I Hate Cookies

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education,
and social ties…Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to
be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward…

-Albert Einstein

Do it and you get a cookie.

That is the essence of behavioral modification therapy. The more I use it, both in my professional life and as a father, the more I’m confounded by the idea that it’s broken.

Really. Control the gasps, but I’m growing to think that we, as a society have moved past Pavlov. This idea is based on three notions.

It’s bred into us: There was a time before Joseph Wolpe’s study of reward/consequence began to pervade parenting in the 1950s. Back then it was novel. However, in present teens, Wolpe’s positive behavioral re-enforcement has mingled with Dr. Spock’s conflicting individualistic view of the child and thus we have our present behavioral morass. These ideas are no longer insightful, new interventions to solve present problems. They are the present. Kids understand that positive behavior will net a positive return. It’s no surprise, and it lacks impact. It’s helped breed a generation of reward calculators. You’ve heard about the “What’s in it for me?” Generation. Take it a step further, and we find the “Is the reward better than the fun of misbehavior?” Generation.

It’s not reality-based: It works very well in Residential Treatment settings because they are structured on an in-built reward consequence system. However, in “the real world” enacting positive behavior doesn’t get you a cookie every time. Conversely, negative behavior also does not always net a consequence. Thus, the modification loses strength every time that framework goes unenforced. Even more detrimental, the modification erodes exponentially the more the kid actually tries to cognitively come to grips with the world—which is what we’re supposed to be preparing kids to do as parents and therapists.

It’s externally driven, not internally motivated: Do the right thing and you get what you want, do the wrong thing and you are punished. It teaches to do the right thing, right? Sometimes. Unless the kid strikes on the notion that lying, hiding or sneaking can allow them to do the wrong thing but still avoid punishment or get what you want. Especially when nobody’s looking. There’s little discussion of the positive feelings associated for doing right for right’s sake. Kindness. Honor. Conscience. It’s all math without philosophy.

But What’s Better Than Cookies?

 “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand

I don’t have the solution. I’m coming to grips with this notion because I have the unique opportunity to play a role in reshaping a therapeutic program for teens who have “graduated” from the Residential Treatment level, but are not yet ready to re-encounter the world full time. From my perspective, this graduation program lies at the center of this issue; The conflict between behavioral modification and reality.

I’m doing research. Right now I’m most interested in Bernard Weiner’s “Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion” to help build a reward system that is rooted in emotional responses, and Dr. Scott Turansky (et. al)’s conscience building techniques to create a system of rules that re-enforce self governance based in self-motivation rather than cookie seeking. But it’s a work in progress.

That’s The Way The Cookie Crumbles

Parents are not quite interested in justice, they are interested in quiet.
-Bill Cosby

This is where we all come in. You don’t have to have a single degree in anything to understand that conflict. We’ve all been there. Adolescence, even the most well adjusted variety, is essentially the same conflict. We come to grips with the world as we see it, while shedding the training wheels of childhood behavior modification but retaining the core principles which underscored them. Thus, adolescence sucks. But we made it. I need your help.

Post-Adolescents: How you made it through adolescence? What did you find important to keep through that transition and what did you leave behind?

Parents: What works well to internally motivate your kids? What do you dread about the teen years?

Therapists: Do you also find behavioral modification only part of the issue? Or am I a complete fool in wanting to move past behavioral modification?


by Broken Teapot http://brokenteapot.deviantart.com

Reader Feedback

9 Responses to “I Hate Cookies”

  • Zanne says:

    I was always pissed as a teen to run into arbitrary boundaries ‘because I said so’, etc. I wanted to know the reasons behind the rules, I thought it was more respectful of me as a person to not be expected to behave as a trained animal. And now that I am a parent I find myself explaining why the rules are as they are to my toddler, to various success 😉

    But teaching kids to manipulate situations for rewards or to only exert effort if they are ‘paid’ leads to an utter lack of internal motivation and emptiness where the pride of a job well done should be…maybe that is why so many people are directionless and apathetic, they have never been taught to think for themselves or to care… Students are taught to prepare for the upcoming test not to acquire and integrate knowledge. Does someone immersed in our instant gratification on demand society even have a working concept of perserverence or long-term consequences?

    Is social acceptance/shunning a kind of a ‘cookie’? I have to make a conscious effort to separate my reactions to my child’s behavior from my reactions to my child – to show her that I love her but not what she is doing at that moment.

