Premack and Dental Floss

I love the Premack Principle!  Have I mentioned this before?  It has been a saving grace for getting any resemblance of focus for Jenga.  If you aren’t familiar with the Premack Principle (also known as relativity theory of reinforcement), it goes like this:

If you do a less desired (low probability) behavior, I will reward you with letting you do a desired (high probability) behavior (“finish your homework then you may play on your ipad”).  Then the low probability behavior becomes more probable.

For example, last year with Jenga, it was: if you can focus and do this set of weaves, I will reward you with a zoom.  He LOVES zooms, so this was a very effective reward for building some behaviors.

However, it wasn’t until tonight when I was doing my nightly bedtime ritual that it really dawned on me how it works, not just in increasing the probability of a behavior, but also the enjoyment of that (previously) low probability behavior.  You see, despite the years of dental technicians and dentists telling me the importance of flossing my teeth, and showing me how to do them, I just never fell in love with the behavior of flossing my teeth.

I fully understood and appreciated the rationale behind flossing, and I wanted fully healthy gums and clean teeth.  Even when one technician said to me, “Only floss the teeth you want to keep,” I wasn’t able to make it a habit.  Oh, I would try.  I really would! But ultimately I would stop flossing.  It never became habit.

Now, brushing my teeth…. I LOVE brushing my teeth! I love the mint taste of the toothpaste, I enjoy the sparkling teeth that feel so smooth!  So it’s not like I don’t enjoy or value dental hygiene.

Then one day (my second last visit), my dentist said to me, “You know you can floss before you brush your teeth.  As a matter of fact, it’s a good idea as you loosen the plaque and then you can brush it away.”

“Really?!?!?! I didn’t know that!”

So I started flossing before I brushed my teeth.  At first it was a bit of effort at first, and I would reward my flossing with the joys of brushing my teeth.  Then… it happened.

I fell in love with flossing my teeth!

When I ran out of floss, I actually put in effort to find more in the house!  When I went on a trip to Saskatoon, I packed floss and used it everyday (despite the interruption in daily routine)!  I wanted to engage in this previously “bleah” behavior even despite challenges!

So, now I get it…. When you use Premack Principle in your training, you not only increase the likelihood of that less-desired (low probability) behavior because of the reward of the other behavior, you can also shift the joy and love of that behavior!  It’s beyond the rational thought process and beyond “doing it so that I can do the other thing.”  It ultimately becomes, in and of its own right, enjoyable!  There is a transfer of value.

So if you want those you are training to LOVE something or build a new habit, then pair that new behavior with another behavior that is genuinely loved (it works well if it naturally follows the new behavior).  I know this is why Jenga LOVES agility and why I now love flossing my teeth!


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