House Hold Chores, Operant Conditioning & Perverse Incentives

Whenever I give live programs on how to stop harassment using behavioral science - this comes up.

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As I'm teaching a team how to train a bully to stop using rewards, reinforcements and neutral responses, someone will inevitably ask me whether they can use this to get their spouse to do the dishes.

The short answer is yes. You can. 

And I highly recommend doing it if you want a happy humanist marriage.  A good division of labor for chores is really helpful to make sure that one person doesn't feel exploited.  Humanist marriages are about collaborative partnerships, not exploitation. Using marriage as an excuse to exploit the labor of your spouse is not ok. And yes, I do suddenly find myself sounding like a communist. But the point is - a marriage creates a community and a voluntary one at that. If you do not treat your spouse with dignity - they can leave!!!

Ok - so - how do you do it?  First - I recommend taking my - ending harassment course and/or reading my book the Bully Vaccine.  Either of these will help give you a grounding in the science of behavioral modification. 

Second, commit to only using these powers for good.

Third, review your current interactions. The reason your spouse isn't helping is probably because you are disincentive them. If they do a chore and instead of thanks and rewards, they get  a lecture of how everything they did was wrong, you will very quickly find that they do NOT want to do the chore. You aren't helping them. You aren't positively rewarding the behavior you want - the dishes done. You are training them to not do it by punishing them when they do it. Seriously. This is the dynamic.

If you want to change the outcome, you need to change the dynamic. And that means - really think about what it is you want them to do and then - reward them for doing it!!!!! This does require you to allow them to do it wrong and not the way you would do it. The point is - they did it and they should be rewarded.

Should you have to reward them for doing a chore they should be doing anyway?  Yes!!!!!! OK. No. I understand they should just do it - but pretend you are training a dog to do a new trick. You have to reward the behavior you want in order to establish it.

My husband and son - do the dishes. Without me asking. Yes - this really does work. No - I don't make a fuss when they don't do it the way I would do it. Why? Because I would rather they do the dishes than do it my way.  As long as the dishes get cleaned and I didn't have to do them  - to me- that's a win. And yes - the little amount of time it takes to thank them - which you should be doing anyway - because people like to be appreciated - is well worth the teeny bit of effort it takes me to say - thank you!

People really need to get off the - I'm the injured long suffering party and I need to be catered too high horse they are on in their marriages. Just be nice to each other. When a spouse does a chore - even if they do it wrong - thank them for the effort!!!!

Treat your spouse with dignity. They are an adult (I hope) and you married them for a reason. Treat them as if they are the awesome person you want them to be and let them live up to your expectations.

Please note - that this only really works when you and your spouse are basically sane mature adults. If one of you has a mental health issue like OCD - then I have another suggestion for you.  One time I had a guy in one of my sessions who was the one who asked this. He said he had OCD and hated the way his wife did dishes and he was really hoping to train her to do them the way he likes.   My advice to him was this. if you REALLY can't stand how she does it - stop asking that she do it. Just - that's your job. Period. Let her do another chore that isn't going to trigger you. Not everything has to be a fight. Divide up the labor and allow each partner to have autonomy over it.

I lived in a house in college with 6 people total. I hated dishes piled up and so did the dishes. One of the guys hated dirty floors and so was always sweeping. Another hated trash being piled up and so would take the trash out. Another hated dirty kitchen and so would clean the kitchen and dining room table. You get the idea.

Everyone complained that they were the only ones doing that particular chore. But no one in the house was slacking. We all had chores that became ours by virtue of our low tolerance for that problem. We had migrated to our jobs and divided up the labor evenly.

Really look at your chore list and divide it up and give people autonomy. Or split the parts of the chores up. Hubby unloads, wife loads the dishwasher. Whatever it is. you can come up with an equitable division of labor if you let go of the control of needing the job done a certain way.

And if you can't let it go - then do it yourself and stop hassling everyone for not being perfect.

Can this help you be a better leader?  YES!!!!!! Allow people to do the work you asked them to do. DOn't punish them when they do it wrong. Thank them and then encourage them to improve or show them how to do it an easier way or slightly different way. But don't go all negative on them and expect positive results. People don't respond to negativity with positive responses. You want people doing the work - thank them!!!!

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