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June 28, 2006

Beyond freedom, dignity, and missing keys

Amy Sutherland used animal training techniques to break her husband of irritating habits. I say, good for her. She could have gotten the same advice from a behaviorally-oriented psychotherapist: praise good behavior, reward closer approximations of desired behavior, ignore bad behavior, never punish, and provide positive alternatives that are incompatible with the behavior you're trying to discourage.

Sutherland's husband got into a pattern of losing his keys and throwing tantrums. She learned to ignore this behavior. She realized that she had been reinforcing her husband's helplessness and his emotional outbursts by paying attention to his tantrums, even when the attention took the form of telling him not to freak out about his keys.

Some people think it's degrading or manipulative to use operant conditioning on other people. I disagree. A pattern of ineffective nagging is far more degrading for all concerned. If a nagging pattern develops, that's evidence that rational persuasion has been tried and failed. Nagging takes hold when the nagee realizes that the nagger is right, but won't change.

Hat tip to Amanda


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I think behavior modification is great. And everything you write here is TOTALLY AWESOME!!!! (I heard a little bell ring, and suddenly I feel the need to heap praise on Lindsay. What the hell is going on?)

This is about that bounced child support check for Lindsay Jr., isn't it?

Coming to a bookstore near you: Walden Three, by B.F. Beyerstein.

Besides, if the Nagee changes behavior to accomodate the Nagger, that reinforces the Nagging behavior. Far better to ignore it. Or make it impossible to continue the Nagging behavior, etc.

Cuts both ways.

Of course it cuts both ways, that's the whole point. If someone asks you to do something in a mean or disrespectful way, you should ignore them--but you can't expect to curb the nagging unless you also respond to their more politely phrased requests. If you practice this approach, you should also exercise environmental control so that the need for nagging doesn't arise, i.e., preemptively doing the stuff you know you're eventually going to get around to, but that you're going to get nagged about first. If you anticipate that you will ultimately pick up your socks, you had better do it before the nagger gets around to nagging you, lest you create an unwanted correlation between the nagging and the picking up.

I still prefer good old-fashioned communication.

> preemptively doing the stuff you know you're
> eventually going to get around to,

Um, no. Because one of the central issues is that naggers tend to be firm believers in the "never put off until tomorrow what you [empahsis on the "you" as opposed to "I"] can do today" theory.

Whereas nagees tend toward both the "I will organize my time as I see fit to achieve the agreed upon goals by the end of the agreed upon time" and "never do today what you can put off until tomorrow to avoid unnecessary opportunity costs" theories. If the nagee starts doing tasks according to the naggers schedule, that means that the nagger has acheived his goal. Which is usually control, not task achievement.


CO, I'm not saying that naggers should get to dictate all scheduling. If you have a mutually agreed-upon timeframe for completing a task, then you should ignore the nagging and reliably complete your task by the deadline.

I'm just saying that if you want to be nagged less, you should try really hard not to miss deadlines for tasks you actually intend to get around to, because then you're going to get nagged, and the nagging will (seem to) produce results.

Is your mate misplacing his keys? Is she forgetting to turn off the lights when she leaves the home? Is he leaving his socks in the most inconvenient places, causing the an unpleasing look upon your shared abode? Is she leaving the toilet seat down or is he leaving it up? If so, call 1800-NAGALOT.

Are there any other behaviour modifications you would like to impart upon your significant other?

If so, call 1800-NAGALOT, where persistent nagging is taught to you as a science until your personal prefences are adhered to by everyone you encounter. Use the Nagalot techniques not only on your significant other, but with your co-workers, children, relatives, and even strangers.

You'll be amazed with the results.

Call now! 1800-NAGALOT.

Approved and tested by Interrogators Unlimited, Naggers Anonymous, the Bureau of Behaviour Modification, and the organization P.I.L.L. People In Lost Love (their motto--if nagging does not work, have em take a pill).

Operant conditioning is very effective in a wide range of circumstances, and doesn't depend on keeping the conditionee in the dark about what's going on. Consent, cooperation, communication, all those good things usually serve to enhance the experience for all concerned.

LeTigre, heh.

It sounds an awful lot like parenting to me (although I hate that word)

Am I the only one who remembers this being used as a plotline on South Park about less than two months ago?

Operant conditioning works. It can also easily be applied to politics.

Or it will be the thing he tosses at her in pre-divorce, er, marriage counselling. How she not only humiliated him by treating him like an animal, she bragged about it in the New York Times.

Some women seem to forget that men are actually men and might take being treated like a killer whale to be offensive and condsending in person, and humiliating when all his coworkers are leaving killer whale toys on his desk and callling him Shamu behind his back.

It seems like a good way to set the groundwork for a divorce.

It seems like a good way to set the groundwork for a divorce.

Or a great story to tell the grandkids.

This is about that bounced child support check for Lindsay Jr., isn't it?


Or it will be the thing he tosses at her in pre-divorce, er, marriage counselling. How she not only humiliated him by treating him like an animal, she bragged about it in the New York Times.

