Truth or Consequences: Why What Happens Matters

The truth is, consequences govern behaviors.

Decades of psychological studies show convincingly that what happens after we do something significantly affects whether we repeat a certain behavior.

Simply put, consequence shapes behavior, and we tend to repeat behaviors that keep the rewards coming or the penalties at bay.

More recent research shows that, neurologically, repeated behavior shapes our brain.  Behavioral patterns and their underlying neuronal connections become habituated with repeated firing.  We create and reinforce neuronal networks by what we think and what we do, and further repeated thoughts and actions strengthen these networks.

Evolved over millennia, these fundamental and beneficial characteristics of habituated brain function increase brain efficiency (requires less energy), shorten response time (fight or flight responses), and increase the likelihood of similar responses to similar stimuli (learning).  Taken together, these qualities increased the likelihood of survival and, through natural section, were genetically transmitted over time.  You have them now!

Unfortunately, such self-reinforcing, habituated behavior can become a life strategy, the coping mechanism of choice in certain situations.  Subconsciously, or unconsciously, we begin to rely upon habits of thought and action over time.  Some instantaneous habits, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, have likely saved each of us more than once.

But what would explain the adoption, use, and perpetuation of thoughts and behaviors that seem deleterious to self or others?

The truth is (and science shows) that both positive and negative outcomes can stimulate or inhibit behaviors.  Understanding this explains many puzzling management practices.

For example, why would a boss manage others by using verbal threat or abuse?  It would seem silly or worse to manage this way, that is, until we recognize that such tactics work.

“Get the latest financials on my desk by 5:00 o’clock today or you’re fired!” barks the boss under duress.

What happens?  Almost always the report is delivered as demanded.

Why? The perceived threat of job loss or other imagined negative consequences was sufficiently real to motivate the desired behavior.

Sure, the employee feels poorly, but, hey, they work got done!

Herein lies the problem.  To the boss, this behavior appears to be successful and achieves the desired, positive result.   Remarkably, this is true even if the employee was not affected by the verbal abuse and simply produced the demanded report when requested as a matter of course.  Either way, the boss enjoys positive feedback (“the work got done on time,” or “now I can please my boss,” or “I avoided looking bad”) as a result of the otherwise damaging interaction with the employee.

This positive reinforcement, in the absence of any other governing force, reinforces the boss’ negative behavior and increases the likelihood that, in a similar situation, the boss will use the same verbally abusive approach to problem solving.

“It worked before.”

Yes, it works because, as research psychologists have shown, consequences that are immediate (by 5:00 o’clock today…), certain (you will be…), and negative (fired!) powerfully modify behavior.  The employee’s desire to avoid a certain, near-term, and unacceptable negative consequence overcomes all barriers, real and imagined, and the job gets done.

Now let’s consider other examples of negative reinforcement that do not work.

Attempting to reduce smoking and, by extension, reduce its social costs, governments and regulating agencies have waged a decades-long “war on tobacco” with mixed results.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chronicles governmental efforts to curb tobacco use in the report, History of the Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Health.

“On January 11, 1964, Luther L. Terry, M.D., Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health.

“On the basis of more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease already available at that time in the biomedical literature, the Advisory Committee concluded that cigarette smoking is—

  • A cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men
  • A probable cause of lung cancer in women
  • The most important cause of chronic bronchitis

“The release of the report was the first in a series of steps [emphasis mine], still being taken more than 40 years later, to diminish the impact of tobacco use on the health of the American people.”

First a report, then increasingly explicit warning messages on cigarette packs, then pictures and television advertisements showing diseased tissue and dying people.

Yet, smokers continue to smoke and, amazingly, nonsmokers continue to take up the habit.*


Behavioral psychology provides this answer: The power of negative consequences (“death  from disease related to tobacco use…”), if it is delayed (“some unknown number of years from now…”) and uncertain (“maybe, we can’t predict for any given individual”) are insufficient to overcome the perceived positive benefits, whatever they may be, of smoking.

Immediate satisfaction wins out over future, uncertain consequences.

But what if dire consequences were certain?

How many would smoke if cigarettes exploded with fatal consequences?  Answer: None.  Well, the real answer is probably some, but they would die instantly.  All others, believing the certainty of the consequences and choosing to avoid instant death, would stop smoking immediately or not take it up.

Thus, consequences that are negative/certain/immediate trump those that are negative/uncertain/future.

From this we can extrapolate the dimensions of consequence: (1) polarity (positive or negative), certitude (absolute to not at all), and time (immediate to infinitely distant).  And we can assign relative force to these combinations:

  • Negative, certain, immediate
  • Positive, certain, immediate
  • All other combinations are weaker

So, the intemperate boss of our story using habituated, abusive interactions experiences positive consequences in short order and, seeing that it worked once, repeats this behavior and discovers over time that this misguided approach to management is likely to succeed.

Positive. Immediate. Certain.

The behavior, regardless of its obvious damaging effects upon employee relations, becomes the boss’ preferred interpersonal style in certain circumstances where it is used instantaneously and unthinkingly.

And so the abusive boss (or spouse, or colleague, or corporate culture, or society) is born, but at least we can now understand what might be going on a little better.

Sound like anyone you know?  (No names, please.)

Next post, more truth about power of positive consequences.



* The decline in the number of smokers is more directly attributable to economic and social factors: rising cost and social censure.

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