Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shoulds and Safe Sex (The Problem with Shoulds #5)

"Should" is an ineffective motivator for behavioral change. When it is being used to shame someone to work harder, make healthier choices, or produce more, it does not generate the intended results for any sustainable period of time. Many employers mistakenly operate under the belief that if they use should with their employees, then the employees will want to work harder and conform to standards. But do you remember a time when a boss has told you that you should do something? Did it really make you want to do it?

Safer sex is also an area where "should" is frequently used to promote a certain behavior. For over 25 years, HIV educators have tried to use fear and shoulds to motivate people to use condoms more frequently, with varied results. Why is this? If people know how HIV is spread, and if they know it can kill you, why wouldn't it follow suit that they would always use condoms 100% of the time?

How motivated do YOU feel when you are told you should do anything? In the long-term, "shoulds" have not been found to sustain healthy behavior patterns. This holds just as true for antismoking campaigns and anti-drug messages, and other such instances in which educators continue to ponder how and why individuals would engage in self-destructive behavior patterns knowing all the facts. Why don't they work? Because "shoulds" do not change the beliefs or thoughts that created the problematic behavior in the first place. If I don't value my body as deserving of happiness and health, it won't matter what shoulds someone is addressing toward me, I will still abuse it with drugs and unsafe sex.

When it is demonstrated to people that they can make choices that are fundamentally based in love and respect, as opposed to fear and shame, then the likelihood that someone will take positive steps consistently is increased. Reframing these choices may include saying, "I decide not to abuse drugs," "I choose to prioritize my health and therefore use condoms with sex," "I choose to quit smoking not because I should, but out of a sense of honor for me, for my body, and for those who love me." All involve changing perception first, behaviors second.

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