    I think perhaps part of the reason your inpatient rewards economy works is that it is a major part of that community, everyone is subject to the same expectations and can share in the triumph or tragedy of each other’s point totals. That sense of common community [strange to say, right?]is not present in our lives anymore – no kids only culture, now there is only adult ‘supervised’ or ‘organized’ recreation – no front porch rubbernecking of what the neighbors are doing [or not doing], now everyone is in their climate controlled homes with the curtains drawn – and the technology that connects us to so many others everywhere isolates and divides us from the people we live with under the same roof.

    Diversity IS wonderful, and I’m not advocating a boring white-bread monoculture, but freedom without responsibility is anarchy and some boundaries are to keep us safe. Maybe by emphasizing that each one is NOT an island, that each action DOES impact on others, by teaching respect for others and being a living example we can show that choices matter, not just for short term rewards but for life course and later on for legacy.

    How was that old saying? ‘If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything’…

  • Chuck says:

    I’ve seen the documentary but have not read the book — but it’s worth looking into FREAKONOMICS, which talks a lot about “incentives,” and why they work, and how they fail.

    Good post.

    — c.

  • Chuck says:

    (Hmm. I may have ended up in spam.)

  • Keith Karabin says:


    @Chuck: I’ve heard numerous interviews with the Freakonomics writer, but never thought to give him a look. Fine point and worth a look for a view from outside the mental health bubble.

    @Zanne: You’ve given me much to ponder, thanks!


  • Rod says:

    What an awesome topic! This is an issue I feel very strongly about and certainly promote to my patients and colleagues. In my opinion, having and looking for external motivations is a recipe for utter failure in life. This is certainly due to the reasons you outlined in your article. It is because of this that I so vehemently oppose both CBT models of treatment and psychiatric medications for most patients. Now don’t get me wrong, there are always exceptions, but by and large, people don’t need behavioral change in order to live better. They need to figure out why they are/have been behaving in that way and our (mental health professionals) job is to help them do it. Hang with me for a minute while I lay this out…

    I find this type of work fairly simple – although not easy, per se. The patients struggle a great deal, but I encourage them to bypass the symptoms they are used to focusing on (e.g. depression, anxiety, drug use), and start thinking/feeling/talking about what drives these symptoms. In other words, what are the internal mechanisms that ultimately lead to a behavioral outcome. This requires them to consciously choose to feel things they’d rather not and/or things they fear will overtake them. This is simply because feelings are the psychological red flag that something within is injured.

    What they eventually learn is a few things: 1) feelings don’t have the power to consume you; they’re just feelings; 2) once you adjust your focus away from things that are not the problem (“I’m sad”), you develop quick and deep insight into a) where the problem originated (“My dad was always in and out of my life”), and, most importantly, b) what is creating the symptom (“I never trusted anyone enough to be my true self”).

    Once, and only once, a person arrives at this point (i.e. identifying the actual problem), can they begin to work to fix it. As such, they are now doing the INTERNAL work they need to. In sum, rather than focusing on the behavioral outputs and trying change those through reward and punishment, we are helping the patient bypass this and move directly to the cause of the behavior. The end result is the development of an internal focus and the kindling of internal motivation.

  • Keith says:

    Rod, you & I are of similar bents, my friend. The process that you outline is essential to internally motivated change. You seem to have a fine handle on the topic & I hope it works as well in session with your clients.

    With such an explorative approach, I’m curious how you handle avoidence or rationalization.

    Your comments are always welcome here.


  • Rod says:

    Thanks for your comments (and I LOVE your website, by the way-I’ll be checking in often). To answer your question, let me share that I currently work with an inmate population, which can be both highly resistant and avoidant. In fact, many of them have made a lifestyle out of avoidance, the best example of which is substance abuse and dependence. I suspect many of the patients all mental health professionals work with are equally avoidant, but in different ways.

    That being said, I am quite direct and not easily distractible. Patients will talk about any number of things, many of which had to do with who did what and when. I do not allow patients to follow this rabbit trail too far. I am encouraging and sensitive about it, but guide people back toward internal things repeatedly. I interpret the avoidance and rationalization for what it is, without apology, and tell them in no uncertain terms that if their avoidance or other defense mechanisms were working they would not be talking to me (in jail). This one is usually pretty hard to argue. 🙂

  • Keith says:

    Ah, the old “If your way worked so well, then why are we in here, having this conversation?” Classic & accurate. Thanks for tge kind words. The site is both a labor of love & a work in progress.

    Please do check back. New posts every-other Thursday.


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