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Good news encourages us all

The “honking geese” video was a great hit at April’s National Speakers Association of Australia conference. Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, showed this to illustrate how geese flying in formation honk to encourage those in the lead, who face the most aerodynamic resistance, to keep flying at a good pace. When the leaders eventually tire, they fall back and slipstream a bit to recover – and take up the honking to encourage the new leaders. What a wonderful example of a positive team.

Yet it seems much of our media coverage is based on the premise that “bad news is good news” – disaster sells. This prompted renowned Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki to write with Holly Dressel his book, “Good news for a change” – a delightful pun! And it’s so true that too much doom disempowers us all – apathy becomes a rational response!

Conversely, when we hear good news stories that explain just how others have made a difference, it makes us feel we can do it, too.

In the same way, positive reinforcement helps us learn, quickly and joyfully.

Paula Denby-Gibbs demonstrated the power of positive reinforcement some years ago to a room full of fascinated professional trainers. In her session, “Going to the dogs”, Paula brought in five or six of her dogs and showed how whenever she scattered a large number of small soft toys across the room, they’d been trained to collect them up and put them in a big basket. Then she announced she was going to train them before our eyes to do something new – to take the toys one by one OUT of the basket and put them on the floor. When she said to them, “Toys out!”, they didn’t know what to do. One sat and looked at her, another hid under a chair in the front row and a couple more wandered off to the back of the room.

“Just like us!”, she said. Paula trains dogs and people – and says, “Surprise, surprise! There’s no difference in how we learn.” She pointed out that if people don’t know exactly what it is you want them to do, then, like animals, they will indulge in displacement behavior – it looks as thought they are being noisy, distracted or disobedient – but our heading off for a coffee or talking about what we did at the weekend instead of carrying out the task is simply an alternative behavior we do instead of the (unknown) thing that you want them to do – just like her dogs.

Then one dog wandered up near the basket, and Paula clicked her clicker – a sound that the dogs know means they’ve done well and will soon be rewarded with a nice morsel of food. So it wandered a bit closer, and she clicked again. Another dog, on hearing the clicks, came closer too and he got a click as well. Then the first dog put his head in the basket and got a click and a snack. In less than four or five minutes, they’d all got it, and had removed all the toys from the basket and place them tidily around it – and been rewarded for their work.

The process was unbelievably fast: every time a dog did something that was closer to the goal, positive reinforcement was instant. Paula said that this Pavlovian effect of frequent positive reinforcement is known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect: “Responses that produce rewards tend to increase in frequency” – and he published it in 1905!

Paula said that negative feedback or forced performance will result in reduced effort, eventual shut-down, learned helplessness, resistance and resentment, suspicion and mistrust and escape or survival reflexes. Sound familiar?

Hearing good news stories about what companies, families and governments can do to improve our wellbeing in economic, social, cultural and environmental terms encourages us all to make more of an effort, be willing to act, be more resilient in the face of challenges, build our confidence, ameliorate stress and be more and more receptive to learning and continual improvement.

So let’s give ourselves and each other more encouraging honks and clicks!