If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

two hippos with their mouths open, arguing

What behavioral processes may happen when we argue? They may not be what we think.*

Let’s dive straight into an example. Sadie has just commented online in a dog training group, expressing an opinion I find to be dangerous and wrong. I write a carefully crafted post that I believe addresses her argument with clear and concrete evidence. I am polite. I also focus on building a powerful argument.

What happens next?

Likely this. First, Sadie keeps right on arguing her point, frequently and more vociferously. Second, some of Sadie’s friends join in, criticizing me for being “punishing” and “not force free.” But how can it be punishing if Sadie’s behavior of writing her opinion is still going on, even perhaps increasing? What’s being punished?

Maybe nothing. Just because someone’s frustrated and their feelings are hurt doesn’t mean they have been punished.

Behavior Analysis

Let’s look at the learning and behavior processes involved. For the moment, we will pretend that my comment is the only thing affecting Sadie’s behavior, and let’s agree that it got under her skin. Here’s how it went. (See the bottom of the post for a note on the analysis of verbal behavior.)

  • Antecedent: There’s a discussion about a topic that interests Sadie on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie writes and posts her opinion
  • Consequence: I post a counter-opinion
  • Question: Does her behavior of posting on the topic decrease, maintain, or increase?

Possible Outcome 1: Behavioral Decrease Through Positive Punishment

Outcome #1: Sadie doesn’t post on that subject or in that venue anymore. Her behavior of writing about the topic has decreased. That would likely be the learning process of positive punishment at work. My post was immediately and severely aversive. I think this is what we usually expect to happen when we argue with someone, even if it almost never does. We hope they will either change their opinion or shut up. In both cases, they have ceased the behavior of arguing their original opinion. This does happen. The person will leave the group or discussion. But it’s not the most common response, in my observation.

Possible Outcome 2: Behavioral Decrease Through Extinction

Outcome #2: This one is less likely, but let’s not forget extinction, another way for the behavior to decrease. Maybe Sadie didn’t see my comment or doesn’t give one whit about my opinion. But nobody else chimed in and encouraged her, so she drifted off to greener pastures of discourse. This is extinction, where a behavior that has been previously reinforced gets no reinforcement, then decreases.

cartoon of short creature in armor typing on a keyboard. Trolls like to get people to argue
Trolling behavior may be positively reinforced by the ensuing arguments

Possible Outcome 3: Behavioral Increase Through Positive Reinforcement

Outcome #3: Sadie keeps posting at the same or an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This could be the process of positive reinforcement. Perhaps Sadie is thick-skinned and doesn’t care what I think, but my comment shows that someone is paying attention so her posting behavior increases. Or Sadie may be a troll, and this is fun for her. My response means she continues her game.

Possible Outcome 4: Behavioral Increase Through Negative Reinforcement

Outcome #4: Sadie keeps posting the same or at an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This subsequent behavior can result from negative reinforcement. I think it is the most common occurrence and quite an interesting one. We tend to visualize a zinger of a response as a one-time deal. Pow! and done. Positive punishment. Knock the person out, and they don’t come back to the discussion. That can happen. But we are humans. What usually happens when we receive a verbal correction? We get upset. We obsess about it! It’s not a onetime aversive; it has duration. The comment is still there. People are reading about it. Sadie is thinking about it. And that sets the stage for the next set of behaviors. We know what a duration aversive leads to, right? Some action to escape it. And how will she likely escape the discomfort? By writing more words on Facebook.

If this happens, what does the analysis of Sadie’s next behavior look like?

  • Antecedent: Sadie is uncomfortable because of what I said to her on the Internet
  • Behavior: Sadie posts back to argue her case
  • Consequence: Sadie’s stress of being corrected or publicly embarrassed is relieved
  • Prediction: Sadie will continue to respond when argued with

This is negative reinforcement, and it often leads to an infinite loop.

The Infinite Argument Loop

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what is happening to me? Potentially the same thing that’s happening to Sadie. When I post, she becomes uncomfortable. She relieves it by arguing back. And when she argues back, this is aversive to me. If I get pulled in, I take action to relieve the discomfort by posting again. Ad infinitum. When both people are sucked into ego responses, the loop will keep going and going.

There are probably other behaviors spinning off from the aversive exchange as well. Sadie or I may be having intense conversations with friends. We may be sending each other personal messages. One of us may have a drink or perform some self-soothing behavior. But if Sadie started off by posting in a public forum, she is probably continuing to do so at a more and more intense level. And so am I.

