A Systems View of Social Enterprisee

30 Oct A-P-A

When Bill Drayton of Ashoka introduced the idea of “social entrepreneurship” in the 80s, dynamics within the social sector were irrevocably changed. The concept that businesses could “do well by doing good” – profit by serving others – wasn’t new. In fact, this is the force behind the theoretical “invisible hand.” However, the reversed suggestion that organizations could “do good by doing well” – more effectively serve others by seeking financial self-sufficiency – was unheard of, and radically challenged popular ideas.

Now, this concept has achieved mainstream approval and adopted the more inclusive term of “social enterprise.” A whole spectrum of mission-money practices have emerged, from nonprofits looking for stable revenue to businesses creating so-called Corporate Social Responsibility programs.

The boons of social enterprise have been studied and praised by many academic voices and viewpoints. One field that hasn’t yet joined in is that of systems science, the study of how things and their interactions produce behavior. This is astonishing, as systems thinking highlights one of the most important contributions of social enterprise – its power to align the intentions of donors and recipients.

On Systems, Goals, and Feedback

Before we apply a systems perspective to social businesses, it’s worthwhile to provide a brief introduction to some basic systemic theories.

Take a given problem, and a given action taken to correct that problem:


This is a simplified version of what systems science calls a “causal loop diagram,” so named because it attempts to illustrate the causes behind system behavior. The arrow signifies an effect – in this case, the action is trying to change the problem.

Usually, the choice of action is informed by the nature of the problem. A more serious problem motivates a more more dramatic action; conversely, if the action helps fix the problem, the action will likely decrease.


This is what systems scientists refers to as a “feedback loop” (or the causal loop of causal loop diagrams). While nutritionists count calories and astrophysicists measure lightyears, systems operate in feedback. Feedback loops are what govern a system’s behavior – in different contexts, feedback can punish crime, grow a business, or eliminate a species.

Put simply, feedback is what systems use to accomplish goals. The goal-seeking behavior of systems has earned its own discipline, cybernetics, and can be complex enough to draw the attention of chaos theorists studying “attractors.”

For our purposes, we only need to know that when feedback mechanisms become less effective, the system is less likely to be able to seek its goals. Feedback loops grow weaker by becoming less direct – the more layers information has to go through, the less likely it is to effectively direct action – less timely – if information is delayed, action is changed in response to the wrong facts – or less powerful – the feedback lacks the clout to produce a change.

Using what we now know about system structure and feedback, we can compare the two dominant ways society solves problems: business and government.

Public, Nonprofit, and Private Systems

Let’s take a look at the feedback structure of the typical government agency:


We begin with a problem. After a delay, people become aware of the problem, and desire change. Eventually, building dissatisfaction begins affects the lifeblood of political organizations: elections. Shifting reelection chances create concerns within governmental agencies, which finally adjust the action itself.

Given the three ways feedback loops can weaken – indirectness, timeliness, and power – we can analyze the governmental feedback loop. It’s easy to see that the loop is neither direct nor timely, slowly passing through multiple groups of people before finally reaching the root problem. Thankfully, the loop does have a significant amount of decision-making power – if a government’s constituents are on its side in an issue, its freedom to affect the problem is unparalleled.

These strengths and shortfalls explain some of the known failures of political systems. Specifically, a problem can slip through the cracks by failing to attract media attention (therefore unable to influence public opinion), as in the consistent, continuing wars in central and northeastern Africa, or by lacking the social backing to affect political reelection possibilities, such as many issues plaguing the poor in less democratic countries. In addition, the many layers information must filter through can lead to ineffective or even harmful action, such as the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the late 20th century.

What about the nonprofit sector? Here’s one analysis of a nonprofit feedback loop:


While there are fewer steps in the process, there are some serious shortcomings. Firstly, the nonprofit loop has much less power to alter the problem in question, limited both by its scale and by the resources available to it. More unfortunately, the filter between a problem and donors is an incredible handicap, featuring huge delays and distorted facts. Because of this filter, donors have far more power over nonprofit action than stakeholders who actually suffer from the problem, causing dramatic inefficiencies.

