December 15, 2015

The Power of ChoiceDo you remember the days when airlines used to offer you a small hot meal on flights that occurred around dinner time? Do you remember sitting in your seat and hearing the stewardess offering a choice to the people in front of you?  From three rows ahead you hear, “Sir, would you like the mystery meat or the notorious noodles?”  Instantly, you say to yourself, “I’m going for the notorious noodles,” and you begin to psych yourself up about how you’re going to dig into those noodles.

When the stewardess gets to you, she says, “Sir, I’m sorry to inform you that we’re all out of our notorious noodles, but we still have plenty of mystery meat, may I offer you one?”

What’s going through your mind at that moment?

  • Are you kidding me; why did they all get a choice and I didn’t?
  • If only I was seated three rows up then I would have had a choice!
  • C’mon man, really, mystery meat or nothing; what kind of choice is that anyway?

Lessons to be Learned

To a Behavior Analyst, there are several important lessons to be learned from this scenario that played out countless times a day at 30,000 feet. Here are a few of the take away points:

Choices must be of comparable value.

  • A choice between mystery meat and notorious noodles, although not great, is still pretty equivalent, and I’m pretty pleased to make a selection.
  • A choice between mystery meat and a small bag of peanuts is not very comparable, and I’m not very happy with my options.

Choices can increase the reinforcing value of the item selected without actually improving the quality or quantity of the pay off.

  • Those notorious noodles weren’t half-bad; I kind of like ‘em.

The act of choosing can improve acceptance and commitment!

  • If I choose the noodles, and they are not that good, I’m more likely to try and convince myself that they are not that bad.
  • Whereas if you remove my choice, and force me to take the mystery meat, I feel free to complain about how awful it is.

From a therapeutic perspective, Behavior Analysts like to recommend offering people different types of choice because, (a) they represent proactive, antecedent-based strategies, (b) that are easy to implement, and (c) are high in treatment acceptability. And as most Behavior Analysts know, the more someone likes something, and easier it is for them to do, the more likely it is that they will do it, (and the more likely it is that it will have a desirable impact on the situation).

Lesson Application

So how do we make this real?  How do we apply this concept to little Johnny?

Provide choice of task sequence.
Johnny, we’ve got three things to do, Task 1, Task 2, Task 3, or Task 4, which one do you want to do first?

  • Awesome Johnny, one down and two to go; you can pick Task 1, Task 2, or Task 3, which one do you want to do next?
  • Woo-hoo Johnny, two down and one to go, we’ve got Task 1 or Task 2 left, which one sounds good?

Within-task choice.
Okay Johnny, way to choose Task 4 (which just so happened to be a math worksheet), should we start with the problems on the right side of the page or the left?

  • Or…. should we start with the even problems or the odd problems?
  • Or…. should we start at the top and work our way down or at the bottom and work our way up?

Choice of task materials.
Alright Johnny, I’m glad you chose Task 3. Let’s see, it looks like for this task you can choose the white worksheet or the blue worksheet (both of which just so happen to have the same problems on them).

  • Or…. do you want to use a crayons or markers for this assignment?
  • Then…. do you want to use the red maker or the blue marker?

Choice of task location.
Cool, good choice, should we do this one at your desk or over here in the quiet space?

Choice for assistance or independence.
Way to go Johnny, I love that choice, do you want to work on this by yourself or can I give you a hand with it?

Choice for a break or plowing through.
Wow Johnny, you’re already half-way done, do you want to keep going and try and finish it up, or should we take a little break and then come back to it?

And for those times when there’s something on the to-do list that’s just got to get done.
Okay Johnny, we’ve got three things to do here, you get to pick two things and I get to pick one thing. Do you want to pick first or second?

Cool, now that it’s my turn to pick, I pick Task 2, but tell me…

  • What task materials do you want to use?
  • Where would you like to do it?
  • Do you want my help or do you want to do it on your own?
  • Alright man, way to get through Task 2, only one more to go, and you get last pick; do you want to do Task 1 or Task 3?

Take Home Points

Empower children by offering them choices of comparable value.

When you can’t afford to let someone avoid a task, surround that task with other choices and embed as many choices within the process as possible.

Pair choosing and task completion with authentic and enthusiastic praise and encouragement.

Practice this and have fun with it…

  • The more you do it, the more options you’ll find that you’re able to offer.
  • The more you do it, the more cooperation you have, the more work you’ll get completed, and the more fun you and the child will have throughout the process.

For more information, check out our Epic Developmental Services page.

Norm Dahl, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Epic Developmental Services