involving handling
delays. So, just as there is "learned helplessness," there is "learned
There is a "law of least effort:" we all try to get things (a pay off)
the easiest way we can. That's smart and different from being lazy.
Some of us take on hard challenges, others don't. You can also see an
enormous range in the amount of effort people will expend to achieve
a given goal. Of course, the value of a goal differs from person to
person, but some people simply work much harder and longer than
others. Why? Perhaps, according to Eisenberger (1992), because some
have a long history of exerting intense effort and then being praised
and well reinforced. In effect, some have been given "effort training"
to be industrious, others haven't. One theory is that this training is
effective because being repeatedly rewarded following long, hard
efforts makes hard work in any situation seem less offensive, less
aversive, less awful. Eisenberger has also shown that self-talk ("When
I try hard, I do well on all my school work" and "when I don't, I don't")
further enhances this "effort training." Both high effort and attention to
tedious detail, if reinforced, become less unpleasant and less avoided.
Thus, reasonable and challenging-but-demanding work or study
experiences may produce harder working employees or more
Eisenberger suggests another law, the "law of more effort:" if hard
work has paid off for you in the past in many different ways, your
effort and self-control will increase more, as compared to individuals
who have worked less hard, as the stakes get higher. Likewise, a boss,
teacher, or parent who has positively encouraged and reinforced your
high performance and hard efforts in the past will provide more
motivation to you than a person who is or has been more permissive.
Unfortunately, while "effort training" seems simple at first, a little
thought makes you realize that the actual work conditions as well as
your attitudes and personality traits are all involved in determining if
your hard work is viewed as yielding rewards or punishment. If hard
work is seen as stupid and/or obnoxious, then one may develop
"learned laziness." Also, our willingness to work hard, regardless of our
past experience, is, in part, a function of our needs and the nature of
the work, e.g. mental or physical, clean or dirty, cooperative or
competitive, social or isolated, all of which may reflect one's
reinforcement history (Eisenberger, Kuhlman & Cotterell, 1992). Most
important aspects of life are complex.
Another fascinating feature of this program of research is the
moral consequences of "effort training." Children required to do hard
math problems first, cheated less on a later anagram test than
students given easy math problems first. We need to know more about
the relationship between industriousness and honesty, caring, and
other morals. But there are reasons to doubt that the relationship is
simple because in some situations having a high need for achievement
increases our tendency to cheat.
Later, we will discuss the harm that can be done to a person's
performance, especially on interesting tasks, by extrinsic
reinforcement. Eisenberger's research contradicts this; he found that
extrinsically rewarding hard work improves performance. Moreover, he
says rewarding progressively improving performance (harder and
harder effort?) did not reduce intrinsic interest. To me it seems clear
that in order to maintain optimal motivation you have to consider both
your intrinsic and extrinsic pay offs (see intrinsic satisfaction section).
The motivation problem is complicated by the fact that only parts of
working or studying are interesting and exciting, other parts are hard
and difficult, still other parts are tedious or boring, and so on. You
have to cope with all parts of life, so it is important for our work to be
satisfying, but a history of hard, rewarding efforts involving long
delays of reinforcement may also be important in preparing us for the
unavoidably hard and uninteresting parts.
Abraham Maslow (1971) was critical of traditional psychology
because it based its theories on emotionally disturbed patients or on
laboratory animals. Like other philosophers, he believed in the basic
goodness of humans and in their tendency to move to higher levels of
functioning as their basic physical needs are met. Maslow described
the needs at each level, going from the most fundamental
physiological needs to the highest, most noble needs. Every person
has the same "hierarchy of needs:"
Physiological needs--air, water, food, sleep, elimination, sex,
Safety needs--escape fear and pain, physical security, order,
Belonging and love needs--to love and be loved, have friends,
be part of a family.
Self-esteem needs--to feel competent, independent, successful,
respected, and worthwhile.
Self-actualization needs--being one's true self, achieving one's
highest potential, wanting knowledge and wisdom, being able
to understand and accept oneself and others, being creative
and appreciative of beauty in the world. A self-actualized
person is happy, realistic, accepting, problem-oriented,
creative, democratic, independent, and fulfilling a mission or
purpose in life.
What are the implications of this theory for changing behavior?
First, the theory says it is necessary to generally satisfy one's basic
needs before one can turn to meeting needs higher in the hierarchy.
But once a person has taken care of the needs at levels 1 and 2, then
one is free, in fact motivated to search for love, then self-esteem, and
then finally self-actualization. Thus, if you can't achieve some goal,
such as John not being able to study, consider the possibility that
some more basic need still hasn't been met and must be satisfied first.
For example, John may have to find love or feel secure and liked by
his friends before he can study effectively and devote himself to a
profession. While thinking in terms of a hierarchy of needs may
sometimes help you figure out the real underlying problem, research
has not supported the theory that all needs at a more primary level
must be satisfied before you can move on to higher needs (just like
you might not have to go in order through all six stages of Kohlberg's
moral development, as discussed in the last chapter). So, go for self-
actualization at 15 or 19 (long before Maslow said you were ready for
it--see chapter 9), even if you lack confidence and a love relationship.
Also, remember if you make different assumptions about the basic
nature of humans, you will surely find different underlying problems.
Maslow would find unmet love or self-esteem needs; Freud would find
unmet sexual-aggression needs; Adler would find feelings of inferiority
to be overcome.
Maslow noted that learning theories (not the more recent Social
Learning Theories or cognitive theories) were based largely on hunger,
thirst, and pain (needs at levels 1 and 2) in animals, seldom dealing
with the higher levels. Maslow's theories are based on the opposite
end of the scale (needs at level 5). He studied the best historical
specimens of our species he could find, including Abraham Lincoln,
Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt,
Albert Schweitzer, and he interviewed the most outstanding living
people available to him at the time. That's where his description of the
self-actualized person came from. His was a valuable addition to our
Secondly, according to theory, few of us ever achieve self-
actualization to any significant degree. Maslow assumed it took the
most able among us 30 to 40 years to develop self-actualization.
Although Maslow believed we became more self-reliant on our own
values and judgment as we met more of our needs, and less
dependent on rewards and approval of others, he still emphasized the
importance of the environment in determining our growth. He felt
families and schools and work should be respectful, nonjudgmental,
and trusting, i.e. places where one can make his/her own decisions,
gain esteem, and use his/her talents. Otherwise, our growth would be
slowed or reversed...and we would have problems. Maslow had impact
on Humanistic education and on business management. But, he left it
to others to discover if it is possible to develop specific methods of
speeding up the natural development of self-actualization, such as
through self-help techniques. Maybe in 100 years we'll all be self-
actualizing even as teenagers.
Addiction to drugs, alcohol, food, smoking, etc. are instances of
powerful motivation, but they sap our strength and zest for doing our
best. William Glasser (1965) believes there are other addictive
activities that give us strength: jogging, meditating, writing a diary,
exercising, relaxing, and so on. These are called positive addictions.
Like Ellis and Knaus, Glasser focuses on the emotions underlying
our behavior (level II). First, we all want to be loved and to feel
worthwhile. When we don't get what we want, we either have the
strength to try again or we don't. Thousands of us give up, according
to Glasser, by saying, "Why try? I'd just fail" or "It's my parents' fault"
or some other similar rationalization.
When giving up and giving excuses don't remove the pain (of not
achieving love or worth), we may turn to psychiatric symptoms, such
as depression, rebelling, going crazy, psychosomatic complaints, or
addiction to drugs, alcohol, or food. Painful as these conditions are,
they are less painful than facing the fact that we have failed and given
up on obtaining love and self-worth. So, they are another self-con--
they make it easier to give up and, at the same time, get some
What is Glasser's solution? Positive addictions. It isn't an easy
solution nor is it for everybody. It takes six months to a year of
activity (jogging, meditating, etc.) one hour every day to develop a
strength-giving addiction. The activity must usually be done alone,
with no demands or striving for excellence or self-criticism. There are
thousands of joggers, bikers, meditators, relaxers, journal writers,
exercisers, and other users of positive addictions, along with Glasser,
who claim great benefits. They claim to get more results than just
feeling better and getting pleasure; they claim greater self-confidence,
more energy, better imagination and ideas, more frustration tolerance
and so on.
It is an interesting, indirect approach which does not concentrate
on dedication to your major life goals. Committing an hour a day
directly to loving someone or to studying could have powerful effects
too. If I were John, I'd first try to build a real interest and motivation
in my studies. There are too many good joggers who are poor students
to confidently believe that jogging will make you an "A" student. More
research, not more testimonials, is needed to evaluate the effects of
positive addictions and to investigate which positive addictions work
best with what kind of people and with what problems. But it is an
Popular how-to-be-the-greatest books and programs
Inspirational, confidence-building books sell by the million. None
have ever been objectively evaluated to see the results, but people
buy them, probably because they do motivate us, at least for a day or
two. They are often written by successful business or sales people or
by ministers. Psychologists write in areas related to motivation:
assertiveness (chapters 8 & 13), self-acceptance (chapters 9 & 14),
and self-direction or self-instruction (chapters 5, 11, and this one), but
these writings deal with learning skills, not just getting inspiration.
The popular "success" books take four main approaches:
Confidence building. The common belief is that you can't sell a
product or love someone else until you believe in yourself or
love yourself (Amos & Amos, 1988; Zigler, 1987). So, these
books essentially tell you to recognize your strong points and to
tell yourself you are the greatest.
Setting goals and utilizing time effectively (Lee, 1978; Lakein,
1973). While these are important skills and have been
discussed in this chapter and chapter 2, the goals need to be
more than vague hopes and an occasional motivational
speaker. Some seminars or longer programs about goal setting,
however, involve lectures and tapes costing several hundred
dollars (Meyer, 1988).
Inspirational. These books give many illustrations of exceptional
people and unusual successes (Simonton, 1994; Ferguson,
1990; Waitley, 1983; Stone, 1962). Michael Jordan's I Can't
Accept Not Trying is a good example. Other writers emphasize
the "power of positive thinking" (Peale, 1952; Schuller, 1973).
The techniques involve fantasizing about being successful (like
in achievement training), modeling and rehearsal, repeating
hopeful beliefs (called affirmations), giving your self pep talks,
and so on. Of special psychological interest is Lillian Rubin's
(1996) Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight which tells stories
of people overcoming horrible childhood experiences. I find the
caring stories in Canfield & Hansen (1991, 1993, 1995, 1996)
to be heart-warming; they make me value goodness and look
for it in others; they help me be good.
Understanding human needs. Some of these books explain how
to present products and ideas so that they meet peoples needs
and, thus, sell (Dichter, 1971). Many other books describe how
to influence or motivate others--usually for your benefit
These popular books are based on one person's experience or
hunches, not on research. Don't neglect these books but read them
with a lot of skepticism.
Methods for increasing motivation; references
In addition to the many methods already mentioned above,
method #7 in chapter 14 summarizes several techniques for increasing
your motivation. It should help too. For the serious student of
motivation, Heckhausen (1991) provides an excellent review of the
whole area, while Boggiano & Pittman (1993) concentrate on
educational achievement. A highly regarded book by Daniels (1999)
explains in simple detail how positive reinforcement can be used to
both build good relationships and high motivation in a work setting.
Bernard & DiGuiseppe (1993) and McCombs & Pope (1994) try to
motivate adolescents in school and in relationships. Very bright,
achieving women have special problems in the world of work (Walker
& Mehr, 1993).
Also, the next three sections probe the causes of self-defeating
behavior and procrastination. We must understand and overcome the
barriers to achievement, if we are going to reach our potential.
Excellence can be attained if you...
care more than others think is wise.
risk more than others think is safe.
dream more than others think is practical.
expect more than others think is possible.
Managing Difficult Behavior
Why don't we do what we want to do? Why do we lose
control? How can we manage difficult behavior? Methods
for controlling strong habits
Thus far, we have said that when you don't know how to do
something you want to do, you have to learn. We have discussed three
kinds of learning and some of the complexities involved. Also, we said
when you want to do something that you know how to do but you
can't get going, you need to increase your motivation. We've discussed
In this section, we will discuss various kinds of "blocks" that
interfere with our doing what we would like to do or keep us from
stopping unwanted behavior. All of us have "good intentions" which we
don't achieve. Why not? There are many kinds of unwanted behavior,
such as ordinary "bad habits," selfishness, sins, addictions,
compulsions, obsessions, etc. we can't stop. Why? Some answers
sound simple and easy: Why do we overeat? Tastes good & comforts
us. Why eat fast food? Quick & easy. Smoke? Pleasurable habit. Party?
Fun. Gamble or make risky investments? Adventure & occasionally
win. Complain and get mad? Influence others & discharge feelings.
Unprotected sex? Quick & no-brainer. Avoid meeting and talking to
people? More comfortable. The easiest route is often not the best.
Quick pleasures may cost dearly.
Why do we avoid good choices, like going to the doctor or dentist?
Costly & painful. Why don't we save money? Want things now. Eat
healthfully? More trouble. Exercise? Hard work. Protect against STD?
Have to plan. Prevent psychological problems? Have to learn. Have
another degree? Have to study. Have a better marriage? Have to read,
discuss, & get counseling. Give more to church? Have to sacrifice.
Good things often require work.