This is an example of one of the most important phenomena in systems science: sub-optimization. Systems sub-optimize when one of its members seeks a goal that goes against the goals of the system itself. It happens when a salesman finds a loophole that increases his commissions at the cost of the company, when the body’s urge to ward off invaders causes an allergic reaction, or when developing countries relax environmental regulation to encourage economic growth. Sub-optimization is rampant in almost all sciences: an economic example is the “tragedy of the commons,” where individual self-interest destroys a common resource, and members of biological systems exhibit “cheating,” where one member of a symbiotic relationship violates the agreement in order to profit. The phenomenon has even earned its own discipline, game theory, which examines situations where individual goals override the common good.

Nonprofit systems sub-optimize when donors intentionally or unintentionally push NGOs away from the actual problem. Sometimes this happens when donors have a “pet problem,” a charitable cause that they take personal interest in, regardless of its objective importance. This happens in the US with breast cancer research – while breast cancer is irrefutably a horrible illness, and the flow of funds has made a significant impact, breast cancer itself consistently causes far fewer deaths than cardiovascular disease, a problem that receives much less media coverage and funding.

It’s worth mentioning that sub-optimization happens in the political realm as well, but far less dramatically (at least in democratic systems). This is because while politicians and officials may have goals that run contrary to public trends, the threat of diminishing election chances ultimately makes them subservient to popular demand, more-or-less forcing political and public goals to align.

The last significant player is the private sector, providing us with the following causal loop diagram:


Business feedback loops operate through one important filter – what economists sometimes refer to as “willingness to pay” (WTP). That is, a problem only affects businesses through peoples’ willingness to pay for the problem to be solved.

Evaluating the strength of the feedback loop leads to a couple impressive discoveries. Firstly, research has shown that this feedback loop is incredibly timely, with a changing problem sweeping through WTP and business circles at an astonishing speed. While entry barriers may create a “minimum WTP” that precedes initial private sector involvement, once businesses are in the picture, they are quick to adapt to fill the need.

In addition, the fact that this loop’s power is directly related to its success in solving that problem – that is, if a business effectively meets a need, it is rewarded with capital, further strengthening its ability to meet the need. This virtuous cycle is referred to as “positive” or “reinforcing feedback,” and dramatically increases the private sector’s power. This phenomenon can be seen to a more limited degree in political systems, through taxes, and very, very faintly in nonprofit systems, through donors’ willingness to offer funds.

However, business systems suffer from one incredibly sub-optimizing setback. Because its feedback is dependent on a problem’s translation to WTP, needs that don’t readily offer themselves to that translation – such as environmental issues, or the needs of the poor – will not attract private sector involvement. Indeed, since this feedback ignores these elements, these systems often cause significant harm in these areas, marginalizing the impoverished and becoming the single greatest factor in the global environmental crisis.

Thus far, we’ve learned about the strengths of these systems, such as political systems’ power and wide knowledge base, nonprofits’ capacity to fill gaps left by the other systems, and businesses’ ability to reinforce their own effectiveness. We’ve also seen the causes and nature of sub-optimization in three kinds of social systems: misguided and delayed action in political systems, disconnect between donors and beneficiaries in nonprofit systems, and exploitation of people and planet in private systems.

So how can we eliminate these problems, while capitalizing on these advantages?

Our Hero: Social Enterprise Systems

From a cybernetic (goal-seeking systems) perspective, a simple definition of social enterprise would be: any organization or effort that blends the feedback processes of public, nonprofit, and private systems. Therefore, we can analyze social enterprise as “blended systems,” and examine each pertinent feedback loop.

Let’s start with the private, or profitable, feedback loop:

Social Enterprise - Private Loop

This is almost identical to the loop associated with business systems, and shares its strengths and weaknesses. The major advantages of this loop include the capacity for speedy action and the ability to “succeed by succeeding,” i.e., use previous successes to fund future action.

Like private systems, this loop lends itself to exploitation due to the financial filter, overlooking or exacerbating problems that don’t lend themselves to revenue. However, social enterprises are slightly superior to businesses in this regard: they can help people who themselves aren’t willing to pay by finding others who are willing to pay. For example, asking the homeless to pay for vocational training may be ineffective, but businesses may be willing to pay for access to trained labor.

