Like many people who follow college basketball (and who doesn’t during March Madness?), you may have seen footage of Tom Izzo giving one of his Michigan State players an earful.  The simple question is: does yelling work?  Does that approach elicit the desired behavioral change?

The answer depends on how long you want the change to last.

  • Immediate – yelling for the purposes of safety may indeed check a person’s activity long enough to protect them from harm.  The occasional raised voice while teaching kids to drive may be perfectly appropriate to avoid an accident.  Less so when trying to “teach” your child to waterski.
  • Temporary – yelling to elicit a temporary change in behavior is possible only when the person yelling is operating out of the norm.  If the behavior is normal, recipients become de-sensitized to the change in volume and intensity after which they discount the tantrum entirely.  Years ago, I had a commanding officer in the Navy whose sole method of “motivating” sailors was through profanity-laced tirades.  Even when following orders, subordinates were likely to be accosted with a tongue-lashing.  Ultimately, people stopped conferring with him to avoid the discomfort – even when required, even when they potentially were headed into dangerous situations where his advice would have been valuable.
  • Ingrained – yelling to achieve sustained behavioral change is unlikelyReal change comes from within, only after someone identifies what’s in it for me (WIIFM).  At that point, external motivation via carrot or stick is unnecessary, and counter-productive.  Yelling at someone who is already exerting maximum effort runs the risk of shutting them down/off.

The “fight-or-flight” response to threats has been studied by psychologists for decades. When animals – including humans – are in pain or physical danger, their neural activity changes radically in ways that help them focus on the threat and confront or escape it effectively. But this focus comes at a cost to other brain functions. A person in danger is better at fighting, but worse at thinking.

From a Business Insider article.

In my experience, yelling as a motivational tool to change behvavior is effective only in certain circumstances.  If used, the pivot point is that using yelling as a tool to get someone’s attention is one thing, using it to keep someone’s attention, is something else entirely.

Yelling and Results: Changing Behavior
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