If he's still with her after that manipulation, it means he won't mind that much. Personally I prefer not to tell people how to manage their relationships. If they don't mind playing Relationshipcraft, I don't think it's appropriate to say that they shouldn't. I can tell you I'd leave anyone who tried doing that to me in an instant, but that doesn't say anything about the behavior of 6,499,999,999 other people.

If a nagging pattern develops, that's evidence that rational persuasion has been tried and failed. Nagging takes hold when the nagee realizes that the nagger is right, but won't change.

Exactly! Thank you. I'm sure I'm not the only ex-nagger here who's been the victim of a passive-aggressive nagee accusing him (or more likely her) of being a "control freak." You can't have an adult relationship without being reliable about taking care of a few things you wouldn't bother with if you lived alone.

Alon, I don't see the problem. For the types of problems the author discussed in the article, she's doing the intelligent, non-manipulative thing. It's not her job to keep track of her husband's keys, and it's not her job to listen to his temper tantrums when he loses them. She could act like his mom and bug him to keep better track of his keys in the hopes of preempting the problem. But that's disrespectful. He's a grownup and he's responsible for looking after his stuff as he sees fit. She could criticize him when he loses his keys, but again, that's unproductive and likely to be perceived as judgmental and mean rather than helpful, because again, he's a grown man whose key habits aren't really her problem. What part of this dynamic is her problem? Well, she doesn't like it when he flies off the handle at her. What's she going to do? I'll be she already tried the in-depth talk about how hurt her feelings when he lost his temper. When he didn't knock it off, she decided to ignore his bullshit and (surprise!) he stopped having tantrums. Sounds like the least traumatic and most respectful way to handle the problem. Instead of making him feel bad or trying to control him, she analyzed the ways in which her behavior was perpetuating a dynamic she didn't like and exerted self-control. How is that not respectful?

The last comment by Lindsay Beyerstein sounds about right. The whole point is it's got jack squat to do with the guy - in fact, that's part of the game the two of them have been playing. The illusion, though, is that she has done something to break him of his habits - not at all, she's only changed her *own* behavior. A lot of times when one player in a two-player game stops playing, the other player just leaves. It was a testament to the fundamental health of the two parties here, and the connection between them, that that didn't happen.

Nagging takes hold when the nagee realizes that the nagger is right, but won't change.

Nagging takes hold when one person insists on getting her way about every little thing and has to be a total bitch about it. Why won't she just calm the fuck down??!!

I'd rather someone operatnt conditions me (as long as they live out operant conditioning through punishment) than nags me.

And sometimes you gotta decide what habits don't matter enough to break up the relationship over.

Can't count the number of people who have said "getting a cleaner to come in saved my marriage" and a shrink once told me that in his practice he'd found that right after infidelity the number 2 cause of marriage breakups was differing standards of tidiness.

Having lived with more roommates than I can count (grew up in boarding school) I gotta say that sounded about right to me.

Lindsay, I like you a lot and come here for nourishing things and hate do de-lurk with a complaint but this scenario is dishonest as hell.

She problematized his behavior. She made his scatterbrain and emotional storms a problem. I Know I'm not the only one who wouldn't have found this a problem. Or if I was bugged by it would know the onus is on me to deal with my bullshit about making him wrong.

She then learned to ignore the problem which is what she would have done from the git were she to take responsibility for her own reactivity.

I believe the ethical change happened in her ability to accomodate the temper tantrums. That it led to him straightening up is in my view, incidental.

The outcome is framed as her victory over his behavior which is seen by all as the problem.

What I see is externalization of internal phenomena, to me that's a problem, and the solution starts with an iota of introspection.

It's evil enough to change people, but to know you'll be congratulated for your ability to manipulate your loved ones tells me we are unable to spot rationalizing hypocrites for what they are.

She is the problem. This will remain unaddressed because her strategy worked, and so does torture.

generally i am of the "there is no god but behavior mod and skinner is his prophet" school, but it appears that once the controls of reward and punishment (or goals achieved/not achieved) is removed behavior tends to revert to the old comfortabilty of previous patterns. without a follow through with cognitive change lasting results are lacking. where the operant conditioning has its greatest value is to initially address the dysfunctional behavior. then the gains made can be solidified and internalized through cognitive therapy. whether or not we admit it to ourselves we all practice operant conditioning on each other all the time. like all other tools it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. an ax has zero morality or judgement. it all depends of if the one using it is paul bunyan or lizzie borden (unless, of course, her folks had it coming to them)

I'm reminded for some reason of the West Wing episode where President Bartlet yells: "Mrs. Landingham! My glasses are missing again! Will you do whatever it is you do when I can't find my glasses?"

Nagee vs. Nagger: Rule-makers always wonder why rule-breakers, if given an inch, will take a mile. It's simple: because rule-makers, if given an inch, will also take a mile.

The naggers nag because they feel taken advantage of. The nagees have no intention of taking advantage of the naggers; they want the naggers to chill about the dishes in the sink for a day, so that they can be more spontaneous and less rigid in the way they structure their days. The nagees will usually do the dishes, just not on the schedule of the naggers. Naggers and nagees have conflict; but on the other hand, two nagees together will never check the oil in their car often enough.

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