Modifying Messy

Dear Wombat and Dingbat,

How do I get my husband to put his dishes in the dishwasher? Or pick up his socks? Or take out the trash? Or in general, not be a slob, and not treat me like a maid? I’ve gone on strike and all that happens is he gets grouchy and my house gets disgusting. HELP!!

-Miserable in Maryland


Do you have a dog? If you let the dog lick the plates they could get clean without going in the dishwasher.

People turn out to be a bit fussy about eating off of dog drool. Just one of those funny human things. But that does raise an interesting question. Stick with me for a minute.

Is it going to be one of those really long minutes? Cause I could use a drink of water.

Get a drink. Or stick around, because you might need this. Behavior has three parts, which we call A, B and C….

“A,B,C…As easy as 1, 2, 3…”

I’m not sure the Jackson 5 were exactly behavior experts. But whatever. As I was saying, any behavior has an antecedent (A) that comes before it, then the behavior (B) and then the consequence (C). Usually we talk about changing behavior by changing the consequence. We reward behavior that we like and punish behavior that we don’t like, which makes the good behavior increase or the bad behavior decrease.


Hopefully. If we do it right. But the thing that comes before the behavior is what triggers it to happen. And changing that A (antecedent) can also change the behavior.

Like if Miserable just got rid of all the plates and her husband had to eat off of napkins, then he wouldn’t leave dirty dishes around.

Actually, I think that is the solution that The Kid has come to. But Miserable’s husband, who we will call Messy, has a habit of eating off of plates and then just leaving the plate there on the table. But if he picked up that plate and held it while a dog licked it clean, then he would have already picked up the plate. And maybe from there he could be shaped to put it in the dishwasher, since it is already in his hand.

Remember, we shape behavior through successive approximations…

Successful proclamations? I think if Miserable could just successfully proclaim that her husband should be neat, she wouldn’t be asking us for help.

Dingbat, you are a dingbat. Successive approximations, not successful proclamations. Successive approximations are little pieces that move us toward the final behavior that we want. Most people, when they want something to be different, will try to get the whole behavior at once, and then be frustrated, and even mad, when it doesn’t happen. We shape behavior by rewarding any little move in the right direction.

So Miserable should reward her husband just for picking up a plate?

Sure. But in order to get even that much if he has a firmly entrenched habit she might need to change the antecedent to get him to do something a little different. If we have a bigger variety of behaviors then we have a situation where we can choose what to reinforce.

So Miserable could change the antecedent by letting the dog lick the plates?

Exactly. So if when she got up from the table she let the dog lick the plate, and then put the plate in the dishwasher, maybe Messy would also pick up his plate and let the dog lick it.

Or maybe they have two dogs, and he would need to share his plate at the same time, to be fair. I think two dogs is best.

That would work. Either way, Messy could be rewarded for this step by seeing how happy the dog was, and Miserable could say “Thanks!” and maybe open the dishwasher door as a way of shaping the environment to encourage the next step she wanted.

Does letting the dogs lick the plates help with the socks and the trash and all?

No, but it might help if Miserable thinks about ways to change the antecedents for those behaviors, and if she thinks about what small changes she might be able to reward.

Do you think it will really work?

Might. At the very least, the dogs will get to lick the plates.

Wombat, you are a behavior Ninja.

I know.

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1 thought on “Modifying Messy

  1. I’m now imagining the spouses who would be horrified by the plate-licking dogs and whether this might motivate them to run the dishwasher themselves in order to be certain that the saliva has been sterilized away.

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