Thank you for the question and for sharing your concern. I’m not sure of the relationship between the two people; but regardless, this sounds like an abusive relationship and an imbalance of power. For the sake of clarity and demonstrating effect, I’m going to refer to the person who is yelling as Person A and the person who is the target of the yelling Person B. What we need to understand is what is going on for BOTH person A and person B in these exchanges.
I suppose yelling and belittling can be the antecedent (or before) condition for Person B to “behave” in a certain way; whereby, the yelling and belittling from Person A is stopped once the “correct behaviour” is demonstrated by Person B. This is equivalent to the effect of nagging where someone will do something just to get the nagging to stop. The yelling by Person A can also act as punishment if it “works” at getting Person B to stop doing a certain behaviour. I say “works” in function only and not because I believe that it is the most effective option for behaviour change.
So, what we have is Person B changing their behaviour either because of negative reinforcement or punishment brought on by Person A. The other question that comes up is, what’s in it for Person A? What often happens in scenarios such as these is what’s called the negative reinforcement trap (Bourne, 1993; Miller, Lermen & Fritz, 2010); whereby the so-called “bad behaviour” acts as the antecedent condition for the Person A’s yelling and belittling. When Person B stops “behaving badly”, the yelling and belittling is negatively reinforced because it worked at stopping the “bad behaviour”. This means that the next time Person B is “behaving badly” the yelling and belittling is likely to be displayed again and the cycle continues. I use the terms “bad behaviour” and “behaving badly” very loosely as this is a subjective experience or opinion of people like Person A and in no way implies that what Person B was doing warranted being yelled at.
Unfortunately, the long-term effects of using tactics such as yelling and belittling are an increased risk of abuse, use of coercion and aggression towards others (Wahler & Dumas, 1986). People who experience this level of psychological abuse are also at an increased risk of developing depression, having a lowered self-esteem and displaying learned helplessness (Gross & Keller, 2006).
Some people remain convinced of the “I’ll shame you into it” approach to behaviour change. While it may in fact change someone’s behaviours in the short-term, it does not provide lasting positive changes in behaviour. It fails to focus on what the person can do. It does not provide them with the guidance, support and encouragement we all need to succeed. Person A is better off defining what exactly they would like to see Person B doing and using a positive reinforcement approach when they see those skills or behaviours. To do this though, Person A will also need support, guidance and encouragement to change their behaviour.
Finally, I hope Person A is not using the term “negative reinforcement” as a thinly veiled disguise for punishment; almost like, “I’m using negative reinforcement so that’s okay”. Again, I question Person A’s intent. While the effect might actually be reinforcement (i.e., an increase in Person B’s behaviour), it does not make the method in which it is achieved agreeable, nor condoned by behaviourists like myself. The ways in which we achieve behaviour change must still maintain the person’s dignity. Just because it “works” does not always mean it should be done.
I hope Person A can become convinced of and helped in using a more positive approach; not only for their benefit, but more importantly, for Person B’s well-being. I should also state that if Person B you speak of is a child, to please refer them to a family or parenting centre or your local child welfare agency. The negativity trap is a vicious cycle to get out of but it can be done with education and coaching. I wish them both the best.
Bourn, D.F. (1993). Over-chastisement, child non-compliance and parenting skills: A behavioural intervention by a family centre social worker. The British Journal of Social Work, 23 (5), 481-499.
Gross, A.B. & Keller, H.R. (2006). Long-term consequences of childhood physical and psychological maltreatment. Aggressive Behavior, 18(3), 171-185.
Miller, J.R., Lermen, D.C., & Fritz, J.N. (2010). An experimental analysis of negative reinforcement contingencies for adult-delivered reprimands. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 769-773.
Wahler, R.G. & Dumas, J.E. (1986). Maintenance factors in coercive mother-child interactions: The compliance and predictability hypotheses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19(1), 13-22.