Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Odd Consequence Value Effect (Or, Why Do I Mop the Kitchen Floor When I Get Good News?)

There's no doubt about it:  I can go for weeks without mopping the kitchen floor.  (Sweeping is so much easier.)  It weighs on my mind.  A little.

What nudges its consequence value up enough to tip it over the threshold of it-can-wait to let's-get-it-over-with?  It's often getting good news.  Suddenly, chores become easy as their aversiveness mysteriously declines. 

My kitchen floor
  Social psychologists verified years ago what our own
  experience tells us:  "Be happy to be good."  When is
  a charity more likely to successfully appeal to you (in
  other words, when does giving hard-earned cash become
  sufficiently rewarding)?--after you've had a horrible day
  at work, or a great one?  How does this effect fit in with the
  principles of consequences?  Well, we already know
  that the relationship between emotions and consequences
  is complex.  This is another way in which they interact.

I'm sure our past experiences--our history of consequences--and the rules we've learned are involved. As someone particularly aware of the motivators in my life (teaching this science and then writing this book), I can see the value of consequences vary with my mood.  As always, the situation is complex:  For household chores, I've also noticed that the other extreme can work too.  That is, when very little in my life is reinforcing, again, it can be easier than usual to do chores.  After all, they provide some reward value, if only by escaping that annoying feeling that I ought to do them, and, of course, escaping the unpleasantness of seeing dust balls in the corner. I couldn't find any research about this in a quick check, but I'm sure there's some out there.  (Let me know.)

Most effective of all, when I get a visitor, wow, see me reach for that mop.  Serious consequences (both positive and negative).

Am I just weird, or does this phenomenon apply to you too?


  1. I know I'm sometimes likely to clean (or do other chore type things) when I'm avoiding doing school work or studying.

    I think it's a way to not feel quite as bad about procrastinating on other tasks, since I still am accomplishing at least something and getting to check at least something off my list of things to do.


  2. Absolutely! I have two dogs, and my floors are hardwood. I can go quite a while (I am too embarrassed to say how long) without tending to my floors. Yet, if someone mentions that they might stop by, or the pile gets past the "tolerable" threshold, I will pick up my broom and mop.

    I can also relate to the emotional component. When I get great news, or have a wonderfully productive day, household chores become much less aversive. Alternatively, if it is a down in the dumps kind of day, I quite enjoy mundane chores (a welcomed distraction?). But on an average day, in the middle of the continuum, I will avoid that task like the plague.

  3. Thanks, Mary and Valerie, I'm glad I'm not the only one! The dynamics do get interesting. One question is, now that I'm more aware of all these factors, will my behavior be affected? Maybe . . .

  4. Interesting. I certainly clean more (and enjoy it) when Im in a good mood. I'm not a tidy person by any stretch of the imagination and there are many more things that are far higher up the reinforcement hierarchy for me. I would be interested to know more about this. As an animal trainer, my first thoughts about hearing new ideas on consequences is "how can I apply that to my animal work..." So here I sit, doing just that.

    BTW, have got your book on my kindle - have three weeks off coming up in February next year - saving it for then :)

  5. Thanks, PHMM. Do you suppose it might have anything to do with the "free (unearned) reinforcer" phenomenon that Karen Pryor (and probably others) have described? When a dolphin session got stalled, the freebie jump-started the session. In addition to its signaling properties ("rewards now available"), perhaps freebies affect the emotional side of everything that's going on?--changing consequence value as they can for us? Tricky issues here . . . including the down side of potentially reinforcing problem behavior. I'd be interested in what you and other animal trainers think.