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Thoughts on the Treatment of the UCLA Players from a Behavior Modification Viewpoint

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the 3 UCLA basketball players who were accused of shoplifting in China. From what I’ve read, the players would have faced some pretty severe consequences (I read up to 10 years in prison) in China, but our President was able to work with China’s president to expedite their return home. Before I get into why this may not have been the best thing to do, let me say that if I was a parent of one of those players, I would be SO grateful that they were able to come home. Thank God for diplomacy, right? So I’m not necessarily trying to bash everyone involved, but there are some things to consider from a behavioral standpoint.

To start, those players just learned that the rules don’t necessarily apply to them, because they’re “special” in some way. Stealing is stealing… it’s unlawful in the United States as well, so it’s not like the players can claim ignorance to the law. Sure, China’s punishment might be considered “extreme” compared to what we have in the U.S., but the players knew what they were doing is wrong. And they just learned that, because they are good at basketball, they can get out of the consequences. So from a behavior modification standpoint, they were able to get out of the full punishment, so it’s more likely that they’re going to do something like this again… because they might think that the rules will continue to not apply to them. It’s the same as if you tell your kiddo there’s going to be a punishment for a certain behavior, then you don’t actually follow through… your kiddo is going to think they can get away with it again and again.

The other thing to consider is the amount of attention these players are getting. There have been all kinds of articles written about this event and unfortunately, attention (yes, even bad attention) is often reinforcing. This isn’t some special revelation I’ve had… media coverage of people who have broken the law or hurt others has been scrutinized for years, but it continues to happen. For some, the media coverage might be really embarrassing and a negative consequence, but it’s just as likely that the media coverage is reinforcing. The players just learned that shoplifting will earn them media attention… so if they want more media attention down the road, shoplifting might be a way to get it.

So the two rules of consequences that weren’t adhered to are follow through and limiting attention for negative behavior. As I said before, I’m not trying to condemn the actions of those involved. My objective in this is mostly to point out that the same principles that we use for children with negative behaviors applies to adults as well.

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