Conditioning Ourselves with the Positive

February 6, 2013

By: Ryan W. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

One of positive leadership’s essential features is creating a culture of positivity.  Last semester, on the final day of class, I had my students read a blog entry from the Harvard Business Review that presented a compelling example of this tenet in action.

It was entitled “Can We Reverse the Stanford Prison Experiment?” In that now-famous 1971 experiment, Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned Stanford undergraduates to be either prison wardens or prisoners and confined them to a basement for one week. Participants not only adopted their roles, but actually became their roles, with the prison wardens ultimately abusing their prisoners to such an extent that Zimbardo had to stop the experiment early.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is now a classic in the lore of social psychology, often cited among the best illustrations of how people’s behavior tends to be driven much more by their circumstances than by individual values and conscious choice. People familiar with it were not shocked by the U.S. military abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003–04, even if they were disappointed that we still don’t seem to have learned much from 40 years of social psychology research.

Some recent events in the sciences of the positive suggest that, maybe, we have learned a little more than we might have originally thought.

Reversing the Experiment

The HBR piece did not actually focus on the Stanford Prison Experiment, but on what could be characterized as its opposite: A program that generated exceptionally positive results instead of exceptionally negative ones.

In Richmond, Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) addressed a spiraling youth crime rate with a novel idea—giving “positive tickets” to youth they discovered doing a good thing for the community; these tickets entitled them to free entry at the movies or a youth center.

In one year, they gave out three times as many positive tickets as negative ones. During that year, recidivism reduced from 60% to 8%, youth crime reduced by half, and overall crime reduced by 40%. And the cost of positive tickets was just 10% of the cost of processing the previous years’ crimes.

One of my students, appropriately, expressed skepticism about this story. After all, if young men and women wanted to take advantage of a positive ticket or similar system, they certainly could. And if reporters wanted to publish exposés on all of the abuses, inequities, and problems with such a system, they certainly would find some to write about. We are talking about human beings, after all. Just because the negative is true, however, does not mean that the positive is not also true. Recidivism and re-offending did drop significantly. Costs were lower. And, perhaps most important, many individual lives were very likely improved as a result.

Positive Tickets in Other Settings

I was intrigued, recently, to see the RCMP experiment recurring in other settings, with similarly dramatic effects. Two weeks ago, I was training educational administrators from five different states when I met the principal and some of her staff from Adams City Middle School outside Denver, Colo. The administrators and teachers at this school recently began giving “positive referrals” to their students, with effects similar Richmond’s. Disciplinary action is down and student achievement is on the rise.

The school dean has papered the walls of her office and foyer with the positive referrals students have received. Those pages tell stories of students who have struggled to behave in class now actively seeking to do good things so they can earn positive referrals. Students, in return, now give positive referrals to the adults from time to time—the result of building a culture of looking for the good in others. And because one of the benefits of earning a positive referral is that the administrators call parents to tell them what a good job their children have done, relationships between the school and the parents are stronger and more positive than they’ve ever been before. The administrators who told me about this gushed with stories about the improvement the program has created in the lives of their students, faculty, and community.

This phenomenon is certainly not limited to youth in cities and schools. As we have written before in this blog, there are also corporate examples of people choosing to focus on and reward the positive things their employees do to great effect. Focusing on success can provide guidance to people about how to succeed as well as motivate and energize them.

Designing for Positive Conditioning

We humans are conditioned by the feedback in our environment. It drives our behavior more than we realize. But we need not be at the mercy of it. We can structure our environment to facilitate what kind of feedback gets shared. What would it look like in your organization if you were to structure the feedback to be more like that of Adams City Middle School or the City of Richmond?