The more complete true answers to these "why" questions are
surely complex and involve the concept of intentionality, our
motivation for short-term vs. long-term goals, the use of mechanisms
of self-control, the conditions that undermine our "will," emotional
reactions that overpower our best intentions, strategies for intentional
or unintentional self-deception and the development of false beliefs
(such as the smoker who doesn't believe smoking will hurt him),
unconscious motives, and many other irrational processes. There are
also lengthy philosophical discussions about these matters and others,
such as "what really is self-control?" (e.g. what if you are brainwashed
by a friend into wanting to do something--are you still under self-
There is clear evidence that we humans tend to "believe what we
want to be true." We sometimes unwittingly generate our beliefs, e.g.
we can select the data in a biased way or distort the collected data to
believe what we want to believe. We can act in certain ways to confirm
what we want to believe. We can persuade ourselves that our intention
is one thing when objective observers would believe our motives are
something else. All this is related to self-control. If you are interested,
Mele (1987) provides a long philosophical discussion of these matters.
Behavioral blocks and getting unstuck
Lipson and Perkins (1990) have a book explaining why we don't do
what we would like to do. How is our intended behavior "blocked,"
such as when we are constantly late, can't lose weight, don't exercise,
don't do our best, etc.? First of all, they assume that all of our
behavior is the result of many forces, including our will, pulling and
pushing us in many directions. However, they don't use the concept of
reinforcement and they decry the idea of increasing our "will power."
They point out, as I have, that much self-help advice is very simple
and unquestionably correct: stop procrastinating by "planning your
time," lose weight by "eating less," be successful by "studying more,"
etc. But such advice is often inane--useless--because it can't be
followed, our will power just isn't strong enough to make the changes.
Often, though, they say that if you understood the forces that block
your good intentions, you could counter those forces and do what you
want to do. This is a cognitive (insight) approach to self-control of your
behavior. Let's see if it helps to describe five different kinds of blocks.
First, a strong force in the environment may block our intended or
desired behavior; it overpowers our will. We often know exactly what
these forces are; we recognize them as constant temptations, e.g. a
strong attraction to desserts ruins our diet, a desire to have fun keeps
us from getting our work done, an angry reaction to someone causes
us to say things we shouldn't, an urge to buy clothes overdraws our
account, etc. When these forces overwhelm our best intentions, we
say, "I'm weak willed," "I'm lazy," "I'm selfish," etc. It may be neat in
a way that there are so many strong forces in the world--things we
want and enjoy, physical, hormonal, and genetic drives, social needs,
compelling emotions, and on and on. But, these forces frequently
crush our self-control, and that's not so neat.
This notion of blocks is obvious; however, it isn't easy to assess
the strength of the blocks or your "will power." How successful do you
feel your will power has been in overcoming the blocks (temptations
and distractions)? These authors say will power is frequently weak,
usually over-estimated and a false hope. Instead of "will," we have to
use our brain--our knowledge of self-help--to devise ways of avoiding
or containing these strong forces. There are lots of such methods;
most are in this book.
Secondly, in contrast with the forces mentioned above that we are
keenly aware of, Lipson and Perkins (1990) contend that some strong
forces are hidden from us and, thus, since we can't combat them
handily, they easily block our intentional behavior. We know the forces
are there because we see the results. Examples: Our hot attraction to
someone turns cold (we don't know why but perhaps he/she is coming
on too strong or getting too dependent). Our grades in chemistry are
D's and F's (we have the ability but maybe we fail because medicine is
dad's choice, not ours). We have a short fuse with our spouse without
sufficient reason and without knowing why (maybe because we feel
taken for granted or got a lousy assignment at work). We don't want
to turn cold, fail chemistry, or have a fight. But things like this happen
to all of us; hidden forces are the cause. To understand these blocks,
we must seriously search for the reasons, the hidden forces. When we
think we have found the reasons, we must carefully question and
critically assess the explanation (because we are prone to self-
deception). Are the conjectured forces really there? Are they powerful
enough to block our desired behavior? When we accurately see the
hidden forces (not easy), we have a better chance of getting back in
Thirdly, besides strong forces in the outside world (things we yearn
for, fears, reactions of others, etc.), there are strong forces generated
by our own self-evaluations. Examples: You may be only 5 or 6 pounds
overweight but see yourself as embarrassingly chubby. During a
conversation, you may panic thinking, "I don't know what to say, I'll
look like a jerk." These thoughts and feelings about ourselves are
powerful forces that frequently block us from doing what we would like
to do. By observing our internal dialogue and self-appraisals, we can
gain better control over these blocks. Examples: Some negative things
about ourselves, e.g. 6 pounds or quietness, we can accept as okay,
others we can "own," e.g. sarcasm or self-criticism, and take
responsibility for changing. Likewise, some of your traits may initially
be seen as positive, e.g. being a party animal and excessive drinking,
but by recognizing their negative long-term consequences and
"disapproving" of the destructive aspects of the traits, we can reduce
these blocks to achieving our more important life goals.
Fourthly, many activities can captivate or "enthrall" us: eating,
drinking, listening to music, watching TV, socializing, and even
cleaning can capture our attention once we get started. Becoming
preoccupied with these activities blocks us from doing other things.
Enthralling activities may have a relatively weak initial "pull" for us but
once we are absorbed in the activity the "grip" can hold us. All of us
have wasted evenings watching worthless TV. If we had gotten off the
couch and turned off the set for a minute, we almost certainly would
have found something better to do. Ask yourself frequently, "What is
the best use of my time right now?" Change your environment. Try to
develop more fruitful "counter-thralls." Witkin (1988) has a book about
controlling these urges.
Lastly, blocks occur when a complex collage of forces pushes us in
certain directions, such as when a woman marries the same kind of
jerk three times. Another example is the person who is so concerned
about being liked that they try too hard to please. As a result, they are
seen as weak, "an easy mark," and not respected, which pushes them
to try even harder to please. This is called a self-sealing system and
this vicious circle occurs in many situations: a person creates more
problems drinking to avoid problems, an over-protective parent
produces a more and more helpless child, an insecure and jealous
lover increases his/her chances of being dumped. Obviously, complex
but powerful and mostly hidden forces are pushing these people in
disastrous directions. Such people must get an understanding of the
complex forces shaping their lives, and then they have a better chance
of coping. They need courage to self-explore--maybe in therapy.
This is a nice theoretical summary of blocks. But, removing your
specific blocks is not easy. Washton and Boundy (1989) make the
point that many of our self-help efforts are directed at the bad habit
and not at the block or real underlying problem. For example, it is
common to see drinking or smoking or over eating or procrastination
or TV addiction as the problem, while, in truth, the more basic problem
is the hurt, anxiety, emptiness, frustration, shame, etc. (feelings and
thoughts), which the drinking, eating, escaping behaviors attempt to
relieve. These unwanted surface behaviors are not the real problems;
they are attempted solutions! The underlying feelings are the
problems! Having the will power to stop the unwanted habits is not
enough. You must reduce the psychological pain inside which causes
the bad habits, i.e. our dis-ease. (Chapter 2 made the same point.)
Discovering this internal hurt may be easy; it may be hard even with
therapy; it needs to be done (see chapters 14 and 15).
Sidney Simon (1988) describes another set of barriers to
changing: (1) Having low self-esteem and feeling unable to change or
undeserving of a better life (see chapter 14). (2) Failing to see
alternatives or feeling you can't make or don't have good choices (see
decision-making in chapter 13). (3) Being unsure of what you want
and/or are simply going along with someone else's decisions about
your life (see chapter 3 and assertiveness in chapter 13). (4) Finding
lots of excuses for doing nothing or "Yes, but-ing" and, thus, reducing
your motivation to change. (5) Being afraid to change (see chapter 5).
(6) Feeling alone and unsupported or "I don't need anyone" or "I
shouldn't have to ask for help." (Ask for help anyway!) (7) Demanding
perfection. (8) Lacking the determination or "will" to get the job done.
When changing, the first step is the killer. If you haven't exercised
in months or have smoked for years, the first day is toughest. You
must use willpower (or, if you prefer, motivation or self-talk). You can
strengthen a weak will. Simon suggests building your willpower by (a)
practicing in more and more difficult self-control situations, (b) taking
small successful steps followed by rewards, and (c) planning
alternatives to use when major temptations threaten. Besides will
power, you need lots of other skills. But the hardest part for many of
us will be getting a handle on the underlying emotions causing the
inner pain and creating the barriers. This kind of insight comes from
gaining more and more knowledge about people and from honestly
looking inside your self.
Once we have self-control why do we lose control over some
Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice (1994) do a good job of explaining
our failures at self-control, e.g. giving up during the performance of a
task, losing control over our thoughts or emotions, and letting some
habit (eating, drinking, smoking, buying, etc.) get out of control.
Unfortunately, these authors' work is of limited value because it
doesn't tell us much about how to prevent the loss of self-control.
However, by understanding the process by which we lose control,
perhaps science can help us learn how to maintain self-control. You
will recognize that "blocks," discussed above, have much in common
with "loss of self-control."
Three steps are needed for us to be in self-control. First, we need
"standards," i.e. to know what we want to do or should do. Second, we
need to be aware if our behavior is failing to meet our standards.
Third, we need to be able to correct our behavior when it becomes
sub-standard (this is what the ordinary person would often call "will
power"). Failure in any of the three steps will lead to poor self-control:
if we don't know where we are going, if we don't pay attention to see if
we are getting there, and if we don't know how (or don't have the
strength--see blocks) to get back on track if we get lost.
Here are some of the more common ways we lose self-control: we
set no goals or impossible goals; we lose control or don't pay attention
to our goals or to our behavior; we quit because we get tired or
stressed and weakened; we attend to our immediate situation and
needs overlooking long-range goals; we misjudge what is important to
do; we focus on calming our emotions but neglect doing our tasks or
solving our problems; we become obsessed with protecting our egos
and neglect getting the job done; we let the initial failure lead to a
"snowballing" of many failures (see relapse prevention below); we
believe in venting our feelings rather than in eliminating the emotions;
we decide we are helpless or bad and stop trying in order to avoid
Solutions to losing self-control? Set goals, monitor your progress
carefully, reward desired behavior, and practice self-control and in the
process learn as much as possible about the self-help methods that
work for you. As Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice explain, one barrier to
gaining this self-knowledge is that most people don't really want to
know a lot of accurate information about themselves. Our species
prefers to be told positive things or, at most, be told negative things
they already believe about themselves. We resolutely avoid accurate
self-knowledge about our weaknesses. The more we can overcome this
I-don't-want-to-know-the-truth trait, the better we can gain self-
Preventing unwanted behavior. Is it really within our powers?
Just as it is hard to start a new habit, it is hard to stop an old one.
In fact, some behaviors are thought to be unpreventable, i.e. beyond
our ability to control with "willpower" or self-help techniques. Many
feel this way about drinking alcohol; some do about eating, smoking,
and even procrastination. When we add an awareness that genetic,
metabolic, physiological, unconscious, and environmental factors as
well as underlying emotions affect our reaction to drinking, food,
smoking, coffee, soft drinks, sugar, etc., it shakes our faith (rightly so)
in self-control. There is evidence, for instance, that alcoholics
chemically process alcohol differently from nonalcoholics (Heilman,
film). Alcoholism is called a "disease," implying that it is an
unstoppable physical disorder, treatable only by physicians or a Higher
Power? For an extensive discussion and references, see the Addiction
section and Stanton Peele's books (Peele & Brodsky, 1991). For the
specific steps to take when preventing relapse, go to Relapse
Experienced people in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Overeaters
Anonymous (OA), and Emotions Anonymous (EA) say the first step
towards recovery is to admit you are powerless over alcohol, food,
emotions, or whatever. Then, their 12-step program basically says, (l)
abstain (totally in the case of alcohol) by asking for help from friends
(in AA or OA or EA who have been in the same situation) and from a
Higher Power, (2) admit your "defects of character" and the wrongs
you've done, and (3) make amends. AA is often considered the best
available treatment for alcoholism, so use it if you need it.
Interestingly, AA has a reputation for being successful in spite of little
or no outcome research. Unfortunately, AA opposes research
(members aren't supposed to disclose what happens at AA meetings)
and doesn't directly teach self-control methods. It is known that many
people go to AA only a few times and others backslide after hundreds
of AA sessions. One study of 90 addicts found that they had, on
average, attended 586 AA sessions before relapsing (Chiauzzi, 1989).
That is an amazing amount of "treatment" to be followed by failure.
So, AA is not a perfect miracle cure. If AA added more self-control
beliefs and procedures, especially relapse prevention, to its program, it
might be more effective. Only research can tell us. See more
references concerning alcoholism at the end of the chapter.
There is also evidence that overweight people adjust their
metabolism as they reduce their intake of food so that they tend to
stay about the same weight, called their "biological destiny" (Bennett
& Gurin, l98?). If that is the case, losing weight may be very hard to
do if you have a genetic tendency to be heavy or to crave sweets, etc.
It is believed that weight loss efforts work best the first time you try to
diet; thereafter, the body loses weight more slowly but gains it back
much more rapidly. Also, over-weight people produce more insulin
than thin people when they see food and that increases hunger pangs.
Heavy people respond more to external cues--smells, sight of dessert,
etc. All this (plus the emotions pushing us to eat) makes it hard to lose
weight. As most people know, our metabolism is a function of our
activity level, so losing weight without exercise is especially hard to
No matter what the physiological and emotional processes are and
how difficult it is to reduce drinking or overeating, the addict still has
the problem of how to stop a harmful habit. Should he/she get
professional medical help, psychological help, give up trying to do the
impossible alone and turn to God, join a self-help group, take
antabuse or diet pills, go to a Mental Health Center or an addiction
treatment center, talk to friends, read and try to help him/herself or
what? My answer again is, "Try all kinds of treatment until something
Is it harder for some people to overcome bad habits than others?
