What is the relationship between misbehavior and learning?

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The association between misbehavior and learning has been addressed by psychoanalytic theorists as well as social learning theorists; both have shed light on the social conditions that precipitate misbehavior, particularly in children.
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Behavior is called misbehavior when it is found to be outside the range of what is acceptable to others. Unacceptable behaviors include noncompliance, defiance, destructiveness, and aggression. Those who determine what constitutes misbehavior are typically adults, and those whose actions are labeled misbehavior are usually children, although sometimes they are other adults.

Both psychoanalytic theorists and social learning theorists relate misbehavior to the individual’s interpretation of social experiences. A secondary conclusion by theorists in both camps is that misbehavior is purposeful and goal directed. According to both theoretical orientations, the link between social experiences and misbehavior is bridged by an emphasis on the cognition of the individual. What separates the two theoretical views is the role each attributes to human consciousness. The psychoanalytic explanation of why a person misbehaves emphasizes unconscious motivation, whereas social learning theorists assign a larger role to conscious cognitive processes.

Dreikurs’s Contributions

Rudolf Dreikurs (1897–1972), an early student and colleague of Alfred Adler, was a strong supporter of Adler’s school of individual psychology. From the time of his arrival in the United States until his death in 1972, Dreikurs worked to popularize Adler’s views. Adler, who believed that the goal of psychology is to educate the whole community toward more effective social living, developed an innovative counseling approach for restricted audiences. This approach focused on a community of committed parents, teachers, and other adults working together toward the fostering of social responsibility in children. This effort resulted in the opening of a number of child guidance centers in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. Dreikurs participated in the child guidance centers in Vienna and was well known throughout Europe before the fascist governments gained power. After escaping to the United States by way of Brazil in 1939, he established a practice in Chicago and thereafter had a profound impact on parent education in the United States. Dreikurs placed considerable emphasis on the process by which a person is socialized within the family. By emphasizing this process, Dreikurs provided a basis for understanding how the family atmosphere is played out in the socialization process and how the socialization process contributes to children’s misbehavior. Dreikurs’s major contributions to Adler’s approach consist of the refinement of open-centered family counseling concepts, demonstration of the multiple-therapist concept long before it was presented in the general psychology literature, and the development of a system of democratic conflict resolution to be used in the family, or in any other setting in which people live and interact with one another.

Dreikurs’s Four Goals of Misbehavior

Based on his clinical work, Dreikurs discovered four goals that he believed guide all forms of misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, and a display of inadequacy. According to Dreikurs, these goals derive from children’s private logic—what they think of themselves, others, and life, and the goals they set for themselves. These four categories of misbehavior are seen as goals in that the misbehavior achieves something for the individual.

Children who misbehave to obtain attention have learned from previous social experiences that certain unacceptable behaviors gain attention from others, even though the attention is typically negative. Those who misbehave with the goal of power have discovered a way of gaining a type of power by misbehaving. Individuals whose misbehavior derives from the goal of revenge are those whose bids for attention and power have been met with such negative consequences that they are motivated to seek revenge. Finally, people who misbehave with a goal of displaying inadequacy are those who do not try, are often seen as lazy, are unkempt, or appear to be unmotivated. These individuals have given up trying to gain attention or power and feel powerless to seek revenge.

The concept of the four goals of misbehavior is premised on the assumption, reflecting the theorizing of Adler, that people are social creatures whose behavior is purposeful and whose primary desire is to belong. Thus, the four goals of misbehavior are actually underlying goals, each of which is believed to aid people in the quest for belonging. However, misbehavior does not secure belonging and acceptance within a family or group because it generally alienates people. In recognition of this, Dreikurs emphasized that the goals of misbehavior are mistaken goals. Even though people may be able to observe keenly, accurately, and carefully what goes on around them, they often misinterpret events, draw mistaken conclusions, and make faulty decisions based on their interpretations and conclusions. This is particularly true of children, whose cognitive understanding of the world differs from that of adults.

Recognizing Underlying Goals

Although misbehaving people, particularly children, are generally unaware of the mistaken goals underlying their misbehavior, observers can learn to recognize these underlying goals by observing the effects the misbehavior has on others. As noted by Dreikurs, what people are inclined to do in response to another person’s misbehavior is generally consistent with the goal underlying that misbehavior. Reactions that correspond to and reflect mistaken goals are giving undue attention, engaging in power struggles, seeking retaliation, or giving up in despair. According to this model, observers can discern the goals of those misbehaving, although the individuals acting out may be unaware of why they are doing so. The key to discerning the goal of misbehaving people is to take notice not only of their behavior but also of others’ reactions to their behavior.

