In NYC, the City Council is about to vote on a bill that is designed to change a typical New Yorker’s behavior: bringing home groceries in so-called “single-use” plastic and paper bags. Even for many environmentally conscious New Yorkers, this is still the go-to method of supermarket food transport, since many people hit the grocery on their way home from work, often on foot, so they aren’t arriving at the store with a car trunk full of reusable totes.
Consequences affect future behavior. If the behavior that just happened resulted in a punishment, it is less likely it will occur again in the future. If it results in reinforcement, it is more likely to happen again in the future. So, I offer you a POP QUIZ!
To change the behavior of not bringing reusable bags to the supermarket, which operant conditioning quadrant does the City Council plan to employ?
A. Positive (+) reinforcement (adding something to the equation in order to encourage a behavior):
Pay people to bring their own bags.
Thing added: Money. Money usually encourages behaviors.
B. Negative (-) reinforcement (subtracting something from the equation in order to encourage a behavior):
Thing taken away: Nagging. The well-timed and swift cessation of nagging can be a powerful reinforcement.
C. Positive (+) punishment (adding something to the equation in order to encourage a behavior):
Punch people for not having brought a plastic bag.
Thing added: Pain. Inject physical pain into a situation and the preceding behavior is likely discouraged, unless you’re into that kind of thing.
D. Negative (-) punishment (taking something away in order to discourage a behavior):
Charge a fine if they take a plastic bag.
Thing taken away: Money. Of course, they’re taking money from you at the supermarket in any case, but we are used to not associating any kind of monetary value to plastic bags.
The answer: D!
As a dog trainer, I wish the answer were A. But then again, I also think we should reroute state lottery funds to randomly jackpot people who are not speeding. Call me crazy!
Actually, my real preference would be to first manipulate the environment to change behavior. If supermarkets just stopped offering plastic bags, guess what would happen! People would bring their own. (Or people would order their groceries online…which is happening more and more regardless of the bag situation).
I think it’s pretty likely that, should this proposal be approved, the Negative Punishment route will probably work — with the rate of it working corresponding to how high they raise the price of the bags. But one thing a dog trainer can tell you is that one person’s reinforcement may be another person’s punisher, and vice-versa. Given that I reuse grocery bags to pick up my dog’s poop several times a day, the $.05 fee probably wouldn’t discourage me from taking my groceries home in them. Also, the righteous feeling I get for getting multiple uses out of the bags is generally reinforcing.
However, if New Yorkers had the option to pick up poop with dog poop bags that held some kind of greater meaning, things might be different. Imagine, say, they were emblazoned with the face of Donald Trump. If I could smush his face into every one of my dog’s turds, I might be less inclined to hoard plain white supermarket grocery bags. And then, the environment would be saved!
City Council people, I urge you to consider this plan.
Want your own Donald Trump bag? Get 10% off everything at StoreForTheDogs.com when you use the code POOP10 at checkout through 5/31!