If we stopped there, social enterprise would simply be a more innovative business model. However, our definition of social enterprises as blended systems suggests the presence of nonprofit- and public-like feedback, as shown here:

Social Enterprise - Public Loop

The properties of this secondary loop are almost the reverse of the primary. While this feedback loop is far less timely than the first, and filters may distort information, it is more inclusive and holistic. Social enterprises need not rely exclusively on traditional income for survival, but can be supplemented by donations private, nonprofit, or governmental organizations. Conversely, these groups can censor harmful social enterprises through regulation, though only political systems have the clout to enforce their decisions.

One last relationship is worth exploring. Observant individuals might have criticized my model’s assumption that popular opinion can only affect social businesses through pressure on middle-man organizations. There is another, more direct way the “commonfolk” can influence social enterprises, namely through donations:

Social Enterprise - Nonprofit Loop

This loop blends aspects of the private and public-nonprofit loops. Specifically, while it’s more direct and timely than public-nonprofit feedback, it still suffers from the distortion typical of donor relationships. In addition, donations lack the level of power that nonprofit donors do – whereas a lack of donations can effectively suffocate a nonprofit organization, social enterprises have limited ability to adapt by substitution private or institutional funds.

Real-World Implications

What are the practical results of these relationships? While there are many, including the capacity to adapt to unique problems and bring more resources to bear in solving them, these have already been thoroughly analyzed and praised by many disciplines. One, however, has been largely ignored: the social sector’s miraculous ability to goal-seek.

From a purely cybernetic or systems-science perspective, the feedback loops of social businesses are far, far superior to anything yet seen. The novelty of the private loop has proven invaluable in its swift, stern control. Businesses must serve their customers, or they will quickly die; now, social enterprises face the same healthy stress, forcing them to learn and adapt to the needs of their beneficiaries.

In addition, the three loops form redundancies, compensating for each others’ inadequacies. If a business-minded enterprise is profiting, but the root problem is unaffected or worsened, then (after a delay) the other loops will activate, threatening to reduce funding or call for legal commitment to measure measure and meet social goals.

Direction for Future Action

Given the systemic strengths of social enterprise, the question may be asked, “How can these advantages be safeguarded and built upon?” The simple answer would be to strengthen the relevant feedback loops. Systems science predicts that the loops will be strengthened proportionate to their regulatory capacity – more powerful loops will naturally develop faster than others.

The private loop, being the fastest-acting of the relevant feedbacks, has already been well-developed through experience and research. The field is still relatively new, however, so there is still work to be done in standardizing “best practices” in the industry.

Due to its characteristic delays, the public-nonprofit loop is woefully under-developed. There are few legal definitions of what a social enterprise is, and how it can be regulated. Should they be taxed like businesses? Held accountable to their missions like nonprofits? Without a framework, political forces remain largely impotent. Since the public-nonprofit loop is a vital “feedback fallback,” making up for the failings of the private one, its development deserves far more focus than it currently enjoys.

Social enterprise is a powerful evolution in society’s ability to seek its goals. This tool must be researched, quantified, and invested-in so as to enhance its growth. If this happens, the world can take a quantum leap in the right direction.

Triumphant Return!

30 Oct

Hey there, Readers! I’m back!!

Sorry I vanished – I’ve been doing many, many things (LDS Mission, year of illness, etc.) I’ve been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) now, so that’s new.

I’ll try and hop back on with the same kind of content I was publishing before I left. Some of my more recent interests are systems science, network theory, and collective impact.

What sort of topics would you like to hear about? Let me know!

What is Knowledge Management?

20 Apr
happily collaborating, celebrating businesspeople

via ksawa.com

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, suggested that the main ingredient behind successful innovation was not a clever way of thinking or brainstorming. Instead, it was a place where people could share ideas, let them bump into each other, and in so doing, evolve into new, more powerful forms. The coffee-shops of Paris served this purpose during the Enlightenment, allowing for fantastic new scientific and philosophical concepts to be born.

The Japanese, during the 70s, applied this concept to businesses. How, they asked, does knowledge flow, and how can managers and business leaders help? Philosopher Ikujiro Nanaka and others developed a model of knowledge creation that captures all the ways knowledge moves and morphs within a network, and the one main technique that managers can use to encourage its development.

The SECI Model Explained

The model suggested by Nanaka’s team details the ways that knowledge changes hands and transforms. To begin, he divides knowledge into two types: Explicit Knowledge, which can be described with numbers, science, or manuals, and Tacit Knowledge, the emotional, difficult-to-describe variety. Both kinds of knowledge are necessary, both for everyday living and for business ventures. These two kinds of knowledge interact with four processes: Socialization, Externalization, Combination, and Internalization (SECI).