Since this is like the question "Do I see blue the same as you do?" we
will never know but old habits are hard for everybody to stop. How
hard? There is very contradictory evidence. Some treatment programs
claim a 90% success rate (during the treatment phase). In general,
relapse after treatment of addictive behavior is very high, 50% to 90%
(Brownell, Marlatt, Lichtenstein & Wilson, 1986). Two thirds to 3/4's of
drug and alcohol abusers relapse within three months after treatment
(Chiazzi, 1989). In one study, less than 10% of treated alcoholics
abstained for two years (Armor, Polich, & Stambul, 1978). Researchers
of weight loss projects also report disappointing results: few stay in
treatment, and 80% of those that do, gain any weight loss back within
a year. Smokers frequently quit, then relapse. Clients who stay in
these treatment programs for various problems are successful (why
else would they stay?), but thus far no program enables a high
percentage of clients to maintain their gains. So, it is hopeful (we can
change) but the final long-term results of today's "programs," even
the expensive ones, are not good enough. On the other hand, note
that about half of all former problem-drinkers have quit drinking "on
their own" (no help from a MD or AA or any treatment). You are not
powerless! But I'd recommend getting all the outside help you can, as
well as self-helping.
Similarly, Stanley Schachter (1982) reported some interesting but
controversial findings: almost 2/3's (63%) of people who tried to lose
weight or stop smoking on their own (without professional help) were
successful! And they kept it off for years! This implied that self-help
was better than professionally run treatment programs. Subsequent
studies (Cohen, et al, 1989) showed this was not true; self-quitters
(smokers) did no better or no worse than clients in a stop smoking
clinic. But over the years, we try to help ourselves a lot more often
than we use professional programs. Thus, 85% of those trying to stop
are on their own and only 15% join a stop-smoking program. About
1/3 of all smokers have tried to stop within the last year; most failed.
Of those trying to stop sometime (or many times) between 1976 and
1986, 48% of the self-helpers and 24% of the treatment clients were
successful. Altogether 40 million Americans have stopped smoking, so
it is possible. 90% of the successful ones were on their own and most
of them had tried again and again. 70-75 million are still smoking.
There is no evidence that successful quitters used different behavior-
change methods than the relapsers; they just motivated themselves
more and kept on trying (maybe until they found an approach that
worked for them). There is hope. Again, I'll remind you: self-
administered programs (listening to a tape, reading a manual,
watching a videotape) have been just as effective as therapist-
administered programs (Scogin, Bynum, Stephens, & Calhoon, 1990).
The keys seems to be learning to be motivated and maintaining your
Relapse prevention for addictions
Marlatt and Parks (1982) and Marlatt and Gordon (1985) zero in on
a crucial point--the relapse. This is the point, usually after successfully
stopping smoking, drinking, avoiding studying, overeating, etc., at
which you give up your controlled behavior and fall back into the old
behavior. (Untrained or unread self-helpers fail about 80% of the time,
usually more near the start than after succeeding. But that is called a
failure, not a relapse.) A slight slip is called a "lapse;" total,
continuous, complete backsliding is called a "relapse." Why do
between 50% and 90% of program successes eventually relapse?
Probably because we don't focus enough on maintaining our gains, but
research is starting to show us how to avoid relapsing.
First, Marlatt and others (Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente,
1994) studied the circumstances in which people relapsed, called high-
risk situations. About 35% of the relapses occurred during periods of
negative emotions, such as depression, anger, stress, or boredom. An
additional 16% relapsed while having the same kind of feelings but in
a social situation--a conflict or argument with a spouse, relative,
friend, or co-worker. A health crisis in the family is a common cause.
Here again we find an important relationship between behavior and
emotions. About 20% relapsed under social pressure, either being with
people doing what you don't want to do (smoking a cigarette, using
drugs, eating) or being verbally pressured to participate ("Come on,
John, have a beer with us"). About 10% of the backsliders felt the
forbidden urge or temptation when all alone. None of this is a surprise
but it can help us search for the conditions that might reduce our self-
control. We all have our "weak times." Old temptations may return
months or years later.
Prochaske, et al, found that certain mental mistakes lead to
relapse: (1) over-confidence ("I've got this drinking problem beat for
sure"), (2) self-testing ("I'll keep a bottle...some candy...some
cigarettes hidden in my desk just to prove I'm cured"), (3) self-
blaming ("My smoking made my kids sick and caused by husband to
start smoking again"). In short, some confidence is needed, but don't
get too much of it, don't get cocky! By denying the risks and
rationalizing one's risk-taking behavior, in effect the relapsing alcoholic
sets him/herself up for another failure (which he/she doesn't feel
responsible for). These cognitions must be attended to... and
challenged by the addict.
Secondly, Marlatt and his colleagues recommend several methods
for avoiding relapses. Learn to recognize your own high-risk
situations by (a) considering the data above and in the following
paragraphs, (b) self-monitoring (see chapter 11) what's going on when
we are tempted or slip a little or relapse, (c) self-testing in fantasy
how well you would handle several high-risk situations (imagine how
would you respond if a good friend encouraged you to try cocaine?),
and (d) observing your lapse and relapse fantasies or temptations, i.e.
imagine how you might relapse. After identifying your dangerous
situations, you can avoid some and learn to cope with others. Certainly
take credit for avoiding the risky situations.
But, also admit that getting into high-risk situations are a result of
a series of decisions you have made (without much awareness?),
seldom is it an accident or someone else's fault. No alcoholic gets
seated at a table in a bar with drinking buddies (nor a philanderer with
a tempting, attractive person) without making many choices leading to
that high-risk environment. Identify those decisions or choice points;
they are your means of staying out of trouble in the future. Monitor
your thoughts carefully. Vigilantly guard against longing for "a cold
beer on a hot day," "the taste of just one cigarette," "another night out
in a topless bar with the boys," etc. Don't be seduced again.
Remember the bad consequences of your old habit and the good
aspects of you new lifestyle.
Chiauzzi (1989) identified several specific trouble spots that lead
addicts back into abusing. Be especially careful if you have any of
these personality traits: (a) compulsiveness --perfectionistic,
unemotional, over-controlled--because they come unglued when they
backslide, (b) dependency--indecisive, clinging--because they go back
to drugs when others abandon them, (c) passive-aggressiveness --
resistive, procrastinating, blaming--because they drive others away
and then can't handle their own anger, (d) self-centeredness --
egotistical, pushy--because they don't admit their problems, and (e)
rebelliousness --impulsive, antisocial--because they resent anyone
Another ominous sign is replacing the old addiction with another
addiction, e.g. compulsive alcoholics become workaholics, dependent
eaters smoother someone, sex addicts turn to alcohol, smokers to
food, etc. As John Bradshaw says, "They are still sick." The second
addiction generates new problems. A third pitfall, according to
Chiauzzi, is that 30% of relapsers believe all they have to do is abstain
or attend AA. They disregard gaining self-awareness, self-help skills,
intimacy, advancement at work, a philosophy of life, etc. They also
forget to avoid bars, physical problems, loss of sleep, etc. Constant
awareness of all these warning signs helps avoid relapse.
Self-help groups, like AA or Weight Loss groups or Assertiveness
Training groups, help you stay on track. Ask friends to help: steer me
away from temptations, challenge my over-confidence, support my
new behaviors and interests, be sure I can say "no" clearly, come
quickly to my rescue when I falter, and remember maintenance is
Practice coping with the unavoidable high-risk situations.
Think about what you could say and do when faced with the
temptation. Get advice and watch others. Role play with friends the
situation repeatedly until you are sure you can handle it (chapter 13).
Learn a set of self-instructions that will guide you through the
dangerous period (chapter 11). You might even test your coping skills
in the actual high-risk-of-relapse situations: A smoker could interact
with other smokers without smoking; John could go play sports or to
the bars to see if he can return to his studies within one hour, a dieter
could go out with friends having pizza and just have a light salad, etc.
Learn to make decisions carefully and stick with them (chapter
13). Marlatt points out that not only are the long-range effects
overlooked (e.g. John's neglect of his future career) but the lure of the
fantasized immediate result is intensified during the first several days
of avoiding a strong habit. Examples: "If I could just have a smoke, I'd
feel more relaxed" or "If I go out for a drink, I would get over this
loneliness and might run into a hot woman." Sometimes the relapse
specialists enable the client under controlled conditions to test out
their expectations, i.e. have a cigarette or go to a bar and find out the
results are not as fantastic as supposed (exactly when this is a wise
approach is not known yet--see Brownell, et al, 1986). This is too risky
to do on your own. The grass looks greener on the other side of the
fence, but it is just as hard to mow!
Sometimes the therapist gives an abstaining-but-tempted drinker a
cold beer and after he/she enjoys the wonderfully soothing release of
inner tension that the drinker feels can only come from a beer, tells
him/her that it is Near-Beer. This is an eye opening experience. In
cases where abstaining isn't possible (such as food), and especially
where the client just "can't stand the restrictions any more," Marlatt
has tried "controlled cheating," i.e. scheduling a big binge for one meal
a week. It helps some food addicts (but probably not drinkers,
smokers, spenders, gamblers, etc.) stay under control.
Prepare in advance for a lapse (to avoid a relapse). Attempt to
limit the loss of control and reduce the feeling that you are a hopeless
total failure. Instead, if you slip, just admit that you have made a
mistake. (a) Make an agreement to limit the slip (to one smoke, one
dessert, one hour of TV, one drink) and/or call a helper when you have
lost control. (b) Prepare and carry a "reminder card that says
something like this, "Slips do occur. They make us feel guilty, that's
normal. But don't let these feelings of failure snowball right now into
feelings of hopeless despair so that you continue to (smoke, eat, drink,
procrastinate). One slip doesn't make a total failure. Stay calm. Learn
from this experience. Learn your weaknesses and how to overcome
them. Remember why you are abstaining. Recommit yourself. At this
time, do this: get out of the situation (leave the bar, go back to
studying, throw away the remaining cigarettes, cake, drugs, etc.). If
necessary call a friend at number ____. Exercise or atone for a wrong
or do something good. You'll feel better." (c) Later, practice handling
the high-risk situation with a supportive friend. And, when alone,
imagine handling similar situations well.
Any addicted person needs to reorganize his/her life. The
needs driving the compulsion can be meet in better ways. The habit-
breaker needs more satisfaction out of life, probably requiring a
balance of some immediate pleasures and long-term, meaningful
goals. Often, a more detached view of the urges and craving (not
"ain't I awful" and "I'm a failure") is helpful; it helps the urges fade
away. Marlatt and many other researchers (e.g. Brownell, et al.)
recommend learning a broad range of self-help skills, much like what
is offered by this book. This includes personal problem solving skills,
learning to get a balance between "shoulds" and "wants" in your life,
getting exercise and some positive addiction (described by Glasser
above), behavior control techniques, increased self-awareness
(realizing our rationalizations and denial), and encouragement from
friends or a self-help group to vigilantly guard against unwanted
choices and actions.
Not all relapse prevention programs have been successful but the
majority have been (Irvin, Bowers, Dunn & Wang, 1999). Relapse
prevention works best with drugs, only fair with alcohol, and poorly,
thus far, with smoking. If you do backslide, relapse prevention helps
you recover from lapses (but the training may increase lapses). Some
behaviors are very hard to maintain. Many people make the same New
Year's resolutions for several years before they find the right
"treatment plan." Smokers typically make 3, 4 or more attempts to
stop before succeeding. Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross (1992)
found that relapsers don't necessarily go back to "square one,"
sometimes they learn from their mistakes, think of a better approach,
and build up their courage to try again. Try hard to avoid relapsing but
if you do, don't give up. This is one of the "hot" areas in self-control,
much research is being done.
Controlling simple habits
Nate Azrin and Greg Nunn (1977) offer Habit Control in a Day. It is
a clinically tested method for stopping nail-biting, hair-pulling, tics,
stuttering, thumb sucking, and other nervous habits. They obtained
90% reduction in the habit the first day and 95% reduction within the
first week and 99% within a month (assuming you keep working on
the problem as prescribed).
The method is simple: learn to substitute an acceptable but
incompatible action in place of the bad habit. To do this you must
observe the bad habit in minute detail. The substitute behavior should
(1) interfere with the habit but not with other normal activities, (2) be
unnoticeable by others but something you are very aware of, and (3)
be a response you can easily do for 3 minutes or so.
Examples of behaviors useful in opposing bad habits are: grasping
an object, like a pencil, or lightly clenching your fist. Either could be
substituted for nail biting or hair pulling. Likewise, filing your nails or
brushing your hair would also be incompatible with nail biting or hair
pulling. Also, isometric contraction of muscles opposing the ticking
muscles is another example. Consciously breathing in and out slowly
and evenly is inconsistent with coughing or clearing your throat;
drinking water is incompatible with the same habits.
Next, practice the new response 5-10 minutes every day for at
least a week. In addition, mentally rehearse how and when you can
use the new response. Once mastered, the new response must be
used for three minutes every time (a) you catch yourself doing the old
habit, (b) you feel the urge to do the old habit, (c) you enter a
situation where the old habit frequently occurred, and (d) you realize
you are doing another habit that often precedes the bad habit.
Examples of the latter would be face touching that almost always
precedes nail biting or hair pulling, touching the finger nail before
biting it, and feeling your face before picking it. More careful self-
observation is needed to discover the situations, activities, and people
in (c), and the associated habits in (d).
