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Good Child

Good Child

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Published by Douglas A. Seifert

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Published by: Douglas A. Seifert on Sep 08, 2011
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Consequences come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes: some trivial, some

monumental, some good, some bad, some immediate, and some in the distant future.

Some consequences will be very obvious to us as we make our choices, whereas we may

Dr. Noel Swanson


not know about others for many years to come. As we make our choices, we may think

long and hard about all the possible consequences, or we may just jump into the first

behavior we think of as it seems to offer some obvious benefit.

Now, at this point you may be objecting: ‘But I don’t want to pay my taxes, so how can

you say that I am doing it because I want to?’ Well, actually you do want to, because what

you are doing is weighing up the pros and cons. On balance, you have decided that the

pain of paying is less than the pain of going to jail. Given the limitations of the

circumstances in which you find yourself, you prefer (i.e. want) to pay your taxes. The

same applies to other unpleasant situations in which the circumstances force us to choose

between various options that are all ‘painful’ in some way.

All consequences can, therefore, be divided into three groups: rewards, punishments, and

those that can be deemed neutral.

Very simply, a reward is any consequence that increases the likelihood or frequency of

the associated behavior. It reinforces the behavior. A punishment is any consequence

that decreases the likelihood or frequency of a particular behavior.

Neutral consequences have no effect on the frequency or likelihood of the behaviors.

Note this very carefully: rewards or punishments are any consequences that change the

frequency of behaviors. Furthermore, they are defined on the basis of how they affect

behavior, not on whether people like or dislike the consequence. For example, if you want

to get someone to pick up the telephone, the easiest way to do it is to make the telephone

ring. The ringing telephone confronts people with a choice: to pick it up or not pick it up.

The consequence of not picking it up is that the ringing will continue, and for most

people this produces an internal state of tension. To relieve the tension, they pick up the

phone. The ringing then stops. In this case, the action of picking up the phone has been

rewarded by the decrease in tension, as well as the satisfaction of finding out who is


The consequences that occur outside of us as a result of our behaviors, the rewards and

punishments, motivate us to act this way or that. They can therefore be described as

external motivators. These include such obvious things as the gain or loss of money,

privileges, freedom, and physical, sexual, or emotional pleasure or pain - consequences

caused by our environment or the people we relate to. But external motivators also

include such intangibles as social approval or ostracism, attention, or seeing someone else

become happy or sad.

However, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. What may be a very rewarding

consequence for one person may be a major punishment for another. For example, in

some situations or for some people, being noticed by a large crowd of people may be a

wonderful reward and incentive for certain behaviors, whereas on a different occasion or

for other people, it might prove to be very embarrassing and so a significant disincentive

or punishment. For children, getting a parent’s attention is highly rewarding. This is true

even when the attention includes shouting. Moreover, getting Mom or Dad all worked up

and upset may also be quite stimulating and exciting. If that is so, it is easy to see how

Dr. Noel Swanson


getting into a fight with Mom can be much more rewarding than playing quietly and

being ignored by her.

What is it that determines whether a particular consequence acts as a reward or a

punishment for us? This largely depends on a number of internal factors – for example,

our personality and temperament, mood and emotions. In addition, our principles and

morals, self-confidence and security, and our basic needs for food, warmth, sex, and so on

will further affect how much these external consequences motivate us. Some of these

internal states are long-term, some change by the minute, but all are vitally important in

modifying how we will respond to the world around us at any one time. We will discuss

these factors in more detail in the next section.

What is important is this: if your child is doing something, whatever it is, it is because

there is some reward to be gained or some pain (punishment) to be avoided. In other

words, he is doing it because it pays! You may not understand how it pays. You may

feel that it cannot possibly pay, and that there is absolutely nothing that could be gained

from this behavior. But you would be wrong. The very fact that the behavior is happening

means it must be paying off – otherwise he wouldn’t do it.

That’s it! Now you know what makes people tick and why they do what they do – well,

almost. There are a few other factors that we need to consider, but maybe it’s time to look

at those little angels of yours; why do they do what they do?

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