Gary Bloom

March 29, 2021

Jailhouse Rock, a Brief Intervention

Part 1 • Short-Term Change Strategy: You can’t control any behavior but your own

In a town in South Dakota, I was working in emergency services, which included consultation to the local jail. The manager in charge of the jail guards called my boss and explained that they had a prisoner who was driving the guards and other prisoners crazy. My boss told the jail manager she had someone who likes to work with that sort of thing. Lucky me.

The prisoner, a man in his forties was wreaking havoc. The crime that put him there was minor, but he was causing more problems for the jail staff than all the other prisoners combined. His jail transgressions included putting a match to his mattress and banging on his cell walls for hours on end; the noise, of course, drove everyone nuts. The jail staff disciplined him the only way they knew how; they took away all his privileges until there were none to take away. Despite the punishment, his defiant behavior continued. The baffled and frustrated staff had blown through their repertoire with no payoff. Far from being subdued, this man continued his incessant demand for cigarettes, but the guards were in no mood to reward him with the time to supervise his smoking, mandatory after he ignited a fire in his cell.

My boss met with me and suggested that we come up with a strict behavioral modification plan for the guards to implement. Instinctively, I shook my head side to side. The guards were already using an informal behavioral modification plan used by parents everywhere: eat your broccoli and you’ll get dessert. Or, in this case, behave and you’ll get smoke breaks when we have the time. If that would work, it would have already.

After meeting with the jail manager, I determined that the prisoner was not mentally ill, that his response to an intervention would be predictable. So I laid it out: The prisoner was to be given cigarettes, with the guard supervising his smoking, four times per shift at arbitrary intervals. By arbitrary, I explained that the cigarette breaks should in no way be connected to the prisoner’s behavior. I strongly cautioned against the guards referring to the cigarettes as a reward.

To get cooperation, I guaranteed success, but only if my instructions were followed to the letter. Of course (why else would I be telling this story?), the prisoner stopped his disruptive behavior, within the next shift. The jail staff was happy, the prisoner was happy, his lawyer was happy, and I was happy. No other problems with him arose during his two-month stay.

Why did the intervention work? The answer comes in two parts: the reason the prisoner stopped his early disruptive behavior, and the reason the prisoner did not cause any new disruptions during the rest of his stay.

The first part is simple. The guards and the prisoner got caught in a power struggle early on, but once the guards knew how they would behave—regardless of how the prisoner would behave—the power struggle was over. The guards knew that they were in control of their own behavior and stopped worrying about being in control of the prisoner’s behavior—a good idea since the only behavior you can control is your own.

Part 2 • Long-Term Change Strategy: Unearned Fish

If all there was to the above intervention was that the guards no longer responded to the prisoner’s disruption, I believe that the guards would have been in for an unwelcome encore of mischief. But there was a subtle alteration in the guards’ behavior that created a continuing change in the relationship between the prisoner and the guards: they gave the prisoner cigarette breaks, not as a reward, but as a kindness.

Once your basic physical needs are met, relationships become more important than anything else. And by relationships, I don’t mean just family, friends, and co-workers, I mean how you get along or don’t get along with everyone you deal with. Every person in your life, for better or worse, can have an effect on your sense of self, which is why you say thank you (or not) to someone you’ll never see again. Or why you might get into a stupid power struggle with prison guards, even when it makes your own life miserable.

People often respond to reward and punishment as you’d expect. If I tell my daughter that I will give her a candy bar if she cleans her room—and she does, and I do—I will conclude that she was motivated by the promise of candy. But what if she went along with my requests most of the time but not always? The most likely reasons for her occasional refusals are, that she is tired, that she’d rather do something more amusing, or that she’s mad at me.

If my daughter prefers doing something else over the reward of candy, then my control over what constitutes a reward at any particular time is limited. Or, if my daughter is angry with me, then she’s not likely to either give me the satisfaction of a clean room or of accepting candy from me. My daughter may prefer to suffer the consequences rather than submit to my authority.

So what does this say about reward and punishment? That it cannot be separated from the relationship between the involved parties. By what’s most important to her at the time, my daughter gives me permission to reward her or not.

John Lilly was the scientist whose study of dolphins gave them Lassie-like popularity during the 70s. When he was training them to perform (as we humans would characterize it), he noticed that if the dolphin took too long to learn a trick, and was subsequently not rewarded with fish for a long time, the dolphin would become demoralized. That is, it appeared that the dolphin was having a more difficult time learning after a threshold of repetitive failures was reached. Lilly found that the training of the dolphin could be revitalized by giving “unearned fish.” The unearned fish was a reward despite the absence of success with the trainer’s trick. Lilly speculated that the unearned fish demonstrated (to the dolphins) that the relationship between trainer and dolphin went beyond rewards for learning tricks.

The strategy of unearned fish was stumbled upon after much frustration, failure, and false assumptions about the root of the dolphin’s behavior. The trainers had to break out of the mindset they were dealing with only the dolphin’s modest desire to be fed. They had to allow for more complexity than simplistic views of reward and punishment. What was missing was the possibility that dolphin and trainer were in a relationship that went beyond a pure commerce exchange.

Back to my task at the jail:

I explained why the guards’ change in behavior had the desired effect in the short run: the guards knew that they were in control of their own behavior and stopped worrying about being in control of the prisoner’s behavior, which ended the power struggle.

Why did this seemingly non-sensical change in the guards’ behavior have the desired effect? Because both the jail staff and the prisoner were allowed to break out of their one-dimensional relationship with each other. Both had regarded all their interactions as part of a power struggle. The guards’ lone weapon was reward and punishment, leaving the prisoner with two lousy choices: surrender or defiance—neither with which he could feel comfortable. Introducing a friendly gesture on the staff’s part—at the height of animosity between staff and prisoner—allowed both an exit from their rigid, predictable stance.

The prerequisite for this working was that there be no catch. Fine print would have cast the gesture in the same old dingy light. So unearned fish is not simply an undeserved reward. It is an assertion that the relationship between the giver and receiver of a reward is not solely dependent on what have you done for me lately? Or to put it another way, it implies the understanding that all relationships have a history and future (in the mind if not concrete terms). And most people (and some other mammals, apparently) prefer to be on good terms rather than bad. To change a relationship, sometimes all that is necessary is for it to be allowed to be different, and let nature take its course.

Don’t try this at home

The above is merely a description of a brief intervention that resulted in a hoped-for outcome. It was designed for a specific setting with specific circumstances. It is not intended as an example of how to get your kids to do their homework.

The take-aways for readers I would hope for are the following: (1) You can’t control any behavior but your own. (2) If you’re locked in a power struggle, your way out is to know how you will behave regardless of the behavior of the other party. (3) The reason reward and punishment doesn’t seem to work so well is that it doesn’t work so well; people are complex with complex motivations. (4) No matter what the circumstances, relationships matter to people.

(I altered details to protect confidentiality.)