Azrin and Dunn's procedures also include relaxing in the habit-
producing situations, daily practice of replacing the old habit with the
new response in the four circumstances described above, asking
friends for feedback, showing off your improvements (especially in
situations you have been avoiding), and, of course, keeping daily
records of progress.
Why is Behavior so Hard to Understand?
All of us, including psychologists, have difficulty understanding why
people do the things they do. If behavioral control were simply a
matter of immediate, external, observable reinforcement, we would
not be so baffled (nor intrigued) by humans. There are several reasons
why behavior and feelings are so mysterious.
Classical, operant, and social conditioning are all intermeshed
As mentioned above, everyday examples of pure operant or
classical learning are hard to find. They operate together in complex
ways. For instance, a stimulus (an insult or a nice body) may elicit an
unobservable emotional response (anger or attraction). That's classical
conditioning. But the overt response, which may or may not be
consistent with the emotional reaction to the offending or appealing
person, depends on many complicated factors, including needs, self-
evaluation and confidence (that's Social Learning Theory), anticipated
+ and- consequences (that's social and operant conditioning), and
other forces. What actually happens, including how the other person
reacts, after we overtly respond influences how we feel (classical) and
how we respond (classical, social, and operant) in similar situations
later on. My simple point is: it's complicated. Yet, knowing the theories
of learning, motivation, and self-control reduces some of the mystery.
The payoffs for a behavior are multiple and may change over time
Smoking is a good example. Like my coffee drinking mentioned
above, one has to learn to like cigarettes. That means puffing on a
cigarette must have been paired thousands of times with the
satisfaction of powerful needs: peer approval? a sense of adventure or
grown-upness? eating and drinking? relaxing? having a good time?
Eventually cigarettes taste good. But at a later stage, after thousands
of more puffs, cigarettes do more than taste good; they help the
smoker calm down; they become a handy tranquilizer; they become
an important part of the smoker's life. How? Unwittingly the smoker
pairs smoking with relaxation: after a meal, watching TV and having a
beer, during a rest period, after sex (Oh, yes!), etc. Therefore, a
relaxed response is conditioned to cigarettes. Naturally, an uptight
smoker would then habitually use smoking as a way to relax. It's
complex but more understandable why, in spite of the health hazards,
awful breath, and wasted money, smokers continue to smoke and find
it very hard to stop.
Just as the payoffs for smoking are multiple and change over time,
the same is true for drinking or drugs. Another way of thinking about it
is that the "causes" change. For example, at first we may drink to
experiment or for excitement or to have fun with friends (see, I watch
the commercials). Later, depending on our unique needs, one person
may drink in order to socialize and to feel confident enough to
approach the opposite sex. Another person may learn to feel powerful
while drinking and become aggressive and argumentative; another
may enjoy the closeness and caring intimacy with his/her own sex.
Finally, a person may drink alone to deaden the pain of loneliness or
old age or marital problems or illness. As time passes, drinking serves
different purposes, probably several all mixed together. That makes it
harder to understand.
Behaviors may continue without constant rewards
Indeed, the most persistent behavior is only occasionally rewarded,
called partial or intermittent reinforcement (Ferster & Culbertson,
1982). That's easy to see. Consider two salespeople, one sells a
product almost every time he/she approaches a customer, the other
sells another product only occasionally, say every 20-25 customers.
Which salesperson will continue trying to make a sale the longest
without getting discouraged and giving up (assuming no one is
buying)? The salesperson who has learned to expect a lot of
rejections. Consider another situation: Who will nag or complain the
longest? Person A who ordinarily gets his/her way as soon as he/she
gets unhappy or person B who doesn't always get his/her way but has
had to really get nasty and upset before the other person caves in?
Obviously, person B. Person A has had little experience dealing with
unresponsive individuals, whereas person B has been trained by some
people to expect the other person to give in if he/she gets very
Many of our behaviors are only occasionally reinforced. Gambling
and nagging are good examples. Being open and honest, bragging,
being seductive and flirting, working extra without pay, reading a self-
help article and so on, only occasionally yield a payoff. If these
behaviors get partially reinforced often enough, the behavior may
become remarkably persistent, as though it is a "part of you." On the
other hand, when too much work is required for the payoffs, we
usually begin to lose interest and the behavior declines. But not
Behavior that has at one time served a useful, obvious purpose
and become well established may continue long after it is needed.
Examples: a person just starting in business may need to "pinch
pennies" and make shrewd deals to survive; thus, being a Scrooge is
reasonable and rewarded. However, a rich person may continue to be
a Scrooge when it isn't necessary. Spending money in a way that early
in his/her career would have been reckless still creates anxiety in the
wealthy person. Frugality continues because it still feels good to save
and be shrewd. Likewise, a workaholic may put in 12 hour days for
years after he/she has become successful. The hard work still reduces
his/her anxiety. The effective rewards are still there, they are just
There are two implications: (l) if the reinforcement situation
changes and you have to persevere longer than usual to reach the
goal, you may not continue long enough to get rewarded. John, the
procrastinator, may not have learned (or accepted reality) that more
work is necessary at this level for a good grade. (2) If you unthinkingly
continue an old behavior, you may neglect better alternatives. After
being dumped, a lover may avoid loving anyone else for a long time.
Keep considering your choices. The rejected person can love again, the
workaholic can relax, the greedy can be generous. But only if they
think about changing.
Reinforcement can be positive (adding rewards) or negative (removal
of something unpleasant)
Everyone understands what rewards are--getting money, praise,
pleasure, etc. The process of providing something pleasant--a reward-
-following a behavior in order to strengthen that behavior in the future
is called "positive reinforcement." We discussed this under operant
conditioning. There is a different procedure called "negative
reinforcement." It involves taking away or escaping an unpleasant
stimulus or situation. This escape is, of course, pleasant and
reinforcing, i.e. it strengthens the behavior immediately preceding the
escape of something unpleasant. Examples: if a whiny child becomes
quiet after you threaten him, your use of threats is reinforced. If your
friend's obvious irritation is reduced by your giving in to her/his
wishes, your submissiveness is reinforced. If you feel more
comfortable abiding by the rules, obeying laws, doing your homework,
or following traditions, your "good" behavior is partly the result of
negative reinforcement (escaping criticism or punishment or guilt).
Negative reinforcement is an important key to understanding
human behavior. Any behavior that reduces an unpleasant feeling or
threat is reinforced. Examples: anxiety may be reduced by obeying
parents, doing homework, rationalizing, or escaping into TV. Sadness
may be lessened by drinking, smoking pot, making up with someone,
or visiting friends. Annoying behavior may be stopped by threats,
violence, giving in, requesting they stop, or leaving the situation.
This process of strengthening a prior behavior by removing
something unpleasant is also important in the development of fears
(chapter 5), procrastination, compulsions, dependency, obedience, and
anger. Why is anger so well learned in so many people? Because it
stops things we don't like (see chapter 7). The attacker's angry
response is strengthened by getting his/her way. The attackee gives in
to escape the attacker's anger and/or use of punishment (and learns
to be submissive, as mentioned earlier).
Many people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment.
Since negative reinforcement sounds like the opposite of positive
reinforcement (or a reward), people wrongly assume it is punishment.
Actually, punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites:
punishment causes pain, negative reinforcement avoids pain. Thus,
punishment and negative reinforcement have the opposite effect--
negative reinforcement strengthens the previous behavior, punishment
reduces or stops the preceding behavior (at least while the punisher is
around). The terms will be clear if you realize there are two kinds of
reinforcement and two kinds of punishment:
positive reinforcement: giving or getting something pleasant,
e.g. a weekly pay check or a compliment
negative reinforcement: taking away or avoiding something
unpleasant, e.g. avoiding stress by not trying for a position
positive punishment: administering or receiving something
unpleasant, e.g. being fired or spanked or getting an "F"
negative punishment: taking away or being deprived of
something pleasant, e.g. being denied TV or fun activity or the
Reinforcement usually increases the likelihood that the preceding
behavior will re-occur. Punishment usually reduces the chances the
behavior will re-occur. Further confusion comes from the fact that
negative reinforcement often involves escaping or removing the threat
of punishment or obtaining relief from something else unpleasant, like
anxiety or anger or guilt. For example, when we study hard for an
exam, the threat of getting a "F" because we didn't study is removed.
Not going to the dentist is a way of avoiding fears. All four concepts
are important (see chapters 8 for passivity, 9 for punishing children,
11 for self-punishment and self-applied negative reinforcement). Much
mysterious human behavior is the result of negative reinforcement.
Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: when do rewards harm?
Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation
Most people understand the concept of intrinsic satisfaction or
intrinsic motivation, i.e. when an activity is satisfying or pleasurable in
and of itself. Naturally, these activities are things we like and want to
do. For most of us, intrinsically enjoyable activities are things like
eating, resting, laughing, playing games, winning, creating, seeing and
hearing beautiful things and people, being held lovingly, having sex,
and so on. To do these things we don't need to be paid, applauded,
cheered, thanked, respected, or anything--commonly we do them for
the good feelings we automatically and naturally get from the activity.
Intrinsic rewards also involve pleasurable internal feelings or thoughts,
like feeling proud or having a sense of mastery following studying hard
and succeeding in a class.
Many, maybe most, activities are not intrinsically satisfying enough
to get most of us to do them consistently, so extrinsic motivation
needs to be applied in the form of rewards (positive reinforcements),
incentives, or as a way to avoid some unpleasant condition ("negative
reinforcement" or punishment). Examples: You work doing an ordinary
job for pay. You study for good grades or to avoid failing or to prepare
for a good future. You do housework to get a clean, organized house
and/or a spouse's appreciation or to avoid her/his disapproval. A
teenager comes home from a date on time in order to avoid being
grounded. These are all activities that are commonly sustained by
external pay offs, not because you love working, studying, cleaning,
and coming home early.
Intrinsically and extrinsically motivated activities may look the
same on the outside but they are quite different. For instance,
studying primarily to get good grades or for someone's praise or to get
admitted to graduate school is internally different--it feels different
and our focus is different--from studying because learning fascinates
you or makes you feel proud and confident. These activities are
experienced differently and they occur under different conditions of
reinforcement; however, both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards
(reinforcements) are very important to every person... and complexly
intermixed. It is usually easier to set up or arrange extrinsically
motivating conditions than to increase one's intrinsic interest and
satisfaction in some behavior. So, it isn't surprising that our culture
attends more to providing social-economic pay offs than to increasing
intrinsic satisfaction at work or in school.
A brief technical point: Behavior Analysts do not use the term
"reward" because it is not precisely defined. They prefer the term
"reinforcer" because, by definition, a reinforcer increases the
frequency of some prior behavior. On the other hand, the term
"reward" in everyday language usually means trying to support or
strengthen some desired behavior by making that behavior pay off or
pleasant. However, we do not know for sure the consequences of
giving a reward. Therefore, it seems appropriate, in the context of
imprecise real life, to use the word "rewards." As we will soon see,
rewards do not always strengthen the previous behavior.
Extrinsic reinforcement has been discussed earlier in the chapter
and the details about arranging rewards to increase the frequency of
a desired behavior are given in chapter 11. As explained there, to be
effective motivators the extrinsic rewards and intrinsic satisfactions
have to be clearly "contingent" (closely following or associated with) or
caused by the target behavior. There is also a short section in chapter
11 about increasing intrinsic satisfaction.
It is noteworthy that "addictions" seem to be intrinsically satisfying
behaviors that have also acquired the additional capacity to reduce our
anxiety level or meet some other emotional needs. This combination of
intrinsic pleasure with pain reduction pushes the addictive behavior out
of control. See the discussion of addictions near the end of this
The controversy about rewards and intrinsic satisfaction
There are many activities that are intrinsically satisfying to some
people but not to other people. Consider how differently people feel
about studying for class, reading scientific information, playing
competitive games, watching sports, dancing, cleaning house, taking
risks, and so on. This diversity certainly suggests that our past
experiences can have a powerful influence on determining what is
intrinsically satisfying to an individual. In many activities, intrinsically
satisfying aspects combine with extrinsic pay offs, e.g. we intrinsically
enjoy conversing and, at the same time, we get attention, praise,
support and useful information. Or, if we are very lucky, we get great
satisfaction out of our work and we get paid. In these cases where
intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are mixed, one might suppose that
over a period of time the accompanying extrinsic reinforcements
gradually increase our intrinsic enjoyment of the activity... and
perhaps vice versa. That is, a high salary may, in time, make the work
seem more enjoyable. And highly satisfying work may help one feel
okay about a low salary or even proud of doing important work for
It would be ideal, perhaps, if we intrinsically enjoyed all the
activities we need to do, like study, work, clean out the garage,
accurately keep our check book balance, etc., etc. Of course, there are
some activities that have been made satisfying by our biology. Sexual
stimulation is enjoyable innately. Achievement and mastery give most
of us a good feeling. Loving and being loved are usually great joys.
Believing that a powerful God is closely attending to us and will protect
us might well be quite gratifying and reassuring. We don't have to set
up these particular behavior-reinforcement contingencies; they are
mostly pre-arranged by nature or our culture.
It seems likely, since we aren't born with a need to clean house or
a resentment of that chore, that intrinsic satisfaction can be increased
or decreased by our learning experiences, thought processes, and
other reinforcers in the environment. Changing intrinsic satisfaction is
very unexplored territory, even though there has been a big 20-year
controversy about whether or not giving extrinsic rewards, like money,
reduces a person's interest in doing tasks that are already quite
The loudest voices during this argument have contended in many
articles and books that providing a lucrative or intense incentive
program to encourage high productivity is likely to actually reduce the
employees' intrinsic interest in their work and, thus, would be, in the
long run, counterproductive. Or, the classic contention in education is
that giving extrinsic rewards, like money for "A's," for doing something
that could or should be quite pleasurable, like studying, would reduce
the intrinsic satisfaction obtained from studying and be problematic in
the course of a life-time of learning. Intuitively, that notion sounded
believable...and some research supported it... but the crux of that
argument was that rewarding behavior makes the behavior less likely
to occur. That is counter to the basic laws of learning. What are the
facts (as of today)?
