Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Reward Bad Behavior - Temper Tantrums for Kids and Politicians


I’ve heard plenty of references to the government having a “temper tantrum” when people talk about the government shutdown. Usually when some says “do what I want or I’ll hurt you” we call that extortion and it’s considered a crime, but okay. Let’s talk about temper tantrums. As a parent of a three-year-old I can tell you quite a lot about tantrums.

My daughter threw a tamper tantrum the other night. She did something wrong, we told her to stop, she didn’t stop, we gave her a consequence, she had a tantrum. This isn’t an uncommon sequence of events, because three-year-olds don’t have a whole lot of emotional control. So my husband and I have agreed on a way to cope with tantrums. First and foremost, we never, ever, ever give in to or reward a tantrum. The very fact of the tantrum means that she loses whatever it is she wanted, even if we normally would have given it to her. We agreed on that rule before she was born and we’ve stuck to it so far. Second, we don’t give her attention for a tantrum. If she has a tantrum at home she goes to her room and she can come out when it’s done. If she has one in public we stay with her (for safety) but don’t speak to her until she’s done. These tactics work pretty well; my daughter has temper tantrums but they tend to be short and not very frequent. Even at the very young age of three, she’s learning that temper tantrums don’t pay off. It’s a lot of effort for not much reward.

A key principle of human behavior is that we do what works. Human beings are results oriented. I first learned these ideas in my psychology 101 class back when I was a sophomore in college. Behavior that results in positive consequences, or a reward, will continue. In psychology terms we would say that behavior has been “reinforced.” Behavior that results in unpleasant consequences, or punishment, will cease. A psychology class will go into all kinds of permutations on this theme, talking about reward schedules (how frequently the behavior earns a reward – unpredictable intermittent rewards are actually the most reinforcing – hence gambling becomes such a problem - while unpredictable intermittent punishments don’t do much to stop behaviors) and positive vs. negative reinforcements but the core idea is really simple. If the behavior gets a result you like, you’re going to do it again.

In psychiatry we use these ideas about reward and reinforcement all the time. They are an important part of how we think about habits, addictions, learning, parenting, interpersonal relationships and many other aspects of behavior. Apparently we can apply these ideas about behavior, motivation and reward to politics as well. Right now congress is not doing its job by passing a budget and the government shutdown is hurting the entire country. A default on our debt, if it happens, will hurt us even more. I would call that bad behavior. And so the last thing anyone should do is reward it.

I agree with the president’s position that he won’t negotiate while the government is shut down. I don’t ever want Congress to do this again, and if it works for them, if they get what they want through refusing to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling, then you can be certain that eventually the government will shut down again over some new issue. Remember, behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Therefore you don’t negotiate with toddlers having temper tantrums. You send them to their rooms to calm down.

But I hope the American people will take it further. In my more cynical moments, I think the reason this fight is happening now, in 2013, is because congressional elections aren’t until 2014. Which gives the American people a whole year to forget how badly our elected officials have behaved before they have to stand for re-election. I suspect our congress people are betting that we can’t sustain our focus and anger for that long, and that they will get away with their tantrum. I can see why they might think that. As a collective we do seem to have pretty short attention spans when it comes to major public outrages. But Congress, I promise you that I will remember. And when election time 2014 rolls around I will be reminding other people. Because I don't reward bad behavior.