The Argument of Tone

Kindness and respect don’t always erase the human response to being corrected. I’ve specified that my original response in this scenario was polite and kindly for a reason. A big problem with humans is that no matter how nice it is, we often receive criticism or correction as meanness, even if it’s not coming from that place at all. We are a social species and discord can touch deep, survival-related feelings in us. This can send us back into some primitive responses.

There’s a name for this one. Objecting to some words because they “feel mean” is the argument of tone, a rhetorical fallacy that positive reinforcement trainers get pummeled with all the time. It’s a type of ad hominem attack, or just pure insult if it doesn’t address the content of the argument. No matter what your motivations or how respectful your discourse, someone is going to pop up and say, “You’re not force-free with people!” Make no mistake: if all you’ve done is to present fact or an opinion that they disagree with, this is a diversion and an insult.

It can also be true. I’m not a mud-slinger, but there have definitely been times when I have been less than thoughtful. Oh yeah. But I do my best at being kind and respectful when I am in the position of contradicting someone. Much of the time now I can tell the difference between my arguing principally to relieve pressure and “be right” and arguing to exchange and further knowledge. Because if we work for it, good argument can happen, even if one or both parties feel stung. We can put on our big girl panties and concentrate on the issues rather than on our feelings.

What to Do

This post was born because I started thinking of the misuse of the term punishment. But negative reinforcement involves an aversive, too. The more I think about this infinite loop of argument, the more I can see how so much of this unhappy discourse works. Here are some observations about the loop and how one might escape it.

  • Recognize that even kindly critique presented in a constructive way can be unpleasant. This negative reinforcement loop can happen even when people are being very nice.
  • Clarify your goals. Is your goal to persuade this person? Is your goal to shut her up? (Be honest. It’s possible for this to be a valid goal when her statements are dangerous or provocative.) Is your goal to persuade lurking readers? Is your goal to have an argument that is polite, fair, and furthers knowledge on both sides even if you don’t reach an accord? Are you just pissed off and want to vent? (That’s a good time to wait a while.) Your goal should help you make a plan.
  • Don’t assume that someone else is being mean when you are the recipient of critique. Try to identify what is contributing to your internal response. Sometimes it takes me days before I can lose my righteousness enough to see another point of view. When you get to that point, you may still disagree, but you can see your way through to answer decently. Arguing with the goal of mutual learning greatly lessens the aversive state in my experience.
  • Don’t stick around and put up with rude behavior and cognitive fallacies. If it’s in an environment where you can exert some control, you can do that. For instance, you can have a comments policy and enforce it when you are on your own Facebook page or on your blog. But if it’s out of your control, consider quitting. If someone persists in cognitive fallacies, you aren’t going to get through.
Summer arguing in play

What are the ways the cycle can stop? Some things I do are 1) make a final comment, announce it as such, then stop reading the thread; 2) continue writing but with the other people in the thread in mind—the silent lurkers—and don’t engage with the original person from then on; or 3) take some notes and go write about the situation somewhere else. I don’t mean to go and Vaguebook. I mean leave the personal stuff and the grudges out and address the topic itself after some time has elapsed. (Ahem. Like this post.)

When I’m the recipient of correction, I make an effort not to blame others for my emotional response.  When I succeed with this, and the other person does too, we may get to experience one of those great discussions where both parties are reasonable, nobody takes pot shots at anybody else, and everybody gains some understanding. It can happen!

Have you been part of a fair and productive argument lately?

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

*ABA with humans involving verbal behavior is a whole ‘nother topic on which I’m not well qualified. I am not touching on that part; just the major motivators. Thank you to the board-certified behavior analyst who looked over this post and agreed that what I covered, I got right. I’m open to other ideas about what is going on, of course!

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24 thoughts on “If My Criticism of Someone’s Comment on Facebook Is Punishment, Why Won’t She Shut Up?

  1. Very good points. I have also found that on any written communication, it is sometimes impossible to read the mood of the writer, therefore this can lead to misinterpretation of what the writer is trying to say and can lead to arguments and misunderstandings.

    1. That is so true, Martha. I hope as this world of instant written and other communications continues to develop we also develop better coping skills for the changes it brings.

  2. I love this…having been the “victim” of internet bullying by a bunch of FF trainers. Boy, if they treated their dogs as poorly as I feel they treated me on that thread (shaking my head)….