Recent research and the controversy
Cameron, Banko and Pierce (2001), spokespersons for one side of
the debate, recently reviewed over 100 studies assessing the
relationship between receiving rewards for some behavior and the
subsequent intrinsic interest in that behavior and concluded:
(1) Considering the overall results, receiving rewards does not,
under all conditions, reduce one's intrinsic motivation to carry out the
task (later without a reward).
(2) Rewarding persons for carrying out tasks of low interest
tends to increase the intrinsic pleasure one gets from doing the task.
So, rewards are important in increasing intrinsic satisfaction with or
motivation to do low-interest activities.
(3) Receiving verbal praise and positive feedback increases the
intrinsic satisfaction derived from that activity. This is true while doing
both high-interest or low-interest tasks.
(4) The effects of receiving tangible rewards while doing high
interest activities depends on the specific conditions under which the
rewards are given. If the rewards are tangible, announced ahead of
time, and explicitly offered for completing a task or for doing well on
the task, the intrinsic interest in doing these tasks is less during a later
free-choice time period. (In other words, make the task like "work for
pay" or like a job you are directed to do and people will lose some
interest.) Likewise, rewarding each unit successfully completed or
solved ("piece work") also reduced intrinsic interest (while often
increasing productivity!). Moreover, not surprisingly, if the reward is
dispensed in such a way as to imply that the performance was poor,
that will also reduce intrinsic interest in the task. (People don't like to
be pushed, controlled, or told they are failing.)
On the other hand, when rewards, such as praise, are based on
performance standards that imply one is doing well and performing
competently, then the intrinsic interest increases. (People like to be
told they are doing well.) Indeed, in real life studies, Flora and Flora
(1999) have reported that even paying or otherwise rewarding
children for reading books did not have a negative effect on their
reading or their intrinsic interest in reading in college.
In certain ways, both the Behaviorists (who lecture to us about
the use of non-technical terms, such as rewards) and the Cognitive
Evaluation theorists (who contend that giving extrinsic rewards to
students kills their love of learning) seem to be right part of the time.
Rewards sometimes reduce our interest in an activity and sometimes
they stimulate our interest. You need to know when rewards help and
when they harm. Some guidelines for deciding when and how to best
use rewards are given above, but these decisions are often rather
difficult. Let's see if we can understand the effects of rewards better.
Why and how external rewards sometimes reduce intrinsic
Experiencing intrinsic satisfaction is something that rather
automatically occurs inside us, it doesn't depend on conscious
intention, anyone else doing anything, or even on the existence of a
tangible reward. It is a feeling, not necessarily an action; it may not be
detectable by others. We probably feel vaguely responsible for liking to
read or paint or garden... but we may not be able to explain it. Ask
someone why he/she likes to read history or work on cars, and they
will say, "Oh, I just like to do it" or "I just find it interesting." It is a
free, naturally occurring, and dependable pay off. Getting it arranged
in the first place may be difficult.
On the other hand, extrinsic pay offs are pretty obvious--we get a
pay check, grades, compliments, etc. Usually, there isn't anything
subtle or vague about the connection between our behavior and the
reinforcement; we know what the behavior leads to what
consequences. It is quite clear that only a few rewards are arranged
by us for us, i.e. for self-control, but most rewards come from others,
including our economic and social systems. Indeed, many of us are
well aware of life-long experiences with people--parents, caretakers,
teachers, bosses, friends, spouses--trying to use extrinsic motivators
to get us to do a million things that we don't really want to do. They
try to motivate us with rewards, including money, criticism, grades
and evaluations, promises or bribes, sweet talk and praise, pleas,
threats of rejection or resentment, etc.--all are extrinsic motivators,
several involve the use of power. Partly as a result of these
experiences, most of us, since about age 3, harbor some resistance to
external control. We would like to feel free and competent and "in
control" or "I'm doing it my way." Of course, getting a reward which
signifies that we are doing something valuable and/or doing it
exceptionally well is certainly different from getting the same reward
for "doing what I asked you to do" or for "living up to my standards."
So, it is not surprising that many of us resist external pressure (and,
thus, some aspects of extrinsic motivation).
Also, note that if an extrinsic reward system has been designed to
control one's actions and quickly produce some product or accomplish
a very precise outcome, the required actions will very likely focus
one's attention on each small precise step and on speed, like a robot.
This concentration on efficiency results in little time to think about how
to make improvements in the process, little motivation to be creative,
and little intrinsic satisfaction in the activity. This concentration on
performing well is also often true when we are competing and trying to
win. In a similar way, when we strive to gain someone's praise or
approval, that effort is likely to detract us from actually enjoying
accomplishing the task (but we like the attention, if we get it). For a
variety of reasons it frequently feels better doing what we want, how
we want to do it, and at our own pace. Autonomy and freedom from
demands is the preferred state for many of us...BUT without explicit
directions and guidance will students learn what others think they
should learn? Some will, some won't. Without clear guidelines and
rewards for carrying out one's work will we be as efficient as others
want us to be? Probably not, so some tension between "freedom"
(intrinsic motivation) and control by others (extrinsic), often using
rewards, continues. This isn't just a conflict within a person; it is a
group or social argument. Since the joy of learning and of enjoying
your skills at work are highly valuable reactions to have, teachers and
employers naturally became concerned about the provision of
incentive programs based on certain kinds of extrinsic rewards given
under overly-controlling conditions.
Much, much more study is needed but it seems that rewards, in
general, are highly beneficial and appropriate to use, except when
people are engaged in activities that are already high-interest (and
probably don't need additional motivation) or could be. This conflict
between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is important to understand
both when we are simply trying to understand behavior and when we
are trying to arrange optimal conditions for encouraging desired
behaviors. Therefore, I will discuss several more situations that
hopefully will shed more light on this unique behavior management
Rewards and intrinsic satisfaction in conflict--a rare but real
Sometimes, rewarding a behavior makes it less likely to occur in
the future (Kohn, 1993; Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). Wow! That
seems strange. It is contrary to everything else I'm telling you in this
book. How could this happen? We will discuss several interesting
circumstances, some based on research but others involve pure
(1) Some so-called "rewards" can have insulting implications, such
as "Son, I'll give you a dollar to mow the lawn" or "Honey, I need
more sex; I'll give you $5.00 every time we make love." While these
examples are rather silly, it isn't uncommon to hear someone say, "I'm
not going to work for minimum wage." The poor pay ("reward") can be
seen as demeaning.
Overly glowing praise can sometimes imply that you have limited
ability, such as when people say to you, "It's great you did so well!"
and it is clear that they didn't expect you to do nearly so well. If the
basic message is that they think you have little ability, that is not
(2) As the research summarized above shows, rewards may
sometimes reduce the intrinsic satisfaction we get from an enjoyable
activity. There is a wonderful baseball story that may illustrate this
outcome, called the "over justification effect." An old man was
bothered by kids playing ball and yelling every day in an empty lot
next to his house. He knew he couldn't just chase them away. So, he
offered each one of them 25 cents (this was years ago) to play and
yell real loud. They always played there anyway and the addition of
money was great, so they did. He did the same thing the next day and
the day after that, urging them to make a lot of noise. The kids were
delighted. On the fourth day, however, the old man told them he was
sorry but he could only pay them 15 cents. They grumbled but did it
anyhow. The fifth day, he told them he could only pay 5 cents. The
kids left and never came back! Why did this happen? Remember
attribution theory? Perhaps the old man had changed the kids' thinking
from "I love to play ball here" to "I'm just playing here for the money
(an over justification--an over emphasis on the money)." In this way,
a little "reward" seemed to reduce the overall satisfaction the kids got
from playing. Of course, the kids may still love playing somewhere
else, just not for the old man. However, haven't you heard people say,
"I just work for the money" or "I just study for the grade?" They are
over justifying too and are depriving themselves of many satisfactions.
It's not surprising that people lose interest in things they have been
bribed to do (Kohn, 1993).
On the other hand, if the old man had wanted to increase the
playing and noise level, he could have given them the money each day
and never reduced or stopped it. I don't know this for sure but their
love of the game would probably have increased with the addition of
monetary rewards for just showing up (without the demands for more
noise), especially among the kids who only marginally liked playing
ball. So, it was likely the manipulative taking away of the money and
the demands that caused the kids to stop playing, not the giving of
Others believe there are other kinds of risks in using rewards.
Adlerian psychologists oppose rewards because they emphasize the
controlling or superior position of the rewarder and the dependent,
inferior position of the rewardee. As mentioned above, many people
resent reward systems; they feel they are being treated like a child or
in a mechanical, impersonal, manipulative manner. Conversely, people
in power sometimes oppose giving rewards, e.g. to disadvantaged
students for studying because "that is what students should be doing
anyhow." (No one ever says, "Don't pay leaders or professors... that is
what they should be doing anyhow.") In fact, 150 years ago New York
City schools established a reward system (like today's "token
economies") paying students for doing well. A few years later the
experiment, which had been successful, was terminated because it
"encouraged a mercenary spirit." All this opposition to rewards makes
it hard to establish effective systems. By recognizing and balancing
both extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement perhaps we can get our
motivational systems to work better.
For instance, suppose John (the case we discussed earlier) had
decided to stop procrastinating for one semester. If his grades
improved a lot, that would have reinforced studying. But grades are
extrinsic (like the old man's 25 cents), and as long as his grades are
good enough, he is okay. But, John has done nothing to increase his
intrinsic satisfaction, such as saying to himself "this is interesting stuff"
or "I'm proud of myself" or "I like learning useful information." If his
grades don't go up and stay up, he may give up and resort to playing
again. Thus, like the kids playing ball, John needs to be aware of and
work on getting more extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement for
studying. It is a lesson for most of us. Many of us see our work as
boring and meaningless, even though we are producing a wonderful
product or service for someone. We have lost the intrinsic satisfaction
(pride) the craftsman had in his work.
(3) Some rewards are used as bribes. This means they are usually
offered after the other person has been resisting or procrastinating.
Thus, the reward may reinforce resisting again in the future rather
than doing the task without being reminded. Example: Suppose your
13-year-old has put off her chore of mowing the lawn for 3 or 4 days
but you want it done before company comes this evening. So, you say,
"Jane, besides getting the usual $20, you can spend the night at
Nancy's, if you mow the lawn before seven." Does that reinforce
mowing the lawn or procrastination? Clearly, procrastination... or
maybe both (but what else can you do, if you want the lawn mowed!).
When children are "offered" a reward for reading, they tend to
choose the easiest and shortest books, not the most interesting,
informative, or provocative. Please note that the children are
negotiating the smart "business-like" way, i.e. getting the most pay off
for the least amount of work! The parents might be well advised to
first discuss with their children how to wisely choose a book.
To the extent we do anything--work or play--for an external
payoff, even for praise and admiration, we may start to feel controlled
by the payoffs. For instance, focusing on what is called "ego
involvement ," such as "am I doing better than others?" or "are they
watching and thinking I'm doing a great job?", seems to reduce our
"task involvement" and intrinsic satisfaction in actually performing
the task. Thus, we might start to believe that the task isn't worth
doing unless others are impressed or unless someone is paying us to
do the task.
(4) Rosen (1982) found that asking phobic subjects to reward
themselves disrupted their progress in using another method
(desensitization) to reduce fears. He suggested that compliance with
instructions is greater with simple instructions. He felt that adding self-
administered rewards complicated things too much. (Note, however,
that Rosen's subjects were told to self-reward; they did not plan their
own project and decide to do this on their own.)
(5) Both behavioral and cognitive-oriented researchers have
reported that extrinsic rewards, like money or an award, may under
several specific conditions harm the performance on interesting,
creative tasks. Kohn (1993) documents this harm done by rewards in
many instances. It is a serious concern. Here are a couple of examples
of studies: young children lost some interest in their favorite art work
if they were asked to "do good work for 2 weeks" to get a reward.
Similar children just left alone did not lose interest. Of course, rewards
are necessary with uninteresting tasks, like most service jobs and
factory work. However, paying persons for doing interesting, satisfying
tasks, such as tutoring young children, led to a poorer performance,
less satisfaction, and more irritability. Offering $20.00 to give blood
discourages some people from giving. John Condry called rewards "the
enemy of exploration."
In many of the experiments in this area, the behavior linked with
extrinsic rewards became somewhat (not radically) less likely to occur
after the rewards ("bribes") are withdrawn. Perhaps, as in the case of
the old man paying the boys playing ball, it is the withdrawal of former
rewards that is problematic. The most believable explanation for these
results, however, is that being paid off for doing something makes it
seem more like work than fun. If a person were reading/studying
without extrinsic reinforcement (not being paid or graded or looking
for a job), he/she might say, "I must really find science and history
intriguing; I read it so much." A task seems less enjoyable and less
interesting when it is something you "have to do" in order to get a
reward; you forget the good and satisfaction in doing the task.
Interestingly, rewards in the form of praise for doing good work (and
being able) seldom reduce interest and usually increase it.