SECI Model displayed, socialization, externalization, combination, internalization, tacit and explicit knowledge

The SECI Model


Socialization is the process where tacit knowledge it transmitted between people. Because tacit knowledge is rarely successfully expressed, socialization simply involves spending time with coworkers, enjoying their company and conversation until you learn how they think feel. You learn how they look at their tasks, their perspectives. It’s possible – and necessary – to do this with your customers, too. Those who are in a position to interact with the customers directly need to learn the skills needed to see how they think and feel, and through the other processes in the model, transmit that model to other parts of the organization.


This process allows tacit knowledge to be morphed into explicit knowledge. Through interaction between an individual and other groups in the organization, the individual’s tacit knowledge is expressed through whatever terms are possible, such as metaphors and stories. Effective communication skills are a necessity; developing these and increasing opportunities for externalization are the main ways managers can encourage this process.


Through teams, or a creative individual, the explicit knowledge injected into the organization is transmuted through the process of Combination. Knowledge throughout the organization is collected and compiled into a more effective form of explicit knowledge, allowing the more refined forms to be distributed throughout the organization. An example would be a team in a tech firm whose job is to publish reports of successful products made throughout the company.


Internalization is where the model comes full circle: as we started with an individual sharing tacit knowledge, it ends with the same individual converting the explicit knowledge supplied either by the firm or outside sources into personally applicable tacit knowledge. An HR official runs through this process when he reads the company’s training manual for conflict resolution, then puts it into practice. Internalization doesn’t just refer to an individual; the collective tacit knowledge of the organization is morphed from its explicit knowledge through internalization.

Ba and Encouraging Knowledge Flow

Now that we understand the main mechanisms whereby knowledge moves throughout an organization, the only piece missing is this: What are we, as managers, supposed to do about it? How can we apply this information? Here, we return with Nanako to the introduction of this article: a space that encourage the flow of ideas, that can allow all the SECI processes to occur. Nanako introduces a concept from Japanese, called Ba, which generally translates as “Place of _______.”

Ba or Tokoro, Kanji, Japanese Character

Ba: “Place of _______”

Ba, when applied to business, refers to the concept of having a place for knowledge processes to occur. This place can be physical, virtual, or mental (such as a shared perspective or set of values). Managers’ main purpose in knowledge management is to provide this Ba, and to tailor the characteristics of each Ba to the processes it’s meant to encourage. For example, if one is trying to encourage Socialization, it would be counterproductive to encourage virtual interaction. Why? Socialization requires face-to-face interaction, as the very act of an individual expressing his/her tacit knowledge transmutes it to explicit knowledge, making it Externalization instead of Socialization. Considerations such as these should become vital to a manager’s strategy.

Ba is a powerful tool, and regulated or not, it’s an integral component in a company’s culture. When underutilized, Ba will develop independent of a manager’s direction, and will likely be counterproductive to the company’s goals. However, when used properly, Ba can encourage the flow of ideas throughout an organization, and as such, allow for greater innovation and creativity. Enjoy, and good luck, Changemakers!

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Where in your workplace can you see Ba in action? How can you utilize Ba to help your company’s effectiveness?

Understand Customers, Understand Yourself: Means-End Analysis applied to Habit Substitution

19 Apr

via ebiz.net

Hello, Changemakers! Today, we talk about one of the most valuable theories in marketing research, and look at its implications in our own lives, especially with regard to strengthening our own personal habits.

Gutman’s Means-End Chain

In 1981, Jonathan Gutman proposed a new method for understanding consumer behavior. Called the Means-End Chain, its basic assumption is that when an individual uses a product, it’s not for the product itself. It’s rare that we get a car just to have it. Usually, the product is a means to an end: certain features of the product allow us to achieve something that is important to us. Gutman’s model suggests that the benefits each product feature gives are important to us because they feed a set of personal values we have. If we were to apply the Means-End Chain to our car, then, we would see that the car has a Feature of traveling quickly and easily, giving us a Benefit of getting to far-away places with little effort, feeding into our Value of convenience.

