A behaviorist view of breaches in the EU sanctions (by Matthew Christianson MSc)

Recent articles published world-wide reported that many companies within the EU ignore the union’s sanctions upon Iran and engage in business with the Middle Eastern country. While one can brush aside the effects of such sanction-breaching behaviour claiming that they are “one-offs” or occur in a limited scope, psychological theory in general, and behaviorism in particular show the danger of such breaches.

Behaviorism is a psychological school which was established by John, B. Watson in 1913. With such influential ancestors and followers as Ivan Pavlov and Burruhs F. Skinner behaviorism quickly became one of the most influential schools of thought in the 20th century. One of the main pillars of behaviorism is the assertion that the relationship between a behaviour and its consequence(s) determines the chance of that behaviour occurring in the future. Indeed, behaviorists believe that one of the most potent ways of changing maladaptive behaviour is by changing its consequences.

In order to explain how behaviorism relates to the problem of sanction-breaching it is first important to shortly (and very simplistically) explain the basis of behavioristic behavioral modification. There are two broad classes of consequences which are the pillar of behavioral modification- punishment and reinforcement.


Reinforcement occurs when a behaviour is followed by a consequence which increases the occurrence of the behaviour in the future.

There are two types of reinforcement:

1)  Positive reinforcement- is where a behaviour is followed by a positive consequence (an addition of a stimulus or an increase in the intensity of a stimulus) which increases the occurrence of the behaviour in the future. For example, a child who is given a chocolate when he completes his homework and as a result he is more prone to do homework in the future.

2)  Negative reinforcement- can take one of two forms; escape or avoidance. When a behaviour stops (or decreases the intensity) of a current aversive stimuli it is considered reinforced by escape. Alternatively, when a behaviour stops a future negative stimuli from occurring it is considered reinforced by avoidance. A somewhat morbid (albeit scientifically established) example can emphasize the difference between the two negative reinforcement types; a rat who had learned that pressing a leaver stops an occurring electric shock has been negatively reinforced by escape, on the other hand, a rat who has learned that a ring of a bell signifies an impending electric shock and therefore presses a leaver in order to stop that shock from occurring has been negatively reinforced by avoidance.


Punishment occurs when a behaviour is followed by a consequence which decreases the occurrence of the behaviour in the future. Like in the case of reinforcement their are two types of punishment.

1)  Positive punishment: occurs when a behaviour results in the introduction of an aversive stimuli and as a result the behaviour occurs less in the future. For example, a rat which absorbs an electric shock after choosing to press the right lever instead of the left lever, and as a result is less likely to press the right lever in the future.

2)  Negative punishment: occurs when a behavior results in the removal of a reinforcer, and as a result the occurrence of that behaviour decreases in the future. For example; a child looses his allowance after he behaves badly at school, and as a result he is less likely to behave badly at school in the future.

Regardless of the consequence type (reinforcement or punishment) chosen for behavioral modification, the contingencies of such consequences are of utmost importance for the success of behavioral modification. In simple terms; contingencies regard how often a targeted behavior is followed by the same consequence. Herein lies the danger in companies breaching the sanctions imposed on Iran; the most effective way to modify behaviour is via a continuos reinforcement (or punishment) schedule. In a continuos schedule each and every occurrence of the targeted behaviour is subject to the same consequence. If the Iranian government is not continuously punished for its nuclear abilities seeking behaviour then they will never learn to stop these seeking behaviours. Indeed, if some companies breach the sanctions and trade with Iran then they are actually awarding Iran with negative reinforcement of the escape subtype; the Iranian government escapes the negative stimuli of sanctions by being awarded business deals by sanction breaching companies.

If the world community wants the punishments that they are imposing on Iran to work, then  it has to stand behind these punishments. The sanctions will never work if they are not continuously “awarded”. Furthermore, not continuously “awarding” punishment will in fact lengthen the amount of time in which these punishments have to be “awarded” and thus- suffered (this is because it will take more time to make the nuclear abilities seeking behaviour stop). Only after the Iranian government stop their nuclear abilities seeking behaviour can the world begin to give them reinforcements that will strengthen their peace seeking behaviours.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s