Applied behavior analysis (ABA) and relationships

Over a year ago, my mom urged me against having a tit-for-tat mentality in relationships. Since then, I have wondered: does this mean pure cooperation–no defection at all (ideal)–or only defecting after two offenses? Everyone deserves a second chance…but, what about a third?

As someone new to the field of ABA, I got to wondering this past week about its discouragement of punishment. Punishment in the field can be justified perhaps only as follows: a client fails to produce correct behavior more than twice in a row. (This occurs after a reinforcement protocol of correct behavior.) After two offenses, what is a competent behavior interventionist to do without giving up? One answer would be to switch to a better reinforcement procedure, such as differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI). It is better to teach over an inappropriate behavior with a replacement behavior than to take away something valued.

Tit-for-tat might be the optimal strategy to employ in a prisoner’s dilemma setting. But, its success as a relational tactic is likely only limited to such contexts. Certainly, escalating or snowballing with someone into mutually frustrated (or, God forbid–vengeful) behavior won’t be a good time! But in settings like romantic relationships or ABA, tit-for-tat should be transcended in favor of always seeking to establish cooperation (or, worst-case, healthily-spirited competition or friendly rivalry).

Love keeps no record of wrongs. Let them go with forgiveness and grace, and work to do better in one’s relationships next time!

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