The Means-End Model

The Means-End Model

This model allows for many different applications in the field of marketing. Once a successful Chain has been discovered, usually through extensive market research, it can be stressed in advertisements to influence consumer behavior. Understanding the Chains behind consumers choosing the competition can allow a company to deliberately undermine those Chains, slipping their product in as a suitable substitute to feed those same values. It’s that very idea behind product substitution that allows us to transfer the Means-End Model to personal habits.

Analyzing our Own Motives

Do you remember when we looked at the basic structure of habits? We mentioned that all habits have a basic structure of Cue-Routine-Reward. The Means-End Model allows us to look at the underlying relationship between the Routine and the Reward. Why is the Routine important to us? What, precisely, is the Reward we’re given? There are many ways to find out, but the Means-End Model gives us a chance to see what we really want.

For example, let’s apply this method of analysis to a simple habit we want to stop: say, snacking when we feel hungry. What are the Features, Benefits, and Values affected by this Routine? Our first step would be to ask ourselves some key questions, such

  • What do I like most about snacks?
  • What benefits do I get when I snack?
  • Why are those benefits important to me?

This could be one result, though the answer will be different for each person.

One possible Snacking Means-End Chain

One possible Snacking Means-End Chain

Now that we have the Chain for this particular activity, we’re equipped to substitute another activity in that will feed those same Benefits and Values. Note: The further down the Chain your substitution goes, the easier it will be to switch. That is, a substitution will be easier to implement if it satisfies the same Benefits and has the same Features instead of simply satisfying the Values in question. In our snacking example, it would be easier to switch to healthier snacks than to resting with a book and blanket. While the rest may give you comfort and distraction, the part of your brain used to the full stomach will still be pulling you towards the snacks.

Once you’ve found an effective substitute, make it your personal determination to use it instead of your unhealthy habit. There will be resistance, but depending on how well-chosen your substitute was, the resistance will die in time. Hold fast, and use this to give yourself some good habits along the way! Enjoy, Changemakers!

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What habits do you need to change? What habits do you wish you had? How can you use substitution and Means-End Analysis to help?

The Grid: Analysis of Selling Strategies

17 Apr

Well, Changemakers, here’s one of my favorite techniques from the sales books I’ve been reading. Though I’ve forgotten the title and author, one of them concerned a new way to look at the assumptions governing both salesman and customer behavior. This is based on a pair of graphs: two graphs, one representing the salesman and one representing the customer, each using the same scale.

The Sales Grid

Here, we look at a graph of all the different ways a salesman can look at sales. The grid is laid out on two axes: the horizontal, representing the salesman’s concern for making the sale; and the vertical, showing the concern for the customer. Each axis is measured on a scale from one to nine. While there are a near infinite number of combinations here, we will only look at five, residing at the (1,1), (1,9), (9,1), (5,5), and (9,9) points.

The Sales Grid: where are you?

The Sales Grid: where are you?

Take it or Leave it

This salesman is absolutely careless, not in lack of attention, but lack of emotional investment. They care neither for the customer nor the sale, leaving little reason to put much effort in the sale. Regardless of the situation, this salesman is unlikely to provide value for himself, the customer, or the company.

Pushover Salesman

Here, the salesman is consumed with caring for the customer and their feelings. Their sales style is filled with flattery, concessions, and attempts at ensuring the customer thinks well of them. They even view sales less about selling products as selling themselves. While this salesman may possibly make more sales than (1,1) or (9,1), they rarely will actually benefit the customer, and it is even less likely to benefit the company.

Hardball Salesman

This sales style is full of distrust of, and contempt for, the customer. They believe that the customer must always be bullied into a sale, and any compromises are losses. This salesman may make a sale, but their unnecessarily tough tactics make it unlikely, and they will rarely benefit the customer or ensure repeat purchases.

Technique Salesman

Based on equal concern for the customer and the sale, this salesman bases his sales on selling techniques. In an effort to half-help both in a false compromise, they rely on proven techniques and processes to make a sale. In all the strategies mentioned so far, this one is most likely to ensure repeat purchases, and has the best set of sales ethics associated with it.

Solutions Salesman

Just as the Pushover Salesman bases his sales on selling himself, the Solutions Salesman bases his sales on selling Solutions. They believe in their heart that there is a possibility for a supreme Win-Win, where both the customer and company gets everything they need. The Solutions Salesman still uses some well-known techniques, like capitalizing on objections and soft closes, but bases most actions on on-the-moment growths from his Solutions mentality. This mentality succeeds against all customer mentalities, and helps customer and company with equal effectiveness.