Even though the method for recognizing Dreikurs’s mistaken goals of misbehavior is clear and simple, the application of this process in decreasing a child’s (or an adult’s) misbehavior is a bit more complicated. First, if a person is attempting to discern the underlying goal motivating a child’s misbehavior, the person must carefully note not only that child’s misbehavior but also how others (including the self) respond to that behavior. This may require several observations. In observing responses, it is necessary to watch not only for actual responses but also for what people are inclined to do in reaction to the misbehavior.

If people typically respond to the misbehavior in question by giving attention (positive or negative) to the child who is misbehaving, then it is logical to assume that attention is the underlying goal (even if people do not actually give attention each instance). If people are inclined to become angry (lose control) in response to misbehavior, there is a good chance that power is the underlying goal. It is important to remember that when people respond to misbehavior by losing control, power is ceded to the misbehaving child.

If people have a tendency to feel hurt by a misbehaving child, the misbehavior is probably motivated by a goal of revenge. The misbehaving child is responding to feelings of pain and hurt by behaving in ways designed to inflict pain on others, though not necessarily the person or persons responsible for inflicting the pain and hurt. This is a critical point, because it emphasizes the necessity not only of observing how the observer interacts with the child but also of taking into consideration interactions that child has had with others.

If people tend to give up in despair in response to the misbehaving child, a display of inadequacy is likely to be the underlying goal of the child. The misbehaving child has learned, through repeated experiences, that attempts to gain positive attention or power have been relatively fruitless. Rather than continuing to be exposed to painful evaluations and criticisms, the child displays a lack of motivation, causing others to give up in despair, and the child displaying inadequacy is spared the pain of negative evaluation and humiliation.

Focus on Aggression

Social learning theorists also emphasize the process by which a child is socialized within the family. In stressing the relevance of this process to misbehavior, they have addressed various aspects of misconduct. The type of misbehavior that has received the most attention from social learning theorists is aggression, particularly in children. According to this theory, aggressiveness is learned from observing and imitating models. These models include parents who rely on physical punishment as well as other punitive methods of discipline, aggressive siblings and peers, and aggressive models on television. When parents display aggressiveness by the use of physical punishment or verbal attacks, they provide children with a very clear model of aggressive behavior. Children learn from this model that the best way to get people to do what they want is to behave aggressively toward them. Those children who have been exposed to parental models of aggression are more likely to use aggression with siblings and peers. If the aggressive children’s victims fight back, their aggressive acts will not be reinforced; however, if victims cry or run away, the apparent success reinforces the aggressive acts. Furthermore, other children witnessing the aggression learn that aggression brings reinforcement. In addition to parental, peer, and sibling models of aggression, children are exposed to aggressive models on television that demonstrate vicarious reinforcement for aggression.

Strategies for Managing Misbehavior

Applications of misbehavior theory focus on managing the undesirable behaviors by focusing on their consequences. Dreikurs’s method for decreasing misbehavior consists of three strategies: changing responses to the misbehavior so that the unacceptable behavior does not achieve the goal that it is designed to achieve; assisting the misbehaving person in becoming aware of the underlying goal motivating the misbehavior; and making deliberate efforts to assist a person prone to misconduct in achieving a sense of belonging, so that he or she does not resort to misbehavior to satisfy this need.

The first strategy (changing responses to misbehavior) is simple and straightforward in theory but somewhat more difficult in application. The challenge is for people to respond differently from the way they are inclined to respond to misbehavior. Specifically, this strategy consists of not giving attention to misbehavior designed to attract attention, not reacting angrily or losing control in response to behavior designed to provoke such a response, not focusing on or exposing hurt feelings in response to misbehavior intended to avenge, and not giving up in despair at a person’s display of inadequacy.

