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Debunking Behavior Myths

We humans sure are interesting. We all seem to operate off of a variety of different rules. Sometimes we understand these rules but sometimes we don’t even know that these rules or tendencies even exist! It’s always fun when we get a little peek into some of these big psychological concepts of how we operate, or why we do the things we do. It makes us feel like we have some advantage because now we understand how to change our environment to be.... well...better! Sometimes the pop-psych info we get is based off of clinically sound empirical studies. Other times, the information that we’re getting is skewed, or even completely outright false. When we hear these facts over and over and over again, we may be conditioned to think they’re true--If everyone’s saying them they must be true!

Check out these common pop-psychology misconceptions below, and see the Behavioral explanation for each one:


Myth #1: "They'll Never Change..."

Well, they might...once you stop rewarding them for their problematic behavior. Remember, in Behaviorism, reinforcement isn’t always how we perceive it--we could be thinking that our reactions are going to stop a behavior, but it could turn out it’s making it happen even more! You’ll need to figure out the reason why they're engaging in that behavior first, and then see if you’re (inadvertently) giving that desired reaction to them. If you are, it’s teaching that person that their behavior is an effective way to get what they want, or that their behavior is appropriate.

Think of a friend who you love to grab dinner with, but they’re constantly late. Sometimes you get to the restaurant, and they’re running 5 minutes behind, but other times, it’s more like 20 minutes. Every time they arrive, they shoot a quick apology and explanation: “Sorry I’m late! Traffic was crazy!”. You casually respond with an uncomfortable “haha,no worries!”, even though it’s starting to bug you. You continue on with dinner and move forward from their tardiness. This person’s behavior of being late to dinner has not had a consequence that is going to decrease the behavior. Not only did you tell them “no worries!”, you also continuously wait for them to show up, and then carry on with dinner! If one day, you stopped waiting for them and left the restaurant, their behavior will likely not continue! Check out our blog on Consequences of Behavior here:

It’s important to remember that consequences need consistency and time--If you want to change the behavior, you have to change the consequence, and then stick to it!

Myth #2: "It Takes 21 days to Make a Habit"

It takes motivation and reinforcement to make a habit. The higher the motivation, the faster that habit will form. If I’m trying to make a habit of doing the dishes every night immediately after dinner, I might just do the dishes for 21 days and try to see if it sticks...but chances are that by day 30, I’m back to skipping dishes for a few hours while I watch Netflix.

If someone told me that every week I do the dishes after dinner, I can get dessert as a reward (*COUGH* cookies & cream ice cream, please *COUGH*), my chances of keeping that habit are much more likely to stick. The time frame is irrelevant if the motivation is not there.

MYTH #3: "Bribing Your Kids is Bad"

Okay, this one actually is true--Bribing your kids is bad. The problem with this one is that people can sometimes mistake reinforcement for bribing. They’re not the same, and at the same time they're also not mutually exclusive, which can certainly make differentiating the two a bit confusing. We are all reinforced by different things in our environment. I get paid (reinforced) to go to work, but that doesn’t make it bad! Reinforcement is the reason we all engage in the behaviors that we do. If you use it correctly, it can be a really positive and effective way to parent! Some key points to remember about reinforcement:

Make a “deal” before any problem behaviors occur. Example: Wash 10 dishes and you can have ice cream. (Do not make a “deal” in the middle of any behaviors--this teaches them that all they have to do is misbehave if they want to make a deal with you!)

Always follow through on your demands and your rewards. (Make sure they wash all ten dishes, but also make sure you have ice cream to give them).

Use big rewards for big tasks, and use little rewards for little tasks. If I get two scoops of ice cream for washing ten dishes every week, and then you still give me two scoops of ice cream for washing five dishes...I’m going to be much less likely to want to wash all ten next time because I know I can get the same reward for less work.

Always follow through on your demands and your rewards. Use big rewards for big tasks, and use little rewards for little tasks.

MYTH #4: "Too Much Praise Spoils a Child or Person"

Praise, when used effectively, will not spoil a child because it is be given after hard work, or good (desired) behaviors! When praise, or reinforcement, is given freely without being earned, then the praise is no longer an effective motivator for doing a good job. This reward becomes expected because they previously did not have to work to earn it.

Begin using praise strategically to really highlight those behaviors that you want to see more of--particularly the more difficult ones. Has your child just picked up all of their toys independently without you having to ask? Praise them like crazy! Has your child picked up one toy after you asked them, but forgotten the other ten on the floor? Start with just a little praise, and offer to help them pick up the rest of the toys. Give them more praise at the end when they’ve completed the task!


Are any of these myths familiar to you? Once you get in the habit of thinking like a Behavior Analyst, you can really start to look at your environment and make subtle changes that impact your behavior, and the behavior of those around you! What types of “facts” about human or animal behavior have you heard that you want clarification on? Leave us a comment below and we'll follow up with another list of facts soon!

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