Please note that almost all these "problems" with rewards occur
only when the reinforcement is controlled or manipulated by someone
else. Self-reinforcement (and even self-punishment) may be less
problematic. When a person feels in control and doing something
intrinsically satisfying, they feel positive, self-directed, and competent.
The implications are that living according to your values is important
(see chapter 3) and that one should find interest and satisfaction in
his/her work and studies. It is a tragedy that learning in school is
potentially fascinating but becomes dull and stressful, a place where
we are controlled, threatened with bad grades, and forced to do
meaningless assignments. Work, making something valuable for
another human being, becomes boring and selfish, i.e. done only for
the money. How sad. We could change our view of the world and our
explanations of our own behavior (see method #15 in chapter 11).
Extrinsic rewards alone may produce an achieving society, but not
necessarily a caring or happy society.
Don't jump to the silly conclusion, as some writers seem to
suggest, that all extrinsic rewards are bad or ineffective. Rewards are
vitally important, especially in self-control and with important tasks
that are not highly interesting to us. Rewards given in an
undemanding, encouraging, complimentary way even increase our
intrinsic satisfaction doing tasks we have always liked to do. In this
chapter and chapter 11, we will see the importance and power of
rewards repeatedly. Rewards used wisely may be our most powerful
tool for changing and maintaining behavior. But it may be a serious
concern that our society is becoming so focused on the extrinsic and
materialistic payoffs that, like the kids playing ball, we, as a society,
are in danger of overlooking the many important intrinsic satisfactions
in life. Intrinsic motivation can be engrossing for some people but for
many of us it can easily be overpowered by commercialism and self-
centered greed for trinkets and luxury. Our culture's increasing
concentration on materialism, especially how much money we make,
detracts us from the intrinsic pleasures of being caring, giving, just
and fair, and just living morally with every living thing.
The conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motives, viewed in a
broad sense, seems to me to be neglected (see chapter 3). Maybe you
can change that in your life. How both kinds of motivations are wisely
used by a rational society is crucial to building a good life or a wise,
empathic world community. Intrinsic interests can even improve one's
self-care and health. For example, Curry, Wagner & Grothaus (1990)
found that smokers were more likely to quit if they had intrinsic
motives (better health, pride in self-control) than if they had extrinsic
motives (save money, avoids disapproval of others). Researchers are
also finding that intrinsic satisfaction in performing meaningful,
important tasks is not only related to how much we achieve, but also
to having high self-esteem, to self-efficacy or believing we are
competent to handle work and problems, and to thinking of ourselves
as being self-directed--in control of our lives.
Enjoying work and "getting into the flow" of the work
One of life's biggest decisions is what career to pursue. Learning to
enjoy our work is a complex matter: (1) Intrinsic motivation to learn is
complexly related to achievement. Examples: Intrinsic motivation, of
course, leads to achievement, but achievement leads to more intrinsic
motivation too. Why wouldn't a confident, contented, self-satisfied,
self-motivated, self-controlled student or worker enjoy his/her studies
and work more? But intrinsically motivated gifted students may see
grades, college admission, and teacher evaluations, even praise, as
unpleasant unwanted controls and pressures. These external pressures
may be considered unimportant or be resented and resisted. On the
other hand, certain extrinsically oriented students may need parent,
peer, and teacher evaluations, especially praise, but, at the same
time, see little connection between their efforts and their grades; thus,
average grades may be less threatening to their ego. Other
extrinsically motivated students are in a panic about their grades. We
are just beginning to explore these important areas. Life's joys are
largely intrinsic; lots of material things don't always make us happy.
Satisfaction is gained in different ways by different folks, and you can
change your way if you want to.
(2) Intrinsic satisfaction in our work is critically important. We
spend 40 years at work--almost 100,000 hours. Csikszentmihalyi
(1990) describes a welder in Chicago who was the "master mechanic"
in his shop. Yet, he refused promotions to management; he didn't
want to be "the boss." Joe worked in the same shop for over 30 years;
he knew every piece of equipment and was fascinated with how it
worked. When there was a problem, Joe could fix it. Most surprisingly,
he loved his work; he enjoyed any job assigned to him; each job was
an interesting challenge. After work, Joe didn't go to a bar with
buddies to "forget about work," he went home and worked in a
beautiful garden. With this attitude, it isn't surprising that Joe was
liked and admired by everyone. Csikszentmihalyi calls this "flow"--
fascination, concentration, and contentment with the task at hand.
What a gift! Over 2000 years ago, the Chinese called it "Yu"--the
proper way to live, without concern for external rewards, with joy and
total commitment. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all "flow" most
of the time? The recipe for flow isn't figured out for sure yet--too
complex (see chapter 14, however). But a few lucky people figure it
out for themselves. I found it right here writing to you. It involves a
Unconscious motives and payoffs
If, as we have seen, we are unaware of motives, payoffs, and
blocks in our behavior, naturally we won't understand ourselves, not
entirely. Chapter 15 will deal with unconscious processes in great
detail, but here let's clarify the notion of the unconscious. There are
probably thousands of neural processes constantly going on in our
heads. Our brain is not built in such a way that we know about most of
these processes; we are only aware of the final product. Examples: We
remember our high school but we don't know the process by which the
brain remembers it. We get jealous but we don't know the mental-
emotional process that generates the feeling. We come up with a good
idea but we don't know the process by which the idea was created, it
just occurred to us. Thus, this is one kind of unconscious--necessary
mental processing you have no natural means of knowing about.
Another kind of unconscious, sometimes called "preconscious," is
when you do something automatically, without thinking. We brush all
our teeth without thinking about each detail. We walk, dress, eat,
smile, and even ride a bike or drive a car without much conscious
thought. We could tune into these events and some of the thought
processes involved if we chose to do so. This is mostly a beneficial
A third semi-conscious process involves the defenses, wishful
thinking, and excuses used to allay our own guilt and anxiety. Often
we quickly "go for" the immediate reward and overlook the long-range
consequences--we eat the fatty meat and forget our health. Or we
overlook problems in our marriage until our spouse files for divorce. Or
our motives are so numerous (and rationalized) that we deny some of
them--we have several reasons for accepting a certain job but neglect
our attraction to someone we will be working with. Or we are
convinced we must have a new car and don't even consider the
economic advantages of an older, smaller car. Gaining self-awareness,
which isn't too hard in some of these cases, involves getting a clearer
view of these motives and payoffs (chapters 9 & 15). Perhaps some
distortions of reality help us cope, e.g. avoiding thinking about our
unavoidable death or thinking of heaven may be helpful.
Lastly, some psychologists believe that the unconscious primarily
contains repressed urges and thoughts. Repression supposedly occurs
because the thought is too awful, too serious (not just an excuse to
buy a new car), too psychologically painful, to admit to ourselves
consciously. If an idea were not shame or guilt-producing, you could
supposedly think of it consciously with a little effort. Some ideas are
very hard to face; in suicide people kill themselves to avoid painful
ideas. According to the Freudians, we are selfish and driven by sexual
and aggressive urges that we can not stand to think about, things like
the desire for forbidden sexual activity, the urge to harm ourselves or
others, the wish to dominate others, and so on. It would be possible
for unseen parts of our brain to have these urges, other parts could
detect these urges and develop some defenses against the urges,
defenses that seem irrational and look neurotic or psychotic. Experts
disagree about how much these "terrible" repressed motives affect our
daily lives. You can decide for yourself, but surely these unacceptable
thoughts and feelings are inside us sometimes and they would surely
affect our behavior.
Experts also disagree about the importance of understanding your
history and internal dynamics in order to figure out how to change.
Behaviorists contend that this information isn't necessary; they think
all one needs is a change is the environment so that the desired
behavior is more reinforced than the unwanted behavior. Most other
psychologists would disagree. I agree with the behaviorist in the sense
that simple behavioral self-help (or therapy) methods may change
very complex, poorly understood aspects of our lives, but we can't
count on these simple methods always working. However, if I had my
choice, I'd rather that we all were omnipotent and understood all our
life-history, the laws of behavior (conscious and unconscious), the
dynamics and methods of changing--everything!
A little experience with self-help shows the importance of keeping
an open mind about causes and methods. Several years ago a bright
student in my class was having difficulty studying because she wanted
to party, relax, and socialize. She diligently tried rewarding studying
by socializing afterwards (which works for many students). It didn't
work for her; she partied all the time. In the meantime, she became
interested in Transactional Analysis (see chapter 9) as a means of
gaining self-understanding. After recognizing her "child's" need to play
and socialize, she started to have fun first (satisfying the "child"), then
she could study (satisfying the "adult"). For most students it works
better to say, "work first, then play." For this unique student, and
contrary to learning theory (on the surface), it needed to be turned
around--play first, then work. Or another way to say it is that she
needed to attend more to her emotions (levels II and V) than to her
behavior. Or, Maslow would say she needed to take care of her social
needs before self-actualizing as a student. Few of our behaviors are
In this chapter, we first looked at how-to-change, i.e. learning new
behaviors or increasing our motivation to act differently. Then, we
considered why behavior is so hard to understand. Now, we will
attempt to apply some of this information to understanding a common
problem--procrastination, i.e. putting off doing something important.
Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found that 65% of college students
want to learn to stop putting off writing term papers, 62% feel the
need to study for exams more promptly, and 55% hope to read their
assignments earlier. Most of us procrastinate some. What are other
signs of procrastination besides waiting until the last minute to do
something? Try these on for size: being reluctant to take risks or try
something new, staying at home or in the same old job, getting sick
when faced with an unpleasant job, avoiding confrontations or
decisions, blaming others or the situation ("it's boring") for your
unhappiness or to avoid doing something, making big plans but never
carrying them out, and/or having such a busy social-recreational
calendar that it is hard to get important work done.
This list of symptoms suggests that procrastination, which at first
sounds like a simple behavior, is, in fact, quite complex. It involves
emotions, skills, thoughts or attitudes, and factors we are unaware of.
Furthermore, the causes and dynamics of putting off an important but
unpleasant task vary from person to person and from task to task for
the same person. For instance, you may delay doing your math
assignment but fill out an application for school immediately.
Hopefully, understanding how and why we procrastinate will help us
change it. We may even learn more about what is commonly called
Procrastination is a strange phenomenon. Its purpose seems to be
to make our life more pleasant but instead it almost always adds
stress, disorganization, and frequently failure. Ellis and Knaus (1977)
and Burka and Yuen (1983) describe the process: (1) You want to
achieve some outcome, usually something you and others value and
respect--"I've got to start." (2) You delay, briefly thinking of real and
imagined advantages of starting to change later--"I'll do it tomorrow
when I don't have much to do." (3) You delay more, becoming self-
critical--"I should have started sooner"--and/or self-excusing--"I really
couldn't have left the party early last night, my best friends were
there." You may hide or pretend to be busy; you may even lie about
having other obligations. (4) You delay still more, until finally the task
has to be done, usually hastily--"Just get it done any old way"--or you
just don't have time--"I can't do this!" (5) You berate yourself--"There
is something wrong with me"--and swear never to procrastinate again
and/or you discount the importance of the task--"It doesn't matter."
(6) You repeat the process almost immediately on other important
tasks, as if it were an addiction or compulsion.
The wisest course of action, most of the time, would be to simply
do the unpleasant task as soon as practical, while we have enough
time to do the job right and get it over with, not prolonging our agony.
But we put it off. Why? There are many possible reasons: (1) we feel
good about setting goals and declaring that we are going to change or
succeed "sometime," (2) by procrastinating we shorten the time we
actually have to work on the task, and (3) much of the time we avoid
the unpleasant task altogether. Research has shown that 70% of New
Year's resolutions are abandoned by February 1.
Discipline is... 1. Do what has to be done; 2. When it has to be done; 3. As well as it can
be done; and 4. Do it that way every time.
In recent years, most psychologists have come to believe that the
act of procrastinating can best be understood by identifying the
emotions associated with or underlying the behavior. Actually,
procrastination is an attempt to cope with our emotional reactions.
What are these emotions? Fear of failure or success is the most likely
emotion (this includes panic when we set impossible goals). Anger is
another possible emotion (this includes rebellion against control).
Dislike of the work that needs to be done is another. Obviously,
depression can slow us down (and failing due to procrastination can
depress us). Seeking pleasure is another disruptive motive. So the
task for the procrastinator becomes (1) correctly identifying your
form(s) of procrastination and (2) finding a solution for your specific
emotional reaction. Not an easy job.
Types of procrastinators
It may help to think in terms of two fundamental kinds of
procrastinators: one tense and the other relaxed. The tense type often
feels both an intense pressure to succeed and a fear of failure; the
relaxed type often feels negatively toward his/her work and blows it
off--forgets it--by playing (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984). John,
described early in this chapter, is the relaxed type; he neglected his
school work but not his socializing. This denial-based type of
procrastinator avoids as much stress as possible by dismissing his/her
work or disregarding more challenging tasks and concentrating on
"having fun" or some other distracting activity; if their defense
mechanisms work effectively, they actually have what seems like "a
happy life" for the moment. More about this type later.
The tense-afraid type of procrastinator is described by Fiore
(1989) as feeling overwhelmed by pressures, unrealistic about time,
uncertain about goals, dissatisfied with accomplishments, indecisive,
blaming of others or circumstances for his/her failures, lacking in
confidence and, sometimes, perfectionistic. Thus, the underlying fears
are of failing, lacking ability, being imperfect, and falling short of
overly demanding goals. This type thinks his/her worth is determined
by what he/she does, which reflects his/her level of ability. He/she is
afraid of being judged and found wanting. Thus, this kind of
procrastinator will get over-stressed and over-worked until he/she
escapes the pressure temporarily by trying to relax but any enjoyment
gives rise to guilt and more apprehension.
