Conditioning or Reinforcing Target Behaviors

Arranging to Persuade: Conditioning or Reinforcing Target Behaviors
Katherine Bertolucci, Isis Information Services
March 7, 2011

B. J. Fogg’s Principle of Conditioning: Computing technology can use positive reinforcement to shape complex behavior or transform existing behaviors into habits.

Cheese Maze

Bing images

In psychology, this is called operant conditioning. Put a piece a cheese at the end of a maze and see how long it takes the rat to learn the maze. If you have a dog, you probably have used this method. Give your dog a bone when it displays the desired behavior. I successfully used conditioning with my aggressive cat to trim her claws. Trim a claw, deliver a treat. Trim a claw, deliver a treat. After a few sessions of this, she learned to sit still for her manicure, without the treat.

In technology, conditioning occurs in online games with reward systems. Players are encouraged to keep playing when they receive points or attain new levels or see an animation after a winning move. Fogg describes a more mechanical method of conditioning developed by his students. A bicycle is wired to a television with a fuzzy picture that gets clearer as the cycling speed increases.

In this series, we have been discussing how the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) meets six of Fogg’s seven persuasive principles. In the case of conditioning, the chronological order of the names creates an emotion among veterans that they want to experience again and again. Names are listed by date of casualty, so all who died in one battle appear together. When survivors of that battle visit the memorial and see, in one place, the names of friends who died, they re-experience that day in a way they wouldn’t if they just looked at the battle’s name or saw an alphabetized list of everyone who died in the war.

The ability to re-experience a crucial time in their lives creates a conditioning situation. Veterans see the names in the context of their own Vietnam experience. They return to the VVM to relive the war and to continue healing.

So far we are looking at positive conditioning. Vietnam vets experience an emotion they want to experience again. But another form of conditioning is negative reinforcement, when something bad happens to discourage a type of behavior. Fogg feels this type of conditioning is unethical and he does not discuss it in depth.

However, negative reinforcement can be accidental. Disorganized material may discourage people from using a system. If the names on the VVM were randomized, eliminating the context of the names and making each visit a struggle, there would be far fewer people visiting that memorial. For this reason, it is important to understand the effects of different organizing structures and to consciously select methods that provide positive conditioning.