Decreasing Unwanted Behavior

As we’ve discussed previously, the ABC framework states that behavior (B) is caused by its antecedents (A) and its consequences (C). Of these two, consequences typically have the biggest impact on behavior. We tend to repeat behaviors that produce “good” consequences, or reinforcers, and stop behaving in ways that produce “bad” consequences, or punishers.

For many people, “behavior change” means doing undesired behaviors less often. For example, we might want to smoke less, watch less TV, or eat fewer processed foods.

And in an attempt to do this, we often turn to punishment to produce the desired change. 


Because when applied correctly, punishment has a quick effect. If, for example, we eat something that makes us really sick, we quickly learn to avoid that food.

In contrast, reinforcement often requires time to “take hold.” It may take several reinforcers before our behavior really starts to change.

Ultimately, this difference is rooted in our evolutionary desire to survive—we stop doing things that negatively impact our well-being and that could potentially affect whether we live or die. A sabre-tooth tiger can kill us immediately. On the other hand, if we don’t get food one day, we’ll probably live to tell the tale. (Of course, we no longer have to deal with sabre-tooth tigers and the like, but the underlying need to stay away from “bad things” is still there.)

Thus, when trying to change our behavior, we might ask our loved ones to yell at us if they see us smoking. Or we might pay our friends a sum of money if we watch too much TV.

And because we typically don’t like these bad consequences, we eventually stop doing the undesired behavior,

So, yes, punishment works, and there is nothing inherently wrong with using it.

But there is a caveat.

Although punishment works, there can be negative side effects.

For one, we often associate punishment with the person who delivers it. If we tell our loved ones to yell at us every time we “misbehave,” we might start to experience negative feelings toward those people; we might even start to avoid them, which probably isn’t good for the relationship.

Another problem is that receiving punishment often causes us to respond aggressively. If someone yells at us enough, we might become angry and yell back—which, again, probably isn’t good for the relationship.

A third problem is that punishment tends to be ineffective unless it is applied consistently. Unless we’re getting yelled at every time we smoke, it probably won’t have a very strong effect on our behavior. (If you doubt this, think about how often you speed and how often you’ve received a speeding ticket. If a single speeding ticket were enough, you’d never speed again.)

There are other problems as well. But hopefully you get the point.

Fortunately, if you’re concerned about using punishment to change your own behavior, there are other alternatives that work just as well, if not better.

One of the most effective alternatives to punishment is something called differential reinforcement of other behavior, or DRO.

With DRO, we focus on increasing other behaviors rather than on trying to decrease the undesired behavior.

For example, imagine you’re trying to decrease smoking. Instead of punishing smoking, we “catch ourselves” doing something else and reinforce that behavior.

If we’re walking the dog rather than smoking, reinforce it! If we’re playing the piano rather than smoking, reinforce it! If we’re reading a book rather than smoking, reinforce it!

This technique is based on two premises: (a) that reinforced behaviors become more likely and (b) that we only have so much time to behave each day. Thus, if we’re spending more time doing some things—like going for a walk or reading a book—then we have less time for the undesired behavior.

In this way, by reinforcing other behaviors, we are indirectly decreasing the undesired behavior.

This DRO approach to reducing behavior has many benefits.

First, we don’t have to rely on punishment, which, as noted previously, often comes with unwanted side effects.

Second, we typically like when we receive reinforcement. So a DRO approach tends to be more enjoyable than an intervention based on punishment.

Third, using DRO means we have many more opportunities to receive reinforcement. Take smoking, for example. Even the heaviest of smokers probably can’t smoke all day long. So whenever something other than smoking is occurring, there’s the opportunity to receive reinforcement. And the more those other behaviors get reinforced, the more we’ll do them and the less time we’ll spend smoking.

Fourth, if you focus on reinforcing “good” other behaviors, you’ll get an increase in desired behavior and a decrease in undesired behavior simultaneously. If you reinforce the other behavior of going for a walk, you’ll walk more and smoke less, effectively killing two birds with one stone (as the old saying goes).

Finally, there are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to use DRO as a way to decrease an undesired behavior.

First, when possible, try to reinforce other behaviors that are “good” alternatives to your undesired behavior. For example, depending on your goals, binge-eating a family-size bag of potato chips while sitting on your couch and mindlessly watching Netflix might not be a good alternative to smoking.

And second, be liberal with your use of reinforcement at the start. The more you can reinforce other behaviors, the more quickly your behavior will shift toward those new actions and away from your undesired behavior.

So there you have it—some ways to decrease undesired behavior. Although punishment works, be aware of its potential side effects. And if you choose to use reinforcement instead, DRO is a great way to decrease undesired behaviors while increasing desired behaviors at the same time.