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3 Ways to Change Others (and Yourself)

Why yelling, anger, and punishment don't work, and three far more effective ways to get yourself or someone else to do anything better.

3 Ways to Change Others (and Yourself)
Daniel in the Lions Den by Briton Riviere. Punishing Daniel didn’t work. And punishment probably won’t work for you, either.


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Now onto today’s post …

Years ago, I took a firearm instruction course from a guy named Charles. Charles owns a firearm shop and range in Las Vegas called Precision Armory.

Fun fact: The store is an old bank with thick steel walls. Hence, it’s the only gun store in Las Vegas that hasn’t been broken into.

It was after hours at the shop, and Charles was going through some standard pre-shooting safety information and a handful of techniques not to do.

I jokingly responded, “If I do that, just yell at me.”

Charles’ response: “Oh no. I don’t ever yell at anyone. Yelling never works. If anything, it only makes things worse.”

He may not know it, but Charles is a sage behavioral psychologist.

Today, we’re covering why yelling at yourself or others doesn’t work—and three positive and far more effective ways to change behavior: your own or someone else’s.

In everyday life, you probably do a lot of stuff you regret or don’t mean to do. The people and creatures around you probably also do a lot of stuff you don’t want them to. For example:

  • You miss an important putt during a golf game.
  • You take a second helping of ice cream.
  • Your kids won’t stop screaming in the back seat of the car.
  • Your dog runs off when she sees another dog.
  • Your employee keeps making mistakes in spreadsheets.

The famed behavioral psychologist Karen Pryor notes eight different ways to deal with this. That is, to get someone else or yourself to stop doing something you don’t want.

But of all eight methods, one is—by far—most popular: punishment.

When someone, human or animal, does what we don’t want them to do, we default to punishment.

  • We yell at ourself for missing the putt.
  • We tell ourselves we’re awful for eating ice cream.
  • We yell at our kid for screaming in the back seat of the car.
  • We scold the dog for running off to play with other dogs.
  • We dock the employee’s pay.

But punishment isn’t very effective. Pryor writes in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog, “Punishment is a clumsy way of modifying behavior. In fact, much of the time punishment doesn’t work at all.” Here’s B.F. Skinner on the topic:

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.

And when punishment doesn’t work, what do we do? We don’t look for another way. We think our reaction wasn’t severe enough. So we double down.

  • We get even angrier at ourselves and maybe even bend our putter across our knee for missing the next putt.
  • We dial up the shame for eating the ice cream again.
  • We yell even louder or ground our kids for screaming in the car.
  • We smack the dog on her butt for running off.
  • We bring the employee into our office and verbally eviscerate them.

This still doesn’t help. And it usually just makes us look like a jerk. Hence, Skinner said:

In the long run, punishment does not actually eliminate behavior from a repertoire, and its temporary achievement is obtained at tremendous cost in reducing the over-all efficiency and happiness of the group.

There are far better ways to change ourselves and others.

They allow us to accomplish what we want accomplished—faster, better, and with less stress on ourselves and others.

Before diving into three better ways to change ourselves and others, let’s quickly unpack a few reasons why punishment doesn’t work.

Three reasons why punishment doesn’t work

In short
  • Punishment often happens far after we or another did the “bad” behavior.
  • It doesn’t address why we or another did the “bad” behavior in the first place.
  • It doesn’t teach us how to change the “bad” behavior.
The details

Let’s dive into a few reasons why punishment typically doesn’t work.

1. Punishment happens too late

Punishment can be effective if it happens immediately alongside the “bad” behavior. For example, if you touch a hot stove you quickly get punished by heat and don’t do it again.

But a lot of punishment happens too long after the “bad” behavior.

“The subject, therefore, may not connect the punishment to his or her previous deeds; animals never do, and people often fail to,” explained Pryor.

Consider the dog. If it runs off to play with other dogs and you yell at it when it returns, it has no clue what you’re yelling about. A hundred things have happened since the dog hauled off and came back—including coming back. The dog may think you’re mad at it for returning.

With humans, punishment is often too little too late.

The employee knows you’re yelling about the spreadsheet—after all, you’ve told them. But it’s often too late for them to do anything about it. The data is already submitted.

The same thing happens when you yell at your kid for a bad report card or getting a speeding ticket. So what’s the point?

2. The subject learns nothing

Take the example of yelling because your kid got bad grades. Pryor wrote:

Punishment does not teach a child how to achieve a better report card. The most the punisher can hope for is that the child’s motivation will change: The child will try to alter future behavior in order to avoid future punishment.

It also doesn’t teach your employee to correctly use a spreadsheet. It doesn’t teach your kids screaming in the car a better way.

The same goes with you. Yelling at yourself for missing the putt doesn’t improve your golf game. Nor does it teach you methods for enjoying just one scoop of ice cream and not going back for seconds.

It mostly just wastes effort and makes the other person or yourself feel bad.

In fact, if the subject learns anything, it’s to hide the “bad” behavior from you.

For example, your kid then checks the mailbox religiously so they can shred the report card (this is why I lived at the mailbox from 7th through 9th grade!). Or your employee then submits the spreadsheet at 5:59 pm on Friday hoping you won’t see it.

3. The subject may learn to fear you (or, in the case of yelling at yourself, you’ll just feel guilty and shameful)

It seems obvious that having our kid or dog or employee fear or resent us isn’t good. But that’s what punishment often leads to.

Yet this also applies to us. You might feel guilty or shameful and yell at yourself over a bad habit.

But like other types of punishment, guilt and shame often come on too late. Eating the second scoop of ice cream feels great right now. It’s only after we finish it that we beat ourselves up.

I.e., we take the short-term comfort of another scoop and feel discomfort later in the form of shame (and that’s because we know that second scoop is likely hurting our health in the long run).

Pryor explains:

You might have good reason to get rid of the behavior that makes you feel guilty, but you might then have much better luck with some method or combination of methods other than self-punishment.

So what does that look like?

Three positive ways to change your or someone else’s behavior

In short

These three methods work far better to change behaviors. Decades of research show they lead to better outcomes and happier people. They’ll work on you and everyone you know.