ALL YOU HAVE TO DO to get people to behave
better is praise what they're doing right, or so you've heard.
Everybody knows positive reinforcement is the way to go. But
if you've ever actually tried it if you're a parent
or an employer or manager you've probably discovered it
doesn't seem to work very well. And yet plenty of studies show
that it does. So what is going on?
To find out, Paul Schaffner designed an
ingenious experiment. Let's say you were one of the participants.
You walk in and sit down and he explains the rules. You are to
play the role of a teacher. You will be able to punish a student
for being late and reward him for being on time. Or you can choose
to do nothing at all. You are presented with a series of the
arrival times of a student for fifteen days in a row, one day
at a time. Sometimes your student arrives late and sometimes
he arrives on time.
You want to get a good result so you punish
the lateness and reward the punctuality. Almost everyone in the
experiment does this. What you don't know is that the student
is arriving late and on time at random. The arrival times
were all decided before the experiment started and your punishment
and rewards are not influencing the student at all.
But it very much seems to you that
your rewards and punishments are having an influence a
bad influence. Your student seems to do better after
being punished, and worse after being rewarded. Most of
the participants in this experiment concluded that punishment
works better than rewards. It was the obvious conclusion, given
what they experienced.
But their conclusions were wrong. Rewards
do work, and punishment doesn't work as well. They got
the wrong impression because of something called "statistical
regression." This means that statistically, an exceptionally
good performance is usually followed by a performance that is
not as good. A high point, in other words, is statistically likely
to be followed by a regression of some sort. Of course! It is
"exceptionally" good because it is exceptional.
It is the exception.
And in the same way and for the same reason,
an exceptionally bad performance is usually followed by something
This is illustrated by what's called the
"Sports Illustrated jinx." Many athletes believe it
is bad luck to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They
think it will jinx them. And given how statistical regression
works, you can now understand why they think that way. Most people
appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated after an amazingly
good performance. In fact, that's why they were chosen
for the cover. So statistically, an athlete's next performance
will very likely be worse than the performance that got
them on the cover. So it seems perfectly obvious that you jinx
yourself by being on the cover.
Sports Illustrated wanted to put the swimmer,
Shirley Babashoff, on their cover before the 1976 Olympics, but
rumor has it she tried to talk them out of it. She didn't want
to jinx herself. They convinced her it would not be bad
luck by pointing out that Mark Spitz was on the cover and came
home from the 1972 Olympics with seven gold medals! The jinx
is an illusion.
We can see this jinx easily by looking
at it differently. The top score you can get bowling is 300.
It is the league tournament, and John bowls a 300. His teammates
are ecstatic! His league manager makes him team leader. But the
very next time John bowls, is he likely to bowl another 300?
Not likely. He will probably bowl something less than that. Why?
Because he got so much praise? No, it's just statistical regression.
In other words, the short-term impression
you get is that positive reinforcement doesn't work. But that
is illusory. In the long run, it works very well indeed.
And you can also get a false impression
that punishment works well when in the long run it doesn't work
well at all. If a manager decides to let her people make their
own decisions, and only intervenes when things go wrong, she
would probably see improvement after her angry outbursts every
time. Ken Blanchard called this management style the "leave
alone zap" style. It is also known as Seagull Management
(swooping in out of nowhere, making a mess, and then disappearing).
It is statistically likely that the employee's
behavior will "regress to the mean" no matter what
the manager does, or even if she does nothing at all. If the
employee's behavior was worse than usual, it will regress to
the mean, or in other words, regress to the average. In this
case, it will improve. The manager with the leave alone
zap style of management would very definitely get the impression
that her interventions were effective. But over time, that kind
of managing creates resentment. The immediate results, however,
can mislead her into thinking she's doing the right thing.
If you can remind yourself of the misleading
nature of the regression effect, you will have more success in
using positive reinforcement with your employees or your children.
For example, if you're trying to get your
son to keep his room cleaner, and one day you see he has made
an effort, you might praise him. Don't expect things to just
get better and better. After your praise, his room might get
worse. Statistically, that is bound to happen. But it doesn't
mean your praise had no influence. People change and improve
in a roller coaster fashion not in a straight line.
If you were watching a roller coaster,
and you praised it when it went up and criticized it when it
went down, you'd get the impression that praising its upward
movement made it go down, and criticizing its downward
movement made it go up. But statistical regression is
misleading. It causes people to draw the wrong conclusions about
what really works.
And to make matters worse, your brain's
negative bias will make negative results more noticeable and
memorable. (Read more about that here.)
So now you know why positive reinforcement
doesn't seem to work. We not only have a negative bias, but statistical
regression makes your results misleading. It is difficult to
see the true situation: That rewards and acknowledgements really
do work, and they work better than punishment.