    1. Yes, everyone can bully, and hopefully, and most can learn to cope with disagreements. Or we can hope….

  3. I needed this just about now – so thank you. I routinely converse with people and I don’t always agree. And people don’t always agree with me (nor should they – I’m certainly not always right). I think I usually handle it okay. That is, I don’t usually feel personally insulted or attacked. And there’s one group where we absolutely hold one another to a high degree of accuracy. If you’re wrong, you should expect to be corrected. Politely. Professionally. For the sake of learning. I recently posted about what I was hearing at a seminar. And people very rightly started responding. I felt awful. I took it personally. None of the comments were about me – they were about what the speaker was saying. So, it was silly of me to feel that way. And yet, I did. For me, it was punishing. My engagement dropped on those threads quickly. I even wanted to take them down. But, even though your post is about negative reinforcement increasing the behavior of responding and not really about positive punishment, your words (and a bit of time) have brought me back around to realizing that those folks (friends of mine) weren’t attacking. They were doing what we all do to/for one another. Helping dig deeper into the information to get to the most accurate place possible. Thanks for helping me get past that!

    1. Wonderful comment, Tim, and thank you so much. Yes, P+ certainly can happen. And taking down the threads–really good characterization of the process. First the punishment, where your engagement drops, then exploring the possibilities for future escape. Really glad the post helped. I’ve had it around a long time and was waiting for the right moment to post it.

  4. Eileen, thank for this thoughtful post. it is clear and analytical, as always. I’m saving it to re-read next time I feel triggered,

    1. Oh, what a wonderful thing to tell me! Thanks, Carole. I would do well to take a look at it at some crucial times, too!

  5. This post was such great timing! I am a dog trainer and see this A LOT in different groups – that’s why i stick with the groups that are 100% force free and the admin take down any posts that do not adhere to this policy, but it happens outside of dog training too. I also teach dance, and only 2 days ago there was a post made by one teacher about another school/teacher which started a 300+ comment debate – the argument definitely dissolved into bitterness and unprofessional comments from lots of public figures – I think if they read this post things may have gone differently! I think i just might share this on my FB wall for them to read and understand what to do next time!! Bless your insightfulness Eileen – you’re posts are ALWAYS well regarded and liked by me!

    1. Oh thank you, Marianne. And yes, those comment threads sure can get extensive and ugly. I’m do glad you find the post helpful!

  6. What a wonderful application of behavior science! The discussion about possible reactions to a polite disagreement was fascinating. One point I always try to remember is that beings can experience the same action quite differently depending on so many factors, especially their internal state. I’m more likely to perceive an attack if I’m physically uncomfortable (tired, hungry), or emotionally stressed (had a stressful exchange with spouse). So what’s seen as painful by one might be just interesting to another.

    This needs to be read by political pundits. 😏

    1. Very good point about internal state affecting our responses. We trigger stack. Thanks, Charise!

  7. I liked this post.
    I would add that non-violent communication can be the way to go. But even that won’t work if the other party won’t engage on that level.
    And never feed the trolls.

    1. Non-violent communication is great and I really should study it more. Actually a friend deliberately practiced it here on the blog some years back with a very angry, spitting commenter and it was nothing short of amazing how much calmer and more communicative he became with the simple acts of hearing him and finding commonality. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Loved this post and smiled a lot because of recognition.

    Thinking back about a few recent discussions on the Internet I think that correcting someone on the Internet in a *polite* way almost never is received as punishment, but mostly always as R-.

    I have seen a only few discussions where people were corrected (literally and figuratively speaking) in a blunt, polite or even aggressive and in a very personal attack where the person left the discussion immediately (possibly because it was received as punishment), or sometimes left with one tiny last squeak like ‘You will never see *me* here again!’ in a tone as if that would be a great loss. But only when the comment was a personal attack or very blunt.

    I think you’re right and that most comments on comments (= other peoples point of view) are received as an minor/major aversives (but not uncomfortable enough to be perceived as ‘severe’) and therefor make the behaviour (argument) stronger.

    Refreshing to see discussions in this light so one can take a different approach as ‘trainer’ to see where you can lead people.

    I remember starting a blog and I was so afraid of negative (aversive) comments that I almost didn’t start blogging. Until I got this advise: “It is just an opinion. Sit on your hands , Keep breathing”.

    In 7 years of blogging I had only 1 or 2 trolls, but usually people don’t troll on other peoples blogs (territorium) because they are not in the strongest position to start with. In other discussions this advise comes in real handy too.

    Keep writing fabulous posts, Eileen!

    1. Really good points!

      Great advice about the blog. I try to remind myself of the same things. And actually, one of the reasons I started blogging is that I realized that I could control the territory better. My house, my rules. But I try to check my ego at the door and meet people more than halfway if their end goal is to grow and learn.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and kind words!


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