The Customer Grid

The Customer Grid: Where is your buyer?

The Customer Grid: Where is your buyer?

Each of these positions roughly corresponds to the same point on the Sales Grid. For example, the Avoidance Customer (1,1) despises salesmen and purchases alike. When confronted with a salesman, they make make a hasty purchase just to get rid of the perceived assailant. The Pushover Customer (1,9) will do anything to make the salesman approve of him, while the Defensive Customer (9,1) distrusts all salesmen, and pushes his own opinions relentlessly (often doing themselves a disservice in the process). A Reputation Customer (5,5) understands that the best compromise is to base purchases on the information about the company gathered from outside sources, but the Solutions Customer (9,9) sees that a Solution exists where both salesman and customer are satisfied.

These grids allow for two keen advantages: one, self-diagnosis as a salesman, which allows us to focus our self-development efforts; and, more importantly, analysis of the customer’s mentality and the choice of appropriate sales style. There is a general rule suggested by the second use of the grids:

Given a customer style on the customer grid, the salesman is most likely to profit with any strategy that is closer to the (9,9) point than the customer.

That is, if the customer is a Pushover, the salesman would do well to value the customer just as much as the customer values him, but emphasize the goals of the company so as to do the employers and salesman justice. A Defensive Customer is put at rest when the salesman cares as much for the purchase as they do, but is willing to listen to their needs. Obviously, the best possible position to take for any customer is the (9,9) Solutions Strategy, but assuming that few salesmen are able to consistently uphold this strategy, this rule allows the salesman to always mount a successful reprisal to each customer style.

Where are you on the Sales Grid? As a customer, where are you on the Customer Grid, and how will you benefit from moving towards being a Solutions Customer?

Fighting the 7 Mental Sins

17 Apr

Hello, Changemakers! Productivity site Lifehack.org posted a useful infographic today. Titled, “Brain Hack the Seven Deadly Sins,” it offered more realistic modern definitions for the traditional Catholic “7 Deadly Sins,” along with effective psychological tricks for fighting them. The infographic can be found here:

Brain Hack the 7 Deadly Sins

I hope that this will prove useful! Good day, Changemakers!

A Golden Summer

16 Apr

Well, this is shaping up to be a lovely summer! I’ve got a wonderful job lined up: selling pest control with Vantage Marketing. I’ve gone to some trainings already, and I’m psyching myself up for a summer of door-knocking.

As part of my preparation, I’ve been reading such classic sales books as How To Sell Your Way Through Life. I’ve been finding some fascinating theories, which I’m looking forward to share with you all later.

Finals are coming, too: wish me luck! Have a great day, Changemakers!

Learning to Walk

13 Apr

Hello, Changemakers!

This week has been interesting. I was quite proud of myself a few days ago when I thought up the d20 System; I’ve already started using it, though only in a limited way. I’m using the stopwatch on my phone to generate a random number from one to ten (using the hundredths place); that’s working wonders already.

However, there is a snag. While I’ve already mentioned Premack’s Principle, which makes this easier, I’m having difficulties thinking up both rewards and punishments to use. I’ve used snacks as rewards, but I’m sure there’s a more effective route to be found. I’m also altogether unable to think up any decent deterrents for bad behavior. I’m spending far more time on the computer than I would like; my difficulty is that most of the things that I enjoy are actually things that I’m trying to deter, like surfing the web and snacking excessively.

So, I put the question to you: What are your recommendations for good rewards and punishments?

Set Apart: Mormon Media for Free

11 Apr

Hello, Changemakers! I thought I’d like to show everyone a singular opportunity. Brigham Young University, the world’s premier LDS university (and my school), has a superb Men’s Chorus which performs at many Church meetings. Previously under the leadership of choir-conducting legend Mack Wilberg, they currently tour the US and Canada each year, the choir is made up largely of returned missionaries, and are an inspirational example of LDS religion.

For those interested, the Men’s Chorus has recently released their newest religious album, Set Apart. Not only that, but they are offering it for free: click here or on the image above to get to the download site.

I hope you all enjoy it; thank you for reading, and have a lovely day!

Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Gambling for Healthy Habits

10 Apr

via Photocase

In our last post, we discussed some of the best ways to influence our behavior for the better. One of these techniques, Changing the Reward, deals with altering the habit’s consequences. This can be done through punishments or rewards, all seeking to trick the brain into enjoying the activity further. Today’s post will deal with making positive reinforcement as effective as possible.

When behavioral psychologists study the effects of consequences on routines, they have to consider the details of the relationship. Do you reward yourself after a certain amount of time, or after you perform the routine a specific number of times? Do you have to make sure it’s exactly the same every time, or is some variation okay? While they found a near infinite number of these “reinforcement schedules,” they decided they can be classified into four major categories. These can be shown on a 2×2 matrix, with one axis reflecting whether the reward is based on an amount of time or a number of performances, and the other representing whether the reward is absolutely certain or not.

Schedule Matrix

If we look at these four possibilities, we can start to see where natural patterns in our lives fall in these categories. Fixed Interval is the most common: whenever we see an hourly pay rate, we see a certain reward based on an amount of time. Whenever a salesman is given a commission for every nth sale, a Fixed Ratio schedule is at work. Variable Interval is the least common, and even less useful: perhaps when a son is given a pay rate for mowing the lawn, and the time is approximated, this schedule is at work. However, the real strength lies in the bottom-left quadrant, an area not found in nature, except for one place: gambling.

The Magic of the Variable Ratio

Variable Ratio schedules are the most successful possible. It refers to when you may have to perform an activity once, maybe six times, before the reward comes. This category is the most powerful reinforcement schedule in the matrix. When the routine to be performed implies the payment of money, governments make it illegal due to the ease with which the one who controls the rewards can keep the money coming. This schedule can even be addictive in its nature; gambling addiction is one of the most common, and most aren’t even aware that they have them.

The real question is, how can we use this schedule to reinforce our desired habits, or discourage unhealthy ones? The other schedules are already used, with the exception of Variable Interval. Sometimes we decide that after an hour of studying, we can go to a movie; after three conversations with a drifting client, we can buy a treat. But if we remain in the Fixed area of the matrix, we give up the power that lies in the lower left. How can gambling be applied? I would like to propose a solution, utilizing a new system for rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The D20 System.

via ufisk.no

The D20 System

A d20 is a die with twenty sides. While normally used for games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it can be a powerful tool, easily found online or in local gaming stores. Here are the basics for the D20 System:

  1. List the behaviors you want to alter, either by encouraging or discouraging them.
  2. Assign each a number: the lower the number, the easier it is for you to perform a goal. A 3-Goal is a goal you have less trouble with than a 7-Goal.
  3. Find two things: a reward, and an activity you enjoy that you already do.
  4. Whenever you perform a Behavior of Interest, roll the die. If you roll below the number you’ve chosen, do one of two things: if you want to encourage the behavior, give yourself the reward: if you want to discourage the behavior, deny yourself the activity you enjoy as a gentle punishment.
  5. Weekly, review your goals and their rank. If you’re now having an easier time with one of your 9-Goals, move it to a 6-Goal. If you’re having problems with a 2-Goal, make it a 5-Goal. The idea is to eventually wean yourself off of the d20 for goals you no longer need to manipulate.

This system can provide some of the strongest motivation for changing your behaviors. There are only two extra considerations required to help it work. First, resist the temptation to reroll the d20. The entire point is to provide a link between the activity and the variable hope for reward. If you really want that reward, do another one of your Goals, perhaps one with a higher rank to increase your chances.

Premack’s Principle

The next consideration is that of choosing reinforcements. We may have difficulty choosing: “There’s nothing I really want to do that’s actually feasible for a frequent reward.” There is, however, a principle in behavioral psychology, Premack’s Principle, which can open your mind. Simply put, it says that any activity you’d rather be doing can be a reward. If you’re studying, and you find yourself in a twisted way wanting to do dishes as a means of escape, that can be a reward. Anything can be a reward, so long as it’s more desirable than what you’re trying to reinforce.

A reward? Maybe! via Dreamstime.com

In sum, the D20 System can be one of the best tools you can use to motivate yourself. Make it into a game, and your life has just become a powerful, productive casino! Hope you enjoy it, Changemakers: thanks for reading!

How else can we reinforce good habits?

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