How many times have you walked by a homeless person panhandling on the street and thought to yourself:
That person must have made bad choices in their life?
He/she must have done something wrong to end up on the street?
I’m not giving them any money because they just need to clean themselves up and get a job?
What if, instead of thinking of what the person did/did not do, or what they should be doing instead, we looked at the physical and social environmental factors that might explain why this person is panhandling? It might go something like this:
This person lacks some of the basic needs for survival: food, water, clothing and shelter.
Behaviourally speaking, they’re in a state of deprivation. This means that they are highly motivated to receive either the goods or the money to buy them. As a result, they are more likely to engage in behaviour(s) that have been reinforced in the past by the delivery of these goods/money.
This person is working. For now their job site is this sidewalk.
The physical environment where the homeless live means that their place of work is the sidewalk; a place where many people come and go. They panhandle and occasionally those people will provide them with the change which they need.
What this person is doing is working for him/her.
Since some people will give them money and others not, their asking, “Spare any change?” is occasionally effective in getting the goods they need. They are on a variable schedule of reinforcement (a strong schedule of unpredictable occasional reinforcement that results in steady, persistent and increasing rate of behaviour). So every person asked is a potential source of reinforcement and as long as someone gives them money, the behaviour will continue.
Now we have a four-term contingency for pan-handling behaviour:
Motivating operation: lack basic needs such as food, water, clothing; has no money to purchase these things.
Discriminative Stimulus: on the sidewalk, people walking by
Behaviour: person asks, “Can you spare some change?”
Consequence: Perhaps you won’t give change, but the guy a couple steps ahead of you did and the lady two blocks away will, etc. (positive reinforcement).
When analyzed from a behavioural perspective, a number of circumstances influencing this behaviour are revealed. Behaviour analysts work to change, eliminate or modify these contingencies to set-up a behaviour change process. What if we were proactive and ensured that this person’s basic needs were met in other ways? We could give him the goods temporarily while developing alternatives to panhandling for earning money. What if we took this person off the street and into a sheltered work environment? A different form of work could be reinforced instead. What if we passed a law making it illegal to give panhandlers money? People might stop giving money and the panhandlers’ behaviours are no longer reinforced. That last point, being a reactive solution (and is unfortunately people’s first attempts at behaviour change) sounds good in theory but it fails to teach the panhandler what to do instead. Since nothing is been done about the deprived needs, another behaviour (likely undesirable) will show up eventually.
All of this behaviour change stuff can get complex when you think about all that is influencing one’s behaviour. I’m still trying to get my head around it. As such, is might just be easier to blame people for their own “bad” behaviours and their own misfortunes. If they’re to blame, it means not having to think of ways in which we could have helped or set-up for them to have an alternate experience or opportunity. People tend to avoid thinking about how they or the environment they created might have reinforced this “bad” behaviour themselves and therefore they would have to do something different if the behaviour is going to change. Thus, the complaining about bad behaviour continues (that darn ole negative reinforcement) and no progress is made.
B.F. Skinner talked about this blame/avoidance of responsibility in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity and it has inspired me to think differently about the problems that society and government are constantly trying to find a solution to. There are solutions if the problems are analyzed correctly and a combination of related behaviour change practices are implemented. If you want to be an agent of change, I highly recommend this book.