A while ago I learnt a new psychological term, ‘shaping’.
The reinforcement of behaviour that successively approximates the desired response until that response is fully acquired
N.R. Carlson and W. Buskit
Psychology, The Science of Behaviour
Allyn and Bacon 1997
Shaping is a great way to help people learn new behaviours
Fundamentally, it is about rewarding or praising behaviour that shows someone is trying to do the right thing, even though as yet, they might not have got the behaviour quite right. Shaping is a great way to help people learn new behaviours.
It all began with light switches
And why, you might ask, am I talking about shaping? Light switches of all things!
A number of the lights in our house have two switches that can be used. This obviously means that the 'off' position varies subject to the position of the 'partner' switch.
One of my unreasonable domestic 'rants' was how the rest of the family can leave the house with lights still on. I had not considered that the lights which tended to be left on were the ones that had two switches in different parts of room.
Sometimes off is on ...
As a result of there being two switches in different parts of room, sometimes the off position actually turned the light on and viceversa.
This is what was happening. My partner was going around the house flicking the switches to the off position and in some cases the lights ended up being turned on instead of off.
The light-bulb moment
So, one night while I was having another rant about the lights being left on, I had a light-bulb moment (excuse the pun) and pointed out that the lights which were left on had two switches in different parts of room.
My partner, quick as a flash, turned around and said "So, what does this tell you about my behaviour? Does this not show you that I am making an effort to do the right thing and turn off the lights? You should be praising my efforts for trying to do the right thing."
She then kindly educated me on 'shaping'.
As adults interacting with children, we intuitively use shaping
Interestingly, as adults interacting with children, we intuitively use this technique. For example, when our kids were younger we would be full of praise if they just held the fork in their hand - even though it never actually met with the food.
Shaping the behaviour of others
So why might we forget to 'shape' as we deal with our peers?
Thinking about it, I just expected my partner to change her habits immediately. If I can switch the lights off, why can't she?
But you know what? It takes time for all of us to acquire new habits of behaviour. And so it would follow that it is important to praise and reward along the way when they are making an effort to do the right thing - and not just when they have mastered the new behaviour.
I guess I need some shaping on shaping.
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