In this article, I discuss why it makes sense to give more attention to the behaviours we want to see more of from others and less attention to the behaviours we want to see less of.


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

In my practice as a psychologist, I sometimes work with people whose goal is to change the behaviours of others. This typically entails the desire to have the other person increase the frequency of positive behaviours and decrease the frequency of negative behaviours. Examples include parents who would like their children do homework, behave respectfully and get chores done and a supervisor who wants their employees to perform better and make fewer mistakes on the job.

Often these clients have struggled in getting others to do what they want because of how much attention they give to the negative and positive behaviours of the person. In the following sections, I will discuss how much attention you should give to the negative and positive behaviours of the person whose behaviour you are trying to change for the better.

Why do people tend to focus on negative behaviours?

It is logical to focus on negative behaviours more than positive behaviours because of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it’ notion regarding positive behaviours (“They’re doing well, so I should just leave them to it”) along with the ‘if it is broke, fix it’ idea pertaining to negative behaviours (“I better talk to them about this so they know it’s wrong and don’t continue to do it”). Necessarily, then, one would tend to give more attention to behaviours which need to be changed compared with behaviours which do not need to be changed.

Problems with focusing on negative behaviours

If the behaviours you are trying to change are those of a machine, then it would make sense to give complete attention to what is not working and not attend to what is working.  Unfortunately, this logical approach can be counterproductive when you are trying to change the behaviour of a human being. In these instances, giving more attention to the negative behaviours you want changed than to the positive behaviours you want to be maintained can produce the opposite result to what you want—getting more of the negative behaviours and fewer of the positive behaviours.

This undesirable result is based on basic psychology principles which apply to humans as well as animals: We are more likely to repeat behaviours following which we receive a pleasant consequence (reward or positive reinforcement) compared with behaviours following which we either do not receive a pleasant consequence (absence of positive reinforcement) or instead receive an unpleasant consequence (presence of punishment).

Having stated this basic psychological principle, let me now discuss how it explains why giving more attention to negative behaviours you want changed than to positive behaviours you want maintained is likely to be counterproductive. First, if you don’t give attention to the positive behaviours you want maintained, you are essentially not provide a positive consequence to the person following such behaviours. As stated above, this makes it less likely those behaviours will be repeated.

Secondly, although you might intuitively contend that giving attention in a negative way (such as a reprimand or a punishment) to negative behaviours you want changed should result in these behaviours being less likely to be repeated, if you have not also given attention to the positive behaviours then giving attention to the negative behaviours can actually cause these negative behaviours to increase in frequency.

This speaks to the power of attention as a reward or positive consequence for behaviour. The take-home message is that if you don’t provide the reward which comes with attention for the positive behaviours of the person you are trying to influence, they will tend to engage in more negative behaviours to elicit the reward which comes with attention for those behaviours. Stated from the perspective of the person whose behaviour you are trying to change: “They don’t give me any credit when I’m doing what they want so I might as well do what they don’t want because that’s all they seem to notice!”

Drawing of a man standing on a balance scale.

Benefits of focusing on positive behaviours

Focusing on positive behaviours more than negative behaviours is more likely to lead to an increase in the frequency of those positive behaviours and a decrease in the frequency of negative behaviours. In other words, you are more likely to achieve your behaviour change goal if you give more attention to the behaviours you want more of and less attention to the behaviours you want less of.

But, you may ask, how can I do this? Do I just ignore the negative behaviours while paying attention to the positive behaviours?  I will tell you how to execute this ‘game plan’ in the next section.

How to focus on positive behaviours

Here are the key points to address when you are trying to increase the frequency of positive behaviours and decrease the frequency of negative behaviours. First, a simple and effective step is to give positive attention to the positive behaviours when you see them occurring. Regardless of how you respond to the negative behaviours, this step should result in at least some increase in the frequency of the positive behaviours.

Secondly, break down how you respond to negative behaviours into two categories–those behaviours which are relatively minor and those which are major.  Try responding to the minor negative behaviours by ignoring them. Doing so will deprive the person of attention for these behaviours which, combined with your giving attention to the alternative positive behaviours should lead to more of the latter and fewer of the former. Examples include a parent ignoring their child when they make unpleasant sounds and giving them attention when they talk properly. A work example would be a supervisor not drawing a minor error to the attention of an employee provided that it was just an oversight rather than an error which is likely to be repeated or which is likely to produce more serious errors.

A different strategy should be used for major negative behaviours. These are behaviours which cannot be ignored. Examples include a child who disobeys their parents or behaves disrespectfully along with an employee who is insubordinate or who makes a serious error. In these instances, you must give attention to the negative behaviours. However, focus on doing so as quickly as possible to minimize the amount of attention you give to these negative behaviours. Let the person know what the alternative positive behaviour is which you would like them to perform instead. Then, as soon as you see them perform the positive alternative behaviour give them positive attention for doing so as well for other positive behaviours which they are performing.

Following the strategy advocated in the classic song from 1945, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” should help you to achieve your behaviour change goals for people with whom you interact.

May you get the behaviour change you want from others by focusing on the positives,

Dr. Pat