Behavourism and Writing


It’s rare for a day to go by without witnessing a post, conversation or other message of the struggle of maintaining motivation, and how hard ‘just writing’ really is and/or suffering all o that myself.

Whether its a dismal word count (although more on that later) a struggle to actually sit down and open a word document and write or the dismal surrender to the multiple distractions of the internet and life, writing is a veritable nightmare for motivation.

Funnily enough I can wear my psychology hat for this topic and provide some insight through the lens of behaviourism (props to this blog where I stole the picture from)

For quick recap for the psychology minded or a whirlwind introduction for those uninitiated, behaviourim is actually one of the most robust methods of understanding and changing behaviour known to psychology and hinges on (more than presented here but) a few key concepts:

  • Behaviour that is contingent (or as I like to say “unlocks”) reinforcement will increase in the future
  • Behaviour that is contingent on punishment will decrease in the future
  • Rule-governed behaviour is contingent on the belief of future reinforcement or punishment

Now this is a very simple overview but I don’t want to turn this into a lecture, because people smarter than me will frown on my poor explanation and people who came here for writing related stuff will fall asleep.

The basic idea of behaviourism is that we will do stuff that brings us rewards, and avoid doing stuff that brings punishment. Most animals have been shown to mainly respond to immediate contingencies, however humans have been shown to respond to ‘rules’ which is mega-simplified form means ideas about future reinforcement and punishment (e.g. agreeing to work for a regular salary)

Just as a side note this isn’t reducing all human meaning to simple input-output machines but rather a useful theory and method of looking at behaviour to understand questions like “why is maintaining writing so hard?”

SO whats the link I’m drawing here?

First of all let’s review things that are typically reinforcing for people:

  • Positive social interactions with others
  • Delicious food
  • Objective indications of achievement

I hope you get the drift.

Basically writing does not present very many immediate rewards, you certainly shouldn’t be getting positive social interactions because as a writer you must lock yourself in a basement, dark tower or otherwise sit in the corner of a cafe scowling at anyone who approaches. And while you might try to provide yourself with extra rewards the truth is writing does not unlock said rewards you do when you go to get them (I’ve tried several times to only eat chocolate after X amount of writing and I’ve always devoured said chocolate within minutes)

As an interesting aside this is why many people worship at the altar of word-counts, because at the very least number of words provides some suggestion of progress and achievement (which tends to last as long as you don’t think about editing)

So this is where rule based behaviour comes in. After all writing isn’t unique in the respect of lacking reinforcement, there are tonnes of behaviours such as work, exercise, cleaning and so forth which could be claimed aren’t immediately rewarding or reinforcing. What gives writing a special place?

Well bear with me on this one – basing your behaviour on future rewards has certain factors and functions which influence likelihood for maintaining behaviour until said reward is reached. The following make it more likely:

  • High probably of reward
  • Bigger the size of the reward the better

So a great example is working, not everyone’s favourite day-to-day activity but with a fairly certain reinforcer (at least under NZ law you have to pay your staff) and generally speaking the higher the salary the more likely you are to do your job.

Let’s consider writing:

  • The possibility of reward is highly uncertain, we don’t really know how our work will be received and what achievement we will make of it
  • Even if our writing gets out there we simply don’t know what the size of that reward will be…

So from a purely motivational point of view let’s consider writing – you’re sitting down (presumably) to pen hundreds and hundreds of words without much immediate reinforcement and uncertain future rewards of uncertain size.

Now lets couple that with another behavioural assumption:

  • Behaviour with more frequent (and larger rewards) schedules of reinforcement will be preferred over less

Now put up your hand if you try to write with the internet still connect. (geeze its hard to type with one hand)

Now finally I’m not trying to depress anyone here, so there are some hopes for how to use this theory to your advantage

  • You can use others to make writing behaviour contingent on some reinforcement. For example telling your SO to take you out for a coffee once you hit 10,000 words. The advantage to this is the tactic also harnesses other useful psychological processes like being accountable to others
  • You can also manipulate the environment to keep you on track, I mentioned a cafe earlier in jest, but in all honesty putting yourself in a position where there aren’t any other options for activity will enhance the appeal of writing (much how like when you’re at work completely bored all you can think about is that story you want to write, but suddenly at home you don’t want to)
  • Finally make sure your goals are consistent with the factors above – don’t make the mistake of thinking about your goal of getting out of your 9-5 though writing success, but set probable goals with sizable rewards to bulk them up. Websites like r/wordcount and programs like WriteTrack can be useful for this (although I could probably flesh out a whole post about the false deity of wordcount!)


What are your strategies for enhancing and maintaining motivation? I confess that despite this post I’m as guilty as anyone of not switching the modem off!

3 thoughts on “Behavourism and Writing

  1. The effectiveness of punishment is related to certainty rather than magnitude (i.e. a definite, small punishment is generally more effective than an uncertain, large one). I suspect the same is true of rewards (also why delayed gratification is so much of a struggle).

    Word count is as meaningless to a story as lines-of-code is to a piece of software. They are both easily measured indications of “bigness”. It’s hard to put a number on complexity and scope (for either stories or software), so again we’re biased towards something definite.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Why are Writing Habits so hard to Maintain? | Lonely Power Poles

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