In his new book, The Nurture Effect, Anthony Biglan, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Oregon Research Institute, describes numerous family and school programs that help reduce the use of coercive behavior. For example, beginning in the early seventies, psychologist Gerald Patterson began to observe moment-to-moment interactions between family members. Patterson and colleagues showed that the main reason families interacted aggressively was that each person got a brief respite from others’ adverse behavior by engaging in adverse behavior themselves. A child might do something a parent didn’t like and the parent might say something nasty or raise their voice. Often the child would cry or whine and the parent would escalate even to the point of hitting, and the child might then desist. The parent’s aggression just got reinforced! Likewise, a mother might ask a child to do something and the child might whine. Perhaps the mother became more demanding. If the child further escalated, screaming or breaking something, the parent might back off. This time the child’s adverse behavior got reinforced.
Our communication programs develop skills for responding to others’ adverse behavior in ways that don’t escalate conflict, but instead promote patient listening and cooperative problem solving. Now family and school programs greatly increase positive reinforcement in order to generate more prosocial behaviors. As Biglan writes, “There is a growing understanding of the importance of prosocial behavior and values, and a growing movement to make all of our environments more nurturing. As this movement progresses we will see lower levels of conflict and problem behavior than we have ever seen in history.”
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