The second part of the approach (assisting the misbehaving person in becoming aware of the underlying goal motivating the misbehavior) can sometimes be accomplished simply by calling the person’s attention to what appears to be the underlying goal. An example of this would be to say (to a child), “Do you think that you knock over your sister’s blocks to get my attention?” The purpose of this strategy is to assist individuals in becoming conscious of why they behave in ways that others consider unacceptable. If this strategy is to be successful, it must be done in a way that does not communicate a value judgment or sound reproachful. If individuals are not suffering the sting of disapproval, they may be assisted in understanding why they misbehave (which often troubles the person displaying this behavior as much as it does those who are exposed to it). Dreikurs referred to this awareness as the recognition reflex. In emphasizing the value of the recognition reflex for assisting people in understanding what motivates their misbehavior, Dreikurs pointed out that this tactic is more effective with children than with adolescents and adults, who have had more time to build stronger defense mechanism s.

The third strategy (assisting the misbehaving person in achieving the goal of belonging without resorting to misconduct) is based on an appreciation of everyone’s need for attention and power. This understanding suggests an effective approach for decreasing misbehavior by providing sufficient attention to the individual and recognizing the person’s need for power.

The strategy of providing attention is uncomplicated. Positive attention should be freely given at any time except when misbehavior is occurring. Therefore, one does not wait for some specified behavior to occur to show attention. Depending on the level of misconduct in which that person is engaging, this could be a long wait. Meanwhile, the misbehavior will probably continue. It is suggested, instead, that attention be generously bestowed in a variety of ways. This could be as casual as recognizing that person’s entrance into the room, noticing personal things about that person (haircut, clothes, mood, and so on), and showing interest in ideas, concerns, and questions generated by the person. Based on the relationship one has with the person exhibiting misbehavior, one may choose to design a more structured method of delivering attention, such as engaging the person in projects that provide an opportunity for a large amount of feedback and considerable dialogue.

To decrease misbehavior motivated by power needs, it is important to monitor closely experiences of the individual, which may diminish the person’s sense of power, while simultaneously making deliberate efforts to assist that person in appropriate efforts to gain power. In the case of children misbehaving with an underlying goal of power, one is likely to find that power-assertive methods of discipline are being used with the child. Excessively strict, harsh methods of control, including the use of physical punishment, weaken a child’s sense of power and contribute to the likelihood of misbehavior based on power needs. It is reasonable to conclude that anyone engaging in misbehavior with the goal of power has been exposed to some type of experience that contributed to the person’s sense of powerlessness.

While monitoring experiences that diminish a person’s sense of power is necessary, it is not sufficient for decreasing misbehavior. People with a lowered sense of power also require experiences designed to assist them in regaining a feeling of power. According to Dreikurs, the most appropriate group arrangement for meeting the power needs of all individuals within the group is one based on democratic relations. Although this arrangement is based on the concept of equality, it does not assign identical responsibilities and privileges to all group members but rather recognizes that all members have equal worth. Decisions affecting group members are made with the needs and well-being of all members in mind. Furthermore, input from all members is encouraged to the degree that it is feasible.

Social Learning Approach

The application of the social learning approach to misbehavior focuses on discovering environmental consequences that influence behavior and taking steps to change these consequences, thereby decreasing misbehavior. The misconduct of primary interest to social learning theorists has been aggressiveness. According to their model, because aggressiveness is maintained or increased through the consequence of reinforcement, the recommended approach for dealing with this type of misbehavior is fourfold: Limit exposure to aggressive models in real life and on television; provide models who behave responsibly and considerately rather than cruelly or impulsively; be certain that aggression is not reinforced; and reinforce behavior that is incompatible with aggression.

The influence of models on the behavior of individuals was first demonstrated by the work of Albert Bandura in 1962. Since then, social learning theory has been invoked to explain a variety of behaviors. This theoretical approach gets its name from the emphasis it places on social variables as determinants of behavior and personality. Foremost in Bandura’s analysis of learning is the role of imitation, which has its conceptual foundation in operant conditioning.

According to social learning theorists, most of a person’s learning comes from actively imitating, or modeling, the actions of others. The term “modeling” is used interchangeably with terms such as “observational learning” and “vicarious learning” to mean that people add to their repertoire of actions by seeing or hearing someone else perform the behavior rather than carrying out the behavior themselves.

Bandura’s views regarding imitation are reflected in the chief contributions of social learning theory, which consist of an explanation of the way a person acquires a new behavior never attempted before, the identification of the steps involved in the process of learning from models, and explanations of the way consequences influence future actions and of the development of complex behavior.


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