Procrastination is the fear of success... Because success is heavy, it carries a
responsibility with it, it is much easier to procrastinate and live on the "someday I'll"
The tense-afraid type of procrastinator comes in five forms, as
described by Burka and Yuen (1984) and Ellis and Knaus (1977):
The fear of successful achievement in school leading to
underachievement has already been described in great detail in the
last section on motivation. (1) Such a student may avoid trying in
school for fear of doing well...and then being expected to continue to
achieve, be responsible, leave home or friends, and be mature. That is
so scary that they hide their ambition, act like they don't care, and
may really want to do poorly. (2) Likewise, other students may avoid
being successful for fear they will lose friends or become a threat to
others. It is commonly thought that "men don't like women who are
too smart...or can beat them in tennis." Some conservative people
may also be uncomfortable if a woman were successful in a masculine
role--executive, pilot, priest--or if a man were successful in a feminine
role--nurse, hair stylist, homemaker. (3) Others refuse to give up
procrastinating and refuse to strive for success for fear of becoming a
workaholic...or of becoming arrogant, competitive, demanding, or
boring and isolated socially. They may feel that work is endless, that it
will never be done. (4) A few procrastinators may fear success
because they'd feel guilty, as though they didn't deserve it...or "I'd be
an entirely different person, I'd have to admit I'm capable, I'd lose my
A second version of the anxiety-based procrastinator is afraid of
failing. (1) Of course, if we are self-critical and feel inferior, we will
avoid doing many things, especially competitive activities. Not trying is
a form of failure but not as painful as actually trying and failing. (2) If
you have set very high or impossible goals--like a perfectionist, you
are likely to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps that is why, strange as it
seems, perfectionistic procrastinators often have low confidence in
their ability. By procrastinating, such a person avoids, for the moment,
the dreaded expected failure (and guarantees doing poorly in the long
run). (3) If you dread finding out just how able you are (and having
others find out too!), it might seem wiser to put off putting yourself to
the test than to run the risk of trying one's best and only being
average. This is especially crucial if you believe a person is more
worthwhile and lovable if he/she is real smart or talented.
Procrastination, in this special case, may enable us to believe we are
superior in ability (while another part of us fears being inferior),
regardless of our performance. So, as you can see, procrastination
may strengthen a person's feelings of inferiority or superiority.
Better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
The Rational-Emotive therapists (see method #3 in chapter 14;
Ellis & Knaus, 1977) claim that the self-critical and perfectionistic type
of procrastinator has these kinds of irrational beliefs: "I must always
be on time and do well." "Others must like and approve of me." "I'm a
no-good! How could a no-good do anything well?" Of course, one can't
always be perfect, so such a person will fail, leading to thinking things
are awful, feeling pessimistic, and expecting that work will be hard, no
fun, boring--something to avoid. Such a person needs to build his/her
self-esteem (see chapter 14).
A third form of anxiety-based procrastinator needs to feel in
control and/or to resist control by someone else ("You can't make me
do it."). Ellis and Knaus refer to this type as the "angry defiant
procrastinator." Such a person holds the irrational beliefs that
"everyone must treat me kindly and do what I want them to do, and, if
not, I have a right to get mad and hate them (including refusing to do
what parents, teachers, and bosses want me to do)." Naturally,
everyone is asked to do things they don't want to do; some accept
that reality, others don't.
To determine if control and anger are factors in your
procrastination, ask yourself: "Is anyone bothered or inconvenienced
by my taking my time or my being late?" "Do I often question and/or
rebel against rules?" "Do I frequently feel like telling someone to get
off my back"? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may
be in a battle for control! Passive-aggressiveness is a very powerful
expression of resentment (see chapter 8). Being your own person,
doing your own thing, etc., may seem to prove you are powerful and
independent, but what if you spend a life-time slavishly proving you
are "free" (rather than doing what would be best for you)? Such
people often say, "Gosh, if I changed, I'd have to start being on time,
following rules, getting into a routine...that would mean they won.
Besides, it would be boring and too easy." If anger is part of your
problem, look over chapter 7.
The fourth and fifth forms of anxiety-based procrastination are
designed to keep someone you need close to you or to keep a
frightening relationship at a distance. Overcoming procrastination and
becoming more independent, successful, decisive, and confident might
remove one from a dependent relationship (see chapter 8) as well as
propel one into an intimate relationship. Ask yourself, "Am I lonely and
uncomfortable if I'm not with someone?" "Do I seek lots of advice and
still hesitate to make a decision on my own?" Or: "Am I hesitating to
get more deeply involved with someone by being indecisive or by not
doing well?" If interpersonal concerns underlie your procrastinating,
see chapters 8, 9 and 10.
More recently, Sapadin and Maguire (1997) have also classified
procrastinators into types: the "perfectionist" who dreads doing
anything that is less than perfect, the "dreamer" who has great ideas
but hates doing the details, the "worrier" who doesn't think things are
right but fears that changes will make them worse, the "defier" who
resists doing anything suggested or expected by someone else, the
"crisis-maker" who manages to find or make a big problem in any
project (often by starting too late), and the "over-doer" who takes on
way too many tasks. These authors focus more on family
characteristics and personality traits. If you see a description here that
fits you, read about it. Another book that helps you assess your
personal style of procrastination is Roberts (1995).
Now back to the relaxed, pleasure seeking procrastinator.
This personality seems, at first, to be less complicated, but careful
observation of their thoughts and emotions suggests differently.
Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found this type to be much more
common among college students than the tense-afraid type. Ellis and
Knaus (1977) call this the easily-frustrated, self-indulgent
procrastinator. As suggested by Maslow, these procrastinators may be
addicted to people or preoccupied with meeting their more basic
emotional needs, e.g. for attention and approval by peers, love, or
self-esteem. For some students, these other needs make studying
In addition to emotional needs, the relaxed procrastinator's
thoughts may push him/her away from his work or studies. For
instance, their basic belief system may center around thinking that
"my long-range goals require too much hard unpleasant work." To
such a person the gain is not worth the pain, especially since the
necessary work is seen by them as so distasteful or boring or stupid
that they just can't do it. A quick-starter, on the other hand, knows
he/she can handle the drudgery. This relaxed procrastinator gets to
the point of saying very irrational things to him/herself, such as: "I
have to have something going on--I can't stand being bored" or "I
must feel like studying before I can get started" or "I hate taking tests
so much, I can't enjoy anything about studying" or "I hate math and I
can't stand the teacher" or "If I don't like to do something, I shouldn't
have to do it" or "Since teachers make me do things I hate to do, I
hate them" or "Since I hate teachers and school, I won't do any more
than I have to do--and I'll look for shortcuts, including cheating,
whenever I can" or "Studying is so terrible and useless, it makes sense
not to do it." So, they procrastinate by finding something fun to do
and, then, rationalize their behavior.
So, what causes procrastination? Basically, it is fears, but each
procrastinator develops and responds to his/her own specific fears. In
varying degrees we are all afraid of facing reality--life's challenges, the
hard work and frustrations ahead of us. You can either deny reality or
face it, i.e. say there is "no problem" or admit (maybe even
exaggerate) the problems. Thus, there are relaxed, fun-loving
procrastinators and tense-worried procrastinators. From a behavioral
viewpoint, negative reinforcement plays a major role in the
development of procrastination, i.e. behaviors (watching TV) and
thoughts (rationalizations or excuses) enable students to avoid
unpleasant work. Escape from something unpleasant is reinforcing.
Procrastination is an escape.
How to stop procrastinating
If we begin with the notion that procrastination is not the basic
"problem" but rather an attempted "cure" for fears, self-doubts, and
dislike of work, then it is obvious that most procrastinators will have to
focus on the real problems--underlying fears, attitudes and irrational
ideas--in order to overcome the procrastinating behavior. After
accepting this idea, the next step is to figure out what the "real"
underlying problem is for you. Start by asking, "Am I a relaxed or a
tense procrastinator?" Tense procrastinators suffer from strong,
sometimes mean, internal critics (see chapter 14); relaxed
procrastinators have bamboozled their self-critic by denying reality.
From this point, each procrastinator must deal with his/her own unique
emotions, skills, thoughts, and unconscious motives. Below are some
self-help procedures that should be of help to relaxed and tense
But it is possible that you have never learned to organize your time
or simply have been rewarded for putting things off, e.g. someone else
"let you quit assignments" or did your work for you. In this case, if you
want to change, simply stopping the rewards should solve the
procrastination problem. You might want to try this easy approach
first, so I will mention some simple behavioral methods for reducing
this problem. If these methods don't work or don't appeal to you, then
make use of methods given below for the tense or relaxed
Methods for a quick, simple behavioral approach
For perhaps a third of all student procrastinators, a To-Be-Done
List, a daily schedule (chapter 13), and a simple record-keeping and
reward procedure (chapter 11) will do wonders. Changes may occur
immediately; often they start going to the library or some special place
to study with a new friend. I've seen hundreds of students become
more serious and responsible about studying. They experience relief
just going to class more often and being prepared for exams; some
even start to find the material interesting and challenging; they start
working for "A's;" a few actually decide to become dedicated students.
I love to see a good brain be used. Like dieters, though, many find it
hard to maintain their new study habits and backslide within two or
Most people have to overcome procrastination gradually. Studying,
like drinking, is usually in binges. Almost no one has trouble studying
(a little) the night before a big exam. But without the pressure of an
exam, many students find it easy to forget studying. I'd suggest
breaking big jobs down into manageable tasks and working on "getting
started," perhaps by tricking yourself by saying "I'll just do five
minutes" and then finding out you don't mind working longer than five
minutes. This is called the "five minute plan." The key is to learn the
habit of getting started on a task early, i.e. the procrastinator needs to
learn to initiate well in advance studying and preparing for papers and
exams. Practice starting studying several times every day. As with
exercising, getting in control of starting and making it a routine are
Some students also find it helpful to keep a journal in which they
record in detail their thoughts and feelings associated with studying.
This helps them see how their fears, excuses, competing needs, and
habits divert attention from studying. Based on this insight they can
devise their own self-talk (will power) to take on scary tasks and do
them promptly. Others ask friends to nag and push them, maybe even
fine them a dollar if they aren't on their way to the library by 7:00
P.M. More techniques are given at the end of this chapter and in
chapter 11. Also see McWilliams & McWilliams (1991).
Many procrastinators, however, resist these methods. As one
student told me, "I can easily ignore schedules and reminders.
Rewards and penalties are the worst of all--I just take the reward
without doing the work and I forget to punish myself." A truly
dedicated "relaxed" procrastinator will need more internal motivation,
maybe a new philosophy of life (chapter 3) or simply more worry and
tension, i.e. a much stronger self-critic.
Behaviorally, the role of negative reinforcement in procrastination
is easy to see, i.e. some behavior or thought enables a person to
escape some unpleasant but necessary work. That escape--
procrastination--is reinforced. (Besides, the pleasure from playing,
partying, and watching TV could easily overwhelm the pleasure from
studying.) Each procrastinator develops his/her own unique
combination of escape mechanisms, such as emotions (fears,
resentment, social needs), thoughts (irrational ideas, cognitive
strategies, self-cons), skills and lack of skills, and unconscious
motives, perhaps. Remember, we anticipated this complexity in
Helping the relaxed procrastinator
The work-avoiding, pleasure-seeking, reasonably comfortable type
of procrastinator will not feel much pressure to change, unless he/she
is confronted with reality by some event (such as, flunking out of
school) or by serious thoughts about where his/her life is headed (as
with an alcoholic, denial usually keeps this from happening). In short,
this type of procrastinator needs a crisis. The question is: Can the
relaxed procrastinator provide the pressure he/she needs to straighten
out his/her life? (See "closing the crap-gap" in the motivated
underachiever section above.)
Both types of procrastinators dislike the chores they are avoiding.
How does "work" become so disliked? Ellis and Knaus (1977) and
Knaus (1979) suggest that, as procrastinators, we create much of our
own misery in the first place by telling ourselves the task is really
awful ("I hate all this reading") or by putting ourselves down ("I'll do a
terrible job") or by telling ourselves something is very unfair ("The
exams are ridiculous, I can't stand that instructor") or by setting
impossible goals ("I've got to get all A's"). Then we procrastinate to
avoid our own self-created emotional dislike of the job at hand.
One solution, of course, is to reduce our dislike for and anxiety
about the work we need to do, for instance by building self-esteem
(method #1, chapter 14) or by using Rational-Emotional imagery
(chapter 12). We might simply ask ourselves when did we get a
guarantee that life would always be easy and fun? Or, who said hard
work is terrible or that you must get an A? Or, do you know for certain
that you can't stand to be bored? Or, what is your scientific proof that
a 10-page paper with 10 references is outrageous? We can change our
thinking--our views of things (method #3, chapter 14) so that we like
our work better.
As a relaxed, fun-loving procrastinator, we need to see clearly how
pleasure seeking may, in the long run, lead to unhappiness, rather
than to our ideal life. Procrastination occurs because we are able to
fool ourselves into believing it is okay to have fun now and put off our
work. Exactly how do we do this? Very much like the underachiever
uses excuses. Procrastination is a well-learned habit; it happens
without much awareness. When we procrastinate, we quickly shift our
attention away from the work that needs to be done in such an
automatic and slick way that we feel good about avoiding the work--
until later. That's a self-con! It's denial. Facing reality is the only
solution. We have to see what is happening moment by moment, and
stop fooling ourselves. Eventually, the procrastinator can face the
facts, namely, that in most situations a take-it-easy, live-for-today,
let's-have-fun philosophy will usually not get him/her what he/she
wants out of life (if you often start projects but fail to follow through,
see Levinson & Greider, 1998). Don't buy the old I'm-not-in-control
saying, "The future will take care of itself." That's crap. You have to
take a lot of responsibility for your future. Think realistically about
your future...all the time. What are the procrastinators' favorite self-
illusions (and, thus, self-harms in the long run)?
