Sunday, July 31, 2011

Positive Reinforcement at the Grocery Store

As many of you know, I have a favorite organic grocery store I frequent named Earth Fare. Containing everything from fruit to make up, it is an environmentalist's dream come true. Right down to the....

Paper or plastic?

That's been a dilemma for years. While I won't get into that debate, I did want to relate an interesting experience I had there the other day.

One day awhile back when I was shopping and it came time to sack up my goodies in the usual brown recycled paper bag, I was asked an odd question:

"Did you bring your own bag?"

I had never thought of that...

"No, I answered."

"We would be happy to provide you one for a small fee that will be used to promote..."


You want to charge me for that brown paper bag recycled from dog dung and oatmeal shavings (or something like that)?

Well, I'm not cheap, just a little surprised. Perhaps I need to get out more?

I will tell you one thing - from that point on I made darned sure I brought my own bag. The ten cents was not the issue - it was the principal (isn't it always?). I was just as capable of bringing my own bag as the next would be eco-conscious citizen.

Many months later, my husband and I stopped in unexpectedly so I did not have a bag (I do have a purse, you know what I mean?). I can get more in my bag my husband calls "luggage" than most people can get in the front of the shopping cart where a child sits.

I'm not going to pay for a bag.... I might buy a five-buck starbucks, but ten cents for a dog dung oatmeal shaving paper bag that starts shedding small pieces of coconut hair before I reach the car? No thanks...

Oddly, the cashier offered us a bag, and before I could say anything, I realized that no mention of money had been made.


Having lived with my husband for many years, I knew it wasn't necessarily his charm and personality. I was perplexed, but went about my business.

Now, when the initial bag incident happened, it occurred to me that the practice of charging for a bag to encourage people to bring their own, while altruistic, is a bit... behaviorally speaking... punishing. It sure worked for me. And that is the way it is with punishment usually - it often works quite quickly. But we do know that it has the potential to affect the relationship.

For example, I could have refused to ever shop at that store again. A definite affect on the relationship. In many respects, the relationship plays a big role in my response. Perhaps if that was my first ever trip to the store, I may have had a different reaction. The store is a positive experience for me and a place where I am able to purchase items not available elsewhere. This was one thing to weigh against my reaction to the store attempting to change my behavior through punishment.

From that point forward, I worked hard to avoid paying the ten cents by trying to remember to bring my own bag. I even put extra bags in my vehicle just in case. I changed my behavior - which is what the store wanted - but I did so to avoid a consequence. And, if I didn't have a bag, even if it killed me, I bundled up my arms and dumped everything in the passenger seat of my vehicle.

Fast forward - about a week ago I was at the grocery store, and I noticed that the gentlemen in front of me (a good greenie with his recycled bag in hand), was filling out some sort of white piece of paper. When it was my turn to check out, and after all my items had been rung up, the cashier looked toward my over-sized bag (it's a purse, sir... it's a "purse"), and asked, "will you be using 'that' for your groceries?"

"Yes sir", I proudly exclaimed. " I may need to carry the 20-pound package of carrots, but you better believe the rest of it will fit in my 'purse' quite nicely, thank you!"

At that point, he reached for one of those pieces of paper, and a pencil, and said, "Would you like to put your name and email on this for me?" (Why?) He went on, "for everyone who brings their own bag, we enter them in a weekly drawing. There will be one winner per week!"

He may have mentioned what the prize was - I don't remember - but since it was just my name and email, and since it was a drawing for a prize, I busily scribbled my name and email on the paper using my purse as a makeshift desk....

While walking to my vehicle, I thought - now THAT is positive reinforcement! You can either encourage me to bring my own bag by punishing me with a fee if I don't (and potentially affecting my desire to shop at your establishment), OR you can positively reinforce me for a behavior that you like... 'bringing my own bag'.

The store wants to see me repeat the behavior of bringing my own bag. So they asked themselves what might be in it for me. What might make it worthwhile to bring my own bag? The drawing will be running weekly over the next few months - just long enough to get all of us greenies into the habit of bringing our own bags. Then the drawings will come to an end, but we will continue to bring our bags - out of habit. Or, out of the possibility that the contest might start up again at some point so we would want to have our bag with us!

These are the same concepts we employ when working with our birds. We must always ask ourselves what is in it for them. Why should they repeat the behavior? Because they "love" us? Because we "want them to"? I don't know about you, but as much as I enjoy my job (certain parts), I wouldn't do it if I wasn't rewarded with money. A boss needs someone to do a job, and the employee needs to earn money to live on. Each receives something they find rewarding, and it is a win-win for both parties.

While we focus on using positive reinforcement when working with our birds, it is often conspicuously absent in our interpersonal relationships. There, we seem to easily gravitate toward punishment as a means of behavior change. So it was rewarding for me to see that a store was using positive reinforcement to affect behavior, while updating their mailing list at the same time! Double-smart! And, I have the potential of being a winner....

(... wait - what is the prize - a recycled grocery bag?...) !!

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