VIDEO: Dr. James Garbarino Talks About the Advantages of Predictability, Regardless of the Situation

Watch an exerpt from PsychAlive’s exclusive interview with Dr. James Garbarino.

Dr. James Garbarino talks about how predicting behavior in others is advantageous – and how irrational behavior can be hard to respond to.

Dr. James Garbarino: I think whether it’s children or dogs, predictability generally is an asset in people’s relationships.  That people can accommodate to a lot, if at least they know it’s predictable.  If you know that your mother is cranky on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays because that’s the day X happens, or if you know that on Fridays, your father gets a bit wild because that’s when he gets his pay check, you can find a way with that sort of predictability to rationalize your environment a bit, to perhaps adjust your behavior.  You don’t come home on Friday because your father is wild.  You don’t talk to your mother until she’s had her coffee.

In the same way, some kids report that if their peer environment in the school is predictable, it gives them a little bit of safety, at least in the sense that, alright, I know, for example, if you watch the TV show Glee, you know that if you’re in the singing group and you walk down the hall, once a week a football player is going to throw a slushy in your face.  The predictability of that reduces somewhat the horror of it.

It’s much the same way in basic psychological parlance that intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful reinforcement.  Which is one reason why gambling is so difficult to break — because the intermittent reinforcement strengthens the response.  If you know that you’re going to get a reward or not get a reward, at least — the world may not be fair, it may be painful — but at least it seems rational.  If you add painful, unfair and then add unpredictable, you’re escalating the difficulty any being is going to have dealing with that — whether it’s a dog or a child or a teenager or whatever.

So I think that’s why kids report peer predictability as a modifying, a bit ameliorating, factor.  Now obviously, you’d want them to be predictably positive rather than predictably negative.  But they are somewhat orthogonal or separate issues.  The quality of the experience and the predictability of it.

Presumably, that applies to parents and children as well; that parents who are – that’s one reason why kids have such trouble with parents who are bipolar.  Because if they don’t know who they’re going to be dealing with, they can’t modulate their response.

About the Author

James Garbarino, Ph.D. James Garbarino is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Cornell University and at Loyola University Chicago. From 2006-2020, he held the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology and was founding Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago. From 1995-2006, he was Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development and Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Garbarino has served as consultant or advisor to a wide range of organizations, including the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, the American Medical Association, the National Black Child Development Institute, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the FBI. Among the books he has authored or edited are: Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My 20 Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases (2015), Miller’s Children: Why Giving Teenage Killers a Second Chance Matters for All of Us (2018), Children and the Dark Side of Human Experience (2008), See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (2006). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (2002); Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (2001); Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (1999. Dr. Garbarino has won many awards from his work in the fields of trauma and abuse. He serves as a consultant for media reports on children and families. Since 1994, he has served as a scientific expert witness in criminal cases involving issues of violence and children.

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