Knaus (1979) describes three kinds of common diversions, i.e.
ways of avoiding the tasks that need to be done:
Action cop-outs. This is doing something that isn't a priority.
Examples: Watching TV, eating, playing, sleeping, or even
cleaning. Once we are engrossed in the diversion, we block out
the anxiety, self-doubts, anger, or boredom associated with the
work we are putting off but should be doing.
Mental excuses. There are three main types: (a) "I'll do it
tomorrow" or "I do my best work late at night, I'll do it then."
Since you have promised yourself that you will be good, you
can escape work and enjoy guilt-free play. (b) "I'll go shopping
now so I can study all evening" or "I'll call them just as soon as
I think of something clever to say" or "I'll fix up my apartment,
then I'll make friends." Some unimportant activity takes priority
over the main but unpleasant or scary event. (c) "I want an 'A'
in statistics but Dr. Mean would never give me one" or "I want
to go out with Brian/Barb (who is handsome/beautiful) but
he/she would never look twice at me." This is a Catch 22
situation. It's impossible, so why should I try? In fact, a person
with this defeatist attitude might never take any action.
Emotional diversions. Taking drugs, listening to music,
reading novels, and even getting involved in friendships, love,
flirtations, or religion could, at times, serve as an escape from
unpleasant but important tasks. Sometimes worrying about a
speech or some other activity is an excuse ("I worried so much
about it!") and a poor substitute for working on the important
Ask yourself if you do any of these things. If so, don't let yourself
get away with it.
In summary, what can the pleasure-seeking procrastinator do?
(1) Stop turning little inconvenient mole hills (like having to do
something unpleasant) into giant "ain't-it-awful" mountains, (2) be on
the look out for any self-con or cop out by which we deny the need to
work right now, (3) start to think more rationally--you don't have to
go to every party, you can get interested in a textbook, (4) make
detailed, realistic plans for achieving your long-range goals, and (5)
don't avoid work, DO IT NOW! Use the behavioral techniques
mentioned above. See McWilliams & McWilliams, 1991.
I'm afraid this kind of advice to a procrastinator will do little good if
he/she continues to effectively use the self-cons mentioned above and
remains relaxed and self-satisfied. It is like a doctor telling an obese
person to lose weight or a smoker to stop. Ordinarily, such advice
doesn't help, unless the person has just had a terrifying heart attack!
Likewise, with the procrastinator, perhaps in a sober moment, he/she
will think, "Oh, my God! I've tricked myself into this stupid self-
defeating behavior--just like a drunkard or a fat person or a smoker.
That scares the hell out of me and makes me mad! I'm going to get in
better control of my life, starting at this moment!" I suspect these
kinds of remarkable changes in our life style will only occur when there
are powerful and sustained emotional forces inside our gut (like a life
threatening heart attack) to provide the motivation to persevere in
becoming a different person. This fear of the future must surely be
created by the procrastinator him/herself--others have probably tried
many times and failed ("Clean up your room, you'll grow up to be a
total slob" or "You have to study, you'll never get into college.") Good
luck in changing, but even if you continue to procrastinate, I hope you
have the happy life you are trying for.
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we
need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
Helping the anxiety-based procrastinator
According to Fiore (1989), if the work pressure is already too
great, exhorting the tense procrastinator to "try harder," "get yourself
organized," "this is a tough job, so don't put it off," or "no friends and
no fun until this work is done" is counterproductive. Such typical
advice only increases the pressure and unpleasant feelings about the
task to be done. This kind of procrastinator has to reduce the
unpleasantness of the task and then he/she will get it done.
Specifically, Fiore recommends that
The procrastinator should reduce his/her fear of failing by (a)
seeing that his/her worth is not totally determined by an
assignment at work or by a term paper grade, (b) having
alternate plans B and C for succeeding, in case plan A doesn't
work, and (c) using self-talk, such as "If I fail, it won't be
awful; I can handle it." See Roberts (1989).
The procrastinator should keep a record of his/her avoidance of
important tasks: What excuses were used? What thoughts and
feelings did he/she have? What was done instead of the work?
What was the outcome (including thoughts and feelings)? See
the five types of anxious procrastinators described above to
The procrastinator can change procrastinating ways of thinking
to productive ways:
I must...(or) have to...(OR
something awful will happen)
I'd like to...(or) choose to...
I've gotta finish...
When can I get started on...
Oh, God, this assignment is
Where is the best place to start?
must do well (fantastic, perfect).
I'll do okay; I'll give it time.
I have no time to play.
It is important to play one hour.
I see life and work as a grind.
Life and work can be fun.
I can't succeed.
I have a better chance of
succeeding if I...
By changing these thoughts and habits, you are reducing
the dread of work and taking responsibility for directing your
life. You are saying "I can enjoy hard, responsible work. It is
part of a good life."
For the over-achiever, the workaholic, the ambitious
perfectionist, avoid the tendency to live entirely in the future --
"it will be wonderful when I am a doctor... a millionaire... on
the honor roll... in the big leagues..." They aren't living in the
now; they are working or feeling guilty because they aren't
working. Such people can learn to love each day if they have a
mission in life (see chapter 3). What a lucky person who can
say "I love my work." Part of this process for most people
involves setting aside time each day to play, to socialize, to
exercise, and to have free time for relaxation. Charles Garfield
(1989) in Peak Performance says productive people need to
take vacations and play (without guilt)! Insist on your fun.
Turn worries and self-doubts into assets by asking (a) What is
the worst possible outcome? (b) What would I do if the worst
happened? How would I carry on? (c) What strengths and skills
do I have that would help me cope? How will I forgive myself
for messing up? (d) What alternative plans could I develop for
having a good life? (e) Can I do things now to help avoid this
awful outcome I fear? (f) Having prepared for the worst, how
can I use my worries to prepare to become stronger and more
capable? This kind of planning helps us face the inevitable risks
that lurk ahead for all of us.
Fiore suggests a unique scheduling system. Schedule your fixed
hours (classes, meetings, meals, etc.) and your play time.
That's all, no work! Make the playing mandatory, not the work.
Focus only on starting to work, not on putting in hour after
hour each day. If you start a project and concentrate on it for
30 minutes, record this on your schedule... and give yourself a
reward. Start as many 30 minute work periods as you can. The
idea is to build the habit of frequently getting to work and to
build the desire to work. Work becomes more enjoyable when it
isn't seen as hard, boring, endless chores that have to be done.
Other methods are prescribed: a calendar based on when
projects are due, a set of realistic goals, an approach to work in
a relaxed state of concentration, and a quick, optimistic
response to setbacks. In the final analysis being motivated and
productive is a result of liking yourself. Thus, building
confidence and self-respect is at the heart of this program.
A couple of other self-help books focus on overcoming serious self-
doubt and fears that lead to procrastinating or blocking (Sykes, 1997;
Boice, 1996). Blocking often involves delay and panic and is especially
likely to happen when the finished product involves an evaluation or
public scrutiny, such as a term paper or a book.
A different approach to escaping the unpleasant internal critic is
taken by White (1988), who says that a behavioral approach, such as
teaching time management or study skills to this kind of
procrastinator, often increases his/her resistance to work rather than
helps. White helps her students understand the unconscious mental
struggles that often underlie perfectionistic procrastination. She asks
them to imagine certain internal parts (common in children from
perfectionistic families), such as "the NAG," "the CRITIC," and "the
CHILD." The nag constantly reminds you of what must be done. The
critic tells you that you'll mess it up or look foolish or be rejected. The
child tries to get you to avoid the threatening, unpleasant work ("I
don't want to. You can't make me!") by seeking fun ("Let's party! Turn
on the music and where's the beer?"). As the child runs away, the nag
shouts orders, and the critic attacks even more. A miserable existence!
Sometimes, the perfectionistic procrastinator is pretty successful even
though miserable. Occasionally, he/she is traumatized ("If I can't be
perfect, I won't do anything but be upset").
Getting in touch with the interactions among these inner
characters is designed to shed light on the purposes and intentions of
each character. Each is trying to help us: to get us motivated (Nag), to
get things done right (Critic), to get some peace (Child). After getting
to know these parts well (listen carefully to the internal voices for a
week or so), the idea is to learn (several more weeks) to use each part
so we can be rational in our planning, highly motivated to achieve our
values, and still able to enjoy our life. Examples: Orders ("You
must...") are turned into "I want to accomplish (some goal) in this
way..." Attacks ("You are so stupid") are converted into helpful
suggestions and an urge to be original or creative. Your frightened
child is cuddled and protected and reassured by your "adult" who can
see the world more realistically (see chapter 15). Make friends with
each part, name them, visualize them, value them, help them help
you, and interact with them. White is a therapist but the students do
the fantasies on their own. You could too, if this approach appeals to
Sometimes, you need to go deeper than time management, self
talk, and rewards. White's use of fantasy is a good illustration of a
different kind of self-help method. It is designed to give us insight into
our internal dynamics, emotions, cognitions, and unconscious factors.
Even with insight, you will probably need a To-Be-Done List, a daily
schedule, and a system of rewards until the intrinsic satisfaction in the
work is a sufficient motivator. Recent publications are Bruno (1997),
who has several small books about self-help, and Woodring (1994).
Finally, brief mention should be made of books that address the
educational process and the increasing of students' incentive to learn
and confidence in their learning ability. A textbook by Bandura (1997)
presents his theories and research about self-efficacy ("I can do it")
followed by many suggestions for changes in education, business, and
health care. Other psychologists have specialized in helping students
overcome failure (Covington & Teel, 1996) and in developing
confident, self-regulated learners (Zimmerman, Bonner & Kovach,
1996). These are mostly classroom strategies for teachers.
Planning Behavioral Changes
Develop a treatment plan for changing behavior
In chapter 2 the stages involved in making a change in your
personal life are described: (1) not thinking about changing, (2)
starting to think about possibly changing, (3) preparing to change, (4)
taking some action, and (5) maintaining the changes made. Some
suggestions are given in that chapter for overcoming resistance to
change at several stages, but most of chapter 2 deals with stage (3) or
preparing to change, i.e. how to develop a self-help plan. It is
important to remember that a part of every self-help plan involves
selecting techniques that will keep you motivated to change as well as
selecting self-change methods that will enable you to make the
changes you want. This chapter primarily summarizes a number of
behavior-change methods (also see chapters 2 and 11) but also a few
motivation techniques (also see chapters 2 and 14).
Thus far, in this chapter we have reviewed basic theories of
learning and motivation as applied in real life situations. We have
looked at what blocks our desired behavior and why our behavior is
sometimes hard to understand. Then we focused on overcoming self-
defeating behaviors, especially addictions and procrastination. Now we
are ready to review all the self-help methods for changing behavior.
From these methods the self-helper will probably choose only 2 or 3
methods that seem the best for his/her purposes; otherwise, your
self-help plan will be too complex.
Earlier in this chapter it was pointed out that behavior occurs in a
sequence or in a
context. Here are some examples:
A. Antecedents--stimuli in the environment before the
"target" behavior occurs,
circumstances and events that catch your attention,
thoughts and plans that you have,
emotional responses that are occurring, etc.
These stimuli, combined with your physical needs and
physiology (including genes) and your past experience in the
form of conscious and unconscious motives and learned
response tendencies (habits), produce your behavior.
Antecedents may be unconditioned or conditioned stimuli in
classical conditioning; antecedents may also be environmental
stimuli, including social models, that guide voluntary responses
by providing cues that certain behavior will probably lead to
wanted or unwanted consequences.
B. Behavior--actions you take, habits you have, thoughts you
have, feelings you have, and your physiological reactions, like
stress responses, headaches, high blood pressure, etc. Some
self-help methods can be applied while the "target" behavior is
C. Consequences--changes in the environment resulting from
the "target" behavior, such as
reinforcers (rewards) provided by yourself, others, or
punishment from self, others, or as a natural outcome,
escape from unpleasant stimuli or situations (negative
reactions of others (positive, negative, or neutral),
self-evaluation of the behavior (pride or shame),
no reaction at all (extinction).
Overview of self-help methods for changing your own behavior
Part I: (see below for applications with eating, drinking, and
smoking problems; see chapter 11 for step by step instructions about
how to use each method) If behavior occurs in this A-B-C sequence,
the methods for changing behavior must fit into the same sequence:
A. Methods used prior to the "target" behavior:
1. Change or avoid the environment leading to the
unwanted "target" behavior; provide cues to prompt
new desired behavior (goals, schedules and plans) or
provide warning signs. Break behavior chains early. This
is called "antecedent stimulus control."
2. Consider alternatives and learn new behavior from
models or by reading; practice, role-play, covert
rehearsal; develop self-instructions to reach goals;
develop helpful competing responses (walk instead of
eat) or eliminate unwanted competing responses (like
watching TV instead of studying).
3. Use a "controlled" response, e.g. buy only low-fat
foods, no sweets. Use a "conditioned" response or build
a stimulus-response connection, e.g. eat or study in only
4. Practice relapse prevention and temptation resistance
training (overt and mental process), including "cue
exposure" without permitting a habitual unwanted
5. Motivation training; increase confidence in self