Which Works Better, the Carrot or the Stick?

dialectical behavior therapyDo you find yourself falling short of your goals?  Always doing that same old thing?  That thing – eating too much, drinking too much alcohol, losing your temper, watching TV instead of exercising—that you have vowed you would no longer do?

When you’re trying to change behavior, it’s not whether the carrot (getting something positive that you want—also called positive reinforcement) or the stick (something you want to avoid—also called negative reinforcement) works better.  It’s more about becoming aware of both the carrots and sticks already operating in your life and changing them both in order to strengthen and support the positive behavior change you want.

Often, when we’re trying to change behavior we neglect those carrots and sticks already operating in our lives.  These reinforcers can be both positive—a walk with a friend or a soak in the tub-- and negative—a cigarette or a night out boozing.

The first step in changing your motivation is awareness.  If you frequently lose your temper, are you aware of the consequences that may be bolstering that type of response.  Sure, you might feel guilty later or regret an outburst, but what happens in the immediate aftermath?  Do people back off?  Leave you alone or bend to your will?  If you’re frequently losing your temper, it’s likely that there is an immediate reaction that strengthens your behavior.  It might be a decrease of pressure, space to think or getting your way, but whatever it is, you may not even be aware that it is making your behavior more likely.

Once you’ve identified some of the carrots and sticks that are keeping a negative behavior going, you’ve got to change them to change the behavior.  This can be difficult.  There are many ways to change reinforcers.  What works for you is highly individual and has to do with what you want and what you want to avoid.

Let’s take the example of the person who wants to handle conflict without losing his or her temper.  If this were you, you could:

  • Go to the extreme and avoid any situations that have a tendency to ignite your temper.  That way, you won’t experience the decrease of pressure or getting your own way that reinforce losing your temper.
  • Punish yourself by calling yourself names (idiot, stupid) and feeling guilty for the behavior.  Punishment doesn’t tend to be highly effective--adding name calling and aversive emotions are unlikely to have a strong impact on your behavior, other than making you feel bad.
  • Leave the situation when you begin to lose your temper, thereby removing yourself from potential reinforcers.
  • Let it be and focus on other things.  Maybe your temper will decrease with changes in your circumstances.
  • You could take assertiveness classes and learn alternate responses that would get the same reinforcers (and maybe other positive reinforcement) without losing your temper.
  • Notice when you handle conflict without losing your temper and give yourself something positive (praise, a break, a walk, permission for a guilty pleasure).
  • Change your motivation—rather than interpret alternate points-of-view as attacks or conflict as an opportunity to get your way, look at them as an opportunity to expand your understanding of a situation.  Focus on exploring differences, rather than on proving yourself ‘right.’

So what works best, the carrot or the stick?  The reality is that it’s useful to have both carrots and sticks (as well as other options, like simply leaving a situation alone or changing your motivation). What works best is individual to you and to your specific circumstances.  However, an awareness of the carrots and sticks already operating in your life will help you determine why certain behaviors are so hard to change.


Photo by John Morgan
, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *