The Power of Negative Attention

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What do misbehaving toddlers, out-of-control rock stars, and sleazy online vendors all have in common? They’re all depending on the same psychological principle to keep themselves in the limelight.

Can treating your customers like dirt generate more business that treating them well? An online eyewear vendor proved that bad behavior can bring more attention and business than doing right by customers. As documented in the New York Times, Ms. Clarabelle Rodriguez ran head-on into an online customer service nightmare when she complained about her order and was verbally bullied by the vendor. Later this vendor admitted to the Times that complaints like Ms. Rodriguez’ only raised the company’s visibility on Google and brought in more business.

Ms. Rodriguez’ story would still be headline-worthy even if this kind of behavior was confined to e-commerce, but we’re surrounded by examples of negative attention-seeking. When parents search for the root cause of their children’s misbehavior, attention-seeking is a common explanation. While not every instance of childhood acting up is truly a cry for attention, many are. Later in life people will threaten or even attempt suicide in a desperate attempt to be heard. Watch any celebrity gossip show, and you’ll see at least ten stories about stars acting up for every one story highlighting noble behavior. If your fate as a public figure depends on attention, the message is clear: the more you can offend and shock public sensibilities, the more famous you will become.

Recognizing negative bids for attention is one thing, but what can you do when these bids are aimed at you? Behavioral psychology says you have three basic paths to follow. First, and most obvious, is to punish the bad acts. Legal sanctions, professional censure, or other negative consequences may shut down the misbehavior either through pain, threat or simply taking away the offender’s ability to keep on making trouble. However, as Ms. Rodriguez learned, winning with her credit card company or in the courts took longer than she expected and generated exactly the kind of publicity her slimy vendor was craving. Parents, too, realize the power to force compliance quickly wanes as their children grow up and gain ability and autonomy. Defying authority as it attempts to bring down the boom offers additional opportunities to vie for attention, as Lindsay Lohan has demonstrated again and again with her recent courtroom antics. Still, for serious violations, punishment may be the only viable option.

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Perhaps your parents told you to ignore bullies and they will go away. At least in principle, they are correct. When attention is the aim, ignoring affronts is another road to reducing if not eliminating attention-seeking behavior. In technical terms, making bad behavior go away by taking away the reward is called “extinction.” But this is not an easy road. First, you have to give up your need for justice and “getting even” with the offender. Second, there is what is called an “extinction burst.” When bullies realize the usual tricks aren’t having the same effect, they may raise their game to see if more will suffice. For a little while (which may seem like a very, very long time to the afflicted) the “extinction” strategy may appear to backfire, and any loss of resolve will reinforce the behavior even more strongly, and you’ll end up worse off than you began.

The final path may seem the most puzzling: give the troublemaker what he or she wants. If it’s really the case that attention is the cause, then give the attention. Of course, if you only give attention immediately after bad acts, then you can expect the behavior to continue and that’s not at all what I’m proposing. Instead, meet the need for attention before the need grows so great that it leads to misbehavior. This strategy obviously works better for some situations than others; with friends and family, meeting needs is a great way to grow relationships. And once the need for attention is met, you now have the social capital to teach your counterpart how to ask for what they need in a positive way.

When you know the principles in play, like negative attention, puzzling behavior from the playroom to the boardroom starts to make sense. When you recognize acting up as a request for attention, you can use what you know to punish the offender, extinguish the behavior, or satisfy the need while creating a better channel for future requests.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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