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  • Elina Halonen

Lessons from dog training and parenting for pandemic behaviour change

Many articles have been written about how to change behaviours when it comes to coronavirus — at the beginning it was about washing hands, but lately the focus has shifted to staying indoors. As I was reading an article yesterday about “pandemic shaming”, I was reminded of basic dog training and it got me thinking whether we had forgotten about more fundamental principles of behaviour change.


If you’re not a dog person, you might object to being compared to an animal — unfortunately, we are just another kind of animal and our long and intimate history with dogs has shaped them to be more like us than any other domestic animal. The most important thing to understand about dogs is that they do what works –they don’t scheme, plot or connive, but simply do whatever gets them the best payoff (even if it’s not what we want). My dog Nell did not raid the kitchen bin to spite me even though it certainly felt like it when I arrived home and into the above mess — she simply wanted the remains of last night’s pizza, and succeeded.


Humans are not much different — even when we seem illogical or irrational, there is usually a payoff of some kind even if we are not aware of it. Procrastinating or avoiding difficult tasks brings relief, delinquent behaviour affords teenagers social status among their peers and a whining child wears you down more often if you reward them with a fun iPad session. To change behaviour, you therefore need to understand the rewards that someone gets from it and how your actions may inadvertently be encouraging it.


Enter operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is the foundation of all animal training (as well as being used in other disciplines) and comprises of four quadrants: positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment. In this context, positive simply means that something (a stimulus) is added while negative means something is removed. Reinforcement is something that makes a future behaviour more likely, and punishment makes it less likely.



Since a lot more people can relate to examples about children than dogs, I will use parenting situations as examples:

  • Positive reinforcement is praising a child for a job well done — something good is received and behaviour is more likely in the future

  • Negative reinforcement is nagging your child to clean their room — the threat of parental nagging is a negative experience (stimulus) so the child will clean the room to “remove” it, and the messy behaviour is reduced

  • Positive punishment is when a parent scolds a child for punching their sibling in the face — the parent’s disapproval is added to the situation in order to reduce the punching behaviour in the future

  • Negative punishment is when a child refuses to eat their vegetables and a parent removes their right to watch Peppa Pig on the family iPad — next time, the threat of a losing positive thing (Peppa) should increase the chances that veggies disappear from the plate

Back to pandemic behaviour change

So what does this have to do with behaviour change in times of coronavirus? The article about pandemic shaming catalogued a lot of negative effects various people had experienced due to members of the public attacking them for seemingly not adhering to guidelines about e.g. going out or social distancing. As satisfying it might be on some level to convert our anxieties into anger, the impact has at times been somewhat disproportionate to the “crime” committed (if you read the article, see for example Columbia Road flower market social media person).


It’s also not just private individuals — public bodies from police to local councils have adopted a range of techniques in an attempt to change behaviours. Here in the Netherlands, the “intelligent lockdown” was tightened (negative punishment) as a result of people not sufficiently observing the first round of instructions of social distancing. In the UK, Derbyshire council police released a drone video of people walking in nature (positive punishment).


Arguably, most public body responses so far have been in the punishment half of the quadrants. Of course, closing places where people might be too close to each other works efficiently to discourage a lot of movement — leaving the house is much less tempting when there are fewer places to go.


But might we be missing a trick by ignoring the other quadrants? Often the most effective way to teach a person or animal a new behaviour is with positive reinforcement. Not only does positive reinforcement cause minimal reactance (i.e. rebellious behaviour) but it also creates a more constructive relationship.


Using aversives (punishment) both dog training is considered counterproductive — it damages the relationship between the handler and the dog because you are less likely to trust someone who creates negative feelings in you, and sometimes may even hurt you. Sometimes there is a case for mild aversives but more often than not they can backfire badly — I presume the same goes for children, and especially teenagers. Similarly, strong aversives like the shaming video from a local police may not build a lot of trust and goodwill — something that is especially needed in times like these.


In addition, making delinquent behaviour more visible can create negative social proof: if you see lots of people are doing something wrong, then it might feels less wrong for you to do it, too.


What could reinforcement look like?

Practically speaking, administering positive reinforcement or especially negative reinforcement to individuals is difficult in a situation like this. We can’t individually praise everyone who stays at home, or washes their hands.


But instead of negative social proof, maybe we could show how most people are actually staying at home and doing as they’re told. It’s clear from the drone footage of empty streets in cities that most people are being sensible. Of course, that doesn’t make good news coverage and evidence shocking behaviours spreads further because we pay more attention to negative news and thoughts (negativity bias).


Personally, I think my local councils would do well to post images on social media of the empty beaches last weekend with praise for people staying at home despite the unseasonally warm and sunny weather, instead of threats and to complement the negative punishment of closing car parks — especially ahead of the Easter weekend.


As always, one intervention doesn’t work for everyone — behaviour change is hard and there are few genuine silver bullets. I am also not an expert in this particular area and any suggestions like these should be carefully evaluated — I am simply wondering whether we could add to our toolkit by taking a step back and looking at our initiatives through a more fundamental lens.

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