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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Applying Skinner's Behavior Modification

As I've sometimes mentioned, I've been serving on the University's Sustainability Council for some years. Throughout that time, the group has often discussed the prospects for influencing behavioral change in the students, staff, faculty and administrators.

The June 2012 Atlantic Monthly had a piece by David H. Freedman about "Skinnerian" behavior modification. Freedman demonstrates that psychologist B.F. Skinner's ideas have earned a bad reputation over the years, but they potentially offer a good deal for the modern world. Many people fail to understand that "Skinner sought to shape only consciously chosen, directly observable behavior, and only with rewards."

Readers of this blog might want to check out the lengthy article as it is filled with interesting anecdotes and explanation.

I found the following paragraphs to be especially useful as they suggest practical application of Skinnerian thinking to address contemporary problems related to sustainability and health:
At Palo Alto’s storied University Coffee Cafe, I recently found myself sitting next to a young fellow named Yoav Lurie, who turned out to be running a Boulder-based company called Simple Energy, which uses Facebook as a social-reinforcement tool for conserving energy by tracking, sharing, and reinforcing certain behaviors. The product, like many of its competitors in the booming field of energy-related apps, is sponsored by large utility companies incentivized to reduce their reliance on conventional power sources.
Government agencies are in a similar position to benefit. I was speaking with a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation about public transit when he mentioned that the agency is testing an app that provides local travelers with various transportation options for specific trips and that could gently reinforce decisions to use public transit by pointing out the extra calories commuters would burn by walking to the station and the carbon they’d avoid emitting by leaving their cars at home.
Once we reconvene, I'll bring this to the attention of some others on the Council.


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