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Are Behavioral Experiments Helpful?
Jim Pretzer · 8/11/98 at 3:36 PM ET
Except for the initial sentence, you make an excellent point when you say "I don't believe that behavioral experiments are that helpful. ... because of the clear and immediate negative consequences in prison, offenders will negotiate instead of fight which they "intellectually know" to be the best solution many times during the day. Yet, ... due to a core belief for example "Men must fight to prove their self-worth" or maybe an underlying schema "I must be in control." ... when the offender leaves the prison and negative consequences are no longer clear and/or immediate, the offender reverts back to his old beliefs and old behavior...."
A behavioral experiment will be of limited value unless it both is "to the point" in testing the belief or schema you are concerned with and if the results generalize to real-life settings. Specifically:
- A behavioral experiment which demonstrates that negotiating works better than fighting while one is in prison is likely to have little impact on behavior outside of prison. We would need behavioral experiments (or other interventions) which examine how the results of negotiation compare with the results of fighting outside of prison.
- A behavioral experiment which demonstrates that negotiating works better than fighting probably would have little or no impact on beliefs/schemas such as "Men must fight to prove their self-worth" or "I must be in control." One would need behavioral experiments which directly address these directly. If an individual holds a strong conviction that "Men must fight to prove their self-worth" I would first help the individual clearly spell out his predictions regarding the way in which fighting or not fighting affects self-worth and then try to identify feasible ways to test these predictions against experience. Since there are obvious problems with sending the individual out to get into fights and then see how the actual results compare with his predictions, I would be inclined to look at the data the individual already has available from occasions in the past when he either fought or refrained from fighting and to look at his observations of others' experience. Once we have a clear picture of what actually happens in real life, we can look at whether there are alternative views which are more compatible with the way things actually turn out.
Obviously, behavioral experiments are one of many interventions which I would use. However, many people find first hand experience to be much more convincing than abstract logic and behavioral experiments provide a good way to set up a "corrective experience".
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