Monday, March 28, 2016

Scarcity and Incentives

When one of our children has earned enough glass "gems" to fill up her reward jar, she can choose a 'special thing.' There are limited choices: go see a movie in the theater, buy a book at the book store, go to the Butterfly Pavilion or get to have a meal at Noodles and Company. Over the four years we've been using this system, our three kids have all used the first three options.  However, no one has ever chosen the fourth.

Why not? We rarely go to movies, the kids rarely get to purchase anything new and we reserve the Butterfly Pavilion exclusively for these special trips. Going to Noodles and Co for a meal, however, is not a rare event.  Why would the kids waste a once-every-few-months 'special thing' on something they're likely to get every month anyway?

There is a larger truth, here, too. If you use incentives to affect your children's behavior, it is good to start from a base of scarcity. If they get candy every night after dinner, are they going to be motivated by an extra piece? If they get to go to a movie every month, will they be motivated by going again? If they get thirty minutes of screen time every day, is the promise of an 'extra' show going to make a difference? If Grandpa brings a toy whenever he comes to visit and Mom brings one whenever she returns from a business trip, is the promise of a new toy going to motivate the kid? If they get a dollar a day allowance, is a new toy going to offer any incentive over what they can purchase on their own?

Here are a few guidelines we've used concerning incentives:

  1. Choose something they want. Sometimes it can be naturally connected to the behavior but it doesn't have to be. You are introducing an external motivation and once you tell them it's connected, it is.
  2. Small, repeated incentives are more likely to be effective than one grand item. This seems to have two causes: A) repeating a behavior makes it a habit and B) the parent is more willing to withhold a small reward that the child has a chance to earn again. 
  3. Withholding the incentive when the behavior does not meet expectations is as much as part of it as rewarding when it does. If they can get the reward either way, why would they bother to behave?
  4. Scarcity breeds opportunity. It is worth the difficulty of restraining them from excessive sweets, toys, movies or whatever in order to use those (which you wish to use) as incentives when you've decided a behavior is truly unacceptable.
The gem jars are a successful system for us (kids now 4 and 8 years old). One of the best parts is that I'm willing to make them take a gem out whenever a rule, no matter how small, is broken. We give three gems a night (one for going to bed without a fuss, one for not waking us up during the night and another for staying in bed until they're supposed to get up) so, if a kid has a nightmare or a leg ache, they only lose one of three. Still getting two gems doesn't feel like a punishment yet the philosophy is reinforced: they only get the gems they earned. 

One other incentive we've used was a reward chart for our 4 year old when she was awake for hours each night. I printed out an excel spreadsheet with 4 rows x 7 columns; at the end of each row was a picture of a piece of the Halloween costume she wanted: Elsa wig, Elsa shoes, Elsa dress and Elsa make-up.  It was about 5 weeks until Halloween when we started, so we could afford to *not* give her some stickers at the beginning (see point 3!). She ended up earning all the rewards and, after a month of practice, gained the capability of turning on her light and reading if she woke in the middle of the night. Half-way through, her sisters decided it wasn't fair that she was going to get a purchased Halloween costume, since we usually make them, and asked for reward charts of their own. In this case, buying a few items was well worth the resulting behavior. But again, if the were accustomed to getting costumes that they asked for, the incentive wouldn't have worked so well.  Scarcity breed opportunity!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Art for survival

To survive, we must tell stories 

Wrapping an emotion in words until it is encapsulated in a poem is a technique I discovered as a teenager and still use to avoid being overwhelmed. In this way, poetry has been important in my life. However, research into people's preferences in art and brain chemistry indicate that art may truly be crucial to humanity's survival.

On the TED Radio Hour's episode What is Beauty?, philosopher Dennis Dutton brings up
an experiment by Alexander Melamid. He analyzed people's taste in art and found that the universally desired landscape was one that was perfect for survival on the African savannas. For example, people prefer pictures of trees with a low branch, which would be advantageous in escaping a predator and always want water in the picture. So we find beautiful that which we need for survival.

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron claims that humans like stories because, as we put ourselves in the place of the protagonist, we are practicing dealing with situations we've yet to experience. "It's a human universal,"  she says in a Tedx Talk. Stories feel good because they are so crucial for our survival.

Research like this brings a whole new meaning to using art for survival. We strive to find the most beautiful landscape... because it has all the elements necessary for our survival.  We crave the character arc... because it gives us a safe way to practice our skills. Although raw survival might be different in the modern age,  the need for beauty hasn't diminished and neither has the ability of art to satisfy that need.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review: Search and Rescue in Colorado's Sangre de Cristos

Part thriller, part how-to manual, part philosophical treatise, this collection of true stories provides a window into the realities of Search and Rescue.

Full of useful tips like how not to go off the route on descent, how to keep warm in frigidly cold environments and how to slow the bleeding from multiple head wounds, the stories leave the reader with respect for the risks inherent in the mountain environment and an understanding of just how difficult and dangerous a rescue can be.

The author shows the care and respect that the men and women of SAR have for each other, as well as for the victims who they recognize as not much different from themselves.